Gavin left Walt on Cassel. There was a time, back in his single days, when an extended stay on a resort world was the perfect sequel to a crappy job. Now he had a better offer waiting at home and two bottles of chilled Kōen Shōchū riding shotgun in the cockpit beside him. The better offer, of course, was Dell. The shōchū was his best hope to reboot his homecoming from Oberon.
It wasn’t exactly the grand entrance he’d planned on making. He felt his cheeks warm and was glad to be alone. With a sigh, he squeezed his eyes shut and let his head fall back into his seat. His helmet bumped against the cockpit frame. When he opened his eyes again, the HUD had died. He rolled his head to eye the waiting bottles of shōchū. Perhaps he needed the alcohol more than she did.
Rhedd Alert’s hangar was still. The lights were dialed down to a dull, sapphire glow. But while the hangar was quiet, Vista Landing never slowed down. The sounds of the complex were a pressure all around him; a constant hum of life that seemed intrusive after a long stint flying solo.
Gavin shed his flight suit and then grabbed the helmet and bottles of shōchū. The helmet got dumped unceremoniously onto a workbench. The shōchū went with him to their apartment. It was dark inside — he was too late. Dell was already asleep.
He leaned against the door while his eyes adjusted to the courtesy lighting in the bedroom. Dell lay on her side with her back to him. Her hair was a dark fan against pale pillows and sheets. There was no trace of the playful blue-dyed tips in the low light. He looked instead to the curve of her hip and the long line of her covered legs.
He left the bottles on a table, not wanting to risk waking her with light from the fridge. He stripped off his shirt on the way to the little closet. She’d left it open, and piles of clothes made odd shapes in the low light.
They smelled like her. He’d forgotten how much he loved that. He leaned forward, his head slipping between her hanging shirts and jackets. They didn’t have much, but this was home. They were settled, with no desire for any more living out of cockpits and dirty cargo bays. But if he couldn’t make this work, that’s exactly what they would be back to.
Gavin stooped and picked up the discarded shirt. There was work to do. Things to fix.
He closed the door as quietly as he could when he left.
He was at a workbench in the hangar when the light pad of Dell’s bare feet on the cold hangar deck sounded behind him.
“Hey, Slugger.” Her voice was playful, teasing him about the scrap with Walt. The taunting tone was good news, in a way. It meant that she wasn’t quite so angry. Regardless, he was still embarrassed about the fight and didn’t rise to her bait.
“I thought you were asleep,” he said instead.
She rubbed her hand across his shoulders, bumped him aside with her hip and then took a seat next to him on the bench when he moved. “I was asleep, but it sounded like a herd of Shoone came tromping through the apartment.”
He felt better hearing the smile in her voice. “Huh . . . I guess I’m glad I missed that.”
“What are you working on?”
Gavin started running through his list, wondering where to start. He gave up somewhere north of fifteen and simply replied, “Everything.”
“Did we get paid?” He nodded and her look of relief was frustrating. Depending on Dell’s ex-boyfriend for financial salvation wasn’t exactly how he’d envisioned his role as a business owner.
“How’s Boomer?” he asked.
“He can’t keep doing this. They patched him up, but he’s been banged around way too much.”
It was true. Dell’s dad had been put back together more than any other pilot Gavin had ever met. Maybe a few military pilots had had more rejuvenation treatment, but their facilities had to be far better than anything civies like Boomer had access too.
“You’ve got to get him to take it easy, Gav. Let him fly support in the Freelancer or something.”
“Let him fly support? This is your dad we’re talking about. He’s at least half as stubborn as you are. And you know how he flies. He’s cool as gunmetal in a dogfight, but he flies like a crazy . . . flying . . . kind of . . . person.”
“Will you at least try? Please?”
There was no way Boomer was going to listen to him, but Gavin agreed. It wasn’t worth fighting with Dell about it. They’d been over that ground before. Plenty of times.
He prodded at the wiring harness of his helmet.
“The heads-up out again?” she asked.
“Here, let me do it.” She pulled the tools closer and set to work. “So . . . Walt stayed to drink his paycheck away with Barry?”
“Walt worked as hard as anyone in Oberon. Harder than most, actually. He can do what he wants with his cut.”
“While we’re dumping all of ours into repairs and supplies?”
“I brought you some shōchū,” he offered.
“I saw that.” She snuggled into his side and slid her arm around his waist. “Mmmmm . . . thank you.” A peck on his cheek. “I put it in the fridge.”
“You should have brought a bottle with you.”
She unwound herself from him and went back to work on the helmet. “It might work out better for you if we save that for a night when I’m not exhausted.”
That killed the mood. Gavin shifted the tools around on the bench. Dell must have sensed his change of mood. She sat up straight, her tone growing somber. “I’ve been doing some math,” she said.
“How bad is it?”
He hoped that the grimace he made was reassuring. It probably wasn’t.
“Selling the salvage will keep us out of the red for a couple months,” she said. “Good job on that, by the way. I don’t know about the Idris, but that 325a is actually quite sellable. Unless you want to keep it, that is.”
Gavin thought about it. “Sell it,” he said. “We can’t afford to upgrade any of our people, and I’m not bringing on any more pilots until we land some steady work.”
“On that topic, did Barry have something new for us, or did he come to Goss system just to carouse with your brother?”
He told her about the turret job and she brightened.
“This is good, Gav. You think this could turn into a steady stream of work?”
“Maybe, but we’ve got a team of combat pilots, babe. They’re not going to stick around for this kind of work.”
“Then screw them. Let them leave, and I’ll fly with you.”
“You fly worse than your dad. Besides, you wanted to be here to run the shop.”
“I’m here because I want this to work.” She put her tools down and entwined her fingers with his. “Believe me, I’d much rather be flying with you and Dad.”
“Yeah, well. I don’t want you out there. Bringing Boomer back in stasis is one thing, but you . . .”
She extracted her fingers and patted his hand, pulling away. “That’s an idea you’re going to have to get used to. Dad won’t be flying that old Avenger forever. Eventually, she’ll be mine. But right now,” she leaned in and gave him a quick kiss, “I’m going to bed.”
Dell stood, pressed his helmet’s wire housing into place with a click and left.
Gavin picked up the helmet and peeked inside. The glow from the reticle display shown within. She’d got it working again.
They had a good thing going, he and Dell. But chronic, nagging financial worry would eventually tear that apart. He just needed work that paid and that his pilots would stay for. Work that would keep Walt from chasing something shiny, interesting, and new. What he needed was that Tyrol escort job.
Gavin pushed the helmet and tools aside on the bench. He keyed up the console and placed a call to Barry’s mobiGlas. The accountant accepted the call.
“Talk to me, sweetheart.”
“Barry. Good, you’re still in-system.”
“Just about to leave Cassel, why?”
“What would a bid need to look like for someone to be competitive on that Tyrol contract?”
“Gavin,” Barry’s voice grew serious. “You’re new to this, but you have to know that I can’t give out that kind of information.”
Gavin’s mobiGlas vibrated against his wrist with an incoming message.
“I’m sorry, Barry. I wasn’t trying to cause troub—”
Barry cut him off. “Now, what I can do is point you toward the proper registration and submission forms. How you manage the pricing is your concern. Understand?”
On Gavin’s mobiGlas was a message from an unknown contact. The message was simple, containing only a Credit sign and a number.
A big number.
“Thanks, Barry. I appreciate it and understand completely.”
It took four days to clear just two turrets from the mouth of the first cave. Walt took out the first within seconds of arriving. He did it with what he swore was a purposeful and carefully aimed shot.
The second turret pulverized Jazza’s Cutlass, and they had to tow the wreckage back to Vista Landing for repairs. Jazza herself went home in stasis after taking hits to a shoulder and both of her legs. She did not rejoin them for the moon mine job.
On the fourth day — running low on patience, ammo, and foul language — they finally came up with a solution. It was ugly. It was dangerous. But as they worked deeper into the moon, it was the only thing they found that worked.
“All right, Boomer,” Gavin said, “hold behind that outcropping.”
Boomer’s Avenger crept to a halt beside him. Deep inside the warren of caverns, the moon’s rotation was enough to give them a sense of up and down. Still, holding a relative position inside a small spinning moon was not as easy as one might think. Stabilizing thrusters fired continuously in short, irregular bursts.
Gavin checked his orientation and distance from the walls. He was in place. The tag team system they’d come up with had been working pretty well, using one ship to draw fire while a second swept in to blast each turret. It was tedious and sphincter-tightening work, but the moon was nearly cleared. Only a small handful of tricky defenses remained intact.
“Okay,” Gavin settled his hands on his flight controls. “On my mark.”
He left the mic open and triggered a timer on his navsat. He watched Boomer’s ship ease slowly into the turret’s line of sight to the steady countdown of the timer. Right on cue, Gavin hammered his thrusters and sped into the cave, just as the first blast from the turret struck Boomer’s shields.
Gavin yawed to the left, swinging the nose of his ship until he could see both the turret and Boomer’s ship. The old man’s Avenger bucked under the constant fire. The shields held, but the blast forced the Avenger back out into the tunnel before Gavin could take a shot.
Gavin fired, and the turret’s twin barrels swiveled with such impeccable precision and speed that they looked like identical empty dots. “Oh, sh—” the barrels erupted in a fusillade of crimson light.
Gavin fired again and had no clue if he was anywhere near the mark. The turret’s aim was flawless, however. There was an odd pulling sensation when the cabin lost pressure and his suit pressurized, squeezing around his limbs and chest.
Another barrage hammered into him and he felt the Cutlass crunch ass-backward into the wall of the cavern. The ship rolled, nose pitching wildly to one side. Gavin saw an open blackness of empty space yawn into view. He punched it, hoping he was heading back out into the tunnel and not to his death inside the smugglers’ cave.
Relieved, he saw Boomer’s Avenger flash by beneath him. But dread gripped him again when the walls of the narrow tunnel loomed to fill his entire view. He reversed thrust, hunched tight around the controls and braced for impact.
It was bad.
He hit hard, and the impact sent him careening down the cavern. He tumbled over and over, willing his ship to hold together. When he finally forced himself to release the flight controls, the ship righted itself.
“Holy hells,” Boomer breathed. “Gav? You alive, buddy?”
His chest heaved like he’d been running. “I seem to recall some idiot bitching about this job being boring.”
Walt, exploring a tunnel in another part of the moon, answered, “That sounds like it was directed at me. You two okay?”
“No, I’m not okay. I just got blown up!”
“Simmer down, son,” Boomer said. “I’ve been blown up plenty of times. That was nothin’. I, uh . . . I don’t think you’re taking another crack at that turret until we get your ship patched up, though.”
“Oh, really? Ya think?” Gavin’s comms flashed on an incoming line. “Hold on, guys. Call coming in.”
Boomer laughed, saying, “They probably heard us planetside and want us to keep the noise down.”
“Very funny. Actually, it’s Dell. Now shut it.” Gavin accepted the incoming line.
“Gav?” He couldn’t tell if Dell sounded scared or angry, maybe both. “We got a problem, babe. Jazza’s out of here. Says she’s taking a ship unless she gets her cut of the turret job before she goes.”
“What? What do you mean ‘out of here’?”
“She’s leaving,” Dell said. “Leaving the company, I mean.”
Walt cut in on the squad channel. “Hey Gav, I’m all finished in here. You want me to come take a look at tha—”
Gavin juggled channels. “Hold on, Walt.” He squinched his eyes closed, sore, frustrated and confused. “Dell. Where’s Jazz going? You mean she’s quitting?”
Boomer kept the chatter going on the squad channel. “Sounds like he’s getting an earful, Walt. Glad she didn’t call me.”
“Tell her Gavin just got blown up.”
“That would improve her day significantly.”
They both laughed.
Gavin spread his hands in an open-armed shrug for no one’s benefit but his own. “Would you please shut the hell up?”
They did. Dell did not. “What did you just say to me?!”
“Not you, babe. Walt and . . . you know what? Never mind all that. Just tell me again, what’s going on with Jazz?”
His mobiGlas vibrated. Gavin swore silently and balled his fists to keep from shooting something. From within his pressure suit, it was difficult to activate the mobiGlas. He managed it while Dell filled him in on Jazza’s desertion. She was going to look for work with one of the smuggling outfits hidden in the Olympus Pool. Paying work. Blah. Blah. Deserter.
Gavin finally powered on his mobiGlas display. There was a message from a contact marked “unknown,” but Gavin knew exactly who it was from.
“I tried to talk her out of it, Gav,” Dell sounded close to tears. “I really did.”
“Dell, listen to me.”
“Get Jazza back. All right? Do whatever it takes.”
“I’ll try, Gav, but . . .”
“Whatever it takes, okay? We’re going to need her. We’re going to need everyone and then some.”
“What’s going on, Gavin?”
He keyed his mic to transmit on both channels, “Everybody, listen up. They only got two bids on the Navy contract. We’re the low bid.”
“Is low bad?” Boomer asked.
“Dell,” Gavin said, “have Jazza join us in Oberon. We’re working ’round the clock until we’ve cleared the last few turrets.”
Gavin sat in his damaged Cutlass, cheeks stretched in an unfamiliar grin.
“Guys,” he said, “we just won the Navy job.”
“Go on in, Miss Brock.” A lieutenant held the door open for her. “Major Greely and his guest are already inside.”
The major’s guest. How wonderful. Morgan Brock smoothed the front of her pleated skirt and then swept through the doorway into Greely’s conference room. The major and his “guest” stood near the head of the table. Greely was looking more Marine than Navy in his shirt sleeves. The man had arms as thick as most men’s legs.
“Brock. Good of you to come personally. Let me introduce you to Gavin Rhedd, one of the co-owners of Rhedd Alert Security.”
Rhedd was younger than she’d guessed, a handsome man with a sturdy frame. He’d made the curious decision to wear a weathered, civilian flight suit to the meeting. Perhaps he needed to convince everyone that he was, in fact, a pilot. Still, the rig fit him well. He looked uncomfortable but not self-conscious standing beside the granite slab that was Major Greely.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Brock.”
She refused his extended hand and put an end to the pleasantries.
“So you’re the cherry that low-balled my contract.” She made it obvious that it wasn’t a question. “Let me be entirely clear. The termination clause stipulates that I participate in a transition meeting. Let’s not pretend that I’m pleased by the opportunity.”
“Well okay, then,” Greely said. “I suppose that will do by way of introductions. Let’s get started, shall we?” He took a seat at the head of the table and motioned for each of them to sit. “Now, the award and protest periods are over.”
“There will be an appeal filed,” she said.
“I don’t doubt that, Morgan. But my office and Navy SysCom have every reason to believe that the award will be upheld.”
“I’ve invested two years cleaning up the run through Min and Nexus,” she said. “And we both know the workload is scheduled to increase dramatically. I’m not handing that over without a fight.”
She stopped when Greely held a hand up, “The UEE wants us to find ways to enfranchise independents in those systems. You want to argue that point, do it with the politicians. But right now, I need a mission brief, and I think we’d all appreciate this meeting moving along quickly.”
Brock let the major win the point. If nothing else, she knew when to pick her battles. There was nothing to be gained from antagonizing him. There were more profitable targets for her ire. Content with the cool tenor of the meeting, she turned her attention to Gavin Rhedd.
“Yes, well,” the young man cleared his throat. His forehead glistened where it met his close-cropped hair. “I’ve read through the, uh . . . the After Action Reports.” Rhedd swiped through several projections on an old clunker of a mobiGlas. “Every ten days we escort a new shift rotation to the Haven research facility on Tyrol V. But what can you tell me about the security requirements for the staff transfer between the transport ships and Haven?”
The kid didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Maybe her Tyrol contract wasn’t quite the lost cause Major Greely made it out to be. Brock’s smile felt genuine as she started describing the ship-to-settlement transfer process.
This job was going to eat Rhedd Alert Security alive.
Min system was dark. In Goss, the jump points flowed with shimmering cascades of color. They boiled the Olympus Pool’s bands of gold, amber, and blood-orange in a dazzling display of celestial mystery. Min, on the other hand, was entirely different, and Gavin wondered how many ships and lives Min’s jump gates had claimed before they were successfully charted.
The approach was well marked now. Nav beacons lit a ten-kilometer channel leading six Rhedd Alert escorts and their charge, a Constellation Aquila with UEE designations, to the jump gate. The automated beacons broadcast a steady stream of navsat and transit status data in addition to lighting the visual entry vector.
The gate itself loomed large. It was an empty disc, invisible if not for the faint light from the beacons. That light bent, distorting into the maw of interspace that, if entered correctly, would disgorge them out into the Nexus system. Stumbling onto an unknown jump point had to be a terrifying experience. He’d seen images of dark gates, like the ones in Min, when the beacons were offline. Even knowing what to look for in those images, it was difficult to distinguish the subtle smudge that represented a portal through time and space.
“Gate Authority Min,” Gavin read from a scripted authorization request, “this is Rhedd Alert Security, performing in compliance with Naval Systems Command regulations, approaching VFR and in support of UEE research vessel Cassiopeia. Request clearance for transit from Min to Nexus and confirmation of the approach.”
They didn’t need the call and response to make the jump to Nexus, but their contract required record of specific communications at all jump gates, as well as of the UEE staff transfers at each end of the run.
The gods only knew how many times he and Walt had hopped systems unannounced. In reflection, it probably should have felt strange entering a jump gate with legal tags and without local law breathing down his neck. But times change, and if Gavin got his way, they were changing for the better.
He received the expected challenge and responded with ship IDs that matched the tags for each member of the convoy. Gavin had stumbled over the formal exchanges on the first few missions. No one had complained, but he felt better now that he had a degree of comfort with the cadence and timing of the exchange. Hopefully, that degree of comfort inspired confidence in his new pilots and the UEE scientists aboard the Cassiopeia.
They got their clearance and Gavin sent the order to enter the jump gate. He took point with Jazza, each of them in place along either side of the Aquila. They slid into the gate with a familiar falling sensation. The cockpit seemed to stretch, elongating out and away from him in a rush of sound and color. It felt like someone had set a hook in his insides and pulled, stretching his gut tighter and tighter. Then something snapped and he was reacquainted with the increasingly familiar constellations of Nexus space.
“Gate Authority Nexus,” he said, “this is Rhedd Alert—”
“Gavin,” Jazza’s voice was crisp. He was already checking his navsat displays when she continued, “We’ve got three ships inbound. Three hundred kilometers. Make that two-fifty! Gods, they’re moving fast.”
“Jazz, take Mei and Rahul to see what our new friends want. Walt, you and Boomer play goalie. If these guys take a run at the Cassiopeia, make them reconsider.”
A chorus of “copy that” erupted on comms and Gavin switched channels to address the UEE crew aboard the transport. “Cassiopeia, this is Red One. Accelerate in line with my mark and do not deviate from course.”
“Contact,” Jazza sounded calm, clinical. “They’ve got three F7 Hornets in a variety of configurations. They’re beat to hell with patchwork armor, but coming in fast.”
“They have any markings or insignia? What are their tags?”
“Nothing I can see through the mismatch of weapons and scrap parts.”
“Look out, they’re firing!” Mei said. “Holy hells, these guys are quick.”
“Gav,” Walt asked, “do we run?”
The After Action Reports from Brock showed a steady decrease in aggressive actions over time. Letting a new pirate outfit establish a foothold at one of their critical jump points seemed like a very bad idea.
“We fight,” he said. “We can’t afford to retake this ground every two weeks if we run scared now.”
“Whatever you’re going to do, do it fast,” Jazza said. “It’s three-on-three over here, and it seems these guys like to play with their food.”
“Walt,” Gavin said. “Take point. If they have friends, I don’t want to get herded into a trap.”
“All right, Jazz. I’m on my way to you.” Gavin pulled up hard, inverted over the Cassiopeia and accelerated toward the jumble of fighters.
Gavin had survived dozens of scraps before starting Rhedd Alert, but always as the aggressor. Being on the defensive was something new. It seemed strange that these crazy bastards were hitting six armed escorts.
“Jazza,” he was a couple hundred clicks out and had a good look at the scrum, “I’m coming up underneath you. Time to make this an unfair fight.”
“These guys are good, Gavin.” She grunted and her Cutlass rolled in a loose corkscrew, putting her behind one of the marauders. She fired and its shields blazed. It pitched, nose down and thrusters reversing, to push up and above Jazza’s ship. The other two marauders swung into position on either side, and the three of them slashed toward Gavin like a knife blade.
He rolled to his port side and tried to accelerate around them. At least they couldn’t all fire on him at once that way. Rahul strafed overhead, pouring fire into one of the Hornets, but the marauders held their formation.
“Jazza, form up on me. Let’s split these bastards up.”
They met and swept around to rush the trio of mismatched Hornets. The marauders found Mei before he and Jazza were in firing range.
“Ah, hell . . .”
A barrage of precise bursts from wing-mounted laser cannons tore into Mei’s ship. It ripped entire sections from the hull, and escaping oxygen belched out in a roiling ball of flame.
“Damn it!” Gavin couldn’t see if Mei got out. He and Jazza blasted their way through the marauders’ formation. The Hornets scattered and reformed again behind them. “We’ve got a man down. Walt, we might need your help over here.”
“That’s what you get for staying to fight, Gav. We should have made a run for it.”
“We can talk about ‘shoulda’ later,” he said. “Get back here and . . . wait. Belay that.”
“They’re running,” Jazza sounded bemused. “Feels like they had us on the ropes, but they’re bugging out.”
Gavin watched thruster trails from the retreating ships. In moments, they winked out of Nexus space.
“Cassiopeia is secure,” Walt said. “Are you guys clear?”
Jazza didn’t exactly answer him. “Now what do you think that was all about?”
Gavin’s HUD looked clear. Relieved, he found Mei’s PRB. Everyone was alive and they appeared to be alone on the Nexus side of the gate. Walt and the Cassiopeia were nearing the extreme range of his display.
“Walt, hold where you are. Stay sharp and sweep ahead. I can’t for the life of me figure out why they attacked three-on-six.”
“Maybe,” Jazza said, “they knew they’d kick our ass.”
“Or maybe this was a feint,” Gavin said. “Let’s not get caught with our pants down if there are more of them out here. Jazz, you and Rahul watch my back while I get Mei. We’re taking the first shots if they come back through.”
There was a general clamor of agreement. Gavin was beginning to suspect that military comm-chatter was much more sparse and far less democratic than Rhedd Alert’s constant banter. Still, aside from Walt second-guessing his every move, Gavin was proud of the team.
“I wonder if they’re waiting on the other side?” Jazza asked.
Walt was quick to respond. “We are not going through that gate to check.”
“Relax, Walt,” Gavin said. “A win is a win. And good riddance.”
At this point, Walt’s objection wasn’t a surprise. “Lucky win, you mean. In a fight we didn’t need to have.”
Gavin ignored him.
Though she was unconscious, the biometrics in Mei’s suit reported only minor damage. Her ship, on the other hand, was another story completely. Gavin started running some mental math, tallying the costs of parts, labor, and med tech fees. The results were cringe-worthy.
The attack would make this mission a financial loss, but the contract was still the leg-up Rhedd Alert needed. And the attack was probably an aberration, Gavin reflected, reminding himself that Brock’s After Action Reports showed a steady decrease in hostilities over the past several years.
Unfortunately, they were about to find out just how little those reports meant. h3. TO BE CONTINUED…