Snakes and Arrows
By
Lewis Smith


www.gunmetalblack.com

 

            The Hope and Anchor fancied itself a bar, but it was more like a shack--a kludged-together rusted building on the fringes of Geas Colony, and it sat like an eyesore far from the spaceport and the glittering city nearby.

            Jorge Escovedo had been here once before, and hadn’t liked it then any more than he did now. From the outside, the building was a rusting hulk that looked unsafe just walking through the front door. Inside, it was even worse: a dilapidated dive of a place that, if he had to guess, was held together by the rank smell of smoke, spilled liquor, and God only knew what else.

            "Dirty" seemed such an inadequate word to describe it, and so did any other synonym he could imagine. Any minute he expected (or maybe even hoped) the whole pieced-together mess of a building to collapse and take every single person inside with it, himself included.

            He shrugged his way past two burly skinheads who were minding the door. Jorge didn’t offer them any ID and they didn’t ask for any. They didn’t have to--they knew what he was, and he knew who they were.

            They were the same.

            What they didn’t know was how badly he hated it.

He took a deep breath and immediately regretted it as the smell filled his nostrils. His stomach knotted up for a second and he wondered if he weren't going to be sick, but it soon passed.

            Around him, the rest of the patrons were raising hell and having fun. It seemed to involve a lot of drinking, whoring, smashing glasses, and punching each other in the face, laughing, buying each other drinks, and then doing it all over again. Jorge couldn’t imagine what was fun about any of that, and couldn't remember if he'd ever indulged.

            "Fun" was too long ago to remember, like some vivid dream that had all but faded by mid-morning, not unlike "happy." He picked his way past the fights and the stumbling drunkards, drifting past them like a ghost. His eyes fixed on a table in a corner in the far wall--dark, away from the action, and quiet enough he could hear himself think.

            He didn't sit down so much as slump into the chair, frowning slightly as he felt the loose wood of the chair wobble under his weight. He lay his lined hands on the table and sighed, staring at the slashed, pitted, surface between his palms.

            Jorge thought about why he was here, why he had come. He'd been promised something, something he wanted more than anything else, and even now he fought hard to keep his heart from pounding in his chest at the thought of it, because for all their promises, he knew better than to get his hopes up.

            His luck never quite ran well enough to believe his wishes would be granted.

            One minute turned into five, then five to ten. Around him, the sea of hell-raisers continued their endless dance of acting like jackasses and Jorge continued to look at the space between his hands, wishing more than anything that a drink was between them. He probably didn’t need one, but given the tension that was tightening his grip was also drying his throat, he found himself craving one.

            He was about to get up and go to the bar for a shot when the clunk of a glass on the table jarred him out of his reverie. He looked up to see a mug of beer, which, actually looked like what it was supposed to--a rarity at the Hope and Anchor.

            Jorge looked past the beer to the person who'd put it on the table. She was much younger than he was--tall, blonde, and even under the heavy gray cloak she wore, he could tell she was dressed far better than anyone else in the bar.

            She pulled out a chair and sat down. Jorge turned the mug between his fingers, sizing her up. Finally he slid his hand into the handle and took a pull of beer. It was piss-warm, but he was so thirsty he didn't much mind it. He set the mug down and looked at the woman, who seemed to be sizing him up as well.

            "Were you sent?" Jorge asked.

            She nodded. "By a friend."

            Jorge nodded. "I could use a friend."

            "Maybe you just made one," the woman replied, taking a sip of beer. Jorge let a thin, amused, smile cross his face as he watched her reaction--how she looked was exactly how he thought it tasted.

            "What do I call you?" Jorge asked, glancing at her.

            "Call me Bombshell," the woman replied.

            "Right. Of course." Jorge looked at her, then back down at the beer. He waved over a waitress and signaled he wanted three shots.

            "Sorry," Jorge said. "I appreciate the beer but . . ."

            " . . .it's awful," Bombshell finished.

            "Well, yeah," Jorge said. "But more than that. Don't take this the wrong way, but, given why we're both here, I'd like to be good and drunk before we start saying too much."

            "Why?"

            "Well, I--" Jorge was about to say something when the waitress brought over his shots. He powered back the first as the waitress stalked off, avoiding being groped as she slipped past a table a few feet away.

            "What were you saying?"

            "Uh," Jorge said, turning the shotglass over on the table. "I wanted to be good and drunk because . . . well, I'm not sure I believe in you."

            "I'm here," Bombshell said. "I would think that would convince you."

            "It convinces me you're legit enough to set up a meeting," Jorge said, downing the other shot. "But hell--anyone can do that. It's what you’re offering that I find hard to believe."

            "You don’t think we can do it?"

            "I've seen the people who tried to get out before me," Jorge said, lifting the third shot up off the table, but hesitating. "I saw how they died. It's painful and ugly--they make an example out of you, you know. I . . .well, don’t take this personally, but I expect to be just as dead by the end of the night."

            Bombshell considered him, pushing the beer away.

            "If you didn't think we could help, why go through with the meeting?" Bombshell said. "I'll warn you--if this is a set-up, I didn’t come here alone."

            "No, it's not a set-up," Jorge said, signaling the waitress back for three more shots. "I didn't mean to insult you, I  . . . just . . ."

            He sighed, waiting for the waitress. It was going to take a few more shots in him to get this out.

*          *          *

            "I came out here twelve years ago," Jorge said, his fingers dancing against the rim of the shotglass. He'd slowed down his drinking and was nursing them as he grew more thoughtful. "Just about the time the war ended. I had money, I had a ship, and I had big plans. I was going to come to the Frontier and make my fortune, like all the ads said. Captain a freighter for a few years, maybe earn enough for a fleet, build that into a shipping company."

            Bombshell listened to him, watching him with some curiosity as his manner relaxed. It was clear to her that he'd kept all this bottled up for ages, never telling anyone about his dreams, or what having seen them thwarted had done to him.

            It felt personal, in an uncomfortable way, and Bombshell found herself unsure of how to react to someone she'd met ten minutes ago pouring out something this personal to her. She wasn't at all sure how to react to it.

            So she let him go on.

            "But I was too small-time. Corporations don't need one small freighter when they can engage whole fleets than can carry ten times what my ship could. Smaller companies didn't need me . . . once they set up somewhere; they were done with hauling cargo."

            Jorge sighed, finishing his shot. "There went my dream. Couldn't make my rent in any respectable place, so I drifted for awhile. Found the Pirates."

            Bombshell watched him, fascinated. His whole manner had gone internal, as if she wasn't even there. His face, which had been wizened, glum, and utterly stone-faced when she'd sat down had opened up in quite dramatic fashion. Emotions from hope, to shame, to sadness flickered across his face.

            "It was like the answer to my prayers," Jorge said. "The Pirates took me in, gave me a place to stay, and all I had to do was join the fleet, load up whenever they did a raid, and kick back a percentage to them. I didn’t even have to shoot at anything. For awhile, I did okay."

            "What happened?"

            Jorge frowned. "They stopped calling me," he said. "They got bigger ships and took them out. When you don't go out for a raid, you don't have any take to turn into cash. I begged, I complained, I  . . . well, I almost threatened. The answer was always "not right now. Ask again next time." Soon, I never even got to ask. I was right back where I was before I hooked up with them, only now I couldn't get out. And . . ."

            Jorge looked away, looking pained. He opened his mouth to say something, then stopped himself.

            "And what?"

            Jorge shook his head. "You don’t wanna hear about that."

            "You seem to want to talk about it."

            Jorge looked at the last shot he hadn't drank. She could tell he was upset and was fighting hard not to say or show any sign of it. It was a battle he wasn't losing with any grace.

            "You want another?" Bombshell offered.

            "I don’t think I need it," Jorge said.

He sighed.

"I thought about leaving, about making a life for myself, trying again somewhere else, away from all that," Jorge said. "I'd even leave the ship behind--I just wanted out. And I wasn't too concerned with how I ended up leaving . . . everything. You know what I mean?"

Bombshell had a good idea. "What stopped you?"

Jorge smirked. "I'm a goddamned coward," he said. "That's what I liked about going along on the raids as first--I didn't have to shoot at anyone. I was glad. Too scared to ever pick up a gun, no matter how much I wanted to."

"So you called us," Bombshell said. "Even if you didn't believe we could help . . .then why did you bring us here?"

"I guess I still cling to hope," he said. "And even if you can't get me out . . . it’s good to tell someone. Good to know someone heard you, you know what I mean?"

"I do," a voice from behind Bombshell piped in.

Jorge's eyes cut from the middle distance he'd settled on as he'd been talking to Bombshell and focused on where the voice had come from. A woman, dressed a lot like Bombshell, took another seat at the table. The way her dark eyes kept glancing around the room, coupled with the pistol that was holstered under her left arm, it was obvious she was looking for trouble.

"Private table," Jorge said. "I'm talking with my friend."

"Your friend is my sister," the woman replied. "Which, in a roundabout way, makes me your friend."

Jorge looked at her, then to Bombshell, comparing the two. The newcomer was taller, her hair was shorter and jet-black, and her manner was as hard and off-putting as Bombshell’s was warm and inviting. Thus, there was only one conclusion he could make:

 "You two look  . . . exactly . . . nothing alike."

"We get that a lot," Bombshell said.

"Besides, who are you to judge?" The other woman replied. She snatched up the remaining shot from beneath Jorge's hands and downed it quickly.

"You’re drunk."

"Not that drunk."

Bombshell sighed. "You'll have to excuse Rebel."

Jorge looked at the other woman again. "Your name is Rebel?"

She shrugged "It was either that or Fred. We had weird parents."

"Stop baiting him, Rebel," Bombshell said. "As I said, you'll have to forgive her--she's the right side, I'm the left side."

"Huh?"

"It's complicated," Rebel said. "And we really don't have time to explain. I came over to tell you there's three pirates at the bar looking for Mr. Escovedo, here."

"It's a pirate bar," Jorge said. "Everyone here is a pirate."

"Except these three are wearing their raiding armor under their clothes and asked the bartender if you were here. They mentioned you by name. For the past ten minutes, they’ve been talking about something and looking this way."

"I think they've figured out what you're planning," Bombshell said, glancing at Jorge.

"Either that or it's your birthday, and you didn't tell us," Rebel said with a smirk.

Jorge's face fell, and it was apparent that he'd gotten his hopes up again, only to see him dashed. He looked away from the two of them, grimacing a little. Rebel seemed to catch that at once, and her manner became serious again.

"Don't worry," she said to him. "We're still gonna get you out."

"Yeah," Jorge said, his tone distant and indifferent.

"Any ideas on how to do that?" Bombshell asked Rebel.

"Blowing up the place is out, I take it?"

"With us still inside? That's short-sighted even for you."

"We can wait for them to make their move on us," Rebel said.

"Then when we take them out, we have an entire bar of angry pirates thirsty for our blood," Bombshell said. "I'll say this--you put more thought into that than your first idea."

"I thought you were the idea man."

"There's two things wrong with that statement, as I see it. Got anything else?"

Rebel's lips twisted into strange shapes. "Yeah," she said. "I think I might."

*          *          *

Bombshell, Jorge, and Rebel made their way to the exit. Nothing about their behavior indicated they'd noticed the three pirates at the bar, or their presence in any way alarmed them. They'd paid for their drinks, left a big tip and were making their way to the door, keeping Jorge in between Bombshell and Rebel, to better afford them a chance to protect Jorge if any shooting started in the bar.

Rebel was gambling on the idea that no one who'd made the pirates would walk right past them, and start a firefight in the middle of a bar full of their comrades.

Unless everyone in the bar jumps us, Rebel thought, keeping her hands close to her weapons, ready in case the pirates called her bluff.

She maneuvered past the three pirates, who were standing at the bar, maybe five feet away from her. She kept Bombshell and Jorge moving along as her eyes met the leader of the group, a little younger than Jorge whose lips seemed curled in a permanent sneer.

He gave her a withering look and turned back to the bar, shouting for the bartender's attention. The other two with him seemed chattered to themselves, ignoring her. Rebel kept moving, turning over the plan in her head.

They didn't make a move, she thought. So they're not going to do anything here, so a barfight isn't their goal: That's good.

But that probably means there's about a dozen of them outside: That's bad.

She pressed on, and they finally exited the bar, all three of them grateful to be back in the fresh air. There was a sweet handful of seconds when they seemed to be in the clear--they'd made it past the pirates in the bar, and even better, they'd gotten out from under that stomach-turning smell. That alone felt like a victory.

But Rebel wasn't in the mood for little victories, and shoved Jorge aside, standing shoulder to shoulder with Bombshell.

"Get ready," she whispered, as they stepped away from the Hope and Anchor's doorway. Her hand was on the pistol in her shoulder holster. "Jorge, you stay behind us and stay down."

"Why?"

"Because the pirates in the bar weren't there to kill you."

Jorge's brow furrowed and a flicker of understanding seemed to flit across his face. He sighed and looked at the ground for a bit.

"You think they wanted to force us into an ambush?" Bombshell asked.

"JORGE ESCOVEDO!" a voice boomed in the darkened parking lot.

"Now I am," Rebel said.

Another pirate trooper, this one dressed in full armor, walked into the spare light of the parking lot. His blaster carbine was slung over his shoulder, in easy reach if he wanted to open fire.

But he's not going to do that, Rebel thought.

Not yet.

"Jorge Escovedo, I call you a traitor!" The trooper shouted. "I call you a deserter, and I call on you to account for your crime!"

As the word "crime" echoed in the humid night air, seven other troopers stepped out from the shadows, their carbines drawn and pointed at the three of them. Behind them, the doors of the Hope and Anchor flew open and the three pirates they'd spotted inside stepped out, looking cocky and ready for a fight.

"We only want Escovedo," the lead trooper said. "This doesn’t concern you."

"This man is under our protection," Rebel said. "You aren’t getting him without a fight."

Jorge piped up behind her: "Rebel, I'm not wo--"

"Not now, Jorge," Rebel snapped. "I promised we'd get you out. I mean to do it."

Jorge sighed as Rebel turned to Bombshell. "You ready?"

Bombshell nodded.

"Two of us against ten pirate troopers," she said quietly.

"Yeah," Rebel said. "They should have brought more guys."

She drew her pistol and fired on the lead trooper.

*          *          *

Rebel's first shot had winged the leader of the troopers, but her second penetrated his armor and brought him down. The other troopers began to track her with their fire as she threw Jorge into the shadows and rolled in the other direction, drawing their fire away from him and towards her.

She brought down one of the trio who'd come from the bar with a clean headshot that was so swift and brutal it gave the other two pause about joining the fight. They ran as she sent two more shots to hurry them along, using the Hope and Anchor's doorway as a shield for the bullets.

So far, so good, she thought. She'd fired at the troopers to finally break the tension. Too often when there was a standoff like this, people just let the tension build and build until someone made a mistake and the situation got completely out of control.

So she'd decided to get started early. Things would still be a little out of control, but it felt better somehow knowing it was her decision.

Plus, the time the troopers spent shooting at her meant that they'd all but ignore Bombshell, she thought, ejecting the plasma cap for her pistol and slapping in a new one.

 After all, she didn't shoot at them, and she never would--my sister hates guns.

An explosion erupted a few feet away, the flash illuminating the entire parking lot. Rebel smiled and stepped out from the doorway, opening fire on the troopers as another explosion rocked them.

The tight squad of troopers that had pinned Rebel in the doorway was breaking up. A woman with a gun and an attempted deserter were one thing, someone throwing concussion grenades at them from the darkness was another matter entirely.

Rebel dropped another one with a shot to the neck, dropped to one knee, and tracked another trooper running between some of the parked vehicles. She drew her knife and followed him quietly on the other side of the vehicle, then popped out in front of him, driving the point of her knife into his throat. A trooper a few feet away raised his carbine, ready to shoot her as the trooper she stabbed fell to the ground.

“Jorge?” Rebel called.

No answer. She couldn’t sense him behind her.

Dammit, she thought. If he bolted when Bombshell set her charges, he could be dead already.

She took a shot at one of the fleeing pirate troopers, making her way quickly past the flames and confusion. She was on her own—Bombshell had split to set her charges and call in a ride, and God only knew where Escovedo was.

Guess it’s official, she chastised herself, dropping another of the pirate troopers as she scanned the smoky darkness for Escovedo. The situation is now officially out of control.

Rebel caught sight of a shadow moving just to her left and thought it was Escovedo for a moment, but before she could give chase, she was shoved into the dirt by someone tacking her from behind. The impact knocked the breath from her body and her weapons from her hand.

She tasted her own blood as she tried to take a breath, her gun and knife glittering in the dark inches away from her. Whoever was on top of her was heavy enough she was pinned tight to the ground, and those inches between her fingertips and her gun might as well be miles.

Everything went into sharp focus for a moment. She could feel the strain of her breath being squeezed out of her lungs, the feeling of impotence as she was pressed to the ground unable to save herself.

Most of all, she focused on the hard click of the weapon behind her, the barrel of which, she guessed, was pointed at the base of her skull.

Nothing I can do, she thought.

She steadied her breathing and managed her panic—if Rebel were going to die, she weren’t going to die afraid.

She looked up from the dirt, wondering what the last thing she’d see would be.

As it happened, it was Escovedo, holding a pirate’s carbine in such a way that told Rebel he’d really never held a weapon before. Escovedo pulled the trigger, nearly knocking himself over at the recoil from the automatic fire that erupted from the barrel of the gun.

Whoever was behind her cried out in pain as the gunfire cut through him, and Rebel was able to roll the injured man off her. But she couldn’t do much else—just being able to breathe normally was enough of a strain that she needed all her strength for it.

Escovedo took a step towards her, the carbine he held pointing down. Rebel tried to groan out a warning to him, but she couldn’t make herself heard. Escovedo got a step closer before his shoulder exploded as he was tagged with a shot from behind her.

Rebel lunged forward on the ground, reaching her knife as she rolled onto her back. She saw the trooper behind her, blood pouring out of his armour, carbine still smoking from shooting Escovedo.

In an instant, Rebel took aim and threw her knife through the trooper’s visor, punching through the reinforced plastic, his eye, and finally, his brain. He stumbled backward like a felled tree as Rebel rolled to her feet.

She retrieved her knife and gun, then walked over to Escovedo, who was lying in the dirt, blood pouring from his shoulder wound, which he tried (and failed) to stanch with his hand. He looked pale, exhausted, and in pain Rebel was all too familiar with, but didn’t like to remember.

Which is why it was so strange for Rebel to see him smiling at her.

“Come on,” Rebel said, reaching down for him. “We said we’d get you out, we’re getting you out.”

“No,” Escovedo groaned, weakly. “Shoulder’s messed up—too bad to move. You two . . .go.”

“We came for you,” Rebel said, almost sounding like she was pleading. “I’m not leaving without you. Come on, damn it.”

“Go.”

Rebel grit her teeth.

“Not like this, Jorge,” she said. “We came here to help you.”

“You . . . did,” he whispered. He reached for her white-gloved hand, taking it in his as much as he was able.

“You listened.”

“Jorge I’m so—“

Escovedo leaned back, groaning.

“Nice to believe, for  . . . a little while.”

Rebel wanted to carry him all the same, but the piercing white lights of the shuttle above her gave her pause. Her hand went to her gun, fearing the worst—more troopers.

Then the bottom hatch opened and she looked up, seeing Bombshell sending a cable down to her.

Rebel smiled, glad to see her sister had done her job as she was reeled into the shuttle. Once she was aboard, the shuttle banked and soared into the dark.

*          *          *

 

            The troopers closed over Escovedo, now more dead than alive. They’d been ordered to let the shuttle go—without a heavy cruiser in the area to pursue the people who’d collaborated with Escovedo, there was no point in trying to chase them.

            Besides, they’d left what they’d tried to save.

            “How’s it look?” The lead trooper said to one of his number, who was crouched next to Escovedo.

            “Bad,” the other trooper said. “He’s just about bled out. Couple minutes, more or less.”

            “But he’s still alive?” The leader said, shouldering his carbine?

            “Barely,” the other said. “There’s really no point in . . .”

            “Yes there is,” the leader said, taking a device from one of the pouches on his belt. He slipped it over the knuckles of his right glove, then pressed a button on the edge of the device.

            “We leave him unmarked, he’s a martyr,” the leader said, the smell of ozone and heat so strong it got in through the air filters of their helmets. “Rules are rules. We’ve gotta make an example of him

            “Open his shirt.”

            The other trooper shook his head as he ripped open Escovedo’s shirt.

            The leader pressed the now white-hot surface of the device against Escovedo’s chest. The smell of burning flesh was so powerful, the other trooper feared he’d be sick in his helmet for a moment, but it was over with before that became an issue.

            Escovedo slumped back, then hard to the ground as the other trooper let him go, rising to stand with his leader.

            “Jorge Escovedo,” the leader intoned, his voice cold as he repeated words he’d spoken before. “Had you fought like a man, you would not have died like a dog.”

            “So who do you think hit us?” The other trooper asked.

            “Not sure,” the leader said, slipping the branding instrument off his hand and shaking it to cool it off. “Not enough people for one of the Syndicates . . . they’d come so hard against us, there’d be no mistake.”

            “Then who?”

            “Not sure,” the leader said, slipping the brand back into his belt. “Finding out’s above my pay grade anyway, thank God. Call in what we know—I’m going back to the bar.”

            “Right,” the other trooper said, glancing back at Escovedo’s body. He was glad the mask covered his whole face at that moment, because if it hadn’t, the leader might have seen the expression of pity for the man they’d just branded, and just underneath, the revulsion at their retribution.

            He thought back for a moment at when he’d held him, and wondered if he was already gone by the time he’d been branded.

It would have accounted for the expression frozen on his face.

He looked like someone who’d been set free.

A shiver went through the trooper, and he soon decided to follow the leader back to the bar.

 Thoughts that heavy were better kept at bay.

*          *          *

Rebel had spent the two hours in the shuttle steeling herself for what was to come. Bombshell had tried to engage her in conversation, but Rebel had put her off by saying “I don’t want to talk about it,” and when that failed, ignoring her altogether.

            No matter how hard she tried, she kept returning to Escovedo, and his last words.

            He never thought we could get him out, did he, she wondered, staring at the now dark-red stain of his blood on her white gloves.

            He just wanted someone to listen to him.

            How desperate, how hopeless do you have to be for that to be all you can dare hope for?

            Rebel had an idea. She’d been that hopeless before, and she thought she was far enough past it that the reminder wouldn’t hurt so much.

            But no, the pain was too familiar, and wouldn’t be ignored.

            Fortunately, she had something else to focus on, as the huge shape of their base ship, the White Angel, came into view.

            Immediately her angst shifted away, replaced with fear. She wondered for a moment if she asked Bombshell nicely, would she turn the shuttle around and they could go back and fight a losing battle against the pirate troopers.

            It could only be easier than what awaited her on the ship.

            More than anything, Rebel hated losing, and this time she’d lost big. The last thing she wanted was to have her nose rubbed in it some more.

            But however she felt about it, she wouldn’t run from it, either.

            Bombshell keyed in the final approach for the shuttle and within minutes, they were aboard and disembarking from the shuttle.

            “Last chance to talk about it,” Bombshell said, unstrapping herself from the controls.

            Rebel momentarily considered ignoring her, but was too tired.

            “I don’t think it’ll do any good,” she replied. “I messed up. Overplayed my hand. And I got someone killed.”

            Bombshell studied Rebel’s face and manner. She was too attuned to her sister’s moods and manner to ignore the pain that virtually radiated off her now.

            “I, uh . . . I can tell her you needed to go by the medical bay,” she offered. “Not like you have to do this right now.”

            “I’d like to do it exactly never,” Rebel said, opening the hatch. “But you know me—that’s not how I do it.”

            “No, you’re much too hard-headed for that.”

            Rebel’s eyes cut sharply to her sister, only to find her smiling at her.

            And Rebel, a bit relieved, smiled back.

            “I guess I am.”

            They climbed down off the shuttle and walked in silence through the hangar bay. It was bright, quiet, and felt very big.

            “Is it my imagination, or are we short-handed?” Rebel said.

            Bombshell’s brow furrowed in thought. “Well, Ronah’s off on a mission, she’s waiting for us on the main deck, Zed’s probably flying the ship, and Caetano—“

            “Caetano’s probably waiting outside her office,” Rebel said. “He does love his gossip.”

            “You like his gossip too, if I remember.”

            “I like hearing it,” Rebel replied. “I don’t like being it.”

            They made their way to the elevator and Rebel keyed in the main deck.

            “You really think it’s going to be that bad?” Bombshell asked, leaning back against the wall of the elevator car.

            “Let’s see: I escalated a simple rescue mission into a running gun battle,” she said, ticking them off on her fingers. “I nearly got us both killed, and definitely got our target killed. No, I definitely screwed this one up.”

            “Well, obviously,” Bombshell said. “But you act like she’s going to kick you off the ship or something.”

            “I wouldn’t blame her if she did.”

            “Oh,” she said. “Then it’s not her you’re really mad at.”

            Rebel sighed. “Bombshell—“

            “I’m not telling you’re wrong to feel that way,” Bombshell said. “I’m just saying, don’t let it drive you away from here. We can still do some good.”

            Rebel chuckled under her breath.

            “You don’t think so?”

            “I don’t know, B,” Rebel said. “I really don’t.”

*          *          *

            The dark frigate Misericord hovered ominously in orbit of Geas colony, the huge gun slung under its hull pointed like a hornet’s stinger at the bleak sphere beneath it. While the command ship of the pirate clans was well known, it had never visited the colony before now, and its purpose now, seemed uncertain, save for the obvious connection that could be drawn that last night’s events had attracted attention.

            Aboard the Misericord, the captain busily studied the data clipboard she’d been handed. On the table beside her command chair sat several other data clipboards, containing various troopers’ reports of the incident at the Hope and Anchor.

            Pirate Red had studied those hours ago. What she’d been given now was the story behind the story.

            She leaned back in her chair, cradling the clipboard in her lap.

            “An anti-Syndicate?” She said, blowing a strand of her blue and pink hair from her eyes. “I didn’t know there was such a thing.”

            “I didn’t either,” the woman standing before her said. “And up until a couple of years ago, there wasn’t. Then these White Dragons came out of nowhere and started operating. They’ve been giving the Syndicates on the Frontier hell for the last year.”

            “So why hit us?” Pirate Red asked.

            “It wasn’t a hit on us,” the woman replied. She touched the air as though she were pressing keys and the display on the clipboard shifted. “They’re not after power or territory or anything like that. Their primary goal seems to be getting people out of the Syndicates, setting them up with new identities. They’re an underground railroad.”

            “And now, us.” Pirate Red sighed.

            “This is the first,” the woman agreed. “And if we don’t respond, it might be the finish of us.”

            “Wait a minute, Kilana,” Red said, gesturing with the clipboard. “Escovedo was a nobody. I wasn’t even sure he was with us, until I saw the reports. He never earned for us, not really.”

            “It’s not that,” Kilana said. “It’s what Escovedo represents.”

            “He tried to get out, and he got killed for it. I’m not seeing the problem.”

            “You’re not looking hard enough, Red,” Kilana said, walking closer to her sister. “It’s good that we kept him from going, yes. But the fact that he had a hope of getting out and the fact that the White Dragons could get to our people implies a weakness in our control. And you know as well as I do, the illusion of control is all that holds this thing together.”

            Pirate Red thought about that for a moment. The two of them controlled the Pirate clans, at least as much as anyone could control an unruly, disparate gang of thousands of men and hundreds of ships, all of whom had their own agendas and ambitions, held together at best by the promise of profit and the perception that this was the only way things could go.

            To disobey meant death.

            Red and Kilana knew this intimately; as they’d done all they could do perpetuate that assumption when they assumed control of the Pirate Clans. It was key to their continuing control.

            “So,” Red said. “If we don’t nip this in the bud, what happens?”

            “Worst case?” Kilana said. “Eventually the other captains see that we can’t even keep our people from going over to the other side, so there’s no point in being under our command. The fleet breaks up, everyone goes into business for themselves. That means civil war, that means you and I have great big bullseyes painted on us.”

            “Because there’s no easier way to be top dog than to overthrow the king,” Red finished. “All this from one loser trying to sneak out on us.”

            “There’s a reason it’s called the thin end of the wedge. That’s why I got us out here so fast. We needed to show the flag--to look like we’re on top of this”

            Red cradled her head in her chin, staring at the data clipboard some more until setting it aside.

            “All right, then,” she said. “What do we do?”

            “Make an example of the White Dragons,” Kilana said. “Hit them so hard they’ll leave us alone for good.”

            Red chewed it over for a bit, then nodded. “OK. Get the Hellspite and the Curlew to rendezvous with us at the edge of the system,” she said. “And send out a call to the local boys as well.

            “If we’re going to war with the White Dragons, might as well be loaded for bear.

*          *          *

             She won’t even face me, Rebel thought.

            She’d been sitting in the office for five minutes, and all she’d seen of the woman she’d been talking to was her back. She could see the reflection of her face in the glass, and even though the image was faint, she could make out that her expression was made up of equal parts rage and disappointment.

            Rebel wondered if the best thing would have been for her to just start yelling and get it over with. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t dealt with before, and it would be easier to take in a way.

            She flashed back to her decision on Geas. How she’d decided to break the tension and take the shot, because letting it build up was just sure to lead to something worse.

            Now, as then, she decided to make the first move.

            “Silhouette, I—“

            “Bombshell told me the details,” Silhouette responded, her voice tight and controlled. “Tell me what you think happened out there.”

            “I know,” Rebel began, trying to keep her voice calm. “The mission got out of hand—“

            “Obviously,” Silhouette said, turning to face her. Her azure eyes locked on Rebel’s as she leaned forward over the table separating them. “Now I want to know why. Why did it get out of hand?”

            “I screwed up,” Rebel admitted. She took a deep breath—the next part she didn’t like to admit, but best to get it all out. “We’re not your team for extraction missions; we’re your demolition squad, and you sent us in short-handed for something we didn’t have experience in.

            “When I figured out we were surrounded, I thought I’d force a confrontation and try to slip out in the confusion. It might have worked if I’d had more people, but the numbers were against us, and my exist strategy got out of control. Bombshell and I were lucky to get out, Escovedo didn’t.”

            “Would you say triggering a firefight was perhaps not the best way to keep Escovedo out of the crossfire?”

            “It seemed like the best way at the time,” Rebel said, stiffening. “Bombshell and I aren’t trained for this. You brought us in to go around and destroy your little bits of junk. Typically that doesn’t involve trying to protect someone on the way out.”

            “Ignorance isn’t an excuse.”

            “I’m not making excuses,” Rebel said. “I feel worse about Escovedo getting killed than you do. He seemed like an all right man, he saved my life, bought us time to get out. I owe him one.”

            “And you can’t pay him back.”

            Rebel looked distant and a little sad. “Yeah. Guess I can’t.”

            Silhouette studied Rebel for a few minutes, then took a deep breath and turned back to the window.

            “I built this place . . .this group . . .to get people like Escovedo out of the crossfire,” Silhouette began. “People like him don’t have a choice; they don’t have the power or the option to get out of the way when two larger forces on either side decided to fight. They’re stuck in the middle, and they usually get ground to pieces. The two forces don’t care—they probably don’t even notice.”

            Silhouette leaned forward, resting her hands on the desk and locking her gaze with Rebel.

            “But I do, Rebel, because I was one of those people caught in the middle,” she said, enunciating every word. “And I had to get out, because I couldn’t stand it anymore. But I didn’t have anyone to help me. Maybe if I had . . .”

            Her voice trailed off as she glanced away.

            “That’s why I’m here,” she continued. “And I could tell you why Caetano, Zed, and Ronah are here. They trusted me enough to tell me, and I trust them. That trust is what holds us together.”

            Rebel breathed, staring down at the desk between them.

            “Why are you and Bombshell here?”

            “You need us,” Rebel said. She grimaced inwardly at how inadequate it sounded, especially in light of what had happened today.

            “You said you wanted to help,” Silhouette said. “I took you at your word. You never told me anything more than that.”

            “I . . . we . . .uh, have our reasons,” Rebel replied.

            “I’m sure you do,” Silhouette said. “But the Escovedo mission proves there’s a problem with that. You’re a wild card, Rebel—that’s your strength, but it’s also your weakness. Because unless you’re willing to go all in with us, to really be part of this . . .well, I can’t fully trust you, can I?

            “Is this really what you want to do, Rebel? Do you want to help people? Can you take yourself out of the equation to help them, risk your life for theirs? Or are you and your sister just looking for a fight?”

            Rebel stiffened. “We really do want to help.”

            “Then I . . . we . . . need to know we can trust you, and depend on you,” Silhouette said. “Tonight was a test. A test to see if you could handle a mission, a test to see how committed you were, and how adaptable you are to our real mission.”

            Rebel frowned and slumped her shoulders. “I guess I failed.”

            “You sure didn’t pass.”

            “So we’re out?”

            “I didn’t say that,” Silhouette said. “For now though, you and Bombshell are off active duty. I think all concerned need some time to think things over.

            Rebel blinked. “But without Ronah here, you won’t have anyone in the field.”

            Silhouette turned. “I’ll do the field work.”

            “You can’t do it—“

            “I can’t?” Silhouette repeated. “For a long time, I was the only one doing it. It took me years to find people to help. And that took trust. You might think about that during the time off.”

            “So, you’re sending me off to my room to what, think about what I’ve done?”

            “I don’t think I need to do anything at all for that to happen, do I?” Silhouette asked her, eying Rebel carefully. “Because I can see you already are. I can see that wound inside you that you think you’re hiding, that you’re covering up with anger. And I can see it so clearly because I have plenty of my own.”

            Rebel looked away from her. The whole situation was getting far too close and too uncomfortable for her. She didn’t like being “read” so clearly by anyone, even Silhouette. Being so transparent made her feel completely exposed.

            “You’re not kicking us out?”

            “You can leave if you want,” Silhouette said. “You can stay, if you want. I’m not going to force you. But if you want to be here, then be here. You know what I mean?”

            “I . . . well, I don’t know about that,” Rebel said, getting up. “I just . . .  don’t punish Bombshell. It was my call. I should take all the heat.”

            “Nobody’s getting punished,” Silhouette said. She turned to look back out the window. “I don’t feel like I have to.”

            Rebel frowned. “But you’re taking us off active duty. How is that not—“

            “I wanted to give you time to think things over,” Silhouette said. “But I don’t think that cleaning bulkheads or cycling the garbage on the ship is going to help with that. Besides, I’ve had plenty of missions go bad, and I know you’re hurting about it already.

            “And do you know why?”

            Rebel frowned. “Why?”

            “Because you and Bombshell are good people.”

            “You think so?”

            “I believe you are. Do you?”

Rebel sighed. “I guess I don’t know.”

            “Then you’ve got one more thing to think about, don’t you?” Silhouette replied.

*          *          *

            Kilana examined the information she’d received, scrolling through the data as it shimmered in the air before her. She’d spent most of the night searching for whatever information she could find on the White Dragons that she could obtain in preparation for their retaliatory strike against them.

            And it was educational stuff. While hard data about how the White Dragons were able to operate without fear of immediate reprisal was hard to come by, she’d learned a very telling bit about who was in command of the “anti-Syndicate.”

            Silhouette.

            Despite herself, Kilana’s expression darkened when she read her name. She and Red had met Silhouette years ago, just when the two of them had been planning their power play to assume full control of the Pirate clans. She’d brokered a deal for some assistance from the Blue Dragons, the most powerful Syndicate on the Frontier.

            They hadn’t really needed the help as much as an x-factor, someone to take attention away from them while they executed their plans.

            Which had succeeded, she reminded herself.

More or less.

That was the first and only time she’d dealt with Silhouette, but thanks to information of her own, Kilana could fill in the blanks as to why Silhouette had left the Syndicate and started her own little operation.

Funny, she thought. That we should be at odds like this, when we barely met or talked a couple years back. Now we’re in the same orbit.

Or did we ever leave and we were just on our way around the circle, waiting to collide again?

Kilana hadn’t kept tabs on Silhouette—the years had taught her the irony that taking the Pirate clans was the easy part—holding them together was the real challenge. Generally, the Pirates stayed away from the Syndicates, and vice versa, so their paths had never really crossed.

Until Silhouette decided to do her little errand of mercy, and inadvertently undermine our authority, she mused.

Strange, the places fate takes you, she thought.

Kilana never held any ambitions to be a Pirate herself, and though it was well-understood that she was the brains behind the operation, and that Pirate Red was the figurehead. Red’s force of personality and eagerness for a fight made her the kind of leader a bunch of trigger-happy pirates would follow—Kilana’s smarts kept her there.

They made a good team. They’d put down every challenge to their authority from inside the clans definitely, publicly, and permanently. Now one came from outside their direct sphere of control, and it had to be dealt with in like fashion.

How I’m supposed to do that when they’re as slippery as these White Dragons I wish I knew, she thought. She closed her eyes and slipped her goggles back on to her forehead so she could rub her eyes. Having a mobile virtual terminal was handy, but using it for too long caused such awful eyestrain.

She sighed. Her mouth felt parched, and she thought about leaving it for a bit and getting a cup of coffee. Trying to track the White Dragons was like nailing smoke to the wall—they got in, got their target out, and then disappeared. There was no standard territory they were stationed out of, no colonial base on the Frontier she could target, no way to follow them back because there was no place to follow them back to.

Only thing left to do then, she thought.

Bring them to us.

The first indicators of an idea began to play at the corners of her mind, and she soon headed off to the Misericord’s mess hall to have her cup of coffee, so she might bring them into sharper focus.

*          *          *

“Was it bad?” Caetano asked. He and Bombshell were camped out at the central corridor a few feet away from Silhouete’s office, and from what Rebel could tell, they’d been there for a while. She was sitting on the edge of the bench built into the wall, her leg bouncing nervously up and down. Caetano was standing with his foot on the bench, resting his hand on his chin as his white hair covered his eyes.

“You mean you weren’t listening at the door?” Rebel replied.

Caetano laughed, brushing his hair from his face. He gestured to Bombshell. “This one told me there was too much heat, and if I listened too close, my ears might get burned.”

Rebel gently tousled Bombshell’s hair.  Bombshell looked annoyed and no less nervous.

“That’s my sister. Always looking after me.”

“So, out with it.”

“Well, she’s incredibly sexy when she’s angry,” Rebel began. “I mean, I could hardly control myself—“

“Don’t even try it, Rebel.”

Rebel looked around, exasperated. “Why do you care?”

“I never get to leave,” Caetano said. “I have to live vicariously through you guys.”

“Zed never gets to leave either, and he’s not a gossip.”

“Zed drives the boat, and likes machines better than people anyways.”

“Well, you got me there, I guess,” Rebel said. “Look, can you give me a minute with Bombshell? We got some things to talk through. After that, you can have all the dirt your bored little heart desires.”

Caetano raised an eyebrow. “Promise?”

“Promise. I’ll tell you things I don’t even know.”

            “Good enough,” Caetano said. He nodded to Bombshell with a little smile and stepped off the bench, heading back toward the landing bay.

            Rebel shook her head as she watched him go.

            “They’re right what they say,” Bombshell said. “Boredom is really the biggest danger in space.”

            “Yeah,” Rebel said. “Lucky for me, my life’s never boring.”

            She paused for a moment, and then took a seat next to Bombshell.

            “She took us off active duty.”

            “Oh.”

            “Yeah,” Rebel frowned. “I tried to take all the heat myself, make sure you didn’t get punished, but . . . I dunno if it worked. But I did try.”

            “Good for me,” Bombshell replied. “What about you?”

            “She doesn’t know. She says she’s not sure about us. She knows why everyone else is here, but us?” She shrugged and threw her hands up in the air to emphasize the point.

            “You could always tell her.”

            Rebel chuckled. “About the crush I have on her? I thought she knew.”

            “Don’t do that,” Bombshell said. “Save that crap for Caetano. This is me. You know what I’m talking about.”

            “If she doesn’t feel like I believe in the mission from what I do . . . what good will telling her about the rat fights and all that stuff do?”

            “What you do or don’t do isn’t in question,” Bombshell said. “It’s not your ability that she questions or needs reminding of. It’s trust.”

            Rebel stared at the wall.

            “That might be more than I can do, then.”

            “I don’t think so,” Bombshell. “I know you’d like to think you’re too tough to need anyone or too cynical to trust, but you might try it, this once. You did it before. I’m living proof.”

            “That was a different time, B.”

            “Times change. We don’t.”

            Rebel tilted her head back, resting it on the wall.

            “If you wanna stay here that bad, B, I—“

            “It’s not about what I want,” Bombshell cut her off. “I think you want to stay here too. But you’re afraid to ask, because there’s the risk they may say “get out,” so it’s easier for you to just come and go and you please and pretend that it doesn’t bother you.”

            “She might have told me that just now anyways,” Rebel said. “Even if I’d like to stay, I mighta just burned that bridge.”

            “I doubt it,” Bombshell said. “You’re not giving her enough credit.”

            “Maybe,” Rebel said, getting up from the bench. “I don’t know. I need some time to think it over.”

            “Rebel—Leila,” Bombshell said. Rebel paused at the sound of her real name. “If you leave . . . I’m staying here. I’m not going to go with you this time.”

            “B, you can’t—“

            “I’m tired of running, Leila. I think I belong here,” she continued. “And I think maybe we can do some good. I feel like I want to try.

“Would it be so bad to have some place to belong again?”

            Rebel sighed and turned her back to Bombshell.

            “I don’t know, B,” she said. “Guess I better think about that too.”

*          *          *

            “You want to do what, now?” Pirate Red asked, pacing around the Misericord’s ready room.

            “For whatever reason, there’s no way to trace how the White Dragons get in and out, or why they don’t have a home base,” Kilana said. “That tells me their whole operation’s mobile, and what’s more, they take great pains to avoid being tracked. So if we can’t follow them, we need to draw them out. It’s a classic sting operation.”

            “I thought you said that letting any more people try to get out created a bad perception,” Red said, pointing at her sister. “Even if we’re doing it as a sting, this just perpetuates that, doesn’t it?”

            “I don’t have a great answer for that,” Kilana said. “But it’s the only way I can see to force some kind of confrontation. It’s the least bad choice.”

            “Right,” Red grimaced. “So, what’s the plan?”

            “We get our man to send out feelers through channels, he schedules a meeting, and we tail them all the way through the extraction,” Kilana said. She raised her hands, and brought them together. “Then we close the trap.”

            “Our man,” Red repeated. “Who’s he?”

            “Outside,” Kilana said, triggering an unseen command on her virtual terminal. “Send him in.”

            The door to the ready room rattled open and two troopers ushered a third inside. Red nodded to the two who’d escorted him in and they marched out, the door sliding shut behind them.

            The trooper stiffened, trying to stand at attention, but his stance wavered slightly. He’d picked up the silence that greeted him upon entry, and coupled with the almost predatory gaze of the two women who stood on either side of him, he felt tension in the air so great, it was almost hard to breathe.

            “Trooper,” Red began.

            “Ma’am,” the trooper barked, standing even more at attention.

            Red sighed. “Don’t cut me off, and for God’s sakes don’t call me ‘ma’am again. Stand at ease, trooper.”

            “And take your helmet off,” Kilana added. “You’re in the presence of a lady.”

            Red spared her sister a brief puzzled look as the trooper released the seal on his helmet and released the fasteners, quickly and efficiently tucking it under his arm.

            He was a young man, maybe six or seven years younger than Kilana or Red, and his dark eyes still had that slight hint of awe and gentleness that life would soon dull, framed by a dark mop of jet-black hair.

            Kilana noted all this with a thin smile.

            He’s cast perfectly.

            “Reyga Cortes,” Kilana said. “Where are you from, trooper?”

            “I . . .Talis, ma—er, Captain.,” Reyga managed.

            “She’s not a captain,” Red hissed, shaking her head. “You can all her ma’am. Call me Captain.”

            “Sorry, Captain.”

            “Better,” Red said. “We meant what ship do you hail from, trooper.”

            “Oh,” Reyga blinked. “The Marvelous. Under Captain Gustav.”

            “You fly out of Geas, then?” Kilana asked.

            Reyga nodded.

            “Then I guess you heard about that business with Escovedo two days ago?”

            “They called my squad out,” Reyga said, almost frowning but stopping himself. “We engaged the intruders and my squad leader—Corporal Jace—he, uh, branded Escovedo.”

            “You saw him do it?” Red said, circling Reyga, never taking her eyes off him.

            Reyga nodded, his eyes narrowing.

            “And what did you think?”

            “Think, Captain?”

            “That’s what I asked you.”

            “I . . .” Reyga stopped himself and took a deep breath, stiffening to something like attention. “It doesn’t matter what I think, Captain. Everyone knows the rules. Deserters get the brand.”

            “Good,” Red said. She moved beside him, putting her arm around him. “You uh, didn’t get any ideas, did you?”

            “No.”

            “Not even a little bit?”

            Reyga shook his head. Under his armor, he was squirming. “The fleet’s been good to me. I got no reason to desert.”

            “That’s good,” Kilana said. “You know, I spoke to Gustav when I requested you. He says you’re a good man. You follow orders, look after the people in your unit . . .’a model trooper,’ is what he told me. You’re due to be a squad leader when the next opening comes up. This time next year, you could be wearing Corporal’s bars.”

            Reyga blinked, his expression softening. He allowed himself a small sigh of relief as Red slid her arm off his shoulder and walked away, back to her sister.

            “Or,” Red began. “You do some work for us.”

            “Work?”

            Kilana said. “We have a job for you, and we need a model trooper.”

            Reyga licked his lips, looking at them. “But I’m just a grunt. You’ve got eighty—“

            “We don’t need a grunt,” Kilana said, her eyes locking on his. “We need a good man, we need a model trooper, we need the best. We need you, Reyga.”

            “What’s the job?”

            Red smiled and nodded, satisfied with his eagerness to do his duty.

            “We need you to desert.”

            Reyga made no effort to hide his disbelief. “WHAT?!”

            “Keep your voice down,” Red snapped. “That business with Escovedo is connected to another organization. A competitor, you might say. We need someone to go undercover and flush them out, set up a chance for us to put them out of business.”

            “Why me?”

            “Because we want someone we can trust,” Red said, crossing her arms in front of her. “We need someone who’ll do his duty for the fleet, and who won’t be tempted to forget his loyalties no matter what they might offer you to flip on us. That’s more than just a grunt with a fear of the brand can offer.”

            Reyga was speechless. He felt a cold sweat trickling down his back.

            “How am I supposed to contact this . . .rival group?”

            “I’ve compiled a list of likely informants—some of their contacts on the fringes of Tartarus,” Kilana said, reaching behind herself and grabbing a data clipboard from Kilana’s desk. “Contact them and put some feelers out . . .that’ll get the process started. From then on, follow the trail, and when it comes time to meet with their people, we’ll come in and settle accounts.”

            “In force,” Red added.

Reyga took the clipboard, studying the names on the list.  None of the names were familiar, but the planets named were familiar ports of call for pirates on layover on their way back to base.

“What if I run into some of our people while I’m ‘deserting’?” Reyga asked.

“I have a feeling they’ll probably shoot at you,” Red said. “Pirates sure hate deserters. You didn’t pick that up from what happened with Escovedo?”

Reyga looked up at them.

“You get a ship, you get the contact list, and you get a day’s head start,” Kilana said. “After that, the fleet’s going to be on the lookout for you, on charges of desertion.”

“But I’m not deserting!” Reyga said. “You said I was going undercover.”

“That’s right,” Red said. “So deep that we can’t acknowledge it. When you leave this ship, you’re on your own. When this mission is finished, and the competition has been dealt with . . .then we’ll get the heat off you, maybe even set you up with your own ship.”

“But until then, I’m a deserter. They’ll be after me.”

“If you make contact, they’ll keep you on the move, shuffle you from colony to colony, gradually pull you a few sectors out of our direct control,” Kilana said. “It all depends on how far ahead of us you can stay, doesn’t it?”

Reyga bit his lip, wondering if this would be a good time to speak his mind. He was acutely aware that this plan made him little more than bait, and Red and Kilana had maneuvered him into extortion.

“What if I say no?”

“You know what the penalty for desertion is,” Red said, raising her hand. The metal gauntlet gleamed and hummed quietly. “I’m guessing you know what the penalty is for disobeying a direct order, too.”

“Will you do it, Reyga?”

Reyga’s shoulders fell. In an instant he thought of the years he’d fought with the Pirates. Five or six years—since he was old enough to hold a carbine, he’d been raiding. It had given him purpose, it had given him a place to belong.

He’d asked nothing for it.

And it seemed that was just what he was getting.

“Yes,” he replied, his voice weak and defeated.

Red nodded and smiled. “Gustav was right,” she said. “You are a good man.”

Reyga would have none of it. “When do I leave?”

“There’s a Shrike fueled up and ready to go in the forward launch bay,” Red said, pushing a control on her desk. “The troopers will take you there right now.”

Red and Kilana perched side by side on the edge of the desk as the two troopers entered the room. Reyga glanced over his shoulder at the pair of them, his expression inscrutable, and then turned away, putting on his helmet as he was escorted out of the room.

The door clattered shut behind him and for a long time the two sisters sat together, neither saying a word.

“I didn’t think you’d find someone so young,” Red said.

“I didn’t really know how old he was,” Kilana said. “Didn’t really care, either. I was looking at the reports. I wanted a type—age didn’t enter into it.”

“You think he knows we have no intention of taking him back?”

“Does it matter?” Kilana said. “Taking an accused deserter back into our ranks is almost as bad as letting the White Dragons steal them. The whole point is to minimize the damage from within and without, decisively and publicly. Stop the brush fire before it burns everything up.”

Red nodded. “You’ll think he’ll find them?”

“I do,” Kilana said, scooting off the desk. “That’s why I wanted a good man. I wanted someone who’d believed in us, and would, having been hurt, betrayed, and hunted, be driven right to the people most likely to offer him sanctuary.”

“And then we spring the trap.”

Kilana nodded. “Reyga’s a good man. Good men make the best bait.”

 

 *         *          *

Rebel stared at the smoothed brushed metal of the ceiling in her quarters, lost in thought. The very air around her seemed to be suspended with some kind of tension, but in truth, it was boredom.

She’d lost track of the hours she’d spent in her quarters. She’d tried to read a book, and couldn’t focus on the book. When that failed, she tried to eat, and the half-finished meal, now very cold, sat on her table a few feet away. When that failed, she tried to lose herself in the detail-intensive work of cleaning and re-loading her weapon.

After every failure, she found herself back on her bed, lying on her back and staring at the ceiling.

Rebel had never learned how to do “nothing” very well.

            Silhouette and Bombshell’s words kept picking at her, constantly plucking a nerves within her she was surprised were still raw. And what really struck her, was in Silhouette’s case, it really seemed to mean something to her, how Sil saw her, and that she wanted Rebel around.

            She’d almost forgotten what that was like. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. For so many years, her ability to come and go as she pleased, to act how she pleased, and to be responsible for no one except herself and Bombshell was her strength.

            Because she had so little to lose, she never backed down from a fight, or ran from one she knew she couldn’t win. Everything boiled down to a simple either/or question:

            Take it or leave it?

            She blinked. Despite her best efforts, her mind drifted back to long ago, when she and Bombshell had become sisters.

When she’d stopped being Leila Thompson.

How many years ago?  Rebel said. God, how many years since I used my name?  She didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to remember—she never did. But the present seemed so intertwined with her past, it’s like her thoughts were pulled down into that awful memory by some powerful, irresistible black gravity.

She could still picture it with crystal clarity, even though the image of herself, so young and so different, seemed like the memory of a stranger. There she was, Leila Thompson, passenger #79SF on the transport Mundis, ten years ago now.

The Mundis was transferring colonists from a way station to their home at the newly finished colony at Kuran. Leila and her family were meant to be part of the first major human colony on the Frontier, newly won by Earth after the war with the Rigellians.

The person she had been (it felt odd to think of it that way, but it was the only thing that fit) was so excited by the prospect. In her younger days, she’d built this destiny for herself up in her mind, that she would go all the places no one else would and this journey was the first adventure of many to come.

Then the Jackers came. They seized the Mundis, demanding Earth pay a hefty ransom for their hostages. When the ransom was not immediately forthcoming they started killing one hostage every twelve hours.

Only the adults. They were expendable, so the Jackers thought. Turning the Mundis into a ship full of orphans would only strengthen their hand, they thought.

Mom and Dad lasted until Thursday, she thought. She was watching them being dragged to the back of the ship even now, as powerless to stop the memory of it, as she’d been in reality.

Her nostrils burned with the smell of ozone, the lingering scent of the shots that had killed her parents.

Even in memory it still was so keen and so painful.

The day after, Erath responded with a curt “the government does not negotiate with terrorists” message. There would be no further contact, no negotiation.  The Jackers, in response, killed the last of the adults, and found themselves with a ship full of newly-minted orphans, and no way to profit off it.

Then they got bored, and creative.

The food stores of the Mundis were running low—a short range transport wasn’t heavily stocked, and whatever savings they’d gained in killing off sixty percent of the crew and passengers, the Jackers had been stuffing themselves with.

So, in an effort to amuse themselves while they worked out an endgame, they let the kids fight over the scraps.

If you won, you got to eat, she remembered.

But you killed someone else to do it.

            She shut her eyes, willing herself to turn away from the images in her mind. She didn’t need to relive the gory details of the rat fights, the laughter of the Jackers, the faces of the children . . .it was all there. It was always there—the darkness just behind her eyelids.

            In the end, one day, the Jackers just left. They’d given up, and never told the handful of starving children that still survived what had happened. The Mundis drifted for two more weeks until she and Bombshell escaped, making their way into the path of another ship.

            She and Bombshell had survived. Sort of.

            Whatever we still were . . . went on, she thought. But Leila . . .Leila Thompson died. I left her on the Mundis. She couldn’t adapt to the a universe that seemed to take malicious delight in being arbitrary and cruel, and now I’m Rebel and the universe makes a little more sense because I don’t ask it for anything and don’t expect anything.

            It worked for years, dammit. Why isn’t it working now?

*          *          *

            The Shrike fighter had a reputation for being the cheapest, least effective, starfighter that had ever rolled off the construction yards at Jupiter, and after seven hours in the cramped, shuddering spacecraft, Reyga was beginning to appreciate that this dubious machine more than justified its infamous reputation.

            He checked his ETA on the navigation computer. Even at maximum space drive (assuming the Shrike’s space drive didn’t blow out under the strain) he was still four hours away from the first stop on Kilana’s list: Seylen.

            Seylen was a small colony on the fringes of the Frontier, close enough to the shipping routes for the major powers that sooner or later, everyone passed through there.

            For the Pirates, it had always been a valuable resource—as an entry into the Frontier, a few credits in the hands of a customs inspector or repair crew could convince them to give up the flight plan of a high-value target, full to bursting with cargo that sold for millions. At any given time, there were a hundred Pirate agents working the place.

            Reyga did some calculations in his head. Travel time would burn up most of his day’s head start, and if the Shrike failed, that would burn up the rest while effected repairs or waited for a pickup.

            Which, he thought, was probably the idea.

            He sighed. “Captain, this is extortion,” he mentally told Pirate Red.

            “Of course it is,” came the imagined reply.

            For all their talk about an undercover operation and how critical it was to make it look genuine, the full extent of how he’d been set up had only really sank in after he left the Misericord. It wasn’t just that they’d removed the weapons from his Shrike, oh no. They’d even allowed him to keep his trooper armor (but no weapons, of course), so that even a cursory search of his cargo holds would turn it up.

            And the only reason a trooper would be out of his armor?

Desertion.

Don’t  need a crystal ball to see where things go from there.

            Reyga shook his head.

            He stared ahead at the streaks of stars that slid over his starship like beads of brilliant rain.

            Did they do this to Escovedo? Reyga wondered. Did he feel like I did, that he’d given everything to these people, and they treated him like a dog?

            No wonder he left.

            Is that why he looked almost happy when he died? Because wherever he ended up, they couldn’t touch him now?

            That moment of looking at Escovedo’s corpse, of holding him while he was branded haunted him. Not just because Reyga was afraid he would end up in the same position as Escovedo, but because more and more he felt a kinship to him, to this man he’d never met until the final few seconds of his life.

            He didn’t look afraid at all. I wonder if it didn’t matter whether he lived or died. Either way, he just wanted to be free.

            He snorted under his breath. He’d caught himself using the word “free” more than “desertion.”

            I guess now that I’m in his place; it’s not so much of a crime anymore.

*          *          *

            Caetano monitored the installation of the fuel cells he was inserting into the flat, diamond-shaped fighter above him. He gave them a sharp half-turn as they seated into the fighter’s power unit, gently thrumming against his fingertips as they began generating power.

            He eyeballed the power unit, then swept a scanning device over it to ensure that the power cells were operating normally with no leaks or discharging, then squatted down, lifting the cowling for the power unit into place, holding it above his head with one hand while he reached down for his driver.

            The metal plate wobbled precariously above him as he felt behind himself without looking for the driver. For a second, Caetano hovered between dropping the cowling or falling over himself, when the cowling was snatched out his hands, and he shuffled backwards into a crouch.

            “Behind your left ankle,” a pleasant, female voice said.

            “Thanks,” Caetano said, snatching up the driver and standing up as Silhouette pushed the cowling into place.

            “Is this the kind of reckless stuff you get up to when I’m not here?” Silhouette asked as Caetano ratcheted the cowling back to the hull of the fighters with eight quick triggers on the driver.

            “There’s only one of me down here, Sil,” Caetano said. “These things don’t fix themselves. I gotta improvise.”

            “Well, there can be two more down here, for awhile,” Silhouette replied. “Ask Rebel and Bombshell to help you if you need it. Improvisation’s nice, but I need you in one piece.”

            “Looking after me, are you? Caetano said, dropping the driver back into his toolbox. “That’s sweet.”

            “It’s as much for you as for them,” Silhouette said. “I’ve got a meeting, so I’m taking the Umbra out.”

            “And you want ‘em to keep an eye on me?”

            “I’d like it if you kept an eye on each other.”

            “Where’s your meeting?”

            “Seylen,” Silhouette replied. “Why?”

            “Just wondering,” Caetano said. “Remember, I don’t get out much. I’m naturally curious.”

            “You keep saying that. I get the feeling it’s a gentle suggestion.”

            Caetano turned to her. “You think you’ll need backup?”

            “Probably,” Silhouette said, activating the cockpit access system. “Seylen’s pretty rough. But I don’t want expose too much of the operation. Have to tread lightly, for the moment. Get Zed to change course and head closer to the system about eight hours after I leave.”

            Caetano nodded. “If you need us, let us know.”

            Silhouette nodded, throwing her leg over the pilot’s seat, straddling the control saddle and activating the hydraulics to lift her back up into the cockpit of the Umbra.

            Caetano grabbed his toolbox and scampered away as the engines of the Umbra hummed to full power. Within minutes, Caetano was watching from the observation booth as the space doors opened, and the Umbra soared away, on course for Seylen.

*          *          *

            Reyga wrapped his greatcoat tighter around himself as he made his way through the draft streets of Seylen. The strap of the bag slung over his left shoulder bit deep into him, the weight of his armor cutting deep into him. He’d been here for just over ten hours, doing everything he could to cover his tracks and stay one step ahead of the people he knew were coming.

            Selling the Shrike had bought him a few credits—not many, as the only people who wanted Shrikes in this part of the galaxy just wanted to part them out—enough for some food, some new clothes, and a little protection.

            He’d also taken the time to pay a call on a certain address in the southern part of town—a rendering plant, of all things. Somehow he’d managed not to gag on the smell while he sent a coded message off to the White Dragons.

            The fact that he was still doing what Pirate Red and her sister wanted didn’t escape him. Here he was, having been set up and cut loose and yet . . .he was still following the path  they’d set him on.

            Part of that, he’d decided, was the comfort of the familiar. Reyga liked his old life, and had liked it quite a bit. Life was simple on the Marvelous—he did what he was told, went where he was sent, and everything had been fine.

            He had imagined, and did he ever feel naïve in retrospect for this, that it might go on forever. There was nothing to worry about in a trooper’s life. You didn’t decide where you went—the captain did. The captain told the sergeant, the sergeant told the corporals, and the corporals told you.

            In between, you kept what little money you’d been able to save (if there was any left by the time everyone above you had their taste) and you just moved between the galley and the bunk deck. It was this neat, perfect little world, and had Reyga had his way, he would have never left it.

            But fate took hand in that, didn’t it? Reyga thought, stepping down a flight of steps into a darkened tavern. He kept his eyes down as he made his way past the bar, bobbing and weaving past the various humans and aliens all in various states of drunkenness, when he spotted an open booth on the far wall.

            It was unoccupied, dark, and off the main flow of human traffic from the bar.

            It was perfect.

            Reyga lobbed the bag onto the bench on the far side of the table, then slid along the circular bench until he was in the center of the booth. His left hand felt the hard metal of the gun through his coat. From here, if he kept quiet and didn’t draw any attention, he could wait for his contact and wouldn’t be wandering around a strange colony drawing the attention of any organizations that might have recently cut him loose and might want to do him harm.

            Reyga snapped his fingers and waved one of the waitresses over to order a drink. He did all he could to keep in the shadows, lest she identify him later. She nodded and stalked off to get his drink and Reyga watched her, until his eyes drifted to the bag on the bench containing his armor.

            He thought about that neat perfect world, and how it was like his armor. It protected him, it kept everything out. That armor, and what it represented was his life.

            Or it had been, Reyga thought. But now that I can’t wear it anymore . . . I wonder who I am now?

*          *          *

            Silhouette did the calculations for the Umbra’s ETA again, pushing the fighter to the limit of its performance. Her contact at the colony had confirmed the message and given her a rough description of the mark: a younger man, maybe twenty if a day old, who’d been flagged for desertion from the pirates within two hours of reaching Seylen.

            Given that Seylen was too public a place for the pirates to have a ship moored nearby, that meant that she had maybe four hours before they could get anyone there and she risked a repeat of what happened on Geas.

            The best time the Umbra can do, at maximum, is three hours, fifteen minutes, Silhouette thought. And that’d before I even find him.

            It’s going to be tight.

            Doesn’t matter, she thought. I’ve done tighter extractions. Fought my way through whole armies. I can do this.

            She sighed.

            So what’s bothering me? Someone needs help, they’ve asked for it, I’m giving it.

            Open and shut.

            So what is it?

            She took a deep breath, examining the pieces of the puzzle in her mind. It felt a little too perfectly packaged, especially in light of the disaster with Escovedo. A young, naïve kid, fresh out of the pirates makes a run for it, needs help, and somehow lucks into making contact with her trusted contacts despite the fact he’s nothing but a grunt, less than a week after they had an army waiting for Escovedo.

            It smelled like a setup.

            Which is why she’d come alone, in the Umbra. While the sleek starfighter had no provision for extra passengers, it was formidable, able to outrun and stand toe-to-toe with ships twice her size.

            If the White Dragons are being teased out, like I suspect they are, I want to show the pirates I have teeth, she thought. If I have to, I can hide the mark on the planet with our people there, and hold the pirates until the White Angel gets here and it’s a fairer fight.

            Others had tried—the criminal Syndicates that controlled the Frontier, gangs of Jackers—and the Dragons had destroyed them. While Silhouette’s main focus had always been trying to save people, she wasn’t averse to fighting like hell to do it.

            She’d been trained to, after all, by the very best.

            The trick is, to get them to show their hand before I have to show mine.

            She glanced at the ETA monitor. Two hours, thirty-five minutes.

*          *          *

            The sensation of a ship changing course was the kind of thing that sufficiently acclimated space travelers never paid any mind to. After one spent long enough on a starship, the changes in the engine vibrations through the decks and the subtle nudging of maneuvering thrusters, barely registered.

            But for Rebel, it was enough to wake her from sleep. She sat bolt upright, the gentle thrum of her accelerating pulse just below her ears. She blinked, trying to get her bearings and assess the situation.

            The panic and the razor-keen sense of directions changing were “gifts” from her time on the Mundis, she knew. On the one hand, they’d served her well—her keen sense of when there was danger in the air had saved her and Bombshell a number of times over the years.

            But here, on Silhouette’s ship? Rebel thought, sliding her feet over to the edge of her bed and grabbing her boots. I’m not in danger here, am I? I mean, I’m not like Bombshell, I don’t think of this place as home or anything, but there’s nothing dangerous . . .

            She strapped on her left boot and set her foot down, staring into the middle distance for a moment, lost in thought.

            Maybe.

            She slipped on her right boot and rose to her feet, strapping it around her leg as she did.

            The danger’s not in anyone doing me harm, she pondered. It’s more following Bombshell’s example. Thinking of this as a place I might belong in, a place I could do some good in.

            I understand why she’d think that. I know she wants to belong somewhere.

            I do too.

            But I’m . . .

            (scared)

            . . . not ready. Not yet.

            She frowned as she reached for her gun, checking that her energy cap was full and the gun was ready before she strapped it into the holster under her right arm.

            Thoughts like this weren’t any help to her. Anything that clouded her focus had to be pushed aside.

            So Rebel would focus on the immediate problem, and when that was solved, if she were lucky, she wouldn’t have to come back and think about this.

            She opened the door to her quarters and stepped out into the corridor. As expected, Bombshell was out as well, awoke by the same instincts that roused Rebel. Rebel glanced at her and was surprised that Bombshell hadn’t armed herself.

            “You felt it?”

            Bombshell nodded. “Forty-five degrees starboard turn.”

            “Hm,” Rebel said, walking towards the communications panel in the corridor. She tapped a series of keys on the console and there was a brief bleep as the comm channel to the bridge opened.

            “Zed,” Rebel asked, her voice even and neutral. “Where are we going?”

            “Silhouette ordered a course change,” Zed’s voice, distant and distracted came back.

            “To where?”

            “Following her general heading,” Zed replied, a tight, annoyed buzz getting into his voice. “Seylen.”

            “Right,” Rebel said. “And why are we going to Seylen?”

            “You’d have to ask Silhouette.”

            “She’s not on the bridge?”

            “No.”

            “Is she in her office?”

            “No.”

            Rebel grimaced. At this rate, it would take hours.

            “Zed,” she said, insincerity beginning to strain her polite tone. “Is she on the ship?”

            “ . . .No.”

            “Where is she?”

            “Seylen.”

            Rebel sighed. She’d gotten an answer, but it didn’t shed any light on things.

            “What’s our ETA?”

            “Need to know.”

            Meaning “She didn’t tell me, and I don’t speculate, so stop asking me stupid questions,” Rebel translated.

            “What’s she doing there?”

            “Need to know.”

            “Right,” Rebel sighed. “Well, thanks, Zed.”

            “Bye.”

            Rebel nodded, looking exasperated. She shut off the com channel and stared at Bombshell, who, if the excruciating exchange was amusing her, was doing a somewhat lacking job at hiding it.

            “You should’ve asked Caetano.”

            “Don’t know why I didn’t,” Rebel snapped. “Silly me—I thought the person actually flying the ship might know more than the shut-in in the docking bay. What the hell was I thinking?”

            “I was just joking.”

            “Yeah, everyone around here’s a—“

            Bombshell’s eyebrows went up. Rebel immediately caught herself.

            “Sorry,” she said. “I’m just tense.”

            “I can tell,” Bombshell replied. “Wanna talk about it?”

            Rebel shook her head. “I don’t even want to think about it, and thinking is all I’ve been doing since we’ve been back.”

            “Sounds like you need to talk about it.”

            “I need a drink. Several.”

            “You don’t drink.”

            “I knew there was a flaw in my plan,” Rebel said, leaning against the wall. She looked down the far corridor, then at the deck, anywhere but at Bombshell.

            “Does it bother you that bad?”

            “What?”

            “That I want to stay.”

            Rebel frowned. The words hung in the air for a few minutes, heavy, but still somehow suspended in time.

            “No,” she answered. “Yes. Kinda.”

            “Talk to me, Leila. What’s troubling you?”

            Rebel smirked. “What isn’t? We’ll start with this: My sister, who’s so close to me that we might as well share a common brain, wants to stay here and . . .”do good,” whatever the hell that is. I see how you are here—you like Caetano, Zed, Sil, Ronah . . . you feel comfortable here.

            “I . . . don’t know how I feel about this place yet,” she continued. “I only know I feel comfortable with you . . . it’s the only place since the Mundis, really, that I’ve felt comfortable. And . . . part of me really hates this place, because I feel like it might split us up.”

            “And the other part?”

            “The other part of me is jealous, because  . . . I’d like to belong here too.”

            Bombshell moved closer to her. “They’d never split us up.”

            “If I leave—“

            “If you leave, part of me goes with you,” Bombshell said. “I think you know I mean that without me having to rattle off a whole list.”

            “Yeah,” Rebel said, staring holes in the deck.

            “I don’t think you’ll leave.”

            Rebel blinked.

            “I don’t,” Bombshell continued. “I think you say it because you want to know someone will come after you. Well, you know I will. But I know something else.”

            “What?” Rebel asked, her voice whisper quiet.

            “You need to prove that you belong here,” Bombshell said. “Not to me, not to Silhouette, but to yourself. You won’t believe you can do good until you prove that you are a good person.”

            “You may be right,” Rebel lied.

            “That’s why the stuff with Geas bothered you so much,” Bombshell said. “You’re afraid you just blew your chance.”

            “I thought I did blow it.”
            “You made a mistake,” Bombshell said. “But it’s only the end if you let it be. And pardon me for being blunt, but if you ‘d been thinking and acting like this aboard the Mundis, we’d have never got off that ship.”

            “Ouch,” Rebel replied.

            It took some doing, but she soon turned to look Bombshell in the eye. She didn’t need to tell her “sister” she was right—it was plain to see they both knew.

            “Say I am looking to prove myself,” Rebel said after a time. “If the Geas thing . . . if Escovedo . . . was my one chance . . .”

            “It wasn’t,” Bombshell said. “You’ve won plenty, lost some more, and if I were a betting woman, I have a feeling it won’t be long before the next one.”

*          *          *

            Reyga had nursed three drinks worth of whatever this watered-down concoction that pretended to be whiskey before a shadow that wasn’t shaped like the waitress darkened his corner table.

            “You looking for company?” A pleasant female voice asked him.

            Reyga glanced up for a moment, barely noting the cloaked and hooded woman before him before glancing down at the half-empty glass.

            “Waiting for someone,” he muttered.

            “Found someone,” she clarified, sliding into the booth with him. Reyga bristled momentarily and started sliding out the other way and grabbing for his bag, when she stopped him by grabbing his wrist.

            “You sent the message,” she whispered.

            “I . . .” Reyga blinked, catching himself as he realized who this was. He lowered his voice. “I . . .yeah, I did.”

            “Act like I’m propositioning you,” she whispered, snuggling close to him. “Smile.”

            “I . . .uh, OK,” Reyga said, feeling more than a bit awkward.

            “I’m here to get you out,” she whispered into his ear.

            “You’re one of the White Dragons?”

            “You know us?”

            Reyga nodded.

            “I was at Geas,” he muttered. “I saw what happened to Escovedo.”

            He felt her body stiffen and she pulled away from him a little.

            “Is this a set-up?”

            “I guess. If it is, it’s on both of us,” Reyga said. “Pirate Red and her sister . . . they cut me loose, said I deserted. They wanted one of you here.”

            “And you’re their Judas goat, then.”

            Reyga’s eyebrow went up. “Judas what?”

            “Old expression,” she whispered, one of her hands sliding off the table.

            “Come closer,” she said.

            “I—“

            “Make it look real,” she said. “Get into it. You never know who’s watching.”

            Reyga slid a bit closer to her and she sidled close to him. Before it became more intimate that he was prepared for, he felt a hard rectangle poking him in the ribs.

            Nervous as he was, Reyga didn’t need to query that with his strange guest—he knew when the barrel of a gun was pointed at him.

            “Start talking,” she said, still quiet, but a good deal more firm.

            “They promised me all this stuff—promotions, all of that . . . if I gave you up,” he said. “But . . . then they cut me loose anyway. I think I’m just the bait. “

            “You don’t get anything out of it?”

            “I think . . . they promised me a bunch of stuff. Promotions, my ship,” he said, his voice trailing off. “But what I’ll probably get is the brand. They set me up—however this goes, I’m a deserter. Dead either way.”

            “You’re not very good at this,” she responded with a wry smile.

            “I didn’t ever plan on it,” Reyga murmured. “All I wanted was to be a trooper, live my life, be part of something, have someone tell me what to do and when to do it . . .it’s easy. I only ever wanted easy.”

            “There’s no such thing,” she replied.

            Reyga frowned. “Guess not.”

            She pressed the pistol harder against his ribs. He didn’t flinch this time.

            “I should shoot you for setting me up.”

            “I didn’t set you up,” Reyga replied, his defensiveness causing his voice to rise a bit. “I got set up, just to draw you here. I’ve done my bit, and all I’m gonna get for it is dead. Doesn’t matter if you do it or they do, really.”

            Reyga drank the last of his drink, making a face as he laid the glass down.

            “But goddammit, I wish I had a better last drink.”

            “You’re just a ray of sunshine, aren’t you?”

            Reyga rolled his eyes.

            “I’m a realist,” he said, leaning back. He glanced down at where the gun was still poking him in the ribs and frowned.

            “You might as well use that thing,” he said. “Sooner have you do it than them.”

            “Who’s ‘them?’”

            Reyga’s eyes narrowed. “There’s three troopers at the bar,” he said. “One more is hanging around the door, pretending to hit on the green girl.

            “I guess I’ve been made.”

            The woman eased back, pulling the gun out of his ribs.

            “You know them?”

            “Not personally, but it’s classic Pirate stuff,” Reyga said. “Cover the exits and you either trap the guy inside, or create a choke point where he has to come through you. Any minute now, one or two of the guys at the bar are going to start combing the crowd to try and flush me out.”

            “What are you, a mind-reader?” She asked, impressed by his analysis.

            “I am—I was—a grunt, a trooper, just like them,” Reyga said, his voice neutral and indifferent. “You recognize the moves.”

            “Ah,” she replied. “I see. You think they’re the only ones?”

            Reyga nodded. “This isn’t a Pirate colony,” he said. “They’re local boys, outliers.  But they’ve probably called someone, and a ship’s on the way.”

            “Which means we have how long until they get here?”

            “Depends on how close they are,” Reyga said. “And who it is.”

            “Then we better work fast,” the woman said, her blue-green eyes dancing over the scene before her. “We need space and we need to lose these guys.”

            “They’re covering the only exit I see,” Reyga said. “How do you suggest—“

            She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out of the booth.

            “C’mon,” she said. “Walk me to the bathroom.”       

*          *          *

            Kilana was impressed. Reyga was better than his reputation. He’d made contact with the White Dragons and hadn’t made himself hard to find at all.

            He’d been the right person for the job after all.

            The door to the bridge slid open, rattling along the track as Pirate Red stepped out of her ready room. She walked past Kilana, who to her seemed to be touching the air and took her seat in the captain’s chair.

            “Let me guess,” she said. “You found him?”

            “He didn’t make it hard, bless his heart,” Kilana said. “The local crew spotted him about a half-hour ago in a bar in the East Sector. Barkeep said he’d been there most of the night.”

            “Did they pinch him yet?”

            Kilana shook her head. “I told them to just keep him there until we could get to Seylen,” she said. “Then I set course and overclocked the Space Drive. We’ll be there in . . .hm. 45 minutes. Damn--I’ve gotta overhaul these engines.”

            “Any word on who’s there with him?”

            “The boys can’t make a positive ID,” Kilana said. “But they said she’s tall, gorgeous, and has blue-green eyes. Sound familiar?”

            Red’s eyes narrowed .

 “Silhouette? I heard she was dead.”
            Kilana shrugged. “I heard she wasn’t.”

            “From who?”

            Kilana pursed her lips and looked a little nervous.

 “I have my sources.”

            Red shook her head. She had a suspicion she knew who the source was, but thinking about that would only aggravate her to no good effect.

            Better to just concentrate on the task at hand, she thought.

 “If she’s supposed to be running this thing, what the hell is she doing grunt work for? I mean, we’ve got people to do grunt work like this.”

            “We have a fleet,” Kilana said. “She might, or she might now. We don’t know what she has, yet.”

            “So we’ve got them,” Red said. “What do we do?”
            “Hold them,” Kilana said. “Wait for the rest of her people to show up while we get the rest of the fleet here. If they have a hole card, let’s force them to play it.”

            “Sounds easy enough,” Red said. “I guess Reyga made for good bait after all.”

            “The best,” Kilana said. “Had to be him, or someone like him. Someone a little less upstanding might have tried to bribe our people, or play both sides against the middle. Reyga didn’t do that—he was too busy being indignant about being cut loose. He did what we wanted to because it was natural for him to do so. Anything else would have been against his nature.”

            “I guess so,” Red said. “You sized him up right.”

            “Well, people skills are one of the many things I bring to the table,” Kilana said, smiling and pressing more invisible buttons.

            “Be happy, Red,” Kilana said. “Our bait’s done its work. Now we just have to close the trap.”

*          *          *

            “Found our man, need pickup,” the message had gone, along with a few coded coordinates. Five minutes after Rebel had received the message, she and Bombshell grabbed their gear and headed for the shuttle bay, nearly knocking over Caetano, who was busy prepping the shuttle for launch.

            “Honestly, if you guys need one more,” he said, peering in at them from the rear hatchway.

            “Nope,” Rebel said, stowing her gear in the overhead racks behind the pilot seat.

            “Aw,” Caetano said, exaggerating for comic effect. “Maybe one day I’ll get to go.”

            “Sorry, but not today,” Bombshell said, her fingers flying over the keyboard at the navigation station as they mapped out their flight plan. “You’ve got the job of getting our fat out of the fire if this goes wrong.”

            “Thankless job, that,” Caetano said. “But it’s obvious it’s what I was meant to do with my life. We’re about a fifteen-minute jump from Seylen, I’ll have Zed try to get us a bit closer so I can shave some time off it.”

            “Don’t come in too fast,” Rebel said, flicking a set of switches overhead to activate the main engines. “You and the Angel are our ace, and once we play that, we’ve got nothing left.”

            “You think it’ll be that bad?”

            “I always assume the worst,” Rebel replied. “Then I’m either always right or pleasantly surprised. Mostly the first one.”

            “You’re funny,” Caetano said. He slapped the doorframe of the hatch.

“You two bring ‘em back safe.”

“Will do,” Bombshell said, strapping herself in.

“And bring yourselves back in one piece too.”

Rebel nodded and shut the hatch, making sure that Caetano was clear of the shuttle before she started the taxi out of the docking bay. She hit the launch boosters a bit harder than was necessary, and the sudden acceleration forced the two of them back into their chairs as the shuttle streaked out of the docking bay.

She poured on the speed until she’d cleared the White Angel, then immediately kicked in the shuttle Space Drive. The stop-start-start-again-faster-this-time caused Bombshell to feel a wave of nausea as they accelerated.

“ETA to Seylen—ten minutes, if I really push,” Rebel said.

“Just don’t fly us through anything,” Bombshell said, her hands tightening on the armrest.

Rebel looked a little stung.

“What? I’m cool.”

“You’re not flying like it. Rebel—despite appearances, this isn’t Geas again. Don’t make it one by being reckless.”

“It’s not Geas,” Rebel said. “I know that. For one thing, we’re not too far from the ship, and we’ve got reinforcements. If anything, we’re on better footing this time.”

“Yes we are,” Bombshell said. “And all we’ve got to do is get them out. Right?”

“What are you talking about?” Rebel said, cocking an eyebrow.

“Right?”

“Bombshell, this is—“

“Rebel, listen,” she said, her voice firm. “You don’t have to prove anything. Not to me, not to yourself, not to Sil. Just do the job. The rest will take care of itself.”

Rebel frowned. Her hands tightened on the flight yoke. Bombshell looked at her with concern.

“You’re scowling.”

“I am not scowling,” Rebel scowled.

Bombshell sighed. “If I feel like you might be about to blow it, I’ll tell you, OK?”

Rebel flinched. Bombshell’s excellent memory could be really bothersome when it came to remembering facts, and when Rebel had actually spoken her mind.

It’s even worse when she’s right, she thought.

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” Rebel said. “What’s the local traffic like?”

“We’re clear for insertion on the far side . . . L5, I think,” Bombshell said, carefully looking over the short-range sensor readings.

“OK,” Rebel said, pulling a lever next to the flight yoke down. “Coming out of Space Drive. Go to active tracking—look for the Umbra’s beacon, then Sil’s tag.”

“Got the Umbra,” Bombshell said, tapping more keys.

“Anything in the area?”

“Not that I can see,” Bombshell replied. “But we’re in a bit of a blind-spot here. If there’s a Pirate ship in the area, it might be on the far side of the planet.”

“Well, I’ll take ‘not right now,’ then,” Rebel said. “Bringing us around for a tighter orbit. You got Sil’s tag yet?”

Bombshell nodded. “Looks like . . .yeah, she’s in the city, on the move.”

“Heading toward the LZ?”

“I don’t . . .no, wait, she turned around. Yeah, she’s on the way.”

“Good—hang on,” Rebel said, throwing the shuttle into a flat controlled spin. “I’m taking us down.”

“You sure this shuttle will fit where you’re planning to put it down in?” Bombshell asked. “This city’s pretty densely built up.”

“Ehhh,” Rebel said, a thin smile playing across her lips. “We’ll make it fit.”

*          *          *

            “Where the hell are we going?” Reyga said, raising his gun and dropping one of the plainclothesmen following them. They’d spent the last hour in a running gun battle after they’d slipped out of the bar—him by crawling out a far too narrow bathroom window, her by using some kind of invisibly gadget and walking right past.

            That had bought them approximately five minutes. Not much of a headstart, but they’d done what they could to make the most of it. But they were losing ground fast, and Reyga having to shoulder the heavy pack with his armor in it was throwing his aim off a little.

            “Two more blocks,” Silhouette said, covering him as he swiped the dead trooper’s blaster carbine. She cocked her head down a side street. She rolled to the side as a fusillade of shots split them up, landing on her feet and returning fire.

            “C’mon,” she said, charging down the alley. Reyga stepped backwards, following her, but keeping his newfound carbine ready if there was any sign of pursuit. Satisfied, he turned to follow her.

            “In here,” she said, stepping down into recessed basement entrance. Reyga stood on the middle steps, covering her. A brilliant white lights swept over the two of them, obliterating the shadows they’d been crouched in.

            “I don’t suppose we’d be lucky enough that was yours?” Reyga said.

            “I don’t think so,” Silhouette said. “Whoever it was, we’ve got to keep moving. There’s a kilometer between us and the outskirts of town.”

            Before Reyga could say anything, or even move, a familiar sound began to ricochet off the walls of the alley.

            Boots, he thought.

            Unless she called in the Marines, I have a feeling that’s not a good sign.

            He gestured to Silhouette, waving her up the stairs as he shadowed her.

            As Reyga feared, a squad of troopers was filling the alley. These were no plainclothesmen, either—they were fully armored pirate troopers. Maybe old buddies of his. No way to tell, really—except for rank bars, it wasn’t easy to tell one pirate trooper from another.

            Nope, he thought. That way, we’re all equal, all one big happy family.

            Right.

            Silhouette stood beside him, holding her pistol at the ready, as the troopers took up ready positions.

            “A kilometer, you said?” Reyga whispered.

            Silhouette nodded.

            “When I give the signal, run like hell,” Reyga said. “Don’t even bother to shoot back, just run as fast as you can.”

            “Why?”

            “You’ll see,” Reyga said, taking a deep breath and trying to steady his nerves. They couldn’t keep up this pace—every time they stopped, they’d lose ground and time, and more troopers could land and surround them. Eventually, there’d be too many to fight.

            So . . . I hope I’m not about to get us both killed.

            He threw the carbine out to his left side as one of the troopers stepped forward. Reyga was focused like a laser on him, trusting that, like Reyga had been, he was a by-the-book trooper, and the life had made him as much a creature of the rules as he’d been.

            One of those rules—perhaps the rule—for troopers was never to waste a shot. The first reason was that energy mags were very expensive, and rationed per ship. The second, and most important reason, was that you might damage something that could be stripped out and sold.

            And since Pirates lived and died based on their take . . . that was a big no-no.

            The leader stepped forward and pointed his carbine down at the street.

            “Reyga Cortes!” The trooper bellowed. “I call you d—“

            By the book to the last, Reyga thought.

            Reyga whipped out his backup weapon and blew the trooper’s chest out, emptying shot after shot into his chest until the weapon was empty. Then he spun around on his heels, time going elastic as the trooper behind him tumbled in slow motion. His greatcoat fanned out behind him and the pack on his shoulder nearly threw him to the ground. He was aware of Silhouette running just ahead of him as he flailed a little, trying to get his feet under him. His fingers grazed the blaster carbine as he lunged for it, but it was too far away and he couldn’t stop.

            His feet found their traction and he raced down the alleyway, after her, the rest of the troopers getting over the shock of seeing one of theirs go down and opening fire. Their shots tore through the tail of his greatcoat, and one caught him just under his arm.

            He didn’t even feel it. He was running on adrenaline now, lungs burning as they tried to pull in air to keep his legs pumping to keep moving no matter what. He could see the fringes of the city just in sight—in fact, that was all he could see now—the image was the only clear detail he could pick out through the blurry tunnel his sight had become.

            The troopers had stopped firing and charged after them. Occasionally one would try to get off a shot on the run, but they were running too hard (trooper armor wasn’t built for speed) and the shot was usually wild—too short or too long.

            Finally, they cleared the last of the buildings and it was nothing but open field. Overhead another spotlight painted them in blinding white light, swooped overhead, then hovered about twenty feet overhead.

            Reyga stopped, and feared he might collapse. Behind them, the troopers, now joined by another squad, were closing in, maybe eighty feet behind.

            With no weapon, they were sitting ducks, especially with this shuttle barring their escape. Silhouette had some firepower left, but not enough to make a difference between this many troopers.

            The light flicked over his head again and back at the troopers, momentarily blinding him.

            Just as well, Reyga thought. I don’t want to—

            “GET DOWN.” A voice thundered from above them.

            Reyga dropped to the ground and Silhouette slid onto her stomach and rolled around until she was lying on her belly. She pointed her gun at the troopers, just as the shuttle overhead opened fire on the troopers below. The heavier-yield cannons on the shuttle ripped through the squads of troopers sending armored bodies into the air, as the shuttle hovered and came to a landing.

            “Let’s go,” Silhouette said, running past Reyga as the rear door opened behind them. Reyga pulled himself up to his feet and made a run for the door, still dragging his now-battered pack with him.

            Reyga leapt into the back of the shuttle, hitting the deck so hard it knocked the wind out of him. The cannons flashed like lightning as they continued to lay down fire, and the return fire from the troopers sounded like rain against the hull then faded, drowned out by the engines as they begin to pull up into the clouds.

            “Are you two all right?” A voice—the same one that had gone out on the shuttle’s PA system called out.

            “Okay,” Silhouette managed. She looked at Reyga. “What about you?”

            Reyga nodded, still trying to get his breath.

            “We’re OK,” she said. “Get us out of here!”

            There was an exchange of words in the cockpit, and soon, Reyga and Silhouette were joined by Rebel, who looked them over carefully, especially Reyga.

            “Who’s he?”

            “Our package,” Silhouette said. “The Pirates want him for desertion.”

            “Seems to be going around,” Rebel said.

            “Not quite,” Silhouette said. “This one was a put-up job—they wanted us here to wipe us out. That’s why there’s such a big army here, and they’re well outside Pirate space.”

            Rebel‘s hand went to the holster under her arm, her thumb flicking open the strap. Silhouette looked at her like she’d gone mad.

            “Rebel.”

            “You just told me,” she said, her hand tightening on her gun. “He set you up.”

            “They used him to set us up,” Silhouette replied. “Reyga’s was just the most efficient way to set this whole thing up, and now he’s caught in the middle. We’re going to get him out.”

            Rebel’s eyes narrowed “He wasn’t in on it?”

            “They promised me things,” Reyga said. “But it didn’t take much thinking to see they were lying.”

            “So what? You still went along with it.”

            “They didn’t give me any choice,” Reyga said. “I never would have deserted on my own. But they said I did, made it look like I did, and now for all anyone knows . . .I’m a traitor.”

            “Doesn’t matter,” Rebel said, drawing her gun. “You’re still loyal to them.”

            “I don’t think so, Rebel,” Silhouette said.

            “Then why are you still carrying your armor?”
            Reyga blinked. Rebel stepped between him and Silhouette, tapping the armor plating that poked out from a hole worn in the bag.

            “Well?”

            Reyga looked away.

            “Start talking.”

            Reyga looked to Silhouette. Silhouette’s expression hardened as well.

            “I  . . . look, I didn’t know who you people were, or if you could do what she promised and get me clear. So, if you couldn’t . . .I thought I’d maybe lie low for awhile on some backwater, and maybe try to get back in later,” Reyga confessed. “There’s so many troopers, they never keep an accurate headcount—if they gave it a year, I thought . . . y’know, maybe I could go back.”

            “I would have gotten you out,” Silhouette hissed. “I will get you out. But I need your complete trust, Reyga.”

            “I saw what happened to last person who trusted you guys,” Reyga said. “I held him when he died. You can’t blame me for being afraid, can you?”

            “You held Escovedo?”

            Reyga nodded. “Right after he was branded. He didn’t have much longer after that.”

            “But he didn’t go alone.”

            “I didn’t know him, but I stayed with him,” Reyga said. “He was one of ours. He didn’t deserve to go alone.”

            Rebel’s expression softened a little. She holstered her pistol, but kept her hand on it.

            “Okay,” she said, getting control.  “You lied to us before, and you nearly got Silhouette killed on account of being bait. I don’t like that, am mad about it, would like to shoot you for it, but what’s done is done. But you and I happened to have a mutual friend, and I owe him one, so  . . . you want to get out of this?”

            Reyga nodded.

            “I’m going to ask you again,” Rebel said. “And I want you to answer carefully, because otherwise, I’m going to put two in your head and dump you right on top of the troopers out there. Understand?”

            “Not . . . really,” Reyga said.

            “Rebel, what are you—“

            “Not now, Silhouette. Now listen--there’s no going back,” she said. “Not now, not ever. When you’re in with us, you’re in. Help us out, we get you out and clear. What do you say?”

            Reyga stared down at the armor in his duffel, lying in a heap on the deck. He knew why he’d carried that armor. He’d told himself it was protection, or an insurance policy, or something to barter with, but it was security—the familiarity of the past. The life he never wanted to leave behind, but knew he had to.

            Reyga grimaced, then did something that was equal parts a nod and a shrug of his shoulders.

            Whatever he did from here on in, it was plain that going back, under his own name or any other, just went off the table.

“ . . .I’m in.”

“All right,” Rebel said, strapping the pistol back in its holster. “Let’s talk about what you know about what they’re going to do next. And hand me that thing, would you?”     

*          *          *

            The Misericord slipped out of Space Drive like a giant metal vulture appearing out of the black. Almost immediately, Kilana activated her primary sensors.

            Reyga had done his work, and the troopers had done their part. They’d made enough noise that the White Dragons had sent a support ship to get their people out, which meant their base ship had to be close behind.

            Kilana relayed orders for the troopers to stand down, to return to the Misericord as soon as possible and let the two ships launched from the surface return home. The last one had docked three minutes ago.

            They were here, they were ready, and it was time to settle things.

            “Well?” Red called from behind her.

            “I think one’s already left, but . . .hang on, there’s another one just launched,” Kilana said, reaching into the air and dragging a schematic of the ship into a larger view. “Yes, that’s the shuttle they reported attacking them. I’m setting an intercept course.”

            “You’re not going to shoot them down?”

            Kilana shook her head. “We’re after bigger fish than the shuttle.”

            Red flicked a series of switches on the side of her captain’s chair. “This is Pirate Red,” she began. “All troopers to battle stations, all guns to ready. Prepare for combat.”

            She snapped the switch to “off “and looked up at her sister.

            “Supposing she has a more powerful ship than we do?” Red asked. “We’re set up to raid and cripple a ship . . .not destroy it.”

            “I’ve thought about it,” Kilana said, keying in a speed increase and putting the shuttle on the main viewscreen so Red could begin plotting tactical solutions. “The same principle applies, really--We’ll have to sucker-punch them, hit them hard enough so we’ve got an advantage and a chance to hammer them down before the fleet gets here.”

            Red’s eyes narrowed. “The main gun, then?”

            “Yup.”

            “Great,” Red said, hitting the switch again. “Change of last order—all available power to main gun—decks 6-10 clear at once.”

            “All right,” Red said.  “I can see the shuttle, but I don’t see the ship.”

            “I don’t get . . .ohhhh, wait a minute,” Kilana said.

            “Red, get ready.”

            “What is—“

            “They’re hiding in one of the Lagrange Points—get ready to fire!”

            The White Angel roared out of the shadow of Seylen, the wings that fringed the figurehead on its bow blazing to life like feathers of pure energy. Kilana was especially taken with that image, as it meant that the White Angel wasn’t turning and running now that its shuttle had returned.

            They were bearing on them.

            “I have target lock,” Kilana said. “FIRE!”

            The Misercord shuddered as the main gun roared to life, the gravitic centrifuge that circled its barrel spinning to life. The lights dimmed almost completely as it tapped power to fire.

            A brilliant red-white lance of fire streaked from their ship, targeted almost exactly at the figurehead before them. Even with their shields up, a shot at this range was sure to rip through their hull and cripple the ship’s ability to fight anywhere but at full strength.

            The lights flickered back to full strength and Kilana struggled to get her systems back online.

            “Did we get them?” Red asked.  The tactical display had winked out and all she could see was a wall of fine black static.

            “Hang on, clearing out the radiation so the sensors come back on,” Kilana said. “I . . .oh-oh.”

            The main screen snapped back to life, just in time for them to see the White Angel, looming so large that they were only minutes away from a collision.

            “Hard to port,” Red said. “Bring us around, and give us speed. NOW!”

            “I don’t understand,” Kilana said. “How could they have done that? We’ve got a goddamn planet-gun on this thing--It had to do some damage.”

            “We’ve bitten off more than we can chew,” Red said. “Let’s make a run for it.”

            That sounds like what I should be saying, Kilana thought, amused.

            “I can’t give you Space Drive yet,” Kilana. “The gun damaged most of our power relays—repair teams are working, but you’ve got all you’re gonna get right now.”

            The ship shuddered as the White Angel’s cannons struck them from behind.

            “Return fire,” Red said. “Put some intercepts in the sky.”

            “Got it,” Kilana said. “It’s not helping much, but we’re picking up a little distance.”

            “It’ll do,” Red replied. “The fleet’s waiting for us just outside of Tartarus. All we need to do is beat them there, and then we’ll have the upper hand. Main gun or not, we’ve got 15 ships, and they’ve just got the one.”

            “All right--You’ve got all I can give you,” Kilana said. “Engineering might be able to give us a quick Space Drive jump, but he needs about five minutes, preferably without them shooting us to pieces.”

            Kilana ordered the two rear missile launchers to target the White Angel. “Should I say this may not have been my best plan now, or--?”

            “Well, it was going good until we ended up as the bait,” Red said, the ship rocked by the Angel’s return fire. “But don’t apologize yet.

            “We’ve got one more trick.”

           

*          *          *

            “They’re making a run for it,” the pale man standing in the center of the White Angel’s bridge, his quiet voice belying his intense concentration.  His fingers danced over the controls as he monitored the readouts before him. “I’m scanning power builds . . . it looks like they’re preparing to go to Space Drive.”

            “Stay on them, Zed,” Silhouette said, leaning forward in her command chair. “Target their port-side engines—let’s see if we can’t keep them in normal space.”

            “Done,” Zed replied. “They’re returning fire—missiles, this time.”

            “Intercepts,” Silhouette said. “Can they still go to Space Drive?”

            “Not at present,” Zed said. “But they may not have to.”

            “What is it?”

            “Getting long-range sensor readings a couple sectors out,” Zed replied. “Flash communications traffic as well.”

            Silhouette frowned. “Pirate ships?”

            “I would assume so.”

            “How many?”

            “Best guess?” Zed shrugged. “All of them.”

            “It’s the fleet,” Reyga said. “They’re trying to draw you back to Tartarus.”

            “I thought they were running because their best shot didn’t scratch us?” Bombshell said, eyeing the status reports on the main viewscreen.

            “Partly,” Reyga said. “But I’ve never seen the flagship fight toe to toe, not one-on-one. Pirates don’t work that way—that’s why we—they—have a fleet. To stack the odds in their favor.”

            “Take out their engines now, Zed,” she said. “Use whatever we have, but I want to stop them cold.”

            “Got it,” he said. “Firing all weapons.”

            Silhouette, Reyga and Bombshell watched as a fusillade of cannon fire and missiles streaked from the White Angel to the target, striking the engine cluster at the aft section of the Misericord. The pirate ship seemed to slide off course as its main engines flickered and extinguished, spinning horizontally in space, its running lights dimming as its reaction control thrusters attempted to right its haphazard course.

            As the Misericord slowed and rotated to a parallel axis with the White Angel, it took advantage of the White Angel’s ceasing fire to fire its dorsal cannon. A brilliant beam of red light lashed the White Angel’s bow like a whip.

            The beam’s shot caused the ship to rumble, even though the shields.

            “Damage?” Silhouette shouted.

            “No serious damage,” Zed replied, eyeing one of his readouts with unusual concern. “But that blast overloaded our shield grid, and—“

            He was cut off as the Misercord fired again, this beam cutting into the side of the White Angel. The ship jerked violently.

            “ . . .as I was saying, our shields are offline, and they just cut deep into our main power relays. Our engine efficiency has taken a big hit.

“I’m very upset by this.”

            “Duly noted,” Silhouette said. “Can they navigate?”

            “No,” Zed said. “They’re on their RCS. I should mention we’re not much better, until Caetano can get that power relay fixed.”

            “Caetano is working on it, thank you very much!” Ceatano’s voice came back through the ship’s intercom. “Might help if you guys up there could take care of the whole ‘someone shooting at us while I’m trying to work’ thing, though.”

            “Then take out that gun, right now” Silhouette said.

            A brilliant yellow beam from the White Angel scythed through the darkness, slicing off the top of the Misercord’s dorsal wing and taking the cannon with it.

            “Zed, do a scan for their weapon systems,” Silhouette said. “What else can they throw at us?”

            “Nothing,” he said. “All weapon systems offline. Engines barely functional.”

            Silhouette turned to Reyga. “Have they got anything else?”

            Reyga shrugged. “If they do, I don’t know about it.  I’m sure they’ve called in the fleet, though, and they’re on their way.”

            Silhouette nodded, weighing her options.

            I could fight them, which keeps us here long enough for her fleet to get here, I can run and say I made my point, or I can play my hole card.

            That last one’s pretty appealing, but if the fleet gets here . . . I might have to make a call I don’t want to make.

            She took a deep breath, opened her eyes and smiled.

            “Open a communications channel,” she said. “Let’s be diplomatic.”

           

*          *          *

            Red sprayed the last of the fire extinguishing fluid on the burning cables in the Misericord’s deck. The bridge was a patchwork of various technologies that barely got along under the best of circumstances, and after an hour of taking sustained fire, they had given up the ghost.

            It had been so bad for the last ten minutes Red hadn’t even bothered to give orders—she was too busy fighting the fires on the bridge. She’d even drafted the two troopers who served as her guards to help her suppress them.

            That has earned me . . . thirty seconds of getting to quietly breathe smoke, until they shoot at us and set everything on fire again.

In front of her, Kilana was desperately trying to establish contact with engineering and kludge together some kind of bypass that would allow them no navigate or raise their shields, or something.

Red sighed, tossing the extinguisher aside and returning to her command chair. Once again, they’d overplayed their hand.

There was no reason to think the White Dragons, operating out of sight and off the grid like the Pirates did, would have anything that wasn’t a kludged together ship—say, an innocent looking freighter with a few heavy weapons and improved armor.

Hell, that’s half my fleet, Red thought.

We counted on the fact that Silhouette’s little band of do-gooders did the same.

And she came at us with a god damned battleship.

Red sighed.

“Red?”

She blinked. “What is it?”

“They’re requesting communications,” Kilana said.

Red pursed her lips. “What’s the ETA of the fleet?”

“Fifteen minutes,” Kilana said, checking her readouts. “They’re coming in hotter than a firecracker, but that’s the soonest they’ll be here.”

“Can we move?”

Kilana shook her head. “Everything’s down,” she said. “Engineering deck’s gone crazy—I can’t get any sense from down there. Weapons are gone—either destroyed or exhausted.

“Can I say ‘I’m sorry’ now?”

Red shook her head. “Not yet,” she said. “We’ve got one hole card left. We just have to keep her talking for a few minutes. Put her through.”

The viewscreen snapped to life, occasionally blocking and pixelating the image, but gradually bringing it into focus. Of the four people on-screen, the one one she could immediately place was Reyga, the other two she didn’t know, and the woman seated in the command chair seemed sort of familiar, if she squinted a little.

“You look different from the last time I saw you, Silhouette,” Red said.

“You look exactly the same,” Silhouette said, getting up from her chair. “The years have been kind.”

“Looks like to you more than us,” Red said, offering a strained smile. “You didn’t tell me you had a custom-made warship.”

“A lady never kisses and tells,” Silhouette said. “Besides, it was worth keeping the secret just to see the look on your face.”

“Cute,” Red said, changing tack. She glanced over at Reyga. “You should have stuck to the plan, Reyga. You’re a breathing dead man, now.”

“Your plan was going to get me killed, one way or the other.”

“Yes, but it would have been over sooner.”

“Don’t indulge her, Reyga,” Silhouette said. “It’s just talk. I know you’re dead in space, Red. You don’t have anything left to throw at me. I have fifteen cannons and one long-range weapon that will cut you in two right now.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Red shot back. “I could always ram your ship.”

Kilana turned to her and drew the edge of her hand. Red ignored her.

“Your planet gun didn’t do anything,” Silhouette said. “You really think a suicide run will do you any better?”

“I’m not going to surrender to you,” Red sneered.

“I don’t want your surrender,” Silhouette said. “I just wanted to prove a point. The White Dragons are here, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The next time one of your people wants to desert, think about Jorge Escovedo—“

“Who?” Red blinked.

“--Think about him and the time you tried to set me up . . .and then remember that when you tried me, I left you dead in space.”

Red’s lips tightened into a frown.

“I’m not going to let you take my people,” Red said. “You’re crazy if you think I’ll just let you take in deserters. Your ship’s pretty tough, but it’s only one ship.”

“So are you.”

“Not for long,” Red smiled.

Before Red could finish her boast about the fleet, she started at the commotion outside the main door to the bridge. The door opened a crack and a grey-gloved hand pulled the door open the rest of the way, a thick cloud of black smoke pouring into the room as a rather battered and disheveled trooper stepped onto the bridge.

“PIRATE RED!” The trooper cried. “There’s a saboteur on board! I just came from engineering—he’s cut the power relays. I spotted him heading for the bridge—I think he’s coming for you.”

“Lock down the bridge,” Red said to Kilana. She snapped her fingers for her two bodyguards to take up defensive positions at the door to the bridge, which shuddered closed and banged shut as the magnetic lock engaged.

“Good work, trooper,” Red said. “Last thing we need with all this going on is sabotage.”

“Yes ma’am,” the trooper replied, his voice suddenly less harried.

“It’s more important to stick to the plan.”

The trooper drew a smaller snub-nosed weapon and blew away the two troopers guarding the door. Red leapt for the trooper, who took two steps back and pulled at the packs strapped around his shoulders. There was a popping sound, followed by a steadily building whine.

“I don’t think you want to do that,” the trooper said, falling back and raising his weapon. “These things here are class four mines. One of them is enough to destroy this bridge and I have four of them strapped to me—do the math.

“They’re on a deadman switch, so . . .let’s not do anything reckless, huh? I’d just go to pieces and so would you.”

“Who the hell are you?”

Kilana slumped her shoulders. “You’re one of them.”

“Aren’t you clever?” the trooper said, pointing his gun at Kilana’s head. “You win the prize. Don’t do anything stupid, or you go down first. Then everyone gets blown up.”

“Red,” Kilana said, glancing at her sister. “I’m sorry,”

The trooper’s head snapped back to the viewscreen. “I think they’re listening now. Go ahead, Silhouette.”

“Right,” Silhouette said. “Call off the fleet, and I’ll let you go.”

“Just like that?” Red laughed.

“I think I’ve made my point,” Silhouette said. “But I’ve got some more demands. One—Reyga gets amnesty. You can tell your people he died on Seylen, that his shuttle blew up, I don’t care. But he works for me now, and I won’t have your mark hanging over his head.

“Two—don’t come after us again. Fleet or not, I crippled your ship and got a man on board your ship, and you never knew. I can do it again anytime I want. If I were you, I wouldn’t make me want to.”

“Anything else?” Red said, a look of disgust etched deep into her face.

“Yes,” Silhouette said, her face filling the screen. “I want you to let my man there go.”

“Like hell I will!”

“You want to be blown up then?”

“Yeah,” the trooper said, his hand tightening on the trigger. “You know me, I could go off any time.”

“Silhouette,” Kilana said. “This is blackmail.”

“No,” the trooper said. “This is extortion. It’s like blackmail, only moreso.”

Red looked like she’d rather swallow poison. Her fists clenched tight, then relaxed.

“Kilana,” she said, he voice thin. “Order the fleet to stand down.”

“But they’re almost—“

Red shook her head. “They got us this time,” she said. “We’ll have to let this one go.”

Kilana nodded and sighed, glaring at the trooper as she keyed in the command.

“All right,” Red said, turning to the trooper, then back to Silhouette. “The fleet’s standing down. Get him off my bridge and—please—just get the hell out of my life.”

“You’re a sore loser,” the trooper said.

“Don’t push me,” Red said. “Kilana, unlock the door and get him the hell off my bridge, tell the people below they’re not to shoot at him, in case they’re too stupid to see he’s wired.”

She turned to Silhouette. “You’re going to have to send a shuttle. I’m sure as hell not going to give him one.”

“Done,” Silhouette said. “I’m glad we can all be reasonable about this.”

Red snorted with contempt. “You know how to play the game, I’ll give you that. But this is just for now, Silhouette—we’ll play by your rules for now, but someday, when the shoe’s on the other foot, we’ll have this conversation again, and I’ll make sure it ends differently.”

“Promises, promises,” Silhouette said, closing the communications channel.

The magnetic seal on the door unlocked and it rattled half-open. The trooper backed towards the door, keeping his gun on Kilana as he looked down the hall, to see if any troopers were lying in wait for him.

“Ladies, it’s been real,” the trooper said, slipping through the door.

Red and Kilana waited five minutes, then ten, in tense silence. Finally, Kilana broke the silence and said what they were both thinking.

“No boom?” Kilana asked.

Red shrugged and gestured towards the viewscreen.

“I liked her better when she was the psycho’s girlfriend,” she said.

“So did I,” Kilana said, sighing. “I underestimated her, and she burned us bad.”

“We’re gonna have problems with desertion from now on,” Red said, walking over to her command chair. “Maybe we should let the troopers police it—up the bounty for killing deserters?”

“We could spin it that way,” Kilana said. “Credit one of the dead troopers with killing Reyga, and we even save ourselves some credits.”

Red nodded, waving in Kilana’s direction—the accepted signal for “you take care of it.”

“They picked up their man and they’re moving off,” Kilana said. “The fleet’s requesting a status update. What do we tell them?”

Red took a deep breath. “Tell them the truth.”

Kilana blinked. “The truth?”

“Sure. The Misericord fought the enemy to a standstill and forced them to retreat. We didn’t need the fleet after all.”

“Sounds good to me,” Kilana said. “You play this game pretty good yourself, you know.”

Red smiled. “I have good help, don’t I?”

*          *          *

            Two days later, Reyga sat alone in his quarters on the White Angel, staring into the middle distance. The events of the past week were still fresh in his mind, in part because he couldn’t believe he was out, also because he wasn’t sure he hadn’t traded one life of servitude for the other.

            While he was clear of the Pirates, he suspected he was now protected only so long as he was with the White Dragons.

            Same situation, he thought. Different team.

            It’s odd, he mused. Before all I wanted to do was go back to a life of being told what to do, and belong somewhere without having to worry about it.

            And now that I have that—hell, I’ve even traded up—I’m not sure I want it, anymore.

            He shook his head.

            No wonder I wanted to be told what to do--freedom just paralyzes people like me.

The door chimed, but before Reyga could answer it, the door slid open.

“You know, it’s not good for you to sit alone,” Rebel said, stepping into the darkened room.

“I didn’t know you cared,” Reyga said.

“I don’t, but there’s room for only one loner in this outfit, and that position is filled.”

Reyga chuckled.

“Bombshell told me you were staying on.”

“I did it all for her,” Rebel said. “I know how much she enjoys strapping explosives on me.”

“That was a hell of a risk you took,” he replied, rising from his chair. “Especially for someone who you were holding a gun on an hour before.”

Rebel cocked an eyebrow, a smirk crossing her face. “Who says I did it for you?”

“If not me, then who?”

“Sil,” Rebel said. “Not because of her cause or anything like that . . .she’s just . . .gorgeous.”

            “Gorgeous enough for you to turn yourself into a human bomb and point a gun at the head of the pirates.”

            Rebel nodded. “She’s a special lady. I think it’s the way her spacesuit hugs her curves so well.”

            Reyga looked worried. “You’ve given this a lot of thought.”

            “Carnality is a great motivator.”

            “Huh,” Reyga said. He decided he was better off not thinking about it too much. “So why are you here? Obviously, you’re not giving me my armor back.”

            Rebel shook her head. “Nahh, but since you brought it up—how in the world did you wear that stuff for so long? It chafed and pinched in places I didn’t even know I had places.”

            “You got used to it.”

            “You get used to it.”

            Reyga laughed.

            “All right, I’ll quit breaking your balls,” Rebel said. “I’m here for two reasons. I wanted to come by and see how you were. Caetano said you haven’t strayed much outside of your quarters since the battle.”

            “Yeah,” Reyga said. “I had a lot to think about.”

            “And?”

            “And what?”

            “What do you think?”

            Reyga shrugged. “I—“

            Before he could finish, the door chimed and slid open. Silhouette walked in, and Reyga found himself blushing, the memory of what rebel had said a little too fresh in his mind to look her in the eye. She was carrying a large duffel bag, which she tossed on Reyga’s bed.

            She looked at him for a few minutes, then at Rebel, and then broke the silence.

            “It’s been two days,” she said. “If you weren’t going to come to me, I suppose I’ll just have to come to you.”

            “I’m OK,” Reyga said. “Nothing to worry about. Just. . .a lot’s gone on.”

            “Understatement of the year,” Rebel said.

            “I didn’t get a chance to thank you for what you did back there,” Silhouette said.

            “I didn’t really do anything, do I?” Reyga replied.

            “You knew how the Pirates worked, and how they thought,” she said. “That gave us the edge we needed.”

            “That’s not that much. It’s not like I was command crew or anything. I was just a trooper.”

            “But you knew they didn’t have a way of reliably tracking them, especially not in a crisis.” Silhouette countered. “So we slipped Rebel into your armor and put her back on the Misericord. They wouldn’t know it until it was too late.”

            “That was a hell of a risk,” Reyga said. “She’s one of your people.”

            “She’s my wildcard,” Silhouette said, sparing a glance at Rebel, who was positively beaming. “You always need one.”

            “I guess,” Reyga said.

            “I need you too.”

            “For what?”

            Well, for one, you can help keep Rebel under control,” Silhouette said.

            “Hey—“

            “Thankless job.”

            “Now, hold on—“

            “I need more,” Reyga said.

            “You’ll find it,” Rebel said. “I did. You just have to be a patient, and be willing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time while you wait to be in the right place at the right time.”

            “Well, that sounds like fun,” Reyga lied.

            “So,” Silhouette said. “Are you in?”

            “I don’t know,” Reyga said. “But until I do . . .yeah, I guess I am.”

            “Good enough for now,” Silhouette said with a smile. “Welcome to the White Dragons, Reyga Cortes. Have a look at what’s in the bag and join us on the bridge—we’ve got work to do.”

            She turned and headed for the door.

            “What’s in the bag?” Reyga asked.

            “A present,” she said over her shoulder.  The door slid open and she stepped through.

“Coming, Rebel?”

“In a sec,” Rebel said, stepping towards the door.

Reyga reached out his arm.

“Rebel, wait.”

The door slid shut.

“Back in the shuttle, when you had the gun on me . . .you mentioned a mutual friend, and that you owed him one.”

“Yeah.”

“You meant Escovedo?”

Rebel nodded. “It was my fault he didn’t get out,” she said. “But if I could get you out . . . Maybe that would square us. You didn’t leave him to die alone, and so, I couldn’t leave you to die alone.And since I was the only one who could make it happen, get you out, and balance the scales for Escovedo and I, I had to do what I did. Pretty simple, really.”

“Sure,” he said, unzipping the bag. The door opened and she stepped though.

            “Simple.”

            He took something out of the bag, holding it up to get a better look at it. When that failed him, he turned on the lights and got a good look at it.

            It was his armor—he recognized the heft and the shape of it as if he were looking at a part of himself. But it wasn’t, at least not the way it had been. It had been repaired, reworked, and redesigned. The red and black was now red and blue, and in place of the skull-and-crossbones that had been emblazoned on the chest, there was something else.

            A white dragon.

            It’s not like it used to be, he thought. I’m not like I used to be.

            But it’ll do for now.

            He pulled out the rest of the armor pieces and started to get dressed. There was work to be done.