Life During Wartime
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

Like many other ships crossing the Frontier at any given moment, the Hargreaves was a simple cargo vessel, on a short-range mission to deliver goods manufactured on one of the planetary colonies to one of the space colonies along that narrow corridor of space.

And like many other ships crossing the Frontier at any given moment, they'd heard the warnings about staying to the routine shipping lanes, which they'd ignored because there was a substantial bonus for the entire crew if they delivered their cargo ahead of schedule.

So the Hargreaves now made its way through the fringes of a nebula on the far edge of the Frontier, moving slower and more deliberate. Nebulae tended to blind a ship's sensors almost completely, and even on the edge of one, their sensors intermittently blanked out from time to time.

Had they followed their prescribed route, or calculated a path that avoided the nebula altogether they might have spotted the three ships that had been tracking them for the last half-day, that now hung just beyond their scanning range and waiting for their moment.

The three ships weren't much to look at--two of them were battered-looking escort ships that seemed to be held together by stubborn willpower more than anything else. The escort ships flanked a larger frigate, which looked as large as a warship compared to the escorts. It was painted as black as the space it slid through, with blood-red trim, and on its wings, an emblem of a red skull with a cross behind it. And if that weren't frightening enough, then the gun slung underneath the ship's hull surely was.

This was the Misericord, the flagship of Pirate Red, leader of space pirates that ruled the Frontier. The Hargreaves had blundered into their territory a day ago, and had been very carefully shadowed ever since.

Now it was time to spring the trap.

"Distance to target?" Pirate Red said, running a hand through her blue hair.

"One hundred thousand kilometers," the woman standing in front of her said, her fingertips dancing over control surfaces only she could see. Projected directly into her retinas were screens displaying course calculations and weapons status, and navigational data.

Ordinarily, a frigate the size of this would require a bridge crew of at least a dozen. Her navigator had reduced that down to two--herself and her sister, Kilana.

"Too far for a shot?"

"I wouldn't," the navigator said, eyeing the targeting information again.

"Fine," Red sighed, sitting back in her seat. "Then we'll do this the old-fashioned way. Kilana, tell the Hellspite and the Curlew to advance on the ship and keep them busy until we can get a shot at their engines. Order our boarding parties to the breachers and put us ahead one-quarter when they engage."

Kilana blinked twice, fingertips still dancing in the air. "Confirmed. Hellspite and Curlew are moving to engage."

Pirate Red furrowed her brow. "Give me tactical."

Kilana nodded. The Misericord's two large main screens came to life, displaying two large grids, each delineating the positions of her ships and the Hargreaves.

Red watched the two escorts move an advance on the Hargreaves, pondering her next move. The Hargreaves was a tanker, and that meant they had a slow, lightly armed target on their hands.

The Hellspite and the Curlew can fly rings around that bucket before it could even begin turning away, Red thought. More than enough time for us to take it out.

If everyone followed the plan, they'd have her disabled and stripped by day's end.

"Message from Curlew," Kilana said. "They're exchanging fire with the ship."

"That's our cue." Red said. "Are our boarders in place?"

Kilana nodded. "All decks report ready."

"Ahead one-quarter. Start charging the main gun at 50,000 kilometers, plot a firing solution for our main gun, and order our ships out of the way."

The Misericord vibrated underneath them as the ship's engines roared to life, bearing down on the Hargreaves. Below decks, hundreds of her troops sat in heavy metal breaching pods, ready to strike. When the Misercord got close enough, she would launch her shock anchors at the ship, and the breachers would roll along the cables, affix to the ship, and burn their way through, invading the blinded, crippled ship before they could mount a defense.

If everyone followed the plan.

Kilana furrowed her brow. "Something's wrong."

Red looked up. "What is it?"

"The Hellspite's not disengaging. They continuing to fire on the ship."

"What in the hell . . .? Kilana, give me the Hellspite."

Kilana nodded to her.

"Hellspite, this is Misericord," Red said, annoyed. "Disengage, we're in position to fire."

Red blinked. Nothing. No acknowledgement of any kind.

"Can they receive?"

"Yes," Kilana said. "They're just not answering."

Red slammed her fist down on the arm of her chair. "Hellspite, this is Misericord. Acknowledge--That's an order."

"The ship's taken too many hits," Kilana said. "Fire on all decks . . .I think they're going critical."

"Where's the Curlew?"

"Port side of the ship. They're having engine trouble, maneuvering's shot."

Jesus, Red thought. What the hell is going on?

"Hellspite, Curlew, this is Red--disengage at once, you hear me? Disengage!"

"Hellspite is going in for another run at the ship."

Red bit her lip. What was supposed to be a milk run was turning into a massacre before her eyes. And worse than that, the skipper of the Hellspite was ignoring her orders . . .in fact; he seemed to be flagrantly doing so.

"Target the Hellspite and open a channel again."

Kilana nodded.

"This is Red--again," she said growled, rising from her seat. "I don�t know if you've noticed this yet or not, but we've locked on to your ship, and if you don't obey me and immediately disengage, I'll blow you straight to hell."

"The ship's beginning to break up," Kilana said. "I think they hit the fuel lines on the last run."

"Damn it all," Red said. "The Curlew, where are they?"

Before Kilana could answer, the Hargreaves went up in a fireball, flinging burning metal in every direction. Red had barely enough time to order her ship to a full stop before the Misericord entered the blast radius.

Red sighed, staring out at the debris field.

So much for the milk run.

"Position of our ships?"

"The Hellspite is holding position ten thousand kilometers away from us," Kilana said. "The Curlew . . .I think they must have been caught up in the blast . . .yes, reading debris metallurgy that matches it."

"They're gone, aren�t they?"

Kilana nodded.

Red's body tightened in rage.

"Give me the Hellspite."

"You�re on."

"This message is for all troopers stationed aboard the Hellspite," She began, so angry she seemed to be hissing fire at the ship. "You will detail Captain Sa'Kev under the First Code for failure to follow orders. Hold him in the brig until I arrive. I'm coming aboard. Message ends."

"You really want to go over there?"

"I didn�t want this to happen at all," Red said, shaking her head. "Just what in the hell was did he think he was doing? Kind of difficult to raid a ship after you've destroyed it, wouldn't you say?"

"What are you going to do?"

"Take it out of his hide."

"I should go with you, then," Kilana said. "That's a lot of hide, after all--and a lot to take out."

"No, I need you to stay here," Red replied. "Keep a lock on that ship, and if anything goes wrong, blow it away."

"Oh come on, Red--you can't go over there alone and expect to wow them with nothing more than your authority. You know how Sa'Kev runs that ship. They're his people first, ours maybe a distant second."

"Yeah," Red said. "That's why I'm taking twenty of my best men over. If he won't stand for the Code, we'll shoot him down."

"And if the crew force the issue for him?"

"Then they get shot down with him."

"And if they shoot back?"

"Then you shoot us all down, and you get to be in charge."

Kilana rolled her eyes. "Wonderful," she groaned. "I was just scared you hadn�t thought all this through, is all."

Red spared her a glance over her shoulder.

"That's what I have you for, isn't it?"

* * *

Sa'Kev stared out at the spiked quad-steel bars of the brig, barely registering the presence of the people before him. The massive Siridar sat on the bench on the far wall, his hulking, reptilian frame seeming altogether too large for the space he found himself in.

But if he found himself uncomfortable, he gave no sign of it. Nor did he seem in any way worried by the ten troopers aiming their weapons through bars at him, or the woman clad in red and black, who angrily paced back and forth in front of the bars.

"You owe me two ships, you scaly son of a bitch," she hissed at him. "Just what in the hell are you playing at?"

Sa'Kev didn't even look up.

"I'm sorry, am I boring you? Did you forget how we do things here? I'm in command here--that means you do what I say. Always. When I tell you to jump, you jump. When I tell you to attack, you attack, and when I tell you to break off, you damn well break off."

She stopped, and stared at him.

"And when I ask you for an explanation, that means I want one. Now."

Sa'Kev lifted his gaze to meet hers. He made no effort to conceal his disdain.

"I decided I was tired of scavenging," He replied with a sneer.

"Good for you. What does that have to do with not following my orders?"

"For the last two years, my ship has been a stalking wolf for yours," he continued, speaking slowly and evenly. "We pick a ship off from a convoy, ambush them on the other side of a nebula . . .it is cowardly and foolish. I come from a race of warriors, not garbage pickers."

"Yeah, yeah," Red said, taking a step closer to the bars. "Spare me the 'proud warrior race bullshit.' We're not warriors, and you might have noticed, ever since Earth decided to militarize the Frontier, it's gotten damn hard to do anything without chancing an engagement with a UEF warship. We take what we can get."

"Better we die on our feet than live on our knees."

"Suicide doesn't pay, Sa'Kev," Red growled. "We're not strong enough to take on galactic powers in a straight fight. Tried that once, didn't work. When you lead this thing, you can set policy any way you please, but you'd best make those plans for that in your next life, because this one is drawing to a close very soon."

"Is it?"

Red blinked. "Oh, did you think throwing you in the brig with a firing squad at the ready was prelude to me giving you a promotion or something? Come on, Sa'Kev--you're smarter than that. I find you guilty of breaking the First Code--disobedience of your superior. Me. The penalty is immediate execution by firing squad."

"I want to speak--"

"Not interested. You know the Codes--you don't get to enter a plea."

Sa'Kev leapt from his seat, and behind Red, she heard a number of clicks as her trooper's let their safeties off their weapons.

"I invoke the Ninth Code," Sa'Kev said. "I declare that you are unworthy to lead, and demand trial by combat to settle the question."

Red laughed. "You're out of your mind."

"Do you accept?"

"No." Red said, turning to her troopers. "As soon as the bars are raised shoot him do--"

"Coward."

"What did you say?"

"You are a coward," Sa'Kev sneered. "You, your people, your code . . .what cowards you are."

"No one calls me a coward, Sa'Kev."

"No one to your face," he replied, his wide grin showing off his filed teeth. "But it is what you are, isn�t it? The UEF comes in and takes control of the Frontier, and we all but cede our territory to them, leaving us to pick through the easy targets, and you do nothing. I challenge you to defend your right to lead us . . .and still you do nothing."

Red stared at him, her entire body tense with rage. Kilana would have said she was rising to his bait, that he had found her "button" and was pressing it as much to goad her into a fight as to save his life, and she knew he was.

But she didn't care.

No one called her a coward.

No one did and lived.

"Squad, lower your weapons," Red said quietly.

She wrapped her hands around the bars, ignoring the painful barbs as she leaned in to face Sa'Kev.

"You have 36 hours," she said. "And then you�re dead. You understand? You�re dead. After I'm through with you, no one will be stupid enough to disobey me, because they'll remember what happened to you and they'll be so scared they'll shit themselves. I am going to make an example of you."

Sa'Kev snorted. "Cowards talk. Warriors fight."

"Uh huh," Red said, the blood in her veins positively humming with rage. "Keep thinking that's all you need. 36 hours, Sa'Kev."

* * *

Kilana was picking her way through the bits and pieces of junk strewn across her laboratory when Red returned.

"So," she said, standing on a crate and running a hand-held scanner over a chunk of machinery quite a bit larger than she was. "How did it go?"

"Uh," Red sighed. It had been a few hours after her confrontation with Sa'Kev. Long enough for the energy that her rage had given her to wear off and for the enormity of what had happened to come in.

Kilana stopped "Uh," she repeated. "'Uh' is never good. What happened?"

"Well," Red said walking up to her. "Remember how we drew up those Codes when we took over this outfit?"

"Yes," Kilana said. "What does that have to do with--"

"Couldn�t we have stopped at seven? Did we really need ten?"

Kilana's head fell forward, resting against the machinery as she let out a long, exasperated sigh.

"Ninth Code?"

"Yeah."

"Red," she began, speaking slowly as if she were lecturing a child. "We made the First Code such a severe crime and the punishment so immediate so they wouldn�t have time to invoke the Ninth before we shot them."

"I know that, but . . ."

"He called you out."

"Yeah."

Kilana stepped down off the crate and turned to face her sister. She sighed again and shook her head. To say she was tired of this would be an understatement--she'd been bailing her sister out of fights where she'd been called names since they were small, and she'd hoped that maybe some day she'd grow out of it and not let it bother her so much, and then Kilana could get on with the business of living her own life, finally.

She'd been waiting nearly twenty-six years, and on days like this, there was no end in sight.

"What was it this time?"

"He called me a coward."

Kilana frowned, walking over to a nearby table and tossing the scanner down.

"That's it?"

"Isn�t that enough?"

"You lead these people, Red," Kilana began. "You can't take things so personally."

"Yeah," Red said, visibly chastised. "Probably right."

"But . . .maybe it's for the best."

Kilana raised an eyebrow.

"I can't wait to hear how."

Red looked away. "Sa'Kev said he was tired of the hit and run raids. That he wanted to do something bolder and more aggressive. He's not the first to say it since the UEF moved in and things got tight."

"Yes, but we had the presence of mind to put a bullet in the head of everyone else before they could do anything about it other than talk."

"But we can't keep doing that, can we?" Red said. "If I killed everyone who pissed me off in the course of the day, we really would be running this between just the two of us."

"It is a long and distinguished list, I must say," Kilana said.

"Maybe if we make one public, very ugly example . . .maybe that'll cause anyone else who might feel the same was as Sa'Kev to fall in line. Cement my authority. That kind of thing."

"Maybe," Kilana said. "But that does mean you have to kill Sa'Kev."

"Right."

"He's bigger than you."

Red nodded.

"Stronger, too."

"Yeah."

"Any ideas on how you�re going to do this?"

"I'll think of something."

Kilana sighed again.

Red stepped close to her sister and embraced her.

"We will."

"Always have," Kilana nodded, holding her close.

Probably always will, she thought.

Red held her close, looking over Kilana's shoulder at the machinery she'd been scanning. It was battered, smaller than she remembered, and the metal worn and dented, but it looked oddly familiar to her.

"Kilana," Red said, sliding out of her arms.

"Yeah?"

"I want you to tell me that what I'm staring at is not what I'm staring at."

"What?" Kilana said, looking over her shoulder. "Oh, that? That's . . .harmless, I think."

"Harmless? Kilana, that's one of the drone ships we built for that crazy robot woman."

"Yeah."

"You remember? Back when we were going to take over the Frontier? We had a bunch of ideas about becoming a power and we were going to have a fleet of these things do all the legwork for us? The ones that almost went on a genocidal rampage--you remember all this, right?"

"I remember, Red--I was there."

Red nodded. "So what's it doing here?"

Kilana looked it up and down. "Rusting."

Red sighed.

"It's completely dormant, Red--there's not going to be any trouble with it."

"That's what we thought the first time. God, I'd hoped they were all destroyed. Where did you find it?"

"Two weeks ago," Kilana said. "It was hugging the remnants of an asteroid near the Lightning Cape. By the time I got hold of it, most of its circuits had been fried by the electromagnetic activity in the area."

"And you brought it here why?"

"I figured with most of it too damaged to reactivate we could at least study how it's put together, maybe reverse engineer some more efficient circuitry out of it."

"Wonderful," Red said. The last thing she wanted was a replay of what had happened before. Too often she and her pirates had been dragged in to someone else's vendettas and long ago she'd wisely decided to retire from that and focus on her own. Let the old business stay in the past

And yet . . .here was old business, staring her in the face.

"Well, I've got 29 hours or so before my fight," Red said, turning to leave. "I, uh . . .guess I'll see you on the bridge if I see you before the fight."

Kilana nodded, watching her go.

Red stopped just before the stairs up to the main corridor, sparing a glance over her shoulder to the machine.

"You�re sure it's dead?"

"As far as I can tell."

"Okay. That thing just makes me nervous."

Kilana nodded.

"Red?"

"Yeah?"

"This fight makes me nervous too. Watch yourself."

* * *

In his cell, Sa'Kev waited, staring straight ahead at the blank wall beyond the bars of his cell. He wasn't looking at anything in particular--not the walls of the brig, or the guards, or anything else. Just waiting, and concentrating.

For the Siridar, battles were serious business. After all, they'd been created by another race, the Ghram, for the sole purpose of fighting their wars for them. And the Ghram had designed every aspect of them, from their genes to their culture, to optimize them for that purpose.

They were warriors, and only warriors. Everything they were was dedicated to that purpose. To the other races they'd encountered, it was a rather fearsome reputation to possess and they lived up to it with relish.

A relish that masked an awful truth: The Siridar were, for all intents and purposes, a dead race. If a million of them still lived, Sa'Kev would have been surprised.

Because all the Siridar that had been created were all that would ever exist, as the planet responsible for breeding their legions had been destroyed when the Siridar rebelled against the Ghram, who had fled from known space, but not before condemning their race to slow extinction.

And the Siridar, who only knew battle, had no idea how to function as anything else. There were no female Siridar to breed with, no Siridar scientists to puzzle out the problem of restarting their breeding, no Siridar workers to built a space fleet and pursue the Ghram, no civilian class of Siridar that could evolve some other purpose for their race, create and actual functioning culture.

They were only warriors.

And so they made war. Against each other, on behalf of others, against anyone and everyone they encountered--so long as they could fight. Sa'Kev had heard stories of his people gathering themselves into raiding parties and flinging themselves unarmed against various forces, not because they had any hope of victory, but because dying in battle was the only familiar thing they could cling to in the face of an uncertain and terrifying existence.

Even Sa'Kev wasn't immune. He'd joined the pirates out of boredom, grateful for the freedom and profit that came with raiding the ships of the Frontier, even more grateful for the outlet the job gave him for his skills.

But with another power reaching towards their domain, it was if a switch had been flipped within him, and suddenly fighting under another's flag was not enough for him.

If the Siridar cannot be as a people, he thought. I will make the universe Siridar.

He remembered the day he'd had this thought perfectly, as it had taken such an effort to even think that that he'd taken it as a victory in and of itself. He'd thrown off the yoke of millennia-old genetic programming and thought for himself, and that thought was that he would raise the other races to his own standard as a warrior.

He'd been with the pirates for five years now, and had decided they needed all the help they could get.

It would begin with Pirate Red's death, he thought. I will show them my way is the right way, and I will teach them the right way.

My way.

The way.

And they will not be scavengers. We will only be warriors.

* * *

In her quarters, Red lay in bed, reading the data clipboard that rested against her knees. She had ten hours before the Fight, and she needed sleep and as she'd never fought a Siridar before, she needed to know what she was up against.

Sleep wasn't coming easy, so that left study. Study was slightly less difficult, as whenever Red hadn�t had Kilana's work to copy in school, she'd been a solid C student.

Still, there's nothing like a trial by combat to sharpen the mind, she thought, paging through the information on the clipboard.

"Siridar," she read silently. "Warrior race, generally considered extinct." God, if only--my day would be free tomorrow. "Genetically engineered soldiers created roughly 1500 Earth years ago. Suffered extinction level event when their homeworld, Siri, was destroyed 1000 Earth years ago. Nomadic remnants still dwell in the region of space just off the Frontier."

Red felt her eyelids getting heavy, but shook it off. None of that right now, she thought, willing her eyes open. Where were you when I was trying to sleep an hour ago?

She furrowed her brow and went back to her reading.

"The Siridar are physically adapted for combat. Their skin is composed of several layers of scaly hide formed into natural plate armor, which can withstand most edged weapons or a mid-range energy blast. Their more sensitive areas are protected by small horns or sharp edges of flesh which covers their eyes (which are extremely sensitive--see linked article) ears, nose and mouth."

"While they move slowly, their physical strength and stamina, coupled with their natural armor makes them formidable opponents in one-on-one combat. In fact, very seldom do opponents survive in single combat against a Siridar. The only human who had been definitely confirmed as doing so was in the 2172 bloodmatches, wherein eventual champion Kie--"

Red threw the clipboard aside and laid down, staring up at the ceiling. She'd had quite enough of that. There was something about reading that you that you had as much chance of surviving a fight against a Siridar as you did surviving being airlocked that she found downright depressing.

Especially when that's the first thing on schedule for tomorrow morning, she thought.

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She found herself wondering what Kilana was doing, and praying it wasn't poking at that damn machine down in her lab.

It was my idea, Red thought. My idea to take that job, that we have an army of machines loyal to us. Instant army. It was all going to go so right--we were going to force out the UEF and the Syndicates and make a place all our own.

Then it all went wrong, and Kilana had to bail me out.

Again.

Even in her current diminished circumstances, Red enjoyed what she did. She had power, she had freedom, and her life was in such a state now as to where she could make her own rules.

Pretty much all I ever wanted.

But not what she wanted. She's spent her whole life bailing me out, always waiting for when I could stand on my own and her own life could begin.

And it never had, and she's running out of time.

I owe everything to her--but I've never given her anything.

I need to.

She ran though the silent catalogue of everything she owed her sister. It had been Kilana's plan, after all that allowed her to rise to power in the first place, when she killed the previous leader of the pirates and took his place.

On paper, she'd had no hope of winning then, either. Their previous leader, Dragos, was physically too powerful and kept too many powerful obstacles in anyone's path to be targeted for assassination.

But she figured it out, we beat the odds, and we beat him.

But this time . . .I want to do it on my own. I owe her one thing, one time where I save my ass on my own.

She took a deep breath, rolled out of bed, and reached for the data clipboard again.

* * *

She's going to get herself killed.

Kilana sighed, leaning back in Red's chair. It was uncomfortable--it always had been for her, but Kilana had been up for hours pacing on the bridge, and she was so exhausted that if she didn't sit down, she might well collapse.

She'd been through it all for hours, and she couldn�t come up with any solution that didn't leave both Red and Sa'Kev dead and her in charge of the pirates, and she wasn't altogether sure what the worst of those three outcomes were, really.

The Ninth Code had been put in the Codes as a bluff, she thought. We put it in so anyone who wanted to take over would have to make it an open challenge, rather than do what we did and do it in secret.

The idea was, someone challenges Red, but the crew, which would be more loyal to her because they get a bigger share of the loot, would immediately kill them, which then meant promotions for everyone, so they were doubly happy--keeping the troopers and the crewmen happy was our insurance policy against mutiny.

That kind of loyalty was easier to buy before things started drying up on the Frontier, and before Sa'Kev staffed the Hellspite with people loyal to him first.

Kilana sighed. She'd come at this from every angle she could thin of. This close to the fight, killing Sa'Kev wouldn't solve the problem. In fact, it would make it worse, as it's very obviously breaching the Codes, which makes Red look weak, and ripe for challenges from every other pirate in the fleet with ideas above his station, and instead of one person challenging her, we've got tons of them.

She drummed her fingers on the arm of the chair.

That left plan B. Red fights him, and when he kills her, I immediately invokes the Ninth Code and kills Sa'Kev, becoming the new head of the pirates.

The worst part of that--even beyond watching her sister die-- was that Kilana might end up in command of the pirates.

Red thrives in this kind of environment, I don't. I stick around because I get to play with whatever high-tech stuff we can scavenge and cobble together into something and because we're all we have.

When she--if she's gone . . .well, my tenure a leader's going to be as short as I can make it. I never wanted any of this--I want my two kids and a quiet house in the country and maybe a lab where I can putter around on the weekends.

Notice if you will that nowhere in all of that does "become Queen of the space pirates" appear anywhere on that list.

She leaned back in the chair and stared straight ahead. The Misericord was on auto-pilot at the moment, and so she wasn't linked in to the ship's systems. It struck her just then that she very seldom sat on the bridge without all that information beamed into her eyes.

Maybe it was just her mood or just the shock of noticing, but it felt eerily still at that moment. It felt like everything was waiting for the fight.

* * *

They'd chosen a small moon along their course for the combat sight. It wasn't inhabited--too barren and too far off the space lanes for that--but the atmosphere was breathable and they could conduct their business in private.

Mostly. A whole company of pirate troopers accompanied Red, Kilana, and Sa'Kev down to the surface, at Kilana's insistence. She'd told Red there needed to be witnesses--reliable witnesses in case a transition of power actually did end up happening, it would need to be verified by the men.

Further, each of them was issued heavy armament.

"In case he cheats," she told her.

Red watched Sa'Kev being freed from his restraints as the troopers encircled them both. Kilana stood behind her sister, trying to hide the worry that was strangling her confidence in her sibling.

"It's not too late to just shoot him," Kilana whispered.

"No need," Red said, her steely gaze never wavering from Sa'Kev. "I got this."

At that, Kilana become visibly afraid, as it had to mean that Red was totally delusional. And was probably seconds away from getting killed.

She must know that, she thought. So why does she look so confident?

Red walked out to the middle of the circle, meeting Sa'Kev face to face in the center.

"I've waited a long time for this," he said.

"Not too late for you to give up," she replied.

Sa'Kev smirked, stepped back, and threw a punch at Red. Red ducked to the side and activated the gauntlet on her left hand. The thin air hissed with ozone as her signature weapon, the Knuckle Buster, gathered its charge.

Red started throwing kicks to Sa'Kev's stomach. Over and over again, she battered him, but it was like kicking the bulkhead of her own ship--there was no yield, no matter how much power she put behind her attacks.

Sa'Kev kicked her other leg out from under her, sending her to the ground with an audible thud. He lunged towards her, attempting to strike her while she was still on the ground . . .

. . .and walked right into a blow from the Knuckle Buster at full power. The air was momentarily full of the smell of burning flesh as the weapon released its heat and energy into Sa'Kev's face.

He backpedaled, not because he was deeply hurt, but because the release of energy had gone into his eyes and blinded him. Because of that, he didn't clearly see Red until she was on top of him again, and she caught him twice with the Knuckle Buster, catching him on the jaw twice and sending him stumbling backwards.

Sa'Kev waved his hands in front of himself in between her strikes and caught her in the stomach, the spiked knuckles on his gloves digging into her flesh as he knocked the wind out of her. Red fell back down to the ground, just barely able to roll away from Sa'Kev's attempt to crush her with a stomp, but not fast enough to avoid his huge scaly hand grabbing her by the hair and lifting her off the ground.

"Yield," Sa'Kev said. "And I'll make your death as painless as possible."

Red took a deep breath and let loose a bloody glob of spit in his face.

"Go to hell."

She tried to throw another Buster-assisted punch at Sa'Kev, but he was too fast and grabbed her hand in mid-punch. His face split into a sharp-pointed grin as he squeezed her fist, ignoring the burning of his own flesh as he began twisting her arm.

Red bit her lip to stop herself from crying out. Whatever happened she wasn't going to give him any satisfaction at all. Even if everything seemed to be taking ten times as much effort as usual because of the wounds she'd already suffered, she would not scream, and she would not yield.

Because she wasn't done yet.

Sa'Kev assumed when he had immobilized her Knuckle Buster, that she had nothing else she could even come close to matching him with, which was why he held her there, silently gloating over her.

So she poked him in the eye.

More accurately through his right eye. Her leading two right fingers stabbed past the armored ridges of his face, momentarily rested against the membrane of his eye, then pushed through.

And Sa'Kev screamed, blinded by pain and the bursting of the blood vessels in his remaining eyes and dropped her. Red managed to land on her feet, but due to the loss of blood and her own pain, she was no steadier on her feet than he was, and only managed a few weak punches with the Buster before Sa'Kev caught her with an elbow to the face, also not up to strength.

Red tried to roll up to her feet, but the best she managed was to roll to her knees. Her tongue lolled on the inside of her mouth, tasting the warm coppery taste of blood in her mouth. Given how much she could feel caked to her skin from the wound on her chest, she was surprised she had more to lose yet.

Getting a bit punchy, she thought. I can . . .feel it. Feels like everything's coming at me through . . .water.

If I could just get my breath . . .

No, she said, willing her legs to stop shaking and bear her weight as she pulled herself up to her feet. I hurt that you, you bastard--yeah, you didn�t expect the eye thing, did you?

And if I can hurt you . . .I can kill you.

Because I won't stop until I do.

Sa'Kev wasn't pressing advantages in strength as much as he had before. Perhaps some of it was the mild shock that came from the loss of his eye, which made his head pound and his movements feel less certain.

"Come on, Sa'Kev," she shouted. "There's more where that came from."

Pirate Red was either insane, or unafraid or both. But whatever she was, he was acutely aware that he had underestimated her viciousness, and it was time to stop playing with her and end the fight conclusively.

So resolved, her charged for her, just in time for her to roll to the side and drive her foot into the inside of his knee, driving him face-first into the ground. Before he could roll to his feet, she flopped down on his back, driving the full weight of her body in between the two armored plates on his spine.

Slithering like a snake, she grabbed the sides of his head in her hands, using her knee as a fulcrum to bend his neck back and snap his neck.

Sa'Kev groaned in agony as she hyperextend his neck and thrashed around, trying to get the leverage he needed to throw her off his back. It took a few tries, but he was able to get one arm underneath himself and unbalance her, flinging her away from him and slamming her into the dirt.

He pulled himself to his feet, cocking his fist.

No more of this, he thought, rolling his neck muscles and finding to his horror that she'd somehow managed to damage some of his plates. One punch to the small of her back would shatter her spine, and a follow up blow to her neck would finish her off.

He reared back, ready to strike, and as he did, Red rolled onto her back, throwing a handful of dirt into his eye. The gritty sand found its way into the vacant cavity and irritated it all over again, which caused his punch to miss her by a few inches.

Red grabbed his wrist and used his arm to haul herself up to his feet and lunge at his face once again. The fingers of her left hand found their way into his other eyeball, and she dumped the remaining power from the Knuckle Buster into it, blinding him instantly.

Sa'Kev screamed again, waving his arms around. Red stayed crouched low until he stumbled past her, then drove her legs into his knees, sending him to the ground again. She stood up, running on pure adrenaline and anger and leapt as high as she could, driving her knees into the part of his neck that had already been weakened by what she'd done before.

She felt something give, then give again and snap under her weight. Every muscle below Sa'Kev's neck spasmed, causing him to flap about like a fish for a moment, as Red threw her legs on either side of his neck, and seized the ridge of his brow with one hand, her other hand reaching into his mouth.

His teeth felt like razors against her fingers and it was hard to get a grip between all the blood and saliva, but she shut out the pain, got a good grip, threw her weight backwards, and pulled as hard as she could.

Red's head went light for a moment, and her thoughts drifted back to something she'd read the night before.

Siridar are fearsome warriors, she recalled. But they're too hidebound by their training. Unconventional fighters make them anxious, make them fight more cautiously. He didn't count on me being able to work around his strength advantage.

Or that I like to fight dirty.

Red's focus snapped backed suddenly into clarity. The ring of troopers surrounding them had become a hazy wall of shapes--her whole world was contracting until it was just her and Sa'Kev.

Her face became a mask of rage as she dug in her heels and threw her weight back again. Her head went light and she could have sworn that she heard something tearing and popping at the same time as she fell backwards.

She felt a bit loopy as she flopped in the dirt, but after a few false starts, she was able to roll to her knees, then to her feet.

Sa'Kev wasn't so lucky. He lay face down in the dirt, the black-blue ichor that Siridar bled seeping into the sand making a dark stain. She stared at him for three minutes that seemed like twenty, and then she looked out at troopers, and raised her hand to the sky.

"I WIN!" She shouted.

Some of the troopers were cheering, which made her feel quite pleased with herself. Before she knew what was happening, Kilana had rushed to her side and embraced her.

"Did I . . .do good?" Red asked quietly.

"Yes," Kilana said, smiling with relief. She let her sister lean against her and steady herself while she leaned in to whisper something in her ear:

"But you�re goddamned crazy. I hope you know that."

* * *

The trial by combat had done its job--the fleet was abuzz with talk of how Red had beaten the odds and killed Sa'Kev with her bare hands. She really hadn't of course, but both Red and Kilana were far too canny to let little things like facts get in the way of a perfectly usable legend.

There were no more challenges, which was just as well, as Red was in no shape to take them on. The final tally was pretty impressive--between the blood loss and the broken bones, Red had taken a beating that would have killed another man, and with a little rest and generous applications of regen packs, she'd be back on her feet and up to speed in a couple of weeks or so.

And maybe by then Kilana could explain what was going on with the machine in her lab, which seemed to be substantially less rusty and a good deal smaller than before.

If I didn't know better, I'd say it was growing into the floor, she thought. I don�t know how--I've scanned it with everything I have, but there are no active signals within it.

And yet, just looking at it, I can tell it�s smaller than it was two days ago.

Kilana found herself worried slightly about this. She hated it when things had no easy explanation, but it was even worse when they had no explanation at all.

She was busily weighing her options when the door to her lab opened.

"They said I'd find you down here," a familiar voice croaked behind her. "Poking at your latest science project?"

Kilana spun around to face Red, and before she could stop herself, she nodded.

"What are you doing looking for me?" Kilana asked. "Much less being up and about in general?"

"I was tired of being in bed," Red said. "Besides, I've got high marks for my recuperative powers from our doc. She says I'm a testament to the healing powers of bull-headed obstinacy."

"No question," Kilana said. "So what brought you down here?"

"Wanted to talk to you. Haven�t had much of a chance where I wasn't being transfused, sutured, or heavily sedated until now. Had something I . . .wanted to ask you."

"Okay," Kilana asked.

"If it had gone the other way," Red said. "If Sa'Kev had killed me . . .what would you have done?"

Kilana smirked. "What else could I do? I would have gunned the bastard down and taken over myself."

"Yeah," Red said. "I had a feeling. That's why I kept you out of it. I know this isn�t what you wanted. Ever."

"Doesn�t matter. We're family, and--"

"Let me finish," Red said. "I know you do a lot to keep me out of trouble, to keep me from making a fool out of myself, and just plain keeping me from getting killed. And I never thank you for it."

"You don�t have to."

"Hm," Red said. "I'm not sure about that."

"We're all we've got," Kilana said. "We've got to look out for each other."

"But you've been doing all the work, haven�t you?" Red said. "I kinda wanted to this on my own . . .because . . .well . . .I wanted to let you know that I've learned a thing or two from you and I wanted you to know that . . .if you ever wanted to leave, I could take care of myself."

Kilana looked her up and down and raised her eyebrow. Red frowned.

"I didn't say I'd necessarily do as well as you," Red said, laughing, then wincing from the pain. "I'm kinda new at this."

"I'm not going anywhere, Red."

"Not right now," Red replied. "But someday, sometime . . .you may want to. And I want you to be happy wherever you end up and not have to constantly fret over what your big sister may have got herself into by running her mouth at the wrong time."

Kilana frowned. "Are you telling me to leave?"

Red shook her head. "No. But when the time comes when you have a chance, I want it you to feel like you can take it without obligations."

Kilana began to tear up. "Thanks," she said quietly.

"Thank you," Red said, moving to hug her. "I don�t know what I�d be without you."

"Same here."

They held the embrace for awhile, neither of them saying a word in the still quiet coolness of Kilana's lab.

Finally, one of them broke the silence.

"Kilana?"

"Yeah?"

"I think you�re squeezing my ribs.