TWENTY-TWO: Ready to die
Foxe felt it—a shudder in the deck beneath his boots. He shot a look at Frique. “What was that?”
Frique’s hairless scalp was glistening with sweat as he helped Foxe move Rumav’s limp body through the passageway. They’d thrown a green gown around the kid; his skin was still slippery from the fluids in the crèche, but he was walking—actually, Rumav was stumbling like a wounded drunk with their arms around him. The single being they’d encountered while making their way here, a customer of Morine’s, didn’t care what they were doing. He just walked away muttering about costs, and Foxe felt relieved at not having to shoot him.
The docking junction was down at the end of this corridor. Just a dozen more meters—
An alarm began booming around them before the shaking stopped.
“Shista,” Frique said. “Hull breach.”
“ATTENTION! STATION WILL LOCK DOWN IN THIRTY SECONDS! STATION WILL—”
Then the voice ceased as if a knife had cut it. The alarm stopped. What the—
Frique dropped Rumav into Foxe’s arms. “We’ve got to get out of here.” Rumav groaned as Foxe caught him. His eyes flicked with confusion and fear, then closed again.
“Wait!” Foxe tried to grab at the tech but Frique slipped away. Before Foxe could lower Rumav safely to the deck he felt a different pounding under his feet. Running.
“Wait!” He lunged forward and snatched Frique’s ankle. They fell to the deck and Frique rolled over, kicking frantically at Foxe.
The pounding drew closer. Foxe glanced up over his shoulder and saw the two Udorian males who wanted a son. Their names were Clayte and Tenner, and they running like panicked urfallo down the passageway. One of the big Udorians kicked Foxe’s leg by accident as he ran past. The other one jumped over Frique’s arm.
Good—distraction. He nudged Frique with his boot. “Move! Fast!”
He lugged Rumav down the passageway. Ahead in the junction, he could see the security andy struggling with the two Udorians. Big as they were, the andy could have taken both of them down in a few seconds if Tenner hadn’t wrapped himself around its trunk, pinning its arms down so it couldn’t fire the pulsers installed beneath its synthskin. The side of his face was bleeding, though—the andy must have gotten off at least one shot too soon.
Clayte clutched its head, twisting it from side to side. That rarely worked—most androids had their primary processing units mounted inside their torsos. But that didn’t matter to Foxe as long as they kept the andy distracted. Most beings thought androids were invincible and indestructible, thanks to the marketing techniques of their Murrani manufacturers. But Foxe had fought them often enough to know where the vulnerable points were.
But just as Frique reached the junction area, two more andys popped from a compartment inside a bulkhead, darting forward in search of targets. “Get down!” Foxe shouted.
A bolt of plasma spurted from one android’s palm, hitting Clayte in the back. The Udorian screamed as his shirt and skin burned away but somehow kept his grip tight around the andy’s head. Tenner ducked his face behind the andy’s body, howling in rage.
Frique flattened himself on the deck. With a quick, “Sorry, kid,” Foxe dropped Rumav and dove toward the second new android. He skidded past its legs and jabbed a fist up into its back, at the base of where a human spine would be. He felt a metal disc beneath the synthskin and punched again, and the andy froze.
Not for long—the android would reroute its control systems in a second, but the interruption in signal flow gave Foxe enough time to shove it against the other andy, knocking its arm away from its aim on Tenner. Foxe kicked himself forward and slammed against the two andys as hard as he could. Pain lanced his shoulder but his push knocked both off their feet and onto the deck with twin thuds. “Get the kid!” he shouted to Frique.
Looking for Rumav, he saw Clayte slowly collapse, toppling to the deck like a fallen skywood tree. Clayte stared down at Tenner’s body, his arms still wrapped around the andy’s torso, and howled in rage.
Keep screaming, Foxe thought as he grabbed the rising arm of one andy and rammed the heel of his boot down into the other one’s chest. He felt the andy’s primary system drive crack, and its head flopped to the deck as Foxe jumped to his feet. But the other android rose up at the same moment, both arms thrust forward as if intent on crushing Foxe’s body in a lethal embrace.
Foxe lowered his head and pushed himself forward between the android’s outstretched arms before it could fire a blast from its murderous pulsers. Hit it, he thought as he reached around the andy’s waist and jabbed his fingers at the control disc in its back. His blow connected; nothing happened. Damnit to hellcore! The machine had already rerouted its control after observing Foxe’s tactics with its partner.
Foxe dropped flat and pushed at the andy’s knees. One foot shifted slightly. He shoved again and the andy fell, crashing to the deck, plasma surging wildly from its palms. Heart racing, Foxe hurled himself on top of it, slamming both fists down at the secondary control unit inside the killing machine’s chest. Come on, damn it, shut down! It raised an arm and Foxe twisted his head, feeling the plasma sear the back of his neck as he stabbed downward again. This time something crumpled beneath his knuckles and the andy’s arms dropped.
He saw Frique dragging Rumav toward an airlock and felt a rush of relief. Just a few more seconds to safety. Tenner was kneeling next to Clayte’s body, a screeching wail keening from his throat. Poor bastard . . ..
More footsteps pounded the deck. Foxe staggered to his feet, legs aching, and turned to face the next rush of security forces. But the beings hurtling into the junction weren’t security. He saw a young station tech, face pink with fear, shoving his way past two more human customers who were half-dressed and gasping for breath as they ran. More followed behind them. Foxe could almost smell their desperation. Lockdown or not, these beings wanted off the station, and a tether connection couldn’t hold their ships.
A bear-built security guard called Borr shoved a human female and lumbered through the throng. Foxe braced himself for an attack. But Borr wasn’t interested in him, or in slowing the stampede. His eyes were tight slits as he scoped the area for the nearest open airlock. Getting out, like the rest of them.
One of the fallen andys tried to lift an arm; Borr glared at it and slapped his comsol, and the android’s eyes went dark. He blinked at Foxe, veered away from him, but Foxe tripped him with a quick kick and he went skittering across the deck, clawing for his pulser.
Foxe planted a boot in the center of the guard’s broad back and whipped the cable from his arm. He slung it around Borr’s throat and pulled until he heard desperate gasps for air.
“What’s going on?” He twisted the cable viciously. His voice shook as he repeated: “What’s going on?”
“Attack,” he grunted. “Mines—all over. They’re going to blow the station. Some piece of material—they want—let me go!”
Foxe tightened the cable. The guard screamed as Foxe slipped Borr’s pulser from its holster.
“Who do they want?” He pressed the weapon against the back of Borr’s skull, charging it up with a flick of his thumb.
“I don’t know! Material . . . in an escape pod, thirty minutes. And someone named—”
“Foxe!” It was Frique, standing at the airlock. “Which tether?”
Before Foxe could answer, Borr slid his arms beneath his body and thrust himself backward, up from the deck. The sudden move gave the cable around his throat some slack, and he twisted, trying to scramble free.
Foxe dropped the cable and jumped back, knocking into a Ustalli’s flailing tentacles as it scuttled toward the airlocks. He aimed the pulser at Borr’s body.
“Foxe,” Borr whispered, his voice raw. “You skullfucking son of—” Still straining for breath, he lunged for Foxe.
Foxe shot him in the chest. Borr stopped, his feet slipping on the deck, and his face grew pale. “You—slimesucker . . ..” He closed his eyes and fell, clutching his chest, and rolled onto his side, curling up like a bug trying to protect itself. Borr’s shoulders shuddered, then went limp, and he was dead.
Idiot. Foxe turned, peering through the growing crowd of desperate beings trying to flee. Clients abandoning their dreams of genetically-manipulated children, station crew just as frantic to leave Leda to its fate, security guards shooting through anyone unlucky enough to stumble in their path, and at least one crèche refugee, naked and dripping, staggering with hazy eyes. Shouts of rage mixed with loud weeping and fists pounding at the airlock hatch. Foxe smelled the different odors of sweat and excrement from the cascade of frightened beings, caught the scent of alcohol and a whiff of perfumed pheromones, but most of all he smelled fear. Death. Desperation. All because of me, he thought, suddenly angry. What did Shrinn want with him? Why was he so important now?
A security guard shoved his way to the andy’s desk and began pressing keys. In a moment the airlock hatch began to rotate, and the cluster of bodies tightened into a knot as each being fought to be first through the opening. Foxe saw a pair of shoulders push forward, scraping the sides of the hatch; another body fall to the side, screaming as the crowd crushed him against the bulkhead in their desperation to escape.
He realized he was looking for Val in the churning mess of beings. But she wasn’t coming. They had to leave. Now. He spotted Frique, looking angry and scared, his hands hooked under Rumav’s arms and his hairless skin slick sweat. Foxe ran toward them, pushing two beings in Leda uniforms out of his path.
He pointed to the open lock. “Third tether. Get him in there and bring the systems online.” He blinked, bringing back the access code Val had set up for him. “It’s Omega 357 Epsilon, slash Foxe. F-O-X-E. Go! I’m right behind you.”
Frique glared at him. His arms were trembling with fatigue and his face was close to total panic. But Foxe’s order, and the hope of getting free of the station, gave him a final jolt of energy. He lurched toward the lock. “Come on, boy. At least the tether will be zero-gee.”
Foxe took one last look up the passageway. No Val. Damn it. Damn it to hellcore.
“Are you coming?” Frique barked.
How much time did she have? Not enough. Not nearly enough.
“Are you any kind of a pilot?” Foxe asked.
“I can handle a NavBoard. I ran the bridge on the last ship when the boss—why are you asking . . . ?”
“Wait ten minutes for me,” he heard himself say. “Then leave if I’m not there. Set the NavBoard for Riskannon, it’ll be in the database. Take him.” He patted Rumav’s arm.
“What are you going to do?” Frique demanded.
Everything seemed clear now; his mind was quiet, his muscles relaxed despite the distant thump of pain in his shoulder and his neck. It was the kind of peace he only felt when he got ready to die.
“You get going,” he said.
Without another word, Frique began dragging Rumav toward the airlock.
Foxe forced a deep breath into his body, letting it focus him. No time for anger. Thirty minutes. Fifteen by now. Time was sliding down the event horizon. “Damn it to hellcore,” he muttered.
Foxe launched himself against the surge.
Val trembled as she fought the pleasure rippling through her body. No, no, go, don’t let it— And then the sensations vanished.
The sudden emptiness made her scream.
She’d been tortured by Lakach bandits with dull knifes and rough rope. Still had those scars. Llanos Cartel dealer had skulljacked her brain, locking her mind in cold silence that seemed to last for centuries. She’d been threatened with gang rape by the Dragonlords of the Eighth Order, but fortunately the First Lord needed almost six days to achieve a full erection, and she’d managed to escape while his massive organs—three of them—were still limp. But the fear had taken root in her memory.
Through it all, she’d survived because she could endured pain and fear and stay sane. She could handle torture, at least for a while.
But this wasn’t pain. And—kitt!—she didn’t want to escape it.
Every time Azid withdrew the claw from her arm the pleasure stopped, and she felt as if she was falling into a pit of frustrated desire with no bottom. Her rational mind was a whisper in a thunderstorm of physical need. She had to tell him. She couldn’t. She wanted to. She would—she knew that. Sooner or later . . . sooner . . . now! No. Yes! She’d talk. She’d do anything. But no, she had to wait. Give Foxe as much time as possible, a chance—
“You want to answer,” Azid urged. His voice was soft, soothing.
“Yes,” she said.
“Then tell me. And you can have it all.”
She took a deep breath. “I—I told you,” she grunted. “Ben tried to rape me. I just wanted to see the crèche . . ..”
He hissed sadly. “No more pleasure, then.”
She wanted to beg him to touch her again, but instead she clenched her teeth, gasping in frustration. The intake of air in her throat cleared her mind a little. Just enough to cut a line between her desire for more pleasure and her conscious judgment. The longer he held off—the more he denied what she ached for, damn it, she wanted it!—the easier it would be to keep fighting. Without the surge of pleasure from his claw she wouldn’t have to face the crushing disappointment that came when he pulled it back. In a few minutes she might get more pleasure, enough to make it—
The door slid open, and Val cursed silently. An interruption meant she’d have to wait longer for Azid to touch her again, to give her—No! Kitt! She hunched forward and took another deep breath, resting her face in her hands. At least they hadn’t restrained her yet. Azid was armed, and by now she was too helpless with lust to think about breaking free. What did Morine want?
Go away, Val thought. Let me take it once more. Please.
Azid stepped back, and his arm slipped back to its normal length. “We‘re very close—”
Azid stepped back, and his arm slipped back to its normal length. “We‘re very close—”
Morine’s eyes burning with dark fire. Her biomech fingers looked like daggers. “Who are you?” she demanded. “And Foxe? Who?”
“What?” Val blinked, sincerely confused.
Azid’s eyestalks twitched. “What’s going on?”
“They’re bombing Leda!” She looked ready to claw Azid. “My Leda! Antimatter mines!”
“Gods and demons . . ..” Half his eyestalks flicked toward the door.
She yanked the nerveblade from Azid’s belt. Fingers curled tightly around the handle, she marched toward Val’s face. “What was in that crèche?”
“I don’t know what—” Was?
“Where did you take it? That material, where is it?” She activated the blade, creating a thin silver beam that glittered from its handle.
Where . . . ? Rumav was out of the crèche? How?
Foxe. Of course. He’d done something right. Probably an accident.
Val shook her head. “I just don’t know—”
Morine stabbed the nerveblade at Val’s eye.
She remembered that they hadn’t closed the chair’s restraints. Her arms were free. She reacted by instinct, blocking Morine’s arm and pushing the beam off target. Morine stumbled back, reaching for her dartwand, her face choked with rage. But Azid stepped forward at the same moment and they collided. It gave Val just the chance she needed.
Pushing off from the chair, she launched a high kick that connected with Morine’s shoulder. Morine fell back into Azid’s arms. With a curse the Venzoid shoved her away, reaching down for one of the neutron pistols strapped to his leg.
Val jerked forward, hitting Azid’s chest with her bent arm. She tackled him to the deck, and his roar of anger shook her body. The breath from his belly smelled like spoiled protein cubes and fried eggs. She grabbed at his wrist as he fumbled for the neutron weapon, and slammed his hand down against the deck. The weapon skittered away, but Azid brought another arm around and punched her face like a hammer. Stars exploded in her eyes, yellow and white, and the blow rocked her. She shoved down on Azid’s chest and thrust herself to her feet, snapping her heel down on another one of his three hands as it clutched at a flechette pistol on his other leg.
Morine had her dartwand in her fist. “All right, bitchlicker,” Morine growling, breathing heavily. “Stop it right now—”
The blast from the door caught Val by surprise. Morine never saw it—a bolt of plasma that burned into her spine. She opened her mouth, tried to scream, but she dropped before her lungs could draw the last breath she needed. Her biomech hands flinched, searching for signals from her brain, but she was already so close to dead that her fingers could do nothing but clench empty air.
Foxe stood in the doorway.
Blood on his sleeves, sweat on his face. His eyes flicked across Val’s body for injuries, and his gaze made her feel . . . warm.
Then he turned his weapon and shot Azid as he scrambled across the deck. The blast incinerated his eyestalks, and then he pumped a second bolt into the gaping mouth in the Venzoid’s belly. An odor worse than the stench of his breath burst in the air, and a puddle of fluid spread in a black sticky circle around his body.
Foxe waved an arm. “Come on.”
Val looked down at Azid with a stab of regret for the pleasure she’d never receive from him. Disgusted with herself, she leaned down for Azid’s neutron pistol. “Well, you've screwed up everything.”
“Yeah. I could see them begging for mercy. We’ve got maybe eight minutes before—”
“I know. Who is it? Shrinn?”
“Probably. I killed some of his people back on Crystal Rendezvous. Didn’t think he’d take it so—”
“Where’s Rumav?” She jumped around the pool spreading around Azid.
“Your ship. Probably in D-space by now.”
“You gave him my ship?”
“Him and a tech named Frique, and I trust him less than a leechworm, but I had to get Rumav out of here as fast as I could if I was going to—” He cut off his words.
“Rescue me?” The skin of her face felt suddenly warm, and one of her legs twitched. Probably just the aftereffects of Azid’s pleasure torture. “Remind me to thank you. I might forget.”
“Buy me a drink sometime. Let’s get out of here.” He peered through the doorway. “Clear. Everyone’s fighting their way off.”
She came up behind him. “Then let’s find another ship fast.”
“Oh, good thinking.” He pointed down the passageway. “There’s a docking port that direction. Come on.”
Pain ripped through her leg like a jagged knife. Mother of suns! Her knee buckled and she tumbled forward, cursing more in surprise than pain. Foxe whirled around, and the expression on his face scared her more than any of Morine’s threats had.
One of Azid’s arms was trembling centimeters above the floor, clutching a flechette weapon that spit a stream of small metallic darts across the room. Some hit the ceiling, some sank into Morine’s flesh. Foxe’s arm moved like a whip, and the pulser flashed. Val saw the small shooter roll across the deck, but Foxe kept firing, one pulse after another, his jaw clenched tight, his eyes cold and pale.
When he stopped, Azid’s body was a lump of charred black tissue. Foxe knelt next to her, breathing hard, and ran his hand over the wound in her leg. Blood seeped onto his fingers.
“Think he’s dead now,” Val said, her teeth tight, willing the medplant in her body to dull the pain. Sometimes it worked.
“We don’t have time to get the darts out. Can you walk?”
“I can handle a little pain.” She pushed against the deck and stood, her leg steady. “Let’s go.”
“Are you all right?” He showed more concern than she’d ever seen in him.
“Don’t have time.” Her first step toward the door was a stagger; the second one was smoother.
He fired another blast at Morine’s corpse and whispered an insult she didn’t catch, then followed her into the passageway.
Her walking improved with each step, but she knew they’d have to pull the flechettes out soon. The medplant could only delay infection for a few hours. Of course, they could both be dead in a few minutes. That clarified priorities.
She reached a turn in the corridor, but Foxe gripped her shoulder. “Wait,” he whispered.
“Sure. We’ve got time unlimited.”
Foxe ignored her as he crouched and leaned around the corner. “Okay. Come on.”
Around the turn they stepped through an opening onto a nine-meter square platform. A vertical shaft extended several hundred meters above and below them. Chest-high rails guarded the platform’s edge, but they swung open on either corner. A lift on one corner and a ladder opposite allowed beings to reach airlock hatches that were spaced every thirty meters up and down the shaft. Most of the hatches were wide open—someone had obviously overcome the lockdown protocols here, too. Those ships had sailed. Three were shut and locked, two above them and one below.
Foxe pushed the railing open to the lift. “Go up. I’ll cover us.”
“They took my handcomp.” Its hackware was state of the art, but the security andy had taken it away before shoving her into the interrogation room. Opening a hatch without access codes in the time they had was a roll of the dice—one roll, live or die.
He patted the gameplayer clipped to his belt. “All right—you cover us.” He stepped onto the lift.
He patted the gameplayer clipped to his belt. “All right—you cover us.” He stepped onto the lift.
Footsteps. She lifted Azid’s neutron pistol. “Foxe . . .”
“Right.” He moved from the lift as two beings raced through the doorway onto the platform. One was human, male, red-faced and gasping from fear and exertion. Behind him came a gray-skinned Narixian female, her face calm, as if she were only late for afternoon tea.
They skidded to a halt as they saw the weapons pointed at them. The red-faced human looked ready to pass out. “Wha—what . . ..”
“Take us on your ship,” Foxe said.
The Narixian stiffened her spine. “That’s imp—”
Foxe shot her before she could finish the word. The blast hit her in the middle of the chest, and she staggered back one step as if trying to escape. Then she dropped flat on her face, one arm dangling over the shaft.
The human looked from Foxe to Val and then back. “You didn’t have to—”
“Shut up,” Val ordered. Part of her agreed with him, but mostly, she realized, she was just glad Foxe wasn’t wasting time. “Just take us.”
“All right, just a second . . .” He reached for his belt. Foxe caught his arm and jammed the pulser into his neck.
“Tricks get you killed,” he growled.
They crowded onto the lift. “What’s your name?” Val asked as they ascended.
“Lars. L-Lars Highcliffe. This is—they won’t—”
“Just get us on your ship,” Foxe said. “We’ll worry about your friends.”
The lift came to a stop at the second closed hatch. Foxe pushed Highcliffe onto a narrow ledge. “You know what to do.”
Highcliffe’s hands trembled, but he slipped a keychip from his pocket and pushed it into the slot. Time was running out for all of them. He tapped the entry code with quick fingers
The hatch popped outward and they crammed into the airlock. A secondary station hatch stood open, but the ship’s own hatch just behind it was closed, a blinking red light warning of imminent departure. Highcliffe punched in another code, breathing so hard Val was afraid he’d hyperventilate.
The ship hatch remained shut. Highcliffe entered the code again, and then pushed a button above the pad. “It’s me! Lars! Open up!” He began tapping the entry code again, his fingers frantic.
“Highcliffe?” The voice was impatient. No surprise there. “What the nine hells—get on board! Where’s Pillek?”
“She’s—” He flinched as Foxe pushed the snout of the pulser into his back. “Security andys. They got her. Let me in!”
“Come on!” The hatch swung inward.
Foxe shoved him forward. Highcliffe tripped against the foot of the hatch and sprawled across the deck with a whimper. Before Val could follow, Foxe pushed her to one side and opened fire, spraying plasma across the entryway. She heard a loud curse. When it faded into a groan, Foxe glanced at her and then stepped over Highcliffe’s legs into the ship.
“Okay,” he said. “Come on.”
Inside a human male lay on the deck, bleeding from his left side but still alive and moaning. The entryway was a small, narrow space, with monitors on the bulkheads for atmosphere, pressure, temperature, and other factors. A storage compartment was marked “Exo.”
“Cover the door.” Foxe hauled Highcliffe through the hatch. Val ignored the wounded human’s gasps of pain as Foxe secured the hatch, her eyes and ears on the passageway beyond.
“Arno? Is Lars on board?” The voice came from a comm unit in the bulkhead.
“Answer,” Foxe ordered.
“I’m here! Let’s go!” Highcliffe shouted.
“Hatch reads secure. Detaching in fifteen . . . what the nine hells is that?”
She looked at Foxe. He shrugged, and kicked Highcliffe’s arm. “Get us to the bridge. Now.”
He got to his feet faster than Val expected, still panting anxiously, and scampered through the inner hatch as if expecting Foxe to shoot him in the back. Not an unreasonable worry, she thought. The man was ruthless. It scared her—and made her feel a little more secure. And feel . . . not now! Kitt!
She felt engines humming beneath her shoes, and the slight shudder of the ship pulling away from the docking clamps. The passageway was empty, and its pale yellow walls needed fresh paint. Highcliffe stumbled once but Foxe caught him, and after huffing and puffing for a few dozen meters he stopped and pointed to a step of steps. “Up there.”
They’d hear his words. She expected a shout, or at least a hello, but before she could wonder about the bridge crew’s lack of curiosity Foxe hammered up the steps, pulser high in his hand.
Her leg stabbed her as she hopped up after him. Another pulser blast burst in the air, but no cries of pain answered it. When she reached the small circular bridge she saw four beings standing at different stations and a burning hole in one chair.
The size and shape of the bridge told her they were on a Cougar-class transport, not much larger than her yacht. Where was her yacht? She sent that thought away as she looked over the crew. Two humans, one male and one female, and a Rann-dishii, all of them more concerned with their boards than with Foxe’s attack.
At the command board a tall being stood, eyes stretched wide with anger. His blue face looked familiar.
“Who the fugue are you?” he demanded, and although she’d never heard the voice before she realized where she’d seen him now.
Tadori. That Tadori. “Quili’s Fire,” she said.
“Does that matter?” Foxe pointed his weapon. “Station’s going to blow. Let’s go!”
The Tadori’s skin darkened from blue to black as his anger grew. Then it faded as he examined the pulser. His eyes began to shrink back to a calm, normal radius. “Skrag your soul,” he hissed, then turned to the Rann-dishii at the NavBoard. “Detach and prepare for transition.”
“Skrag his soul,” the Rann-dishii agreed, but he began entering commands into the board.
“Hey, we’ve got a tag.” This came from a human on the SurveyBoard with sweat on the back of his skinny neck.
Shrinn, obviously. “Dump it,” Val said. “Scour your hull—”
“that’ll take ten minutes, maybe more. Are we going to wait here for the station to go nova?”
“Let’s deal with that later,” Foxe snapped. “Get us off the station now.”
“All right,” the Tadori said, his face tense.
“Is your Forward drive online?” Foxe asked.
“Of course, but—”
“Then transition. Right now.”
“You can’t be serious,” the Tadori said. “We’re right next to Leda.”
“Do you defectives want to get blown up?” Val jabbed a finger toward the hatch. “Any second now we’ll lose any chance we have of getting out of here.”
Foxe smiled. “Better do what she says.”
“Skrag both your souls,” the Tadori said. “Begin the matrix sequence. Pillek—”
“She’s dead,” Highcliffe said, looking at Foxe.
The Tadori looked ready to leap forward at Foxe, pulser or no pulser, but he restrained himself with an effort. “Tiki . . ..”
“Beginning matrix sequence,” the female said.
The ship suddenly lurched. Val tumbled to the deck, cursing, and almost lost the neutron pistol.
“The station is going,” the human male said.
“Do it!” Foxe ordered.
The ship seemed to roll, and Val’s stomach churned with the familiar sensation of transition to D-space. The whirling, twisting confusion inside her body lasted longer than it should have, and for a moment she was certain something had gone wrong—the mine hadn’t been repelled, or Leda had blown too soon, or the matrix had missed an atom of matter or antimatter in its field. She was going to die. Kitt!
Then they were through. Val opened her eyes, and saw Foxe standing over her, whispering something with urgent intensity. He stopped when she took a breath, and his face relaxed.
“You all right?”
“Just fine.” She sat up, and the ship spun around her again, but it was just pain mixed with relief.
“Pathway stable,” Tiki said.
Foxe’s arm jerked up, the pulser pointed at the Tadori. “Don’t try anything. Tricks get you killed.”
“He killed Pillek,” Highcliffe said. “And he shot Arno, I don’t know if he’s—”
“Shut up. Everyone on the deck, face down. Now!”
The Tadori knelt, but his face remained defiant. “I know you. Crystal Rendezvous, I saw you—”
“Ancient history,” Foxe said. But she could hear the anger in his voice. Quili’s Fire had brought Rumav here. Brought them here. Brought Shrinn. “Just stay out of my way and nobody else has to get hurt.”
“What about Arno?” Highcliffe was on the deck, hands behind his back.
“The sooner you’re secure, the quicker I can check on him. Speaking of . . . .”
He swept the pulser across the bridge. “How many more on board?”
No one answered. They didn’t look ready to die, exactly, but they were trying their best to show him that they hadn’t surrendered yet.
Foxe fired a burst of plasma into the deck next to Tiki’s foot. “There’ll be one less in two seconds,” he said. “Who’s in the engine room? Who runs Forward drive?”
“That was Pillek’s job,” Highcliffe muttered.
“A ship this type wouldn’t need a big crew,” Val said.
Val grabbed the edge of a chair and pulled herself up. Her leg buckled, and swung the chair around to plant her butt in it.
She wanted to sleep. Now that life seemed a little more permanent, the pain neutralizers were making her drowsy. But they had too much work to do. Check the Forward drive’s parameters to make sure the matrix was stable. Examine the NavBoard to determine the pathway and take control of the ship once they transitioned. Sweep the ship systems for traps.
“Keep an eye on them while I look for a brig.” He pointed to her neutron pistol. “Don’t give anyone a chance to try anything. Don’t let them talk to each other, or you. Don’t be afraid to—”
“Not afraid of anything,” she said, her voice low.
He nodded. “Thanks. For taking care of the mine. I’ll take a look at your leg as soon as we’re secure.”
He nodded again. Something in his eyes that she hadn’t seen before. It hadn’t been there when Leda was about to explode. Looked like concern. Worry. For her?
Then he turned, and she heard a sigh. “Still alive,” he said.
Then he turned, and she heard a sigh. “Still alive,” he said.
He sounded almost disappointed.
“We’ll find him.” Val wondered why she felt the need to reassure him. Foxe was arrogant and annoying, but he could obviously take care of himself. “I can locate Gemstone anywhere in the galaxy.”
“I just hope Shrinn didn’t plant a mine of her.”
Did he just call Gemstone her? Foxe didn’t seem the type. But Val shook her head. “High-integrity hull mesh. It’ll detect any mine that attaches itself, even if it drills in. And throw it off.”
“Must be nice to be rich. What about tags?”
“Like that one said—” She gestured toward the SurveyBoard human. “Tags are small. Scouring takes time. He’ll be able to track her.”
“Then we’d better be fast.”
Val nodded. “Yeah. We better.”
Leda died in minutes.
The first SP-2s detonated in sequence, a ripple of miniature supernovas bursting across the station’s hull, tiny but destructive needles of energy flaring and then vanishing in less than a half-second. The structural forcefields collapsed, and sheets of oxygen shot from the long rupture, a steady stream of gas that expanded into thick billowing waves as the gash cracked across the station’s surface. Huge chunks of the hull ripped free, whirling into the vacuum.
Then the secondary mines fell inward through the long gap created by the SP-2s on the hull, and their explosions a moment afterward tore through the interior bulkheads and ignited the atmosphere inside. Fire roared silently through the decks, burning away the remaining oxygen as it tried to escape into the cold void. The walls began to break up, throwing off white-hot chunks of metal that whirled into space, quickly fading into black shadows against the dazzling brilliance of the nebula dust.
The ships surrounding the station fought desperately to engage their engines and gain a safe distance. Some made the D-space transition; others were destroyed, shattered by the debris spinning away from the center of the firestorm, spilling their machinery and inhabitants into oblivion.
In moments it was done. A few final bubbles of atmosphere coughed up out of the empty bulk. They dissipated in seconds, like a flickering meteor hurtling down from the night sky toward its rocky doom. Shards of the station began drifting away, dead rats floating on a roiling sea. Maybe a few compartments deep inside Leda remained pressurized; perhaps some of the crèches hadn’t been damaged; a few zygotes and fetuses might have survived inside their gestation tanks. But Leda was gone. In less than a standard day the Sorresana Nebula would be empty of life once again.
“The station is destroyed.” Mateon’s voice was quiet.
Silence dominated the deck. His crew had done their duty, but the complete destruction of a station full of living, sentient beings wasn’t something to celebrate. Even when it had to be done.
It had to be done.
“Begin a survey on the wreckage,” Shrinn ordered. Videos of a ruined station wouldn’t satisfy Darel, not without—
Declannes straightened his neck, looking nervous but determined. “Sir, I have an active tag from . . . Valeria Lynd’s vessel.”
An active tag meant—escape. How? “Where is the ship?” he demanded. This wouldn’t have happened with Lanesh here. Seven hells, could he depend on anyone to do their jobs?
“Teska-2,” Declannes said. “One hundred thirty light years . . .” His voice trailed off. “It’s gone again.”
Shrinn’s jaw trembled as he clenched. Damn it, he’d ordered—
“Tracking indicates the mine detonated less than a hundred meters from the station.” This came from Mateon. “Somehow the ship—it must have flung the mine free. They could have installed a defensive hull mesh that—”
“I’ve got it. Hawk Beta. Three thousand light years.”
“Someone could have stolen it.” Aje stood in the doorway. Watching.
“And detached the mine? Hacked their NavBoard in a matter of minutes?”
“The mine detection could have been automatic,” Mateon said.
“Not the NavBoard,” Declannes said. “I tried to access it with everything I’ve got. Without the right passwords, it’s solid. It’s got to be an evasive maneuver.”
“Maybe they’re injured,” Aje said. “They need time in D-space.”
Foxe would take Rumav straight back to Riskannon. Lynd’s ship was flitting randomly across the galaxy didn’t make any sense. Unless . . .
He stared at the shattered remnants of Leda on the screen. “Start the survey,” he ordered. “Keep tracking the ship. Keep my updated on its location. They may be trying to lead us away. We need to check the debris.”
“Yes, sir.” Declannes opened another window on his board.
“Let me know if the ship remains in any one place for longer than fifteen minutes.
Keep the Forward Drive online. I want to be ready for transition on my order.”
“Sir.” Declannes gave an affirmative nod.
Aje had gone. Maybe he disagreed with Shrinn’s orders. But Shrinn couldn’t go rushing through the galaxy on a pointless chase. Patience before swift action led to victory.
Aje understood that. They all did.