Phantom Bounty: Part One

Writer’s Note: Phantom Bounty: Part One was published originally in Jump Point 3.1.

Two hundred and sixty-five days. That’s how long they’d been hunting the Phantom. It seemed like they’d entered a thousand of these tiny, dark, hole-in-the-wall taverns, seeking leads from shifty informants, always just too far behind. Mila leaned against the metal prefab wall and tried to breathe through her mouth, but the scent of stale alcohol and vomit flooded her nostrils anyway.

Rhys stood at the bar, towering above the other patrons, his broad back all she could see as he haggled with the owner for information, likely bribing away the last of their meager credits. Her stomach churned just watching him. They had to be close this time. Because if they didn’t land that massive bounty soon, they wouldn’t be able to afford so much as a mug of this dive’s swill.

Mila ran a hand through her straight brown hair, and a toothless patron leered at her from his stool at the bar. She crossed her arms and shot him a challenging glare, which unnerved him enough that he looked away and took another swig of his drink.

A younger man with a ripped synth liavold-skin jacket and questionable hygiene inched his way up to the bar and stood off to the side, pulling on the silver hoop in his ear. Typical.

There was usually at least one lowlife in a place like this — wearing synth-skin of nearly extinct creatures. They thought it made them look badass, like they didn’t fear the law, like they were above it. Mila’s nails bit into her palms, and she forced herself to unclench her fists. He probably didn’t even know it was a fake. Real liavold skin never came in that shade of grey.

The lowlife stepped closer to Rhys, clearly trying to eavesdrop, and Mila pushed away from the wall to go run him off. But Rhys finished haggling before she made it to the bar, and he gestured at her toward the exit. Relieved, she followed him outside.

The yellow-white sun had finished its descent while she and Rhys had been inside the tavern, and one by one the century-old light globes running the length of Tevistal’s streets flickered on. A loud murmur echoed down the alleyway, voices in the night, evidence of the crowd that had been gathering a few streets over in the square to celebrate the new year.

Damn Traveler’s Day. Sure, the huge crowd afforded her and Rhys an easy way to blend in, but that went both ways. If they could stay low profile, then the Phantom could do the same, slipping away like always.

Rhys grabbed Mila’s arm as the tavern doors swung closed behind them, and she gazed up at him: at the sharp angles of his face, his tousled brown hair, at the rough beard he’d allowed to grow in as they’d chased the Phantom from system to system, barely sleeping.

Rhys’s green eyes were bright, glinting in the light of the globes as he leaned down close. Mila warmed at the look in them. If she was being honest, their recent sleepless nights had less to do with the Phantom and more to do with . . . other things. They had been sharing a bunk for almost a month now.

“Good news,” Rhys said. “Maybe.” A familiar smirk appeared on his face.

She cleared her throat. “Oh yeah? What did he say?”

“That we might actually catch our Phantom this time.”

Mila’s pulse quickened, and her hand involuntarily dropped to the laser pistol holstered beneath her jacket. “She’s here? Still in Tevistal?”

Rhys’s smirk faded, and he took Mila by the arm and led her down the alleyway toward the main street. “I want to believe it,” he said, keeping his voice low. “I paid the fixer his fee and . . .”

“And what?”

“He gave me an address to a hostel. RoomTab’s still clicking. Said he saw the Phantom yesterday.”

Yesterday. “Why do I hear a ‘but’ coming?”

Rhys halted as they exited the alley. “But I’m not sure we can trust him. It was all . . . too easy.”

Pressure grew in Mila’s chest, and she blew out a breath, surveying the crowd at the end of the globe-lit street. Rhys had solid instincts — one of the many reasons Mila had charmed the successful bounty hunter into forming a partnership with her. With his hunches and her tech skills, they made a great team.

“Well, what do you want to do?” she asked, a note of the desperation she felt seeping into her tone. “I think we should check it out. We need this.”

“I know.”

She met his eyes. “We don’t have a choice.”

“There’s always a choice.”

“We’re too close. I say we check this out.”

Rhys worked his jaw and finally nodded. He pushed up the sleeve of his jacket, revealing the mobiGlas strapped to his forearm, and swiped his finger along the flexible clear screen to bring up a street map of Tevistal. After a moment, he concluded, “The address isn’t far from here. Travel advisory says it’s a high crime area.”

Mila snorted and swept her arm around. “And this isn’t?”

Fetid pools of water had gathered in potholes from the last rains, and the low prefab buildings here were dirty and dented, nothing like the tall, sparkling skyscrapers that had grown up further from the docks as the city matured. If Tevistal had an armpit, this was it.

Rhys laid a heavy hand on her shoulder. “Doesn’t matter. Because you’re heading back to the ship. I’ll scout this out to see if it’s legit.”

“Like hell I am. No way.” Mila flared her nostrils and shrugged off his hand. “It’s dangerous. You need back-up.”

The Phantom had single-handedly attacked seven Phan Pharmaceutical research facilities in the past year and had managed to evade every agent of the law since. The UEE wanted the saboteur — dead or alive — on charges of terrorism, murder and armed robbery. Dangerous was an understatement.

“Let me scout it out,” Rhys repeated, his voice rough.

“We go together,” Mila responded through gritted teeth.

Rhys let out a low growl, but when it was clear Mila wouldn’t back down, he shook his head and started walking.

Mila released a breath and caught up to him. Rhys never would have suggested going alone before. He’d grown more cautious, more protective since they’d taken things to the next level. Controlling, even. It needed to stop, but right now wasn’t the time to address it.

The mobi directed them away from the crowds and deeper into the dockside slums. One cramped alleyway led to another, and the scent of burning garbage wafted over them as they passed homeless transients tending fires in front of scrap-metal lean-tos.

Hovers flew overhead, their lights illuminating the dark night as they ferried those who could afford it between the docks and the gleaming towers in the more affluent sections of the city. The soothing hum of their engines reminded Mila of another life, where she’d have been the one headed for better lodgings. But that old existence on Terra was long gone. And this — the chase, the hunt, taking down criminals with Rhys by her side — this was her life now. No regrets.

When Rhys’s mobi beeped to tell them they’d reached their destination, he deactivated it and drew his Arclight. “Down that alley. Building Two. Apartment Nine.”

Mila readied her own pistol and followed him into the dark alley. The prefab self-service “hostels” that filled this area were owned by investors who probably never set foot here. If you wanted to do something shady, this was the place for it.

Adrenaline flooded Mila’s body, making her pulse thrum faster. A cracked globe flickered above the low buildings, barely illuminating the letters engraved in the walls. She activated her pistol’s nightlight, but it didn’t help much.

A slow drip echoed from somewhere, and the only other sound was the pad of their boots on the pavement. Mila pointed her light at the nearest building and found the number etched in the side.

“One,” she said quietly.

A low rustle emanated from where she’d cast her light, and she and Rhys tensed. Metal hit metal, and Mila swung her weapon toward it. A skap tore out of the darkness and skittered across their path. Another dark shape, a blur of claws and fur, raced after the rat-like creature. As the predator and prey disappeared into the gloom, the skap let out a brief, interrupted shriek.

Mila released her breath with a shaky laugh. Maybe it was an omen. Maybe this would be the night she and Rhys finally caught their prey.

“Building Two,” Rhys said, shining his light on the building where the animals had headed.

Mila barely breathed as Rhys pushed open the outer metal door. It swung in on rusty hinges, creaking in the silence.

Dim globes lit up the space automatically, revealing a narrow corridor that was strewn with litter and stank of piss.

Mila darted a glance at Rhys. His eyes were narrowed, and that hint was enough for Mila to know he was worried.

“It’s too quiet,” Rhys murmured.

“Maybe it’s pickpocket-the-pilgrims night,” Mila responded, but her sarcasm didn’t ease the tension. Rhys was right. These prefab buildings had paper-thin walls, yet the place was dead silent. Not a good sign.

They walked a few more paces, and Rhys pointed his weapon at a door on the right. “Nine. Watch my back. I go in first.”

As he turned the knob, every muscle in Mila’s body went tight. The door swung open, unlocked, and the bright lights inside flooded the dimly lit hallway.

Rhys stepped through the door, and Mila’s jumpsuit suddenly felt too tight. Sweat dripped down her back as she scanned the other doors and kept an eye on the one they’d come in.

Rhys returned, finished with his sweep of the small space. His face was a blank mask. “Empty. RoomTab’s been hacked.”

Heat coursed through Mila. She let out a grunt and shoved past him and into the room. So close. Her throat thickened, and she fought the urge to punch a hole through one of the thin walls.

The room contained a low mattress and a metal folding table and chair. A partition separated the sink and toilet from the rest of the room, but other than that, the room had been stripped bare.

Mila whirled around to face the hacked payment scanner. Wires had been ripped out and reconnected in a knot, forcing the RoomTab system to keep the water running and the lights on without payment.

“Search the room,” Mila said, her voice hard. “You find so much as a hair, you save it.”

Rhys gave her a pained look. “You know we won’t.”

“I’ll check the scanner.” Mila clenched her jaw as she rolled up her sleeve to activate her mobiGlas and access the payment scanner.

She brought up the program she’d written to hack basic systems. Technically it was illegal to use a program like this, but she’d written it so she could bring criminals to justice, hadn’t she? She’d never use one of her programs to break the law.

“This was rigged less than twenty-four hours ago. We just missed her.” Mila disconnected her mobi and slammed a hand into the room’s thin metal wall. The whole thing shuddered in response. “We need to —”

“Mila.” Rhys’s sharp voice was a warning, and she turned to face him. The heat drained from her as she saw what he held in his hands. He’d turned the folding table over and part of it rested on his thighs. A small bundle was taped to the underside of it. It let out a low beep. Then another.


Mila’s pulse skyrocketed, roaring in her ears. She kept her eyes glued to Rhys, to the thinly masked fear on his face, and reluctantly backed out the door. It had happened too fast. They should have listened to Rhys’s gut on this.

She paused for a moment outside the unit’s door, indecisive, then turned and took off running down the corridor.

Reaching the outer door, she threw it open and glanced back to find Rhys hurtling toward her. They stumbled into the alleyway together as a deafening blast rocked the flimsy structure, and the shock wave knocked them both to their knees. Heat rushed over them and stole Mila’s breath away.

Mila stared down at the pavement, ears ringing as the shock faded.

Rhys recovered first, panting, and pulled a shaking Mila to her feet. He held her close and searched her face. “Are you all right?”

It took Mila a second to find her voice. “Yeah. You?”

“Fine.” Rhys glanced back toward the building. “Do you think anyone else was in there?”

“You know it was empty. We gotta get out of here. If we get stopped here, we’ll be wrapped up for a day or more in questioning.”

Rhys nodded, looking as dazed as she felt, and they jogged down the alleyway and back out to the street. The explosion had summoned a small group of the transients, and they openly gaped at Mila and Rhys as they ran by.

Red crowded the edges of Mila’s vision, and her anger mingled with an old, dark pain. They needed to bring the Phantom to justice. Had to. It was a need that overwhelmed logic, a need she couldn’t deny, and Mila probably would have chased the Phantom even if the bounty had been far lower.

It was all because of Casey, even if Mila tried to pretend it wasn’t. Casey Phan, kidnapped and murdered when they were sixteen. The inept police force had just let the killer get away. Watching that crime go unpunished was the reason Mila decided to work for justice. The reason she abandoned her family to become a bounty hunter.

Casey’s father owned Phan Pharmaceuticals, and seeing the Phantom blow up the facilities, kill Phan Pharm workers, steal research . . . it had rekindled all of Mila’s old memories. She’d take out the Phantom the way she’d never been able to take out the screwed up person who had stolen Casey away.

When Mila and Rhys were almost to the crowded square, she halted and wiped the sweat from her face, still breathing hard. She was dangerously close to losing it, and she wasn’t about to have a breakdown in front of all the revelers between them and their ship.

Rhys stopped when she did. “What is it?”

“That was a set-up,” Mila said, her voice breaking. “That fixer knew he was sending us to die. Everyone must have known it. Someone warned the rest of the tenants to get out.”

She swung her body around, seeking something, anything, to take her anger out on. She slammed the toe of her boot into a piece of scrap metal and sent it flying. A sharp pain coursed through her foot, but she gritted her teeth against it and tried to ignore the burning sensation in her eyes.

She let out a little guttural scream and turned back to Rhys, her hands clenched into tight fists. “We need to beat the kak out of that fixer until he gives us the truth.”

Rhys grabbed Mila by the shoulders and leaned down so his eyes were level with hers. “Calm. Down.”

“No!” Mila pushed him away with both hands, but he held her tight and didn’t let go. She blinked against the continued burning sensation in her eyes. “We need this bounty.”

Rhys shook his head. “If that fixer knowingly sent us to a trap, I’m not about to advertise we survived it. This is his turf. We’re at a disadvantage here. You should know that.”

“We were just so close,” Mila replied, her voice shaking.

Rhys loosened his tight hold on her. “I’m calling it, Mi. This isn’t worth getting blown up over. There are plenty of other bounties to go after.”

But none like this one. Hot anger lit a fire in Mila’s chest, and she shoved Rhys away. “Coward.”

Surprise flashed across his face, and he stiffened. “Don’t be an idiot. This isn’t about bravery, it’s about survival. You wanted to hunt this one, so I agreed. For you. It was always a long shot. We’ll survive off less until something else comes along. We’re done.”

“No,” Mila shoved Rhys again, and he stumbled back a step. “We’re finding the Phantom. And if you won’t help, I’ll keep searching by myself.”

“What is it about this case that you’re not telling me? You’ve never been this stubborn about any of the others. It’s like you’re not thinking clearly.”

Mila swallowed the lump in her throat and pushed past him so he couldn’t see the look on her face. She’d have to tell Rhys about her past someday . . . when she was ready. And today wasn’t that day.

“Mila.” Rhys was by her side again. “Tell me what’s going on.”

She took a deep breath as she turned toward him, struggling to get her roiling emotions under control. He really thought he was making the right choice. But he was wrong.

“The trail was cold before,” she said, trying to keep her voice even. “Whispers of the Phantom passing through, week-old transactions. Twenty-four hours, Rhys. Twenty-four! The Phantom was in that room a day ago. We can’t stop now. We need food. Devana needs maintenance and upgrades. And maybe . . . maybe after we finish this, we can take a break, right? Go to some pleasure planet, maybe Cassel . . . together.”

Her cheeks flushed at how her own words sounded, but Rhys’s eyes grew dark, and he cupped her chin in his callused hand and tilted her head up until their eyes met.

“One more time. We’ll try to find one more lead,” Rhys conceded, his voice rough. “But if we don’t . . . we can’t afford to keep ignoring other work for this bounty. So if the next lead doesn’t work out, promise me you’ll give it up.”

Mila pushed his hand away. “I’m sorry. But no. I can’t promise you that.”

The low hum of an approaching hover caught their attention, and they both looked up. Flashing lights. Local police.

“Let’s get lost in the crowd,” Rhys said. “But this conversation isn’t over.”

Mila pushed down her irritation and followed him. She’d convince him. Because they were not quitters.

They kept up a brisk pace until they were well into the main square, where the mass of people had gathered outside the Journeymen Hall. It was an interesting spectacle — a mix of normal-looking civilians and people dressed for the occasion. Some of these Travelers liked to mimic old Earth customs, more-so than those on Terra.

A cluster near Mila and Rhys wore silken cloaks and fantastic masks adorned with feathers. Another dozen had forgone the costumes, but their walking sticks were intricately carved and inlaid with gems and smooth stones. Another pair wore gold robes with masks carved to resemble predatory animals.

Rhys pushed through the crowd, carving a path to the far edge of the square where vendors had set up booths filled with all the goods and trinkets a crowd of pilgrims could want on Traveler’s Day.

The scent of roasting meat made her mouth water and her stomach growl, reminding her she hadn’t eaten since this morning’s breakfast on Devana. Rhys seemed to be of the same mind, because he led her to where the nearest food vendor had set up a grill.

“What kind of meat?” Rhys scoffed.

The middle-aged woman winked and waved the skewer at Rhys. “Special. Is a secret.”

“Ah, right. Might that be some special skap meat from dockside?”

The woman’s face soured. “Insults! I no sell skap.”

Mila wandered over to the next table, zoning out Rhys’s haggling. He was so tight-fisted with their creds. How could he not see how important catching the Phantom was to their bottom line?

The table Mila found herself at was strewn with trinkets. Incense burners, Christian crosses, Wiccan pentagrams, Buddhist statues, and a wide range of other eclectic-looking jewelry.

A bronze-toned pendant on a long chain caught Mila’s eye. She picked it up without thinking and turned it over in her palm. It resembled the shape of an infinity symbol, and small pearlescent stones in all different shapes and sizes dangled from the end of it.

“That piece is almost as beautiful as you.”

Mila started and felt her cheeks redden as she met the vendor’s gaze. The colorfully dressed woman looked to be in her early thirties and had pale skin and ice blue eyes like Mila’s, but that’s where their similarities ended. The woman’s space-black hair was styled in dozens of tiny braids, and she wore a nose ring that glinted beneath the sparkling lights hanging from the metal awning above.

“Um . . . thanks,” Mila said. “It is a nice piece.”

“Better than nice, girl. It’s the ideal gift to celebrate the new sun. That is, if you want to have good luck. That pendant’s been blessed by Cassa.”

Mila glanced back down at the pendant, at the way the twinkling lights overhead made the colors on each stone warp and change, like tiny rainbows. She wasn’t superstitious or religious, but the pendant reminded her of a ring she’d owned as a child. She wanted to try it on, hold the stones closer to the light and see them change, but she resisted.

“What kind of stones are these?” Mila asked.

“Those stones were collected from the null point between two binary stars. Only travelers with great luck and persistence can thread the needle to reach that point.”

A low laugh sounded from behind Mila, and she whirled to find Rhys standing there, two skewers of meat in hand. “Stones collected from between paired stars, eh?”

The woman’s serious expression didn’t change. “That’s exactly what they are.”

Rhys shook his head. “Maybe you should get off this rock some time. Because nothing hangs between binary stars; one or the other pulls everything in.”

The woman leaned across the table, and a slow smile spread on her blood-red lips. “The journey can teach us much, my friend. But build a life on false beliefs, and you’ll soon find your ship has drifted into a minefield.”

“You done here, Mi?” Rhys’s question came out like a command, and he looked like he was trying hard not to respond to the woman. He didn’t have a lot of patience for religious types, Journeywomen or otherwise.

The merchant ignored Rhys and looked at Mila expectantly. “The colors in that piece really do suit you.”

“It’s gorgeous. But maybe some other time.”

Mila sighed and reluctantly dropped the necklace into the woman’s waiting palm. Mila grabbed a meat skewer from Rhys without meeting his eyes and strode toward the center of the square. Why did he always have to be such a buzzkill?

She stopped at the edge of the crowd, watching an unfamiliar ritual unfold at the center of the square, and gnawed at the stringy meat. Skap meat or not, it was a thousand times better than the bland nutrition bars on their ship.

She finished it, tossed the stick, and started searching the crowd for Rhys. Time to convince him to continue their search for the Phantom.

She found him only a few yards away, watching her intently, and despite her earlier annoyance, a smile budded on her lips. He knew when to give her space, and he knew when she really needed him not to. His solid presence in her life had been the best part of these past months.

A flash of grey in her peripheral vision drew her gaze, and it landed on a man wearing a silver hoop earring and a fake liavold skin jacket. It was the lowlife from the tavern.

Mila’s pulse quickened, and she pushed past the people surrounding her to get closer. The lowlife was staring at Rhys, but when he noticed Mila heading for him, his eyes widened and he scrambled away, disappearing into the crowd.

Mila shouted and sprinted after him, shoving people out of her way, ignoring the obscenities they yelled in her wake. She was vaguely aware of Rhys falling into step behind her. That dock scum knew something, she was sure of it. He might even be a spy for the fixer. She couldn’t let him escape.

The cries of anger erupting in front of her let her know she was on the right path, and as she exited the main press of the crowd, she caught sight of a grey jacket disappearing around the corner.

She ran faster, a stitch growing in her side as she caught up. When the man faltered ahead of her, trying to decide which way to turn at the end of an alleyway, she launched herself forward, knocking him into the wall. They both hit hard and slid toward the grimy pavement.

Rhys was there an instant later, hauling Mila out of the way and pinning the man’s arms behind his back so he couldn’t pull a weapon. The man’s bloodshot eyes were wild, darting between Mila and the alley’s exit.

Rhys raised a brow. “Care to explain?”

Mila sniffed and wiped the dust off her pants. “What? Didn’t you notice him back at the tavern? This snake was eavesdropping on you. I bet he works with the fixer. And he was definitely watching you back there.”

“Is that so?” Rhys pulled his pistol and shoved the man against the building to frisk him. He pulled out a slide blade concealed at the man’s waist, then retrieved a small black case from his jacket. He tossed Mila the case, and she opened it, her heart still beating a staccato rhythm against her ribcage.

Inside lay a syringe and a vial filled with black, viscous liquid.

“Show us your arm,” Mila demanded.

The man was shaking as he pushed his sleeve up, revealing a web of veins stained black from his habit.

Rhys whistled. “Got ourselves a WiDoWer, eh?” He adjusted his Arclight so it lined up with the man’s face. “Now why were you following us?”

The man’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, and he held his hands palm out as a drop of sweat slid down his forehead and into his eye. “I followed you ’cause I got info. I’ll trade for it.”

“What kind?” Rhys asked, his eyes hard. “The last info we got wasn’t worth much.”

“Harris — he set you up. But I know the truth.”

“No trades.” Mila closed on the addict, still holding his drugs in her grasp, and wrapped her other hand around his throat, squeezing. “If you knew about the trap, you should have told us before. We could have died.”

“Mila.” Rhys’s low warning did nothing to calm the rage buzzing in Mila’s head.

“No trades,” Mila repeated, squeezing tighter. The lowlife gasped for air.

“Mila.” This time Rhys’s voice broke through, and Mila dropped her hand from the man’s throat, then forced herself to step back.

Rhys narrowed his eyes at her, then turned back to the addict. “What do you want for the info?”

“Creds,” the man said, wheezing. “Ninety creds.”

“For drugs.” Mila opened the case and held the vial high so the addict could see it. “How ’bout this? You tell us everything you know, or I feed your precious sludge to the pavement.”

“No. No no no.” The man was sweating more freely now, and the desperation in his voice made Mila nauseous with sudden self-loathing. But she wouldn’t back down. She was done with haggling. With the trades. Done with all the lies and dead leads.

She placed the vial on the ground and positioned her boot over it. “You get one second to decide.”

“I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you! Don’t. It’s my last one. The Phantom was here. She was callin’ herself Elaine. Harris hooked her up with new tags. I got a shot of ’em on my mobi.”

“Show us,” Rhys demanded.

The man revealed the mobi beneath his sleeve and brought up the data. Mila swiped her arm across his screen and her mobi captured the tag numbers. Then she placed her boot back over the vial of WiDoW. The lowlife seemed to turn green in the dim light of the globes overhead.

“Where was Elaine headed next?” Rhys asked.

“Septa — she had a meeting on the platform. She’s got a way into Xi’an space. Someone powerful is helpin’ that girl. Musta paid off Harris big, ’cause I ain’t never seen him help set up a bounty hunter like he did to you two.”

Mila’s mind raced, considering the implications of what this snitch was saying. If the Phantom truly had a way into Xi’an space, they’d never find her again. She’d reach Rihlah, and the Xi’an wouldn’t do kak to help them catch a terrorist. They’d just pretend to, acting diplomatic while the Phantom got to live out her life, with the Advocacy and the rest of the UEE stuck waiting for her to voluntarily cross into Human-controlled space again.

“He could be lying,” Mila said. “Describe this Elaine.”

“Uh — red hair. I think it was a wig. I followed her back to that hostel and saw her leave with black hair. Dark skin. Late twenties. Kept her face all covered up. Never got a good vid.” The addict tapped his mobi again and brought up an image of a woman, covered up as he’d described.

All Mila and Rhys had ever seen were blurry images of this woman, no better than what this man was showing them. But what else did they have to go on?

She exchanged glances with Rhys, and Rhys gave her a slow nod.

Mila picked up the vial and shoved it back in the case. She wanted to destroy the drugs, force this scum into withdrawal, but the withdrawal could kill him. And Mila was no murderer and never would be.

She dropped the case back into the man’s hands and flicked his jacket with her finger. He flinched at the touch.

“If you need creds, you should start by demanding a refund from whoever sold you this knock-off.”

His brows went up in surprise, and he glanced down at his jacket, then back to Rhys, who still held his weapon. “Can I get my blade back?”

“Get out of here,” Rhys barked.

The man flinched again, then pocketed his drugs and took off running.

“What the hell was that?” Rhys’s face was red, his voice so low Mila knew he was pissed. “That’s not our agreement. I do the haggling. I handle the contacts. Not you. That’s our deal.”

Mila put her hands on her hips. “Well, it worked, didn’t it? We need to get back to our ship and get to Septa before our phantom disappears for good.” She turned heel and walked off without waiting for a reply.

Rhys didn’t speak a word as they made their way back to the docks, and his anger hung in the heavy silence between them, ruining what should have been a celebration and leaving her to her own thoughts. When they finally reached the well-lit entryway that led up to their Freelancer, Mila turned to Rhys.

His expression was blank again, showing nothing of what he might be feeling. Sometimes he was so damn hard to read. She pressed a hand to his chest, and his eyes softened slightly at her touch.

“I’m sorry. For how I acted back there. You’re right. I broke our agreement. I promise I’ll try to keep it together from now on —”

“Don’t. You got what we needed. But if this lead doesn’t pan out?”

“Fine. If it doesn’t pan . . . then we’re done searching.”

It didn’t matter. Because if the Phantom really was headed for Xi’an space, and they missed her one more time, it was as good as over anyway.

A look of relief passed over Rhys’s face. “Good. Then we agree. We’ll follow this lead, but if we lose her, we move onto something else.”

He hesitated, then reached into his pocket and drew out a small velvet bag. Mila’s lips parted as he pulled out a length of chain, the Cassa pendant hanging from it, its gorgeous pearlescent stones shimmering in the light of the dockside globes.

Rhys fastened the good luck pendant around Mila’s neck.

“But our credits . . .” Mila warmed at his light touch. “We didn’t have enough to waste on this.”

He shrugged. “Could be that Journeywoman was right about this thing after all. All we needed was a little luck. And it seems we got it.”

His voice came out husky, and Mila stood on tiptoes to kiss him. He responded with intensity, pulling her close, pressing her body to his. She wrapped her arms around his neck and lost herself in him.

When he pulled away, his eyes were dark. “Flight plan first. But while we’re waiting for clearance . . . ”

Mila gave him a small smile. “Meet me in the bunk?”

He smirked and pulled her close for another kiss. “And after that . . . we catch our phantom.”


(function( $ ){ var $window = $(window); var windowHeight = $window.height(); $window.resize(function () { windowHeight = $window.height(); }); $.fn.parallax = function(xpos, speedFactor, outerHeight) { var $this = $(this); var getHeight; var firstTop; var paddingTop = 0; //get the starting position of each element to have parallax applied to it $this.each(function(){ firstTop = $this.offset().top; }); if (outerHeight) { getHeight = function(jqo) { return jqo.outerHeight(true); }; } else { getHeight = function(jqo) { return jqo.height(); }; } // setup defaults if arguments aren’t specified if (arguments.length < 1 || xpos === null) xpos = "50%"; if (arguments.length < 2 || speedFactor === null) speedFactor = 0.1; if (arguments.length < 3 || outerHeight === null) outerHeight = true; // function to be called whenever the window is scrolled or resized function update(){ var pos = $window.scrollTop(); $this.each(function(){ var $element = $(this); var top = $element.offset().top; var height = getHeight($element); // Check if totally above or totally below viewport if (top + height pos + windowHeight) { return; } $this.css(‘backgroundPosition’, xpos + ” ” + Math.round((firstTop – pos) * speedFactor) + “px”); }); } $window.bind(‘scroll’, update).resize(update); update(); }; $(‘.parallax-1’).parallax(“50%”, 0.1, true);
$(‘.parallax-2’).parallax(“50%”, 0.1, true);
$(‘.parallax-3’).parallax(“50%”, 0.1, true);
$(‘.parallax-4’).parallax(“50%”, 0.1, true);
$(‘.parallax-5’).parallax(“50%”, 0.1, true);
$(‘.parallax-6’).parallax(“50%”, 0.1, true);
$(‘.parallax-7’).parallax(“50%”, 0.1, true);

The Hunt Is On

Piracy Is On The Rise

Across the UEE, piracy is on the rise. Interstellar larceny and shipjacking have become increasingly regular occurrences, and not just in fringe systems. More and more civilians are feeling the tightening grip of the spreading pirate threat as outlaws become more brazen and expand their operations into sectors once considered safe.

Due to this disturbing trend, the UEE is issuing a full crackdown. Until the pirate threat is neutralized, we’re rallying all would-be bushwhackers and DIY defenders of justice to lend a hand in taking down these freebooters, corsairs, and raiders across the ‘verse.

Call to Arrrms!

With interstellar crime at an all-time high, freebooters and scallywags everywhere have taken the ancient pseudo-holiday #TalkLikeAPirateDay as a sort of rallying point. That means the UEE has their hands full and they need you. Take to the skies to show these brigands who truly owns the spacelanes.

Capture the moment while you capture salty marauders throughout the system. Share your best in-game screenshots on social media to show off your special brand of vigilante justice. You could win one of the universe’s most able hunting vessels to keep your crime-fighting exploits going:

  • Anvil F7C-M Super Hornet – The closest you can get to a full military load-out and still fly legally. The Super Hornet is chock full of tech and firepower to make even the dastardliest outlaw shake in their boots.
  • Aegis Sabre – Balancing speed, agility, and unrivaled firepower, the classic Sabre was built for absolute superiority in dogfighting applications and rapid response. Bandits and picaroons have nowhere to hide with a Sabre on the prowl.
  • Aegis Gladius – Simple, effective, deadly. There’s a reason the UEE military has trusted the Gladius for decades. Its tight handling and laser-focus on dogfighting have made it the scourge of scofflaws the universe over.

Find all the contest details here, and make sure to review the contest rules here before entering.

Looking for additional firepower? To bolster your fleet and rid the skies of criminal menace, we’ve made a handful of the universe’s most devastating brawlers available for all your mercenary needs.

Happy hunting and good luck out there.

Remember: we offer pledge ships to help fund Star Citizen’s development. The funding received from events such as these are what allow us to include deeper features in the Star Citizen world. These ships will be obtainable in the final universe, and they are not required to start the game.

The goal is to make additional ships available to continue expanding the depth and variety of the game world and give players a different experience rather than any particular advantage.


On The Run, pt. 2

Part One of the story can be read here.

Alex leaned over the railing to look down at the sprawling plaza below. Streams of Banu flowed in and around the stalls and shops that crowded the marketplace. The near deafening noise was a constant presence. Sellers shouted proudly about their wares, shrewd traders loudly haggled over sips of sloma, while young runners darted about trying to lure potential customers back to their Souli’s Merchantman where the finest fuel cyclers or crog berries or whatever it was they happened to be selling was waiting for just the right buyer.

And even over all that noise Alex could still hear her stomach rumble.

It seemed the one thing that wasn’t for sale on the Bacchus flotilla was a decent breakfast. After a harrowing experience with a ‘Human Breakfast Special’ that had resulted in a shallow dish filled with sliced hot dogs and popcorn covered in what she could only describe as very thick orange juice, Alex had sworn off eating till she could get back to the few ready meals still safely tucked away inside the Belligerent Duck’s stores.

That would have to wait though. Pushing her hunger aside, Alex searched the crowds below for anything suspicious. Which, when you’re inside a Banu flotilla, is sort of like looking for uptight swegs when on Earth. More specifically, she was looking for any undercover Advocacy Agents or bounty hunters who had the gall to follow them into Banu territory.

Typically, the Advocacy would pursue a thief for a system, maybe two, before they called back their resources and left it to the Bounty Hunting Guild to chase the culprit down. It wasn’t that the Advocacy weren’t eager to see justice done, they just had more important things to spend their time and efforts on (like vicious outlaw gangs and crazed serial killers). It was why the Empire relied so heavily on the bounty system in the first place. Doubly so when the jurisdiction crossed into the Banu Protectorate. With a high enough price, you could have hundreds of bounty hunters searching for free and only have to pay the person who collected. It saved time and credits.

The Advocacy’s focus was on big fish, and Alex had worked hard at staying a medium fish at best.

Yet, her and Mas’ escape from Terra had proven to be anything but typical. Instead of having to deal with the normal gaggle of cocksure guilders fumbling all over themselves to get paid, the Advocacy had mobilized dozens of Agents across multiple systems in one of the biggest dragnets she had ever seen. Every jump point had been swarming. Plus, there had been the daily dispatches encouraging citizens to share information with the authorities. Why was it that law-abiding types were always so bored they couldn’t just mind their own damn business?

The Duck could barely stop to refuel without some good Samaritan recognizing them from the wanted posters plastered all over the spec. Mas had to work overtime blocking or delaying comms until they were away, and even then, they still had to fight their way free more times than was healthy. They had always pulled through, but only by the slimmest of margins. Their Mercury had the scars to prove it.

On top of that, Alex had been forced to call in just about every outstanding favor she had. In Pyro, a crew that owed them for a records wipe had agreed to tangle with the bounty hunters who had cornered them there. Though, to be honest, she suspected they would have done it for free with the amount of joy they seemed to take in the fight. In Tram, Alex not only had to wipe Old Mac’s debt clear to get him to help distract the Advos tailing them, but now they owed him a favor. And knowing the gummer, he was likely to milk it for all its worth. A problem for another day.

All in all, they had been pursued across seven systems and hadn’t been able to rest for a moment. Well, Mas barely slept on a good day so he seemed relatively unperturbed by the whole experience. In fact, having the chance to coordinate an intrusion on the Meridian Transit network in Garron had the hacker humming louder than she had ever heard him. And admittingly, Alex had laughed herself watching the hacked starliner routes stymy their pursuers. But that had been days ago. Now, here she was in Bacchus, tired, hungry, surrounded by a hive of Banu, and she could tell that her brain was far from firing with all thrusters.

Something about this job wasn’t adding up. Being paid to delete files at Behring instead of stealing them was strange enough, but now with the way the law had been after them? Even with a big player like Behring involved the response had been above and beyond. Alex felt like she was staring at a big red warning sign, but she was so exhausted she couldn’t read it.

What she really needed was about a month on Cassel with nothing to do but float, drink, flirt with Navy, and spend all her hard-earned credits.

Speaking of which, Alex brought up her mobi to check the time. Only a half hour until they met with Mr. Grouse and received the rest of their payment. Pushing herself up from the rail, she turned and headed towards the docking tube that connected Donosi Souli to the rest of the flotilla structure. Hopefully, Mas had been able to make progress on untangling the project data they had secretly downloaded from the lab.

A few steps behind, Mr. Grouse quietly followed.

To say that Donosi was Mas’ old Souli was a bit misleading, but it was easier for Alex to think of it that way. A programming guild, Donosi had been formed when the previous guild leader, Essosouli Olosso has died. Mas had used the turnover to buy his freedom, while most of the other guild members had joined Olosso’s heir Donosi when she established her ‘new’ Souli. So basically, all the same people working out of the same place, doing the same thing.

Fortunately, while Mas was no longer considered family, Essosouli Donosi was inclined to temporarily hire them both whenever they needed a place to lay low for a while. In exchange for Mas doing some work for them, he and Alex received the protection that being part of a powerful Souli brought, keeping would-be Bounty Hunters at bay thanks to the intricacies of Banu politics.

Alex arrived through the old airlock that marked where the Donosi’s ship connected to the flotilla. Not that it was much of a ship anymore. The thing hadn’t flown in decades and was so hemmed in on all side by other structures it was unclear if it could take off even if it had wanted to. Carefully stepping over thick cable bundles, she made her way inside. It was cluttered for sure, but compared to some of the other Souli she had visited, Donosi was neat and organized. Rather than the usual overflowing collection of odds and ends that most Banu seemed drawn to, the computer guild’s wealth was all in data. Racks and racks of drives of various makes and models lined the walls, some of them older than her. In the center of the room, several Banu half-reclined at terminals pouring over lines of code. Over the sound of typing, she could hear Mas happily humming to himself.

“Any luck, Mas?” asked Alex.

“Oh, yes. Much,” replied Mas with a wide smile. “We have confirmed that Project Stargazer is particularly worthless.”

Alex turned to see Essouli Donosi enter the room. You could always tell when Donosi was approaching because the dozens of mobiGlas that she wore clacked together as she walked. “Oh, yes,” said Donosi. “Complete garbage.”

That red warning sign in Alex’s head started flashing a little faster. “What do you mean? We got paid a fortune to wipe this stuff.”

Mas walked over to Alex with a datapad and gestured to the screen. “This is Project Stargazer.”

“Looks like a targeting reticule.”

“It is a targeting reticule. Part of a design that was supposed to help gunners recalibrate their weapons if the sighting was off during combat. The project was shelved last year when it was proven in tests to only be slightly more efficient than not using it.”

“The datapod you stored it on is worth more than this terrible information,” said Donosi. “Total refuse. Utter trash. No one would ever pay anything for such a thing as what you have brought.”

Alex’s stomach sank when she realized that Donosi was repeating herself. A sure sign that the Essosouli was negotiating. Part of the agreed upon price for the Souli’s protection had been the info they’d stolen and now it seemed that Donosi was no longer satisfied with that deal. This was not good news considering that both her and Mas were technically indentured to the guild currently.

“You can keep the datapod then,” replied Alex. “Let’s go, Mas.” She pulled on his arm, trying to get him to follow her.

“Mas, stay where you are,” said Donosi in a firm voice. “Your debt has not been cleared.”

Mas stopped and Alex found herself uselessly pulling on what might as well have been a brick wall.

“What are you doing? Let’s go.”

“I am sorry, Alex,” said Mas. “I cannot leave until Essosouli Donosi approves.”

“Are you serious?”

“I will not break a given bond. I am not like a Human.” With that, Mas winked at her.

Alex had been the one to teach Mas to wink and it had quickly proven to be a terrible idea. More than a few deals had gone south thanks to him winking when Alex was attempting to stretch the truth a bit. However, since none of the other Banu knew what winking meant, the skill might finally have payed off. Mas wanted her to find a way out of this.

“And what do you think our debt is?” asked Alex.

“A month of labor. Mas will gain access to some difficult locked drives we have acquired and you will clean.”

Even if they hadn’t needed to make their rendezvous, there was no universe that existed where Alex would have taken those terms. A headache began to grow behind her eyes. Like she didn’t have enough on her plate without becoming a Banu slave for a month. Actually, Alex thought, why am I having to deal with this?

“And I say there is no debt. You agreed to take the info on the datapod and that’s what you got. A deal’s a deal.”

“Information that is worthless.”

“Yeah, that sucks for you. Next time negotiate better.”

A smile broke across Donosi’s face. “Very well. You are free to go.”

“Oh,” Alex responded a bit taken aback by the sudden shift. Even though she lived with a Banu, she still could be surprised by how alien the aliens sometimes felt. “Thanks.”

“Come on, Alex,” said Mas, getting up from the terminal. “We don’t want to be late.”

Mas worked the star runner’s scanner as Alex guided the ship towards the rendezvous coordinates the courier had delivered to her a few days earlier.

The relative quiet of the Duck proved to be unnerving rather than the relief she had expected. And even though she should have been able to take a break from looking over her shoulder now that she was back aboard her own ship, Alex still felt on edge. Nothing about this job was sitting right. Why would Grouse want them to purge useless data? Why would the Advocacy be treating them like the Empire’s most wanted? Why did Grouse want to meet again rather than just sending the credits. Why couldn’t she figure out what the hell was going on?

“This is a trap, yes?” asked Mas, having similar thoughts.

“Yeah,” agreed Alex. “You want to forget the credits and bail?”

“It is a lot of credits.”

“It is so many credits.”

Mas thought for a beat. “We can always get more credits. I am a very good hacker and you are also good at things.”

“Yeah.” Though she was sad to be losing the money, a huge sense of relief came over her now that the decision had been made. “Where do you want to go? Spider? Maybe finally check out Kayfa?”

“Neither, I’m afraid,” said Mr. Grouse from behind them, the energy pistol in his hand trained at Mas’ head. “You will maintain your current course.”

Alex, cursing herself, swore that from now on she and Mas were going to search all the berths for stowaways before taking off.

“Let me guess, Advocacy are waiting for us at the rendezvous?” asked Alex.

“Correct, Ms. Dougan. You will be arrested, tried and convicted. Of course, there is a chance I will be forced to kill you both before then, but I would prefer not to.”

“You know we’ll tell them about you, right?”

“That has always been the plan. The only surprise was you managing to evade capture this long. I was certain they had you at the Davien jump point. It was most impressive when your Mercury gave them the slip once again.”

“Wait,” said Mas. “If you wanted the thieves arrested, then why did you hire us? Why not hire bad thieves?”

“The job needed to be successful. A lesser team would have been caught before deleting the project.”

“But the files were worthless!” protested Alex.

“Enough, Ms. Dougan. We should be arriving at the ambush any moment now.”

“What about Prairie Lightning Delta?


A moment after she had uttered the phrase-key, the EMP rigged under the main console went off.

With a sickening lurch, the ship powered completely down.

Mr. Grouse, unprepared, tripped forward off balance. Mas, very prepared, slipped his knife from its sheath and slashed at their captor’s arm. The pistol dropped to the floor and Alex dove, recovering the weapon before Grouse could.

“An EMP. Clever,” said Grouse, breathing hard, the deep gouge on his arm dripping blood onto the floor.

“Mas’ gets full credit,” said Alex. “Now, if you don’t mind, why don’t you start explaining what in hell it is you’re up to.”

Before Grouse could respond, bright headlights suddenly shone into the cockpit. An Advocacy Vanguard flanked by two Banu Defenders was quickly approaching their ship. The Agents must have negotiated their way in with the Security Souli in this sector.

“I am afraid it’s too late,” said Grouse.

“Comm them and tell them we’ll kill you if you don’t stand down.”

“Why would they care about a corpse?” asked Grouse, reaching his fingers inside the wound on his arm.

“Mas! Stop him!” shouted Alex.

Mas reached out, but not fast enough.

“Your Empire thanks you for your service,” said Grouse as he used his fingers to sever his brachial artery. The trickle of blood turned into a gushing flood. Grouse collapsed to the floor unconscious.

Alex was certain that the memory of what Grouse had just done would hold the top spot for the most terrifying thing she’s ever seen for a long time to come. “Crap! Do you know first aid?”

“No.” said Mas, looking down at the body and its widening pool of blood. “Did we ever buy more medpens?”

“Crap. Crap. Crap. Help me get some pressure on him or something.”

It was then that the ship’s power kicked back on.

—gent Duck. This is the UEE Advocacy. Prepare to be boarded.”

It seemed Alex and Mas had a choice. Either tend to Grouse before he died, or try to avoid capture. It was a very easy choice. “Mas, dump his body in the lock and strap in!”

Alex threw herself into the pilot seat and opened up the throttles to max. The Mercury burst to life and hurtled towards the Vanguard, rolling to bring their port side to the Advocacy’s ventral. The shields flared as the twin Sawbucks on the Vanguard’s turret scored a direct hit. They held for now, but a few more hits like that and the Duck would be done for.

A head to head fight wasn’t an option here. They were outclassed. Emergency escape maneuvers were the order of the day.

Gaining a bit of distance from the pursuers as they rushed to turn around and give chase, Alex quickly opened up the rear ramp and turned off the cargo grid.

“Mas, special delivery!”

Alex pulled hard on the controls and Mercury flew straight up, leaving the ten crates in their hold floating behind them. She grabbed the blackout helmet she kept nearby for just this moment and quickly slipped it on, giving all new meaning to the phrase ‘flying blind.’

Mas began counting down, “Three… two… one… “

Alex heart skipped a beat before she remembered that Banu counted down to zero.


Behind them, a small new sun burst to life as the crates exploded. Or at least that’s what it looked like. Or would have looked like if Alex could see anything.

Each of the crates had contained the equivalent of a hundred flares. The ten crates combined was enough to overload any nearby sensors long enough for them to clear range. And forget trying to track them visually. Those poor pilots would be lucky if they got their vision back any time soon.

Alex pulled off the helmet and lined up a QT towards the Bacchus asteroid belt.

“If we are going to be on the run again,” said Mas. “I think I would like to go visit Leir.”

“Sure, Mas.” said Alex. “It’s your turn to pick anyway.”

Alex let out a deep sigh and for the moment tried to ignore the pool of blood at her feet by concentrating on flying.

No answers. No money. But for now at least, they had their freedom.