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Also by A.R. Knight
Discover More Stories
8.Picking the Crew
21.The Lost Pilot
29.Blow the Door
35.To the Rescue
39.To the Bridge
58.Seek and Find
59.The Metal Man
60.One of Them
Discover More Stories
About the Author
Copyright © 2017 by Black Key Books
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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The Mercenaries Trilogy
The Metal Man - A Wild Nines Story
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For my father
The face appeared on the screen and Alissa kept herself from flinching. Webs of scars played across the visage. Patches of skin colored the false white of cooked meat. That could have been her. Or worse. Alissa forced a smile.
“It is good to see you smile,” the man said. “I feared you'd forgotten how.”
“We survive through hope, Bakr,” Alissa said. “I don't think many would follow me if I showed nothing but sorrow.”
Not that sorrow was hard to find. Their ships were near each other, Bakr's frigate and Alissa's luxury liner, swirling in a dead spot in space where the only distinguishing feature was that there was no distinguishing feature. A far cry from Mars' red hills and domed cities. From those crowded halls where arms raised in defiance against the corporations and their wage slavery.
Her sister, Marl, would have been one of those arms. Now she slept forever in Europa’s ice.
“So where will we find hope now?” Bakr asked. “We have no planet. Only scattered remnants for forces. No coin left with which to pay the ones who stay with us.”
They had held a third of Mars. The largest spaceport. The Red Voice had been respected. Now, it was only desperate. Alissa pressed her eyes shut for a moment. Desperate also meant dangerous.
“My sister can help us with that last,” Alissa replied. “I’ll send along the details. It won't be a short trip, but necessary.”
“With the coin, we rebuild. Without it . . .”
Speaking the words lacerated her. They didn't warrant an end like this, obscured and defeated. The men and women of Mars deserved more than what the corporations deigned to give them. But powerful speeches didn't make fleets, didn't turn the minds of those with their hands on the triggers.
“Then I will secure the coin,” Bakr said.
“Please, Bakr," Alissa said. "You saved my life once. I need you again.”
“You have me.”
At the nod from the burned captain, Alissa cut the feed. Sat back on the soft couch in her cabin, surrounded by the remnants of her luxuries. A pair of pictures still hung on the walls, not the usual projections but actual paintings. Landscapes, from Earth. Taken when her family first made its leap to the stars, with Alissa barely born. They had been full of hope then. Of possibility. She needed that now.
The solar system sprawled out on the glass in front of them, planets, space stations, and passing comets spiraling around each other. Davin Masters reached out, pressed his finger on the small shape of Ganymede and traced a line back to Earth. As Davin moved his hand away, the line wavered, shifting as the Whiskey Jumper's computer calculated the time it would take to get there, and the optimal route.
“You think they'd even let us land?” Phyla, her fiery hair pulled into a tight ponytail, said. “I know the readings say we're still good for one G, but I'm not sure.”
“Could get sick too,” Davin replied. "Bones turn to mush while we're coughing up our lungs."
“You still want to go.”
“I hear the beaches are incredible.”
Phyla laughed, shook her head. Davin smiled at himself, but the grin faded as he looked at the line, now a solid green tracing an elliptical path from Ganymede to Earth. It would only take a few weeks. Doable with the Jumper's engines. But everything cost coin, and there wasn't any waiting for them there. Especially for people still wanted for murder.
“It's nice, hearing you laugh,” Davin said. “Haven't heard that lately.”
He hadn't commented on Phyla touching her right side after laughing, a tender acknowledgment of laser burns still painful after Marl shot her on Europa. Shot trying to clear their own names. And the one left who could do that was holding them hostage. Davin had more than a few choice insults ready the next time he saw Bosser, and the punch line would be the business end of his sidearm.
“You haven't been funny,” Phyla said, the smile dying on her lips. “Not that anyone could be.”
Davin reached back out to the glass, swiped away the path to Earth and drew another. This time farther away from the Sun, out past the large rings of Saturn, past Uranus, to the frozen edge of humanity's expansion. Neptune. The icons showing space stations all but disappeared past Saturn, with only two outposts sitting on Uranus for mining. Neptune itself was beyond the profitable reach of most corporations, a time-sink full of risk due to the planet's high winds and isolation.
“Guessing the beaches won't be quite as inviting out there,” Davin said.
“You think they're ready?”
“Don't have a choice,” Davin said. “It's leave tomorrow, or he'll send more androids after us.”
The captain stood up from the co-pilot's chair.
“And after this?” Phyla said. “Are we going to do whatever Bosser says forever?”
“If Bosser pays us what he's offering,” Davin said, putting a hand on Phyla's shoulder. “The rest of you can go. Set yourselves up however you want.”
“He killed Lina,” was all Davin said. Was all he needed to say.
“You realize you nearly die every time you leave, right?”
Puk spoke as it buzzed around Viola's head, stuffed deep inside her bedroom closet. A suitcase, designed for weeks of travel and covered in Galaxy Forge logos, sat spread on the bed. The luggage vacuum-sealed sections to force out all the air and allow for maximum space.
“But I die inside every day I'm here doing nothing!” Viola's reply muffled by a sweater.
“That's an exaggeration. Your vitals are actually much more stable here than with the Wild Nines.”
“That's not what I meant,” Viola said, pulling out of the closet with a clutch of clothes in her arms.
A knock came at the door. Three sharp taps, the signature entry Viola's father used ever since a much younger, half-asleep Viola thought he was intruding and launched a lamp at his face as her dad came through the door. Her father had fought aging to a stalemate, achieving a plastic-like forty year-old face through patchwork treatments. Her mother, and most anyone with the coin, looked the same once they were old enough that their lives were at risk. There was no clearer mark of status.
Viola turned away from her father's stare, focused on folding her clothes. He wasn't going to like her decision, and she didn't want to see the disappointment on his face.
“So you're going,” her dad said. It wasn't a question. Puk heard the tone and quietly floated to its charging cradle. Some conversations didn't need a sarcastic bot's input.
“Did you ever really think I'd stay?” Viola said.
“I hoped,” the words carried an edge on them, a tint of self-awareness. “I remember what it's like being young, no matter what your mother says. But there's a difference between seeing the solar system and doing it in the company of wanted criminals. Did they even say you could join?”
“I haven't asked them yet,” Viola said. “I don't know why Davin would say no.”
“Have you thought about how all of them, and I know, because I've run checks on their names—”
“You did what?”
“They're dangerous. It's one thing when they're dropping you off. Another when you're going with them,” her dad said this as though he was explaining simple math to her. That digging into the history of the Wild Nines without Viola's, without their consent was perfectly logical. “You know what I found?”
“That they're a bunch of evil, terrible people who'll only get me killed?” Viola said. She walked over to her suitcase and dropped clothes inside, shuffling them into their proper positions. Easier to hide the anger in her eyes with her back turned.
“No. That they're trained, Viola. That they have experience. Most of them were military. What are you doing on that ship besides getting in the way?”
He meant well. Viola knew her dad was just trying to convince her to stay. That he wasn't trying to say she was useless. But all Viola could focus on was the idea that she wasn't good enough. Not worth a spot on the Jumper.
“Maybe that's all I'm doing,” Viola said slowly, feeling her way through the reply. “Maybe I won't last long. I'll get hurt. Or scared and run. But if I stay here, I'll always wonder. Always regret not even trying. So yeah, I'm going.”
As she spoke, Viola looked up from the suitcase and stared straight at her father. Not a flinch in her face. Not a touch of blush. When she'd run from Ganymede before, Viola had done it facing no one. Without having to defend her choice. Saying the reasons gave them new life, and Viola stood straighter, matched her father's look.
Her father took the words in and nodded. Then, before Viola could react, he stepped forward and wrapped her in a tight hug.
“We love you, Viola. Just come back to us,” her dad said. “Davin and his group are lucky to have you.”
“Sure, now you say it,” Viola murmured, but her voice had no edge left.
An hour later, the suitcase rolling along under its own power behind her, Viola walked into the bay dominated by the modular bulk of the Whiskey Jumper. The big ship wasn't real aerodynamic, built by attaching different components, like crew bays, the cockpit, and a secondary cargo hold with a medical unit onto the large central cube. In the zero gravity of space, though, that didn't matter.
A ramp extended from the central cargo module, and disappearing up it was the thick, metal-laced legs of Mox. The man, a gigantic ball of muscle, wore an exoskeleton at all times. It gave him more strength, speed, and the choice to wear a laser cannon that spat fire too fast for Viola's eyes to see. Compared to Mox, what was Viola going to do here? How could she even compare?
“Hey!” Trina's bright voice came from near the back of the ship, her leaf-green hair poking itself out from behind the engines. “Look who showed up! Come back here!”
Viola looked around, but there wasn't anyone else standing there in the bay, so she walked around the ship to the back, where Trina stood on her tiptoes looking into one of the four, two right and two left, large circular nodules that directed the Jumper's thrust.
“You're taller than me,” Trina said. “Can you take a look in here, tell me what you see?”
Viola nodded, moved to where Trina was standing and looked into the deep dark of the nodule. The Jumper generated its thrust through ionized gas expelled out through the nodules, which meant small pipes pushed the compressed gas to the open nozzle. Allowed to expand, the gas pushed the ship forward. If the Jumper needed more power, a mechanic in the engine room could ignite the gas through a small switch capable of igniting extra tanks, burning the fuel quickly for an extra jolt. Viola's eyes went right to that switch, mostly because sparks were popping off of it like the world's tiniest fireworks show.
“It's the sparker,” Viola said.
“Think you can fix it?”
“I think so, yeah,”
“Then show me,” Trina said. “This ship could use a back-up mechanic.”
The next twenty minutes had Trina tossing one tool after another to Viola, while Puk hovered nearby projecting a bright light on the nodule. For the first time that day, Viola could immerse herself in pure problem-solving. A twist here to unlock the access to the circuit, a pull with the pliers to separate the wires that had tangled themselves, thus getting keeping the circuit complete and sparks triggering away. It wasn't hard, but when the flits of light stopped popping in her face, Viola couldn't stop herself from grinning.
“You two figure that thing out yet?” Davin's voice came from behind.
“Well, I don't think your ship's going to blow up anymore,” Viola replied.
“I would also add that you will now have some redundancy in keeping the Jumper repaired,” Trina said.
“Great, cause it's time to go,” Davin said as Viola put the sparker back together. “Viola, I had Mox put your stuff in the open cabin. Used to be Cadge's, so I'm sorry for anything weird you find in there.”
Her suitcase was already on-board? Not even a discussion? Viola turned to ask why, but Davin was already walking back to the front of the ship, Trina following.
“Guess you're in,” Puk said.
“Guess so,” Viola replied.
Ion burns scarred black and jagged, spider-webbing slashes hard to coat precisely with ointment. Erick wrapped a bandage around the worker's thigh, the unlucky victim of a misfired engine test. A yellowed synthetic goo seeped out from beneath the wrap, but soaked its way into the worker's skin. Moisturize and numb while nanobots in the mix repaired the worker's nerves.
“It won't ever go away completely,” Erick said. “Unless you chop it off and get a new one.”
The worker looked confused.
“I mean the leg. Amputate it,” Erick tried.
“Amputate?” the worker's voice jumped an octave. “I’m losing my leg?”
“No, that's not what I said,” Erick sighed and let his hand hover over the spots where the goo leaked out. The air was markedly cooler above, a sign the goo was doing its job. Pull energy, heat, out of the air around it and use that same energy to repair broken cells, knit skin back together, make scars disappear.
“You'll be fine,” Erick interrupted. “Don't put weight on it for the rest of the day. You'll be back at work tomorrow.”
“Not even a day off? You sure?” the worker glanced at the bandage, mouth twisting into a frown. “It hurt pretty bad.”
“I’m sure it did. Now, off you go,” Erick replied, opening the room's door.
The worker, limping, left. A look up at the waiting room camera showed plenty more with similar issues. A massive complex full of people playing with dangerous chemicals and machines will do that. Still, it was better than sitting on the Jumper, bored and watching the hours crawl.
A knock, then the door opened. A woman walked in, hair a bright shade of green, grass on a sunny morning
A sunny morning. Where did that come from? It'd been decades since he'd seen one of those, a real dawn over a real meadow. Too long.
“Erick?” Trina asked.
“Hmm?” Erick said, still holding onto that perfect morning.
“What are you doing?”
“Saving the sick and the wounded,” Erick blinked himself back to the present. “Yourself?”
“Telling you to get back to the ship. Davin says you're not answering the comm.”
“I don't keep it in the room with me. It's distracting.”
“From what? My assessment pegs those patients out there as minor. Not a test of skill for you.”
“Consider it courtesy, then,”
“I’ve seen the logs, Erick,” Trina said, tilting her head and staring at him. “Your comm volume on the Jumper barely registers. One, maybe two transmissions a day. The rest of us triple that or more."
“Spying on an old man, Trina?”
“Just looking for irregularities,” Trina said. “I can't help it.”
“I have my reasons,” Erick replied. “Guess I prefer face to face instead of those pings.”
Because those pings carried waves of happiness, guilt, and lost moments all rolled into one. Beamed out from Earth, warm and friendly reminders of the lives he was missing. Daughter, son, grandchildren spinning through birthdays and weddings and births while Erick was out here, gelling workers back together.
“It's hard to explain,” Erick continued.
“People say that, but it's inaccurate,” Trina replied. “What they really mean is that they don't want to talk about it.”
“It's more polite.”
“See, you take a machine. Like this one here,” Trina moved over to a Vitals, called such because if you stood near one and turned it on, it focused its sensors on you for a few seconds and give a full readout on your breathing, blood pressure, and heart beat. “If it's acting funny, I can take it apart. Find out what's broken inside, or where the code is going wrong. You do the same with people, right?”
“More or less.”
“Isn't the brain just another collection of parts?” Trina looked at Erick.
“Parts that act contrary to their design, in my experience.”
“I’m saying that if you look for the problem, rather than ignoring it, you might find the answer,” Trina flashed a grin then, and nodded towards the screen showing the waiting workers. “Also, I stand by what I said before. These are minor patients. Your presence here is unnecessary.”
Erick opened his mouth to reply. Trina was right. Decent pay, but these weren't real patients. Following their protocol for every minor accident. A medical review and clearance to head back to work.
“I’m curious, because these injuries are well within the range of most common medical bots,” Trina continued.
“It's broken,” Erick said. “That's why they asked if I could moonlight while they waited for parts.”
“Ah,” Trina nodded. “It's not anymore. I fixed it.”
“You fixed it.”
“Yes. Do you want the short version?”
“I do,” Erick kneaded his temples.
“They shipped parts from Miner Prime. Parts they could make right here, instead of waiting. Easy to reconfigure the power coupling from a light transport shuttle to work in a bot,” Trina struggled with the words, resisting diving into the specifics. “It took twenty minutes.”
“It seems you've rescued me, Trina.”
“You can thank me later,” Trina glanced at her comm. “This took longer than I expected. We're late.”
“Then I suppose we'd better be going,” Erick said. “Did Davin say where, this time?”
Erick turned over Trina's comments. Look at the problem. Fix the problem. Everything with her a series of logic chains leading, inevitably, to the correct solution. What would that be for him? To go back to Earth, sit in the shade on a bright day and watch younger generations of himself laugh and jump and play?
The tube-train that took the pair of them back towards the Jumper's assigned docking bay shot along Ganymede's surface. Looking up through the transparent ceiling, Erick could see the angry tan and red swirls of Jupiter's storms, twisting and churning. Spacecraft cut lines in the view, coming and going from the moon with parts and people from throughout the solar system. It was a wondrous view, amazing. It wasn't enough.
“I feel like we deserve a going-away drink, don't you?” Merc said, sitting across from Opal in one of the many happy hour bars neighboring the Galaxy Forge facilities on Ganymede. Clogged with the variety of engineers, mechanics, and test pilots Galaxy Forge employed, the bar buzzed with acronyms and industry slang that made for a nice, unintelligible backdrop. It reminded Opal of the barracks, of the camaraderie in shared adventure.
Merc leaned back in his chair, arms spread over the rests, and gave Opal a toothy grin. His eyes crinkled at the edges. Opal's pulse quickened. Hated that look. Loved that look. Ever since Miner Prime, the stick jockey had been throwing her slick smiles paired with soft asides. Constant risk of death catalyzed their close conversation to something else entirely. Before she knew it, Opal cared about the guy. And here he was, joking about going back into the same fire that'd nearly killed him last time.
“It's still a game to you, isn't it?” Opal replied, leaning forward, elbows on the table. Merc's smile broke.
“You see this?” Merc pulled up his shirt, showing off the circular scar on his chest from getting shot on Europa. “That's my reminder that it's very real.”
The visual brought back that day. Carrying Merc back to the ship. It'd been his breathing that was the worst. The ragged inhales, the coughing exhales. Eyes closed, fighting for his life through instinct.
“I’ve never been hit,” Opal said. “Snipers, we stay out of it.”
“Don't change now,” Merc replied. “Telling you, it isn't worth it.”
“I know, I've seen,” Opal looked at her hands. Her fingers kneaded through each other. “I don't want to see it again. Especially not you.”
“Hey, I took that hit coming to save you,” Merc said. “So, you know, stay out of trouble and I'll be good.”
Opal felt blood rushing to her face, heat rising from her throat. He was treating this whole thing like a joke. Merc, who'd flown in what was really just an ornamental military role around Earth, acting like there wasn't a price to pay in a life like this. He'd never tasted the red grit of Mars as a sandstorm rolled over you in the middle of a firefight, never watched friends fail to come home, stared at the empty seat on the transport and know if they'd turned left instead of right, there'd still be a person there.
Merc noticed. Opal's pressed lips, so tight they were squeezing the blood out of them, were a clue. The fighter pilot reached out, put his hand on Opal's. She looked at it. His calloused hand, rough from gripping flight sticks. So were her's, only from rifles instead.
“You really afraid something is gonna happen?” Merc said, the light laughter gone from his voice.
“Just don't die on me.”
“I’ll be careful, promise.”
“Better keep that one,” Opal offered a small smile. “And I've changed my mind about that drink.”
“Now you're talking,” Merc said, keying in the order.
The ring changed as the crowd moved, their pumping fists and shouting faces forming the walls around Mox and the three off-duty security guards who'd decided to take him on tonight. The Jupiter's Bastard had cured Mox's boredom by accepting the metal man into the bar's routine, sloppy fights. Most nights Mox could count on a crew of Galaxy Forge workers looking for something that wasn't in their corporate policy manual, a bit of betting, a bit of blood, and a lot of visceral excitement.
The bar was a lit firework - bright points of color scattered between vast shadows. Except for the ring, where the DJ kept a floating bot covered in lights hovering over the action while swapping frenetic mixes.
The first guard, One, came at Mox straight up, leaning forward and stepping into a big right hook that even the drunks in the audience could see coming. Mox sidestepped to his right, dodging the punch and letting its momentum carry One in between the second guard, Two. Which left Three on the side with Mox.
“Hey,” Mox said, catching Three's feeble left-handed jab with his own, then whipping the man to the ground, where he collapsed.
The crowd cheered, a few boos mingled in. The Bastard's bookies shouted new odds. Mox waited for, felt the kick hit the back of his knee. The first guard yelped, and Mox turned around to find the man limping backward. They always forgot about the exoskeleton. Shin on hard, ridged metal wasn't a good move. Two moved up, dropping into a stance Mox didn't recognize. Legs bent, arms at right angles.
“What're you doing?” Mox said, his own arms at his sides, head bent.
“You're about to find out,” Two said.
Two moved forward and down simultaneously. Those right angles turned into a series of horizontal jabs, pinging Mox's stomach, kidneys, ribs. Strong hits, too. Mox backpedaled away, raising his arms to block any follow-up. The crowd cheered again. No idea who they were rooting for now. Two didn't press the attack, but settled into a determined frown. Perhaps this one, unlike the others, knew what he was doing.
Not that it would change anything.
Mox pumped his legs, jumping into the air. The DJ swerved the light bot away as Mox arced two meters high and came slamming back, fist first, at Two. The man rolled. Mox's fist met air, but the suit compensated for Two’s move, stopped Mox's momentum faster than any person should have been able to. So when Two tried to capitalize, tried to hit Mox with a high kick to the face, the big man already had his arm up to block. Two’s leg bounced off of Mox's left hand, which left the guard open for Mox's right to indent Two’s abdomen. He crumpled to the floor, groaning.
One, favoring his leg, stared at Mox from the side of the ring and shook his head.
“Yield?” Mox said.
“You're a cheater,” One said. “That's what you are.”
“Three on one,” Mox replied. “More than fair.”
The crowd was losing interest. Sensed the match was over. Coin changed hands and the ring fell apart.
“You act all smug just cause you got that metal,” One continued. “Take that away, you're nothing.”
Mox walked over to One, who stood his ground and looked up at Mox. A mix of fear and defiance in his face. A look Mox figured he once wore himself, before the surgeries, when he was vulnerable. Never again.
“Yield,” Mox said.
One’s face softened, the anger defeated by the universal desire not to get crunched to pieces. Mox had seen that look before too, on this guard and all the others before him. One thing to talk big, another to back it up.
“Mox!” came a voice from the crowd. Davin's. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Yield,” Mox repeated, ignoring the captain.
“Fine, you freak. I yield,” One sighed, limping over to his downed partner. The remaining crowd immediately dispersed to collect, or give up, their bets.
Davin pushed his way through, looked at the pair of injured men, then at Mox, who nodded.
“You hurt?” Davin said, and, at Mox's raised eyebrows, held up his hands. “Only asking cause we're getting off this rock, and I prefer my crew in one piece.”
“Oh, you're gonna love this one. Neptune.”
“Never been,” Mox said as one of the Bastard's barmen came over with a coin chit. Davin looked at the value as Mox took it from the barman's hand and whistled.
“Feel like you'd make more doing this than flying with me,” Davin said.
“Not as fun,” Mox replied as the pair walked out of the bar.
“And you wouldn't have me around,” Davin said. “To keep things interesting.”
“Hey!” Mox recognized One’s voice and turned. “You ever ditch that skeleton, become a real man, you come back and we'll see who wins!”
“Buddy,” Davin cut in before Mox could say anything. “My man Mox here would toast you even if he were naked, drunk, and missing a leg. Trust me.”
“Why's he got the suit, then, if he's so good?” the guard asked.
“Because it's cool,” Davin said.
Only, that wasn't it. Mox stayed quiet all the way back to the Jumper. Stayed quiet as the engines ignited, Trina counting to Phyla when they could lift off. Stayed quiet and watched, from the screen in the kitchen, as Ganymede fell away and Jupiter, giant of the solar system, shrank to show the stars.
When you're dealing with the absolute black of space, the big blue ball of Neptune looks like an aqua Sun. Davin, rubbing his eyes at the odd hour when the Jumper's proximity alarm woke him, stared out the cockpit at the distant orb. Distant being relative. Neptune appeared to be within arm's reach, outside the glass. Still thousands, millions of kilometers away, but hey, at least they'd made it to the right neighborhood.
“Where is it?” Davin said, glancing at the blank sensor screen. Neptune's faint rings were appearing on it, motes of dust and ice swirling around. Nothing man-made on the scanners.
“Just about here, if their flight plan is correct,” Phyla said. “Based on when they arrived and their targeted orbiting speed, they should come into range in a minute.”
Bosser had transmitted the details of the operation. An Eden freighter, Amerigo, was out floating around Neptune while a research and mining vessel, Karat, plumbed Neptune's depth in search of rare gemstones. An ice diamond. Bosser's info was light on what ice diamonds were, only saying they were valuable. And that Eden had reason to suspect someone might try to take the cargo by force.
“At least there's nobody else here,” Davin said, waiting for the freighter to show.
“Did you read Bosser's last paragraph?”
“Get the diamonds first, the crew and freighter second. Yeah, I read it,” Davin replied. “Are you really surprised?”
“For once, I'd like to work for someone that has a heart.”
“Hey, don't you technically work for me?” Davin asked, glancing at Phyla, an injured expression on his face.
“Like I said—”
The console beeped and on the edge of it a green rectangle popped up. A second later, as the freighter's identification broadcast came in, Amerigo appeared over the shape. It was orbiting high around Neptune. This far from the Sun, solar panels gathered a small fraction of their normal energy, so the freighter would have found a holding pattern that minimized power use until the Karat finished its mission.
The Amerigo itself wasn't the largest freighter Davin had seen, but it wasn't a tiny thing either. A kilometer long, with most of that space kept available for cargo, Eden built the freighter for minimal crew and maximum profit. The Amerigo was white, a frigid pallor that made it stand out against Neptune's deep blue backdrop, a spear thrown through the night sky.
“Big ship for small gemstones,” Phyla said. “They must think they'll get a huge haul.”
“Bosser said the Karat was full of new tech, guess they're hoping it pays off. Set course to intercept, and let's start talking,” Davin said.
“You want to call, the button's right there,” Phyla said, nodding at Davin's corner of the console.
Davin flicked his finger on the console, dragging the small icon of a phone - something that nobody still had but everyone still understood - over to the Amerigo rectangle.
The signal shot over to the freighter. Someone on the bridge was probably panicking at the call light glowing, seeing as they were on the edge of human space. Saturn and its moons held the farthest real settlements, so this was way out here. And compared with the asteroid belt, Neptune wasn't overflowing with raw materials. Not that atmospheric gasses weren't valuable fuel, but why go out here when Jupiter could keep humanity supplied for, well, ever?
“Jumper, the Amerigo reads you,” said a tight, clipped voice cluttered with static. “We heard you were coming our way.”
“Took a while. Sorry,” Davin replied. “You didn't exactly choose next door.”
“You're not the only one wishing we were closer to home.”
“We'll talk when you dock. Hard to tell who's listening out here.”
The console beeped as a docking route came in from the freighter, a translucent line arcing away in from of the Jumper towards Neptune. It would intersect in a few hours with the freighter, the Jumper slotting into the freighter's main bay without Phyla even having to touch the controls.
“Aren't they a little paranoid?” Phyla said after the freighter cut communications a moment later. “Who else is going to be listening?”
“How that guy sounded, it's like they already know,” Davin sat back in the soft leather chair, looked out at the deep blue planet, and waited for everything to fall apart.
The Viper looked spicy. Viola pulled herself away from the wingtip she'd been detailing. With Trina declaring they'd both go insane without work during the long trip to Neptune, it'd been one day of dismantling after another. Until they looked up and realized the Jumper was nearly there, and then it was all about putting the Jumper's guts back where they belonged. The Viper was the last piece, the small fighter a nest of wings, laser cannons, and engines. The solo cockpit occupied at the moment by its pilot, Merc, running preflight checks.
Davin had called a moment ago, said they were closing on the freighter and wanted the Viper ready. Insurance in case something turned nasty. So Viola carried in the last few pieces of plating, Opal manned the batteries, and Merc ran system checks to find the greens. Watching those two during the weeks of travel out here, the stick jockey and the sniper, never failed to make Viola laugh. Merc ran his mouth, spilling one ridiculous story after another over meals of powdered goo, while Opal sat there shaking her head, ready to jump in with the real events.
Viola stayed quiet at those dinners, stayed quiet most of the time. What was she going to contribute to the stories, the relived memories of firefights and frantic flights? An anecdote about a frustrating project? An unfair professor or one of the endless visits to another corner of her father's factories?
“Docking procedures initiated,” Phyla's voice came over the Jumper's intercom. “Hope you're ready to make some new friends.”
“C’mon,” Opal said to Viola. “He'll tell us if there's anything wrong with the fighter. We have to make sure our 'new friends' aren't the opposite.”
“What?” Viola asked as she followed Opal back through to the crew quarters.
“You used a rifle back on Europa, right?” Opal was saying.
“Technically, yes,” Viola replied. “I don't think I hit anything, though.”
“Doesn't matter. Just look dangerous,” Opal ducked into her room, popped open the large floor to ceiling two-meter locker that hugged the far wall, and handed a stocky weapon to Viola. It had a bulbous top that ran to a nozzle, with long handles at the back and front, a trigger right near her rear finger.
“Picked that one up while we were on Ganymede,” Opal said. “Your dad's company makes some weird weapons.”
“They don't make weapons,” Viola said. Because Galaxy Forge was a mining company, a materials provider. No way were they in the military business.
“Sure they don’t,” Opal said, soaking the words with so much sarcasm that Viola flinched. “This one was originally for mining work, to clean off crumbly rock. But you shorten the barrel like this, make the mixing chambers compressed so the reaction is quicker, you've got something deadly that'll go right through energy shields.”
Viola heard what Opal was saying. Galaxy Forge adapted its technology to whatever profitable ends it could. Viola should have felt angry, frustrated that the noble company her family ran had a stained side. Instead, she gripped the weapon. Reality had been breaking so many of her convictions, one more barely tasted bitter.
“Whatever you do, don't point that thing at me,” Puk said as Viola, back in her room, put on a less-dirty set of clothes. Something that wasn't so covered in the Viper's oils and grime.
“I could use target practice . . .” Viola replied.
“You might get some,” Puk beeped.
“What does that mean?”
“I’ve been scanning the radio frequencies,” Puk said. “Standard Eden protocols for a mission like this suggest the two ships should be in constant communication, updating each other on progress, plans, and so on. Since we've been in system, there hasn't been a peep. Radio silence.”
“Maybe it's direct, tight-beam.”
“But why? There's nobody else here. Sending a direct communication means hitting the ship directly. Much easier to blast it out on a standard channel. It's what they're for.”
“You and your logic,” Viola said, but the bot had a point. “Keep listening and let me know if you hear anything.”
“You got it, Viola.”
In the Jumper's main hold, Viola and Opal joined Davin and Mox around the ramp. Trina and Erick were manning the Jumper's twin turrets in case the whole thing turned out to be an ambush. Merc in the Viper, ready to flip itself around and blow a path through the Amerigo from the inside out. When the Jumper