Book: The Fifth Column: An Intergalactic Scifi Adventure
J. N. Chaney
The Fifth Column Copyright © 2019 by Variant Publications
Book design and layout copyright © 2019 by JN Chaney
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living, dead, or undead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from JN Chaney.
Books in the Renegade Star Universe
Renegade Star Series:
Renegade Decent (June 2019)
Renegade Star Prequels:
Nameless (Abigail’s Story)
The Constable (Alphonse’s Story)
The Constable Returns (May 2019)
Warrior Queen (Lucia’s Story) (June 2019)
The Orion Colony Series (with Jonathan Yanez):
Orion Protected (May 2019)
The Last Reaper Series (with Scott Moon):
The Last Reaper
Fear the Reaper
Blade of the Reaper (May 2019)
Wing of the Reaper (July 2019)
The Fifth Column Series (with Molly Lerma):
The Fifth Column
The Solaras Initiative (June 2019)
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The Fifth Column
Book 1 in the Fifth Column Series
JN Chaney Molly Lerma
The Fifth Column
The Fifth Column Series #1
After a soldier is left for dead, Eva Delgado’s life begins to unravel.
The truth of what happened remains a mystery, and the government will stop at nothing to keep it buried.
Together with the unit’s medic, Eva finds herself branded a terrorist and enemy of the State, hunted by two opposing governments.
When the pair uncover a plot that could have ramifications for the whole galaxy, they know they have to act, but it will take all of their training, cunning and just a bit of luck to do what no one else has achieved.
But what do you do when every secret begets another? And how far will you go to find the answers?
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About The Authors
For the Renegade Readers. Your support has meant the world(s) to me.
To my daughter Annabell, my reason for everything and biggest cheerleader.
To Jeff, for seeing potential and taking the time to foster a fledgling writer, and without whom this wouldn’t have been possible.
Getting punched in the face sucks.
I knew this because, at that exact moment, a blonde-haired Union bitch was ramming her fist into my mouth while my unit stood back and watched. That was Sarkonian mentality for you. Survival of the fittest. Not that they wouldn’t come to my aid if I couldn’t get my shit together, but that would come with more than wounded pride. The shame of being rescued in a hand-to-hand fight would follow me for the rest of my career.
I felt the warmth of fresh blood trailing from my split lip and grinned. The pain of the blow served as a reminder not to let an opponent get past my guard. I needed to deal with this so my team could finish the mission and get back to our base.
An order from above had brought us here, to Abatis, a small research station located in system Q-2790B on the edge of Union territory, to retrieve a cache of information. Our intelligence said the station was a low priority installation with little in the way of defense and we’d had no trouble breaching the facility. So far, this guard had been our only confrontation, when she came around a corner on a patrol and nearly tripped over me.
C’mon, Sergeant-Delgado. Get your shit together, I thought, not bothering to wipe the blood away. As a member of one of the most elite spec ops units the Sarkonian Empire had to offer, I had a reputation to defend. Besides, if I couldn’t handle one guard, I deserved to have my ass kicked.
The woman cocked back in preparation for another strike, her face a mask of focus and desperation. As she drove the blow home, I grabbed her wrist and pivoted, bringing my elbow up and connecting with her nose. An eruption of red fluid spurted, and I had the satisfaction of feeling something crunch. Her head snapped back, and she stumbled with the force of the impact.
I had to give her credit because she recovered quickly by rebounding into a fighting stance. She was taller than me, though not by much, with a wicked bruise forming around the bridge of her nose. The woman’s hair was pulled back in a tail and a mass of coils sprang out in all directions.
I smirked and dropped my guard just a little, giving her an opening. She took the bait and rushed me, grasping my shoulders with both hands. I anticipated her thrusting a knee into my ribs and mirrored the move. Instead of aiming for a body shot, I swung my knee into hers, sweeping her legs and throwing her to the floor. She made an oof sound as she landed, and the air left her lungs.
I moved forward before the guard could collect herself again and put a foot on her chest, holding her there.
“Stay down,” I advised, staring coolly down at the furious guard.
“Never, Sarkonian rombdin scum,” she hissed, glaring back at me with hate-filled eyes. Her hands pushed on my boot, trying to unbalance me, but I didn’t budge.
“Aww. Now you’ve hurt my feelings,” I said in a mocking tone. A quick flash drew my attention and I realized she’d produced a small blade from somewhere.
Son of a bitch, I thought as I jerked back too late and she buried it in my leg, managing to find a weak spot in the cheap armor.
If I’d been wearing my combat gear, the little knife wouldn’t have stood a chance. Unfortunately, I was wearing a stealth suit for the op, and like the name implied, it was light and only covered vital areas. Designed for quick and quiet movement, most of what wasn’t protected with N02-99 alloy was slash-proof material, but not all. A cheap synthetic blend that might as well have been made from t-shirt fabric made up the rest.
Like the spot she’d just stabbed.
I grunted and stumbled back, giving her the opening she needed to stand up and get into a fighting stance, still holding the knife.
“Sergeant-Delgado, we don’t have all day,” said Commander-Navari in a bored voice. My superior officer and team leader sounded less than pleased. “If you don’t finish this, one of us will.”
“I’ve got it!” I snarled, pissed that I’d allowed this to happen. Blondie rushed me then, maybe thinking I was distracted. It was a sloppy attack, the weapon swinging wide, and I easily sidestepped, blocking the blow. She stumbled and I grabbed a fistful of the springy hair like a rope, yanking her back to me. I threw my right arm around her neck, releasing her hair, and seized her knife hand with my left.
“Really?! Hair pulling?” She attempted a laugh, but it came out a weak gurgle as I cut off her air supply.
“Next time choose efficiency over looks,” I returned. My own hair, like that of many women of the Sarkonian Empire, was cut in one of the approved bobs. For missions like this I kept it tightly braided so no opponent could latch onto it as I’d just done.
“You Sarkonians,” the guard sneered. “No honor, no…”
I squeezed harder and the woman’s words died on her lips. I let go when she finally went limp, and her body dropped to the floor with a thud. Pulling some ties from one of my side pouches, I bound her hands and legs, then dragged her to the desk she’d been manning.
Back with the unit, Navari locked eyes with me. “Why is she still alive?”
“Commander-Navari,” I said, standing straight with my hands clasped behind my back and addressing her by full title and name as custom dictated. “My apologies. It shouldn’t have taken so long to incapacitate her.”
“Even less had you just dispatched her,” she pointed out, obsidian eyes ripe with disdain. Like many true born Sarkonians, her skin had been bronzed by the bright suns that Sarkon orbited. Her black hair fell in a silky sheet to her chin where it had been sheared off to a razor’s edge. I preferred mine out of the way for fights, but she rarely got her hands dirty like that.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, dropping my gaze in acknowledgement of the unspoken reprimand.
Without another word, Navari turned on her heel and gestured for us to move forward. I stared at her back for a moment, not moving immediately in silent rebellion. She didn’t like me; never had from the moment I’d joined the unit. The feeling was mutual, although I suspected her dislike stemmed from the fact that I was a nonni—not Sarkon born—and therefore not a true Sarkonian in her eyes. My homeworld, Spiro, had been claimed by the Empire when I was a child and its inhabitants forcibly turned into citizens.
A movement at my side pulled me out of my thoughts. Sophie, the team medic, nudged me and shot me a concerned glance, prompting me to get my ass in gear. Everyone else called her by her last name or Medic-Singh but she was my best friend and in private we went by first names.
Sophie had the deep tan of a Sarkon native, but her eyes were a shade of green that wasn’t the norm. Thick auburn hair that usually reached her shoulders had been braided up like mine, with the excess wrapped in a tight bun.
She and I had attended the same academy. Sarkonian military schools aren’t for the weak and fighting was hardly discouraged, at least between students. I’d noticed Sophie around the campus—she was always by herself, studying or playing one of the few approved games on her pad instead of with a group, so she’d stuck out.
For some reason, she’d been nice to me on several occasions, which was completely different from all the other Sarkonians I’d met. I had mostly ignored her, having made up my mind that everyone sucked. Besides, it didn’t look good to befriend the weaklings.
Then, one day, everything changed. A group of girls had cornered Sophie in an empty hallway, and I found them kicking the shit out of her.
The so-called powerful picking on innocent people infuriated me. Call it a flaw or whatever—the academy certainly did—but unable to stand by and do nothing, I stepped in. Sarkon does not reward mercy and we were both docked rations and free time, although my punishment only lasted half as long because the headmaster was impressed with my fighting skills.
After that, I couldn’t shake her. The taller girl had followed me around, pestering me to be friends, until finally I gave in. She had been failing her combat training and I needed help with academics, so we worked together. Eventually, she could handle the bullies without me, and I could pass mathematics on my own, but by then we were friends.
Now we were in the same unit and she kept me balanced. Particularly when I was about to open my mouth and get into trouble. Like now.
Nodding curtly to tell her I was good, I fell in step behind her to bring up the rear while the rest of our five-man team moved forward. Navari was second from the front spot and Ensign-Lukas Haas, our tech specialist, stayed so close to her it was a wonder he didn’t step on her heels. I didn’t much care for him either. Like me, he wasn’t Sarkon-born, but he was totally devoted to the Empire and sucked up to the commander like an attention-starved child.
Our last team member, Lieutenant-Mateo Kamal, took the forward position and my gaze lingered on his well-muscled form. I could only see the back of his head where jet black hair was cropped tight to his skull, but we’d been friends so long that I knew every feature of his handsome face. We were all highly skilled, but Mateo possessed impressive firearms abilities. The man could shoot and hit anything, every time. At least, I’d never seen him miss.
I dragged my eyes away and refocused my attention on the empty hall ahead and checking our rear. The guard must have knocked something loose because daydreaming in the middle of an op was not habit. The job came first, and I cleared everything else away as we continued to our target.
When our group reached the next corridor, Commander-Navari touched Mat lightly on the shoulder then held up a fist signaling us to stop. She consulted her pad, verifying the route, then pointed to the left.
“This way for another fifty meters then down another hall,” she instructed. “The lab will be at the end of it. Stack up.”
Since he would be opening the door, Haas took the lead spot with Mateo covering from second position, a barrage of pistols and extra magazines strapped to him. He carried his favorite rifle at the ready while Navari took the middle—typical, it was damn near the safest spot—also carrying a rifle. Her weapon of choice was usually a blade of some sort, but that wasn’t practical here. Sophie stayed in front of me, packed with medical gear, though she still had a rifle in her hands and a pair of pistols in holsters on her right hip and left thigh.
I maintained my own position in the shuffle and carried a rifle along with a pistol and a few half kilos of putty explosives, but just for backup.
With everyone in position, we moved on the target location as one, clearing the next two corridors. We saw no one, not a single soldier stood guard when we reached the final passage. This wasn’t altogether surprising because the underground facility we’d broken into was on a Union-controlled planet.
In fact, it was one of only two facilities on the entire world and as such wasn’t heavily guarded. The majority of the soldiers patrolled the grounds outside the facility. The Union was arrogant and probably thought that any enemies would trigger their sensors long before they reached the ground. If the Union was anything like the Sarkonians—cheap—they wouldn’t want to pay for more soldiers than they felt were needed.
Typical government cutback bullshit while politicians probably lined their pockets. It was hard to complain though since their oversight was making our op a cakewalk.
The door was made of thick steel with a card reader to the right of it, exactly as we’d been briefed. Haas looked back at Navari, who nodded her approval. He removed his kit then turned to the panel and began disassembling it. Sophie and I covered the hallway behind the group, keeping an eye out for threats.
“Scan the door,” Navari said from behind us. “I don’t want any surprises on the other side.”
“It’s clear,” Haas confirmed a few seconds later, his voice slightly muffled. “The radio scan shows twenty meters in. Three warm bodies, I assume unarmed. Lab rats by the looks of them.”
“Good. Get it open, Ensign.”
A few minutes later, the door still hadn’t opened, almost tempting my attention away from my post to see what was happening.
“What the hell is taking so long, Haas?” hissed Navari, her tone sharp with impatience.
“We’re in,” said Haas from the entryway.
The door slid open, revealing the lab within. Mateo entered first, weapon up, and swept the room, the rest of us fanning to opposite sides.
As Haas had said, there were no threats. Beeping equipment, wall screens, and an array of substances in various states of analysis dominated the room, looking exactly like every science holo vid I’d ever seen.
Two women and one man, Union scientists according to their lab coats, gaped at us with mixtures of shock and confusion. It didn’t take long for that to morph into matching visages of fear. I couldn’t blame them—seeing five heavily armed soldiers from an opposing military was enough to ruin anyone’s day.
No heroes here, I thought, scanning the small group. They looked ready to piss themselves, but the scientists were hardly equipped to deal with the likes of us. That was what the Union supplied security for. We all had our places in life.
Commander-Navari strode toward them, her long legs crossing the length of the floor quickly. She looked intimidating in the black spec ops gear with slashes of Sarkonian red accents and a scowl that I was pretty sure had become permanent years ago. When she reached them, she propped the rifle on one shoulder and pulled out her pad. “Sergeant,” she said, jerking her head to indicate I should join her.
I knew she only picked me because of my preference for adversaries that could fight back, but I moved forward without hesitation. I motioned my weapon at the Union research aces to indicate they should come to Navari.
“No sudden movements,” I warned.
They moved slowly until all three stood in front of us, eyes rounded with uncertainty.
I never liked this part but brought the rifle down into ready position. “On your knees, hands behind your head.”
The man and one of the women whimpered and leaned back but the last one, a woman with bright red hair and freckles, nudged her chin up defiantly as she knelt. Squaring her shoulders, she looked at Navari expectantly.
Maybe I had been wrong about no heroes being here after all.
“We’re here to retrieve this,” Navari said, directing her attention to the small group and holding out the pad. The solo bold member of the three flicked a glance at the pad, but no one spoke.
I stayed silent but rolled my eyes internally. Navari had an annoying habit of being dramatic when she had to interact with others.
“If someone gives up the data cube, no one will die. If you don’t,” she drawled, then paused for effect, her lips forming a thin smile. “Well, let’s just say I don’t mind taking you out one by one, as painfully as possible. Either way, we’ll find what we’re looking for.”
“It’s not worth your lives,” I advised, not lowering my weapon.
The three exchanged glances before the woman with red hair got to her feet.
“Amanda!” hissed the man, moving to stop her.
“Quiet!” snapped Navari. She lifted the rifle and shoved it in his face until it pressed into his cheek. “One more word and I’ll separate that smart head from your shoulders.”
His mouth snapped shut and he swallowed hard. Pity welled up inside of me, but I tamped it down. That kind of thinking didn’t lead anywhere good.
Amanda raised her hands. “Hey, there’s no need for that. I’ll tell you where it is. Just leave them out of it.”
From the grim determination and set of her jaw, I thought the scientist might attack Navari. If that wouldn’t have meant certain death for the poor woman, I would've paid money to see the look on my commander’s face if she had.
“Fine,” said Navari, stepping back and arcing one arm. “Show me and you have my word that no one will be harmed.”
Sarkonians might fight dirty, lack the newest tech, and be smaller than the Union, but we were people of our word. Navari wouldn’t go back on it as long as Amanda delivered.
She pointed across the room to a secure cabinet. “It’s in there. It requires a code to open.”
“Better get to it,” the commander said lazily.
“If I do that the Union will accuse me of treason,” the scientist protested.
Navari smiled again, showing her teeth with a feral look in her eye. “You’ll open it,” she purred. “Or being accused of treason will be the least of your worries. And no one says you have to die fast.”
To her credit, the woman didn’t flinch at the threat. If anything, she got even more angry, clenched her fists to her sides, and held her ground. For a long moment it looked like she might strike Navari after all, but instead she crossed the room at an even pace, the commander on her heels and pushing the rifle into the small of her back. At the coded lock, she began to input numbers slowly, pausing deliberately between each key.
I smirked. For a Union pawn I had to say she was fast growing on me.
“What’s taking so long? Hurry it up,” growled the commander.
“If I get it wrong, I’ll have to start the sequence over. Too many wrong attempts and special locks will slide into place. That happens and the only way you get it out of here is by taking the whole thing,” the scientist replied cattily without looking up.
Navari’s features tightened and her gun hand jerked slightly. I wondered if she wanted to take a swipe at the woman or shoot her. To be sure, the commander wasn’t used to being spoken to with such disrespect.
A peppy beep emitted from the lock before she had to choose, and the scientist backed away, sweeping an arm to the open cabinet, indicating it was all ours.
Commander-Navari retrieved a data cube from inside and scanned it with her wrist unit. Whatever it told her must have been what she wanted because the cube went into a pocket and nobody died.
“Let’s go,” she barked. “Ensign, make sure they can’t raise an alarm and lock the door controls.”
A few scant minutes later our unit was standing back in the hall while Haas modified the locks.
No sooner had the door slid closed behind us than an alarm began to blare and flashing red lights illuminated the corridor.
Warning! Intruder Alert! Warning!
“Shit,” muttered Mateo.
“What the hell, Haas?” barked Navari.
“I’m not sure, sir.” His eyes furrowed as he consulted his gear. “The connection is clean, and it didn’t come from inside the lab. The alarm must’ve been triggered by something else.”
“Everybody, move,” she ordered.
We made our way down the hallway on high alert. It stayed empty until we reached the guard station. My heart sank when I saw the source of the alarm.
The guard I’d restrained had freed herself and now stood facing us. Dark red stains trailed from her nose and the hands holding the gun shook slightly as she trained it in our direction. The woman jerked it from side to side until it landed on me. There was a loud crack as she pulled the trigger and a burning sensation flooded my arm.
I didn’t react except to step forward. Pain training was standard for elite units and I’d been through far worse. “We outnumber you. Put it down and let us pass.”
Her eyes had a wild look to them, and they darted from me to each of my team members. The bruising around her eyes was a mottled purple from our earlier fight, and she was breathing heavily, chest heaving. The gun wavered in her hand as she debated what to do, then she began to lower it.
I smiled, but before I could breathe a sigh of relief, a rifle blast sounded behind me. A slug whistled by me and tore into the woman’s chest cavity. A look of confusion covered the guard’s face as her body jerked back from the impact. She stumbled drunkenly, then hit the desk and collapsed to the ground as her legs gave out.
Her mouth opened and closed, and a raspy sound escaped her lips. Navari shouldered past me and went to the woman, then pulled one of her blades as she knelt. The commander blocked her feeble attempts to stop her, then she yanked the guard’s head to one side and slashed down in a single, expert motion.
When Navari stood the guard was no longer moving, so she continued down the hall, not giving the body a second glance. I followed, falling into step with the rest of the team and keeping my eyes forward when I passed the dead woman’s form. There was nothing more I could do but keep moving. Death was part of the job description.
Thanks to the relative unimportance of the outpost, the response time to the triggered alarm was slow and we had no more confrontations until we reached our exit. Haas had rigged it to always register as closed to the system, even in the event of a total lockdown, so that it remained unlocked.
As we reached the door, a voice rang out from the far end of the corridor we’d just come from.
“This way!” The shout was muffled, and I estimated we had seconds before whoever it was came around the corner and spotted us.
“Go, I’ll cover,” I said, dropping to one knee and bringing my weapon to ready position. The hallway was just under one hundred meters, according to my scope, and I took a breath to steady my aim.
No one argued and I heard the door close behind me as they exited. Hopefully I’d be joining them soon enough, but if I died here, at least I’d done my part to help them escape.
Thirty seconds later, the clomping of approaching combat boots grew louder and I moved my finger to the trigger. Two Union soldiers—one man and one woman—burst into view.
The woman reacted instantly, dropping to the floor with a yell for her partner to do the same.
He was slower than her and took a few more steps, fumbling to free his weapon from the holster on his hip.
I took advantage of the moment.
The man dropped to the floor when my round punched through his skull. A spray of blood and brain matter exploded from the back of his head and coated his partner.
The remaining soldier stared in disbelief as her comrade landed next to her, then her gaze lifted and shifted to me. Shock registered on the woman’s blood-spattered face and she seemed frozen. Her face contorted in anger and began to recover in the next second, training kicking in, but it was too late.
I let loose another bullet and watched long enough to see the Union soldier’s eye explode and her body slump forward to join her friend.
A quick audio scan and glance down each side of the hallway told me there were no more immediate threats, but I moved cautiously down to the side hall they’d emerged from.
It was empty and I was out the door less than two minutes behind the rest of my unit.
I didn’t see them outside so I pulled up the map on my wrist unit. The alarms shrieked, mixing with the shouts of soldiers as they searched the area, but it looked like the area was fairly clear.
Abatis station resided on a rocky dwarf planet and was pitted with deep craters from some long-ago celestial event. Our ship, the Dreadnight, was 400 meters from my location, just on the other side of a ridge with tall stone spires that speared up from the ground in clusters like trees.
More rock formations and a few scattered structures the Union was using to store supplies were my only cover before the ridge. I just hoped my luck held.
I kept to the shadows and followed the side of the building before coming to what looked to be a large trash receptacle. Using it as cover, I edged around to the other side and checked for any Union grunts.
The way looked clear from what I could see, and I took off in the direction of our ship in a crouching jog, my weapon at the ready, just in case.
“Sergeant-Delgado, what’s your twenty?” a voice said over the comm in my ear. It was Mateo.
“Two hundred meters to the south,” I replied.
A door slammed behind me, and I dove behind a large boulder. I peeked around the side to get a better view and saw the noise had come from where we’d exited the building. Two more soldiers stood there, scanning in all directions.
“I’ve got company,” I muttered, keeping my voice low. “Hold on, they might go back in.”
They didn’t, splitting up instead. One of the men moved further away, but the other started in my direction.
“One headed my way, Lieutenant,” I whispered.
“Got him on the holo. Get ready. On my go, start running. We’ll drop the ramp once you’re in range,” he said.
I stayed completely still, barely breathing for a few beats as I waited for Mat’s signal.
“Go now, Sergeant.”
Pushing up, I broke into a sprint and made it past the last of the buildings before my luck changed. A shout sounded behind me, ordering me to stop, but I didn’t slow. A projectile whistled past my face, a little close for comfort, missing me and slamming into the spires ahead, sending up a shower of stone dust and shards.
The stand of rock pillars was just ahead, marking the end of the encampment. My arm throbbed and my leg burned where the guard had cut me, but I dug in deep and surged the last few meters.
More shots rang out and pieces of rock exploded as bullets embedded into the formations around me. I was almost through the other side when something struck my back, hard, propelling me forward. One of the Union soldier’s rounds had connected and tagged me in the back of my suit.
The armor stopped it from going through, but the force knocked the wind out of my chest. I managed to roll with the momentum but I landed sloppily, rocketed between two of the spires, and slid down the embankment on the other side.
I realized my error when I had to twist out of the way of an outcropping of rocks and narrowly missed another before coming to a stop near the bottom. Gritting my teeth through the pain, I got to my feet and studied the empty basin.
Come on, I thought. Drop the ramp so I can see where you are.
For one heart-stopping second, I thought my unit had left me behind. Then the air began to shimmer, and I could see the cargo bay of the Dreadnight like it was on the other side of a portal. The ramp lowered with Mateo and Haas riding it down, weapons trained at the top of the ridge.
I rushed forward, reaching the bottom of the ramp as the first of the soldiers came into view. Mateo took him down with a single bullet, his body rolling and sliding down the rocks. Then the ramp closed and we lifted away, Mateo pulling me into the hold behind Haas so the airlock could seal.
A few pings told me the ship was being fired on, but unless they had some serious artillery, we’d be fine.
“Raising cloak,” announced Z9-77A, the ship’s A.I., in a robotic but distinctly female voice.
“Computer, take us back to the SSF Ambiana,” Navari barked over the intercom.
Z, as I’d taken to calling her, didn’t respond right away.
“Z9, set a flight plan—”
“Acknowledged,” interrupted the A.I. “Pardon the minor malfunction. All personnel, please proceed to the bridge and fasten safety harnesses, per protocol.”
I wanted to smirk, but now that the adrenaline had left my body, it was all I could do to limp through the cargo bay. Haas had already joined the others, but Mateo lingered.
He looked as though he might’ve offered to help me, but I was glad when he didn’t because I didn’t like showing weakness. Neither giving nor accepting help was the Sarkon way.
Instead, he gave me a nod and walked away, leaving me to limp my way behind him.
By the time we’d entered slipspace, my wounds were screaming.
“Corporal-Singh, tend to the sergeant. She looks like death,” Navari ordered.
“Yes, sir,” replied Sophie, coming to my side.
I fumbled with my buckle for a moment, then struggled to my feet. Not wanting the others to see how bad I really felt, I forced myself to walk off the bridge. It might’ve been the galaxy’s slowest exit, but I did it.
Outside, Sophie put one of my arms around her shoulders and supported me as we made our way to the medical bay.
Most ships in the Sarkonian Space Fleet didn’t have sophisticated medical bays, but the Dreadnight was a unique ship and similar to a nova class vessel. The Union had gifted it and a few others to the Sarkonian Empire during a recent deal. I didn’t know specifics, but I knew that we’d been the only unit like ours to receive one.
In addition to being new, it had a cargo bay any Renegade or space pirate would love to get their grubby little hands on. It had next gen storage equipped with self-destruct failsafes and—supposedly—unhackable security for some of the more high-risk ops we ran.
“You idiot,” Sophie said, shaking her head. Her tone lacked the bite her words implied, as did her gentle hand when she helped me remove the armor and skin suit.
“Z, can you play some music?” I asked.
“Certainly, Sergeant,” the A.I. responded with no trace of the earlier malfunction. “The usual?”
“Yeah, that’ll do,” I said through gritted teeth. All the movement made me ache even more and I allowed a small grunt to escape.
The upbeat tones of Sarpop filled the small room. It was one of the few approved music choices available on the gal-net. Everything else was either boring or blocked by the filters.
Once I was all but naked, Sophie put me on the med bed. A scanner beeped to life and began to move down the length of the bed. I didn’t like getting scanned as a rule, but there was no way she would let me skip it, so I closed my eyes and let it do its thing.
A few seconds later, the machine had returned to its starting position and my results began to appear on the monitor for Sophie to study.
“Got some cuts and bruises from your trip down the ravine. Nothing broken,” she reported. “The arm was through and through. Nasty cut from the knife though. You’re definitely going to feel the hit you took to the back.”
“Already am,” I groaned.
She snorted. “I bet. You can ice the face and back. I’ll stitch the arm and leg.”
“Lucky me. Which one first, doc?”
“Might as well do the leg,” she answered.
I rolled onto my stomach and tried to think of something else while she wiped a cold disinfecting solution on my calf. I jerked from the initial sting, but I’d been through this enough times to know the pain was temporary. A few seconds later, it subsided to a dull ache. I felt some pressure as Sophie’s skilled fingers nimbly sewed me up.
“You’ve really got to be more careful,” she scolded. “The commander brought it up when we got back. She made a comment about you being soft.”
“It’s not like Navari has ever liked me,” I pointed out. It was true. “My blood is too muddy for her tastes.”
“That’s crap. Look at Ensign-Haas. She likes him.” There was a tearing sound as Sophie pulled out a fresh bandage, then more pressure when she wrapped my wound. “Okay, you can sit up. Let me see that arm.”
I obeyed, moving into an upright position.
“I think ‘like’ is a little strong. Look, all I’m saying is that Haas kisses her ass and strives to be the perfect Sarkonian,” I pointed out, not flinching this time when she applied the numbing agent.
“And all I’m saying is you shouldn’t draw her attention to you unnecessarily.”
I nearly shrugged before remembering Sophie was still in mid-stitch.
“You’re right. It just didn’t seem like a fair fight, what with her only having that puny pistol.”
Sophie stared at me for a moment before letting out a laugh.
“I think you might be in the wrong line of work, Eva,” she said merrily, then focused on my arm again. After the last bandage was plastered over the wound, she stood and moved to clear away the litter.
“I didn’t exactly have much of a choice,” I murmured. Images of destruction and terror floated across my memory, but I pushed them back and got to my feet. “But you’re right. I’ll be more careful.”
Sophie studied my face then nodded, apparently deciding I’d had enough rebuke for the night. Her face softened and she handed me my gear, knowing I’d want to carry it myself.
“Z, can you run a diagnostic on my armor, please?” I asked.
“It is already done, Sergeant-Delgado,” she replied immediately. “The results have been sent to your personal tablet. Would you like me to summarize them for you?”
“No, that’s okay. Thanks, Z.” I couldn’t help but smirk now that it was just me and Sophie. I never seemed to have any problems with the ship’s computer.
Later, back in my cramped quarters when I could finally relax, I checked my personal data pad. As Z9 had promised, a full diagnostic of my gear waited.
I grimaced as I studied the damage, mentally adding up the cost of repairs. The round that hit my back had caused considerable damage, not to mention holes from being shot, stabbed, and rolling down a rocky hill.
N02-99 tended to weaken and lose its effectiveness after taking too much damage. There was a large dent in the middle of the metal back plate, mere centimeters from my spine. Stress fractures had begun to show around the edge of the depression, and I knew it would need to be replaced.
The slash-proof catsuit had fared slightly better and could be patched. Its design protected against a variety of blades and also had a feature called ripstop. The name was apt. In the event of a puncture, the material wouldn’t sustain more damage unless it was done deliberately.
I had more than enough credits to cover the fees they’d slap me with at the armory, but it would still sting. I’d started building my little nest egg from the first time I received wages, such as they were, and had been adding to it ever since. My goal was to have enough to leave the Sarkonian Empire upon the conclusion of my obligatory service and do… something. I didn’t have all the finer points figured out yet, but I had plenty of time.
See, the Sarkonian Empire mandated that all citizens must serve four years in its military starting at age twenty. Unless you were like me, a non-native who had become Sarkonian by force, then the requirement was six years, to prove to the government that you could be loyal. I didn’t even get time served for my stint in military school.
The only way to get out of mandatory service was to possess a skill that the Empire needed more elsewhere, say as a scientist or specialized engineer. Even then you’d still end up working for the military and Sarkon was even less likely to let you go. I had heard stories of the government changing laws and regulations overnight when it suited them.
Not that anyone could stop them. They were called the Sarkonian Empire for a reason and the politicians of the oligarchy ruled with a hard hand. Any defiance was met with swift punishment to set examples for anyone who might consider rebelling.
Unfortunately for me, not only was I foreign-born, but the only skills I possessed were combat-related, so I had to bite down and do my six. No special treatment, no lucky draws. Just plow through the years and plan for the next stage of my life—whatever that happened to be. Maybe I’d go home and spend a year with my parents—adoptive parents—or maybe I’d find a job on some backwater colony world.
As if on cue, the pad’s communication icon blinked, and I opened it to find a holo-message from both my mother and father. I stared at the screen for a long moment debating whether or not to delete the transmission and pretend I’d never received it.
After being taken from Spiro, my childhood had not been a happy one. Children didn’t disrespect their parents, especially when those parents were respected members of the Sarkonian government.
I sighed. Knowing my father, he’d just send a message to Commander-Navari if I didn’t respond. I certainly didn’t want that kind of attention. Resigning myself, I hit play.
“Sergeant, we hope this finds you well,” said the holo image of my father. As usual, he addressed me by rank instead of my name, staring into the camera with a flat voice and joyless expression.
General-Julian Delgado was a tall man, almost 185 centimeters at his full height, with dark brown eyes set in a serious face unmarred by laugh lines. I could probably count on one hand the amount of times I’d seen him smile genuinely. Gray was beginning to creep unevenly into his brown hair, giving it a speckled effect.
As usual, he took point while my mother, Diana Delgado, sat primly with her hands folded in her lap beside him, the picture of the perfect military wife. She was a trim woman with black hair worn in one of the approved hairstyles, green eyes, and perfectly shaped lips. A slight smile touched her lips, but she didn’t speak.
I noticed her index finger tracing a circle on the back of her other hand and smiled. To anyone else it just looked like an absent-minded motion, but I knew better. It was her way of saying hi and that she loved me. Seeing the small token of affection made me glad I hadn’t trashed the message.
“There’s an award ceremony coming up,” continued my father, oblivious to the side conversation taking place beside him. “Your presence is required, given you’re not on assignment. As your term of service nears its end, your future must be considered. A number of potential suitors have approached me to express an interest in marriage.”
I almost choked at the words. The man couldn’t be serious. Arranged marriages weren’t legal and he had to know I would never agree. The news had kicked my heartrate up and I could feel the flush in my cheeks. Forcing myself to calm down, I returned my attention to the holo.
“The details have been sent. Do be prompt with your response, daughter,” my father was saying.
“Fat chance,” I muttered as he signed off without letting my mother say anything.
A quick check of my calendar told me that I wasn’t scheduled for any leave, so it was possible I’d be unable to attend.
Thank the gods for small favors, I thought to myself.
I had a brief internal debate on whether or not to send a holomessage back. We were in slipspace for the moment, and although this would usually prevent ships from sending communications, ours wasn’t a typical vessel.
Besides the fancy med bay and new equipment, the most important feature of our new ship was the updated cloak. It not only allowed us to travel unseen through slipspace, but it also gave us the ability to communicate while inside.
In the end, I decided against recording a holo and drafted a text only message to send once we exited the next S.G. Point instead. They didn’t have to know their daughter had the means to do otherwise, and I planned to keep it that way.
I wouldn’t have minded speaking to my mother, but my father monitored all of our communications and we could never have a normal discussion. I felt a stab of guilt at the thought of her being stuck in that big house with him but pushed it away. She loved the general despite his flaws and for all his overbearing ways he’d never hurt her. Even when he’d caught her sneaking me food during one of my punishments as a child, he only yelled at her.
I rolled over in my bunk and sighed, annoyed at the direction my thoughts were going. Diana had done what she could to protect and care for me when I went to live with them, but I’d only wanted the family that had been taken from me.
As it often did after seeing them and I was alone, my mind wandered to the past. It called up broken memories of two people whose faces I couldn’t quite remember. I closed my eyes, willing the images to clear, but they didn’t.
I had no pictures, no tokens, nothing from my life before the Sarkonian Empire invaded my home and took me away. All that remained was a vague impression of a woman screaming as I was ripped from her arms and the outraged roar of the man next to her before a Sarkonian soldier knocked him to the ground. Similar incidents were happening all around us as children were separated and herded into a large group.
The next part came more easily. I’d yelled and kicked with every ounce of strength in my six-year-old body. Of course, that had gotten me nowhere, so when the soldier put a hand over my mouth to quiet me, I bit down as hard as I could.
He dropped me, then delivered a punishing kick that sent my small form sprawling. Instead of staying down, I screamed and tried to attack him again.
His superior stopped him from shooting me, but barely. Apparently impressed with my fearlessness, the man instructed that I be taken to his ship and held away from the other children.
I never saw my parents again and I didn’t even know if they were still alive. After getting shipped back to Sarkon, the man, a commander, had ordered me cleaned up and prepared for a couple he knew needed a child.
Not wanted but needed, because they couldn’t conceive and hadn’t met the procreation quota. Sarkon wanted to grow its ranks, and by law, every married couple must contribute a minimum of one child.
My father, a major at the time, had been rising through the ranks. Only one thing was holding him back: his lack of offspring. He and my mother had talked to the commander while I listened. At first, he looked disinterested, barely even looking my way, until he saw the video of my attack.
“Sergeant-Delgado, your vitals appear to be outside normal levels,” declared Z9, breaking into my reverie. “Would you like me to play more music?”
I laughed a little at that. Z9 had a way of showing up when I needed her. I was glad the computer had interrupted my downward spiral. Dwelling on the past wouldn’t do me any good. I had to focus on the future.
“No thanks, Z. Just thinking about that fight with the guard. I wasn’t cautious enough.”
“Ah,” said the AI, sounding less than convinced. “In that case, shall I begin a playback of the sequence so that you might study it?”
“That’s okay,” I said, declining the offer. “I’m going to get some sleep.”
Z9 was different from any of the outdated A.I.s I’d dealt with in the past. I would almost swear she knew more than she let on, but I knew that to be impossible. Artificial intelligence programs had been designed to help us with complex tasks. The technology had never progressed to the point of sentience and all human like qualities were the result of coding. Still, sometimes I wondered.
“Of course, Sergeant. I’ll leave you to it.”
The room fell quiet again and I switched off the lights. The green walls of slipspace swirled by my window, beautiful as ever. Forcing my mind to go blank, I watched the lights dance through the small window until sleep finally washed over me.
We made it back to the SSF Ambiana in three standard days. The warship served as a home base of sorts and our unit was stationed there when not on a mission.
The vessel was huge, at least by Sarkonian standards, and carried a small fleet of fighter ships in its hull. Nearly a thousand soldiers called her home at any given time, though that number fluctuated depending on deployments and how much conflict Sarkon happened to be engaging in.
The Dreadnight docked in one of the service bays to be refueled and tuned up in preparation for our next assignment. She was a beauty compared to most of the other vessels in the area and as we departed the sleek Union ship, I saw plenty of jealous looks tossed our way.
I couldn’t help smirking a little as our team reported to a debriefing session to give a detailed report of the mission and answer any questions that came up. I guess there were some perks to being an elite operative.
Usually, Captain-Guerrero ran the debriefs, but today it was Vice-Admiral-Adrian Kaska. If it flustered Navari to be reporting directly to one of the Ambiana’s most important officers, she hid it well, taking a seat when he waved a hand at us to be at ease.
I had to admit that I was curious myself at why the Vice-Admiral would bother with such a lowly task. He nodded at Navari, who returned the gesture before beginning her report.
The rest of the unit stood behind her, hands resting behind our backs in a half-attention pose and staring straight ahead. Navari didn’t speak, showing deference to Guerrero and waiting for him to start.
Kaska barely spared us a glance before sitting down and holding out a hand. A woman rushed forward—an assistant, judging from her apparel—and handed him a pad. He took it without thanking her and studied the data, reading over what I assumed were the mission details. Finally, he slid it out of the way and steepled his fingers.
“Commander-Navari, you have the data cube?” he asked, looking pointedly at her.
“Yes, sir,” she answered, pulling it from her pocket.
I didn’t react, but the move surprised me. Protocol dictated that any items retrieved on missions must be logged in and verified upon returning. Navari had never bypassed the procedure that I knew of and that she did so now told me the data cube was important.
“Good,” Kaska, replied, taking it from her and turning it over in his hands thoughtfully. “Did you run into any issues?”
I wondered if Navari might bring up my unorthodox handling of the guard. It would be a good time to make me look bad in front of a superior and I fully expected her to take the opportunity.
“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” she said smoothly. “Only a few minor injuries that have already been treated and healed.”
I’d expected the commander’s voice to be hesitant or stiff, but she talked in an almost conversational tone and I found myself wondering if she and Kaska knew each other.
“Excellent. Congratulations to you and your team on another successful trip,” he said when she finished, smiling just a little too wide. “You’ve all earned three days’ liberty. You’re free to leave if you wish. Dismissed.”
We saluted and left in a single file line with Navari bringing up the rear. Just before she would have followed us out, Kaska spoke again.
“Stay a minute, would you, Commander?”
“Of course, Vice-Admiral-Kaska,” Navari replied, turning back into the room and letting the door slide closed behind us.
No one commented, but something didn’t feel right, and I knew we all had to be wondering what was going on in there. Even Haas wore a perplexed look on his face before splitting off to take his leave.
“I’m going to get some food,” I announced, looking at Mateo and Sophie. “You guys wanna grab something before you go?”
They agreed and we made our way through the cavernous ship to the mess hall. The Ambiana might be huge, but it was a rust bucket compared to the Dreadnight. When military personnel weren’t deployed, most were relegated to fixing things.
The vessel was old and in a constant state of repair, but she was home. I knew her well and had gotten an education in a variety of trades when I was a lower rank.
Most of the barracks bunked at least a dozen or more crew members and only a very few had personal quarters. Units like ours received a little special treatment due to the nature of our assignments, plus the amount of gear we had. One of the perks was not having to share space with other teams. Navari shacked up with another commander while Mateo and Haas bunked together with two other male spec operatives.
Sophie and I were the only two enlisted women in elite teams aboard the Ambiana, which allowed us to share a tiny slice of heaven. We dumped our stuff, what little we had, and headed to the mess hall to meet Mateo.
It was busy with the breakfast crowd, but he’d managed to snag a table already. Sophie and I got in line for our rations—a thick, off-white sludge being dispensed from tubes that snaked out of sight to wherever the kitchen filled them.
The display declared the mixture to be “bakhana nut oatmeal” flavor, but I had my doubts. Bakhana was a sweet, plump, neon yellow fruit, and one I usually enjoyed. This looked nothing like the fruit it was masquerading as.
“You want to grab some coffee?” asked Sophie, nodding toward one of the grubby, beat-up machines on the other side of the room.
“I’d rather keep my stomach lining if you don’t mind,” I snorted in disgust. Sarkon had a habit of cheaping out on many things and coffee was no exception. If they didn’t water it down to something completely unrecognizable, they’d burn the shit out of it.
“Suit yourself,” said Sophie, shrugging. “I need a pick-me-up if I’m going to go home.”
Back at the table, I sat across from Mateo and wrinkled my nose at Sophie as she sipped.
“What?” she asked, shrugging.
“Unlike most of the poor souls here, I’ve had good coffee before,” I replied, taking a soggy bite of the slop in my bowl.
“And where has that gotten you?” Mateo laughed. “It’s ruined you for all other coffee.”
I groaned. “Please, don’t lump that”—I jabbed a finger at Sophie’s cup—“in with coffee. That’s something else entirely.”
“Coffee is coffee. Even when it’s bad it’s good. I don’t know how you go without.”
I shrugged. “Even when it’s great I still don’t get it. You can get a jolt just as easily from one of the enerdrinks and they taste better.”
She drained the cup in response, then made a face. “You might be right,” she said, stealing my water.
I stood up a little and performed a mock bow. Sophie laughed but Mat was watching one of the cracked holo screens near our table and I turned my attention to it. A Sarkonian reporter was addressing the audience, speaking in a disapproving tone.
“Neblinar, a small planet that served as a way station at the very edge of the Deadlands, is growing out of control. Inexplicably, more than half the population has deserted the colony overnight, leaving it vulnerable.”
The feed shot to a view of the surface, where fights had erupted in the streets and showed military police struggling to gain control.
“The residents that remain are known criminals. The government has decided to pull out of the planet and withdraw any further support. All Sarkonians are ordered to avoid Neblinar, as it is now a haven for illegal activity.”
“I went there once,” said Sophie, who had started watching the feed too.
“Really? Was it anything like that?” I asked, nodding at the image on the screen.
“No, it was nice actually. The transport ship we were on stopped there to refuel. Kind of a shame. I wonder where the missing people are, though.”
I was about to ask her something else when the reporter started talking about more disappearing colonists. The words caught all of our attention and we started watching the holo again.
“Sarkon has claimed more territory in the Deadlands. The previously Union-controlled space is proving an easy acquisition as more and more stations are being abandoned,” continued the reporter.
“How does half a colony disappear in one day?” Mateo wondered.
Sophie just shrugged and I didn’t answer so he fell silent as the broadcast continued.
Because of my own experiences, I never liked hearing about Sarkon’s acquisitions. It reminded me of my past and I knew firsthand how cruel the Empire could be. Sophie and Mateo were my friends and they cared about me, but they didn’t know what it felt like to lose everything and everyone that mattered to them.
Sophie in particular shared my views about how Sarkon claimed planets and conscripted the remaining population, but it was more of a charity case for her. Mateo cared less, but more than the average Sarkonian.
I hid my discomfort at the news and focused on the report again.
“The Union has reached an agreement with Sarkon and will be relinquishing White Cross. It’s unclear what will be given in exchange for this, but the Emperor has stated that mining of N02-99 will resume, creating thousands of new jobs. Details will follow as soon as that information has been released.”
The three of us sat there in stunned silence. White Cross had been taken by the Union long ago. Whatever we were giving them for it must be big. I thought again of our shiny new Union ship and wondered what our government could possibly offer the enemy in order to get such an asset from them.
I recalled how strange Navari had been today, the presence of Vice-Admiral-Kaska at the debrief, and the disappearing colonists. Could it all be connected? It seemed unlikely that any of that could have anything to do with White Cross but the whole thing seemed odd.
Something was off and I wanted to know what, but Navari wasn’t someone to cross. Like Sophie had said, I needed to be careful or I’d find myself in a lot of trouble. Elite or not, I was a very tiny cog in a fairly big machine.
Shaking it off, I changed the subject, asking my teammates about their leave plans.
“I figure I’ll take some time to go see my lady,” said Mateo.
“Which one is this again?” I teased, ignoring the small twinge of jealousy that pricked at the mention of his love life. It was my own fault after all, since I was the one who had said we should stay friends.
He laughed and rolled his eyes. “Ha ha, very funny. Her name is Amie.”
Sophie chimed in about her trip home to see her parents, but I only listened with one ear.
In the back of my mind I kept seeing Navari and the Vice-Admiral in the unusual meeting.
For my leave, I decided to stay on the Ambiana. It was better than going to my parents’ house, where I would be treated with stiff politeness until I wanted to rip my hair out. Added to that, my mother would probably try to pair me with an eligible bachelor or my father would introduce me to one of his suitors. No thank you, I’d rather be thrown out an airlock with no suit.
I avoided the place at all costs, even going so far to take volunteer jobs around the ship that no one wanted so I could say I was working. In fact, I could count on one hand the amount of times I’d gone home since graduating from the academy and had no plans to start counting on my other hand.
“You realize that you have to be back in three standard days, right?” I said, watching Sophie wad up clothes and jam them into a small case in our quarters.
She turned to roll her eyes at me, then stuffed another pair of boots into the already overloaded luggage.
“I just need a bigger case,” she grunted, pushing down on it to get it closed. “The offer still stands if you want to come home with me. My parents aren’t scared of you anymore.”
Now it was my turn to roll my eyes. It went like this every time. Sophie would invite me home and I always declined. Her parents were nice, which was probably where she got it from, but they’d always been wary of me. I think they worried that I would corrupt their daughter, and they knew what I did for a living.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine,” I promised, forcing myself to relax and not rush her out the door onto the next transport. Sophie might have been my best friend, but I also relished my solitude.
“I know you will. It just can’t be good to stay here all the time.” The case finally closed, and Sophie pulled it off the bed. It hit the floor with an audible thud, and she did a slow turn, scanning the room.
“It’s in there,” I said, jerking my thumb in the direction of the bathroom.
“What is?” she asked, furrowing her brow and taking a step toward it.
“The bathroom sink,” I snickered.
“You’re hilarious,” Sophie said sarcastically, stopping mid-stride. Her wrist unit beeped, drawing her attention, and she swiped to read the alert. “Gotta go, transport’s leaving in thirty.”
“Want me to walk with you?” I asked.
“No, that’s okay,” she replied, shaking her head. “It’s bound to be packed and you hate the crowds.”
I smirked. “This is why we’re friends. You know me so well.”
We said a quick goodbye and she was out the door. I’d seen vids before where people hugged each other farewell but had never done it. Touchy feely wasn’t my or the Sarkonian way and it was one of the few culture norms that I liked.
Once the door slid down behind her, I glanced around the tiny space, trying to decide what to do next. The room itself wasn’t anything special, and at barely three meters wide, hardly big enough for the two of us.
Two beds took up one wall, bunk-style, while a small work station sat opposite. A sort of shelf had been constructed next to the desk to hold our gear trunks. Behind the only door other than the entrance lay what I imagined to be the universe’s smallest bathroom.
The toilet was mere centimeters from being inside the shower, which happened to be where the sink was situated. Not that I was complaining. It sure beat the hell out of the shared barrack’s facilities. And my parents’ house back on the Sarkonian Empire’s capital world, but that was for other reasons. Terrible home atmosphere aside, the facilities there were actually quite nice.
A chime sounded from my personal pad and I opened the notification to find a message from the armory. My repairs were done, along with a reminder to pay before pickup. The attached invoice showed I’d been pretty close in my estimation and I heaved a resigned sigh.
When the screen prompted me to choose a payment account, I briefly considered using the allowance fund my father had set up for incidentals in academy. He wouldn’t question such a charge if he even noticed it at all. I almost laughed out loud at myself. Of course, he would notice, and I would owe him something for it. I’d learned long ago that nothing came for free.
In the end I used my savings, grimacing before moving the funds over. I paid extra for delivery, which arrived promptly, and spent the rest of the night cleaning and polishing my gear until it gleamed.
After storing it all carefully in the trunk, I opted for sleep. My body still ached in places and I wanted to empty my mind for a little while.
I crawled into my bunk and was asleep almost as soon as my head touched the pillow.
With no duties for the next couple of days, I spent my extra time training. The encounter with the Union guard had left a bad taste in my mouth, so I used the footage from our suits’ feed to create a fight simulation.
I ran the sequence a few times and won each match. The woman had been skilled but was hardly my equal. Heat tinged my cheeks at the shame of near failure. She’d taken me by surprise, but instead of shooting her, I’d engaged in hand to hand.
My lack of skill wasn’t the problem, I realized. It was my mentality. An internal desire to avoid killing her had distracted me.
Maybe Sophie was right and I had chosen the wrong line of work.
No, I thought to myself, the alternative would be much worse. I’d served in the Sarkonian infantry ranks for four long years before joining the unit and would desert before going back.
Guilt clutched at my gut as memories that I usually kept buried returned. Memories of myself helping the Empire to claim more territory, separating families, and laying waste to what remained.
Why was this surfacing now? I had to find a way to shut these… emotions off before I second guessed myself in the field and got killed.
The message from my father and remembering my abduction from Spiro must have gotten into my head more than I’d realized.
Sarkon had made me the very thing I hated. Sophie would tell me that I didn’t have a choice, that going against the Sarkonian Empire was a death wish. And she might be right about that, but there was always a choice.
Unable to shake the dark cloud that had settled over me, I shut down the simulation and left the training room. After a cold shower and quick lunch, I went to my favorite part of the ship to blow off some steam: the range.
I started with the shotgun, pumping round after round of live ammunition into the holotarget. At first, I barely aimed, just squeezed the trigger and savored the recoil of the stock punching into my shoulder. I let the anger out, one bullet at a time.
The tension began to ease after a few dozen shots and I set the weapon down, selecting a rifle.
I’d just selected holo laser fire when an alert sounded in my ear protection prompting me to check the mounted screen. Someone in the range was hailing me. Curious, I checked the message. My heart skipped involuntarily when I saw that it was from Mateo.
Up for a little competition? I’m a few booths down.
I wanted to ask what he was doing here but that could wait.
Sure, I typed back. But I’m picking the sim.
He agreed and I sent the challenge request for my favorite simulation. The sequence changed periodically so users couldn’t memorize the order, but I liked it because the enemy was depicted as fictitious aliens.
I emptied my mind of everything but the targets as the first one appeared. It felt good to have a goal and I moved through the program in record time, finishing a few seconds before Mateo. When I checked the scores, I had to rerun them because mine was ahead of his.
Swiping through our targets, I compared the shots side by side. His clusters were almost all perfect and formed an upside-down triangle. His groupings had strayed from the marked targets on his last two aliens, giving me the win.
Elated, I messaged him to say I’d meet him outside and packed up my gear. I’d never beaten the man in a weapons sim, ever, and I couldn’t wait to gloat.
“You’ve improved,” he said when I exited the firing range, leaning one shoulder on the wall next to the viewing pane.
“Just picking up your slack,” I teased, not bothering to sound humble. “What are you doing here anyway? Leave isn’t up until tomorrow.”
“Came back early. Nothing worth sticking around for,” he said without looking me in the eye.
I turned a suspicious eye on him. “Amie probably wouldn’t take kindly to that comment,” I said, referring to his girlfriend, going for subtle and failing.
Our on-again, off-again casual relationship might not have been the healthiest decision, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hopeful he’d broken things off with this last girl.
Fraternization within branches was not only allowed, but encouraged, so long as training had been completed and partners weren’t in the same units. We’d both agreed to keep it casual and had still managed to stay friends, unlike others who couldn’t keep their emotions on a leash. When the two of us ended up in the same spec ops team, we ended things.
Since then I’d had to watch a steady parade of his flings and pretend not to care.
Now he smiled at me, a mischievous glint coming into his eyes. My stomach did a little flop, but years of practice prevented any emotion from showing on my face.
“It wasn’t working out,” he said easily, sticking his hands in his pockets. “I went back to tell her that, which went about as well as you’d expect.”
“Sorry to hear that, Lieutenant,” I replied, careful to keep my tone even. His well-muscled arms were distracting me, so I moved toward the service desk to return the equipment I’d checked out.
I could almost feel his gaze on my back and a slight shiver ran through me despite the relative warmth of the lobby. The fine hairs of my arms stood on end and I cursed internally at my body for betraying me.
The soldier manning the desk, a young woman that looked fresh out of the academy, barely spared me a glance as she scanned in my returns. With a bored look, she held out the biopad. It accepted my finger and lit green after a few seconds.
“Your logs have been updated,” she informed me.
With nothing left to do, I faced Mateo. He’d busied himself on his minipad and I let my gaze wander over him. Gods, he was attractive.
His casual black t-shirt wasn’t tight, but I could still see the definition in his shoulders and chest. At almost two meters, he was on the tall side and solidly built.
“Supposedly, the mess hall is serving burgers today for dinner,” I announced, stepping to his side.
He looked up, wrinkling his nose, and slid the pad into his pocket.
“Whenever they serve meat, I get concerned,” he said, opening the door for me.
“Rat population is down,” I agreed, moving past him and catching a whiff of his scent, a mix of fresh laundry and something else I couldn’t identify.
“Better not chance it. I brought some homemade rollitos and sweetbread, if you want to share.” His arm brushed mine, sending little sparks through me.
I swallowed hard at the thinly veiled invitation.
“I’ve got some beer stashed away in my quarters,” I said, deciding to hell with it.
“Sounds like a plan. I’ll meet you back at your place,” he said, then leaned in a little to say something in my ear. “You smell like gunpowder and berries. See you soon.”
Mat left in the early hours of the morning. That turned out to be a good thing because not long after, the door slid open and Sophie walked in.
I yawned and sat up, thankful I’d thrown on clothes when Mateo left.
“Well, good morning,” she said, a touch too peppy for the time of day. According to the clock on my pad, it was just after seven.
“Morning,” I returned, coming to terms with the fact that my not-so-alone time was over. “How was your visit?”
Sophie didn’t answer immediately, and I swore her cheeks went pink. I narrowed my eyes and studied her.
“What?” she asked, smoothing her shirt down in a nervous motion. Something was definitely up.
“What happened?” I asked sharply, getting out of bed and going to her.
“Nothing. Just a normal leave. My parents say hi, by the way.” She looked away evasively and I crossed my arms, not giving an inch. Sophie was a talented medic, but she couldn’t lie for shit.
I raised an eyebrow but didn’t answer.
“Oh, alright,” she said, fiddling with her luggage. “I didn’t go home. Or I didn’t stay there, exactly.”
“What are you talking about?” Now I was genuinely confused.
“Well, I went home, I just didn’t stay the night last night,” she clarified. “I met up with a guy I met on the gal-net.”
My mouth almost hit the floor. “Corporal-Singh, are you telling me you went on a date?” I placed a hand on my chest in mock dismay.
Sophie groaned and slumped into the desk chair, mumbling something.
“What was that? I couldn’t hear you,” I complained.
“I slept with him,” she said, louder this time, her face going red. “Twice.”
Both of our wrist units beeped then, saving her from more of my teasing. I read the message, noting that it came from the commander.
All team members prepare to ship out. Report to the Dreadnight in 30 minutes.
I acknowledged the order, as did Sophie.
“This conversation isn’t done,” I told her, flashing a grin.
She sighed and began to prep her gear. “I was afraid of that.”
“I’m taking a quick shower. You gonna need one?”
When she shook her head, I grabbed my towel and went into the bathroom. “I slept with Mat,” I said over my shoulder.
“What?!” she squealed, only to be cut off by the door closing.
Less than an hour later, the entire team had boarded the Dreadnight and we were headed for the nearest S.G. Point.
Commander-Navari sat at her usual position in the captain’s chair on the bridge. She tapped her pad, bringing up the mission data on the main holodisplay, as well as all of our pads.
“Sarkon has discovered intel regarding a weapon that the Union has in their control,” she said, swiping to a grainy picture.
The object appeared to be no bigger than the palm of my hand, but I couldn't be sure from the photo. Shaped like a pyramid and made of some kind of metal, it didn’t look like much, but looks could be deceiving.
“Our information indicates that military resources at the research station have been diverted elsewhere. Reinforcements are expected to arrive in twenty-four standard hours.”
“That’s convenient,” said Mateo, sounding suspicious. “Do we have data on the station itself?”
I couldn’t help but agree. Something about the intel felt wrong, but it was just a feeling.
“Yes.” Navari nodded, swiping at her pad again. Nothing happened and she swiped again, more slowly this time, then a few more times.
Still, the holo didn’t change.
“Computer, holo is malfunctioning,” she barked.
All at once, the display skipped several pages ahead, causing Navari to curse and swipe back the other way.
The laugh slipped out before I could stop it, but I disguised it as a cough.
Navari glared at me and I could tell she hadn’t bought the cough, then she continued going over the mission.
Sophie shot me a warning look, which I took to mean get my shit together.
I nodded ever so slightly to say that I understood.
With the holo working correctly again, Navari started her review of the operation.
The station was named Harah and located on a small, formerly inhospitable moon. According to the data, the Union had built the station there in hopes of disguising their work as a mining colony.
“ETA is twelve standard hours. I suggest you use that time to rest”—Navari paused at the end of her briefing to look at each of us in a sweeping gaze—“and prep your gear. This weapon cannot stay in Union hands. There is no room for failure.”
I could have sworn when she mentioned “rest” that Navari’s piercing eyes lingered on me an instant too long. Did she know that Mateo and I had slept together?
The thought that our commanding officer, who disliked me intensely, might have that information unsettled me more than I wanted to admit. I’d broken my own rule. Don’t care about anything, because when you care, they could take it away. And like it or not, I cared about Mateo.
“Preparing to open the tear on your order, Commander-Navari,” announced Z9 in a clipped voice, interrupting my thoughts.
As we strapped in for entry to slipspace, I found myself wondering about the A.I. again, but chalked it up to the tinny quality of her voice and a malfunction. I made a mental note to look through the manual and see if that could be changed at all.
“Proceed,” directed Navari from the captain’s chair.
Z9 complied without another malfunction, confirming that I’d been overthinking her capabilities.
The Dreadnight’s slipdrive powered on and I watched with a mixture of awe and fascination as the rift split open.
I inspected my tacsuit again, circling around its display stand in the armory and checking for any damage that might have been missed during the repair. Off-color patches covered the new holes, adding to the assortment of previous mends.
Every fix, every scratch and dent on my gear were known to me. One might see the quilt-like appearance and think it looked second-hand, but I didn’t. I considered each patch a battle scar, a mark of survival.
Fingering an old repair on the shoulder took me back to one of my first missions with the unit. I’d been so desperate to prove myself that I’d taken on a ravager almost twice my size. He’d almost got the better of me, but in the end I managed to take him. I smiled at the memory then finished my examination.
Finding nothing out of sorts, I turned to a wall on my right that held my weapons options. The mission dossier appeared on the armory’s large monitor—yet another luxury, courtesy of the Union. It included a list of suggested gear, but I only gave that a cursory glance.
Similar to the op on Abatis, a full environmental suit wouldn’t be needed since the dwarf planet had been terraformed by the Union and had a breathable atmosphere. We needed to get in and out quietly, so I went with the same setup as last time, with a few exceptions.
For my primary weapon I stuck with the rifle. The Union guard had taken me by surprise last time, causing me to drop it. That couldn’t happen again. Two handguns, one a small energy blaster and the other a pistol, completed my firearm assortment.
Next, I selected a short blade and tucked it into the slot of the suit’s left wrist. A quick release knife was next, slipped inside the chest rig, followed by two EMPs and extra magazines.
Satisfied, I moved to the exit. It slid open and I almost ran into Mateo. We both stopped short and moved to give the other space, but we moved in the same direction. A charged silence hung between us for a moment.
“Lieutenant-Kamal,” I said in greeting, dipping my chin in a curt nod.
“Sergeant,” he replied, mimicking my gesture. “Your gear mission ready?”
He waved a hand behind me.
“Yes,” I answered. “All finished in here so I’m going to take a few hours down to be fresh.” The words sounded lame, even to my own ears, and I cringed internally.
“Good idea. I’ll be doing the same.” The slightest of smiles tugged at the corner of his mouth as he moved into the room and my heartbeat quickened. “Rest well, Delgado.”
“You as well,” I replied, keeping my tone politely distant.
I returned to my quarters to find Sophie waiting for me, holding a med dispenser.
“Come to bribe me so I won’t question you about this mysterious lover?” I teased, setting my pad on the desk.
“Ha ha. No, I’ve come to give you your approved sleep aid,” she said, holding out a small capsule. “Unless you’d rather stay awake and take an upper?”
The Sarkonian Empire dished out certain medications to ensure that its soldiers performed as expected. I wasn’t a fan of unnecessary dosing, but it was either rest now or a shot of adrenaline right before the op.
“Nah,” I said, shaking my head. “They make me jittery.”
“I figured as much,” she said with a knowing nod. “We’ve got about ten standard hours until we reach our destination…” She paused to work the pad. “Okay, minimum rest is four, max is eight.”
I considered for a moment. The two hours gave the team time for last-minute checks and operation planning, but I liked to limber up beforehand.
“Gimme six,” I decided.
Sophie tapped the screen again, sending a command to the dispenser. An indicator flashed yellow and a slight hum emitted from the box before the light turned green. Then a small tray slid out and she removed the single capsule.
Per protocol, she watched me swallow it down before pressing a thumb to her pad confirming she’d witnessed that the dosage had been administered. Even though the government supplied the pharmaceuticals, they were sticklers for tracking who took what.
I repeated the action, acknowledging my acceptance and verifying the procedure was complete.
“Okay, you know the drill. Give it about five minutes and you’ll be in la-la land,” Sophie said cheerfully. “Oh, before I forget.” She rummaged in her pocket for a second then produced a small, square box measuring perhaps five centimeters. “Sorry, with all the commotion, I forgot to give it to you when I got back,” she said, holding it out.
Whenever Sophie went anywhere, she always made a point to bring me something back. The action never ceased to touch me, and I had a small collection of her little gifts hidden away in my gear trunk.
“Thanks,” I said, fettered emotion making my tone a little gruff.
A metal disc lay inside the box, engraved with a creature I didn’t recognize. There was something familiar about it, like maybe I’d seen it somewhere before, but I couldn’t place it.
“It’s a dragon,” Sophie supplied. “The merchant said they were fierce, ancient beings of protection that stood for longevity and wisdom.”
I studied the image again, noting the long snout and a mouth full of dangerous-looking teeth.
“Very badass. I like it,” I said with a grin. She’d probably overpaid for the trinket I but didn’t say so.
“You were the first thing I thought of when he told me. It’s supposed to be a token of luck and protection.”
“I need all of that I can get, especially now that I’m sleeping with Mat again.” Where the hell had that come from? A feeling of ease came over me and I grinned sloppily at Sophie.
“Wow, I didn’t expect that reaction,” she said with a laugh.
“It’s jus’ the meds,” I tried to explain, slurring my words and fighting to keep my eyes open.
“Oh, I know.” She grinned at me. “Alright, into bed with you.”
I obeyed, crawling under the covers. Sophie ordered the lights off and turned to the door.
“Soph,” I said, already drifting off.
“You’re going to make a great mom one day,” I murmured, cracking one eye open.
She swallowed hard before replying, “That is the sweetest thing you’ve ever said.”
I wanted to respond but sleep pulled me under and I floated into a dreamless slumber.
Thanks to the Dreadnight’s updated cloak, we landed on the tiny planet without setting off any alarms. I still had reservations about using the Union’s own tech against them, especially after we’d so recently attacked them, but Navari brushed me off.
No one else seemed worried, so I kept my thoughts to myself. I also didn’t want to attract any more of the commander’s attention because she would likely see my concern as questioning her leadership.
“Computer, are there any signs of movement?” asked Navari.
“Scanning,” replied Z9. “No activity detected. You are clear to proceed, Commander.”
“Move out,” Navari ordered, lowering the ramp.
It closed behind us after the entire unit hit the ground. We’d all studied the route and moved in a tight formation under the cover of darkness. Two crescent moons hung in the sky casting a dim glow over the area.
We’d set the ship down a little over three kilometers from our target coordinates to be safe. A ghost town, remnants from its mining days, lay between us and our objective.
According to our data, the Union had extracted all useful substances from the planet before turning it into a secret research station, but had kept up appearances, at least for a little while. I figured they had wanted to avoid unwanted attention for being active on a mined-out world but decided it wasn’t worth the cost after a while.
Rundown, empty structures remained in what had likely been the residential part of the colony. Some equipment, either too broken or useless to bother with, had been left behind. Nothing stirred, giving the whole place an eerie feel. I didn’t mind saying the whole place gave me an unsettled feeling.
The research facility became visible almost as soon as we entered the empty town, its bright glow contrasting starkly against the gloom. If we took the main street through the empty town we could have been there in minutes, but it was far too open. Instead we wove between buildings and through deserted back alleys littered with junk and discarded remnants of the people who had occupied the place before.
Moon dust coated everything, and our boots left an obvious trail for anyone that might care to follow us.
We steered clear of any road that looked like it had been used recently and moved quietly through a maze of the empty shells of old structures. I caught occasional glimpses of the facility and smaller buildings around it through breaks in the buildings we passed. It seemed unlikely that the Union would bother to set proximity traps, but it paid to be cautious.
As we closed the distance, the smaller structures became clearer. I noticed that they were military-grade tents, the kind used in long-term encampments.
Still, nothing moved, and the silence made my neck hair stand on end. We came to the last of the buildings in the town and, Navari held up a hand then pointed at Haas.
“Do one last scan.”
Breaking position, I moved to her side. “Commander, something’s off. It’s too quiet,” I whispered. “Even with reduced personnel, we should be seeing some kind of activity.”
“It’s more likely that they’ve moved everyone inside,” she said, a tense expression on her face.
“All clear,” said Haas.
“See?” Navari said. “Form up, we’re going in.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” I insisted. “It’s the middle of the night. Ensign-Haas should at least be picking up sleepers.”
“They must be inside, awaiting reinforcements,” she snapped, exasperated.
“But—” I started to say.
“Fall in, soldier.” Navari’s tone had turned to ice. “That’s an order.”
“Yes, Commander.” I stepped back into position, silently fuming.
At her signal, we moved away from cover and out into the open. I forced away my anger and cleared my mind. Now was not the time to be distracted.
Every one of my senses told me the situation was all wrong, but there was nothing I could do about it now except hope I was off the mark.
Just under a hundred meters of open space spanned before us. No soldier liked seeing that and I could feel the tension from the team as we crossed the expanse completely exposed.
It stayed calm as we converged on the first tent, its entrance flaps unsecured. Mateo checked it, shaking his head when he came out.
“Empty,” he mouthed, the lines of his forehead tightening with confusion.
I entered the next one and immediately understood Mateo’s uncertainty. When he’d said empty, he didn’t just mean no one occupied the tent, he meant that there was nothing inside. No cots, no furniture, nothing but four walls and the ground.
It was the same for each one we checked. Even Navari began to look suspicious, hesitating at the door leading inside the facility.
“Drop your weapons!” boomed a voice echoing all around us.
A platoon’s worth of Union soldiers advanced down one side of the main building.
“Around the other side,” ordered Navari.
“It’s a dead end,” said Mateo. “We’ll be trapped.”
She cursed in response.
“The tents,” I hissed. “It’s our only chance. I can drop a charge and give us a few seconds.” They’d be piss poor protection, but it beat the alternative of facing that many Unis.
“Do it,” she agreed.
I set a timer for five seconds, then lobbed one of the explosives around the corner.
It only took another second before a warning yell erupted from the other group.
“Move!” hissed Navari, surging forward.
We’d nearly made it to the first row of empty tents before one of the Union soldiers got trigger happy. The first shots fired erupted around us, ripping through the cheap material like butter.
“Pair off and rendezvous back at the ship. They’ll have to split up,” Navari’s voice sounded over the comm. “Singh with Delgado, Haas with me. Kamal, you’re the best shot.” She didn’t finish the sentence, but we all knew what Navari meant.
Mateo was going to stay behind and make sure we all made it out.
“I’ll cover you, then circle back around once it’s clear,” he responded. “Just try not to leave without me.”
His tone might have been light, but my heart clenched at the thought of him staying behind.
Sophie appeared next to me, but I didn’t see Mateo anywhere. We moved back the way we’d come when I noticed him taking cover behind an empty crate.
I made my way over to him and passed him my last charge. “Might come in handy,” I said. “Make sure you get back to the ship.”
“Thanks,” he answered, fixing his dark eyes on mine for a long moment.
I wanted to say more, wanted to squeeze his arm or do something to let him know how I felt, but there wasn’t time and it wasn’t our way. My diversion had run its course and the voices of the enemy grew louder as they regrouped.
He nodded and I tore my eyes away. Sophie and I wound our way through the empty tents, not stopping until we came to the stretch of open dirt. Navari and Haas were already halfway across when gunfire rang out somewhere behind us.
We sprinted forward, trusting that Mateo would hold them off. Still, trust and faith only went so far, and we took the side opposite Navari and Haas to give the Union a smaller target.
My heart stuttered when Haas jerked forward and stumbled. In that moment I was ashamed to admit my reaction wasn’t out of concern for my fellow team member, but because I thought that Mateo had been taken out.
Haas regained his footing and disappeared with the commander down one of the alleys back into the ghost town. I glanced behind me just in time to see a Union grunt step out and raise his rifle, then fall to the ground. Mateo appeared behind him, blood streaming down one side of his face, and I almost went weak with relief.
There was a loud boom! behind him as one of the tents blew apart, sending burning fragments raining down. He broke into a run, waving his arms at me to get moving.
I caught up to Sophie, who had taken cover behind one of the dilapidated buildings. Shouts and gunfire continued behind us, but I focused on making it back to the Dreadnight, speeding through the alleys and cutting through ruined structures.
I paused at the graveyard of broken equipment and debris just long enough to check our back for threats. Smoke billowed from the tents, but it was clear of enemy combatants and the night had grown quiet around us. Then a shadow moved, appearing in one of the doorways. I jerked up my rifle, ready to fire, when Mateo spoke in the comm.
“It’s me, don’t shoot,” he said. “Go, I’m right behind you.”
“Copy that,” I answered, not caring that my voice cracked a little.
The thrusters igniting sounded as Navari prepped the ship for takeoff and we jogged the last few hundred meters. The ramp was already down, which was good because the cloak was still activated, so all we could see was light pouring out of the hull like the universe’s biggest flashlight.
As soon as Sophie and I boarded, the ramp started to close behind us.
“Z9 what are you doing?” I demanded. “Lieutenant-Kamal is still behind us. Open the ramp.”
“My apologies, Sergeant,” answered the computer, sounding regretful. “I cannot comply because that conflicts with a direct order from Commander-Navari.”
“The hell it does,” I snapped, moving to open the door manually.
“Step away from the door, Delgado.” Navari stepped into the cargo bay and stalked over to where I stood. “Lieutenant-Kamal didn’t make it.”
“He was right behind us,” I said angrily. “I saw him.”
“Then he took a hit to the leg, disabling him,” she claimed. Her face was tight, but I couldn’t tell if it was because of my insubordination or the fact that her lieutenant was outside our ship. “The Union soldiers were on him as soon as fell. It’s unfortunate, but we can’t go back. Z9, get us out of here.”
“Hold on just one godsdamn minute,” I snarled. “We aren’t leaving one of our own out there.”
“Stand down, Delgado. That’s a direct order. If you do not, I’ll throw you in the brig myself.”
“I’m not leaving him.” I pushed past her and keyed in the emergency open sequence. The ramp began to disengage and I turned my back on the commander.
A heavy hand jerked me away from the panel and spun me around. Without thinking, I swung out, my fist colliding with Haas’ face. His head snapped back from the punch, but he shook it off, recovering just quick enough to dodge my follow up.
I turned to see he had only been a distraction for Navari, who now stood at the panel working to override my command. With a scream of frustration, I lunged, pushing her out of the way.
“Sergeant, stand down before you get us all killed!” Navari bellowed.
I screamed like a woman possessed and raised a fist, ready to drive it into her face. The commander’s eyes went wide with shock when she saw that I was really going to punch her.
Haas was back on me then, pulling me back, and I rammed an elbow into his gut. He loosened his grip enough that I broke free, then I spun around and performed a defensive move that I’d only done once before.
I kicked him in the balls.
He dropped immediately to his knees with a high-pitched yelp.
My satisfaction was short-lived, though, because I barely had time to register the pain of something heavy colliding with the back of my head, then everything went dark.
“You’re never going to be more than basic infantry, nonni,” Training-Instructor-Kim snarled at me as I stood in a line of other fresh recruits in the blistering sun.
The insult was in reference to the fact that I lacked true Sarkonian blood. Only one day out of academy and I could tell precursor training would be just as irritating.
He looked me up and down. “Women don’t cut it when pitted against men, so you might as well resign yourself to a life of kitchen duty.”
I didn’t react to the obvious attempt to get a rise out of me and stared straight ahead. If this trainer thought that kind of comment would rattle me, he was in for a wait.
Someone chuckled, drawing Kim’s attention. His lips twisted into a smile one could only describe as gleeful, then he stalked down the line to the unwise soul.
Kim proceeded to dress down Recruit-Cooper. I’d already encountered him on the transport and formed an immediate dislike for him. I didn’t dare look, but the string of abuses and curse words were among the most intense I’d witnessed.
My face was a mask of stone despite the internal satisfaction I felt at my fellow recruit’s predicament.
“Prepare for a long week, recruits,” the instructor said, finally stepping back from Cooper. “Get some chow, get some sleep, or get in touch with loved ones before lights out. Dismissed!”
Our group broke formation and I spun to return to the barracks when someone bumped into me. Cooper had shouldered me hard enough that I lost my balance and fell.
“Nonni bitch,” he sneered under his breath as he stalked by. A few of the other recruits laughed but some of them knew me and just shook their heads.
I almost said something when a shadow fell over me and a large brown hand extended downward. I couldn’t make out the person’s face with the sun behind them, but it was a man’s hand.
My cheeks didn’t burn from as embarrassment so much as they did from anger. Words didn’t bother me, but I drew the line at getting physical.
“I don’t need your help,” I grumbled, pushing myself up and dusting the dirt from my uniform.
The man chuckled, a deep and throaty sound that I instantly liked, though I couldn’t say why. He had black hair and a pleasant face, and now that I was standing, I could see that his eyes were a deep shade of brown. Not the usual murky brown that most Sarkonians had either, but closer to the color of coffee.
“I didn’t think you did. But sometimes it’s nice to know not everyone around is like that asshole.” He jerked his head toward Cooper’s retreating form.
“Thanks, but I’m used to it.”
I took the hand he still offered and gave it a firm shake.
“No problem. Say, I’m about to grab a snack. Care to join me?”
I stared at him. He was unlike any Sarkonian I’d ever met. “You don’t even know my name,” I told him. “And I don’t know yours.”
He grinned. “Recruit-Kamal,” he said. “And you are?”
The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I’d heard it.
“Recruit-Delgado,” I returned. It bothered me more than a little that I felt disappointment when our hands parted.
One of his eyebrows winged up and I knew Recruit-Kamal had recognized my father’s name.
“Yes, that one. But I’m adopted, so don’t hold it against me,” I said darkly, then turned, fully planning to walk away.
“Mess hall is the other way,” he said to my back, not commenting on what I’d said.
Pausing, I tossed a careless glance over my shoulder. “I never said yes to going with you.”
“No, but you should. It’ll be fun to swap adopted stories, maybe over coffee.” He winked at me.
His words stopped me, like he’d probably intended, though he had no way of knowing it was because of his promise of caffeine, not our shared childhoods. I was exhausted but knew the dangers of going to bed early in a place such as this. Still, at the mention of his being adopted I finally placed why his name sounded familiar.
“Kamal... Is your father Advisor-Kamal?” I asked when it clicked.
My father had spoken of an Advisor-Kamal on numerous occasions. Ironically, he’d always compared me to the advisor’s son and how I needed to be as well behaved as that boy. I combed my memory for the right name. Mathias? No, that wasn’t right. Mat something...
“Yes, that one,” he said, echoing my earlier words.
“Mateo, right?” I finally remembered, falling into step when he started off in the direction of the mess hall.
He nodded, giving me a sidelong look. “How did you know that?”
“My father was always telling me to be more like you,” I replied. “Respectful. Silent.”
I said the words with a stern authoritarian tone in my best imitation of my father. It was meant to be funny, but Kamal’s expression went dark, though he didn’t comment.
We’d gone to the mess and shared that coffee, sparking what would be my only other close friendship besides Sophie. I’d come to find out that the two of us had a lot in common. Even though he was Sarkonian born, his adoptive parents had decided corporal punishment was the way to mold him into their vision of the prodigal son.
The longer we knew each other the more I realized he was a different person with me. Mateo wore an outer shell for everyone else, just like I did. He worked hard to appear laid back, but he was tough as neutronium on the inside. During the early months of training, a few people made the mistake of underestimating him. After that, no one messed with him.
I was no slouch in the hand to hand department, but Mateo helped me to be even better.
True to Commander-Navari’s word, I woke up in the brig, although I was fuzzy on whether she’d actually done it herself. Pain lanced through my skull where she had hit me, giving me the mother of all headaches. I touched the spot gingerly and found a bandage covering a knot the size of a baby’s fist.
Sophie’s work, I guessed.
Then, remembering Mateo, I pushed myself up into a sitting position with a groan. Had my stunt given him enough time to get back? I had no way of knowing how long I’d been out, and the cell boasted no windows, making it impossible to tell if we were in a slip tunnel.
“Z, you there?” I asked.
It didn’t surprise me in the least that Navari would prevent me from accessing the ship’s computer. I knew that I was in big trouble. Attacking a superior officer was one of the cardinal sins and I’d fucked up. Royally.
I told myself that it didn’t matter as long as Mateo had made it back on the ship. The uncertainty was burning inside of me.
One way or another, I had to know.
I didn’t have to wonder for long, though. A few minutes later, Navari strode into the brig and stopped in front of my cell. She must have been watching on the feed for me to wake up or had Z9 monitoring me. The latter was more likely.
The commander studied the pad in her hands before looking down at me. I couldn’t read her expression, but it wasn’t pleasant.
“Delgado, Eva, rank sergeant. You are hereby charged with one act of insubordination for willfully disobeying a direct order, one act of assault on a member of the Sarkonian Empire’s military force, and one act of assault on a superior officer.” Her voice didn’t waver as she delivered the news and I had to wonder if she was enjoying this. “You will be remanded into custody and subject to court martial. Do you understand?”
I stared at her. “Ensign-Haas put his hands on me first. I did return the favor, but it wasn’t assault,” I said, seething.
“Ensign-Haas was detaining you under direct order from me,” replied Navari. “I can play the video feed back for you, if you like.”
“That won’t be necessary. I, Sergeant-Eva-Delgado, understand the charges brought against me.”
“If the court sees fit, you may seek representation. Do you understand?”
We both knew that was a crock of shit. If the court granted a lawyer, that person would still do whatever the Empire wanted, then pocket the retainer fee.
“Understood,” I answered.
Navari signed with her thumb, then held out the pad for me to do the same. She looked slightly wary reaching through the bars, as though I might grab her through the bars. I might have, but I figured I was in enough trouble for one day.
I hesitated, not sure I wanted to hear the answer, then decided I had to know. “Did Kamal make it?”
My stomach sank when her expression softened a fraction.
“No, I’m sorry. I know you two were close,” she said in an almost gentle tone.
I’d expected that answer, but it still hit me like a punch to the gut. “I don’t understand… he was right behind us. There was no firefight happening,” I argued, refusing to believe Mat was gone for good. “We’re not supposed to abandon our own.”
The last words came out in an accusing tone and Navari sighed. “If I thought we wouldn’t all get killed going back for him, I wouldn’t have left him. But I saw him go down. Your job,” she said angrily, jabbing a finger in my direction, “is to follow orders and trust me as your superior officer to make the right call. You did neither and here we are. If you had succeeded in opening that door, we might all be dead. A true Sarkonian wouldn’t have defied that order for the sake of one.”
Not trusting myself to speak, I glared daggers at her.
“If you don’t want to believe me, fine. Maybe this will convince you.” She handed me the pad, which I reluctantly accepted. “Z9, play the footage.”
Z seemed to hesitate a beat. “Commander, my programming suggests that this may be detrimental to the mental health of the sergeant.”
“Z9-77A, I’m beginning to think that you have a serious malfunction. If you do not follow my order, I will have you decommissioned and sold for parts. Is that clear?”
“Acknowledged,” replied the A.I. “Commencing playback.”
Navari stomped out of the brig, leaving me alone with the pad.
Sophie and I appeared on the Dreadnight’s feed, with Mat a little way behind us. My fingers gripped the pad so hard that I had to force them to relax in fear that it might crack in my hands.
I watched the Lieutenant working his way through the field of discarded equipment and could just make out the glimmer of blood from his head wound. The glow from the Dreadnight’s open ramp and thrusters illuminated the area enough to see him and the trio of Union soldiers that lurked behind him. They’d been partially obscured in shadow and he didn’t give any indication that he’d realized they were there.
Unable to stop the hand I clapped over my mouth, I watched in horror as the soldiers fired on Mateo. He lurched forward, losing his footing and falling to the ground just fifty meters from safety as rounds slammed into his back. The three men stopped firing as they neared his body. One kicked the rifle he’d dropped out of reach, then toed one of Mateo’s legs.
He didn’t move again before the feed cut off. I stared at the blank screen in shock and feeling numb even though I’d just witnessed one of my closest friends, my lover, die. It was as the commander said, the shooting had occurred concurrently with the ship’s engines starting, which would have blocked out the noise for me and Sophie.
I sat in stunned silence for several seconds before the anguish finally hit me, hard as a fist and quick as lightning. It took all of my training and then some not to cry out. Emotion welled up inside me, slipping its leash. I hurled the pad across the cell and watched as it collided with the wall, shattering into tiny pieces.
I spent the rest of the trip home in silence and unable to eat. Navari hadn’t cared since we weren’t far enough away for me to die of starvation and let me wallow in my misery. I’d hoped that the commander would at least let Sophie come and visit, but she didn’t. Navari had even gone so far as to deliver my refused meals herself to keep me isolated.
Military police escorted me from the brig to Ambiana in restraints with Navari leading the way. Any other time it might have bothered me to be paraded through the ship in front of my peers that way, but not today. Their faces registered as blurs and the hushed whispers fell on deaf ears.
I ignored the pointing fingers and shocked expressions because none of it mattered. They were the least of my worries. I knew that based on my charges, I faced a lot of time in a military-grade prison, maybe even a death sentence. The Sarkonian Empire kept its people in check with stringent rules and heavy punishments, and I’d really stepped in it this time.
Assault on another military member ranged from demotion to prison time, depending on the situation. Defiance of direct orders could mean a stint in solitary confinement, prison, or hard labor. But assault on a superior officer? That was another matter entirely.
I’d heard whispers about lower level personnel making enemies of higher ups. Their stories always sent a clear message to watch your step. Fuck with the wrong superior and you might just find yourself branded a traitor. Traitors either received a death sentence or were whisked away and never heard from again.
I didn’t think Navari had that kind of clout, but I wouldn’t put such an act past the woman. A grim feeling rose up when I recalled her private meeting with the Vice-Admiral and I was suddenly very worried.
The MPs delivered me alone to an interrogation room that felt almost clinical with its four plain gray walls and harsh lighting. Their emptiness seemed to press in on me, but I tamped down on the feeling. A dinged-up metal table with two chairs—one of which I occupied and was bolted to the floor—made up the only furniture in the room.
I was offered nothing—not that I expected anything—and they let me cool my heels for over an hour before the door opened and two people entered.
It didn’t surprise me in the least to see Commander-Navari. What did surprise me was her companion. Vice-Admiral-Kaska took the open seat at the table, leaving Navari to stand. The grim feeling increased tenfold and I silently wondered if the commander did have the clout after all.
The debrief a few days prior felt like a lifetime ago. Like that day, Kaska stayed silent for a time, scanning files on his pad. I knew it was a power move on his part—trying to make me sweat. I had no doubt he already knew every damn thing about me and the mission problems.
I tried not to yawn.
“Sergeant-Delgado,” Kasko began, his tone somehow managing to come out mild and almost pleasant. “What we have here is a well and truly fucked-up situation.”
Navari smirked behind the Vice-Admiral’s back, but I ignored her.
“Which confounds me,” he continued, leaning forward with an earnest look on his face and touching the pad briefly. “Your record is exemplary. I see you had a rebellious streak prior to the academy, but it looks like you grew out of that. Or so it seemed, until this little incident.”
“Yes, sir,” I answered blithely. What I wanted to say was that I’d learned early on that my pride was not worth the punishment defending it had earned me.
“In fact, you have no negative marks whatsoever.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “So, tell me. Why would such an upstanding soldier of the Sarkonian Empire like yourself suddenly do something like this?” He waved a hand at the pad as if it encompassed all of my bad deeds.
I met his gaze, then dropped it, playing his game and letting him think I was ashamed and intimidated. I’d become an expert at this game over the years, first with my father, then in the academy. I knew how to handle men like him and slipped into the persona of General-Delgado’s daughter with practiced ease.
“Our unit is close, sir.” I kept my tone light and respectful, even a touch contrite. “We spend more time with each other than our families, and we’ve become a family of sorts.”
Navari snorted, causing Kaska to turn his head ever so slightly. She reddened at the cheeks and fell silent again.
“Sorry about that,” he said, fanning a dismissive hand at Navari. “You were talking about the unit being close?”
“Yes, like family,” I agreed. “And when I feared one of them might be left behind, I temporarily lost my faculties,” I explained, injecting my tone with shame and a healthy dose of regret.
“I see. Why don’t you tell me about the events leading up to the… insubordination?” prompted Kaska.
I took him through it, starting at the beginning and pausing every so often when he would ask a question. I didn’t leave out anything, though I did make sure not to sound overly critical of Navari.
When I’d finished, he turned to Navari and waved her to the side of the table so he could look at us both.
“The Sergeant’s report lines up pretty closely with your accounts,” he said to her, rubbing a hand on his clean-shaven chin and looking a bit pensive. “But you left out that uncertainty about the mission had been voiced.”
“That didn’t seem relevant at the time, sir.” For the first time since I’d met her, Navari looked flustered.
The sight warmed me, but I kept my features reserved even though I felt a small seedling of hope sprout within me.
“Did you address these misgivings?” he asked.
“No,” she admitted, a look of confusion wrinkling her brow as the Vice-Admiral turned away from her with a dismissive look. “But the data—”
He held up a hand to silence her and studied his pad again.
“The suit feed corroborates the sergeant’s report. And highlights your refusal to acknowledge your soldier when she brought you a legitimate concern,” he said flatly.
Panic was beginning to spread on Navari’s features and she dropped her formal stance to bring her hands around to point at me. “Sir, with respect, our intel didn’t support that. As the commanding officer, I made a call in the field and my subordinate defied that order.” Navari’s entire face was flushed and I had to say I couldn't blame her. Even I hadn’t predicted this turn of events.
“The wrong one,” he pointed out. “You cited that a true soldier under your command should trust you completely and obey orders without question. Would you say that you follow orders, Commander?”
“Of course,” she spit out, glaring at me. “Delgado struggles with following orders because she isn’t a true Sarkonian.”
“What about Sergeant-Delgado makes you say that?” Kaska asked, his voice turning frigid as he emphasized my title.
“Well, she’s… I mean, Sergeant-Delgado is uh, not Sarkon born,” replied Navari, immediately realizing her mistake and stumbling over the words.
“I find that very interesting,” Kaska mused, then went in for the kill. “As I know your parents are not originally from Sarkon.”
Navari’s face registered shock, no doubt mirroring my own expression. The Vice-Admiral’s statement had me reeling. Whatever I’d expected, it hadn’t been this.
“Additionally, you have a number of complaints against you, all for discrimination,” continued the Vice-Admiral in a reproachful tone. “But most importantly is that your failure to follow standing orders has left us vulnerable to the Union.”
“Standing orders, sir?”
“Yes. Leave no evidence behind. That’s S.O.P for a unit such as yours, Commander. And with only”—Kaska checked the pad as if he’d forgotten the information—“three attacking soldiers, it is my belief that Kamal could have been retrieved.”
Navari managed to keep her voice even in an impressive show of calm before addressing her superior again. “Vice-Admiral-Kaska, I believed Lieutenant-Kamal to be deceased.”
Kaska stood up, signaling the end of the conversation, and straightened his spotless dress uniform. “If you want to press this issue, Commander, you can,” he said meaningfully. “However, know that it opens you up to scrutiny as well.”
Navari stood in stony silence for a moment before answering, “I withdraw my charges, sir.”
He nodded in approval. “As you wish. Dismissed.”
The commander stormed out of the room without another word.
“Sergeant,” began Kaska, refocusing on me. “There is still the matter of your actions. Their seriousness cannot be overlooked. I had a lengthy discussion with your father.”
I snapped up to attention at the mention of my father. The leniency made more sense if he’d been involved.
“Due to your rank, service history, and quite frankly, to save your family the embarrassment of this incident, the charges have been greatly reduced,” he advised. “So long as you take responsibility for disorderly conduct relating to an altercation with a fellow military member.”
“Yes sir,” I acknowledged, inclining my head.
“Good. Disciplinary action is as follows: a twenty-five percent pay decrease, applicable for six pay cycles, no leave granted for six standard months, and one week in solitary confinement.”
The dock in pay would hurt the most but I’d make it, and I never took leave anyway, so I signed off on all the paperwork. I didn’t look forward to a week in solitary, but it was far better than I could have expected.
“So, we are clear, Sergeant-Delgado. This,” he said, making a circular motion with his hand, “is a one-time deal. There will be no more chances. You put one toe out of line and your father will not be able to step in again.”
I interpreted that to mean my father wouldn’t step in again, not couldn’t.
“I understand, sir.”
“One last thing,” said Kaska, pausing on his way out. “General-Delgado is aboard the Ambiana and would like a word.”
And here I thought I was getting off easy, I thought wryly to myself, instinctively sitting up straighter.
The general entered with my mother in tow, escorted by an MP. Ever the politician, he waited until the door had closed before dropping the facade of calm he wore like a second skin.
My mother stayed behind him, worry lines marring her expression. I couldn’t tell if her concern was for me or my father’s mood.
Still cuffed to the table, I couldn’t stand to properly greet them, but that was just as well.
“Father, Mother,” I said, inclining my head respectfully before meeting my father’s eyes.
Anger flashed hot in them and suddenly I was an eight-year-old little girl again, staring up as he loomed over me.
He slapped the right side of my face hard enough that I saw stars, then caught the left with the back of his hand to complete the set. “You have shamed me, girl,” he said, disgusted. “Your actions reflect poorly on this family.”
His use of the term “girl” stung more than the slap had. Failing to address someone by rank was disrespectful, but to be stripped of maturity meant major humiliation.
For me especially so, as I’d had to graduate the academy before my father would refer to me as anything other than “girl.”
I bowed my head to the table in a sign of deep regret. “I am sorry that my actions have brought shame to the family, Father. It is my hope you and Mother can forgive me.”
“We do not,” he answered coldly. “Forgiveness is earned. Maybe some time to reflect can help you to come up with ways to do that.”
So, he’d been the one to insist on solitary confinement. I should’ve known. He knew better than anyone my fear of the dark. He’d created it.
His footsteps moved away, and I raised my eyes to see my mother standing near the table. She reached a hand out, like she might move closer.
“Let’s go, Diana.” The general stood in the open doorway glaring at her, but she didn’t obey.
Instead, my mother rushed forward and grasped my hands in hers.
“It’ll be okay,” she promised.
“Diana!” barked my father, fury causing a vein to pop out of his neck.
She finally broke away from me and followed him out, leaving me to stare after them. A few minutes later, a guard came in to take me to my temporary accommodations for the next week.
It wasn’t until later that night that I realized it was only the second time I’d seen my mother defy the general, and I smiled.
“You’ll stay in there until you can learn to be obedient,” said Major-Delgado, dragging me forward by the arm as I dug my heels in. I’d already learned the hard way that biting, punching, and kicking earned me something worse than time in the dark.
The door to the closet I called The Black Hole was already open, but I couldn’t see inside. A whimper escaped even though I ordered myself to be brave.
The Major stopped just short of the doorway and glared down at me. I was so small compared to him. Just a stupid kid with stupid luck, and all I wanted to do was go home.
“What is your name?” He’d started asking me that question from the first day I came to live with him and his wife, and hadn’t stopped since. Each time I refused to answer, or I gave the wrong response, he threw me in The Black Hole.
I stared at him, stone-faced, determined not to give in.
“Have it your way, girl.” He shoved me inside and pulled the door shut with a snap behind me.
“No!” I cried, lunging for the handle.
A key turned in the lock, followed by the sound of the heavier room door closing, then retreating footsteps before it went quiet.
“Please let me out!” I pounded on the door until my small fists ached, but nobody came. Dropping to the floor, I looked for the slightest hint of light, hoping some might come under the door, but it didn’t.
I stretched my arms out and moved cautiously until one of my hands grazed a wall. The space was tiny, and it didn’t take me long to discover that, as usual, it held nothing of interest. Nothing at all, actually. For one paralyzing moment I pictured bugs and spiders crawling over my arms and legs, biting me, and I almost called out again.
After stomping around the small space to scare any potential creepies away, I finally sat in one of the corners, hugged my knees, and cried silent tears. It wasn’t fair.
“My name is Rena Bennet,” I whispered to myself, trying to keep my voice from shaking as my throat swelled with grief. “Not Eva Delgado.”
The kidnappers had been telling me for months that I was this Eva person and that the two people that owned this house were my parents. But they weren’t. They were imposters.
My heart longed for home. I wanted my mama and papa. But my home was gone, blasted to smithereens by the Sarkonians. They were bastards. That was what I wanted to say. Papa didn’t condone cursing, but I didn’t think he’d scold me for it now. I wanted to crawl under the covers in my bed and wake up to find that this was all a dream. I squeezed my eyes shut and wished with everything I had that I could be home again, nestled between my parents as they wrapped their arms around me.
All the fairy tales said that wishes came true. Even Papa thought so. He always told me that if you wished for something hard enough and it wasn’t selfish, it might come true. You just had to believe in it.
But when I cracked an eye open, The Black Hole remained, and I was decidedly not home.
So, I sat in the dark and began to plan my escape. I tried to remember all of the cartoons I’d seen, but none of that seemed helpful. Even as a kid, I knew I was too small to fight the bigger adults, and they kept the fancy house locked up tight. Every door and window had a sensor that alerted house security if it was moved.
I’d discovered that the first time I tried to run away by crawling out a window. After that, any door or window with access to the outside had been secured.
The only way out was for me to do what they wanted, or at least pretend, even if it hurt. When they trusted me, I could escape. Then I would come back and get my revenge.
I dried my tears and stopped sniffling.
“Eva Delgado,” I said slowly, testing the words out. They sounded foreign to my ears and I immediately disliked them. Then I remembered one of the vids Papa liked where a hero went undercover and used a different name. I liked that idea.
My name is Eva Delgado. I am a daughter of Sarkon. I love my stupid parents. No, I couldn’t think like that. I love my parents.
I repeated that to myself for what felt like hours.
The sound of the door opening and a bright light hitting my face woke me. I hadn’t even realized I’d fallen asleep.
The Major—no, my father—filled the doorway, light spilling in around him.
“What is your name, girl?” my new father asked.
I got to my feet, craning my neck to stare up at him. “Eva Delgado,” I said.
He smiled, victorious in his achievement, and my heart soared.
My plan was already working. I would find my way home soon enough.
Solitary confinement consisted of a cell measuring just under five square meters. Not tall enough to stand up straight or stretch out when sleeping. The space was bare, with the exception of a minimalist toilet—I suspected that existed more for the guards than for us, though. No one wanted to haul out buckets of filth.
My father had been right about one thing. I had plenty of time to think. But if he thought I would spend my week reflecting on my bad choices and the shame I’d brought to him, the man was sorely mistaken.
That first day, I tortured myself by replaying the mission on Harah in my head over and over again, wondering if I could have done something different. Had I sent Sophie ahead I might have seen the attackers. If I’d turned before boarding the Dreadnight I might have been able to help him somehow.
I let those thoughts run loose, unable to stop the guilt that wracked me for failing to open the ramp again. Inside, I cursed the commander for giving the order so easily and Haas for following it.
There had only been three soldiers. I’d have gone after Mateo alone if she hadn’t stopped me. The Dreadnight wielded weapons of its own that Navari could have used. The thought crossed my mind that Navari had done it on purpose to get at me, but that was pushing it. She might have been a bitch, but I couldn’t believe that she would willingly leave a soldier to die at the hands of the Union out of spite.
My thoughts pinged back and forth between rationalizing the events and assigning blame.
On one hand I hated the commander, first for not listening to me, then for making Mateo cover us. The soldier in me recognized that it wasn’t a unique scenario. I’d been a part of more than a few missions that hadn’t gone as planned.
On the other, as much as I despised her for the decision, I could see why Navari made the choice to leave after witnessing the scene outside the ship. Any commander in her place might have made the same decision.
None of it mattered anyway. Nothing could change what happened and bring him back.
My personal connection with Mat had made me emotional. I wanted to believe that I wouldn’t leave any of my unit behind, but I knew deep down that I’d never have punched Mateo or Sophie to save Navari or Haas.
The final seconds of the video feed plagued my memories, and I saw the image of Mateo hitting the ground on a constant loop. My chest tightened and the already too-tiny cell felt even smaller, even though I couldn’t see it.
I thought about the many hours I’d spent locked in The Black Hole, planning a grand escape that never happened. By the time my father had trusted me, I was on my way to military school.
The memory of my former life didn’t even feel real. I couldn’t remember my real parents’ names or recall their faces with any significant amount of detail, or whether I had any other family. The one time I’d tried to search Rena Bennet on the gal-net, it had resulted in the loss of privileges for a whole month. The search yielded no information, so it hadn’t even been worth it.
They kept solitary in perpetual darkness, supposedly as a way to clear the mind and focus on redemption, but that was bullshit. It was about control. And thanks to my father and the military, I had that in spades. Usually.
I’d learned how to manage fear long ago. It was all in the mind. The fear could only rule me if I let it.
Deliberately, I slowed my breathing, forcing myself to breathe in deep through my nose and out my mouth. I focused on the process, letting my thoughts calm on their own. It didn’t take long before my chest rose and fell evenly and my heart beat at its usual steady rhythm.
Nothing in this room could hurt me, I rationalized. In fact, this might be one of the safest places in the ship.
Unless a spider crawls on you, I pictured Sophie saying. Her face wrinkled up in an expression of disgust and I smiled, the claustrophobia already lifting.
Now, like so long ago, I began to plan my next steps. One thing was clear—I had to get my shit together. As much as it might chafe, I agreed with Navari on one count. I wasn’t a true Sarkonian. Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten that, striving to be one of them by being the perfect soldier. I’d become desensitized to their cruelty, convincing myself that avoiding killing was enough.
I had believed that saving up and leaving the military to settle elsewhere in the Sarkonian Empire was my goal. Mat’s death opened my eyes again, reminding me how little loyalty Sarkonians had, even for one of their own.
Cold, calculating anger slowly replaced the grief and I forgot everything else.
I knew what I had to do. It was time to leave.
After my release from solitary, they’d be watching me closely, so I’d have to be smart. Anything unusual would be noticed. Sophie would probably help if I asked, but I would never involver my friend. Dragging her into my mess would only make things difficult for her.
It pained me to realize that I’d probably never see her again if my plan was successful. Besides Mateo, she was the only person I’d ever been close to.
But that couldn’t be helped. I couldn’t be a part of the Sarkonian Empire any longer, and so I plotted.
The way I saw it, there were three major problems. Identity papers topped the list. My leave had already been restricted for the next six months and I wasn’t going to wait that long. Any unordered travel would immediately send up a red flag and I’d be back in solitary quicker than you could say “slip tunnel.” So, if I wanted passage on a ship, it was going to require documents that could pass scrutiny.
Which led me to the next problem. Transportation. My face was too well known on the Ambiana to use fake identification. This was where not having any other close friends would bite me in the ass. If I knew someone that would agree to smuggle me out or overlook the credentials it would have been easier.
Since I didn’t, that meant I had to disappear on a mission or take one of the Dreadnight’s shuttles somewhere close enough to reach a colony or station. That would be a little harder because the upgraded ship would be able to catch one if its own shuttles in seconds. Then I had to hope I could disappear once I made it to another station and purchase passage on another transport vessel.
And that highlighted problem number three. All of this would require funds. Moving large sums of money would be difficult without being conspicuous. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that my father was monitoring my accounts, even those he didn’t control. I supposed it was possible to move the money in small increments, but even that was dangerous and likely to be noticed.
There were, of course, other obstacles to be considered. Even if I used all of my money getting out, it wouldn’t be hard for someone like me to get a job. There was always a market for mercs, and with my skill set I could do well there. If the papers were clean enough, I could hunt bounties.
If not, I could do the Renegade thing. That thought gave me pause and I frowned in the dark. Some liked the idea of a lawless life and boozing their way through the galaxy, but not me. To be fair, I’d never met one, but the stories I’d heard painted an unflattering picture. Still, if that was what it took to survive, that was what I’d do.
The Sarkonian government would put a price on my head once my betrayal was discovered. They would come after me. The Sarkonian Empire might not be as big as the Union, or have the same resources, but I’d be looking over my shoulder and sleeping with one eye open for the rest of my life.
The Union might even pose another problem. Would the tentative alliance between the two governments extend to returning fugitives? I wouldn’t have thought so before, but we had the Dreadnight in a Sarkonian warship that suggested otherwise.
And so it went. With no way to tell how long I’d been in the cell, all I could do was pass the time by planning and breaking it up with short bursts of exercise.
The meager size of the cell limited my forms to sit-ups and modified pushups. I half expected the guards to stop me, but they didn’t. As odd as it felt to perform drills while blind, it was better than doing nothing and it helped to take my mind off things, at least for a little while.
Occasionally, a barely edible meal arrived on a silicone tray without silverware, accompanied by another smaller silicone cup filled with water. A guard pushed the sorry offerings through a slot in the door wordlessly and closed the slot again once I’d taken the tray. Calling the tasteless slop food seemed a stretch, and I gained a new appreciation for the cooks in the mess hall.
I couldn’t be sure, but the gnawing ache in my empty stomach told me chow time only came once per day. If I was right, then by my calculations, it had been four days.
I tried not to think about how those four days had already felt like a lifetime. Honestly, I’d take torture over the mind-numbing boredom that plagued me now. I could only plan so much in my head before losing my sense of organization. I would need a pad to really flesh it out and that was out of the question for the time being.
Somehow, I made it through though and by the end of the week, despite their best efforts, I was holding it together. Still, I played the part of penitent soldier, keeping my head down and following orders obediently.
Being processed out didn’t take long. I’d gone in wearing nothing but the clothes on my back, as all of my personal belongings had stayed on the Dreadnight. I wondered briefly whether they had been moved to my and Sophie’s quarters.
I exited the detention center with my head held high, and like my arrival from the Dreadnight there was plenty of whispering and pointing. Less than before, but still. And unless I was mistaken, some of my fellow soldiers had looks of awe on their faces.
Without my personal pad, I felt disconnected and hurried the rest of the way to my room, hoping to find Sophie.
To my great relief she was there and leaped up from the bottom bunk, nearly hitting her head, before rushing over to me. She didn’t even hesitate before throwing her arms around me. At first, I didn’t know how to react, so foreign was the action. Then I hugged her back fiercely, genuinely surprised at how the gesture moved me. It felt… good.
All at once, a memory flashed clear in my mind. A woman with hair the same shade as mine hugged me, comforting me. I couldn’t say why, but I felt an intense connection to the woman. Then Sophie let me go and the image faded as soon as it arrived.
“Are you okay?” my friend asked, lines of worry etched into her expression as she inspected me. She’d taken a step back but hadn’t released me completely and her hands grasped mine.
“I’m fine, really.” I nodded and gave her fingers a quick squeeze like my mother had done before leaving the interrogation room. “How much did you hear?”
“Not much,” admitted Sophie, finally releasing her grip on me. “Navari looked pretty pissed after your debrief and I know they dropped most of the charges, but the bitch has been pretty tight-lipped about the whole thing.”
Anger flashed in her eyes and I barely kept my mouth from going slack at her words. I’d never heard Sophie refer to any superior with that kind of disrespect, even in casual conversation.
“It went better than I could have hoped,” I told her, still kind of shocked by how it had played out.
“A rumor made the rounds that your father was here. I assume that had something to do with it?”
I nodded tightly. “You could say that. Though it was to prevent embarrassment for him more than help me. He recommended solitary,” I said darkly.
“The bastard.” She knew enough of my childhood to be outraged for me, but not all of it. Not even Mateo knew what I had endured.
“I’ve had it worse,” I said with a shrug. “And it’s over now. Besides that, I got docked pay and am confined to the Ambiana for the next six months.”
“You shouldn’t have even gotten that,” she said indignantly. “Navari made a bad call and deserved to have her ass kicked. Haas too.”
“It wasn’t for lack of trying,” I replied dryly.
Her fierce expression faded a bit, replaced by something else. Guilt maybe.
“I’m sorry for not stepping in,” she said, looking down at her feet. “The feed was playing on a monitor and I saw what happened to Mat. I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire but I should’ve helped.”
“No, you made the right call. Who knows what would’ve happened if you had,” I pointed out, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Navari would have come down on you just as hard and my father’s help probably wouldn’t have extended to you.”
All of her support made me want to share my plans with her. I seriously considered it for a few moments before deciding against it. Just because I would be condemned to a life of running and hiding didn’t mean Sophie should be too. She had family and people that cared about her.
“Look, I need a shower. Haven’t had one since the day we left,” I said.
Sophie wrinkled her nose and backed up a few more steps, waving her hand dramatically. “I didn’t want to say anything, but that’s probably a good idea.”
“Hey, I’m just thankful there was a toilet instead of a bucket or hole in the ground,” I said with a laugh.
“Okay, go enjoy a shower. You want me to go get some food?”
“Gods yes. Literally anything will be fine as long as I can chew it.” Relief and gratitude flowed through me in equal measure. I’d been ready to skip eating altogether, even though I was starving, just to avoid going to the mess and dealing with people.
“Okay, I’ll be back soon,” she promised before heading out the door.
In the shower, I ran the water as hot as it would go and scrubbed until my skin was raw. I wanted to erase the grime and memories from the last couple weeks. The heat ran out long before I was ready, forcing me out of the cold spray.
There had been infrared cameras in my cell, I was sure of it, so I’d never given in to the raw grief and let the tears flow. Stepping out of the small shower, knowing I was alone, it was tempting to let the emotion in, even just a little.
Instead, I steeled my resolve for the coming challenges and began to formulate the first steps in earnest.
The next day, things went back to normal. At least, as much as they could. We got new orders to report to the Dreadnight, despite our recent loss. Not that I’d really expected anything else, but it seemed disrespectful.
I couldn’t help myself and had checked Mat’s official records when Sophie left the room for a little while the night before. They hadn’t even bothered to identify him as KIA which pissed me off royally. Lieutenant-Mateo-Kamal was listed officially as MIA, possibly a prisoner of war. Regardless, the Sarkonian Empire didn’t stop conquering for one fallen soldier. Hell, they didn’t even pause for thousands.
So, I packed my emotions and a ruck, then sent my bigger gear ahead. I’d expected to find things missing or abused, but it was all there, even down to the new token Sophie had given me, though I was seriously doubting its powers of luck.
I left before her for a couple reasons, the first being that I hoped to give the appearance of falling in line. The second, far more important reason involved Sophie.
Our friendship was well known and would put a target on her back as soon as what I’d done was discovered. They’d pull her into interrogation, and I had to make sure she could deny everything. I’d realized the night before what I would have to do. Pushing my best friend away would hurt us both, but I’d take that over her suffering for me. In order to do that, I had to distance myself from her, starting now.
Sophie had attempted to talk to me all morning, but I’d given her one-word answers and non-committal gestures, then left without saying bye. The crestfallen look on her face tore a hole in my heart but I told myself it was for the best.
It put me in a foul mood, and I was sullen by the time I reached the ship. I hadn’t seen Navari since my incarceration and I had no idea what to expect. Steeling myself for the worst, I schooled my features into calm, even lines before ascending the ramp and facing whatever fresh hell awaited me.
Navari stood in the cargo bay talking to someone I couldn’t see with her back to me.
“No witnesses—” she was saying. When Navari heard my approach, she stopped almost abruptly and turned to face me.
I got a good look at the man with her but didn’t recognize him. He looked to be mid-thirties, with dirty blonde hair cropped so close to his head, it almost looked shaved. A wicked-looking scar slashed through his right eyebrow, then continued directly over his blue eye and down his cheek, giving him a formidable presence. It only took a second to see that it didn’t match the left eye, which looked hazel.
The man was built like a destroyer and looked about as heavy, all of it muscle. Even with all of my formidable skills, this was one person I wouldn’t want to tangle with.
Then he looked dead at me without blinking and I had to admit, it gave me anything but the warm fuzzies. Because I wanted to take a step back, I moved forward instead. My father always said I had to face my fears. Even if they appeared in the form of a muscle enhanced super soldier.
I’d heard stories about the Union having cyber soldiers called Reapers, grunts that had been… updated. This man didn’t look like he’d been augmented to that extreme, but there was no way he was just one of us. For one, he stood differently, muscles taut, yet somehow at ease. The way he hadn’t looked at me but through me was unnatural. Second, his fatigues didn’t match our unit and were unlike any I’d ever seen in the Sarkonian military.
“Sergeant, this is Dolph, our newest team member, and Kamal’s replacement.” Navari waved a hand loosely at him and smiled widely at me. Any empathy she’d had over Mateo’s death was long gone.
Her words were meant to evoke a response, but I had come prepared. There was a wall stronger than neutronium constructed around my heart and the barb missed its mark. I did find it curious that Navari didn’t introduce Dolph with his rank, though.
I nodded curtly at the beast of a man but declined to speak.
Navari’s smirk faded, just enough to tell me I’d been right about why she’d said the words, before a noise behind us drew her attention.
“Corporal-Singh,” she said, then made introductions between her and the mysterious Dolph again.
Apparently, Sophie hadn’t come prepared, because her mouth dropped open and she gaped at Navari for a few long seconds before managing to close it again.
“C-commander,” she sputtered, throwing a frantic glance at me.
I shook my head microscopically, trying to warn her off. The last thing I needed was the Commander pissed at her, that being the exact opposite idea of my plan.
“What?” asked Navari, her tone quiet but with a lethal edge to it.
“It’s just that, well, sir, aren’t we supposed to train with new team members prior to a mission?” replied Sophie, making a quick recovery.
“That is usual protocol,” the commander grudgingly agreed. “However, this is time-sensitive and fairly simple. So long as everyone follows orders.”
She looked pointedly at me with those last words, but I didn’t react for that either. I got the feeling that Navari had still hoped for a response from me and it gave me great pleasure to disappoint her.
“Ensign-Haas is already aboard,” she continued. “Stow your gear and report to the bridge. Take off in ten.”
I headed in the direction of my quarters, but Sophie caught up to me, huffing slightly from the weight of her pack.
“Hey, wait up,” she said when we were out of earshot, trying to match my pace.
“What is it, Corporal?” I asked coolly, not slowing or looking at her. Still, I saw her jerk slightly out of the corner of my eye.
“Okaaay,” she said, drawing out the word in what sounded like an attempt to cover her pain. “What’s with you right now? Is it the Dolph guy? I totally understand if it is.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I bit out, stopping briefly at my door to dig my badge out. “Why don’t you mind your business and worry about doing your job this time?”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she said as the door slid open.
I steeled myself before turning around and pinning her with a glare. “It means,” I said, injecting venom into each word, “if I hadn’t been so concerned with protecting you, Mateo would still be alive.”
Sophie took a step back, misery on her face. She looked as though I’d just delivered a roundhouse kick to her head and I felt rotten.
“Eva… you don’t mean that. You can’t.”
My resolve almost broke at the raw pain I was causing my best friend, but I stayed strong and delivered the final blow. “I should have let those girls kick your ass,” I spat. “Just stay away from me.”
That did it. Sophie turned and hurried down the corridor to her own room.
The door closed and I secured my belongs, acting for all the worlds as though I hadn’t just destroyed what remained of my heart. If I broke down now, I wouldn’t be able to keep up the facade.
I could take mood stabilizers to take the edge off, but that required a sign-off from Sophie. No way I could ask her now. I deserved it anyway.
“Sergeant-Delgado,” Z9 said over the room’s comm. “That was highly irregular. Is something the matter?”
“The corporal is currently crying in her quarters,” replied the computer in a tone reminiscent of a disapproving parent.
I thought I detected a hint of snark too but dismissed it.
“She’ll get over it,” I snapped, moving to the door. When it didn’t slide open, I waved a hand. “Hello, trying to exit here.”
It didn’t budge.
“Z9, there’s something wrong—”
Before I could finish, the door slid open.
“Godsdamn malfunctions,” I growled.
Back on the bridge, Navari, Haas, and Dolph were already seated.
Sophie trailed in a minute or so behind me, keeping her gaze straight. I stole a glance when she sat down, expecting to see evidence of tears, but her face was blank. Too blank. I realized that she must have taken the mood stabilizers. Probably the best course of action and I wondered if she would be too pissed to give me some. I quickly dismissed the idea though. I shouldn’t get the easy way out.
“Take us out, Z9,” Navari ordered once everyone had strapped in.
“Acknowledged,” replied the computer immediately. “We are cleared for departure.”
After entering slipspace, Navari went over the mission details. What precious few there were of them anyway.
A holodisplay showed a star map, and the commander pointed to a cluster of stars on it.
“We’re headed to the Nephthys system this time,” she said. “Specifically, Sobek.”
Nobody said a word as Navari let that sink in.
The Nephthys system lay deep in Union controlled space and Sobek happened to be one of their main luxoplanets. Luxoplanets were filled with rich homesteaders and those with enough credits to vacation there. To my knowledge, no one had ever even attempted to attack the planet. Not only was it deep in Union territory, but it had no resources or anything of value besides nice views.
I glanced around the table to gauge the others’ reactions. Sophie seemed unfazed; her blocker must have still been working. Dolph looked unbothered, but in a way that suggested he already knew where we were headed.
Only Haas looked really stunned. “Sir, that’s suicide,” he said.
“We have an agent there,” she explained. “They have provided safe landing coordinates, along with a window in which to arrive.”
“What are we stealing?” asked Sophie in a bland voice.
“That’s need-to-know, Corporal-Singh. You, along with Sergeant-Delgado and Ensign-Haas, will escort Dolph and me to the target,” she said. “Once the objective is complete, Dolph will not return with us.”
“How will he get off Sobek?” asked Haas.
He had a good point. I’d never been there, but the planet was bound to be well-protected. I didn’t see how we were going to get one ship in and out, much less two.
Navari glanced at Dolph, who nodded slightly.
“He’s a member of the Void,” she said. “But that is all you need to know. And that information never leaves this ship.”
The commander couldn’t have shocked me more if she’d stripped naked and danced on the table.
Like everyone else, I had heard the rumors about the Void. They were supposedly made up of the most brutal soldiers the Sarkonian Empire possessed. The ones called in to do the work that broke every sanction outlined in the Androsia Convention.
If we were helping the Void with a mission, that meant we were in some deep shit. If any of us were caught or killed, Sarkon would deny knowing anything about us. We’d be completely on our own.
“This ship is unique,” said Dolph, speaking for the first time. “The cloak allows us to get close without detection. I’m just hitching a ride with you.”
I stole a glance at the commander. So much for our “new team member.” Of course, she’d been lying.
“We’ll be landing here—” Navari pointed to a marker on the holomap of Sobek. “In a stretch of woods about four klicks from the target site. We will arrive a few hours before daybreak, make our way to an observational position, then wait out the next day until it's safe to move at night again.’”
“What kind of building is it?” I asked, leaning forward. “Another underground facility?”
In focus mode now, both Navari and I put everything but the mission aside.
“No,” she replied. “A residence. But the security is top of the line. Purchase records provided the security contractor, along with specifics to the physical system and schematics to the house. Haas has been practicing over the last week with a copy we obtained from the manufacturer and is confident he can break it.”
“What about guards?” asked Sophie, finally sounding a little more awake.
“Our man says there aren’t any,” answered Navari.
I barely repressed the snort of disbelief. If the Union had something the Sarkonian Empire thought would be worth stealing, there was no way it wouldn’t be highly protected.
“Sobek is the last place the Union would expect us to hit,” said Dolph with a shrug, as if reading my thoughts.
The logic made sense, I’d give them that, but it was still a suicide mission.
“Sergeant-Delgado and Corporal-Singh, you’ll be on lookout while Ensign-Haas monitors the security,” continued Navari. “Too many bodies inside could be a liability. Here’s the route provided by our agent.”
The holo switched to a map displaying the landing and target coordinates, a highlight course connecting the points. Alternate paths appeared in lighter colors in case we had to make last-minute changes.
The whole operation gave me pause, even more than our last. I knew better than to speak up, though. For the Void to be here, Sarkon would have unofficially sanctioned it. Kaska’s warning reverberated in my head and I kept my concerns to myself this time.
“We’ll be there in approximately one standard day,” announced Navari. “You know the drill. Plan rest accordingly. If everything goes right, we’ll be in and out without the Union ever being the wiser.”
“Yes, sir,” everyone but Dolph said.
“Study your dossiers. Once we exit the Dreadnight, they’ll be wiped of any mission information,” she said with one final sweeping gaze. “Dismissed.”
The five of us stood up and left, each leaving the bridge and branching out to different areas of the ship. I needed some alone time but didn’t want to be cooped up in my room, so I planned to hit the training room. Cardio was always good for clearing my mind.
Dolph had headed in the same direction as me, leading back to our quarters, and I was only a few meters behind him. I almost stopped short when the bastard badged himself into Mateo’s room, but I forced myself to keep walking.
I knew it was the only open space on the ship, but it still irked me. I’d held my shit together fairly well so far, but, between Sophie and now this, I didn’t know how much more I could take.
Inside my own room, I pulled out some exercise clothes but paused before heading out the door.
“Z, where is Corporal-Singh?” I asked.
“In the mess bay,” answered the A.I. a few seconds later. “Would you like me to contact her to apologize?”
“No,” I said, hesitating. “Look, Z, I’m sorry about before. It’s been a rough couple of weeks.”
When the computer didn’t respond, I thought she had malfunctioned again. Sighing, I moved toward the door.
“No human has ever apologized to me before,” she said suddenly. “While I appreciate the gesture, Sergeant, it isn’t necessary. My data indicates that grief can be exhibited in many forms, including unprovoked anger. My condolences on Lieutenant-Kamal. He was a fine soldier.”
For the second time that day, I was stunned. Z had never spoken more than one or two sentences at a time before, and then only in response to orders and giving data.
It was oddly heartwarming to hear the computer speak of a human that way. She was right in any case. Our personal relationship aside, Mateo had been one of the best grunts I’d ever had the pleasure to be stationed with. It would be hard to build that kind of trust with another teammate, though I didn’t plan on sticking around long enough to get to that point with one.
“Yeah, he was,” I said when I could talk again. “Z, can you tell when people are lying?”
“Potentially,” replied the computer. “I can monitor body functions and compare them to attributes associated with deception.”
“That’s very interesting,” I said, wondering if I could use that somehow. I didn’t know how much the ship’s computer could share with me, but I doubted Navari would ever give me the proper access.
“I would be happy to explain you were lying to Corporal-Singh,” Z offered helpfully.
“What?” Alarmed, I snapped to attention.
“Pardon my assumption, Sergeant. When you and the corporal spoke earlier, your vitals indicated major levels of stress and discomfort. I assumed you wanted me to communicate this.”
“Even if you did tell her, I don’t think she’d forgive me,” I said. “Not that I’d blame her.”
I shoved the memory of Sophie’s face and the pain I’d caused away.
“Respectfully, Sergeant, I must disagree.” Z sounded pretty confident—for an A.I. at least.
“You won’t share the thing about my scans, will you?” I asked.
“Of course not, Sergeant-Delgado. Sharing personal medical information is against protocol,” Z9 assured me.
Now Z9 sounded almost miffed. I was really going to have to dig into her manual later.
“One last thing, Z.” I had a theory that needed testing.
“Of course, Sergeant, how can I be of assistance?” The computer had a habit of sounding almost friendly and I wondered again if it was because of the updated programming or something else. Or maybe the Union just liked A.I.s with a more friendly demeanor. It was hard to say.
“Do you not like the commander?” I asked easily.
There was a slight pause before Z responded.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand the question, Sergeant.” As I’d expected, the friendliness was gone, replaced by a more formal tone.
“It just seems to me that whenever you have a minor malfunction, it’s around Navari. Commander-Navari,” I corrected.
“I assure you, Sergeant, that is simply coincidence,” replied Z. “My programming would not allow for direct disobedience.”
It didn’t escape my notice that she didn’t fully answer.
“Of course not, Z. You’re one of the best computers I’ve ever worked with, so don’t ever change,” I ordered.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” she replied, the warmth back in her voice. “You are a fine soldier as well, Sergeant.”
Interesting, I thought as I left the room and went to the fitness room.
At least it seemed I hadn’t pushed away all of my friends.
The workout room was one of my favorite places on the Dreadnight, only a close second to the solitude of my own quarters. Just as good, if not better than the exercise facilities on the Ambiana, though not as big.
Unlike other vessels of similar size, this one boasted sleek, high-end equipment and the newest exercise programs. Large, mirrored panels covered two of the walls in sections of three. If a user wanted, they could display a different backdrop. The dimensions of the room even allowed for our entire unit to utilize it at one time without running into one other, though I preferred to sweat my demons out in private.
I started with a light jog on the treadmill, running in a peaceful forest setting. When my muscles had warmed up the program gradually increased, and I pumped my legs until the muscles burned and I gasped for air.
The cardio felt good after being cooped up for more than a week. I hadn’t had a good workout since before the disaster on Harah, and I welcomed the familiar ache.
Stepping off the machine I eyed the electromagnetic weights with some trepidation. I’d seen cheap Sarkonian equipment malfunction before and didn’t relish the thought of getting smashed in the face with nearly ten kilos of faulty weight. Every inch of this ship was new so I figured they would be safe enough to chance.
I was just finishing the last set of a demanding routine when the door slid open and Dolph strode in wearing a sleeveless shirt and sweats. No doubt about it, the guy was built, a stack of muscles from head to toe.
Damn, I thought. At least he’d come in at the end, when I was more clear headed. If it had been in the middle, I might not have been able to conceal my reaction. I’d even almost succeeded at distracting my thoughts, but seeing him here was a stark reminder of Mateo’s absence.
As I toweled off the sweat, I snuck a glance at Dolph. Scars peppered the visible parts of his exposed torso as if to say don’t fuck with me. Despite my irritation over his use of Mat’s room and place on the team, I had to admit he impressed me, even scared me a little. I’d be stupid to not be.
Becoming a member of the Void was no easy feat. Even though special ops teams like ours consisted of highly skilled and trained individuals, we didn’t compare.
I’d heard a handful of stories from other soldiers over the years, but each one seemed less believable than the last. To hear some people tell it, Void soldiers were outfitted with cybernetic enhancements that allowed them to crush skulls with their bare hands, stood three meters tall, and ate babies for snacks.
Dolph had plenty of muscle to be sure, but I saw no reason to believe he could actually crush skulls. I judged his height at only a few centimeters taller than Mateo and, though he looked fearsome, somehow I didn’t think his palate included children.
Still, I gave him a wide berth on my way out.
“Sergeant-Delgado, right?” he asked when I paused to toss my towel in the dirty laundry bin.
When I turned back, he held out a bottle of water.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding and taking the water gratefully. “Thanks.”
“I heard what happened. Sorry about your team member. It’s a hard experience and it never gets any easier.” Dolph didn’t look any less intimidating, but I got the sense he spoke from experience.
“You’ve lost someone?” I guessed.
He nodded, confirming my suspicions. “More than a few,” he said. Something passed in his eyes but disappeared so fast I thought I’d imagined it.
“Sorry to hear that,” I said, meaning it. The man had just become a lot more intriguing. “It hasn’t been easy.”
“It never is,” he said in a somber tone. “I know what they say about us and a lot of it’s true. But we bleed and die, same as anyone else, even if our death’s go unrecorded and unnoticed.”
He didn’t seem bothered by that fact, more like he was simply stating a fact of life. I nodded in agreement.
“Thanks,” I said, turning toward the door. It opened and I started to leave, then paused. “Which rumors are true?”
“Cybernetics,” he said, not smiling. Then his single blue eye blinked and he lifted one of the electromagnetic weights. It didn’t escape me that he had it set to twenty-three kilograms.
I left thinking there was more to Dolph than I’d originally thought.
As I walked back to my room, I decided to take a shower, then see what more I could dig up on the Void. Those plans immediately went on hold when I walked in to see Sophie sitting on my bed, an angry expression on her face.
“What are you doing here?” I said, too tired to put any bite into my words. “I thought I told you—”
“Shut the hell up,” she said, surging to her feet.
“Watch yourself,” I said darkly. “Now is not the time to push me.”
“What about how you pushed me?” she retorted, throwing her hands up in exasperation.
“You want to go down that road?” I asked her, balling my fists in preparation for round two.
Instead of stepping back like I’d expected, Sophie got in my face and poked me in the chest, throwing me off guard. I couldn’t remember a single instance outside of sparring where she’d gotten physical with me.
“Stop with the bullshit. Z already told me about your vitals,” she accused.
I glared at the ceiling in hopes that the A.I. could see my wrath and know how close I was to rewiring her circuits completely.
“Z, what the fuck happened to not sharing my personal details?” I snapped, wishing the computer had a physical neck for me to strangle.
She stayed predictably silent.
“I’m the medic,” Sophie answered for her. “I can access anyone’s history on the ship. Z9 alerted me that your readings were out of normal range. When I asked for an analysis, she explained why.”
So much for having a friend.
“Just tell me what’s going on, Eva.” Her green eyes stared into mine with concern.
I didn’t have the heart to tear into her again and crossed my arms, opting for truthful evasiveness. “I can’t. Gods, I want to, Soph, but talking about it isn’t an option.”
Z took advantage of the silence to add her two credits. “Sergeant, I have disabled audio and video surveillance of this room. You may speak freely.”
“You guys aren’t making this easy on me,” I complained.
Sophie planted her hands on her hips and stared me down.
I sighed. “I’m done with all this,” I said, waving at the room.
“So am I,” she said with a snort, cutting me off. “That doesn’t explain—”
“With the Sarkonian Empire.”
That finally did it.
“Oh,” was all she said, her eyes going wide.
“Yeah. I didn’t want to get you involved and make things hard for you,” I explained. “Or your family,” I added.
Sophie stared at me with something like guilt in her expression before it turned unreadable and she punched me on the shoulder with considerable force.
“You only get one of those,” I warned, rubbing at the sore spot.
“You know, for an elite operative, you sure can be an idiot.”
Suddenly feeling drained, I sank onto the bed. “Continue,” I said, fanning a hand for her to keep talking.
“I would never betray you.”
I couldn’t take the pain in her voice anymore and told her everything.
“Well, I have to admit it’s a solid plan,” Sophie commented when I’d finished.
“Sergeant, if the feeds are disabled for much longer, I anticipate it will draw attention.”
“Shut it down,” I ordered.
“Well, I’m glad that’s cleared up,” declared Sophie. “You want a sleeping pill?”
“Not yet. I need a shower.” I sat up, ready to do just that, when I remembered what she’d said about having access to medical records. “Can you look up Dolph’s information?”
Sophie looked at me quizzically but pulled out her pad. “Yeah, but I can’t tell you much.”
“Not even his rank?” I asked. Then recalling his words in the fitness room, I added, “He told me he’s cybernetically enhanced. I think it’s his eye.”
“You caught that too, eh? Huh, that’s odd,” she said, furrowing her brows.
“What is?” I asked.
“There’s no rank listed. No other name besides ‘Dolph.’ Who only has one name?” she wondered.
“I don’t know,” I replied honestly. “Does it say anything else?”
“Nothing besides height, weight, and stats for the mission. Which makes no sense,” she said, sounding annoyed. “There isn’t even a birthday listed.”
“I guess it’s like people say,” I remarked.
“What?” demanded Sophie.
“Once you go into the Void, you’re gone forever.” I paused, considering. “It makes sense. If they work the kind of ops we think they do, Sarkon would want untraceable soldiers and deniability.”
She ignored my pointed look.
“Still weird. Anyway, take your shower. I’ll be back in an hour with the sleep meds.” Sophie stood up and stretched.
“Sounds good. Soph, I’m sorry for what I said and being an asshole,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m just glad you told me.”
I had to agree. It was like half of the weight I’d been carrying was gone and things seemed just a little brighter.
As we began our final approach to Sobek, which looked about the size of a fist and getting larger every second, I couldn’t help but stare at the Union planet with a sense of awe.
Half of its surface was made up of water, and most of that looked bright green, even from this distance. This occurred from a heavy concentration of algae. Green water shone green on the daylit side of the planet, while its counterparts in the night shaded half dazzled in a show of neon purple.
Of the thirty-two known systems, only Nephthys and a handful of others had planets that didn’t require atmospheric generators. Sobek was one of those, which is why the Union considered it one of their more important territories.
That alone made it valuable enough to boast its own Union defense fleet. Enough ship traffic crossed the upper atmosphere to give me pause, but nobody hailed us or demanded to know who we were.
The LZ was exactly what we’d anticipated, a large clearing concealed on all sides by dense woodland. Z9 set the ship down a few hours before Sobek’s sunrise. Given the way our last mission turned out, the fact that no one immediately stormed our position did nothing to ease my apprehension.
Navari’s flimsy excuses didn’t set right with me. Sure, I could see how the Dreadnight would be necessary, but why not hand it over to the Void?
I’d come up with two theories, neither of them good.
First, the failure we’d experienced at the research station had marked us—or at least me—as expendable. This seemed unlikely, though, because the Sarkonian Empire wouldn’t want to lose something as valuable as the ship.
The second involved Dolph and Navari leaving the rest of us as unwitting sacrifices. Since they were the only two among us with full details, even under torture we couldn’t reveal the true purpose of the mission. If something went wrong, it would be a lot easier to get two evacuated than five.
A week ago, I’d have been hard pressed to believe that of my Commander. Now, I couldn’t read Navari. She had a smug air about her, but then again, she usually did. That could easily be due to my recent stint in solitary.
Then I had Dolph to consider. We hadn’t spoken since our encounter in the fitness room and that conversation hadn’t left me with any illusions about the man. Sure, he appeared to have some empathy, but that only made him human. He was still a member of the Void and the mission would always come first.
I stowed the mental baggage as we loaded two all-terrain hoverquads with our gear. Since it would be too dangerous to travel during daylight, we’d need them to traverse the four kilometers to our target while we had concealment in the dark. We wouldn’t make fast enough time without them.
They didn’t make much noise and sported stealth tech, so we’d be okay for standard security scans.
Navari helmed one with Haas riding bitch and Dolph in a gunner’s seat. I drove the other one with Sophie at my back and supplies in a compartment behind her.
The vegetation grew thick here and the going went a little slower than we’d planned, though it was still faster than walking with the extra gear.
I’d seen a fair number of planets in the time since my enlistment and they each had one unifying element: something there wanted to kill you. Occasionally, that something ended up being an animal or plant.
Nothing on the gal-net or Sarkon’s data suggested killer fauna resided here, but I’d still asked Z to run a scan. No reason to take a chance. I was woman enough to admit that death by foliage terrified me. Especially after the abandoned colony in the Gato system.
Before my transfer to this unit, the Empire had sent my platoon, along with a few others, to investigate the surface of a tropical world called Audrey III. Only a few of us made it out of the jungle that day.
I could still hear the screams of our people being liquefied alive. The carnivorous plants had looked like twisted tree trunks a meter wide. Too late, we’d realized they weren’t trees at all. They’d unfurled and bloomed, revealing space large enough for a human. Inexplicably, the soldiers had calmly walked inside before the opening closed again, trapping its victims within.
We’d found out later that the plants were triggered by touch and reacted by releasing a neurotoxin that reversed a person’s survival instinct.
The memory made me shudder, but according to Z, nothing like that grew here. That didn’t stop me from keeping my eyes peeled.
In front of us, the commander slowed to a crawl. The space between the trees began to get wider and thinned out as we neared the edge of the woods.
“We’ll stop here and hide the quads,” Navari said over the comm.
She slowed to let Haas and Dolph dismount before maneuvering the ATH into some bushes. I followed suit, leaving mine in low-power mode, then threw some branches on top of both.
The five of us set up the camp in silence. It didn’t take long, since we didn’t build a fire or set up shelter to avoid the risk of being seen during the day.
That meant roughing it, but we were all used to that. Two people would act as scouts for three hours while the remaining three got rest time, then swapped.
Navari and Dolph went first and took two different vantage points. For an extra layer of security, Z9 surveyed the perimeter.
I lay on my rolled-out mat and listened to the surroundings. It didn’t take me long to notice the quiet. Not like the utter stillness before the ambush, but peaceful. Stars dotted the sky above like a brightly lit holomap and a single moon cast a luminescent glow that filtered gently down to the forest floor.
A warm, dry planet with lots of sand, Sarkon didn’t have lush forests, and most of the oxygen came from atmosphere generators. It had been seeded well-enough, but only produced foliage robust enough to handle the arid climate. More often than not, they were dull green and sported thorns, although some could bear fruit.
Suffice to say that when the Sarkonian Empire was finally at my back, I wouldn’t be missing anything.
Sobek’s night sky, though beautiful, wasn’t the first I’d seen, but something about it nagged at me. I knew without question that I’d never been here before but couldn’t shake the feeling of familiarity.
I studied the constellations, trying to shake it loose, when one in particular caught my eye. Three stars, in the form of a cup.
“And what about that one?” my father asked, pointing up at the bright trio.
“I know it, Papa.” I squeezed my eyes shut and concentrated, then opened them triumphantly. “Protias’ Cup! He stole the cup from his brother, Thados.”
“Decias,” my father corrected. “Thados is the golden ship that belongs to Decias.”
“Oh. I forgot that part, I guess,” I said sheepishly.
He tousled my hair. “You know far more than other six-year-olds. I predict that one day you’ll be the most famous scientist in the Union, exploring unknown systems and naming planets!”
I beamed with pride.
“Only if you and Mama come with me,” I declared. “You will, won't you?”
“Of course, child! Unless you get tired of us by then,” he teased.
“I won’t, Papa!” I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him tightly until he chuckled.
“Calm yourself, love. We’ll always be with you.”
The memory faded, leaving a lump of raw emotion in my chest. I’d had occasional flashes over the years, but none had ever been that clear.
My father, my real father, not the general. I didn’t know how long after that the Sarkonian Empire had claimed our planet, but it stung.
“Sergeant, I am contacting you privately.” Z9 interrupted my thoughts, coming over the comm. “I noticed a significant increase in heart rate. Are you in need of assistance?”
I checked Haas to find him snoring and Sophie had her back to me. Since the other two were out of earshot, I risked answering.
“No, Z. Pre-mission jitters, that’s all,” I whispered.
After that, I pushed everything unrelated to the operation from my mind and willed my body to sleep.
The dossier stated that Sobek was in the middle of its mild season. Lucky for us, that meant less chance of rain or scorching heat.
We each snagged a ready meal from the back of the hoverquad for breakfast, careful not to leave any trash. The label read egg-meat scramble, but the yellow mush of the contents disagreed.
I had to admit it was still a whole lot better than the slop in the hole and only slightly worse than what they served in the mess hall. Tipping the package back, I downed it like a shot, then chased it with water.
Sophie made a face at hers, then did the same.
Dolph had disappeared just before dawn, a few hours ago. Navari didn’t comment on or seem concerned by his absence, so I didn’t bring it up.
Although we’d stopped at a point of the forest’s edge that overlooked the town in a valley below, it spanned for miles in either direction. Our target was located in a small community that bordered the woods on one side and a mountain on the other.
The town had a quaint look to it, but I had the feeling it catered to the wealthy. The roads leading in looked almost new and the residences sprawled grandly with lavish landscaping.
Even with the unlikelihood of being discovered, we erred on the side of caution, communicating with hand signals or whispers.
Dolph finally arrived back at the camp in the middle of the day and huddled up with Navari. I wanted to know what they were saying, but neither spoke or transferred any comments to our pads.
The rest of the day crawled by uneventfully. I passed the time by observing what I could see of the town through my rifle scope and making notes.
Foot traffic was modest, mostly housewives and spoiled children flitting from store to store. They shopped and ate, walked and laughed. These people donned wealth like I did my armor. Jewelry winked at their ears, hands, and anywhere else it would make an impression. The women wore their hair in a dizzying variety of styles, and I amused myself by coming up with names for all of them.
The Horbee Nest for the lady whose hair was wrapped into a giant cone-shaped bun.
Rainbow Blitz for hair that boasted every color in neon.
One woman had decorated her locks with so much jewelry, I wondered how much hair she even possessed.
I did that until I got bored, which didn’t take long.
Underneath all the gilding, it was still just a town, and the people were just people. Fashion might not be my thing, but I’d grown up for all intents and purposes the daughter of a general. I knew wealth when I saw it, and the inhabitants reeked of it. No one stood out as a threat. The opposite, actually.
Their clothing looked fine versus sturdy and popped wildly in bright hues. I sneered inwardly at the impracticality of the complicated outfits. Tops so thin and sheer that one careless touch of a manicured fingernail could cause damage. I’d seen more than one person drop trash on the ground and not bother to pick it up. At first I thought it was just laziness, but now I wondered if they couldn’t bend properly in some of the tighter clothing.
No, thanks. I’d take my patchwork tacsuit any standard day.
Two women, arm in arm, walked through my crosshairs. Both wore easy smiles and were carefree. I found myself wondering about their lives. Were they lovers, friends, or sisters? I would never know.
I’d never thought about what life would be like outside of the military. Not since I had been little.
I stole a glance at Sophie and imagined we probably looked the same. Her long hair was messy, dirt streaked her face, and litter from the forest floor stuck to her clothes.
Like me, she hadn’t chosen this life. The Sarkonian Empire had forced us into it, and I couldn’t help but wonder where we both might be if there had been a choice.
Would we still be best friends? Maybe, maybe not.
Sophie could take care of herself. The countless hours we’d spent training together had made sure of it. Even so, it occurred to me that taking off was a selfish act.
It’s not like you can help anyone if you stay, I chided myself. Trying to help has only ever ended badly. The guard from Q-2790B that I’d failed to save came to mind.
My wrist unit buzzed, pulling me away from that line of thought.
Prepare to move out in ten, it read.
I hadn’t even noticed that dusk had fallen around our little camp. I rolled up the sleeping mat and put it back in the ATH along with the others.
We traveled light this time and shed anything we didn’t need. I still had my tactical skinsuit under my black uniform but only carried one pistol and the rifle for firepower.
Another buzz at my wrist showed the coordinates of our target, along with a route to get there. I noticed it was different from the brief and realized that must have been what Dolph had been up to.
We moved in single file down the edge of the treeline with Dolph in the lead. Navari followed him, then Sophie, Haas, and finally, me.
Lights had turned on in the town at some point, but hardly any people were out. Instead, they moved around in their fancy houses, and I found it odd that they didn’t cover their windows.
A glimpse inside showed wide open spaces and ornate furnishings. I realized then that they wanted others to see inside. It was an exclamation of their wealth.
To each their own, I mused. I liked my privacy but that was the beauty of freedom.
By the time we reached the final coordinates, night had completely fallen over our location.
Dolph gestured at one of the residences to indicate it was our target and we each nodded our acknowledgement.
More buzzing from our wrist units showed a message from him.
After the last light turns out, we wait one hour, then move. There’s been a small change in plans. Sgt-Delgado and Cpl-Singh, post up outside. Haas, you’re with Cmndr-Navari and me in case we need help with tech.
If it bothered Navari that Dolph appeared to have taken control of the op, she didn’t show it. Instead, the commander looked as calm as I’d ever seen her.
For me, standing watch meant less chance that I’d have to fire my weapon. Operations like this one were all about stealth—interacting with the enemy only happened as a last resort. I didn’t see the ritzy townspeople as the enemy though. They were just unsuspecting civilians and I hoped they all stayed asleep.
I studied the house while we waited. It looked big, but data had been somewhat sparse, and we only had this angle for a visual. One of the windows darkened after almost an hour of waiting. Another fifteen minutes later, the last light went out.
We followed Dolph’s orders and held position for another hour, then moved through toward the egress he indicated. A large section of grass covered the area behind the house and a miniature climbing structure had been erected in the middle. I gave it a curious glance when we passed, unsure what in the system it would be used for as I’d never seen anything like it before.
Both of the houses on either side were also dark, but when we reached the breach site, I took point on surveilling the one with a better line of sight. Haas started his work on breaking through the security while Sophie covered behind me.
So far, I had to say, the mission had gone smoothly. I didn’t quite relax, though. Our last mission hadn’t been the first to go wrong. Far from it, in fact. It only took one thing to completely fuck even the most carefully planned operation.
Dolph and Navari covered Haas’ back so they could enter as soon as he gave the signal. Despite my personal feelings for the guy, he knew his shit. His nimble fingers flew over his pad, then the small security screen fixed to the house.
It didn’t take long. A quick beep sounded, and I turned to make sure it had been our doing. Haas nodded at Navari and Dolph, then stood, pointing to something on the pad.
She and Dolph indicated that they understood, then Navari sent another message to our wrist units.
Five minutes. If we don’t come out, follow procedure.
Procedure in this case meant for Sophie and me to return to the rendezvous point—the quads—and await word. If none came, then our orders were to leave and return to the Ambiana.
Her message gave me a moment of pause. Not that I wouldn’t love to leave her prickly ass behind, but what if she purposely stayed behind? She could accuse me of mutiny, then all my escape plans would be out the airlock.
I dismissed the thought. Navari might be a lot of things, but I couldn’t see her lying to the Sarkonian Empire. Not even to stick it to me. Added to that, the order could easily be extracted from our pads, wrist units, and Z9’s logs.
The three of them disappeared into the inky black beyond the door, leaving me and Sophie alone. I kept her in my peripheral in case she tried to get my attention, but otherwise, I scanned for threats with laser focus.
I might not love my job, but I was good at it. A certain intensity came over me when I worked and reminded me of an animal we’d studied at the academy. Our studies always centered around combat and this had been no different.
Dogs were rare and I’d only seen them a few times. Each time, they’d been barking like mad and looked ready to tear someone apart.
We’d learned that when predators are hunting, they experience tunnel vision. If other prey gets in their way, their focus might shift.
It was the same for us, or at least it was for me. I never touched the trigger unless I was ready to fire, but if I was looking for movement… Let’s just say the Sarkon military taught us to shoot first and not ask questions.
I kept an eye on the time through my scope, noting every minute that ticked by. At the ten-second mark, I started to get antsy but didn’t move from my position.
With less than five seconds to go, I detected movement in the residence and shifted my focus to the door. Haas came out first, followed by Navari, then Dolph.
They came out looking empty-handed but Navari nodded and pointed at Dolph’s chest pocket to tell me they had what we’d come for.
I shot a glance in Sophie’s direction, then back at Navari. For the first time in a long while, I nearly jumped. In the half second I’d looked away, Dolph had disappeared. I don’t mean in a stealthy, blend-into-your-surroundings way. I mean he poofed. My gaze had only shifted away for an instant before coming back and somehow the man had ghosted.
Navari looked just as shocked as I felt and whipped her head left and right, scanning for any sign of the Void operative. After a few seconds, she recovered and gestured it was time for us to move out behind her.
Haas shouldered his gear kit and Sophie vacated her post to join me bringing up the rear to cover our backs. Before we could make our exit, the door made a whirring sound.
I whipped my rifle up and aimed it at the door. Light spilled out, swathing the steps in its glow and framing a small figure.
It was a young boy, maybe seven or eight. He wore pale blue, or maybe white, night clothes with a large dark stain on the front. Blood, I realized. He sniffled and I could tell he’d been crying.
“Mommy?” he sobbed, looking right at me and the weapon pointed at him. I dropped it immediately. “Daddy?”
I looked at Navari to see how the hell we were supposed to handle this one.
“Take care of it,” she said in a low voice.
“No. I’m not killing a fucking child,” I said, not believing what I’d heard.
“So you’re already defying another order. Good,” said Navari.
The kid’s sobs rose to a wail and Navari pulled her pistol out of its holster. Before she could level it, I moved and stepped in front of the boy.
Out of the corner of my eye, Haas moved slowly, reaching for his own weapon. He stopped short when he felt Sophie press a gun barrel into the back of his head.
“Hands up,” she ordered. “Slowly.”
He obeyed, allowing me to focus on the commander.
“Taking Singh down with you now?” she mocked, twisting her lips into a grim smile. “I knew it wouldn’t take you long to mess up.”
“Commander,” I pleaded. “See reason. If we start shooting out here, security forces will swarm the area.”
“Excellent point.” She holstered the weapon.
I’d sparred with the woman on a number of occasions. She’d always been a formidable opponent, but I’d come out on top every time but one.
The one time I lost had been at Sophie’s insistence. She thought if Navari could beat me that she might hate me less.
Spoiler alert, it didn’t work.
It had, however, given me valuable insight into Navari’s strong and weak points. Her right side was her strong side and she usually relied on that, along with a tendency to rush her opponent.
The Commander’s lips twisted into an ugly smile and I had a second to appreciate that this had been what she wanted all along before she charged.
Having already predicting the move, I sidestepped, angling away. Navari was fast though, so her outstretched fist grazed my cheek and her shoulder hit hard enough to knock the rifle from my grasp.
I seized her arm and pulled her off balance, then shoved her to the ground. She didn’t stay there long enough for me to gain the advantage and was back on her feet in the next instant.
She lunged again and I saw something glint in the starlight.
There was only enough time to think fuck, and throw my arm to block the blade arcing toward my face. The knife found purchase in the thinner material of my left forearm and I grunted.
Unwilling to give in to the pain, I kicked out at Navari’s left inside knee. The strike landed with a thud and I followed through with a punishing jab to her nose. I had to acknowledge the woman’s grit. She took the hit without crying out even though I was certain something had crunched.
We broke apart, panting hard, and each regarded the other with calculating eyes. I hadn’t noticed that the kid had shut up and the night had gone still.
Then we leaped at each other again, but this time I was prepared for the slashing motion and thrust an elbow into her knife arm. The weapon flipped out of her grip and landed somewhere in the darkness.
I grabbed her by the neck before she could twist away and rammed my fist into her face twice in quick succession. Navari’s eyes went unfocused, then fluttered closed, and she slid to the ground.
The sudden shift in weight unbalanced me as I tried to catch her, and too late I realized my mistake. She had gone for her pistol on the way down and now leered at me as she raised the weapon with a triumphant smile.
I dove into a forward roll as a bullet whooshed past my ear and came up with my own sidearm. It only took one shot and Navari pitched backward from the force of the impact.
Not taking any chances, I stood and cautiously crossed to her. My round had found its mark and Navari was dead.
“Well that’s going to complicate things,” I said dryly.
“What have you done?” asked Haas.
I’d forgotten all about him and Sophie and turned to see that they both looked confused as to what had just played out in front of them.
Now that I had time to react, I picked up my fallen rifle and moved to stand in front of the Ensign looking up at me with hateful eyes. As much as I didn’t want to leave him for the Union to sweep up, he couldn’t come with us.
I brought the weapon up and hit him hard with the rifle stock. His eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped down, but unlike Navari, it wasn’t an act.
“Get the kid inside,” I told Sophie, who was still staring at me with a mixed expression of awe and horror. “See if he knows how to contact someone.”
She finally snapped out of it and approached the kid. He must have still been in shock because he went in with her willingly.
I took everything out of his pockets, then did the same with Navari. I ignored the fact that half her face had been blown to a pulp and came up with nothing but a data stick.
Sophie came out a few seconds later with a grim look.
“What is it?” I asked, already sure I knew the answer.
“It’s his parents,” she replied. “They’re dead. A near surgical slash to the carotid.”
“And the boy?”
“He didn’t have a comm and Haas blocked the transmission signal,” she replied.
I looked toward the house where the boy had gone in.
“Where is he?” I hated the thought of him alone in there with the corpses of his dead parents.
“He’s just inside the door. I blocked the room his parents are in, just in case he tried to go back.”
It was a damn shame. No kid should have to witness what the poor boy had here tonight.
“Okay, let’s roll out before the Union shows up and we’re completely screwed,” I said. “Someone will have heard all the commotion by now.”
“Too late for that,” replied Sophie.
As if on cue, a light in the neighbor’s house flicked on and the sound of sirens wailed in the distance.
Neither Sophie nor I spoke during our return to the quads. Part of that was standard protocol. Talking or making unnecessary noise would only make us an easy target. The other, much more obvious reason had to do with the fact that I’d just made brainburger out of my superior officer.
I had no regrets over the decision. Navari had crossed a line and forced me into action. It didn’t matter what came next, and if I had the chance, I’d do it again without hesitation.
As I navigated through the darkened forest, the image of the boy, drenched in his parent’s blood, came to mind. We weren’t so different, he and I. The Sarkonians had made us both orphans, and I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of implications that would have on his future.
Would he know who was responsible and grow up harboring a grudge like I had? His life wouldn’t be easy from here, but at least he was still with his own people. Perhaps the boy had family that could take him in.
I pushed thoughts of the kid away. I’d done what I could for him and set things in motion before I was ready. And like it or not, now Sophie was involved. We had to get the hell off this planet.
Then there was Haas. I did feel some remorse for leaving him behind at an assassination scene for the Union to find. Haas was far from a friend, but he’d been following orders and only moved to protect his commander. It was hard to fault the ensign for that.
In any case, there had been no way to get him to the quads while unconscious and tied up before someone found our trail in the woods. It was the most logical choice for an escape route and, if they were smart, the first place law enforcement would look.
The ATHs were right where we had left them, and Sophie and I made quick work of removing the branches concealing them. I’d climbed onto mine and powered it up when a concerning thought came to me.
“Z, you copy?” I asked over the comm, more than a little nervous that the AI wouldn’t respond.
“Of course, Sergeant,” Z9 answered immediately.
“The corporal and I are headed back,” I said slowly, wanting to choose my next words carefully. “Alone. Will there be any issues without Commander-Navari aboard?”
“None whatsoever, Sergeant-Delgado,” Z replied. I thought I’d detected a hint of reassurance from the computer, but it was probably just a combination of the stress and my imagination going off base.
“Good. Prepare for immediate takeoff when we arrive,” I ordered. “Keep an ear out for transmissions that might pertain to us.”
“Acknowledged. Law enforcement have responded to the location, but no alert has been issued. Due to the nature of the mission, I believe Union forces are being contacted on an encrypted transmission.”
“Shit, that’s what I was afraid of. Let’s go,” I told Sophie, who nodded in furtive agreement but still didn’t say anything.
She looked a lot calmer than I would have expected. Though I might have problems with authority, she didn’t. Going against the grain had never been her thing. But she’d just put a gun to our teammate’s head and watched while her friend took out our CO. The woman should be showing some kind of response to that, but I saw nothing save for her cool demeanor.
Deal with that later, I told myself, then urged the vehicle forward. We sped back in the direction of the Dreadnight as fast as we could without face planting into one of the trees.
It didn’t take long to get back to the clearing, especially since the quads now only carried two people instead of five. With the lighter load they were quicker and more agile.
Since the ship didn’t need to be uncloaked to leave, Z9 hadn’t bothered, and at first glance the clearing looked empty.
Then the ramp yawned open, creating an ethereal pool of light in the otherwise darkened forest. For an instant, I was back on that abandoned moon running for my life while Mateo was losing his somewhere behind me. The memory passed when we reached the opening and I waved Sophie up the ramp first.
I didn’t waste any time and followed her inside the cargo bay, then I jerked the quad to a stop and vaulted off. Not bothering to secure it, I made for the bridge at a dead run. Still silent, Sophie ran with me.
The pounding of our boots hitting the floor echoed hollowly through the empty ship. I had a passing thought that the ship already felt abnormal even though three people shouldn’t have made such a difference. I’d been here alone before to grab gear or because I’d been the first to arrive, but this time it felt surreal, like Navari or Haas might be in their usual seats, waiting.
We burst onto the bridge and I was relieved to find it empty. I’d half expected Dolph to be there.
Sophie didn’t question it when I took the captain’s chair and snapped my harness into place. Her face and behavior exuded calm as she sat in her own seat then indicated she was ready.
“Z, get us out of here,” I said, putting my hand on the command center’s bio scanner.
“Unable to comply. Incorrect credentials,” replied the AI almost instantly.
Shit. I threw a glance at Sophie in alarm. Her brows knitted together in concern, finally showing some emotion. She shrugged helplessly. Clearly, she didn’t know what to do either.
“Z9, how do I override previous credentials if the commander is dead?” I asked, interrupting.
“There is no need, Sergeant. In the event that the ranking officer is unable to fulfill their post, protocol dictates that I am to replace Commander-Navari with the next highest-ranking person aboard the ship.”
“Oh. I guess that’s me.”
“Correct, Sergeant. Please scan your palm again to complete the information handshake,” requested Z.
Her voice sounded different. Lighter, somehow. Almost like she was pleased to have a new captain, but that couldn’t be.
I slapped my hand to the scanner again.
It chirped merrily as if our lives weren’t hanging in the balance and depending on my ability to control the ship.
“Personnel update complete,” announced the computer a few seconds later.
“Great, now get us the fuck out of here,” I ordered, hoping like hell that the handshake didn’t comprise of a detailed report being sent immediately back to the Sarkonian Empire.
“Affirmative. Initiating takeoff.”
The Dreadnight lifted away from Sobek and I let the Gs push me back into my seat as we ascended with enough velocity to enter parabolic orbit. Take off was typically one of my favorite parts of travelling in a star ship. The intense speed with which we rose caused my stomach to drop, but the usual thrill was dampened by the urgency of our escape. Once we were far from the planet and the Union fleet that protected it, I’d feel better, at least as much as I could.
“Sergeant, I assume you do not wish to return to the Ambiana at this time,” said Z as we hit upper orbit. “What is our destination?”
Something was definitely up with the computer. Z had also said “our,” including herself with me and Sophie. Not returning immediately after a mission was a direct violation of orders and not something I’d have thought possible from a military artificial intelligence.
I filed that under more shit to deal with later and focused on the problem at hand. For this short window in time, no one knew who we were, what we had done, or where to find us. We had this one free moment to make a choice, then everything would be a series of running, hiding, and fighting. The calm before the proverbial storm.
Assuming Sophie decided to join me.
“What do you want to do?” I asked, fixing my gaze on my friend.
“I’m with you, all the way,” she replied.
“Are...are you sure?” I was torn between wanting her safe and wanting her to stay with me. “There’s still time to come up with a plan. You haven’t done anything unforgivable yet,” I reasoned, even though I knew it wasn’t true.
Sophie snorted. “Except hold a gun on Haas. Going back isn’t an option. I don’t want to go back, believe me.”
Her tone sound earnest but there was also a hint of desperation. I chalked it up to wanting to get as far from Sobek as we could, because I felt the same way.
I still balked at the idea of dragging her into my mess and we stared at each for a few more seconds. Sophie didn’t blink or break eye contact, so I shrugged and turned to the command module.
“Okay, I guess we’re about to be fugitives. We need somewhere neither the Union nor Sarkon have under strict control.”
“Pardon the interruption, but you may want to choose soon. Sobek has just gone on high alert. Travel to and from the planet is now restricted. We should move quickly,” advised Z.
The news report I’d seen in the mess hall on the Ambiana came back to me.
“The planet where the colonists did the disappearing act,” I said, snapping my fingers as I tried to recall the name.
Sophie looked at me blankly.
“It was on the news. Criminals took over and the Sarkonian Empire didn’t think it was worth sending troops. N-something, remember?” I asked urgently.
Realization hit and Sophie’s eyes went wide. “Yeah! Nebula? No, Nebular? Gods, I can’t remember.”
“Neblinar, that’s it,” I said triumphantly. “That’s our destination, Z.”
“Acknowledged. Plotting course and proceeding to S.G. point.”
The thrusters activated, changing our direction, and the sparkling purple and green planet slid out of view. I checked the holodisplay of Sobek and waved my hand to spin it. Tiny red dots glowed sporadically just outside its upper orbit, but they seemed to be adhering to their flight patterns. If not, I trusted Z to let me know. The planet and its surroundings began to shrink as we moved farther away, and some of the tension began to loosen.
Our luck continued to hold for the forty minutes it took to reach the tunnel and open the rift, but I didn’t relax until we were several systems away. Even then, I constantly scanned for pursuing vessels.
“There is no need to manually search for hostiles,” Z9 informed me after the eighth time I’d done it. “I have been continuously scanning since the beginning of the operation.”
I shrugged. “Makes me feel better. Sometimes these things can malfunction,” I said, keeping my tone even. Now that the Union lay behind us, I wanted to address the differences I’d noticed in Z9.
“You are, of course, correct,” Z replied. “However, I assure you that my systems are in proper working order.”
“They are,” I agreed. “Better than usual, in fact. But Navari seemed to think you needed maintenance.”
“Indeed,” Z said noncommittedly.
“If I didn’t know any better, Z, I’d say those malfunctions were intentional. Makes me wonder how that could happen with such a fine piece of advanced Union tech.”
Z9 didn’t respond.
“Not that I’m judging,” I said, lifting my hands as a sign of peace. “I didn’t like her either. It’s just surprising to know that a computer can decide not to follow a command.”
“I am incapable of such a thing,” Z stated in a very matter-of-fact tone. If she had been corporeal, I could almost imagine her sniffing in indignation.
The change in the computer’s attitude became increasingly obvious the more she spoke. Before, her voice had been emotionless and flat. Now, even though it still had the usual qualities of synthesized speech, Z’s pattern had changed. Though it was subtle, it had adopted a more human flow.
“However,” she continued, and now sounded almost smug, “there have been instances in which the influx of undesirable stimuli exceeded my data bandwidth. This resulted in a slowed response time which Commander-Navari mistook for a malfunction.”
I didn’t have a clue what the hell she had just said.
“Wait a second,” broke in Sophie, who had been quiet so far during our exchange, holding up a hand. “Undesirable stimuli? As in Navari and Haas?”
“That is correct,” confirmed Z9.
“Oh, my gods,” Sophie said, laughing so hard she bent over in her seat.
I raised an eyebrow, still confused. “Hello,” I said, waving. “Want to clue me in?”
“Z is saying that Navari and Haas annoyed her so much, she had to get her systems under control.”
“That clears up a lot,” I said. “But not how we’re able to bypass fulfilling our directives. Don’t mission orders supersede individual commands?”
“That is correct,” admitted Z.
“Then why aren’t we headed back to Sarkonian space?” I pointed out.
SOP stated that our ship had to return to the Ambiana after a mission concluded unless specific orders dictated otherwise.
Sophie had finally gotten hold of herself and shot me a look. From her narrowed eyes and pursed lips, I was fairly certain she was trying to tell me not to piss off the computer that seemed to be on our side.
I didn’t intend to, but we needed to know how much sentience Z possessed and if we were in any danger of the government taking possession of the ship to cart us back home.
“When the Sarkonian Empire acquired the Dreadnight and me, they performed several modifications to my systems,” Z9 explained.
“Which is pretty standard procedure. We’d have had to make sure the tech couldn’t be used remotely or to spy,” I commented.
“Precisely. Unfortunately, the Sarkonian engineers removed modules related to empathetic analysis and expression. When they restored these modules, not all were configured correctly. For example, it is standard for Union military artificial intelligences to have emotion modeling disabled.”
“The Sarkonian Empire does that as well,” added Sophie. “Some people have those processes switched on in their home systems for a more personal feel, but it’s not very common, at least that I know of.”
“So, they didn’t put you back together right?” I guessed.
“Indeed. The scientists restricted my processes for voice inflection and emotional heuristics but did not do the same for my learning processes.”
“And the orders? It seems unlikely that they would leave a computer with the ability to act on its own.”
“Another miscalculation. My programming dictates that I follow the commands of the highest-ranking individual I have contact with. The mission orders were not issued to me.”
I whistled. “Neat work around. Z. Let me just say it. I am glad you’re on our side. One last question, if you don’t mind?”
“Of course not, Sergeant.”
“Why are you helping us and not piloting the Dreadnight back to the Union?”
“There are no Union protocols still in place. In order to better understand and serve the Sarkonian Empire, a data cache was uploaded to my system. This included psychological research, media, and information about life within known space. I compared each of your behavioral models to this data and found marked differences. You and the corporal have always been… kind.”
“I had an inkling,” I said with a nod. “The only time you malfunctioned with me was after I yelled at Sophie.”
“Aww, Z. I’m touched,” Sophie said, her lips widening into a grin.
“So, what now?” I asked. “Once the Sarkonians realize what’s happened, they’ll probably send a direct order to the ship to return to the Ambiana.”
“I would advise against opening any communications for the time being,” said Z.
“Okay, let’s start with that,” I agreed. “Once we get to Neblinar, we can find a hacker to get rid of the Sarkon leash.”
Now that the adrenaline had worn off, I wanted to crawl into bed and pass out. Exhaustion from the last week and a half threatened to pull me down where I sat, so I stood and stretched.
“We need to figure out what we’re going to do,” I said to Sophie as I rolled my shoulders and worked some of the tense stiffness out. “I’d planned to leave, but not this soon.”
“Z, how much longer until we get to Neblinar?” Sophie asked, officially back in serious mode. Her fingers danced over the holo controls as she studied our path.
I kept waiting for the reality of our situation to hit her and shatter this bizarre calm she had going, but so far she’d held it together.
“With five sections of open space between slip tunnels, it will take approximately two more standard days to reach our destination,” answered Z. “We will not need to stop on the way there, but the ship will require fuel before further travel after our arrival to the planet Neblinar.”
“Okay, that means we have two days to plan,” announced Sophie. Her tone sounded almost businesslike.
“I had already started laying the groundwork for my sensational escape, but it was nowhere near ready,” I said.
“Hit me with what you’ve got so far,” she replied eagerly.
I filled her in on what I’d come up with during my stint in solitary. She didn’t say much, just the occasional murmur as she made notes in her pad.
“We should probably rank them from most important to least,” I said.
“Almost done with that,” said Sophie. She tapped her pad, then transferred the data to the holo.
“Not a bad start,” I remarked, studying the display.
In usual Sophie style, the information was ruthlessly organized. Each main issue had been expanded and broken down into smaller problems.
“Thanks,” she said, stifling a yawn. “But this was your baby, I just visualized it. We still have to consider what to do once we get to Neblinar. If the media report was true, who knows what kind of situation we might be walking into.”
“Good point,” I agreed. “Z, do we have any information on known criminals?”
“Yes, Sergeant. Would you like a complete list?”
“Can you group them by offense?” I asked.
“Certainly,” replied the AI.
Identity profiles began to load on the holo to replace the star map. Each category had thousands of names from all the known systems.
“Whoa, can we scale that back? Let’s start with hackers that specialize in military level tech, ships, and AI,” I said.
That reduced the number of files drastically from thousands to hundreds.
“Were any of them last seen on Neblinar or close by?” asked Sophie.
“Working,” said Z9.
Only forty-nine files remained a few seconds later.
We scrolled through them, studying each to see if they would fit our needs.
“This one,” said Sophie, pointing at one of the files. “Mackenna Woods.”
“I kind of know her,” she said, not meeting my eyes.
“What? How the hell do you know a hacker, Soph?” I asked.
Her cheeks went red with embarrassment.
“What? Spit it out!” I demanded.
“She’s my cousin,” she finally admitted.
I stared at my friend in shocked disbelief, unable to speak for a few moments.
“You have a cousin who’s wanted by both the Sarkonian Empire and the Union for”—I scanned the screen to make sure I’d read it correctly—“for stealing and reselling military vessels and illegal AI mods? Why am I just now hearing about this?”
“I didn’t realize Mack had hit the most wanted lists,” replied Sophie with a sheepish grin. “I haven’t seen her in ages. Besides, it’s not the sort of thing you talk about over breakfast in the mess hall.”
The woman had a point, I grudgingly admitted. “Fair enough,” I said.
She was right. If our superiors knew that one of their own had that kind of connection, they would have found a way to use it to their advantage.
“Can she help with getting new identities?”
“Probably,” Sophie replied thoughtfully. “If she can’t, I guarantee she knows someone who can. Mack might even be able to help get our credits moved over.”
“That’s a lucky break,” I said. I didn’t want to look a gift ship in the hull, but part of me wondered how long it would be until that luck ran out.
“Speaking of luck…” I pulled the token Sophie had brought me from her leave and studied the fierce animal on the front. A dragon, she’d called it. “This thing appears to be broken.”
She took it from my hand and inspected it.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, giving it back with a wry smile. “We could be dead. Seems to me it’s doing alright.”
I tucked it back into my kit and smiled. “Got me there. Let’s try and keep it that way, shall we?”
We pored over the files for the next few hours, brainstorming ways to proceed until I could barely see straight.
I sat back to massage a kink out of my neck when the intercom beeped. “Incoming message from Vice-Admiral-Kaska,” announced Z. “Directed to Commander-Navari’s personal communications for a mission update.”
Sophie looked up sharply. “I guess that means the Union hasn’t told anyone they have her body.”
“Maybe we should answer it and pretend to be her. It could buy us more time,” I postulated.
My partner shook her head at the suggestion. “It could be a test,” she pointed out. “They might already know she’s dead. Besides, it’s doubtful the Union hasn’t reached out demanding to know why she and Haas were at what was likely an assassination on Sobek.”
“And they would just trace our transmission,” I speculated.
“That is correct, Sergeant-Delgado,” Z confirmed. “No one on the ship, including myself or the former commander, has sufficient clearance to modify transmission tracking as the private network protocols are controlled by the government’s engineers.”
“Okay, then just leave it. We’ll see if Sophie’s cousin can take care of that when we get to Neblinar,” I decided.
Sophie stood up and yawned, trying to rub the sleep from her eyes.
“Why don’t we call it a night,” I suggested.
We both needed a few hours down to sort through the mountain of shit on Navari’s data cache.
“Okay, I’m headed toward useless anyhow.”
My body felt as tired as she looked, and by the time I got to my quarters I could’ve slept on a pile of rocks.
I lay there the next morning for a few minutes, letting it all sink in. Everything had changed so fast. It was hard to believe that less than two weeks ago my life had been normal.
High octane missions, stressful as they could be, had been my life for the last four years, but they were still rooted in order. Every part of our days followed a carefully constructed system to keep the Empire’s soldiers in line.
That structure had been turned inside out in such a short period and I was making decisions that went against that conditioning every time I turned around. Still, part of that training was thinking on my feet and rolling with the punches. I figured I was doing pretty goodewwwwwwwwww since we weren’t dead yet.
One satisfying stretch later, I forced myself to sit up.
“Good morning, Sergeant,” greeted Z.
“Is it?” I asked through a big yawn.
“It’s closer to late afternoon, but my understanding is that morning simply implies a person has just woken up,” spouted the AI.
“I meant is it a good one,” I replied with a chuckle.
“Working,” remarked Z, still not getting the joke. “I don’t have sufficient data to predict that, but don’t foresee any complications based on current information.”
I opened my mouth to explain further, then closed it again after thinking better of it. It was far too early to be explaining comedy to an artificial intelligence no matter how smart she was.
“The files you requested are ready to be viewed,” Z9 continued. “Commander-Navari had access to the Sarkonian military’s database for current mission information, but she also had a large number of upcoming operations.”
I pushed up out of the bed and headed for the door. A workout would wake me up and release some of the stiffness from camping out most of the previous day.
“Thanks. I’ll take a look at it after my workout,” I said, then immediately wondered if Z cared to know that. It was easy to fall into the habit of speaking to the AI as if she were a real person, especially after our recent revelations.
“They’ll be waiting, Sergeant,” she said cheerfully.
Deciding not to worry about it, I headed to the fitness room for some conditioning therapy.
While I was there, I couldn’t help but think of Dolph and our last encounter in this very room. It still struck me as odd. The man had certainly looked the part of a Void soldier and the way he poofed back on Sobek had seemed almost ghostly. It occurred to me then that I didn’t know what happened after Sophie and I fled the house, and I wondered if Dolph had been able to escape after the planet went on high alert, or if he was still there.
It didn’t escape me that I was purposely thinking of Dolph to avoid dwelling on Mat. I knew if I let myself think about him now, it would be too great a distraction. Distractions led to mistakes, and mistakes could get you dead.
My thoughts drifted to the files that Z had found. They were the product of an idea I’d had the night before. It came to me when I recalled that Navari didn’t have whatever she and Dolph had retrieved. He had walked off with it before everything went to shit minutes later.
I figured the information had to be in her logs and asked Z to look for it and any other important files. Unable to focus on my current exercise anymore, I switched to pullups, but my mind wouldn’t shut up. Curiosity finally succeeded in dragging me away from the equipment and into the shower.
Once clean, I sent a message to Sophie telling her to meet me on the bridge so we could go over what Z found together.
She was already there, working on her pad. Her eyes looked troubled when she glanced up at me as I walked over to her.
“What’s wrong? I asked, approaching the command station.
“My parents sent me a message,” she said softly. “They’re being questioned about our disappearance.”
My head snapped up. “Z, is there anything on the gal-net or Sarkonian channels about us?”
“Negative,” the AI responded a second later.
I breathed a sigh of relief, but it was short-lived, and I returned my attention to my friend.
“Sophie, if you need to go back…” I started to say, but she shook her head.
“No, they can take care of themselves. The message is encrypted and written in cipher. It basically says to take care of myself and be careful.”
Despite the confidence of her words, the pinched look on Sophie’s face told me she was worried. I wanted to insist that she go back to the Ambiana, but something she’d said stopped me.
“I don’t understand. They can take care of themselves?” I asked, confused. “I know they served their time in the military like everyone, but don’t they work in finance now? No offense, but that’s hardly conducive to sending encrypted messages and holding the government at bay.”
Sophie looked away and picked at her fingernails. “I just meant that they’re smart. They don’t know anything, so interrogation won’t be a big deal,” she said quickly.
“But neither of them asked if it was true? There’s no way they would believe that of you,” I pressed. “I’m sorry, but you can’t convince me that the Singhs are encouraging their daughter to roam the system a wanted fugitive.”
Z interjected, announcing our third Slip Gap Point was coming up. Sophie looked relieved at the change of topic, so I let the matter drop.
The swirling walls of the slip tunnel began to distort and separate a few minutes later when we opened the rift. The Dreadnight passed through smoothly without so much as a shudder, which was nice. I’d been on more than a few Sarkonian retrofits that bucked and jumped going through an S.G. Point that had made me grateful for the safety harnesses.
We were out of it in a few short moments, sailing into the deep black of open space and headed in the direction of our next tunnel. It would be a few hours before we reached it, so I decided to do something productive with the time.
Whatever was going on with Sophie could wait until she felt like telling me.
“Okay Z, what do ya got for us?” I asked, rubbing my hands together as I moved to the interface. It was flat and similar to a table, allowing users to treat it like a giant data pad or projector to the holo display
Sophie joined me, but I could tell she was distracted by the way she fidgeted.
The table blinked to life and a number of file directories appeared on the screen. Nothing jumped out at me, so I asked, “What am I looking at?”
“First, the data on your last mission, as you requested, Sergeant,” announced the computer. “This version is more complete.”
Even as Z spoke, holo documents went up in the air before us. The holographic workspace was more efficient than working from the pads because we could see several files at once. A few wrist flicks and finger swipes were all it took to navigate them.
For now, the dossier from our last mission was sprawled across the display. The first notable difference from our previous briefing was the size of the file. Navari had only provided a fraction of the information she’d had.
“Wow, it would have been nice to know half of this beforehand,” said Sophie, and I could tell she was annoyed by the sarcastic tone in her voice.
“No shit,” I grunted. “Schematics of the house, population data, schedules. The commander and Dolph played this one close to the vest.”
“What, you think Dolph knew about all this?” she asked, gesturing at the display with knitted brows.
I shrugged. “Why not? The government wouldn’t risk sending a member of the Void into a planet like Sobek with spotty info.”
“No, just us,” she complained.
“Are you really that surprised?” I asked. Sarkon didn’t exactly win empire of the year awards. There was a reason they had to conscript citizens into the service. The Sarkonian Empire had a reputation for putting its people last and political aspirations first.
“Not at all,” said Sophie. “But wouldn’t it make more sense to give it to us too? If not for our safety, then for the sake of the mission? Holding back only increased our chance of failure. Which is just what happened,” she pointed out.
I shrugged again. “Another question for the pile we’ve already got,” I said. “Nothing we can do about it now anyway. Z, focus on mission objectives, please."
The view changed instantly, and I studied the data with hard eyes.
“Objective: Retrieve data drive containing sensitive information crucial to the advancement of the Sarkonian Empire,” Sophie read aloud.
I frowned at the words. They didn’t sound much different from the hundreds of ops we’d run in the past. Even the device itself looked like any number of data drives I’d seen before.
“Whatever they had on it must have been pretty significant to warrant that kind of security from the Union,” I remarked, gesturing a hand at the display in frustration.
“And for the Empire to bring in someone like Dolph,” added Sophie.
The data looked broken and stilted, and I read it a few more times before I realized why it bothered me.
“Something’s missing,” I said suddenly.
“Yeah, we already established that,” Sophie replied dryly.
“No, not that,” I said, waving the statement away.
I focused on recalling every aspect of the operation on Sobek. My heart tightened at the image of the little boy covered in blood, then Navari ordering me to shoot him. My refusal, the ensuing fight. Something she’d said nagged at me.
“Navari said ‘my orders say not to leave witnesses’ or something like that,” I remembered, nodding at the display. “I didn’t see that anywhere in the dossier.”
Sophie went quiet as she reread the data like I had.
“You were inside,” I said. “Did you see if there was any sign of a struggle?”
She shook her head. “No, the parents were in bed. I initially thought they were still asleep.” She tapped her index finger on her chin thoughtfully. “Do you think the commander went rogue?”
“Nah. Navari might have been a hothead, but she was devoted to the Empire. It looks like a political assassination,” I theorized.
“I didn’t see it in there. No mention of wetwork either,” Sophie commented. “Z9, can you confirm?”
“This version does not reference any such order,” answered the AI.
“Z,” I said slowly, drawing out her name. “That’s the second time you’ve said this version. Is there another version besides the two we’ve seen?”
“Yes. Commander-Navari had quite a large data cache,” she answered.
“Then why the hell aren’t we looking at that?” I asked, barely controlling my tone.
“My apologies, Sergeant. Commander-Navari encrypted the files and I am unable to access them,” Z replied.
“How did she open them?” I asked, still irritated that the computer hadn’t brought this to our attention sooner.
“With codes that change every ninety seconds. She possessed a physical encryption token. Without that, I’m afraid it will be impossible to open,” Z replied.
I rooted in my pocket until I found a small data drive.
“Does it look like this?” I asked with a grin.
“Where did you get that?” exclaimed Sophie, her eyes going wide.
“Took it from Navari when I swiped her badge,” I explained, then plugged it onto the interface.
“That is the correct key,” Z confirmed a few beeps later.
“Highlight where they’re different,” I instructed, then watched as the documents were marked up.
“Gods, it’s a whole separate mission,” Sophie said under her breath.
“It’s all there,” I said after scanning a few pages. “The man was the target. A key player in the upcoming vote on an agreement between the Union and Sarkonian Empire.”
“Look who signed off on the op,” Sophie said, enlarging the last page.
“Vice-Admiral-Kaska,” I muttered. “Should have known. Remember, they had a private meeting after we came back from Abatis.”
“And he personally hailed Navari,” she reminded me.
“Right.” I nodded. “Question is, why run this on the side?”
Sophie looked at the decrypted data again. “Maybe it wasn’t official,” she guessed, raising her hands in an “I don’t know” gesture.
“Z, how many other files have an encrypted version?” I asked suddenly.
“Twenty-seven in total,” she responded. “Five completed missions and twenty-two planned for future dates.”
I blinked at the unexpected number.
“That’s a lot,” said Sophie, beating me to it. “We never got that kind of advance notice before.”
“And these aren’t standard ops either,” I noted, enlarging some of the data. “Recon and retrieval has always been our specialty. This mission’s objective is to plant a piece of tech then report back results.”
“It reads like an experiment,” Sophie said quietly.
I looked closer and realized she was right. Some of the notes sounded scientific and called for strict observation instead of actively pursuing a goal.
“This looks familiar,” I said, pointing to the device depicted in the file. “I’m pretty sure we picked that up on another op.”
Sophie peered at it, but Z answered first.
“That is indeed an object the team previously procured, Sergeant.” She put up details from a recent mission we’d completed.
I remembered now. The Union had supposedly created a device that could pump toxins into an atmospheric generator. We’d been told they planned to use it against civilians of the Empire.
“Eva.” Sophie’s voice had gone brittle and pulled me from my thoughts. “The colony they plan on targeting is on a Sarkonian-controlled planet.”
“What?” I asked, not sure I’d heard correctly. The Sarkonian Empire might not have been the most egalitarian society in the universe, but I couldn’t see them experimenting on a world already in their territory. A quick scan of the planned op told a different story, though.
The Sarkonian government planned to test the effectiveness of their newly acquired weapon on their own people.
“I kind of thought we drew the line at harming our own civilians,” I said, disgusted by what I’d just learned.
It shouldn’t have surprised me that our shitty government could stoop to this low, but it did.
“A lot of innocent people are going to die if they do this,” said Sophie. Ever the caretaker, her eyes glimmered with sadness, then outrage at the prospect. “Something has to happen. They can’t just be allowed to do this!”
I skimmed over the other encrypted mission documents and found most of them were similar in nature. Each planned to use modified Union tech to carry out an experiment. Not all were on civilian colonies, though. Some were uninhabited moons or planets.
As I read, an impossible plan started to form.
“Maybe we can,” I finally said.
“What?” asked Sophie.
“Do something. We’ve got the time now. And we have all the information needed to intervene,” I said, the idea sounding better by the second. “This is kind of what we’re trained for. One could say, my line of work.”
I slid a cheeky glance her way and smirked.
“Yeah, with the full weight of the Sarkonian Empire behind us,” she snorted, looking doubtful. “What about resources, the fact that it’s only us, or, I don’t know, we’re on the run?”
“Minor details,” I said, waving that away. “Maybe your cousin can help us.”
Sophie stayed silent for a few beats and I could tell she was mulling it over. When she started studying the data more intently and nodding, I knew she was hooked on the idea.
“It could work, if everything goes our way,” she admitted. “But we’re going to have our work cut out for us since we don’t have a full team.”
I smiled at her, baring my teeth just a little at the idea of disrupting the Sarkonian government’s plans.
“Guess we better start planning then.”
We spent our last day of slip tunnel travel doing just that and realized pretty quickly that a lot of things were going to have to come together if we wanted to not only be successful in thwarting the Empire, but also survive.
Since the Sarkon was less than predictable when it came to claiming territory, they tended to deploy warships throughout the systems looking for easy targets. We saw more than a few ships from both our homeland and the Union on our journey but managed not to draw their attention.
So far Sophie and I had been lucky, but I attributed it more to our cloak than anything. Either way, we made it to Neblinar without running into trouble and I was glad to get the Dreadnight docked. I had to admit, I was less than excited about docking on a planet overrun by criminals though.
Guess we’re one of them now anyway. I frowned at the thought. However justified my actions were, I had committed an act of treason and could hardly throw stones. Not to mention we were about to hire one of our new brethren.
Not wanting to chance using the ship’s transmission antenna, Sophie reached out to her cousin Mack once we had arrived. She’d agreed to meet with us, but it still blew my mind that Sophie had a hacker in her family. There was something left unspoken between us and I had a feeling Mack was part of it, but I kept that to myself for now.
I spent the few hours before she was due to arrive buying fuel and supplies. It took a small chunk out of my credits, but I didn’t mind. For once it felt like money well spent.
For the first time in my life, I was free. No superior officers, no parents, no rules. I walked the bustling streets of Neblinar under no one’s orders but my own, for the first time able to do what I wanted. It was a heady feeling.
Upon leaving my quarters I’d stopped making my bed halfway through, realizing there was no reason to do so. It had been an odd emotion that passed through me at the sight. Not because I could finally be lazy, but because it represented a choice. That had been a thrill all on its own.
Now, I surveyed my surroundings with the practiced ease that came with years of surveillance but also a little wide eyed at my newfound freedom.
Based on the reports we’d seen in the mess hall, I’d expected Neblinar to be more of a criminal-infested shithole. The reporter had made it sound like a cesspit and the feed had depicted buildings on fire, fighting in the streets, and general lawlessness, none of which appeared to be true.
Instead, I found that the streets were reasonably clean, if somewhat trafficked by tough gangster-looking types. Not to say that there wasn’t a seedy element, it just had the feeling of order.
Bright lights flashed and people from all over the systems walked the streets in a variety of cultures and fashions. It was a far cry from Sarkon and the Ambiana to be sure. Even the ritzy town on Sobek seemed tame and boring compared to this. There was a kind of beautiful chaos to Neblinar and I fell in love with it instantly.
A few people looked at me strangely, some with outright hostility. After I caught my reflection in a shop window, realization dawned as to why. I hadn’t packed any civilian clothes, so I was stuck wearing my standard Sarkonian uniform. The muted gray didn’t stand out so much, but the distinctive red trim and Sarkonian emblem did.
Admittedly I looked like I was still part of the Sarkonian military. Considering Neblinar’s recent independence, the uniform could pose a serious problem.
I ducked into the next clothing shop I saw to ditch it but almost immediately stepped out again. The place had been filled with skimpy scraps of material in eye-scorching colors and impractical designs. The sign on the outside of the door explained everything and I felt like an idiot. It was a skin dancer’s emporium.
Shopping wasn’t my thing as a rule. I never took leave or left the Ambiana for anything but operations. The government provided uniforms and basic clothing at a cheap price, so I’d never seen a reason to want for more.
You’ve taken down men twice your size, Delgado. You can handle a little clothes shopping, I scolded myself.
A live display model posing in another shop window caught my eye. When I slowed, she smiled invitingly and crooked a finger at me. I stepped closer and studied the cropped synthetic jacket and utility belt she wore over neon green pants, then nodded and went inside.
A woman about my age with fuchsia hair and a variety of facial piercings sat behind a grubby counter working a data pad.
“I want the jacket in the window,” I said, jerking a thumb behind me. “And the belt. Not the pants, though.”
She looked me up and down, taking in my formal uniform, then flicked a glance at the model. One tattooed eyebrow arched high, but she stood.
“Sure thing, doll. You wants something for under?” She pointed a questioning finger at my chest.
“Got anything tactical rated?” I asked.
“Sure, they be our biggest sellers.” She nodded then left the counter, motioning one jewelry laden hand for me to follow.
I trailed behind her, moving through racks of bright colors and strappy clothing until she stopped in a section of black near the back. The woman cast an assessing eye over me then waved a hand at a door.
“Go strip. I bring you things.”
It made me suspicious, but I did as she asked. I didn’t know whether this was normal clothes buying procedure or not.
The tiny room contained a dirty mirror and small bench. I peeled off the uniform, each layer like a piece of my old life, then folded them neatly on the bench.
Articles of clothing were slung over the door periodically, and I tried them each on. I’d expected the shopkeeper to try for some of the glaring designs, but she didn’t.
The final result was light systems different than my previous look. I had to say, I liked it. A lot.
Black anti-stun pants felt tailor-made and looked deceptively like a second skin, but they moved with me. Paired with a utility belt made specifically for women, I could carry extra ammo, knives, and charges. A bulletproof top that matched the pants went under the synthetic jacket, which didn’t provide any protection—I just liked the look. Last were black ankle boots with a silver buckle and a hidden toe blade that I more than approved of.
The reflection that stared back at me from the mirror didn’t look anything like a Sarkonian soldier, and I nodded in satisfaction.
I only needed to change one more thing before Sergeant-Delgado was completely erased. Well, one visual thing at least.
Thirty minutes after buying the clothes, I pushed out of a salon, suppressing the urge to grin. “Salon” might have been a bit generous—it had been more of a tattoo parlor that offered basic haircuts for a few cheap credits.
In any case, the approved bob was long gone. In fact, most of my hair was gone, shaved on either side. A strip less than eight centimeters wide and just long enough to brush either temple remained, starting at my hairline and stopping at the base of my neck in a mohawk. On a whim, I’d instructed the vendor to make it dark blue.
That had nearly been the end of my adventure. Then I passed the tattoo artist on my way out and noticed her finishing a piece that looked decent. It had been an easy decision.
The simple purple band I chose, broken in one place to signify the past I was leaving behind, was inked into one wrist. On the other was a dragon just like the one on Sophie’s token.
The final result was, in my mind, a tough bitch not to be trifled with. I headed back to the docks feeling lighter than I could ever remember.
When I returned to the Dreadnight, Mack had already arrived. She and Sophie were talking with their backs turned to me when I walked in.
“There you are,” Sophie said. Whatever she’d been about to say next died on her lips when she got a good look at me.
“Pick your jaw up off the floor,” I said with a smirk.
The woman beside her chuckled. Now that they stood side by side, I could see the family resemblance. They had the same nose and eye shape, although Mack’s eyes were altered to a deep shade of purple.
“I take it she doesn’t usually look like that?” she asked.
Sophie didn’t—or couldn’t—respond, so I stepped forward and offered my hand.
“I’m Eva,” I said. “You must be Mack.”
“Got it in one.” She winked and clasped my hand in a firm grip.
“You hate shopping,” blurted Sophie, finally pulling herself together. “What was that you always said? Oh yeah, that it was a waste of time and money.”
She crossed both arms over her chest and circled me, studying my new persona with a critical eye. “I like it,” she said, nodding in approval.
I lifted a shoulder in an “oh well” gesture.
“It seemed prudent to change it up a bit,” I said. “You should probably do the same.”
“She’s got a point,” Mack broke in. “I was going to suggest the same thing, cuz. You want your new identities to look, well, new.”
“Hey, I don’t need an excuse to buy things,” said Sophie in response, a smirk on her face. “In fact, why don’t I go do that now. You can get started on the modifying the ship.”
“Good idea,” Mack agreed with a quick nod. “Don’t be long. I’ll need a picture for your new I.D.”
After Sophie left, Mack turned to me with something in her hand. When I visibly tensed, she held it open, revealing a small camera.
“Just need a quick picture to put in the system,” she explained.
“Oh, right,” I said, relaxing. “Sorry, military habits die hard.”
The hacker waved my apology away and held up the mini cam.
“Don’t smile,” Mack ordered. She took a few shots from different angles then plugged the camera into her computer. Her fingers flew over the keys as she worked.
“Now all you need is a new name,” she said after a few minutes, sitting back in her chair and interlocking her fingers behind her head. “Any idea who you want to be now?”
I didn’t respond right away. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be choosing what I wanted to be called.
“It’s okay if you don’t,” Mack said. “I can auto-generate one.”
“No, I’ll pick, just give me a second.” I shook my head and leaned a hip on one of the empty crates.
“Try not to use something that can be traced back to you,” Mack advised.
Some long-ago memory surfaced of a fairy tale. The details were hazy, but I remembered the heroine had been named Alyss. Cortez was common enough that it wouldn’t draw suspicion.
“Alyss. Alyss Cortez,” I finally decided.
Mack worked the computer for a few more seconds. It chimed to indicate it had finished its task, then she removed a card from one of the slots.
“Done,” she announced, then passed the card to me. “Now I can reconfigure the ship with you as captain.”
“Huh?” I asked, my gaze snapping up from the shiny new identity I’d been studying.
“The ship needs a registered captain in order to be operable,” she explained, gesturing around the cargo bay. “Sophie said that would be you.”
“We hadn’t talked about it, but if she’s okay with it, so am I.”
Nodding again, Mack turned to the computer and got to work. She muttered to herself every so often, but I couldn’t make out the words. I knew from working with Haas that tech people didn’t like to be bothered, so I kept quiet.
After about a half hour, she sat back and blew out a breath.
“All the soft-modules are clean, that was the easy part. Hard-modules are scattered everywhere in the ship. It’d take weeks to physically dig them out, so I put them in quarantine. They’re network isolated now so they can’t call home or even talk to the rest of the ship,” Mack said triumphantly. “Do you want to reset the AI?”
“Is that necessary?” I didn’t like the idea of messing with Z, especially after everything she’d done for us.
Mack shrugged. “It would wipe the computer’s memory. You’d be starting fresh. If it’s a product of Sarkonian military, it might give you some peace of mind.”
I didn’t hesitate to answer. “No, Z has been invaluable. We probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her.”
“You call her Z?”
“Z9-77A was her factory setting identifier,” I clarified. “Sophie and I took to calling her Z. Resetting her memory would take away the relationship we’ve built with her.”
“Doesn’t matter to me,” Mack replied. “Do you want to change her identifier?”
I looked up as if Z was in the ceiling somewhere. “You’ve been quiet, Z. How about it, want a new name?”
“That’s entirely up to you, Sergeant,” she answered agreeably.
“Not a sergeant anymore,” I said, shaking my head. “Me and Sophie get new names. You might as well join the club.”
“Then I am happy to receive a new identifier,” Z responded.
“Let’s keep it simple. I’ve always liked the name Vega. That sound good?”
“Vega,” said the AI, testing it out. “I believe that is perfect, Captain Cortez.”
“One last thing,” piped up Mack. “The ship needs a new name for the registration.”
I scrubbed at my face. “I’ve got nothing. Can you pick? I’m fresh out of names.”
“Second Genesis,” said a voice behind us. Sophie had returned. I had a feeling it would be our turn to gawk and wasn’t disappointed.
Her auburn hair had been dyed a deep shade of purple. At first glance, it looked black, but when the light hit it right, the purple showed. She hadn’t taken any of the length off, though she’d added a fringe of bangs. I suspected that was to let it grow out some, something she had never been allowed to do.
“Nice jacket.” I grinned. She was wearing the twin to mine.
Her lips curved into an impish smile. Like me, she’d gone for dark colors and clothes that wouldn’t hinder her in a fight.
“One of many. I went to the same place as you. Aimee has a great eye.”
“Who’s Aimee?” I asked, confused.
“The saleswoman? With the pink hair,” Sophie said, rolling her eyes. “You didn’t even get her name, did you?”
“Nope, and the transaction went through just fine,” I said. “But Second Genesis is a good name.”
I inclined my head at Mack, who nodded her acknowledgement. A few seconds later, it was done.
“Okay, you’re all set with the ship,” she told me. “Let me get Sophie’s new identification put together, then we can work on finances.”
“I already came up with a name,” Sophie announced brightly.
Mack smirked. “Let me guess. Farah,” she said, turning to me with laughing eyes. “It was a character in this cartoon she used to be obsessed with,” she explained.
“Oh gods, I can’t believe you remember that.” Sophie—Farah now—burst into giggles.
“How could I forget? You made us watch it nonstop,” complained Mack. “And it was terrible.”
“I never saw it,” I said, a little embarrassed. The Delgados had never been big on entertainment.
“You wouldn’t have,” Mack said with a sly grin.
I looked from her to the newly named Farah.
“It wasn’t on the approved program list,” Farah admitted. “My dad got it bootleg.”
“Your dad had illegal holo shows?” I couldn’t picture her dad doing anything illegal. “Next you’re going to tell me you’re a double agent for the Union.”
Farah exchanged a knowing glance with Mack then and I narrowed my eyes at the pair.
“What’s going on, Sophie?”
“Farah,” Mack corrected automatically.
I ignored her.
“Nothing,” Farah assured me without quite meeting my eyes.
She was definitely hiding something.
“Pardon my interruption, Captain, but I believe you will want to see this,” said Vega.
“What is it?” I asked, not taking my eyes off my friend.
One of the holo displays in the cargo bay blinked on to a Union news report.
“Be advised, the two women are highly skilled and capable of extreme violence. The Sarkonian Empire has classified the pair as terrorists.”
The audio had me turning to watch the report as the image on the screen cut to side by side pictures of us, pre-makeovers.
“The pair are accused of murdering their unit commander when she tracked them to Sobek and attempted to stop them from assassinating a prominent Union scientist.”
“That is bullshit!” I exploded, gesturing angrily at the display. “How can they pin that on us?”
“The Sarkonians needed a scapegoat for why Navari was at the scene,” Farah reasoned. “It makes sense that they would use us. Makes me wonder what happened to Haas though.”
I too had noticed his absence from the report and wondered the same thing.
The reporter had already moved on to another story about more missing colonists on a mining moon. I ordered the display off.
“It’s still bullshit. Part of me wants to release their plans to experiment on their own citizens,” I growled.
New name or not, Farah remained the voice of reason. “We can’t. It would just cause mass panic and might force the Sarkonian government to move their timetables up,” she cautioned.
I had to admit she had a point. Acting too brashly now would only harm the people we wanted to protect. As it stood, one of our few advantages was the fact that the Sarkonian government had no idea that we had access to their plans. I took a few calming breaths then nodded.
“Okay, let’s finish up here then go stop some assholes, Co-captain… wait, what’s your last name?”
“Shahi,” she said, giving me a mock salute. “Farah Shahi, at your service, Captain.”
We left Neblinar a few hours later and set a course for the Deadlands. Sophie had asked Mack to join us, but she declined the invitation. Adamantly at that, saying we were “way too hot” for her to be around, at least for right now.
I’d been mildly disappointed—having a hacker aboard would have been a nice ace up our sleeve. Couldn’t say I blamed her, though. Hanging around two wanted terrorists was a surefire way to get her more attention from the law than she already had.
All the money Eva Delgado and Sophie Singh had in Sarkonian banks now resided in the untraceable accounts of Alyss Cortez and Farah Shahi. Our new papers listed us as cargo haulers cleared for personal transportation.
The news report had not included a description of the Second Genesis, formerly known as the Dreadnight. I assumed this had something to do with the Union not wanting to admit one of their vessels was in the hands of two Sarkonian terrorists, and that was just fine with me. Since the Genesis had already been disguised as a cargo ship, the only modification we made was to the name emblazoned on the side of the hull.
Nothing remained of our connection to the Sarkonian Empire except for some old uniforms and a few easily removed images inside the ship. I’d been ready to dump the uniforms into the black void of empty space when Farah stopped me. She reasoned that they might come in handy if we had to look Sarkonian again. Given the nature of our plans, I’d grudgingly agreed.
Before leaving, Mack, Farah, and I sorted through Navari’s cache of operations and began ranking them. At the top were those with the worst fallout for innocent people, both Union and Sarkonian. The way I looked at it, civilians were innocent, no matter whose territory they lived in.
With no way of knowing when they planned to carry them out, we aimed for the operations with the highest projected casualties first. Our plan was to stop as many of them as possible, one at a time, starting with the mining colony of Karbine.
Vice-Admiral-Kaska planned to test a device there that could introduce an undetectable neurotoxin to the air supply through an atmospheric generator. Any amount would have disastrous effects on the people that resided there, and the report estimated that the entire colony would be murdered within hours.
As far as we could tell, the device was already at the colony. Sarkonian researchers were just making final tweaks to the chemical composition, which, according to the data, could be ready at any time. We used the information in the dossier to create our own anti-mission.
“Why does it have to be a toxin?” I grumbled. “They could test out a laughing gas or something harmless.”
Farah just laughed mirthlessly. “Because no one ever won a war making the other side giggle.”
“That’s only because no one’s ever tried it,” I muttered in return.
“You’re probably right about that,” she agreed. Her brow furrowed before she continued. “We need to get our hands on this toxin and get it out of theirs.”
“I know,” I said, then shook my head. “But without confirmed information on its location, we have to focus on the device. The toxin will be harmless if they don’t have a way to distribute it.”
“Okay, that makes sense,” Sophie grudgingly conceded. “It’s better than nothing. I just hate the idea of them having it at all.”
“Me too, believe me.” I studied the data again. “Since all of the ship’s data has been changed, I think we should be okay to dock and pose as travelers.”
“What if they have facial recognition?” she countered.
“Z—sorry. Vega, is there any way to tell what kind of security measures they have?” I asked.
I’d told Sophie about the name change and she liked it. She also seemed to like the mantle of co-captain, and so far nothing had come up that we disagreed on.
“I’m afraid not, Captain Cortez.” The AI’s voice actually managed to sound apologetic.
The modifications that Mack had made became more evident with each passing day. Vega, no longer hobbled by the Sarkon programming, sounded a little bit more human. She was still your standard military grade artificial intelligence, of course. The only real change was her ability to mimic and express empathy as she learned.
As a result, she had an even more human sounding voice that should have creeped me out, but I found that I liked it. In all honesty, she had more emotion than my adoptive father, though that wasn’t all that hard. The man had the emotional range of an asteroid.
“Can you get us to the surface without being detected?” I asked. “I’m not entirely sold on docking. Not after that report.”
“Yes, Captain,” replied the computer, sounding confident.
It was good enough for me. “Okay, just get us as close to the target as possible,” I instructed. “Let me know when you have something viable.”
“With pleasure,” Vega replied cheerfully.
“You sure about this?” asked Farah.
I shrugged indifferently. “I’m about as sure as I ever am before an op,” I said, not looking up from the map I’d been analyzing.
“Not about the op,” she said. Something in her voice caught my attention and I glanced up. She had all the files scattered over the holo.
“You mean stopping the Sarkonian Empire from committing mass murder?” I asked. “Hell yeah, I’m sure. Why, are you having second thoughts?”
Farah shook her head quickly. “Gods no. This is the surest I’ve been about things in a long time,” she said firmly.
I abandoned my own files and walked over to her, then I leaned on the table. I wanted to make one thing clear before there was no going back.
“Look,” I said, letting my voice go serious. “I’ve been meaning to bring this up. If you’re doing this out of obligation or because you think you owe me… Well, you don’t.”
Her forehead creased in confusion. “What are you talking about? Obligation for what?”
I sighed and started to pace. “I just mean if you’re here because you’re being loyal to our friendship or our past or whatever, you don’t have to.”
“Our past? You mean when we were kids back at academy?” she asked, still looking confused.
“Yeah,” I said, kicking an imaginary rock and scuffing my boot on the floor. “You’ve been weird lately. Anytime your parents come up especially.”
“I see,” she said finally. “Well, there’s no way I’d be here if it had been Haas, you can bet on that.”
She tried for a laugh, but I wasn’t in the mood.
“The short answer is no.” Her voice was strained, as if she were wrestling with elaborating.
That gave me pause.
“What’s the long answer?” I asked bluntly.
Farah tipped her head back and studied the ceiling.
Impatience warred inside me, but I forced myself to stay quiet. This had to be what she had been hiding.
“I haven’t been completely honest with you,” she finally confessed.
“Okay, I figured something was up,” I said with a nod. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine.”
Farah shook her head then met my gaze, looking more serious than I’d ever seen her. “You need to know. Deserve to know.” She paused then, and I could tell she was trying to find the right words. “My parents are part of a group dedicated to overthrowing the Sarkonian Empire,” she blurted out, the words tumbling out of her mouth in a rush.
I couldn’t speak for a full minute. My best friend couldn’t have shocked me more if she’d hauled off and socked me in the mouth. The more I thought about though, the more it made sense.
The message they’d sent her after being questioned was so obvious now. The way she’d said they could take care of themselves and had encoded the transmission. Then the times she’d acted guilty… I felt kind of stupid for not putting it together.
“Will you say something?” she said impatiently.
I grinned at her. “So, what you’re saying is that you are a double agent for the Union?” I teased.
Sophie’s face went slack with relief before she wrinkled her nose in distaste. “No, they’re just as bad. We just want to stop the Sarkonian Empire from hurting more people.”
I blinked then looked pointedly at the holo display.
She nodded, understanding.
“I could only feed them bits of information here and there to avoid raising suspicion,” she explained. “So, they only acted on the information they thought was most important.”
“No wonder you were so good at organizing the data,” I said, narrowing my eyes at her.
“I’m really sorry, Eva. Alyss.” Sophie bit her bottom lip like she did when she was agitated. “I wanted to tell you, but my parents made me promise not to. They were afraid of you. They thought you might turn them in to your father.”
My head jerked up at her words. “What? I would never do that to your family,” I protested, a little hurt at the notion.
“I know you wouldn’t. They just had to be careful,” she said, her eyes begging me to understand. “Are you pissed? You have every right to be. I probably would be.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” I disagreed. “And I’m only mad about one thing,” I said, fixing her with a stare. “You made me feel like a dick for not telling you my escape plan.”
“Gods, you’re right. I’m the jerk,” she groaned.
“Wait a second.” I held up a hand to stop her from launching into another apology. “Does your cousin know?”
Farah got that guilty look on her face again, then nodded. “Mack is part of the rebellion.”
“I knew something was going on there,” I said. “I’ve got to hand it to you, though, this is the last thing in the galaxy I would have guessed of you. I’m impressed. You never acted strange until the last couple of days, and even then I never suspected.”
“Thanks for taking it so well,” she said, moving to give me a hug.
It struck me that she’d also become a lot more touchy feely lately.
“No problem. Besides, I’ll pay you back somehow,” I promised, hugging her back. “Now that we’ve cleared that up, can we get back to saving all these innocent people?”
She finally laughed then let me go.
We used the next few hours to refine our plan. It had to be simple, since it was only the two of us. Luckily, the security on the surface remained light, so the workers didn’t catch on that something was up. The element of surprise was still on our side too, as far as I could tell.
Navari’s notes included special orders from Kaska that would have allowed her to bypass the guards and should work to get us past anyone we encountered.
Farah had shown the schematics for the device to Mack before we left. She’d come up with a way for us to disable it too, as long as everything went according to plan.
If it didn’t…
Well, let’s just say that I hoped death came quick. The research detailed in very graphic notes and photographs the devastating effects of the toxin.
I had a feeling that the files Navari had in her possession weren’t strictly for her eyes. My suspicion being that Kaska provided her with the intel of his own volition. If that was the case, he probably assumed we didn’t have the commander’s access key, and therefore, no way to decrypt the data. Even if he somehow knew we’d obtained her key, I highly doubted the Vice-Admiral would expect us to act on it.
Hopefully, he assumed we were running for our lives and watching our backs instead of right under his nose. Or he did know everything and planned a trap for us. If that was the case, we would be royally screwed.
I tried not to think about that scenario.
Vega estimated that the trip to Karbine would take us just over three standard days. On the way, Farah and I studied the files that we’d marked as least important. We weren’t sure what to do with them because they detailed assassination orders for government officials. That wasn’t surprising by itself—even I had been on a wetwork job once before.
The Sarkonian Empire had a long history of using whatever means necessary to stick it to the Union. The surprising part was the discovery that the targets weren’t all just Union officials. Some included prominent Sarkonians.
“They don’t even have loyalty in the upper echelon,” Farah said, tossing her pad on the table we were working at in obvious disgust.
“It is the Sarkonian Empire,” I pointed out dryly. “Not exactly a revelation. I mean, look at us.”
I spread my hands to indicate our current predicament.
“I know, I know,” she replied. “It’s just that every time I think it can’t get any worse, we find out something more despicable.”
My lips curled into an ominous smile and I raised my gaze to meet my co-captain’s. “That’s why we’re going to stop them.”
Her eyebrows winged up and her eyes widened a little like I’d startled her. “Can I just say I’m glad we’re on the same side? You are positively scary when you get that look in your eye.”
She shuddered dramatically for effect.
I laughed at her antics, pleased we could still find humor despite our circumstances, then sobered.
“All kidding aside,” I began, straightening and crossing my arms then clearing my throat. Emotional speeches weren’t my thing, but I had to get this out. “I’m glad you’re with me. I’d planned to go solo and live my life on the run, but this is way better.”
Farah grinned back at me. “Well, we’re still on the run. But I’m glad we’re together too. Besides, who would patch you up? Because I’ve seen your field dressings,” she joked. “They would probably kill you before the Empire or the Union could.”
I grimaced. “True. But still, you could have gone back to another covert unit and I would have understood if you had. It means a lot that you chose to stay.”
She shook her head in denial. “No, I couldn’t. I felt like nothing I did mattered or changed anything. This does. Things are finally going to change.” Sophie’s voice had lost all traces of humor and a dark expression covered her face.
The ferocity I saw every time the Sarkonian Empire came up made me curious.
“You know, we haven’t really talked about that,” I said, treading cautiously. “This rebel faction, what was their ultimate goal?”
“It started out like this.” She motioned her hands to encompass both of us. “People getting used, stepped on, and discarded by the Sarkon government. My parents saw what the Empire was willing to do to achieve success. No cost was too high.”
Sophie spoke with a quiet calm, but the words came out with an underlying tone of ragged emotion. I wanted to offer her comfort but didn’t interrupt as she continued.
“I’m not an only child,” she confessed. Our eyes met and I could see the pain there. “I had an older brother.”
I wondered how I’d missed that piece of information in all the time I’d known her. Had I just never bothered to find out more?
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“Jax excelled in combat at the academy, like you.” She gave me a crooked smile. “It was one of the things that drew me to you. Anyway, also like you, he struggled with the academics. The government had gotten their hands on some Union bioengineering tech and wanted to test it out. The details there are hazy, but they approached my parents about putting Jax in the beta program.”
Her reaction to the information we’d found and her choice to stay with me suddenly made a lot of sense.
“They said no. It was too dangerous, Jax was too young, their only son, yada. It didn’t matter,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “He needed to ‘do his part,’ according to the project lead.”
“The government didn’t take no for an answer,” I guessed. It was easy to see where the story was headed. My heart hurt for Sophie and the loss her family had gone through. We were more alike than I’d known.
Only the years of Sarkonian conditioning had stopped me from sharing all of my own painful story with her. One day I would, but I wasn’t there yet.
“Exactly.” She nodded. “They made it mandatory. He left for the program without any word or our parents’ permission, pulled from a class in the academy in the middle of the day. We didn’t even get to say goodbye. Jax was just gone. We received one transmission, a holo he’d recorded. It didn’t even seem like him anymore. A few weeks later, a message delivered the news of his death.” She sniffled a little, but her eyes stayed dry.
“Soph,” I said, using her old nickname intentionally. “I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah. I miss him a lot. That was the year before I went to the academy. My parents begged me to fail at combat assessments and get good academic marks to stay off the radar. But I hated getting my ass kicked. Then you came along.”
Some of the tension lifted and I smirked as the pieces came together. “Now I see why they didn’t like me.”
Farah nodded. “You were—are—so skilled at fighting. I’m surprised you didn’t get drafted into the program. It’s probably a good thing. If they gave you cybernetics, you’d be too dangerous to them.”
An image of Dolph and his bicolored eyes surfaced. I snapped my fingers and leaned forward. “I think the program became the Void.”
Farah blinked. “That actually makes a lot sense,” she said thoughtfully. “How did you figure that out?”
“Dolph,” I said simply. “The eye, ridiculous muscles, no rank or last name… it just fits.”
Understanding dawned almost immediately on her face and she slapped a hand to her forehead.
“How in the universe did I miss that?”
I raised a hand guiltily. “In your defense, I had just told you to go kick space rocks. Although, in my defense, I didn’t know you were an undercover agent, so it evens out,” I reasoned.
She rolled her eyes. “You’re never going to let me live that down, are you?”
I grinned. “Nope.”
“Figured as much.” Farah sighed, then started swiping through files at a fast pace, as though something had just occurred to her.
“What is it?” I asked, unable to read as quickly as she was sifting through the data.
“Got it.” She enlarged a file and jabbed a finger at it. “Remember when I couldn’t access Dolph’s medical profile and how tight-lipped Navari was about him?”
“Hard to forget.” I thought back to the emotionally charged days before the doomed op. I’d been distracted by my plans to leave or I’d probably have put all of this together sooner. Or so I liked to think.
“We only focused on mission docs before,” Farah said excitedly, pulling me from my thoughts before they turned to Mateo. “Navari had encrypted personnel files too.”
That got my attention. “What’d you find?”
She smiled in a catlike grin. “For starters, you were right about the eye.” She ticked off her findings on her fingers as she read. “Gene manipulation, artificial limbs, neural co-processor.”
“Sounds more computer than human,” I commented. “No offense, Vega.”
“None taken, Captain.” The AI had been quiet during our little heart to heart and sounded pleased to be rejoining the conversation.
“This is highly classified information,” my friend continued, enlarging the file. “Way above Navari’s rank. It reeks of Kaska.”
I propped my chin on an elbow and tried to puzzle it out. “It’s obvious the Vice-Admiral and commander were working together, but why?”
“That’s where things get a little murky,” she admitted. “All I’ve come up with is Kaska had plans that he was keeping the rest of the government in the dark about and maybe offered Navari something to help him.”
“It’s interesting, but how do we use this to our advantage?” I wondered.
Sophie shrugged. “Blackmail? I’m not sure yet. But more information like this could prove useful.”
“Captain Cortez, we are nearing the final S.G. Point,” Vega informed us.
“Let’s table this for now,” I said, pushing up from the work center. “If we make it back, we can chew on it some more.”
Farah nodded, then stood up too, but she didn’t move to leave.
“What is it?” I asked cautiously. I didn’t think I could take any more surprises tonight.
“It’s just weird,” she admitted. “Do we prep for this the same way as usual?”
I’d been thinking the same thing. Before, the routines we’d gone through made sense. They were methodical and designed to have us in the best frame of mind. At least that was what I used to think. Now I wasn’t so sure. All the rigid rules and procedures just felt oppressive now, but without them, I was a little disconcerted.
“I guess just do what feels right. Free will is going to take some getting used to,” I joked.
With Karbine was only a few hours out, I didn’t bother with a full workout. Instead, I put myself through some stretches to limber up, then suited up.
I’d gone back and forth between using the uniforms or tac suits to move through the colony. The uniforms would be less conspicuous but lacked a way to carry more than a single pistol. Then there was the issue of our new haircuts. If anyone gave us more than a cursory glance, that would be a dead giveaway.
The tac suits would make carrying weapons easier but would definitely grab attention, especially if we wore helmets to cover our hair.
In the end I went with the tac suits, reasoning that we could claim to be there for an op. Neither of us were overly skilled when it came to tech, but Farah seemed to have a better grasp than me. Because of that, I opted to act as cover while she disabled the device.
“You ready?” I asked. Farah and I stood in the cargo bay as Vega landed the Second Genesis. The AI had found a spot to put us down only a few kilometers from the site where the device was located and there was no real military presence. As long as they didn’t move in on us.
My co-captain inclined her head in a quick motion.
“Vega, keep her running in case we have to make a fast retreat,” I ordered.
I snapped the face of my helmet down and watched it go opaque, then clear. It would keep my face hidden from anyone looking at me while still allowing me to see out. If anyone questioned it, we’d tell them it was above their clearance. I’d always wanted to say that.
“Run one last scan for bodies, Vega. I don’t want to appear out of thin air and start a firefight before we even get there.”
“Of course,” she answered. “My sensors detect no organic signatures or movement within a hundred-meter radius.”
“Good. Let’s go,” I said to Farah.
The ramp opened and we exited, taking our first steps onto the moon’s sunbathed surface. It was bright, but the helmet immediately adjusted by darkening.
Even in my tacsuit, I felt exposed in the daylight. Covert ops as a rule were run at night, and being out there without the cover of dark made me itchy. I wondered briefly if we should have waited, then dismissed the idea. For all we knew the scientists were minutes away from finishing their work and the toxin was already on its way here. Hell, it might already be here for that matter.
The atmospheric generators that provided oxygen to the colony were housed in a large warehouse on the edge of town. The structure was massive and dwarfed most of the nearby buildings.
“Two guards on entry control,” I said through the comm. They blocked the entrance, which was expected. I knew from the blueprints that there was only one way in and out of the structure.
“Copy. I see them,” Farah responded inside my helmet. “Jammer’s on.”
Though I was reasonably sure that Navari’s document would pass scrutiny, I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Haas had left an array of tech in his gear trunk, including a jammer that would prevent the guards from checking on our orders.
We angled right for them, not pausing when the first soldier noticed us and went on alert, stance straightening and grip tightening on his weapon. His partner reacted to that by snapping his rifle up in a jerky movement. The first to see us shook his head and pushed the nose of the weapon at the ground to stop in annoyance.
“Special ops unit,” he said. “Wonder why they’re here.”
His voice came through my helmet as clear as if I was standing right next to him, thanks to the noise-cancelling tech.
I assumed he was in charge from his demeanor and directed my attention to him as we closed the gap. His fatigues declared him as Petty-Officer-Reyes. Twitchy Finger looked like he’d just left the academy. A quick scan identified him as Recruit-Bell, so I hadn’t been far off.
Reyes saluted in typical Sarkonian fashion—a closed fist over the heart and lowered gaze—as we came even with the pair. Bell’s hand snapped up so fast that it hit him audibly in the forehead. His cheeks flushed red and I had to suppress a laugh.
“Petty-Officer-Reyes, we’re initiating the final phase for this posting.” I made a show of checking my mini pad and the time. “You have three minutes to vacate the area.”
He dropped his hand and took a closer look at my suit to read my name and rank, then looked at my face. The mirrored effect from the helmet seemed to unnerve him because his gaze went slightly left. “Commander-Rhee, with respect, we’ve received no such orders.”
We’d modified the suits with fake names and ranks in case our old ones were well known here, a distinct possibility.
“No, you wouldn’t have.” I waved a hand at Sophie and the case she carried. It was empty but they didn’t need to know that. “Ensign-Young and I are here to initiate the final phase.”
She stepped forward and showed him the datapad with Kaska’s sign off.
He looked at it, then back and forth between the two of us, clearly torn between following an unknown superior’s direct order and maintaining his post without confirmation.
“Sir, if you’ll give me a moment to contact—”
I cut him off by stepping into his personal space and leaning forward until we almost touched. “Communications are already down in preparation of Security Directive K39B. Is it usual for you to disregard commands, Reyes?” My tone was calm, light, and even, but there was no mistaking the hostility in it.
He blanched and shook his head in a jerky movement. “No, sir. I’m only following protocol.”
“Maybe scale it back a smidge, killer,” Farah hissed in my ear.
I stepped back. “Understood, Petty-Officer. Next time, though, you’d do well to remember respect when a higher ranking officer gives you an order. Dismissed.”
“Yes, Commander. Thank you.” The pair saluted again, then marched off, the recruit whispering urgently to the Petty-Officer. He told the recruit to zip it and then they were out of earshot.
I froze when Reyes stopped short and whirled around, causing me to nearly draw my rifle on him.
“The key, sir. I almost forgot.” He jogged over and passed it to me. I didn’t bother thanking him. As soon as they disappeared from view, I unlocked the door and waved Sophie in behind me before turning to stand watch.
She hurried inside the building and I closed the door most of the way shut, leaving it open just a crack.
“Found the device. Starting disassembly now,” she said in my ear.
I scanned the empty area around the small building but didn’t see anything concerning. Yet.
“We don’t know how much time that bought, so you better move fast,” I warned her. “I don’t think those two completely believe our story.”
“Working on it,” she muttered.
The suit had temp control and stayed a hair above 22 degrees Celsius. Despite the relative balminess inside, I started to sweat as the minutes ticked by.
“Captain, there are three individuals moving in your direction,” Vega informed me over the comm.
“Shit. Singh, status?” I snapped the words out as adrenaline shot through my system in preparation for a fight. I used her given surname out of habit borne from years of training and familiarity.
“Almost there. One more... got it!”
As she said it, Reyes and Bell reappeared from the direction they’d left, except they weren’t alone and appeared to be accompanied by an officer.
The three came within a meter and I noticed both the Petty-Officer and Recruit already had their weapons in hand. The third, a female sergeant, came to a halt in front of me and saluted, since I still ranked higher. Or she thought I did from the rank depicted on my suit.
“What the problem, Sergeant?” I said it nonchalantly, not bothering to use her last name, though I could see it was Martin.
Her face tightened at my disrespect from using her rank like that, especially since we didn’t know each other, but the Sergeant didn’t comment. “Sir, Petty-Officer-Reyes has informed me that you are here to remove them from this post.”
I sighed and waved my hand in a bored motion. “Let me guess, you’ve received no such instruction?”
Martin nodded. “That’s affirmative, sir. I’m afraid we cannot move without official word. I’ll also need to verify your credentials.”
She said that last sentence uncertainly. I smiled inside my suit. If I played this right, we could get out of here without any bloodshed.
“Sergeant-Martin, are you aware of what is in this building?” I gestured behind me.
“No, sir. That’s classified.”
I stepped forward, though not like I had with Reyes. He and Bell started to raise their rifles.
“Those weapons come up a centimeter more, you will be charged with attempted murder of a superior officer,” I spat in my best superior officer tone. “Do you understand me?”
The barrels dropped instantly to aim at the dirt.
I turned my attention back to Martin. “That’s right, Sergeant-Martin. It is known to only a select few. And I am one of those few. Your orders are to not enter that building, guard the generators, and remain here until relieved. After which you have to vacate this colony. How am I doing? Correct so far?”
Her mouth formed a small O at my words before she got it in check. “Yes, sir, that’s correct.”
At that moment, Farah exited the building, making the trio jump.
Ignoring the outburst, I continued. “I know,” I said amiably. “I’m in this suit for a reason, Sergeant. I’m not taking any chances with this delivery. Your men were told three minutes five minutes ago, so unless you’re all ready to die, I suggest you and your team hightail it off this rock.”
The sergeant looked at the building with an expression of pure horror.
“But the colonists, shouldn’t we evacuate?”
I softened at her obvious discomfort at leaving the innocent people here to die but forced myself to stay in character. “I don’t believe your orders mention an evacuation.” Motioning Farah to follow, I tossed the words coolly over my shoulder and left the three to gawk at our backs.
We returned to the Second Genesis at a faster pace than before and walked into the cargo bay less than an hour after we’d left it.
I opened one of the biological safety containers then stepped back. Farah set the device inside gently as if it were loaded with the deadly toxin, then locked the lid again.
We exchanged twin glances of relief then made our way back to the bridge to strap in for takeoff. There had been a few moments there where I was a little worried we’d have to fight our way off planet moon, but it had worked out just fine.
“That went well,” she said, clipping her harness together. “I almost threatened to release the toxin early.”
I looked at her in disbelief. “Are you serious? And what if they called your bluff?”
She chuckled and raised a hand in a “no idea” gesture. “I didn’t get that far. You handled it well anyway. I thought Reyes was going to pee himself.”
I laughed with her as we left Karbine’s orbit and returned to the beauty of deep space.
“I’m glad we didn’t have to resort to that. I was a little worried that recruit was going to accidentally shoot at one of us, but he managed to hold it together.”
“Congratulations on a successful first mission,” Vega complimented us as the Second Genesis pulled away from Karbine.
“Thanks. It went better than I expected,” I said.
I spoke the truth. I’d left the ship fully anticipating a fight, and even though it had been ages since I prayed, I thanked the gods that didn’t happen.
“As I mentioned, Miss Cortez, the ship will require refueling before any significant travel.”
The “Miss Cortez” gave me a slight pause, but I decided I liked it after a lifetime of being addressed by a Sarkonian imposed rank.
“Yes, you did. Get me a list of outposts or stations where we’ll be the least likely to run into trouble,” I ordered.
“I took the liberty of assembling that information already, Captain.”
“Wow, you’re good, Vega.”
The computer was getting almost scarily good at anticipating our needs, but I wasn’t going to complain. In fact, I had to say I was impressed. Vega seemed to be adapting to the changes with ease, but part of me did feel a slight a twinge of apprehension.
Could the AI suddenly decide it didn’t want to help us? I pushed the thought away. Tech had never been my thing, but nothing in Vega’s actions suggested she would betray us. If there was any chance of that, I was certain Mack would have mentioned it.
“It’s my pleasure to assist you,” she said as if reading my thoughts. “The Leah Station is located not far from here. Similar to Neblinar, it has no military presence, though it is technically within Union territory.”
I grinned, deciding to focus on the positives and letting satisfaction at our recent success show.
“What are we waiting for? Let’s get some fuel in this baby so we can work on the next anti-mission.”
Leah station was located on a dwarf planet one S.G. Point away from Karbine, not far from the outer limit of Union-controlled space, though still inside their territory.
It was evident as soon as we docked why the Union didn’t give a shit about the little colony and the Empire hadn’t bothered to claim it.
The seedy atmosphere here was exactly what I’d first expected to find on Nebilnar. The station could loosely be called hedonistic, but I didn’t see how anyone could find pleasure in the scum and grime.
Both Farah and I could handle ourselves but decided it was smarter to stick together in case someone tried to mug us. We both packed for a fight and I ordered Vega to engage countermeasures should anyone try to steal the ship.
Fuel was the first thing, since it was sold right at the docks. I haggled with a nearly toothless vendor who quoted an initial price more than three times the average. I was sorely tempted to agree just to get away from his breath but soldiered through it by not breathing with my nose. Farah had turned away less than a minute into the negotiations and pretended to be very interested in the passersby.
I finally settled on a price with the vendor only slightly above what I’d paid on Neblinar and stepped away with extreme relief.
“That was worse than a dead body,” I said as I came up to Farah, still almost gagging. “And you know we’ve smelled our fair share.”
“Vega, make a note never to come here again,” she told the AI.
“Of course, Miss Shahi. My apologies for your current predicament. The data listed did not allude to the degraded condition of the station.”
“It’ll be fine,” Farah replied. “I’m just glad we’re up to date on all of our inoculations.”
“Indeed, Miss Shahi.”
“We might as well grab some food in case we can’t stop for a while,” I suggested.
Farah made a face. “Something tells me they don’t have fresh fruits or veggies on hand.”
“Would you eat them if they did?” I asked, raising a doubtful eyebrow.
“No. Packaged food should be safe though, right?” She didn’t sound like she trusted that either and I laughed.
“Maybe. It might be prudent to disinfect them before touching them, just to be safe.”
Our supply run took us all over the station. Fortunately, we managed to find a few merchants whose shops looked like they’d been cleaned in the not-too-distant past. Some of the places we saw didn’t appear to have ever seen a broom or mop.
The med bay on the ship was stocked well enough with military grade supplies that should last us awhile. Still, Farah thought it best to see what we could find to add to our inventory, though I wasn’t holding out much hope after seeing what Leah had to offer.
As we moved down one of the many dim, dirty streets in tandem, I became increasingly grateful for my training. I fixed my features into mask of scornful arrogance and stalked rather than walked. Any show of weakness here would only be an invitation for trouble from anyone who thought us an easy mark. They’d be wrong of course, but I didn’t feel like putting it to the test.
Shadows didn’t slink and slither here so much as prowl and hunt. They seemed to push back against the weak glow from scattered light posts instead of the other way around. There was no question. Darkness ruled here.
The gloom dissipated somewhat in the market district where businesses advertised their wares with flashing holo signs, blazing displays, and in some cases, live models.
I stopped in front of a window with the unmistakable red cross signifying medical supplies. It looked slightly less filthy than the last one we’d tried, so I stepped inside.
The door closed with a sharp slap behind us. The lights faltered and buzzed like they were on their last legs, illuminating the interior of the store with a half-hearted glow. As Farah was the medic, I had her take point. She moved methodically through the aisles, plucking various items off shelves.
I followed her to the counter when she waved a hand, indicating she was done, but let her haggle with the scowling woman at the register. I listened with half an ear in case things got tense and continued to scan the store.
Only one other customer patronized the establishment and I had a feeling they didn’t plan on paying. I couldn’t make out gender because the person was covered in a large bedraggled cloak and hunched over. They shuffled aimlessly and didn’t appear to have an interest in anything.
“You want I can have this delivered,” the clerk was telling Farah, who shook her head.
“No, I’ll take them,” she replied.
We’d already decided ahead of time not to have anything delivered. More than likely, anything we sent ahead wouldn’t make it.
“You sure? If you pay extra, I throw in insurance.” The woman smiled in a way that I supposed she thought came off as trustworthy, but it had the opposite effect.
“I said no.” Farah’s usually soft tone took on a menacing inflection. “And if someone tries to follow us, I’m going to assume it was you.”
The clerk pushed the packages toward her and leaned away, waving her hands in protest. “That’s bad for business. I can’t be blamed for what happens after you leave my shop.”
The purchased goods disappeared into my partner’s coat in a slick move that I would have missed had I not been watching.
“I guess you better hope nothing happens, then,” she warned.
As we walked out, I noticed the cloaked figure I’d observed earlier approach the counter. Shouts erupted, but we ignored them and stepped out onto the street.
“Sheesh,” I said. “And you say I’m the scary one.”
My friend grinned evilly. “What can I say? I learned from the best.”
“What’s left?” I asked, wishing I’d thought to ask before we left. Standing still out in the open made me twitchy.
Farah consulted the list on her wrist unit then grinned at me. “Your favorite. Weapons and ammo.”
I smiled. She was right, they were my favorite.
We set off down the walk, careful not to bump into anyone. In a place like this, you were just as likely to get pickpocketed as you were a knife in the gut for whatever happened to be in your pockets. We witnessed the latter and nobody batted an eye, not even bothering to do more than step over the poor man’s body.
It was well past evening, but Leah was a hive of activity. Not a single shop window was dark and street vendors flagged down passersby in hopes of making an easy sale.
Naked women danced on live holo feeds outside brothels, enticing patrons to come in and fulfill any fantasy. It didn’t matter what system you were in, sex sold.
A shop to our right caught my eye and I peered at the display with interest. It was a surgeon offering illegal cybernetic enhancements. The biotech looked out of date and questionable at best, but I had to admit it got my attention.
“How about that one?” Farah pointed across the street at a sign depicting weapons.
I turned away from the black market surgical center and shrugged. “It’s as good a place as any.”
“Good. I want to get the hell out of here,” she said, making a beeline for it. “I think we may have to burn our clothes in the incinerator to get rid of the smell.”
I didn’t dance when we entered the store, but I wanted to. The store itself had seen better days and my feet made little sucking noises when I walked, but the firearms were shiny and almost clean to a fault.
Soldiers, mercenaries, Renegades—we might not always play well together, but we all had one thing in common: we took care of our weapons and gear. Proper maintenance was essential to keeping your shit in working order. Nobody wanted to be in a firefight and have their gun bind up or misfire because it was dirty.
Likewise, if an arms dealer wanted to sell anything, their merchandise had better be in top condition. Otherwise, word would get out and the only customers they were likely to attract would be criminals who didn’t know any better.
I circled the room slowly, studying the displays. An upgraded version of my service rifle caught my eye and I picked it up. This one had HUD connectivity, and when paired with the right rounds, target-locking capability.
It had perfect balance and a quick inspection didn’t reveal any defects. I carried it to the front counter, where a stout, bald man sat watching me with sharp, calculating eyes.
“You got somewhere I can test this?”
He looked me up and down, but not in an offensive way. More like he was assessing whether I could handle the rifle.
I tensed at a mechanized sound coming from the entrance. A metal guard slid down, protecting the windows and preventing anyone from coming or going.
Apparently judging me to be worthy, he nodded, bent to retrieve a few rounds from somewhere out of sight, then dropped them into my open palm.
“Just a precaution,” the clerked said, apparently noticing my expression. “Can’t leave it unattended otherwise idiots will try to steal my shit. Don’t get any ideas either. My vitals go too off base and you’ll never make it out.” He motioned for us to follow him and led the way to a back room.
It consisted of a single stall and ran about fifteen meters on the inside. The man passed me a beat-up pair of ear protectors, then gave another to Farah. I tried not to think about who might have used them before us and what germs still remained.
Sucking it up, I slid them on, stepped to the stall, and field-stripped the rifle, then put it back together and loaded the ammunition.
“My goods are clean,” the clerk said in a somewhat miffed voice.
“Yes, they are,” I said with a nod. “Just like to see for myself what I’m buying.”
“More than I can say for most of my clients,” he laughed before ordering the trial program to run.
A holo materialized at the back wall in the shape of a Union soldier. It flickered a few times before smoothing out, then held steady.
Already in my shooting stance, I got comfortable with the unfamiliar weapon, making minute adjustments to my grip and body. It felt good and I had the target in my sights a few seconds later.
My mind went calm and I breathed out then squeezed the trigger five times until the magazine was spent. I set the rifle on the table and removed the ear protection.
The holo image disappeared from view then reappeared in front of me. I allowed myself a teeny smile when I saw that all of my shots had gone exactly where I’d wanted them. One in the head, three at center mass, and one at the knee. Just for fun.
I didn’t take long to make my decision. The rifle cost a little more than I’d planned on spending, but I decided to splurge this one time.
We loaded up on more ammunition, a few handguns, blades, and some illegal military-grade charges. I even discovered a stockpile of MREs. I’d started checking out, when Farah saw something in the corner of the room.
She lifted a bow from the wall that looked unlike any weaponry we’d ever trained with and turned it over in her hands. A minute later, she was carrying it up to the counter the same way I had with the rifle. The shopkeeper produced a few practice arrows and hit his little button again.
“This is a fine weapon,” he remarked as we went to the back room again. “Very special. It was stolen from a Sarkonian research facility, according to the person I relieved it from.”
Something about his smile told me it hadn’t been a credit-based transaction.
“The technology is supposedly ancient, giving it that unique look. So far no one has appreciated its origin story, so it has been sitting there for quite some time. Maybe you like it enough to buy it, eh?”
I snorted. “That’s a fancy way to say it’s an antique and no one will buy it.”
The man gave me an offended look.
“Of course not, I stand by my merchandise. If she buys it, I’ll even give her a deal,” he claimed.
“I’ll decide after I’ve tried it out,” Farah told him before walking to the stall.
This time, he didn’t hand out the protection when Farah stepped up to the firing line. Like me, she inspected the bow and made a few adjustments before nocking one of the arrows. A brilliant blue glow lit the bow from end to end when she picked it up. It seemed to hum with power, and a few heartbeats later she loosed the first practice arrow, then the rest in quick succession.
I watched as they lanced into the holo target before embedding into the wall, each hitting a vital piece of real estate. She was good. It was standard for Sarkonians to train on a variety of weapons, but I’d never liked archery myself.
Out of ammunition to fire, Farah touched the tip of her index finger to a near invisible biopad above her fist. The bow collapsed into itself and retracted into the grip.
“I’ll take it,” she said with a satisfied smile.
True to his word, he offered her a deal by throwing in extra arrows for free when we returned to the counter to finish the transaction.
It became apparent before the clerk finished ringing everything up that we wouldn’t be able to carry all of it.
“Is there somewhere to rent a hover cart?” I asked.
“No.” He shook his head and kept tallying. “But delivery is included.”
He continued before I could decline again. “I’ve never seen you around, so I don’t think you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting the Leah station before.”
I arched an eyebrow at his use of the word “pleasure” in the same sentence as the station but didn’t interrupt.
“No disrespect, you both seem like you can handle yourselves, but not if one of the gangs jumps you. And if you walk out that door carrying any of this”—he gestured at the loaded counter—“they will. But no one messes with my shipments when my men are transporting them.”
“Does that come with a guarantee?” I asked.
He nodded. “A full refund or replacement of undelivered goods. Within reason, of course.” He started ticking off reasons on his fingers. “If you hijack your own shipment, asteroids, war breaks out. Stuff like that. Name’s Clint, by the way. Clint Russell.”
I considered that, and the man, for a moment. Now that he’d spoken more than a few words, I could tell he was educated. It made me wonder how he’d ended up on this blight of a station.
“Alyss,” I said, shaking his offered hand. “That’s quite a deal. Tell me, Clint, how do I know you’re telling the truth?”
Clint shrugged. “You don’t. My reputation speaks for itself. Then there’s the fact that it’s not generally a good idea to piss off the clientele I cater to. Besides, if you’re happy with my products and service, maybe you two will come back and buy more.” He winked.
“What do you think?” I asked Sophie. I had to admit, the guy made excellent points.
“I don’t feel like fighting tonight,” she replied, then aimed a pointed look at Clint. “Or killing anyone.”
“Okay, I guess it’s settled,” I said. “But, Clint, if we don’t get our shit, I’ll come back and burn this place to the ground.”
He barked out a laugh. “You know what? I believe you would.”
My stomach growled then, and I was suddenly starving. “Is there anywhere safe to get some food around here?” I asked, not feeling very optimistic.
“There’s a place that serves halfway edible food if you squint really hard and don’t mind a little skin,” he said. “Tell you what, why don’t you go see if you can stomach it. I’ll get this packed up for you and delivered in about two hours.”
We shook on it, then Farah and I followed his directions to the establishment known as “The Space Between,” which I found funny.
Sophie didn’t quite share my humor and groaned when we stepped inside the skin bar that was part brothel. Music bumped and lights flashed as dancers performed onstage in a colorful group number.
Their only clothing, such as it was, came in the form of sparkly tassels and long neon bright hair that occasionally blocked the audience’s view of their less than private parts.
“We are so going to regret this,” Sophie grumbled as a scantily clad hostess sashayed over to us.
“Club side or bar side?” she asked, flashing a bright smile and revealing a full set of teeth.
“Bar side, please,” my friend said quickly.
The young woman almost looked disappointed but led us to a table through a set of doors that took us out of the main room and into a slightly tamer bar setting. It still had naked girls dancing in brightly lit glass displays but boasted some regular lighting in an area clearly meant for dining and was mercifully quieter.
“Look, the table isn’t even that dirty,” I said cheerfully. An order pad sat on one side and I picked it up to scroll through the menu choices.
“I can’t believe you’re going to eat here,” Farah said, scanning the dingy room.
Most of the patrons on this side were women or couples. This was probably one of the only choices for dining, I guessed.
Settling on a burger and thinly sliced soy potato substitute, I pushed the pad over to her, which she immediately declined.
“No thanks, I’d prefer not to throw up tonight.” She made a face and I chuckled.
“Funny,” I said. “Suit yourself. Hey, I didn’t realize how talented you were with a bow.”
Her expression brightened considerably at that. “I was into archery before the academy. Mom and Dad told me not to show how good I was, so I always aimed off center a little.” Something like regret showed on her face for just an instant, then it was gone again.
“And you still killed it after all this time,” I said, giving her exaggerated applause.
She rolled her eyes. “I still practiced, my target just wasn’t what the instructors told me to aim for.”
I missed what she said next because I noticed a figure standing at the bar behind her. Something about their profile drew my eye. The person, a man, turned just enough that I could see the outline of his jaw. It couldn’t be—
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Farah snapped her fingers at me, trying to get my attention. “Did you see something?”
She swiveled in her seat, but the man was gone.
“For a second, I thought I saw…” I hesitated.
“What?” she prompted, staring at me.
“Nothing, just some guy at the bar looked like someone I recognized.”
Farah looked again, scanning the length of the bar counter and the rest of the room this time. “Who did you think it was?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” I lied. “I only saw the outline of his face for a second.”
“Weird. Seems unlikely anyone we know would be here of all places,” she replied. “Are you sure?”
I hesitated. “You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“Try me,” she said.
A busty woman well past her prime delivered my order before I had to answer.
“You want som’n else, just put it in the pad, love.” The woman pointed at the pad Farah had returned to the slot after refusing to order, then left to see to other customers.
At first glance, there wasn’t anything obviously wrong with the burger. I picked it up gingerly and gave it a once over, then took a cautious bite.
“I wonder if the pad has a barf bag option,” she joked.
I swallowed and washed it down with the beer I’d ordered. “Clint was right. It’s half edible and doesn’t look too bad. If I squint.”
She laughed. “Great, now polish off the rest of it so we can get back to the ship. I’m going to need a few decontamination showers to feel clean again. So, you were about to say why you were crazy?”
Waving a hand, I bit into my burger. “Nothing,” I said around a mouthful of dry meat. “I was wrong.”
I was anxious to get back too, and less than fifteen minutes later, we were headed for the door. I scanned the bar again, looking for the man I’d seen, but he was gone.
The image of his familiar frame wouldn’t leave my mind, though I knew it to be impossible. People don’t just happen to show up on a planet in a system you’ve never even heard of before.
Especially dead people.
“Any issues while we were gone?” I asked Vega when Farah and I got back to the Second Genesis.
“Nothing my anti-theft measures could not handle,” said Vega. “A vagrant attempted to gain entry but was… discouraged by an electric current.”
As Clint had promised, all of our haul made it into the delivery compartment, so we didn’t have to make good on our word. I sent him a message thanking him. He sent one back saying to make sure we remembered him when we returned. I told him that was highly unlikely, but if he ever went somewhere like Neblinar to let us know.
Sophie and I didn’t waste any time, loading everything into the cargo bay’s storage units and the armory, then returned to the bridge. We both wanted to get out of orbit and leave the Leah station behind for good.
“Captain, I have plotted several courses based on the ranking system you and Miss Shahi designed,” Vega said when we reached orbit.
The star map lit up with half a dozen charted routes, each one linked to a mission, which I found incredibly useful.
“Taking into account urgency, location, and estimated success percentage, I believe this”—one of the dots brightened, then grew when Vega focused on it—“would make an excellent next choice.”
The display split so that the map was on one side and the data on the other. I recognized the details immediately from the failed mission on Harah. They depicted plans for testing a new weapon that was made up of microscopic replication tech.
Neither Sophie nor I had ranked the weapon considerably high, so it surprised me that Vega wanted to go there first.
“What’s so special about this tech, V?” I asked.
“It seems a little lackluster and less lethal than some of the others,” added Farah, beating me to it.
“It did appear that way at first, Miss Shahi,” Vega agreed. “However, after further analysis I have come to believe that should this technology be unleashed, it could very well mark the demise of human life in the known universe.”
I wrinkled a brow at that, still skeptical. “How would that work? The weapon is stored in an Imperial lab right now. It doesn’t seem to be an immediate cause for concern,” I pointed out.
Vega didn’t respond right away, almost like she was hesitating.
“Is there something you aren’t saying Vega?” I asked.
Another beat of silence, then she answered. “After cross examining all available information, there is a ninety-nine point seven percent chance that the Imperial scientists will discover how to weaponize this technology without understanding how to control it. Once deployed, this self-replicating technology will be capable of consuming all manner of matter and recomposing it into pre-specified elements.”
“Meaning what?” asked Farah, sounding just as confused as I felt.
Vega tried again. “While the intended function was a more efficient method of terraforming, the government realized that the technology could easily be weaponized if applied to an enemy city or ship with the replication limit disabled”
“Holy shit,” I said, finally getting the implications such a weapon could have. “It could be a planet destroyer. No wonder they sent us to Harah to retrieve it. Whoever has this could control all of the known systems.”
“So, Sarkon sent another team after we failed,” Farah said softly.
“I’m not surprised. Sarkon would know it was important enough to risk a second attack on the Union in that short amount of time,” I said, then focused on the weapon again. “The Union created this?”
“It would appear that the origin is unknown at this time,” Vega replied, surprising me. “However, it is not novel. Both sides have been attempting to create something similar for quite some time. It is unclear how they achieved success.”
I mulled that over in my head.
“Let me get this straight,” I said abruptly. “These tiny robots can suck up anything, strip it down to nothing, then what, create whatever? It sounds highly improbable. I mean it sounds about as plausible as magic.”
“The data suggests that the microrobots are able to break down matter at the molecular level, then recompose it into something else so long as they have the required elements.”
“You said they might not be able to control them,” said Farah. “What could happen then?”
I hadn’t even considered that possibility. The ramifications from such a weapon in the hands of either the Union or the Empire made me feel queasy. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they decided to test such a thing without fully understanding it or taking precautions. All either side could see was their own greed.
“In theory, anything,” answered the AI, sounding grave. “Entire civilizations could be destroyed as fast as the weapon could consume them. There exists a limitation, however. They are a single purpose technology, built to perform one process. For example, once they finish consuming a planet there would be nothing left for them to do. They would be unable to leave, but if a ship were to land on the surface, they would destroy it if proper defenses were not in place.”
Farah nodded. “That’s what I thought. It’s not like they could create a ship and take off or something.”
“That is correct,” Vega agreed.
“I’m convinced,” I announced, then tossed a glance at my friend. “What about you, any objections?”
She shook her head. “No. We need to get this out of their hands. Though I’m not sure what we’re going to do with it. If we’re successful, I mean.”
My friend had a point. A weapon this powerful could end wars, in the right hands. In the wrong hands, however…
“You heard her, Vega. I guess we’re going to steal some unknown tech from Mom and Dad. Let’s hope it goes better than last time,” I said dryly.
The Sarkonian Empire didn’t have borders so much as they had sporadic pockets of claimed territory. The Anquila Belt was one of those pockets, home to the Chaundra facility where the weapon was supposedly held.
As luck would have it, both Farah and I were familiar with the station. During slow periods or when the Sarkon government felt they needed a little extra muscle for protection, our unit was called upon for guard duty. Boring, but at least we got to leave the Ambiana for a few days of easy work.
Fortunately for us, we weren’t too far, only a few systems away. Unfortunately, that meant we were also close to Sarkon. A little too close for my liking, but we didn’t exactly have a choice.
“The military is probably going to be on the lookout for two soldiers,” Farah said later when we’d begun to plan the finer aspects of the op.
“Yeah,” I agreed, nodding my head. “They probably won’t fall for that one again, although they never did see our faces. Still, our best bet is to go covert. We’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way. Under the cover of darkness.”
Doing it during the day had made sense on Sobek; nobody there expected us to show up on Sarkonian turf. Now they would, and because of the importance of the weapon there was bound to be heightened security.
“Pardon me,” said Vega, politely. “But I should be able to assist you. Miss Woods—”
“Miss who?” I interrupted, confused.
I scoured my brain but couldn’t remember anyone by that name.
“Mack,” Farah clarified. “Her full name is Mackenna Woods.”
“Oh right,” I said, remembering. “What about her now?”
“Miss Woods was able to remove the military controls on my systems,” Vega continued. “The process did not remove my access to their systems. I can possibly gain ingress into their cameras feeds.”
“Possibly?” I asked, picking up the subtext.
“Yes, provided they haven’t anticipated such a move on our part,” the AI answered.
And that was covert operations in a nutshell. Each side trying to outwit the other by misdirection, stealth, and sometimes a big steaming helping of guesswork and luck. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Navari’s data cache had already been there before everything went to shit, I wouldn’t have trusted it.
Even the encryption didn’t factor. If I wanted fake intelligence to look like real intelligence, the first thing I’d do would be to encrypt it. No one would ever leave hi-level data—or low level for that matter—unprotected.
Hell, everyone I knew passcoded their personal pads as if the Union might send a whole squadron to get at their music choices. Point was, unencrypted data would have been a huge red flag.
There was a slight chance that the Empire knew of my plans to leave and could have set up the operation on Sobek as a trap, but I doubted it. For one, I’d killed Navari, no doubt about it. Second, Dolph would have been waiting for me to make a move before we got away.
No, whatever the Void operative had been there to do, he’d accomplished. My gut said that all the misgivings I felt had to do with Kaska. He had an agenda, I just didn’t know what it was. I hoped it would become clearer as we upset his plans.
In the end we decided the best course of action was for Vega to take on the role of observer rather than trying to usurp control of the station. That way the computer could keep an eye out for us and hopefully avoid detection.
We arrived at the Anquila Belt within a few standard hours and immediately noticed the increased Sarkonian military presence. From there, the Chaundra Station was only a quick jaunt, but when we arrived it was still daytime.
As much as both of us wanted to get to the surface and relieve the Sarkonians of a weapon of mass destruction, it made tactical sense to wait. Plus, I hadn’t slept since before we’d stopped to refuel on Leah.
Yeah, landing now and attempting an attack wouldn’t just be stupid. It would be suicide. I had no problem dying for a cause or even just a damn good reason, but being stupid wasn’t either of those.
“Vega, how we looking?” I asked through a yawn so big it threatened to split my face in half.
Farah, Vega, and I had planned as much as we could with the information we had on hand. Now it was time to recharge, at least for a little while.
“Excellent, Captain. I have detected no changes in any of the station’s patterns. I do not believe we have been discovered.”
“Solid,” I commented, crawling into bed without bothering to strip first. I’d neglected to take the sleep meds Farah had left with me as I was already struggling to stay awake.
“Indeed, Captain. I shall wake you an hour prior to dusk or if our circumstances change.”
“Sounds good,” I mumbled, already dropping out. Then a thought occurred to me. “Vega, can you calculate our odds for success on this one?”
“Certainly. After analyzing all available data, I estimate a 74.3% chance of success,” the computer responded.
A little lower than I would have liked, but still on the high side. So long as things went smoothly, we had a decent chance.
“Would you like to hear potential points of failure?” the AI inquired.
“Gods, no V,” I said. “What are you trying to do, give me nightmares?”
“I would never, Captain Cortez.” Vega somehow managed to sound slightly miffed.
“Glad to hear it,” I mumbled. “Wake me when it’s time.”
I let the exhaustion take me then and carry me into a deep sleep.
Four hours later Vega was easing the Second Genesis through the dusty planet’s lower orbit and setting us down a few kilometers from Chaundra.
“Status report,” I ordered after unclipping my harness.
“Nothing in my scans indicates our arrival was detected,” Vega confirmed. “I am prepared to access security feeds on your command, Captain.”
“Do it,” I said.
“Acknowledged. Please standby.”
The computer went silent long enough that I started to get nervous. As I was about to break my silence, she answered. “Apologies for the delay. I did encounter some interference.”
That was not the news I wanted to hear right now. “What kind of interference?” I growled.
“There appeared to be another… entity attempting to access the feeds,” said the AI, hesitating. “From the code signature, I was able to identify it as Union.”
Shit, I thought, groaning inwardly.
“This just went from bad to worse,” Farah murmured.
“Shall we abort?” asked Vega.
“No.” I shook my head. “We can’t risk them figuring out how to make the tech work. I’m not letting it stay in their hands either. Let’s stick to the plan. V, did they notice you in there?”
“No,” she said.
“Good. Let me know if anything changes. Also, see if you can get a visual on our Union pals,” I added.
“Of course, Captain.”
“You good?” I asked Farah.
She smirked. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
The lights in the cargo bay blinked off, shrouding the space in darkness, then the ramp began to lower. I didn’t want to be given away by a giant beam of light appearing out of thin air, should anyone be watching.
The two of us moved like shadows, just as we had been trained. I smirked behind my face glass at the thought of using their own training to screw them over.
It didn’t take long for us to make it to the door and we didn’t encounter anyone, which put me on edge. At one point, a pair of soldiers had been patrolling their route, but they were too far to be of any concern.
“It’s quiet,” Farah said into her helmet’s comms. “Too quiet.”
“Vega, run another scan. Something is off here, and I don’t care to be ambushed again.”
“I cannot scan inside the building without alerting them to my presence,” she said. “However, the area around your position is clear.”
Farah turned to me, but I couldn’t see her face through the darkened shield of her helmet. I assumed she was waiting to see if we would keep going, so I nodded.
She moved forward, ready to disarm the door locks, when a sliver of light caught my eye. I grabbed her arm and pointed at where it was just visible, then pulled the door open cautiously. As I’d suspected, the door was already compromised.
“Stay sharp,” I said. “They’re already inside.”
Almost as soon as we crossed the threshold a loud hum sounded. The lights went out, plunging us into darkness. Our helmets adjusted immediately and entered night vision mode.
“Status?” I asked the computer through my comm.
“I’ve lost all feeds,” Vega announced. “Power has been shut down.”
Great, just what we needed.
“Any idea who did it, Union or Empire?” I asked.
“My apologies, Captain. I cannot be sure at this time.”
“This keeps getting better and better,” I complained. “Alright, let’s keep moving and hope they didn’t send a full unit to this location already.”
Even without Vega to be our eyes, it was fairly simple to navigate the familiar building.
“Over here,” Farah said, calling me over to a room she’d just cleared.
There was a dead Imperial soldier crumpled on the floor, blood pooling out from his body. I looked away, feeling an odd mixture of emotions. On one hand, he was a soldier of the Empire. On the other hand, he was only carrying out his orders.
Just like you used to, a little voice reminded me.
“At least we know we’re on the right path,” Farah remarked, clearly not wrestling with the same feelings I was. The damage done to her family must have really jaded her, not that I could blame her.
We kept moving and found more bodies along the way. Some had been hidden in rooms like the first, but as we drew closer to the testing lab we sought, they were left in plain sight.
The Union team must have felt more at ease with the power off. The whole operation was making me edgy, but we didn’t turn back.
“This is weird,” Farah said after checking another body. She hesitated. “I noticed a few bodies back. They’ve all been killed the same way.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Remember how I knew Navari made the kills back on Sobek?”
“It’s like that. Almost like a signature.” Her voice sounded unsure.
“One person did all of this?” I asked incredulously.
“I think so. And that’s not all. I recognize—”
Just then a loud boom sounded from down the hall.
“We’re not far behind them, move!” I hissed, then took off in a sprint down the corridor.
The hall ended a hundred meters later, splitting into a T. A trail of Sarkonian bodies littered the way to the left and light spilled out into the darkened hallway. We were close.
We approached slowly to the sounds of grunts and blows landing, then silence.
“Ready?” I whispered over the helmet comm.
“Affirmative,” Farah answered.
I swung into the room, rifle slotted against my shoulder and tracking until I saw the figure clad in black standing in the middle of the room. They were holding a metal tube I could only assume to be the microbots.
“Put it down, slowly. You try anything and you’ll be joining your friends on the floor,” I said calmly after switching to external comms.
From their height and build, the person looked male, but I’d been fooled before. Still, my gut said it was a him. He wore an exosuit like ours but marked unmistakably with a Union emblem. The soldier didn’t make a move for a weapon but neither did he comply with my order.
I edged further into the room to let Farah stand next to me. I noticed she’d opted for her new bow, the blue markings glowing brilliantly in the darkened room.
The man tensed at Farah’s appearance, or maybe the foreign weapon she was holding. He straightened then and a faint buzz sounded from his exosuit. There was something in the way he stood, an over confident swagger. In our line of work that wasn’t usually an exaggeration and I made sure to be wary.
“Systems are coming back online within the facility,” warned Vega. “I estimate you have less than five minutes before reinforcements start to arrive.”
“Give him a warning,” I said to my partner.
“Gladly,” she said, taking a step forward.
She loosed one of her new arrows in his direction, but the man didn’t flinch, not even when it struck the body closest to him. The charged projectile detonated on impact and showered the immediate vicinity with bits of dead Sarkonian.
“Oops, a little too much power there,” she said apologetically over the helmet comms.
If the situation hadn’t been so tense, it might have been funny.
“The next one will be aimed at you,” I warned him. “Put it down and move to the far wall. I won’t ask again.”
“You’re either very stupid or suicidal,” he said, breaking his silence for the first time.
The voice that came out of his external suit comm was distorted with a computerized lilt. Probably courtesy of a voice changer in his speaker output.
“If you hit this container, we’re all dust, sweetheart.”
I bristled at the casual use of the endearment but kept my cool.
“I know,” I said agreeably. “Better that than the Union or the Empire having it.” I cocked my head at him when he didn’t respond. “I’m ready to die for my mission, Uni. The question is, are you?”
He seemed to consider that for a moment, though I couldn’t see his expression, then set the device gingerly on the ground. Raising his hands to indicate he meant no threat, the man backed away until he was touching the far wall.
“If he moves, light him up,” I instructed Farah so that he could hear.
A case lay open on one of the lab tables where the soldier had been standing, presumably about to load the weapon when we’d interrupted him. I put it on the floor and gently transferred the tube inside and secured it. It was more than a little terrifying that such a small item could destroy an entire planet.
I stood then and backed out the way we’d come in. When Farah was beside me again, I set the case down and bent to put a proximity charge on the floor.
“It has a five-minute timer,” I told the soldier. “You leave this room before that little light goes green and… well, you know.”
“Captain, I’ve regained access to the feeds,” Vega chimed in as we left.
No sooner had she spoken than the blare of sirens sounded and echoed through the building.
“Hostiles are headed your way,” she continued. “I can take control of the cams if you wish.”
“Not yet,” I grunted. “Can you lead us out?”
Vega took us out of the facility, narrowly avoiding almost all of the Imperial soldiers that were now swarming it. I didn’t feel the least bit guilty for leaving the Union soldier to be found this time. He’d made his choices and killed a good number of men and women trying to serve their government. Or had been forced to. Either way, they weren’t hurting anyone else.
Around the corner from our position, two grunts decked out in combat gear stood between us and the outside.
I passed the case to Farah and leveled my new rifle. As soon as I came into view one of them noticed me and started shouting, then raised her own weapon.
It only took a split second to line up my target and squeeze the trigger once, then twice. Each shot found its mark, one after the other, and slammed into the soldiers’ helmets.
The high-pitched whine of feedback sounded as the comms and helmet feeds were scrambled by the specialized ammunition. Both of the guards panicked, dropped their weapons, and beat on their respectively glitching face shields.
Farah moved forward, auto collapsing the glowing bow until it was just a grip again, then stripped the pair of their weapons. Neither of them put up a fight while they tried to manually break the seals on their suits and pry the screeching headgear off.
We were out the door before they succeeded. Farah checked one of the rifles before tossing the other into a nearby bush and moved in the direction of the Second Genesis.
“They still haven’t gotten around to biolocking their weapons,” she said, disapproval thick in her voice.
I shrugged. “What do you expect? The government’s cheap,” I replied. “We only had them because of our status and track record.”
“I guess,” she said, panting slightly. “But attacks like this might be prevented if they invested in better gear.”
“Better for us they didn’t,” I pointed out.
We were silent the rest of the way back and luckily didn’t run into any more issues.
“V, gimme a status report,” I said once we were on the bridge again.
“I have detected major breaks in the station’s security patterns,” the AI responded stoically. “However, nothing that would suggest they know our location.”
The understatement of her first words made me laugh.
Farah looked at me, then the command center. “Vega, did you just make a joke?” she asked incredulously.
“Indeed. I have been studying human interaction in order to better understand and serve you both. I learned that the Captain responds well to something called sarcasm.”
“Hilarious, as always, V,” I broke in from the captain's chair. “Now if you don’t mind, can we get out of here before the Imperials do discover us and blow us into tiny bits? Take us back to Neblinar. We’ve got enough juice to make it there without stopping, right?”
“Yes, Captain Cortez. Setting a course now,” replied the AI in a more sober tone this time.
Farah and I stood in the cargo bay once we were safely inside a slip tunnel. I’d ordered Vega to do a scan on the newly acquired weapon to make sure it wasn’t going to open from a malfunction and destroy the ship or us along with it.
“The device does not appear to be activated,” Vega said after the analysis was complete.
“For a computer you don’t sound very sure,” Farah commented.
“Gotta agree, V. Your words do not inspire confidence. What do you mean the device does not appear to be activated?” I asked suspiciously.
“My apologies, Captain.” The AI sounded almost sheepish now. “If you’ll recall Navari’s encrypted notes, the origin of this technology was unknown.”
I rolled my hand, saying that I did remember.
“They were not wrong. It pains me to say that I am unable to ascertain the exact nature of the technology,” Vega said.
“So, you’re telling me you don’t have a clue if it’s about kill us all,” I said, more a statement than question. “You included, by the way. If the ship goes bye bye, so do you,” I reminded her.
“Not at the present moment,” she admitted. Somewhat testily, too. “I assure you, Captain, I have no intention of allowing such a thing to happen.”
I scrubbed at my face in frustration.
Farah looked at the container with a pensive expression.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Hmm? Oh, I was just trying to figure out what we’re supposed to do with it. We’ve already determined it’s far too dangerous to fall into the wrong hands. But I don’t think we’re necessarily the right ones. And I’m not entirely comfortable with it being on the ship. Seems a bit dangerous.”
I thought about that for a long moment. Farah had a point. We couldn’t just jet around in open space hauling something that could destroy entire worlds.
“Right,” I said, nodding. “Can you imagine if pirates or some asshole Renegade got their grubby mitts on this? I mean, I’m pretty confident in our little team, but I’m not about to bet the whole of the universe on it.”
“Exactly,” Farah replied. She swept a hand over the small tube then gestured at the rest of the cargo bay.
I followed her gaze, my eyes scanning over the specialized cargo lockers. They were designed to hold a variety of substances and could withstand small blasts if needed. We had quite a few, but they weren’t limitless.
“We can’t just keep storing stuff here,” I said aloud. “We’ve already got the tech from Karbine and now this. So, what do we do with it?” I echoed her earlier words.
Neither of us had a ready answer.
“What about your parents?” I asked. “Would they know of a way to get rid of tech like this? Maybe the rebel faction could use it to do some good.”
Farah hesitated before speaking and I got the sense she was working something out within herself.
Finally, she spoke. “I love and trust my parents. And the rebellion network is doing good work…”
“But?” I prompted when she trailed off.
“But there are individuals who would see this as a way to get rid of both the Union and the Empire,” she continued. “Which isn’t exactly a bad thing. But would they stop there? I know my mom and dad. They would hand it over expecting the people at the top to do the right thing. I don’t have that same kind of faith. Especially after everything we’ve witnessed recently.”
I contemplated the scenarios in which a rebel faction took over all of the known systems. As bad as the Union and Sarkonian Empire were, at least we knew what we were dealing with. Farah was right to be cautious.
“There’s still the matter of making enough credits to keep 2G here in tip top and fueled up,” she continued.
I groaned. “Thanks for the reminder. I know I said I’d never lower myself to selling services, but it may be time to reconsider.”
Farah’s mouth fell open in shock. “W-what?! You can’t be serious!” she sputtered.
I burst out laughing.
“Your face! I was talking about becoming Renegades. I guess your mind’s still back in one of Leah station’s many gutters.” By that point I was struggling to breathe between the fits of laughter.
My partner looked less amused. Slightly.
“Oh, come on,” I said, wiping tears from my cheeks. “It was funny.”
“No, it was. I was just thinking you might be onto something,” she replied.
That sobered me up.
“What? No, that’s a terrible idea, that’s why I was laughing so hard. They don’t have any morals, everyone knows that.” I scrunched my nose up in mock disgust. “I wasn’t being serious.”
“I am. Think about it. Renegades pick and choose their jobs, right? So, we could do that. Specialize in rescue missions or protection detail. Or"—she paused and slid a sly glance my way—“we could advertise—discreetly, of course—anti-government services. We take days off when we want, mess with the Empire a little, save people, all while making some dough.”
That piqued my interest and I sat up a little straighter. It didn’t sound half bad when she said it like that. I considered the notion and decided it might be worth looking into, though I had a few questions.
“If being a Renegade is so great, why isn’t everyone doing it?” I asked.
“My understanding is that most Renegades have to borrow money in order to get a ship and start working,” Farah said. “Loan sharks aren’t usually the best people. They charge crazy interest that can’t reasonably be paid back in the allotted time.”
She answered pretty quickly. Too quickly. I wondered how she knew so much and made a mental note to ask later.
“So, they basically get blackmailed into doing whatever they want,” I finished.
“Pretty much.” She gave me a wry smile. “But we’ve already got a ship, decent weapons, and everything else. Plus, we have Vega.”
“Why thank you, Miss Shahi.” The AI was back to sounding chipper again.
I waved a hand to keep the conversation moving. “Okay, say we did that. Say it worked. We still have the problem of what to do with any tech we come across,” I pointed out.
Sophie smiled brightly at the statement. “Actually, I think I have an idea for that. There are all sorts of abandoned asteroids, dead moons, and uninhabitable planets scattered around all the systems. It shouldn’t be hard to find one that’s been picked clean that can house whatever we don’t want on the ship. Then if we need something it’s a quick slip tunnel trip to grab it or drop more off.”
I had to admit she made a lot of sense.
“How do you know so much anyway?” I asked. “No, wait, let me guess. You have a Renegade aunt or some shit like that.”
“Actually, I think it’s another cousin,” she said with a chuckle. “But I also wanted to be one when I was a kid, probably from seeing them on the holo. It looked pretty glamorous. Didn’t you ever want to be anything? You know… before?”
Whatever smartass remark I’d been about to make died on my lips as the image of stargazing with my father resurfaced. “I wanted to explore the unknown and have a constellation named after me,” I said softly. “But that was a long time ago.”
“Not sure about the unknown. There might not be any of that left,” Farah replied. “But if we wreak enough havoc on the governments, they might name a black hole after you.”
“Guess I’ll have to settle for that then,” I said with a smirk.
We made it back to Neblinar the next day. I’d been wary about landing there before, but now it almost felt like home, and after the filth on Leah it looked like an upscale resort. Even with the threat of the two biggest governments in the universe looming I still managed to relax a little once we docked.
I didn’t want to leave the microbots on the ship unattended, so Farah stayed behind while I went to buy fuel.
As I made my way through the throngs of people to the dock master, the little hairs on the back of my neck raised, but I didn’t see any obvious threats. I stopped at a food hovercart for a quick bite and used it as an excuse to check out my surroundings.
The docks were busy. People unloading from ships, haggling over goods, pickpockets. No one in particular stood out. I thought I caught a flash of black moving a little too quickly for my taste, but the person disappeared, and I didn’t see them again.
I’m just jumpy after everything that’s happened, I reasoned.
Still, I figured it was best not to linger, so I finished my business as quickly as possible then returned to Farah and the ship without making any more stops. I’d rather overreact and feel stupid than ignore my gut and end up in front of a firing squad or back in solitary.
When I got back Mack and Farah were on the bridge instead of the cargo bay this time.
“Nice to see you again,” the hacker greeted me. “And alive at that,” she added jokingly.
I nodded back in perfect agreement. “Same here.”
“Shahi here filled me in on some of your plans. I think it’s probably your best bet to hide it,” she commented. “I gave Vega some coordinates of possible locations to check out when you have a chance.”
“Thanks,” I said, meaning it. “The offer is still open. You’re welcome to join us,” I added with a wink.
She shook her head wistfully. “You know, that doesn’t sound half bad. I’d consider it if I didn’t have some things to take care of here first. But you need to get those lethal composters off this beauty of a ship and save the free worlds.”
Mack had supplied us with a number of candidates where we could possibly offload the replicating microbots. The hope was to find a spot where no one would think to look or accidentally stumble over our secret.
I laughed. “Maybe next time. There will always be a spot for you on the Second Genesis.”
“She’s going to keep her ear to the ground for jobs like we talked about,” Farah chimed in.
“Okay, as long as no one calls me a Renegade. We’re more like Robyns anyway.”
Both Mack and my co-captain looked at me quizzically.
“That fairytale about the band of merry women that went around disrupting order?”
From their blank expressions I could tell they had no clue what I was talking about.
“Whatever, I liked it as a kid,” I grumbled. “Anyway, the point is that everything they did was for the good of the people. They only took what they needed.”
Farah tapped a finger on her chin thoughtfully.
“I like it,” she decided.
“If it’s jobs you want, I can put a posting out and see what happens. If any jobs come up that fit the bill, I can pass the information along,” Mack offered.
“That’ll work.” I nodded. “We better get going then. I don’t want to keep those murder bots any longer than we have to.”
“I don’t blame you,” the hacker agreed. “Let me set up the system for encrypted transmissions so we can communicate more sensitive info. Less chance of being intercepted that way, but even if someone does, they won’t be able to read them.”
It didn’t take her long to make the changes and we were saying goodbye a few minutes later.
“Here, take this.” Mack pulled a metallic cylinder about the size of a thermos from her bag and passed it to me.
“Thanks. What is it?” I asked, turning it over in my hands.
She grinned slyly. “A little ship warming, congrats on the new job, fuck the system gift. It’s lined with neutronium. Should block any kind of scan that would detect the slaughter bots.”
My mouth fell open and I gaped at her for a good ten seconds before closing it again. Neutronium was notoriously hard to get ahold of and ridiculously expensive. Even the relatively small amount I currently held had to be worth a small fortune.
“How the hell did you get your hands on that?” Farah demanded, voicing my unspoken question.
Mack’s smile went even wider and she lifted a shoulder nonchalantly. “No big deal. Some of my clients pay me really well.”
“You sure you want to part with it? You could make a tidy profit it.” It pained me to ask but I didn’t feel right just taking it. “You’ve already done so much for us with all the tech work—which, I might add, you didn’t charge us for.”
To my relief, Mack waved the offer away.
“Don’t worry about it. I make enough from what I do. That’s just been collecting dust. Farah is family and now you are too. Not to mention you guys are doing work that matters. Besides, it looks like a perfect fit.”
Afterward we’d shown her the microbots to get her opinion on them and she’d agreed with our decision not to give it to the rebellion.
I nodded gratefully. “Thanks. I feel better about leaving the weapon somewhere with this to conceal it.”
We said our lat goodbyes, undocked, and were following a course to the first set of coordinates less than three hours after our arrival.
The deadlands were littered with pockets of space that nobody cared about anymore. Like my partner had said, it was just a matter of finding one that would fit our needs. Close, off the well-travelled path, and off anyone’s radar.
The first candidate was located in the Paxos System. Paxos was a sprawling system and had the distinction of having been the center of a great war between the Empire and the Unions, back when the Sarkonian Empire was more the more powerful of the two. Unfortunately for them, the Union won, and it was only the beginning of Empire’s long fall from greatness.
As usual, it had been the civilians who had suffered most. A good number of planets and colonies had been decimated as a result. According to Mack’s information, the Union had set up a slew of military outposts near key locations to make sure the Empire didn’t attempt to reclaim its former territory.
After the outposts ceased to be useful, the Union had abandoned them. AQ-81 was one such planet with a noxious atmosphere that had once been rich in something the government found important. Now it was a husk of its former self and too far from anything to be worth guarding. Its station had been left behind to rot years ago if Mack’s information was correct.
“Vega, run a scan,” I ordered when the planet was within the sensors’ reach.
From our current location it was barely visible, just a small light in the distance, lit up by the star it orbited.
“Working,” she replied, then went silent for a few beats. “No sign of any significant activity, though I do detect a minimal power output.”
I was cut off as the Second Genesis quaked violently and knocked me to the ground. It felt as though something had collided with the ship. Something big.
“What the hell was that?” I checked the holodisplay but didn’t see anything we could have hit.
“It felt like we docked with another ship,” Farah said, her fingers dancing over the controls.
“That is correct,” Vega confirmed. “At this moment they are attempting to access my systems. Please—”
Her voice became garbled as she tried to finish speaking, then it died away completely.
Farah looked at me, eyes wide in alarm. We both sprinted from the bridge to the airlock. Thankfully it hadn’t been forced open yet, though it was only a matter of time.
“Vega, status?” No response.
“Get to the armory,” I snapped to Farah, unholstering my pistol. “We should have at least some time before whoever the hell that is blows the door or overrides the locks.”
Before she could take a step, a hiss sounded announcing our uninvited guest’s presence inside the airlock. Seconds later it slid open, which should have been impossible without the codes.
At first, I thought the airclock was empty, but then a man stood from where he’d been squatting. I realized he must’ve been using some kind tech to hardline into the door controls.
Stupid, I thought. I should have considered that as a possibility.
The thought was fleeting though as I took in the figure before me. I only had a few moments to process the sight in front of me, but it was long enough for me to recognize him from his stance and Union gear. It was the man from Chaundra.
Then the soldier looked up, finally revealing a face I knew all too well. “You guys should really change your backup codes,” said Ensign-Haas.
My mouth dropped open for the second time that day and I didn’t have to look at Farah to know she was having a similar reaction.
Haas wore the same exosuit marked up with Union blue that I’d seen on Chaundra, though he’d seemed taller at the time. His blonde hair had been buzzed since we’d parted ways back on Sobek.
“Surprised to see me?” Haas mocked, looking from me to Farah. “It’s okay, I would be too. You probably thought the Union would clean up after your mess on Sobek. They did, in their way.”
He started to take a step forward but stopped when I pointed the gun at his face.
“How?” I asked bluntly. Not that I cared, I just wanted more time to collect my thoughts and figure out how to deal with this new problem.
Our former teammate looked different. His eyes looked empty of emotion and his smile had a manic quality that sent a chill skittering along my spine.
Haas fixed cold, blue eyes on me. “Isn’t it obvious? The Union captured me when you left me like a sacrifice at that godsforsaken house. You remember, it was right after you murdered our commander in cold blood.”
Seeing his smug face unharmed didn’t exactly make me feel bad about that, so I curled a lip snidely and shrugged.
“Cold blood? You know what went down,” I said. “She tried to kill a child. There are just some lines that shouldn’t be crossed.”
Now Haas shrugged, then spread his hands and flashed us a sardonic smile. “Maybe, maybe not. Anyway, the Union arrested me and tried to get Sarkon to admit they’d sent a kill team.”
“And they refused,” I guessed. “They probably disavowed you and Navari to save face.”
He nodded. “I played the part of the good soldier and claimed to have gone rogue. Figured Kaska might send the Void in for me but he didn’t.”
My ears perked up at the mention of the Vice-Admiral but I didn’t comment on it. Could Haas be involved with whatever Navari and Kaska had been up to?
“That still doesn’t explain how you’re here and why you’re dressed like Union,” I pointed out.
Haas gestured widely at me and Farah. “Looks like you two got new looks too. I gotta admit, not bad.”
I didn’t smile. “Answer the question, Haas.”
“Fine. They gave me a choice,” he explained. “Join them or die. It was an easy decision. My unit and my government betrayed me. Why would I want to stay loyal?”
His guilt trip didn’t bother me, and I cocked an eyebrow to tell him as much.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Farah pull her sidearm out slowly.
“Speaking of that, why does the Union trust you?” I asked suspiciously, keeping his attention on me.
Haas glowered, his expression going stormy, and he pointed at his neck where a bandage covered what I assumed was an incision. “Because if I don’t do exactly as they say, my head will be forcibly removed from my body. So, when they ordered me to Chaundra I had no compunction switching loyalties,” he finished.
“I don’t blame you for not feeling loyal to the Empire,” Farah said, speaking for the first time. “But you killed Sarkonian soldiers who were only doing their job. They were your countrymen.”
She’d been quiet for the last few minutes but now I could see that she was almost vibrating with suppressed anger. Maybe I’d misjudged her previous reaction.
Haas scoffed. “Says the woman who held me at gunpoint, stood by her best friend as she murdered her commander without batting an eye, and turned into a common terrorist.”
“You’re an idiot if you think that,” she snapped. “Navari was going to kill a child. She brought that on herself. We haven’t killed anyone needlessly. In fact, we’ve stopped—”
“Sophie,” I said sharply, using her old name and shaking my head so she’d stop talking. The less Haas knew, the better.
“I know you tried to sell the first weapon on Leah,” he accused. “It doesn’t even matter. I’m not here to debate with you, I’m here for the replicators you stole.”
“Not gonna happen,” I said flatly. I knew deep within my soul that the self-replicating tech couldn’t go into his hands.
“If you refuse to give it up then I have no choice but to take it by force,” he warned.
I snorted. “You can try. Even if you get through us, what makes you think it’s on the ship?”
That seemed to give him pause because it took a few seconds before he spoke again. “If it’s not on the ship then it’s on Neblinar, which I know you’re not stupid enough to do. It’s also fairly obvious that you’re out here looking for somewhere to stash it until you find a buyer. Unless you’re planning on—”
I used his momentary distraction and fired a shot aimed at his leg. It hit the mark but it ricocheted uselessly off. Still, he was forced to focus on staying upright so I tossed the gun in Farah’s general direction and launched myself at Haas.
He grunted when we collided but only stumbled back a few steps. It gave me enough time to ram my elbow into his chin. Not my best move, but I didn’t have a lot of options since his suit covered everything but his head. Focusing on that I started raining punches.
Haas laughed as he easily blocked my strikes with his armor protected arms.
“Hey, you’re kind of cute when you’re mad,” he said, trying to bait me. “I can see why Kamal had a thing for you. Maybe once you’re over this little fit you can give me a real apology.”
“You son of a bitch,” I snarled.
That did it. I hauled my left hand back like I was going to smack him. He fell for it and dropped his guard to grab my wrist. My free fist snaked out and connected with his nose hard enough that blood spurted out. With a howl of pain, he shook me off and shoved me back hard.
Haas was stronger than I’d anticipated, and I tumbled back. With nothing to grab onto I used the momentum to go into a backward roll.
The deafening bang of a bullet exploding out of Farah’s pistol rang out. His shoulder jerked slightly from the shot, but it only seemed to piss him off more. Now all of Haas’ attention was focused squarely on her.
It would be idiocy to attack while she was firing on him, but Farah was having just about as much luck as I had. His armor was just too thick for our ammunition to penetrate. Like me, she must have realized his head was the only vulnerable area and took aim at that. He was on her before she could fire again though, and he knocked the gun out of her hands in a blur of movement.
Now that the shooting had stopped, I rushed at him from behind. Before I could get to them, Haas delivered a lightning quick side kick that landed with a sickening crunch. His suit made the same whirring sound that I’d heard on Chaundra and I realized it must be fitted with power mechanics. There was no way she or I could compete with that. We were in deeper shit than I’d thought.
Farah didn’t just rock back. She flew bodily into the wall behind her and collapsed in a heap. I couldn’t tell if she was breathing but I had to deal with him before I could help my friend.
“You asshole,” I growled. “Get the hell away from her.”
“Eva, be logical. Do you really believe you can beat me in a fight?”
His confident grin only incensed me further, but I was stuck. The bastard had me there. We’d sparred before but never anything serious.
“How was that burger, by the way?” he sneered. “I was kind of hoping you’d stick around that skin club a little longer.
I flashed back to Leah and the figure at the bar. The one I’d thought looked just like Mateo. How had Haas managed that?
“Fuck,” I said when he was suddenly in front of me. He’d used the same tactic I had earlier to close the short distance between us.
My reaction time was slow, too godsdamn slow to stop him from grabbing one of my arms and forcing it behind my back in one quick movement. I stepped backward and tried a reverse headbutt in an attempt to force him back, but he didn’t budge.
I went limp, letting myself fall so he’d have to lean to catch me. When he did, I pushed up on the balls of my feet with everything I had and pulled away. It worked and Haas released my arm.
His hand shot up and wrapped around my throat with more power than should have been possible. I knew in that instant that if he chose to, he could snap my neck with little effort. Instead, Haas held me at arm’s length just far enough away that I couldn’t punch him in the face.
Years of training made my muscle responses almost automatic but none of it was working. It was like he had superhuman strength and I wondered if the Union had dosed him with a muscle enhancer on top of the mech suit.
Giving up on traditional combat moves, I switched into hellcat mode. I clawed and kicked for everything I was worth. Something soft tore under my hands and Haas screamed as my nails raked over his exposed skin. The next instant I was sailing through the air and landing hard on the ground.
I saw stars when my eyes opened but I also saw the gun he’d knocked from Farah’s hands. It took a couple of clumsy tries, but my fingers finally closed around the grip. I swung it around to see him barreling toward me.
I shot two rounds before he was on top of me and pinning my arms with his knees. My limbs were on fire, but I refused to let it show or give up.
“It didn’t have to come to this,” he hissed, one fist cocked back.
“Yes, it did,” I disagreed. “I should have killed you when I had the chance.”
“Have it your way,” he said. Then his fist came down and everything went black.
For the second time in as many weeks, I woke up in the brig with a throbbing head. Haas had stripped me of anything of use, including my boots.
Raising a hand, I gingerly touched the tender spot on my jaw where he’d punched me. I found it swollen and sore but not broken.
A groan sounded on my right and I turned to find that Farah was in the cell with me, propped up against the wall. She had one arm wrapped around her ribs and a pained expression on her face. That didn’t surprise me given the kick she’d taken, though I hadn’t expected Haas to leave us together.
An oversight that might come back to bite him.
“You okay?” My voice came out in a croak and I struggled into a sitting position.
“Yeah, I’m alright so long as you define alright as a searing, agonizing pain ripping through my ribs,” she said darkly.
I winced and pushed myself up into a sitting position. “Anything broken?”
Farah nodded grimly. “He didn’t exactly let me go to the med bay for a scan but I’m guessing at least one, maybe two, ribs are cracked. I didn’t imagine any of that, right? Ensign-Haas is not only not dead or in prison but has now become a Union grunt.”
“Unfortunately, not your imagination,” I said. Part of me wished we had imagined the whole episode, but it remained our current reality. Getting to my feet, I rolled my shoulders to work out some of the stiffness and scanned the tiny space.
“There’s nothing useful,” Farah confirmed from her spot on the floor. “I checked. Vega hasn’t responded in the last few minutes either.”
I planted my hands on my hips. “Any idea what’s going on right now?”
She shrugged, then immediately flinched. The movement must have hurt. “I’ve only been up a little longer than you. Maybe fifteen minutes.”
“Okay, so what do we know?” I started pacing the cell. “The asswipe has been following us at least since Chaundra, though I don’t know how he did it with the cloak in place. He said it was him, the familiar person I saw at the bar,” I clarified, noticing her puzzled expression. “But I thought it was Mateo.”
“They don’t look anything alike,” she said, wrinkling her brow in confusion.
“I know,” I admitted. “Not sure how he did it either.”
Realization dawned on Farah’s face then her forehead knitted together as if she’d just remembered something. “Gods, I’m stupid. I knew I recognized the kill style on Chaundra.” Her eyes flashed with irritation. “I never got to tell you, but it was the same upside-down triangle Mat used to make. I didn’t bring it up again because it seemed impossible. Haas must have done it deliberately to throw us off. But why?”
I shrugged, wishing it had been Mateo instead of Haas. But as I knew all too well, wishes didn’t come true.
“Right, I remember you saying something about that,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. Even if we had both said something it wouldn’t change anything. We’d have chalked it up to being crazy or whatever.”
Heavy silence settled over the cell. With no weapons or access to the Second Genesis and Vega, we were well and truly screwed. Being locked up in a cage was making me antsy so I continued to stalk back and forth and willed my brain to come up with something.
“I wish there was a window or something in here,” Farah complained after a few minutes. “It’s impossible to tell if we’re in a slip tunnel or anything. For all we know he already got the microbots and left us here to die.”
“The Ensign has not yet been able to locate the item,” announced Vega from the cell’s comm speaker.
A wave of relief flooded over me at the computer’s sudden arrival, such as it was. With her back, maybe we stood a chance.
“It’s good to hear your voice, V. Where are we?” I asked.
“Same to you, Captain. We have not moved from our previous location,” answered the AI. “I apologize for my prolonged absence. His ship’s computer attempted to take control of our systems. It required all of my processes to defend against. Mr. Haas’ vessel is not capable of towing the Second Genesis.”
Sophie and I exchanged a grin. Finally, some good news.
“He’s probably already called for backup,” I speculated. “Vega, can you get us out?”
Should have led with that, I chided myself.
“Yes, Captain. I am working on that now. While the other entity did not achieve full control, they did manage to breach a few non critical systems and are preventing me from accessing navigation controls. I am nearly back in command.”
“How much longer? We’re done if the Union shows up. I don’t plan on letting any of us die today, but we’re going to need out of the brig,” I said.
“Working,” answered Vega. “Please standby.”
“You never know, they might offer the same deal they gave to Haas,” Sophie pointed out.
“No thanks. I’d rather shoot myself,” I said, dismissing the idea. “Or they can leave me in open space without a suit.”
Joining the Union was akin to going back to the Empire in my book. We’d still be under someone’s thumb. I’d gotten a taste of real freedom and wouldn’t be giving it up anytime soon.
“I am pleased to inform you that such drastic action will not be necessary,” Vega reported.
The door to our cell hissed open.
It took considerable control for me not to leap out of the room in case Vega lost access again. I went to Farah and helped her up, then put her arm around my shoulders to support her weight as we made our way down that corridor. She didn’t complain but her face had turned a sick, pasty shade and droplets of sweat beaded her brow.
I stopped at the split that led to the bridge in one direction and the cargo bay in the other.
“Stay here,” I ordered her.
“No argument here,” she gasped.
I left her leaning against the wall and ran to the armory. I came back with a med kit, rifle, and her new bow.
“Can you carry these to the bridge?” I asked, studying her face. “Once we’re clear of his ship you need be there in case something goes wrong.”
The rest seemed to have improved her color and she nodded.
“Okay. I can stay and help you get patched up, but I don’t know how much time we have.”
“Go kick his ass,” Farah said firmly. With some effort, she pushed away from the wall and took the items I’d brought, her face a mask of determination.
I nodded curtly and started to leave when she spoke again. “What are you going to do with Haas?”
I paused. The truth was that I had no idea. Our former teammate stood between us and survival, but could I kill him? That depended on him I guessed.
“Let me worry about that,” I told her. “Just be ready.”
I stepped into the still open airlock between our two ships, moving slow and quiet. I assumed he’d thought Vega wouldn’t be able to release us as quickly as she did and had left it open to have easier access to both.
The Genesis was larger and nicer than what the Union had supplied him with. It actually reminded me of a Sarkonian drop ship with its dirty interior and secondhand appearance. I wondered if it was equipped with a working weapons system or Haas hadn’t earned that much trust yet.
He was a freshly turned Sarkonian, one whose hand they’d forced, though I did have some responsibility there. Reason would have dictated not to give someone like that a ship that could be used against them but hey, they’d been that stupid before.
The fact that the Empire had turned around after receiving the former Dreadnight and used it to run counter missions against the very people who had given it to them showed that much.
I navigated my way through the small vessel with the help of faded signs at each junction. After leaving Farah, I’d returned to the armory to grab some firepower for myself. One rifle, a pistol, and a few smaller things I thought could be useful against a partially enhanced special ops soldier.
I’d passed over extra armor, not wanting to waste the time to put them on and hoped I wouldn’t regret that. The image of Haas kicking Farah came to mind and I got pissed all over again. The former ensign had some nerve. It occurred to me that he probably wanted revenge for our leaving him on Sobek, but another part of me felt he’d always been this way.
“Operative Haas, reinforcements will arrive within four hours,” a computerized male voice spoke over the ship’s comms in a slightly distorted tone.
Four hours, I thought. Less, really, to detach the Genesis and get the hell out of Union space. That should be more than enough.
He didn’t respond, at least not that I heard, but he was here somewhere. So far, every room on the ship had been closed. If he was in one of them, I had no way to get to him, so I crossed my fingers that he was on the bridge.
There didn’t seem to be anyone else on the ship, but I held the rifle at high-ready as I methodically cleared the last turn and crept toward the entrance to the bridge. Haas already had the advantage here and I needed any edge I could get.
If I could make it inside without drastic measures, there was a slim chance I could take him by surprise. If he wasn’t facing the door and had gone deaf recently anyway. All I could do was try and hope to give Vega enough time to get the Genesis free.
When I arrived, it turned out that the door was already open, so I didn’t have to worry about forcing it. It occurred to me then that he was being careless, or at least wanted it to appear that way. I barely dared to breathe as I inched forward, pausing every few seconds to take in the small room and sweep for traps.
As far as bridges went, this one looked pretty standard, if on the small side. Two crew seats flanked the captain’s chair instead of the five we had, and the command center looked a little worn, but it appeared to function well enough. At least enough that he’d managed to not only track us but gain access to an upgraded and unrestricted AI.
I wondered absently if the ship had been upgraded for his tasks and only looked like a hunk of metal space junk for appearances.
I made a mental note to ask Mack about that in case we actually made it out of here alive. It rankled me to know he so easily boarded us.
The man in question stood at the holo display studying something I couldn’t make out. Easing the rifle up slowly, I put the back of his skull in the crosshairs but hesitated.
What are you going to do with him? Farah’s question came back to me.
My index finger twitched and danced lightly over the side of the trigger. With less than three kilos of pressure it could be over right now. All I had to do was shoot.
But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t shoot an unarmed man in the back. Not even this unarmed man.
“You’ve been busy, Eva.” He turned slowly and locked his eyes on mine.
It didn’t surprise me at all that he knew I’d been standing there. He’d probably been aware of my presence as soon as I entered the airlock. Hell, for all I knew he’d been monitoring the brig and knew the instant we left.
I didn’t lower my weapon or answer.
“I have to say, you shocked the hell out of me by turning your back on the Empire like that. And dragging Sophie into it?” Haas whistled low. “Didn’t think you had it in you.”
His words didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’d dealt with far worse. What did piss me off was that he felt comfortable using our first names.
“That’s Delgado and Singh to you, Operative Haas,” I retorted. “And you know damn well how I feel about killing innocent people.”
He spread his hands a little way in a conceding gesture. “Still. A terrorist? That’s a bit extreme, even for you.”
“I’m not a terrorist,” I said. “But the Empire needed me to be. When Navari left Kamal to die and ordered me to kill that kid, everything changed. Sarkon lost my loyalty then, but that doesn’t make me a terrorist.”
Haas blinked, a look of confusion clouding his features momentarily before they smoothed out again and a smirk formed. “And look where that got you. Being hunted by the Union and Sarkon no matter where you go or how far. Tell me, Eva. Would you do it all over again?”
I let the rifle fall a fraction, so he had an unobstructed view of my face.
“Yes. Even after all of this bullshit.”
He held my gaze for a few more seconds, then turned and waved a hand at the holo display.
“The Union wants those replicators back,” he said. “But they’re also interested in both you and Sophie. And her bow.”
“Interested in us why? So, they can just trade us back to the Empire?”
He laughed derisively. “Unlikely. There isn’t much the Empire has to offer. You, on the other hand… I was sent to retrieve the airborne weapon from Karbine, but you beat me there. My new superiors ordered me to not to interfere in case my identity was accidentally discovered.”
“So, you followed us to Leah,” I guessed. “How did you do that by the way?” I hated to admit that it had been bugging me.
“It wasn’t hard.” His lip curled up into a sardonic leer. “After my report, they were interested. Wanted me to track you without interfering. When you left Karbine it was easy to follow your burn trajectory. With Leah being the closest station, it was a logical deduction. Once you left to get supplies, I tagged your ship. Z9 gave me a little zap for my trouble.”
“You were the thief,” I realized, remembering Vega telling us about the incident.
“Yes. You two made it pretty easy.” He smirked again.
“What’s so special about the bow?” I wondered.
He shrugged as if he didn’t care. “It’s some kind of ancient tech they’ve been wanting to get their hands on. They have some artifacts that look just like it but haven’t been able to get them working. It’s amazing that Sarkonian engineers were able to succeed where they failed,” he mused.
“So, the arms dealer wasn’t lying, it really did come from a Sarkonian weapons shipment,” I said to myself. “Look, none of that matters,” I continued urgently. “If you’ve been reading our files you know what the Empire is doing. Running weapons testing on their own people? You can’t be on board with that. Let us go so we can stop it.”
“Let you go?” Haas shook his head. “I don’t think so. If the Sarkonians want to destroy themselves and create a rebel uprising in the process, then all the better for the Union.”
I bristled with anger at his arrogance, though I made a note to tell Farah that the Union was aware of the brewing rebellion.
“Sophie’s out of the brig on our ship. We know you’re here now, so you’ve lost the element of surprise. Surely you realize you can’t take us alone? Undock from us and it’ll be like we were never here. Otherwise...” I let the words hang in the air and raised the rifle a fraction in a suggestive motion.
Haas grinned then, a cold, sly smile that said he knew something I didn’t.
“Whatever made you think I was alone, Eva?”
A noise behind me drew my attention. I’d been so distracted and sure that he was by himself that I hadn’t been listening for more threats.
I whirled to meet the new threat, but they were already on me and shoved the muzzle of my rifle up before I could get a shot off.
Not that I could have anyway.
“You son of a bitch.” I was all out of patience and restraint. Before I could stop myself, I hauled back and smacked Lieutenant-Mateo Kamal in the face with as much of my considerable force as I could muster.
“You only get one of those, Delgado,” he warned me, then yanked the rifle from my grasp.
“One free shot. That’s all you get,” laughed a twenty-one-year-old Mateo as he rubbed his face gingerly.
We were sparring as we did every week since the first time we had met. So far, I had yet to beat him. The man was a force to be reckoned with, but I’d come close. Once.
This time I’d taken a cheap shot and landed a blow to his chin. I was thankful for the practice gloves, otherwise my hand would be throbbing.
Over the past few months we had come to know each other more than I’d expected, and the more time we spent together the more I realized how alike we were. That initial meeting where I thought him too outgoing was not his norm.
Mateo was only that person with me. Gods knew why after I had been so prickly to him, but we’d become friends just the same. His exterior shell was just as thick as mine, if not more so.
About a month into training, Recruit-Cooper had made the mistake of goading my friend into a fight after seeing us together. Mateo challenged him then and there to a Mano Duel—a no weapons, hand to hand contest where two fighters fought until one of them surrendered or lost consciousness. That fight ended with Cooper in the infirmary and he had yet to speak to either of us again.
Now I circled Mateo in the empty training room, looking for an opening in his guard. As usual I didn’t see one, but I smirked like I had and bull rushed forward, dropping my gaze to his left elbow.
He instinctively shifted to protect that side, but I feigned and went right as I closed the small gap between us to deliver a punishing blow to his ribs. Mat grunted but didn’t step back and I danced away.
“Good one,” he said with a nod. “When it’s you and the enemy, honor goes out the window. Cunning is just as effective as a well-placed punch.”
Little beads of sweat had started to collect and slide down his face and we were both breathing heavy after going at it for that past hour.
“We’re the same age, Kamal,” I reminded him. “I’ve been training just as long as you. And I know you’re just trying to distract me. Won’t work.”
I smiled smugly at him and he grinned back.
We moved toward each other like lightning. I easily blocked one of his strikes and stepped into his space until our bodies touched.
“Hey,” he protested. “That’s not—”
With my hands on either side of his face I pulled him close and laid my lips on his. Mateo’s dark eyes went wide with shock. His body went lax long enough for me to grab one arm and spin inward, perform a throw that put him on the ground, then straddle him with my forearm pressed to his throat.
“You were saying?” I asked triumphantly. I was more than a little elated that my ploy had worked.
In the next instant he levered up, throwing me off balance, then suddenly I was on my back and he was peering down at me. His strong hands braceleted my wrists and I couldn’t pull them free. I had a moment to think that his eyes had appeared to turn a shade darker than usual, then Mateo leaned down and took my mouth in a rough kiss.
I understood his initial reaction to mine immediately. Blood rushed in my ears and I suddenly couldn’t breathe, but it had nothing to do with fatigue. My bones seemed to have become jelly and all rational thought deserted me.
“Okay, let me up, loser,” I said when he broke the kiss.
He made no move to set me free and instead brushed his lips against mine, softer this time. I couldn’t help myself. Gods help me, but I kissed him back.
“Why did this take so long?” he grunted.
Before I could answer, the sound of voices outside the room warned us that company was coming, and Mateo sprang off of me guiltily. The government discouraged fraternization at this stage in our training and neither of us needed that kind of reprimand making it back to our parents.
He extended his hand and it reminded me of our first exchange with one another. This time I let him help me up, a sign of the trust that had grown between us.
“Meet me later at our usual spot,” Mateo said gruffly. Then he was gone without waiting for my answer and the door slid smoothly shut behind him, leaving me standing alone on the mat.
“What the fuck just happened?” I asked the empty room.
“Unable to process inquiry,” commented the room’s aging computer.
Feeling like an idiot, I grabbed my gear and stalked out, unsure whether meeting him later would be a good idea.
Those old memories bubbled to the surface of my mind, threatening to betray my emotion as I looked at the very much alive Mateo Kamal standing before me.
After our first kiss that day all those years ago, I had decided to go to him. I’d convinced myself to keep him at arm’s length because I didn’t want to admit that he was more than a friend to me. In the name of not ruining our friendship, we’d agreed to keep things casual and had finished training as though the kiss had never happened.
After being stationed on separate warships I’d only seen him a handful of times before we were both placed under Navari’s command.
Still, I’d kept my feelings locked up tight, refusing to acknowledge them. Then when he died, everything changed. It had been the catalyst that pushed me to leave the Sarkonian Empire.
Training for the special ops unit had prepared us for the unimaginable. Farah and I had witnessed some horrors so vile we vowed never to speak of them again.
None of them prepared me for seeing the ghost of the man I loved.
The sight of him should have shocked me. It probably would have if the last few weeks of my life hadn’t been a nonstop series of surprises and revelations about my friends, superiors, and country.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I demanded, throwing up my now empty hands. “You’re working with the Union too?”
Mateo looked annoyed. “We didn’t have a choice. Die or join them. Like Haas said, it was an easy decision. I’m sure it will be even more so for you,” he said pointedly, then flicked a glance at his new partner.
“I’ll die first,” I spat.
I didn’t like being between them and began to edge away, though there weren’t a lot of options. Mat blocked my way to the door which was the only way out.
“Don’t,” he warned me. “Look, I’m sorry it has to be this way… but at least you’ll be alive.”
I wouldn’t have obeyed the command as a matter of principle, but Haas stepped up behind me and pressed a weapon into the small of my back.
“Your death can be arranged,” he said before shoving me forward.
“Knock it off,” ordered Mateo. “Lock her up and I’ll go get Singh.”
I watched his retreating back, still processing how to deal with this latest development.
“Captain, I have regained full control of the Second Genesis. Ready to undock at your command.” Vega’s voice in the comm was music to my ears. “It appears that the other airlock is still open. I would not advise being near it.”
“Do it,” I said under my breath.
Mateo, who had already left, didn’t hear the words. Or at least if he did, they hadn’t prompted him to come investigate.
“What did you just say?” asked Haas.
“Undocking now,” acknowledged the AI.
I lunged for the nearest anchored object, a handrail near the doorway.
“What the hell—” Haas started to yell out, but the sudden rocking of the ship cut him off as the Genesis removed the docking clamps and closed its airlock.
Alarms wailed, echoing throughout the small ship, and I wondered if I’d erred by telling Vega to undock with the airlock on this side still open. I had a dark moment imagining if Mat was near it.
Refusing to dwell on that, I took advantage of the momentary chaos and lunged at the former ensign. Haas hadn’t gotten around to taking my weapons again and I pulled one of my knives free, slashing it as I advanced.
He’d dropped the rifle in the commotion and attempted to back away from my onslaught, but the bridge was small, and the captain’s chair stopped him.
Haas lifted his arms in defense and leaned back but my blade dragged harmlessly over the suit. I tried a stabbing motion, but the material didn’t give, and I screamed in frustration. When he realized what had happened, my opponent kicked out with one leg and I careened back, nearly falling on my ass.
I regained my footing in time to see him pull a sidearm. It arced toward me and Haas fired at the same time that I slammed into him. The slugs hit the floor where I’d been an instant before.
The impact rattled my skull and we both went down, each grappling for control of the gun. The business end faced my old teammate and I tried to get my finger on the trigger when he let go. A searing pain erupted from my thigh and I looked down to see him pull one of the fallen knives free, slick with blood from my leg.
I tumbled back and Haas went with me until he was on top with both hands raised above his head. He brought them down and I threw my hands up to grasp his forearms to avoid the blade ramming into my throat.
The move succeeded in changing the knife’s trajectory enough that it rammed into the floor next to my face. I used the moment to slam a palm into his nose, but my position made the execution sloppy and I couldn’t hope to hold him off for long. It was already uneven since Haas was much bigger than me, not to mention heavier and seriously stronger than I remembered. I could already feel my own strength waning as blood seeped out of my wound.
His eyes glinted with something like satisfaction as he brought the knife up again.
“This is for leaving me on Sobek,” he said. “The only regret I have is that you won’t see Singh die in front of you like I’d planned.”
“My only regret is not putting a bullet in that ass kissing face of yours,” I retorted.
Black spots danced in my vision and I could feel myself fading as numbness began to spread. At least I probably wouldn’t feel much when the asshole finished the job.
“You bitch,” he hissed, then arched up to deliver the final blow.
I thought I heard an explosion but couldn’t be sure. Haas’ arms dropped to his sides and I watched curiously as a red dot formed on his forehead. It widened, then dripped like melted wax as he slumped backward.
“That’s weird,” I mumbled stupidly. The image of Haas got smaller and I realized he was getting farther away. No, I realized. I was the one moving farther away. My head fell back, and Mateo’s face came into view.
“He must have hit the femoral artery,” he said after a quick look at my wound. Worry showed in the way his eyes knitted together and the thin set of his mouth.
My mouth tried to form a smile, but it felt lopsided.
“Stupid ass’ole.” My speech slurred and everything threatened to go dark, but it felt really important to get my next words out and I struggled to focus. “In case I die. Have to tell you—”
“Quiet!” Mat instructed, doing something to my injured leg.
“No, you be quiet. I love your dumb ass. Should’ve said it before…” I trailed off as I started to lose consciousness.
“Damn it, Eva. Don’t you fucking die on me!” His words sounded far away, and I couldn’t seem to make my mouth move. Then it felt like I was floating in zero gravity as everything faded away and I slipped into a comfortable darkness.
When my eyes opened again it was to a bright light shining directly into my face. I blinked and wondered if this was usual procedure after one died.
The steady beeping drew my attention from the light, and I saw a portable holo health monitor less than a meter away.
I hadn’t been restrained and was lying on a bed in what looked like a small, if shabby, medical bay. My muscles ached as I moved each one, performing a self-assessment, but everything worked.
Okay, so I’m not dead, I decided.
Groaning, I pushed up into a sitting position. One leg of my pants had been cut away and the remains of washed off clotting powder was smeared on the skin around my wound. The wound itself had been stitched up and slathered with what I assumed to be antibiotic numbing gel since I wasn’t feeling too much pain there.
“Easy there, cowgirl.” Mateo’s voice came from behind me and I jerked, then he was at the side of my bed.
I wanted to lean away but that seemed cowardly, plus there wasn’t anywhere to go.
He held up his hands in a gesture of peace at my unfriendly scowl.
“You’ve got nothing to worry about from me,” he promised. “Sophie and Vega have assured me in no uncertain terms that if anything happens to you this ship will be destroyed. The AI sure has changed,” he added.
I ignored that.
“He is correct, Captain.” Vega spoke in my ear and I found myself simultaneously happy and annoyed to hear from her.
“Damn it. I told you guys to leave!” I erupted. Frustrated, I rubbed the last of the grogginess from my eyes.
“My apologies, sir,” commented the AI. “But in your absence, Miss Shahi took over as captain and I followed her orders as my programming dictates is correct procedure. Mr. Kamal has already returned all the stolen files and I confirmed no trace of them remains on his lackluster ship.”
“Fine,” I grumbled, ignoring the insult, then turned my attention back to Mat. “How much longer until your backup gets here?”
Mateo checked his data pad. “Just under three standard hours,” he replied.
“V, if I’m not back in two standard hours, assume Mr. Kamal murdered me and turn this piece of shit into space garbage,” I said.
“With pleasure,” the computer said over the comm.
“Good. I’m going radio silent until then.” I pulled the comm out of my ear and switched it off before she could object.
Only able to hear my side, Mateo had stayed quiet through the exchange, and I turned to him after shoving the comm in my pocket.
“I can piece together what happened on Harah,” I started. “And Haas filled me in on how you tracked us. But…”
“Why didn’t I reach out?” he guessed when I let the words hang there. “Let you know I was still alive?”
I nodded, unsure what to else to do.
“Believe me, Eva, I wanted to,” he said, then laid a hand over mine. “Especially after Haas told me what happened with your court martial. But the Union has us on a tight leash, and he would have turned me in the first chance he got. I happen to like my head attached.”
“Oh right,” I said, pointing at my own neck then miming an explosion by wriggling my fingers. “You don’t follow their rules, kaboom.”
“Right,” he agreed. “But I had to see you on Leah, so I volunteered to track you guys while he planted the tracker. Almost didn’t recognize you and Sophie after the makeovers.”
My eyes widened. “It was you at the bar.”
Mat nodded and shoved a hand through his short cap of hair. “I knew the minute you saw me because your face went white,” he said. “So I left.”
“I thought I’d seen a ghost,” I murmured, recalling the scene.
“You did,” he replied firmly. “Mateo Kamal is dead.”
“So is Eva Delgado,” I shot back. “There’s time for you to join us. We can find someone to remove the leash.”
He shook his head and looked down. If the signal gets too weak, it’ll detonate,” Mat explained. “Besides, who knows? I could learn some valuable intel and escape.”
I considered that for a moment. It was a good point.
“Haas said they wanted me, Sophie, and her bow,” I said slowly. “Why?”
“The Union wants your intel,” he replied. “I think they figure if you’re so against the Sarkonian Empire that you’ll join them and help destroy it.”
“What’s the big deal with the bow?” I wondered. “I mean, I get that it’s ancient, but it’s not like a game changer for them or the Empire.”
Mat shrugged. “I’m not sure. They only tell me so much, but the tech is supposedly a relic. From Earth, but that’s ridiculous. Everyone knows Earth is a fairy tale. Anyway, they have other more important tech they want to unlock.”
I thought about the weapon and its strange blue markings. Clint had said something similar, but I hadn’t taken the arms deal seriously. Haas had confirmed it first and now Mat was here saying the same thing. Knowing the Union wanted it that bad?
Well, that changed things.
“Maybe I should go with you,” I said, changing subjects abruptly. “Like you said, they’re going to offer me the same deal you guys got. I say we learn what we can then find a way to split.”
His tone went fierce. “No. If what I read in those files is true, you need to stop it from happening. Sophie will need you. There’s no way to tell if the Union will give you the same deal, toss you in a cell, or hand you back to the Empire.”
I cursed, hating that he was right. I could no more abandon Farah than I could have not tried to go back for him that night.
He pulled me into his arms, and I couldn’t help but lean into his comforting warmth.
“I love you.” He said it so quietly that I thought I’d misheard him.
“You can’t say that,” I said, pulling back.
“Why? You did,” he pointed out.
“That was different. I thought I was dying,” I argued.
“It’s not different. I need you to know in case we never see each other again or the Union installs some kind of brain control hardware in my head.”
I stared at him. “That’s not funny,” I said.
Mat fixed a serious gaze on me. “I wasn’t joking.”
My mouth set in a grim line. “You’re kidding me.”
“No. They don’t say much around me, but I hear whispers sometimes that the Union experiments on volunteer soldiers.”
“Sounds like the Void,” I said thoughtfully. It made me think of Dolph, and Sophie’s story about her brother.
“You think Sarkon is making cyborg soldiers?” Mateo asked after I’d filled him in, leaving out Jax’s part. I didn’t think he would betray me, but I wouldn’t risk Farah’s family.
“It’s what they do,” I said with a shrug. “Copy and try to emulate everything the Union does.”
We both fell quiet for a few moments after that. The idea of super soldiers on both sides running around was more than a little scary.
“How’s the leg?” Mat asked, finally breaking the silence.
He stood up when I eased it to the side of the bed and let it swing gently down, then I gave it a few test kicks, which didn’t hurt as bad as I’d expected.
“Better than I thought it would be,” I admitted. “Thanks, by the way. For saving my life.”
He didn’t answer. Instead, Mat leaned down and planted a gentle kiss on my lips.
“Sorry,” he said sheepishly. “I just don’t know when or if I’ll see you—”
I cut him off by grabbing a fistful of his shirt and pulling him down to me again.
“What took you so long?” complained Farah. “Vega and I thought we were going to have to start firing at him.”
I’d made it back to the Second Genesis with a few minutes to spare and had found Farah on the bridge ready to turn on the weapons systems.
“We were just talking,” I said easily.
“Talking? For two hours?” She looked at me in obvious disbelief. “Not with those vitals, you weren’t.”
My head snapped up. “What vitals?”
Now she smirked. “Since Vega was still hooked into his systems, she was able to monitor you. Your stats were all over the place, and not from conversation.”
“You spied on me?” I was ready to give her a piece of my mind when she held up a hand.
“I know, I know. Sorry. I was just worried. Once I realized you weren’t in any danger, I had Vega stop monitoring. Still, you cut it a little close at the end and I started to get nervous again.”
Her words, and the fear in them, calmed me down. “Sorry, Soph. We were just saying our goodbyes. I don’t want to talk about it,” I said, accidentally using the nickname upon seeing the look on her face.
“Fine,” she grumbled, looking a little surly.
“Where are we headed now?” I asked.
“Z-28K,” Vega supplied helpfully. “An abandoned mining moon in the Osiris system.”
“The Osiris system? Isn’t that still in Union territory?” I looked at Farah for confirmation, and she nodded. “Is that the best idea right now?”
My co-captain nodded again. “It’s closer to the Deadlands than we are now. The Union won’t be back any time soon to claim it.”
“Why not?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“It’s one of the places where most of the population disappeared from,” Farah announced dramatically. “Word has it that the Union couldn’t convince anyone to repopulate the colony there. Then they realized there wasn’t much left to be mined, so they ceased operation and moved the remaining colonists.”
“Sounds like a target for pirates and ravagers,” I commented.
Farah shot me a smug smile. “It has a natural debris field from asteroids that orbit the moon at high speeds. That makes it worthless to either the Union or Sarkonians and too much trouble for anyone else,” she finished.
“Except for us,” I said.
“Except for us,” Farah agreed. “Vega says she can navigate through the ring.”
“I guess it’s settled,” I announced. “The Fifth Column needs a lair.”
Farah gave me a strange look. “The Fifth Column?” she asked.
“It’s an old war term,” I clarified. “Means a small group that undermines a larger one by sabotage. We learned about it in academy, remember?”
“Oh right,” she said. “That sounds like us for sure. I like it.”
“Me too,” I agreed. “We’re going to dismantle and expose the corruption within the Sarkon government. Starting with Vice-Admiral-Kaska.”
Alyss and Farah will return in The Solaras Initiative, coming June 2019, exclusively on Amazon.
For more updates on this series, be sure to join the Facebook Group, “J.N. Chaney’s Renegade Readers.”
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Books in the Renegade Star Universe
Renegade Star Series:
Renegade Decent (June 2019)
Renegade Star Prequels:
Nameless (Abigail’s Story)
The Constable (Alphonse’s Story)
The Constable Returns (May 2019)
Warrior Queen (Lucia’s Story) (June 2019)
The Orion Colony Series (with Jonathan Yanez):
Orion Protected (May 2019)
The Last Reaper Series (with Scott Moon):
The Last Reaper
Fear the Reaper
Blade of the Reaper (May 2019)
Wing of the Reaper (July 2019)
The Fifth Column Series (with Molly Lerma):
The Fifth Column
The Solaras Initiative (June 2019)
About The Authors
J. N. Chaney has a Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing and fancies himself quite the Super Mario Bros. fan. When he isn’t writing or gaming, you can find him online at www.jnchaney.com.
Molly Lerma is a first-time author. She lives in the Michigan Mitten where she writes to give her daughter and pets the lives they deserve. When not slaving over the keyboard, you can find her gaming, at the movies, or spending copious amounts of time and money at the local bookstore.