Wild Nines - A.R. Knight - ebook
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If you were framed for murder, would you run, or would you fight?On frosted Europa, Davin thought he had a quiet gig going for his veteran crew. When an escort mission goes wrong and leaves the wrong bodies behind, the Wild Nines are pegged as the culprits. Now Davin has to fight to clear his name, and get revenge on the ones that wanted to use him.If you like fast-paced action, wise-cracking characters, and devious villains, you'll love Wild Nines, the first book in the Mercenaries Trilogy.

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Wild Nines

A.R. Knight

Contents

Also by A.R. Knight

Discover More Stories

Prologue

1.A Girl and Her Bot

2.The Escape

3.The Day Job

4.The Wild Nines

5.Inspectors

6.Strongman’s Start

7.Seen through the Scope

8.Fighter Pilot

9.Contract Disputes

10.Terms of Deception

11.Bar Nights

12.First Mate, First Round

13.Two for One

14.The Real World

15.Fisticuffs

16.Run and Hide

17.Heal Thyself

18.What It Takes

19.Video Evidence

20.Rescue Mission

21.Outnumbered

22.Dashing

23.Assault Tactics

24.Ready to Leave

25.Prison Break

26.Not Gone Yet

27.Picking up Pieces

28.A Fresh Start

29.Post-Mortem

30.Banter

31.Alive

32.Wanted

33.Space Work

34.Vagrants Hollow

35.Puppet Master

36.Shopping

37.Past Friends

38.Old Flame, New Burn

39.Ambushed

40.The Metal Man

41.Start Your Engines

42.Tunnels

43.Kidnapped

44.Risk It All

45.Save the Ship

46.Up By Force

47.Take Off

48.Jailed

49.Reconnect

50.Cell Game

51.Standoff

52.Negotiations

53.Prep the Rescue

54.Out and About

55.Shots Fired

56.Snatch and Run

57.Goodbye

58.Blackmail

59.Operations

60.Counting Casualties

61.Distractions

62.Gin

63.Plots and Plans

64.Born Again

65.Interrupted

66.To the Viper

67.First Move

68.Save the Engines, Save the Ship

69.Stick Jockey

70.Catching Breath

71.Homecoming

72.Choices

73.What Could Be

74.Doubt

75.Back to Europa

76.Hijackers

77.Android Unleashed

78.Incoming

79.Sisters

80.Attacking Ice

81.Running War

82.Outclassed

83.Duel

84.The Terramorpher

85.Pain

86.An End

87.A New Contract

If you liked this story, please leave a review!

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Copyright © 2016 by Adam Knight

All rights reserved.

ISBN (ebook): 978-1-946554-00-0

Published by Black Key Books

This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

This is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the characters and situations within its pages and places or persons, living or dead, is unintentional and co-incidental.

Black Key Books

4209 Odana Rd

Madison, WI 53711

www.blackkeybooks.com

Also by A.R. Knight

Wild Nines

Dark Ice

One Shot

The Metal Man

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To my mother

Prologue

Marl shaded her eyes from the Sun’s glare. The dome over the Martian town cut the light at angles, making seats like her’s blinding. There weren’t any other open spots in the cafe, typical for the late morning. The usual time to meet the Red Voice, to meet her sister. A crowded place made for harder targets.

“They’re here,” the man sitting next to her, Castor, said. Normally a suit-and-tie guy, like Marl herself, they both wore the traditional ramshackle rags of Martian tradition. Strips of cloth taken from relatives past and present, stitched together into a motley arrangement. The wrap on her left hand came loose as Marl picked up her coffee, a strand of cloth dipping into the brown liquid.

“About time,” Marl said. “They’re always late.”

“We have an easier route,” Castor replied.

True. Alissa would be ducking down alleys, slipping through friendly houses. Marl went right down the street. Still, her sister called the meeting. Not Marl’s fault Alissa had to work for it.

A man appeared out of the crowd, pulled out the two chairs across from Marl and Castor. The wraps around this guy were so thorough Marl couldn’t see his face, only a shaded slit for his eyes. Bulges along the waist indicated he was armed. His loose grip on the chairs, the relaxed shoulders said he knew how to use those weapons he was carrying.

“Marl. Thank you,” Alissa said, sliding into the chair across from Marl, her own coffee in hand. “I know this was short notice.”

“I thought you were dead,” Marl said. “The footage of that last attack. How?”

Alissa glanced at the man behind her, then nodded to the empty chair. The man took the cue, sat down. His hidden face alternated between Castor and Marl, and she suppressed a shiver.

“Bakr, here, is the only reason I’m alive,” Alissa said. “But there’s no time. I need your help.”

“Alissa,” Marl interrupted. “I’m going off-world. Eden wants to move me to a new project, on Europa.”

“And you’re going?” Alissa didn’t sound angry. Strange. Marl expected an outburst, claims of betrayal.

“Mars is lost, Alissa,” Marl said. “If I stay, Eden will figure it out eventually. Then we’ll both be dead.”

“Marl,” Castor said, putting a hand on her arm. “Please.”

“It’s fine, Castor,” Alissa said. “She’s not wrong.”

Her sister took a deep breath. Marl took a long sip of her coffee.

“Marl, this new project, what is it? A settlement?”

“Eventually, yes,” Marl replied.

A noise rippled into the cafe from outside, a rumble with a mug-rattling quake. Bakr, the faceless man, stared out through the cafe entrance while Castor swiped away at the comm on his wrist, looking for news.

“When its ready, tell me,” Alissa said. “If we can’t hold Mars, we’ll need a home.”

“Eden won’t let that happen.”

“But you will,” Alissa said, her eyes staring right into Marl’s. She hated that look, hated the way it twisted her mind into knots, pulled Marl into whatever scheme Alissa had planned. The Red Voice followed Alissa because of those eyes.

“They’re attacking the town,” Castor told Marl. “We need to leave. If Eden finds you here, you’re dead.”

“I thought you said this place was secure?” Marl asked Alissa.

Around them, the cafe emptied. People scrambling for the exits, dashing out through back doors. Overhead, through the windows, corporate drones flew. Hunting for targets. Sporadic laser fire blotched the sky, one of the drones erupting in flame as a lucky shot downed the craft. The killing machines returned fire surgically, one precise beam responding to every bunch of scattered shots.

“Stay in touch, sister,” Alissa said, getting up from the table. “You may well be the last hope we have.”

Then Bakr pulled Alissa away, towards the back of the cafe. Marl moved in the opposite direction, Castor next to her. The outside was ruinous now, laser fire everywhere, smoke pouring throughout the dome as ruptured fuel tanks exploded. Red Martian sand swirled as part of the dome cracked, sucking air towards the hole.

“We’ll never get out unseen,” Marl said.

“We have a plan for that,” Castor replied.

Marl swallowed. Their contingency. A claimed kidnapping, Marl and Castor taken by Red Voice operatives, held for ransom and interrogation, and saved by the opportune attack of corporate forces. There was only one part necessary to make it hold up.

“I’ll do it,” Castor said, drawing his sidearm.

“No,” Marl replied. “It was my idea.”

Castor nodded, handed her the weapon. Marl raised the sidearm and pulled the trigger, sending a fiery red bolt into Castor’s chest. Behind her, the grind of corporate war machines drew closer. Marl turned the sidearm on herself. Stared down the small barrel, designed to focus electric energy into a concentrated beam of light, hot enough to burn through her rags and into her skin. It would leave a scar, if the laser didn’t kill her.

What we did for family.

Marl pulled the trigger.

1

A Girl and Her Bot

Viola winced as she brought the robot to life. The ash-gray ball on the workbench in front of her, its various plates and parts connected to each other like puzzle pieces. The bot sat in an oval bowl with a cord stranding out from it towards the wall of Viola’s room, drawing power from the Sun’s solar energy slamming into Ganymede.

“How are you feeling, Puk?” Viola said to the bot. The size of a melon, Puk had small jets, allowing it to hover and float around the room. At least, that was the idea.

“You ever get a new body?” Puk asked. “Cause it’s a trip.”

“Consider it an upgrade,” Viola replied, standing up from the chair. “C’mon, let’s see how they work.”

Puk didn’t have running lights - there wasn’t any sign that the bot was functioning. Not until a soft whirring sound, like a fast-moving fan, filled the room. At first, nothing happened. Then, as the whirring built up speed, Puk floated up from the cradle. The bot wobbled as it reached Viola’s eye-level and started on a slow loop around the room. Viola followed, stepping over various half-done projects and their attendant parts, coils of wire, or racks of batteries.

“Makes getting around here easier,” Puk said, rolling itself forward, so the jets propelled it faster. When Puk zipped near the door to Viola’s bedroom, it rolled itself sideways and flew through.

Viola followed the bot and spotted Puk hovering in front of the wall-screen opposite Viola’s twin bed. The screen was showing a waterfall, somewhere on Earth, and the surrounding jungle. It was muted, Puk’s jets providing the only sound in the room.

“That’s on the list,” Viola said. “An island, Hawaii.”

“Better than a beach,” Puk replied. “At least there, I won’t get grains in my circuits.”

“Speaking of . . . the jets doing fine?”

“Greens all around,” Puk said, referring to the systems checks the bot ran on itself. “As for how they control, they could be faster, but I suppose I can make this work.”

“Glad you’re happy,” Viola said, crossing her arms and watching the waterfall flow. The feed wasn’t live. Viola, or rather, her parents subscribed to a service that batched these recordings and delivered them to Ganymede a few times a year. Viola waved at the screen and it shifted, switching channels to the outside camera feed from her parent’s house. Their bubble.

The screen showed Ganymede’s blasted surface, the brown rock and great transparent bubbles. Clusters of homes on sat in radiation-blocking domes on the surface, with underground paths connecting each of them. Larger tunnels, populated with carts that sent passengers back and forth, linked the neighborhoods to Ganymede’s nexus, the giant factory and headquarters of Galaxy Forge.

“You can see the storm tonight,” Puk said, watching the screen. Jupiter often dominated the sky, sometimes blotting out every inch of space. Tonight, the planet’s eternal red storm churned right through their view. Viola shuddered. She'd had nightmares of being caught in that thing.

The door to the workshop beeped. Viola ran over and pressed the keypad's green button. The entrance shot open, sliding into the wall to show a goofy grin on the other side. The bearer of the smile was a slipshod mix of adolescent dreamer and grimed-up shift worker. Roddy split time as the family’s personal mechanic and a Galaxy Forge grease monkey, often taking evenings at the house to put in whatever new toy Viola's dad brought home.

“Hey Viola, how’s it going?” Roddy said. “You said you needed help?”

“Hey Roddy!” Viola wrapped her arms around the man for a quick hug, then stepped back. “Wanted you to test something for me. It’s with Puk and, um, might hurt a little.”

“Hurt a little?” Roddy said, coming into the room. The door slid shut behind him. Puk whirred out into the workshop, rotating so that the black circle camera focused on Roddy.

“He’s a target,” Viola said to Puk. “Go.”

Roddy looked at Viola, eyebrows rising into the man’s clay-red hat, part of the Galaxy Forge uniform. Puk didn’t hesitate. The bot shot forward until, a meter away from Roddy, Puk let loose with a hot white laser. The beam hit Roddy on the forearm, causing the mechanic to jump back, curse, and rub at the spot. Puk darted forward after Roddy, shooting more of the stinging lasers. A lot of them.

“Puk!” Viola yelled. “Stop!”

The bot paused, rotating to look at Viola.

“He’s not neutralized,”Puk said. “I should keep shooting at him.”

“What the hell,Viola?” Roddy said. He’d grabbed a piece of scrap metal and was holding it in front of him like a shield.

“Puk, go back to the cradle,” Viola said, though excitement leaked into her voice. “Did you see that, Roddy?”

“I felt it, all right,” Roddy grumbled.

“Yeah. Um. Sorry,” Viola said, helping Roddy put the metal slat back on the ground. “I didn’t think Puk would keep shooting, but it means the threat assessment program works. Are you okay?”

“I’ll survive,” Roddy took a breath, looked at Viola. His face was straight, tight. Roddy never liked being reminded of why Puk was getting a threat assessment program or why they’d been working at night to build the jets for the bot.

“Still not changing your mind?” Roddy asked.

“I can’t, Roddy,” Viola said. “If I don’t get out of here now, I won't get another chance. After this semester, I’ll have the degree, Dad will put me in Galaxy Forge, and I'll be stuck.”

“It’s not so bad,” Roddy replied, continuing to rub his arms where Puk’s lasers hit him. “You’d be good at it.”

“I’d be trapped,” Viola said, turning and walking over to a large console that dominated one side of the workshop. Viola turned it on, accessed the star chart program, and the console projected Jupiter and its surrounding moons into a swirling hologram in the center of the room. Viola pointed at a smaller, bluish one.

“Tomorrow will be a perfect launch day,” Viola said. “How’s the ship?”

“Good,” Roddy said. “Your dad hasn’t used it lately. Been too busy. But Viola, I don’t think—”

“I know it’s a lot to ask,” Viola interrupted. “Dad will find out it was my idea. I'll leave a note.”

“It’s not me I’m worried about,” Roddy said. “You don’t know what it’s like out there.”

“Which is the point. We're not doing this again, Roddy. Please, just tell me you’ll have it set tomorrow.”

Roddy nodded. Viola could see a dozen arguments start and die in his eyes. There wasn’t any time for them. Now that Puk’s threat program worked, she had to boost the bot’s laser so it could do more than sting. Then there was the packing. And the note to her parents.

“I’ll make sure she’s ready to go, Viola. For you,” Roddy said, sighing.

“Thanks, Roddy,” Viola gave the mechanic another hug as Roddy made his way out the door. As she moved back to the workbench, Viola flipped the console to the streaming headlines. News around the solar system popped up on the screen. Viola paid little attention, except this time almost every headline included the same quote. Viola waved her hand through one article to expand it.

“You cannot silence the Red Voice,”said Alissa Reinhart in a mass-transmitted message today. The leader, previously presumed dead, continued to state that until the people of Mars have their rights restored, there would be no peace.

“Thankfully, Europa’s a long way from you,” Viola said to the picture of Reinhart. With another wave of her hand, Viola dismissed the image and went back to work.

2

The Escape

Do you understand the state Europa is in right now? It’s barely civilized. There’s no atmosphere. Stuck in a base where if one thing goes wrong, we’d lose you.

Viola heard the voices of her parents. That didn’t stop her from approaching the bay where her father’s private ship sat, waiting for Viola to take it. One by one, Viola debated down the arguments. Sure, Europa was full of profit-seeking prospectors. But so was Ganymede! It was just more refined here, after two decades of colonization.

No atmosphere? Ganymede’s was still thin enough, siphoned away by Jupiter’s gravity, that if you spent more than an hour outside you got lightheaded. Endurance competitions ran to see who could go the farthest without succumbing. Anywhere off of Earth was harsh.

“Are you sure?” Puk asked. “Cause you do this, it will not be pleasant when daddy finds out.”

“Don’t care,” Viola said.

Puk made a beep, a low sarcastic noise. The little bot could hack the docking bay doors in under ten seconds, because Viola had spent days studying those locks, buying her own and dissecting them. She'd found a backdoor, and coded the keys into Puk’s library. There were times Viola wanted to leave the house without her parents knowing. This time included.

A single panel sat on the right side of the door and glowed a dull red. Puk floated within five centimeters of it. These locks sent a radio frequency out and expected a specific response, her dad and Roddy wore badges that replied with the value and the door opened. Puk did the same thing, catching the signal, running it through Viola's backdoor, and sending the necessary response to flip the light green and open the lock.

The opening showed a dim wash of yellow lights silhouetting Viola’s parent’s ship. The Gepard was a 12 meter-long needle, meant to only hold a pilot and a passenger and sprint around nearby space. Her dad took it on joyrides, jaunting up and out of the atmosphere to “remind him where we came from.” Viola had gone up in it a few times, seen the stars in their natural habitat.

“Is she ready?” Viola asked Puk, who’d zipped ahead and plugged himself into the ship’s diagnosis panel.

“All fueled up and green,” Puk replied. “Almost like we planned this.”

“I'll owe Roddy so much,” Viola said.

“What’re you giving him again?” Puk asked.

“I’ll find him some souvenir. A rock from Europa,” Viola said.

A ladder up to the cockpit was three meters, and every rung landed heavy in Viola’s chest. The Gepard could get her to Europa, barely. Its design required a large chunk of electricity to charge Gepard’s batteries. Small solar panels lined the sides of the ship, enough to keep life support running in an emergency, but not enough to get her anywhere once the main battery ran dry. Unless Viola found her bank account more flush than she’d left it an hour ago, there’d be no way to buy her way home.

Making Viola trapped. On her own on a frozen moon. Easy to argue against going. That things were safe, secure on Ganymede. But Viola could see her future if she stepped away from the ship. Could see the next hundred years of her life playing out, a boring biography. Complete the degree, take the job, work her way up and maybe, one day, run the company. Every year getting further and further away from the engineering she loved and placating it with toys like the Gepard.

And that might be okay. Might be fine. Only not now, not when there was still that voice telling her to take a chance. Viola pulled herself into the cockpit and disengaged the ladder.

When the ladder moved away from the Gepard, it ran over a pair of sensors in the floor. By doing so, the bay’s departure system registered Viola’s intent and turned on the rest of the lights. The gate, a thick block of smooth moon rock, ringed with glowing ruby dots warning her it was still shut.

Puk floated beside Viola, hovering above the passenger seat slotted behind the pilot chair. In front of Viola sat the flight stick, followed by a panel of buttons and levers controlling thrust, landing struts, and more. The Gepard had few auto-pilot features. The manual effort was part of the thrill. Viola had been here a thousand times in the family’s simulator, feeling her way through a virtual trip. Now, though, when she started preflight and saw the dashboard come up green, the thrum was real.

The Gepard chimed when the checks came back positive. Viola flipped the next switch in the sequence, the weighted click bringing her one step farther from home. A countdown scrolled till the craft was ready to launch as energy transferred from the storage batteries to the thrust. The Gepard’s design, and most of the ships out away from Earth, leveraged electricity to combat the scarcity of rocket fuel. Carbon propulsion was left to Earth, where the gravity was too intense for large ships to jet away under electric power alone.

“Puk, open the launch doors,” Viola said.

“The alarm will go off,” Puk said.

“I know,” Viola said. “They won’t react in time.”

“Sweetness. Let’s get outta here,”

The doors behind the Gepard split open, revealing the huge, billowing monstrosity of Jupiter behind them. The swirling gasses and storms of the largest planet in the solar system blanketed the sky, leaving room for little else. Tonight, Ganymede had moved to the side of Jupiter, so that most of the sky was a bright series of swirling tans and oranges, while the other third was pitch dark, the part of Jupiter catching no sunlight and blocking any view of stars beyond.

“Good omen, leaving on a half-night?” Viola asked, pulling the handle that closed the cockpit in a transparent glass barrier.

“I’m a machine, I don’t do omens,” Puk said.

“You’re no fun.”

“Am I helping you run away in a space ship? I believe I am. Is that fun? I believe so,” Puk shot back.

The engines beeped that they were ready to go. Viola triggered the hover jets and, two seconds later, the Gepard floated free. Ready for an escape. Viola reached for the flight stick to turn the ship around when she noticed someone walk into the bay.

“Roddy?” Viola asked as the young mechanic stepped into the bay, waving at her.

“You know, I don’t hear that alarm,” Puk said.

“He must have turned it off,” Viola muttered. “Dad’s going to kill him.”

“Better be one heckuva souvenir you get him.”

“It will be.”

The Gepard rumbled to life. Viola eased the ship out of the launch bay and then angled it upwards into the Ganymede sky. A request for a destination came up from Ganymede’s flight control, buzzing in over the Gepard’s comm unit.

Last chance to take this bad boy back, land it, crawl into bed and wake up to another nice breakfast, another day spent crunching math problems and watching movies. Viola looked up through the cockpit, at the glorious mass of Jupiter, and punched in Europa, Eden Prime.

“Roger that, Gepard. You’re clear to launch. Safe travels,” Flight control said.

“Let’s hope so,” Viola replied, and shot the ship up to the stars.

3

The Day Job

“You want to see a miracle? Just look out the window,” Castor, Eden Prime’s trumpeter-in-chief, said to the assembled crowd of big shots, buzzwords, and bullet points.

Davin followed their glances, out the covering dome of the cruise skiff and towards the swirling white storm that followed Eden Prime’s terramorpher as it sifted Europa’s surface and turned it into something usable. Despite the base's name, Europa sure as hell wasn't a paradise.

First a series of bubble cities, then an atmosphere to heat the ball of ice to a more livable temp. The bright pillar of light lancing to the surface near Eden Prime was an indicator of those efforts; a large solar mirror orbiting the moon and reflecting concentrated photons to the surface. Most of Eden Prime’s power came from that thing, even if it meant never having a true night.

Davin let his hand drift up to the gun hanging over his shoulder, thick with two stacked barrels. Melody had enough kick in her to blow her way through any of these suits if they made a move. Not that Davin was planning to fire it, not while Eden’s checks were clearing.

A pair of sidearms hung off Davin’s belt, both set to a nerve-numbing level more suitable for people who didn’t enjoy death in their new development headlines. The armament drew glances, but those eyes were more comforted than nervous. Davin was their paid protection.

Davin nodded across the skiff to Cadge, a ball of bearded muscle and partner on this joyride. Once a week Eden Prime paid them to ‘escort’ these show-offs around the terramorpher. A way for the settlement to sell property on Europa to prospective buyers, build up publicity, and bore the Wild Nines to death. But easy money was still money, and Davin figured catching the coin till it stopped raining was the right move.

“You know what’s the best about this guy?” Called a burbling voice from the back of the crowd, like its owner had been working up the courage to talk and now was bull-rushing ahead.

Davin located the source, a tall, lanky man who sported the refined suit-and-tie look of the rest of the crowd . . . at first glance. The man moved into a litany of grievances, how Eden Prime was a scam, that they were being played, that Castor didn’t want the colony to succeed at all.

Cadge made his way parallel to Davin, and the rough-and-tumble rogue beat Davin to the heckler. The rest of the crowd watched with an interest so mild that Davin felt his stomach curl. The accusations sounded crazy, yeah, but these people weren’t phased in the least. Some leaned in as Cadge wrestled the man back from the group, eyes hunting, hoping for a fight.

“At least struggle, I could use some entertainment,” Cadge said. Davin pulled the pair of stun cuffs they all carried on these assignments and slapped them on the heckler’s wrists. The cuffs blocked the nerves from communicating with the brain, making it real hard to try and slip out.

“They’re hurting me!” The heckler cried. “That’s the kind of service you get with Eden!”

“Shut it,” Davin said. “You say one more word, you'll wake up in a cell with one hell of a headache.”

“Do it,” Cadge said to the heckler, whose eyes were flipping between the two of them. “It’s been too long since I’ve punched somebody.”

Cadge’s manic look quieted the man, and the heckler fell into a sulk. Castor drew back the attention with a cracked joke about how there were still crazies way out here. The crowd turned back to the word-smith with a chuckle and sips of their drinks.

“A bunch of softies,” Cadge grumbled, keeping one hand on the heckler’s shoulder. “Bet not one of them could throw a decent punch.”

Cadge’s voice was on the grittier side of a meat grinder. It flowed through thrice-broken jaws, out of lungs that’d played sport with most of the deadlier drugs this side of the asteroid belt, and carried with it the dead age of experience. Davin could listen to Cadge curse for days without being bored.

“You’re complaining about that?” Davin replied.

“I’m worried my edge is gonna get soft,” Cadge sighed. “It’s been days, Davin. Days since I’ve knocked a man’s teeth out and hauled his drunk self to the cell. I went to the range this morning, barely knew how to fire my gun.”

After another fly-by, the skiff, a transparent bubble strapped to slow engines, docked back at Eden Prime. From the air, the city was a steel snake stretching through flowing shades of ice. The terramorpher grew a line out from the city, marking its path with patches of light green tundra moss, waiting for a stronger atmosphere. Used to be that process took decades. Europa, though, was the pioneer of the grand new machine.

Going by Castor’s pitch, the terramorpher would have Europa warmed up and breathable within a few years. Invest in the city of Eden Prime, Castor said, and you’d be setting yourself up for quick returns.

As if you could call Eden Prime a city. The few thousand engineers and their support staff formed the backbone. The nigh-endless stream of crazies that thought a chance at a new planet meant the opportunity to strike it rich sprung out from that spine like random limbs searching for purpose. Most wouldn’t find one until the atmosphere solidified, but getting in early on a new colony had the chance of a big payoff, if you didn’t die of explosive decompression first.

The suits followed Castor off of the ship, a few thumbing messages into the comms buckled onto their wrists. The bay they’d docked at was covered with gleaming renditions of the glory coming to Europa. Tall, winding towers overlooking paradise. Melted frozen seas pushing against newly-made beaches. Green parks with children playing. All that soil coming from broken asteroid rock infused with nutrients by the terramorpher.

Davin was about to suggest a stopover at one of the few bars on Eden Prime. Get the standard home-brewed disaster they made from lab-grown hops way out here. Given the scarcity of customers, at least it was cheap. Then Davin’s wrist vibrated.

“Yeah?” Davin answered the comm, a flexible black and white device that wrapped around his left forearm.

“Hey,” Phyla’s voice came over bright and clean.“You done out there? There’s a message you should see. Important.”

The Nines’ primary pilot looked through the comm’s small screen at Davin, her face set in that stock grimace Phyla used whenever there was something real to talk about. Soft lines pulling in strands of blazing hair, mingling with a spread of freckles earned in a surprise meeting with a solar flare. That lesson bled out into everything Phyla did. Maximize the planning, the preparation, and people don’t get fried.

“Mind telling me, then?”

“People could be listening.”

“You’re being paranoid.”

“Do you know me?” Phyla replied. “Just get here, fast.”

“I can handle locking her up,” Cadge said, referring to the skiff. “Get outta here.”

Davin nodded and took off at a fast walk. Running, the Eden contract stated, was one thing that could incite panic. Don't do it. Part of ensuring a calm environment while they tore apart a moon. The Nine's office was right near the skiff launch bay, but Davin didn’t bother checking in there. Phyla hadn’t placed the call on one of the official comms. It’d come from their ship.

4

The Wild Nines

The Whiskey Jumperhad bay three all to itself, a requirement of the Wild Nines' contract. A big box with engines at the aft and a bulge at the bow, left for a cockpit, Davin's ship was a cargo hauler tweaked over the years to be anything but. Four landing struts descended from the large central pod, along with a loading ramp.

Davin walked up that ramp, into a the main cargo bay, two stories high and just as wide. A built-in stair to the right of the ramp led up to the cockpit, while other circular doors and stairs led to the left, right, and rear pods. The inside of the ship was . . . colorful. A standing invitation to make an artistic mark on the inside over the years had covered the walls with paintings ranging from little more than graffiti signatures to rendered landscapes like the red valleys of Mars.

Every time Davin walked in here, history struck him like a hammer. He paused a second to look over the memories from crews long gone. One always caught his eye. A black outline of the Whiskey Jumper, lines bleeding everywhere on the metal walls, hovering against a blue and white ball. A cursory glance might assume the planet to be Neptune, but Davin knew it was Earth. Earth as drawn by the Jumper’s first captain as he flew the ship into space on its maiden journey. The ship had never been back.

“So what’s the emergency?” Davin asked as he climbed into the cockpit.

Phyla leaned back in the co-pilot’s chair, decked out in lounge clothes that said leaving the ship today was optional. Her face was glued to the console. Three monitors stuck to each other, the console was a stream of data. With touches and swipes of fingers, the displays could switch as needed. Phyla had the left one set to the comm display, tracking incoming and outgoing messages, the most recent recording front and center for Davin to play.

“Two high-profile visitors. Personal escort. Your favorite kind of job,” Phyla said, sucking on a jolt stick.

Davin reached for the stick, Phyla handed it to him. Chemical cocktails wrapped around a sugary twig. Tasted dry and scratchy, but gave one helluva kick. Like eating a spasm.

“Where are they now?” Davin said after a few twitches.

“Landing. Going through the usual harassment,” Phyla said.

Eden, the company behind Eden Prime, was hyper-vigilant about taxing any incoming cargo. Grabbing every spare coin they could. Eden Prime boarded and assessed every incoming ship, assigning a value to it. That value determined what level of attention people like Castor and his boss, Eden Prime’s overall manager, Marl, paid to the vessel.

“Cadge is going to blow it,” Davin said, sitting in the co-pilot’s chair. “Just lose his mind one of these days and split someone in that crowd, or maybe Castor, open. Worst thing is that I’m starting to hope he does it.”

“Feel like Eden would frown on that,” Phyla asked, taking the jolt stick back.

“There are always more contracts,” Davin said.“So why’d you have me come here? Escorts aren’t a secret.”

“They don’t want Marl to know they’re coming. Or anyone else on the base.”

“Interesting. How are they getting around the search?”

Phyla rolled her eyes, a slow motion where Davin could track the pupil as it made its journey from one side of the blue eye to the other. She’d started doing that when they were kids, decades ago. Learned it from her father, Phyla mentioned once, saying it was a warning she was going to be sassy.

“You think I had a nice chat with them? They beamed the ask straight to us. Short-range, hard to intercept. All it said was to meet them and keep it quiet.”

“Any idea who they are?”

“The ship is small. Eden-branded. Like, mothership Eden, not Prime.”

“Parents wondering what their kid is up to?” Davin said.

“Maybe,” Phyla replied. “Either way, for this much coin, does it matter?”

Phyla pulled up the message. At the end of the single sentence was a price. A good price.

“It does not,” Davin said. “How much time do we have?”

The pilot flipped the console back to Eden Prime’s air traffic. Pointed to an entry.

“Bay seven, scheduled to land in an hour,” Phyla said.

That gave Davin enough time to shower off the Eden uniform and put on more comfortable clothes, a jacket with plenty of pockets, pants with plenty more. Boots flexible enough for running, strong enough to keep his feet from getting shot off. One glance at himself in the cabin's mirror, and off.

On the way out of the Whiskey Jumper, Davin grabbed Mox from the man’s room. The crew cabins were tight affairs: a twin bed with a desk, complete with single-screen console. A locker built into the wall for clothes. Davin looked in and suppressed a flinch. Mox wasn’t wearing a shirt, which meant the black metal frame of his exoskeleton was on full display. Like a spider attached to his back, the exoskeleton latched into Mox’s limbs, a series of flexible joints and electric motors. Mox himself leaned over the shelf, browsing through something on the console.

“Get your gear on, we’ve got a special job,” Davin said by way of announcing himself.

Mox twitched, looked at the captain. Before Mox swiped away the image on the console, Davin caught a glimpse. A news piece with a familiar title. Not the first time he'd seen Mox looking at that one. An attack on Luna, the main city on Earth’s moon, years ago.

“Doing what?” Mox replied, his voice a lava flow, slow and thick.

“Escorting some VIPs. I think it’s for Eden. You’ve got thirty minutes, and we’re going hot.”

“I’ll be ready.”

Davin turned to leave, then paused.

“I’m going to need you here,” the captain said. “Not thinking about her.”

Mox matched Davin’s look. Didn’t blink.

“I’ll be fine,” the metal man said. Davin left Mox with that. Davin couldn't stop Mox from crawling through his past. Problem was that Mox was doing it more and more these days. Wrapped up in things he couldn’t change. At least this escort could be a distraction.

Opal was aft, near the engines. Davin found her working with Trina, tearing apart the housing on one of the four main thrusters designed to push ionized gas out behind the Whiskey Jumper when she made her escapes to orbit. The juxtaposition of the two, Opal, the strapped veteran, taking commands from Trina, the grease-ball mechanic caught in cords, tool belts and goggles made Davin laugh.

“It’ll get us another one percent boost on initial acceleration,” Trina was saying, with every word spoken as though it was an experiment, examined and displayed on its own. “Should reduce our escape time from this rock to be less than a minute.”

“And how much did that cost?” Davin interrupted, disarming the comment with a grin.

“Oh, hey cap,” Trina replied, turning her oil-smudged face back to Davin. “Not much. Bought it myself, off my pay. If it works, you can buy it off me.”

“I hate it when you do that,” Davin said.

“You’re a bad liar, captain,” Opal ran her words tight, a flow between the ends and beginnings. She held a bunch of screws that’d been keeping the thruster’s access plate closed. “You ready for these yet?”

“Almost. Just have to reconnect the circuit,” Trina said, turning back to the cluster of wires hanging off the engine’s control panel. “Cap, you can’t be too mad. Bet I got these for half the price you would have.”

“Hey now,” Davin said. “I’m not that bad, am I?”

Both of the women gave him deadpan looks.

“Shoulda seen her, captain,” Opal said, setting the screws on Trina’s wheeled work cart. “Here’s this guy, sitting on a stock of these boosters thinking he’ll sell them to Eden—”

“Only Eden doesn’t use gas for their ships,” Trina continued.

“They’re all solar, electric now. So he’s stuck here with this cargo that he can’t sell. Thinks I don’t know that and wants to charge me double what they’re worth.”

“Trina says, you want to eat tonight? I’ll give you enough for dinner, and even a drink, cause I know you don’t even have that much,” Opal said, laughing.

Trina blushed, shrugged.

“Harsh,” Davin said, shaking his head.

“The guy broke down. It was pathetic, really,” Trina said. “But then I bought four to cheer him up.”

“Four that I’m going to wind up paying for,” Davin said. “Guess I can cut you some slack though, seeing as you keep the Jumper running so well.”

“Thanks, cap,” Trina replied.

“So what d’ya need, captain?” Opal asked. “Assuming you’re not stopping back here just to chat.”

“You and that rifle of yours,” Davin said. “We’ve got an escort, and it’s chancing to get unfriendly.”

5

Inspectors

Pain. With each step, the scratch of a nerve. Bending fingers, the tug of a joint. Feeling something against his skin every moment of every day. There were many sleepless nights. Still were, years after the procedure. Hundreds of Earth days since Mox planted himself on the slab and growled at the doctors to do it.

To plant bolts inside his skin, to lace every limb of his body with an electric-powered frame. To graft the wires through his spine. They’d offered to hide it. Bury it beneath skin and along bone. An operation with months of recovery, multiple stages, more money Mox didn’t have.

So Mox stood near the Jumper’s ramp and ran his hands along the meter-long pulse cannon. The weapon ran from the same batteries powering Mox’s exoskeleton, batteries that patterned around his waist in a series of small, thin boxes. Batteries that Mox charged nightly, that would get him through two days of use if he had to run them dry. The cannon could discharge over twenty bolts per second, not as fast as projectile weapons, but fast enough. Mox would never lack enough again.

Davin and Opal walked in, bearing their own, smaller, arms. Davin with his shotgun, Melody, and sidearms holstered at his hip. Opal carrying a sniper rifle, its barrel as long as Mox’s cannon, but with a thin scope attached. A lot of firepower for an escort job in this tiny base. Mox wasn't paid to understand. Only to shoot when ordered.

“Their ship’s coming into bay seven,” Davin said. “Let’s get walking.”

Down the ramp into bay three. They weren’t unloading cargo, so Mox wasn’t surprised to see the bay deserted. Big enough to hold a ship twice the Jumper’s size, Davin had negotiated for the solo space as part of the contract with Eden. The less people running around your ship, the fewer parts that went missing.

As it was, fuel pods, supply containers, and random junk cluttered the bay. If Eden Prime's dock master couldn’t fill the bay with ships, he was going to use it for storage.

“Haven’t seen you use that since Titan,” Opal said to Mox, nodding at the cannon. “Careful you don’t blow a hole in this place.”

“Davin said heavy,” Mox replied.

“I’m saying that for what they’re paying, they’re either paranoid or know something isn’t right,” Davin said.

“No Merc?” Mox asked when the Jumper’s ramp closed behind them. The stick jockey was usually part of their ground team, or flying cover in the Wild Nine’s lone space fighter, a Viper.

“He was on overnight,” Opal said. “Has it again tonight. I know I don't want him shooting when he's half asleep.”

“Agreed,” Mox said.

Stretching along behind the bays was a wide corridor meant for shuttling goods and people. Mox walked behind Opal and Davin, eyes scanning the back and forth movement of small skiffs, a seat or two and a flat bed.

Magnetic repulsion kept the skiffs afloat, signals activating magnets in front as the skiff passed over them and deactivating as it passed to keep from messing with people walking the halls. Of which there were always plenty; merchants, mechanics, and various service bots. Obstacles to be dodged. Or to be kicked out of the way.

The walk meant passing bays four and five, which were in-and-outs. Ships landed, dropped cargo, fueled, and left within a few hours. Skiffs lined up at the gates to deposit or receive cargo. Eden Prime was a taker, needing everything to keep itself alive.

Mox glanced at one skiff going by, its back end laden with crates colored for fruits and vegetables. Less of those lately. Gardens were online now, growing produce with water gathered from Europa's melting surface ice.

“Mako!” Davin called as the trio walked by bay six, one of a few privately owned bays on the small base. As Mox looked at the towering piles of parts, organized in a way he couldn’t untangle, a helmeted head poked itself around a column of pipes and waved.

“Davin?” Mako replied, stepping around the column and extending his scrawny, pale hand for a shake. “What’re you doing this deep?” Mako took them in, lifted the goggles from his eyes and whistled. “And ready for action.”

“A job,” Davin said, then waved his arms. “Your place is messier than usual.”

Mako turned and gestured at a ship behind the junk piles. A cargo hauler from a generation before the Jumper, the hulking series of spheres was being dismantled by a horde of small robots, scratching and tearing at various pieces and hauling the scraps to different piles.

“You see that?” Mako said, squinting at Davin. “Business is good. You ever see this place clean, you’ll know I’m done. What job?”

“You’re going to have a neighbor,” Davin said.

“Five? You know that’s an in-and-out.”

“Seven,” Mox announced. “And soon.”

“Seven?” Mako said. “Rare day that seven gets filled. Only Eden corporate, or big shots.”

“Any idea who might be coming in?” Davin asked.

Mako shrugged, looking like a puppet on strings, given how light the man was. Mox felt a tug on his frame and glanced. One of the salvage bots, poking at his leg. Mox kicked it away. Mako’s eyes followed the stumbling droid, tracking back to Mox, and then looking away. Mox saw the man gulp. Fear. Mox supposed that was the intended reaction.

“Maybe if you kept your ears out of that junk pile,” Opal said. “You’d catch wind of things.”

“All I know is what comes in pieces,” Mako said. “And the parts are selling fast. Most of it to our fearless leader, Marl.”

“What’s she want?” Davin asked.

“No idea. Don’t care,” Mako said. “I mean, should I . . .?”

Davin sighed, pressed a few keys on his comm. Mako’s own unit beeped and the junk vendor looked at it with a wide grin.

“It’s energy stuff, and shelter gear,” Mako said. “Like she’s planning on expanding, but not with Eden’s help. A new group of people.”

Davin glanced at Mox and Opal, but neither one had any ideas. Eden, the super-massive company that was investing in the base, had plenty of coin and supplies to expand Eden Prime as much as they wanted. Marl, the base’s director, shouldn’t have to go scrap hunting.

“Seeing as I just paid you for that crap,” Davin said. “You give us a heads up if it looks like something strange is heading towards bay seven.”

“Like you three?” Mako laughed. None of them joined him. “Sure, yeah. You see one of my scrap bots roll by, expect company.”

Then Mako went to a pile of small lift jets and dove in, digging. Conversation over. Davin walked out and Opal followed. Mox took one look back at the busy bay, bots building piles of scrap to sell. Tried to picture himself doing that job, sorting through junk for anything good. Couldn’t. Mox tested the grips on the cannon as he stepped back into the hallway, firm and ready. His weapon far from belonging in those heaps.

The gate into bay seven was unlocked. Mox glanced to the left, at the blank stretch of blue-tinted wall across from the gate. In there, somewhere, was a camera. More in the halls. Anyone thinking to get fast-fingered with someone else’s stuff would be filmed, found, and flung off the moon. Davin held up his comm to the scanner alongside the door which beeped an affirmative.

Bay seven appeared as the gate slid open, vast and empty. No crates, no power cells. As the trio stepped into the bay, Mox felt his neck itch. The walls shifted, slid in his vision. He’d been here before, or somewhere like it.

Mox knew what was about to happen. Past memories too strong to let die. Knew it, and could not stop it.