Brothers In Arms: Part Two

Writer’s Note: Brothers In Arms: Part Two was published originally in Jump Point 3.6. Read Part One here.

Gavin left Walt on Cassel. There was a time, back in his single days, when an extended stay on a resort world was the perfect sequel to a crappy job. Now he had a better offer waiting at home and two bottles of chilled Kōen Shōchū riding shotgun in the cockpit beside him. The better offer, of course, was Dell. The shōchū was his best hope to reboot his homecoming from Oberon.

It wasn’t exactly the grand entrance he’d planned on making. He felt his cheeks warm and was glad to be alone. With a sigh, he squeezed his eyes shut and let his head fall back into his seat. His helmet bumped against the cockpit frame. When he opened his eyes again, the HUD had died. He rolled his head to eye the waiting bottles of shōchū. Perhaps he needed the alcohol more than she did.

Rhedd Alert’s hangar was still. The lights were dialed down to a dull, sapphire glow. But while the hangar was quiet, Vista Landing never slowed down. The sounds of the complex were a pressure all around him; a constant hum of life that seemed intrusive after a long stint flying solo.

Gavin shed his flight suit and then grabbed the helmet and bottles of shōchū. The helmet got dumped unceremoniously onto a workbench. The shōchū went with him to their apart­ment. It was dark inside — he was too late. Dell was already asleep.

He leaned against the door while his eyes adjusted to the courtesy lighting in the bedroom. Dell lay on her side with her back to him. Her hair was a dark fan against pale pillows and sheets. There was no trace of the playful blue-dyed tips in the low light. He looked instead to the curve of her hip and the long line of her covered legs.

He left the bottles on a table, not wanting to risk waking her with light from the fridge. He stripped off his shirt on the way to the little closet. She’d left it open, and piles of clothes made odd shapes in the low light.

They smelled like her. He’d forgotten how much he loved that. He leaned forward, his head slipping between her hanging shirts and jackets. They didn’t have much, but this was home. They were settled, with no desire for any more living out of cockpits and dirty cargo bays. But if he couldn’t make this work, that’s exactly what they would be back to.

Gavin stooped and picked up the discarded shirt. There was work to do. Things to fix.

He closed the door as quietly as he could when he left.

He was at a workbench in the hangar when the light pad of Dell’s bare feet on the cold hangar deck sounded behind him.

“Hey, Slugger.” Her voice was playful, teasing him about the scrap with Walt. The taunting tone was good news, in a way. It meant that she wasn’t quite so angry. Regardless, he was still embarrassed about the fight and didn’t rise to her bait.

“I thought you were asleep,” he said instead.

She rubbed her hand across his shoulders, bumped him aside with her hip and then took a seat next to him on the bench when he moved. “I was asleep, but it sounded like a herd of Shoone came tromping through the apart­ment.”

He felt better hearing the smile in her voice. “Huh . . . I guess I’m glad I missed that.”

“What are you working on?”

Gavin started running through his list, wondering where to start. He gave up somewhere north of fifteen and simply replied, “Everything.”

“Did we get paid?” He nodded and her look of relief was frustrating. Depending on Dell’s ex-boyfriend for financial salvation wasn’t exactly how he’d envisioned his role as a business owner.

“How’s Boomer?” he asked.

“He can’t keep doing this. They patched him up, but he’s been banged around way too much.”

It was true. Dell’s dad had been put back together more than any other pilot Gavin had ever met. Maybe a few military pilots had had more rejuvenation treatment, but their facilities had to be far better than anything civies like Boomer had access too.

“You’ve got to get him to take it easy, Gav. Let him fly sup­port in the Freelancer or something.”

“Let him fly support? This is your dad we’re talking about. He’s at least half as stubborn as you are. And you know how he flies. He’s cool as gunmetal in a dogfight, but he flies like a crazy . . . flying . . . kind of . . . person.”

“Will you at least try? Please?”

There was no way Boomer was going to listen to him, but Gavin agreed. It wasn’t worth fighting with Dell about it. They’d been over that ground before. Plenty of times.

He prodded at the wiring harness of his helmet.

“The heads-up out again?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Here, let me do it.” She pulled the tools closer and set to work. “So . . . Walt stayed to drink his paycheck away with Barry?”

“Walt worked as hard as anyone in Oberon. Harder than most, actually. He can do what he wants with his cut.”

“While we’re dumping all of ours into repairs and supplies?”

“I brought you some shōchū,” he offered.

“I saw that.” She snuggled into his side and slid her arm around his waist. “Mmmmm . . . thank you.” A peck on his cheek. “I put it in the fridge.”

“You should have brought a bottle with you.”

She unwound herself from him and went back to work on the helmet. “It might work out better for you if we save that for a night when I’m not exhausted.”

That killed the mood. Gavin shifted the tools around on the bench. Dell must have sensed his change of mood. She sat up straight, her tone growing somber. “I’ve been doing some math,” she said.

“How bad is it?”

“Not good.”

He hoped that the grimace he made was reassuring. It probably wasn’t.

“Selling the salvage will keep us out of the red for a couple months,” she said. “Good job on that, by the way. I don’t know about the Idris, but that 325a is actually quite sell­able. Unless you want to keep it, that is.”

Gavin thought about it. “Sell it,” he said. “We can’t afford to upgrade any of our people, and I’m not bringing on any more pilots until we land some steady work.”

“On that topic, did Barry have something new for us, or did he come to Goss system just to carouse with your brother?”

He told her about the turret job and she brightened.

“This is good, Gav. You think this could turn into a steady stream of work?”

“Maybe, but we’ve got a team of combat pilots, babe. They’re not going to stick around for this kind of work.”

“Then screw them. Let them leave, and I’ll fly with you.”

“You fly worse than your dad. Besides, you wanted to be here to run the shop.”

“I’m here because I want this to work.” She put her tools down and entwined her fingers with his. “Believe me, I’d much rather be flying with you and Dad.”

“Yeah, well. I don’t want you out there. Bringing Boomer back in stasis is one thing, but you . . .”

She extracted her fingers and patted his hand, pulling away. “That’s an idea you’re going to have to get used to. Dad won’t be flying that old Avenger forever. Eventually, she’ll be mine. But right now,” she leaned in and gave him a quick kiss, “I’m going to bed.”

Dell stood, pressed his helmet’s wire housing into place with a click and left.

Gavin picked up the helmet and peeked inside. The glow from the reticle display shown within. She’d got it working again.

They had a good thing going, he and Dell. But chronic, nag­ging financial worry would eventually tear that apart. He just needed work that paid and that his pilots would stay for. Work that would keep Walt from chasing something shiny, interesting, and new. What he needed was that Tyrol escort job.

Gavin pushed the helmet and tools aside on the bench. He keyed up the console and placed a call to Barry’s mobiGlas. The accountant accepted the call.

“Talk to me, sweetheart.”

“Barry. Good, you’re still in-system.”

“Just about to leave Cassel, why?”

“What would a bid need to look like for someone to be com­petitive on that Tyrol contract?”

“Gavin,” Barry’s voice grew serious. “You’re new to this, but you have to know that I can’t give out that kind of information.”

Gavin’s mobiGlas vibrated against his wrist with an incom­ing message.

“I’m sorry, Barry. I wasn’t trying to cause troub—”

Barry cut him off. “Now, what I can do is point you toward the proper registration and submission forms. How you manage the pricing is your concern. Understand?”

On Gavin’s mobiGlas was a message from an unknown contact. The message was simple, containing only a Credit sign and a number.

A big number.

Yes!

“Thanks, Barry. I appreciate it and understand completely.”

It took four days to clear just two turrets from the mouth of the first cave. Walt took out the first within seconds of arriving. He did it with what he swore was a purposeful and carefully aimed shot.

The second turret pulverized Jazza’s Cutlass, and they had to tow the wreckage back to Vista Landing for re­pairs. Jazza herself went home in stasis after taking hits to a shoulder and both of her legs. She did not rejoin them for the moon mine job.

On the fourth day — running low on patience, ammo, and foul language — they finally came up with a solution. It was ugly. It was dangerous. But as they worked deeper into the moon, it was the only thing they found that worked.

“All right, Boomer,” Gavin said, “hold behind that outcrop­ping.”

Boomer’s Avenger crept to a halt beside him. Deep inside the warren of caverns, the moon’s rotation was enough to give them a sense of up and down. Still, holding a relative position inside a small spinning moon was not as easy as one might think. Stabilizing thrusters fired continuously in short, irregular bursts.

Gavin checked his orientation and distance from the walls. He was in place. The tag team system they’d come up with had been working pretty well, using one ship to draw fire while a second swept in to blast each turret. It was tedious and sphincter-tightening work, but the moon was nearly cleared. Only a small handful of tricky defenses remained intact.

“Okay,” Gavin settled his hands on his flight controls. “On my mark.”

He left the mic open and triggered a timer on his navsat. He watched Boomer’s ship ease slowly into the turret’s line of sight to the steady countdown of the timer. Right on cue, Gavin hammered his thrusters and sped into the cave, just as the first blast from the turret struck Boomer’s shields.

Gavin yawed to the left, swinging the nose of his ship until he could see both the turret and Boomer’s ship. The old man’s Avenger bucked under the constant fire. The shields held, but the blast forced the Avenger back out into the tunnel before Gavin could take a shot.

Gavin fired, and the turret’s twin barrels swiveled with such impeccable precision and speed that they looked like identical empty dots. “Oh, sh—” the barrels erupted in a fusillade of crimson light.

Gavin fired again and had no clue if he was anywhere near the mark. The turret’s aim was flawless, however. There was an odd pulling sensation when the cabin lost pressure and his suit pressurized, squeezing around his limbs and chest.

Another barrage hammered into him and he felt the Cut­lass crunch ass-backward into the wall of the cavern. The ship rolled, nose pitching wildly to one side. Gavin saw an open blackness of empty space yawn into view. He punched it, hoping he was heading back out into the tunnel and not to his death inside the smugglers’ cave.

Relieved, he saw Boomer’s Avenger flash by beneath him. But dread gripped him again when the walls of the narrow tunnel loomed to fill his entire view. He reversed thrust, hunched tight around the controls and braced for impact.

It was bad.

He hit hard, and the impact sent him careening down the cavern. He tumbled over and over, willing his ship to hold together. When he finally forced himself to release the flight controls, the ship righted itself.

“Holy hells,” Boomer breathed. “Gav? You alive, buddy?”

His chest heaved like he’d been running. “I seem to recall some idiot bitching about this job being boring.”

Walt, exploring a tunnel in another part of the moon, an­swered, “That sounds like it was directed at me. You two okay?”

“No, I’m not okay. I just got blown up!”

“Simmer down, son,” Boomer said. “I’ve been blown up plenty of times. That was nothin’. I, uh . . . I don’t think you’re taking another crack at that turret until we get your ship patched up, though.”

“Oh, really? Ya think?” Gavin’s comms flashed on an incom­ing line. “Hold on, guys. Call coming in.”

Boomer laughed, saying, “They probably heard us planet­side and want us to keep the noise down.”

“Very funny. Actually, it’s Dell. Now shut it.” Gavin accept­ed the incoming line.

“Gav?” He couldn’t tell if Dell sounded scared or angry, maybe both. “We got a problem, babe. Jazza’s out of here. Says she’s taking a ship unless she gets her cut of the turret job before she goes.”

“What? What do you mean ‘out of here’?”

“She’s leaving,” Dell said. “Leaving the company, I mean.”

Walt cut in on the squad channel. “Hey Gav, I’m all finished in here. You want me to come take a look at tha—”

Gavin juggled channels. “Hold on, Walt.” He squinched his eyes closed, sore, frustrated and confused. “Dell. Where’s Jazz going? You mean she’s quitting?”

Boomer kept the chatter going on the squad channel. “Sounds like he’s getting an earful, Walt. Glad she didn’t call me.”

“Tell her Gavin just got blown up.”

“That would improve her day significantly.”

They both laughed.

Gavin spread his hands in an open-armed shrug for no one’s benefit but his own. “Would you please shut the hell up?”

They did. Dell did not. “What did you just say to me?!”

“Not you, babe. Walt and . . . you know what? Never mind all that. Just tell me again, what’s going on with Jazz?”

His mobiGlas vibrated. Gavin swore silently and balled his fists to keep from shooting something. From within his pressure suit, it was difficult to activate the mobiGlas. He managed it while Dell filled him in on Jazza’s desertion. She was going to look for work with one of the smuggling outfits hidden in the Olympus Pool. Paying work. Blah. Blah. Deserter.

Gavin finally powered on his mobiGlas display. There was a message from a contact marked “unknown,” but Gavin knew exactly who it was from.

“Dell.”

“I tried to talk her out of it, Gav,” Dell sounded close to tears. “I really did.”

“Dell, listen to me.”

“What?”

“Get Jazza back. All right? Do whatever it takes.”

“I’ll try, Gav, but . . .”

“Whatever it takes, okay? We’re going to need her. We’re going to need everyone and then some.”

“What’s going on, Gavin?”

He keyed his mic to transmit on both channels, “Everybody, listen up. They only got two bids on the Navy contract. We’re the low bid.”

“Is low bad?” Boomer asked.

“Dell,” Gavin said, “have Jazza join us in Oberon. We’re working ’round the clock until we’ve cleared the last few turrets.”

Gavin sat in his damaged Cutlass, cheeks stretched in an unfamiliar grin.

“Guys,” he said, “we just won the Navy job.”

“Go on in, Miss Brock.” A lieutenant held the door open for her. “Major Greely and his guest are already inside.”

The major’s guest. How wonderful. Morgan Brock smoothed the front of her pleated skirt and then swept through the doorway into Greely’s conference room. The major and his “guest” stood near the head of the table. Greely was looking more Marine than Navy in his shirt sleeves. The man had arms as thick as most men’s legs.

“Brock. Good of you to come personally. Let me introduce you to Gavin Rhedd, one of the co-owners of Rhedd Alert Security.”

Rhedd was younger than she’d guessed, a handsome man with a sturdy frame. He’d made the curious decision to wear a weathered, civilian flight suit to the meeting. Per­haps he needed to convince everyone that he was, in fact, a pilot. Still, the rig fit him well. He looked uncomfortable but not self-conscious standing beside the granite slab that was Major Greely.

“Pleased to meet you, Miss Brock.”

She refused his extended hand and put an end to the pleasantries.

“So you’re the cherry that low-balled my contract.” She made it obvious that it wasn’t a question. “Let me be en­tirely clear. The termination clause stipulates that I par­ticipate in a transition meeting. Let’s not pretend that I’m pleased by the opportunity.”

“Well okay, then,” Greely said. “I suppose that will do by way of introductions. Let’s get started, shall we?” He took a seat at the head of the table and motioned for each of them to sit. “Now, the award and protest periods are over.”

“There will be an appeal filed,” she said.

“I don’t doubt that, Morgan. But my office and Navy SysCom have every reason to believe that the award will be upheld.”

“I’ve invested two years cleaning up the run through Min and Nexus,” she said. “And we both know the workload is scheduled to increase dramatically. I’m not handing that over without a fight.”

She stopped when Greely held a hand up, “The UEE wants us to find ways to enfranchise independents in those systems. You want to argue that point, do it with the politicians. But right now, I need a mission brief, and I think we’d all appreciate this meeting moving along quickly.”

Brock let the major win the point. If nothing else, she knew when to pick her battles. There was nothing to be gained from antagonizing him. There were more profitable targets for her ire. Content with the cool tenor of the meeting, she turned her attention to Gavin Rhedd.

“Yes, well,” the young man cleared his throat. His fore­head glistened where it met his close-cropped hair. “I’ve read through the, uh . . . the After Action Reports.” Rhedd swiped through several projections on an old clunker of a mobiGlas. “Every ten days we escort a new shift rotation to the Haven research facility on Tyrol V. But what can you tell me about the security require­ments for the staff transfer between the transport ships and Haven?”

The kid didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Maybe her Tyrol contract wasn’t quite the lost cause Major Greely made it out to be. Brock’s smile felt genuine as she started describing the ship-to-settlement transfer process.

This job was going to eat Rhedd Alert Security alive.

Min system was dark. In Goss, the jump points flowed with shimmering cascades of color. They boiled the Olympus Pool’s bands of gold, amber, and blood-orange in a dazzling display of celestial mystery. Min, on the other hand, was entirely different, and Gavin wondered how many ships and lives Min’s jump gates had claimed before they were suc­cessfully charted.

The approach was well marked now. Nav beacons lit a ten-kilometer channel leading six Rhedd Alert escorts and their charge, a Constellation Aquila with UEE designations, to the jump gate. The automated beacons broadcast a steady stream of navsat and transit status data in addition to lighting the visual entry vector.

The gate itself loomed large. It was an empty disc, invisible if not for the faint light from the beacons. That light bent, distorting into the maw of interspace that, if entered cor­rectly, would disgorge them out into the Nexus system. Stumbling onto an unknown jump point had to be a terri­fying experience. He’d seen images of dark gates, like the ones in Min, when the beacons were offline. Even knowing what to look for in those images, it was difficult to distin­guish the subtle smudge that represented a portal through time and space.

“Gate Authority Min,” Gavin read from a scripted authori­zation request, “this is Rhedd Alert Security, performing in compliance with Naval Systems Command regulations, approaching VFR and in support of UEE research vessel Cassiopeia. Request clearance for transit from Min to Nexus and confirmation of the approach.”

They didn’t need the call and response to make the jump to Nexus, but their contract required record of specific communications at all jump gates, as well as of the UEE staff transfers at each end of the run.

The gods only knew how many times he and Walt had hopped systems unannounced. In reflection, it probably should have felt strange entering a jump gate with legal tags and without local law breathing down his neck. But times change, and if Gavin got his way, they were changing for the better.

He received the expected challenge and responded with ship IDs that matched the tags for each member of the convoy. Gavin had stumbled over the formal exchanges on the first few missions. No one had complained, but he felt better now that he had a degree of comfort with the cadence and timing of the exchange. Hopefully, that degree of comfort inspired confidence in his new pilots and the UEE scientists aboard the Cassiopeia.

They got their clearance and Gavin sent the order to enter the jump gate. He took point with Jazza, each of them in place along either side of the Aquila. They slid into the gate with a familiar falling sensation. The cockpit seemed to stretch, elongating out and away from him in a rush of sound and color. It felt like someone had set a hook in his insides and pulled, stretching his gut tighter and tighter. Then something snapped and he was reac­quainted with the increasingly familiar constellations of Nexus space.

“Gate Authority Nexus,” he said, “this is Rhedd Alert—”

“Gavin,” Jazza’s voice was crisp. He was already check­ing his navsat displays when she continued, “We’ve got three ships inbound. Three hundred kilometers. Make that two-fifty! Gods, they’re moving fast.”

“Jazz, take Mei and Rahul to see what our new friends want. Walt, you and Boomer play goalie. If these guys take a run at the Cassiopeia, make them reconsider.”

A chorus of “copy that” erupted on comms and Gavin switched channels to address the UEE crew aboard the transport. “Cassiopeia, this is Red One. Accelerate in line with my mark and do not deviate from course.”

“Contact,” Jazza sounded calm, clinical. “They’ve got three F7 Hornets in a variety of configurations. They’re beat to hell with patchwork armor, but coming in fast.”

“They have any markings or insignia? What are their tags?”

“Nothing I can see through the mismatch of weapons and scrap parts.”

“Look out, they’re firing!” Mei said. “Holy hells, these guys are quick.”

“Gav,” Walt asked, “do we run?”

The After Action Reports from Brock showed a steady decrease in aggressive actions over time. Letting a new pi­rate outfit establish a foothold at one of their critical jump points seemed like a very bad idea.

“We fight,” he said. “We can’t afford to retake this ground every two weeks if we run scared now.”

“Whatever you’re going to do, do it fast,” Jazza said. “It’s three-on-three over here, and it seems these guys like to play with their food.”

“Walt,” Gavin said. “Take point. If they have friends, I don’t want to get herded into a trap.”

“Copy that.”

“All right, Jazz. I’m on my way to you.” Gavin pulled up hard, inverted over the Cassiopeia and accelerated toward the jumble of fighters.

Gavin had survived dozens of scraps before starting Rhedd Alert, but always as the aggressor. Being on the defensive was something new. It seemed strange that these crazy bastards were hitting six armed escorts.

“Jazza,” he was a couple hundred clicks out and had a good look at the scrum, “I’m coming up underneath you. Time to make this an unfair fight.”

“These guys are good, Gavin.” She grunted and her Cut­lass rolled in a loose corkscrew, putting her behind one of the marauders. She fired and its shields blazed. It pitched, nose down and thrusters reversing, to push up and above Jazza’s ship. The other two marauders swung into position on either side, and the three of them slashed toward Gavin like a knife blade.

He rolled to his port side and tried to accelerate around them. At least they couldn’t all fire on him at once that way. Rahul strafed overhead, pouring fire into one of the Hornets, but the marauders held their formation.

“Jazza, form up on me. Let’s split these bastards up.”

“Got it.”

They met and swept around to rush the trio of mis­matched Hornets. The marauders found Mei before he and Jazza were in firing range.

“Ah, hell . . .”

A barrage of precise bursts from wing-mounted laser cannons tore into Mei’s ship. It ripped entire sections from the hull, and escaping oxygen belched out in a roiling ball of flame.

“Damn it!” Gavin couldn’t see if Mei got out. He and Jaz­za blasted their way through the marauders’ formation. The Hornets scattered and reformed again behind them. “We’ve got a man down. Walt, we might need your help over here.”

“That’s what you get for staying to fight, Gav. We should have made a run for it.”

“We can talk about ‘shoulda’ later,” he said. “Get back here and . . . wait. Belay that.”

“They’re running,” Jazza sounded bemused. “Feels like they had us on the ropes, but they’re bugging out.”

Gavin watched thruster trails from the retreating ships. In moments, they winked out of Nexus space.

Cassiopeia is secure,” Walt said. “Are you guys clear?”

Jazza didn’t exactly answer him. “Now what do you think that was all about?”

Gavin’s HUD looked clear. Relieved, he found Mei’s PRB. Everyone was alive and they appeared to be alone on the Nexus side of the gate. Walt and the Cassiopeia were nearing the extreme range of his display.

“Walt, hold where you are. Stay sharp and sweep ahead. I can’t for the life of me figure out why they attacked three-on-six.”

“Maybe,” Jazza said, “they knew they’d kick our ass.”

“Or maybe this was a feint,” Gavin said. “Let’s not get caught with our pants down if there are more of them out here. Jazz, you and Rahul watch my back while I get Mei. We’re taking the first shots if they come back through.”

There was a general clamor of agreement. Gavin was beginning to suspect that military comm-chatter was much more sparse and far less democratic than Rhedd Alert’s constant banter. Still, aside from Walt second-guessing his every move, Gavin was proud of the team.

“I wonder if they’re waiting on the other side?” Jazza asked.

Walt was quick to respond. “We are not going through that gate to check.”

“Relax, Walt,” Gavin said. “A win is a win. And good rid­dance.”

At this point, Walt’s objection wasn’t a surprise. “Lucky win, you mean. In a fight we didn’t need to have.”

Gavin ignored him.

Though she was unconscious, the biometrics in Mei’s suit reported only minor damage. Her ship, on the other hand, was another story completely. Gavin started running some mental math, tallying the costs of parts, labor, and med tech fees. The results were cringe-worthy.

The attack would make this mission a financial loss, but the contract was still the leg-up Rhedd Alert needed. And the attack was probably an aberration, Gavin reflected, re­minding himself that Brock’s After Action Reports showed a steady decrease in hostilities over the past several years.

Unfortunately, they were about to find out just how little those reports meant.
h3. TO BE CONTINUED

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Source: https://robertsspaceindustries.com/comm-link/serialized-fiction/16986-Brothers-In-Arms-Part-Two

Brothers In Arms: Part One

Writer’s Note: Brothers In Arms: Part One was published originally in Jump Point 3.5.

The heads-up display on Gavin Rhedd’s Cutlass dimmed at the edges. Green triangles representing the members of his security team distorted to form horizontal spikes of flickering static. He smacked the side of his helmet. It was a practiced move, and one that had snapped the HUD back into focus in the past. This time, the display flickered, faded and then died.

A heavy breath sent a thin veil of vapor climbing the visor of his helmet. Condensation obscured the view of black, empty space ahead.

Empty like the dead heads-up display.

Empty just like it had been for weeks.

There were brigands and marauders plaguing every planet in the ’verse and he couldn’t find one damned gang. Nothing was working out like he’d planned.

On the navsat, the other three members of Rhedd Alert Security fanned out to either side. His brother Walt was locked into position directly to port. Jazza and Boomer were painfully out of position.

Sloppy.

Everyone was getting bored and careless.

Boomer was the first to break radio silence this time.

“Hey, guys?”

“What’s up, Boomer?” Walt was the first to respond.

“I’m cold.”

Jazza didn’t follow orders better than any of the others, and her banter had the comfortable cadence of friendly rivalry. “Then put on a sweater.”

“Hey, Jazz?” Boomer fired back at her.

“Yeah?”

“Take your helmet off for a tick.”

“Why’s that, old man? You want a kiss?”

“Nope. I’m hoping you get sucked out and die when I shoot a hole through your cockpit.”

Gavin sighed into his helmet before triggering his mic. “Come on, gang. I want comms dark. The miners on Oberon hired us to take care of their pirate problem. And the three of you chattering on an open channel won’t help us find them any faster.”

“I’m starting to hate this system,” Walt muttered.

They were all tired and strung out from weeks of long hours and no action. But Walt was killing their morale by giving voice to that frustration. This whole thing — Rhedd Alert Security, abandoning smuggling to go clean, applying for Citizenship — was something they’d agreed to do together. Gavin and Walt. Brothers. Going legit and starting a business.

It seemed a good idea when they were dodging system alerts and dumping a fortune into forged tags. But some things don’t change, and Walt was the same old Walt — all talk and no follow through. It wouldn’t be long before he came up with some excuse to move on to clearer skies.

“What’s wrong, Boomer?”

“Cold, Gavin. Think the heat’s out.”

Wonderful. Something else to fix. Maybe Walt wouldn’t be the first to quit after all. Dell would leave if Gavin let her father freeze to death over this rock.

Jazza barked a laugh, “Yep. That sounds about right for this outfit.”

“Jazza, will you shut up already? Which part are you having trouble with? Comms or dark?”

“Yes sir, Big Boss Man.”

“Jesus. I got more respect from you guys when we were criminals. Boomer, by all the Banu gods, why didn’t you tell me you were having trouble before we left the hangar?”

“I, uh . . . I figured to keep quiet until after the mission. Until we got paid, you know?”

This should have been a quick in and out job. But after weeks of fruitless hunting, even if they eventually drove off the pirates, the job would be a net loss.

“Hey, guys?” Jazza was really starting to get on his nerves. He told her as much. “Shut your hole, Gavin. I just wanted to let you know I found something.”

Gavin quickly studied the navsat console. The area looked empty other than the four of them, so whatever she’d found wasn’t showing up on any of his feeds. He smacked his helmet again in mute hope that the HUD would spring back to life.

“It’s a hull,” Jazza said. “Big one. Looks like a stripped Idris. Looks dead.”

“I’m not seeing you on . . . crap,” Walt said. “There you are. How’d you get way the hell out there?”

“Easy, folks,” Gavin said. “Boomer? You head toward Jazza. Walt and I will hold position.”

“Copy that.”

An Idris represented a fair chunk of creds as salvage. Strange that no one had claimed it. They were in Oberon to chase off pirates, but a little scrap job on the side was a welcome bonus.

“Jazza,” Gavin said, “I’ve got nothing near you on sensors. You think it’s just some floating junk?”

“I think so,” she spoke slowly, uncertain. “I thought I saw a heat trace, but I’m not seeing it now. Going in for a closer — Jesus!”

“Jazz,” Boomer’s voice was flat. The old man was all business. “Break right, I’ll pull this one off you and lead them back to the boys.”

“Can’t shake him.”

The navsat showed three new ships. A 325a with scrambled tags closed in on Jazza. Walt streaked past, already accelerating toward the fray, and Gavin turned to follow.

“Pull up hard,” Boomer said. “Bring him back around — Damn it.”

“Talk to us, Boomer,” Walt said.

“Jazza took a big hit. These guys are each sporting a Tarantula — the big one.”

“Hold tight,” Gavin said. “We’re nearly there. Walt, my HUD’s out. I need visual to fight, can you engage?”

“On it.”

“Hold on, Boomer. We’re coming.”

Walt was an incandescent streak ahead of him. The nearby space seemed deceptively empty without the visualizations that his HUD instrumentation would normally project. Only Oberon IV, looming beneath them, gave him any sense of perspective.

Walt’s voice crackled into the oppressive silence. “Boomer. I’m coming in low at your three o’clock.”

“Copy that.”

“I’m going to strafe with the repeaters to get their attention. You give that 325 a broadside he can’t resist. I’ll shove a missile somewhere the sun don’t shine.”

“Hurry, Walt. I’m too old for a three-on-one.”

“On you in five. Four. Three. Break now!”

Up ahead, razor thin beams of red slashed across space. The lasers streaked straight and then abruptly fanned out as Walt yawed around a pirate ship.

“Boomer!” Walt’s words tumbled out in a rush. “I can’t take a missile shot with you between us.”

“Can’t shake him.”

“Well that Tarantula is going to shake you plenty if you don’t.”

A missile streaked toward one of the pirate ships. Gavin saw a stuttering series of small flashes inside the cockpit, then the 325a vented a blazing ball of burning oxygen and went dark.

Gavin dropped into the swirling tangle of ships and added his own laser fire to the melee. Rippling blossoms of dispersed energy glowed against a pirate’s shields.

“That’s done it,” Walt said, “they’re gonna run.”

He was right. Realizing they were outnumbered, the remaining pirates turned together and accelerated past Jazza’s drifting ship.

And with them would go any hope of a profitable job. “Pen them in and stitch them up, guys.”

“Screw that,” Walt pulled up, quickly falling behind. “Let them run. They won’t operate here once we steal their hideout. We win, Gav.”

“This job won’t even cover our fuel costs, Walt. We need those ships.”

“I got ’em.” Boomer yawed around to pin the fleeing ships between them.

“Boomer,” Walt cried, “don’t!”

The pirate pair turned nose to nose with Boomer. Their guns sparked twice, muzzles flashing, and Boomer’s Avenger bucked from the impact. Most of the starboard wing spun away in a blaze of erupting oxygen. The pirates flew straight through the floating wreckage and streaked away at full acceleration.

Gavin cursed and slowed. Without his HUD, the fleeing pirates quickly faded from view. “Boomer? Talk to me, buddy.”

Boomer’s Avenger drifted slowly away toward the black. Then it burped, venting air and Boomer’s survival suit out into open space.

A new, flashing red icon reflected up and off the canopy of Gavin’s cockpit. He didn’t have to check the console to know it was Boomer’s recovery beacon.

He let his hands fall away from the controls, closed his eyes and let his head slump backwards. His helmet struck the headrest with an audible clunk. Colored lights sprang up to swim in front of his closed eyes.

Resigned, he cracked one heavy lid to peek out at the intruding light source. His HUD had decided to grace him with a reappearance.

“What. The hell. Was that?” Walt pronounced his words biting precision.

“Tarantula GT-870 Mk3,” Gavin recited in detail.

“I know about the damn guns, Gavin. I mean sending Boomer after them. We won. We had them on the run.”

“These ships don’t repair themselves, Walt. Maybe you haven’t done the math, but we’re broke. We need the salvage.”

“Salvage is nice, but Dell is going to kill you if Boomer is hurt again.”

“I’ll deal with Dell.” Gavin rolled his shoulders and settled his hands back on the controls. “Put a call in to Oberon. Let them know we took care of their pest problem and that we’ll tow away the clever little base the pests were hiding in to block scans. Then get Jazza patched up. Assuming the pirate survived, the two of you can drop him off before towing the salvage home.”

“Got it,” Walt’s voice was caustic, “money first. Good job keeping our priorities straight”

“Damn it, Walt. Will you stow the lip for two minutes so we can pack up and get everyone home.”

“Fine.”

“I’ll get Boomer. Can you please go see if you can get Jazza back up and running?”

“You’re the boss, little brother.”

Gavin pushed his family troubles to the back of his mind. Prioritize. First things first, take care of the crew. Get Boomer home. Repair the ships. Pay down some debt. He rattled off a painfully long list of critical next steps and one item kept rapidly, forcefully climbing its way to the top.

They really needed to get another job.

Walt beat the others back to the hangar. He matched rotation with Goss system’s Vista Landing and drifted along its length until he reached the Rhedd Alert hangar. He slowed and then stopped at three sets of wide double doors, each painted an alarming shade of red.

Hazard beacons floated in front of the first set of doors. Short bursts from tiny thrusters kept them in place a dozen meters out while a work crew applied high-pressure, ghost-grey paint over stencils of the Rhedd Alert logo.

Walt drew in a proud breath that pressed his chest against the confines of his flight suit. It looked cool having their name up in big letters on the side of the complex.

Then the moment soured.

The hangar and support staff were dead weight around their necks. The painting crew and logo were all part of the lease agreement with the station, but they served as a pointed reminder of the permanence of the commitment. Walt gnawed at his bottom lip, uncomfortable with the weight of the obligation.

He tried to put the sense of buyer’s remorse aside, but it sat heavy and rekindled his anger at Gavin. His brother wanted this company so much. Dell did, too.

Success — legit success — meant they could leave the old routines behind, forever. No more hiding. No more flipping tags every couple weeks to stay ahead of the Advocacy. Starting a company and working toward Citizenship was a big deal, but at what price?

Employing folks and applying for Citizenship was fine, but it started to lose luster in a hurry if success meant getting someone killed. Walt had to make sure Gavin saw that. They were all tired, but this was too important to wait.

“Knock knock, Dell,” Walt said. “Open up.”

D’lilah’s voice came over the comm immediately. She’d been waiting. “Bay 3, Walt. And mind the paint crew.”

“I see ’em. Glad to be home, Dell.”

Gavin touched down last, and Walt was waiting at the foot of the ladder when his brother slid down to the deck.

“Don’t start with me,” were the first words out of Gavin’s mouth.

“Listen,” Walt said, “Maybe I was out of line to second guess you during a fight, but we need to talk about what happened out there.”

“We won, okay? Right now I need to get Boomer to the med techs, and then contact Barry about another job.”

“Barry got us this job, Gav. I’m not sure if you noticed, but it really didn’t end so well.”

“We got sucker-punched by some thugs. That’s what happens when you get sloppy.”

He was talking about procedures and performance. Two of their ships got shot up, Boomer wounded and Gavin was grumbling about tight flight formations. Walt stretched his fingers, willing them not to form fists. His brother tucked his helmet under one arm and stepped to the side to move around him.

“Damn it, Gavin,” Walt grabbed the shorter man’s shoulder and pressed him back against the ladder. “Would you slow down for two seconds?”

He’d caught Gavin by surprise, but his younger brother was fast. Gavin slapped the hand from his shoulder, threw his helmet to the hangar deck and planted a two-handed shove of his own into Walt’s chest. “What’s your problem, Walt?”

The hangar grew quiet. A quick glance to either side showed the rest of the staff looking very hard for something productive to do, as far from the brothers as possible. Walt leaned in and hissed, “I’m trying to keep you from getting someone hurt. What’s the point of Rhedd Alert if we get everyone killed for one crappy job?”

“One crappy . . . ?” Gavin’s eyes were wide, showing white all around the edges. “You need to wake up, Walt. This was our only job. I got half the ships in the squad with parts falling off. I got Boomer freezing his junk off in nothing more than his flight suit. We can’t jump systems to hijack the next ship that comes along any more. This is what we signed up for, man.”

Walt was getting hot again. He knew he should walk away, but Gavin was still missing his point. “I know what I signed up for.” He knew that they had to make good on jobs, but why die trying just to pay the bill collectors? “And I remember why I signed up, too.”

Gavin stepped in again. Closer. “Oh yeah? And why’s that?”

“You, Gavin.”

“So everything’s my fault? Because I made you join up.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“I know I screwed up the bid on this job. I should have priced it higher. But guess what? I didn’t. And this is all we had.”

Walt lowered his voice, getting right in Gavin’s face. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. I’m here because you want this.” He jabbed a stiff finger into Gavin’s chest. “You want it for Dell. Because you’re afraid she’ll leave if you can’t pull it off.”

And then Gavin was on him.

They went down hard and Walt’s head cracked against the deck when they landed. Gavin was compact and built like a Sataball defenseman, but Walt had length and leverage. It was a dichotomy they had put to the test a hundred times since they were boys, with nearly uniform results. But Gavin just didn’t know when to give up.

The tussle was short and ugly. In seconds, Walt had one forearm jammed into the back of his brother’s neck, with the other propping himself up off the deck. Gavin’s face was pressed into the cold steel of the hangar floor.

Then the scuffed toe of a black work boot crunched down painfully on Walt’s fingers. His stranglehold on Gavin relaxed, and the smaller man started to squirm free. That was, at least, until the socketed head of a heavy wrench dropped on Gavin’s shoulder, pushing him back down, face first and flat onto the deck.

“Oomph.”

“Now, now, boys,” Dell said. “What are the neighbors gonna think?”

Walt winced, gritting his teeth as she ground his fingers against the steel deck. He craned his neck around to look at her. D’lilah’s boots were cinched tight by pink laces with a white skull-and-crossbones pattern stitched into them. She wore worn, canvas coveralls that hugged strong legs, pockets bulging with tools and spare parts. Her dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail that hung over one shoulder, and she’d dyed the last couple inches a bright, electric blue. The color was new since they’d left for Oberon. It was a playful accent that wasn’t echoed in the angry blue of her eyes.

“Oh. Hey there, Dell.” Walt struggled to keep a pinched note of pain from his voice. “Hello to you, too.”

“Unless the next words out of your mouth tell me where my dad is, you’re going to be working your stick left-handed.”

Gavin answered her. “Ease up, Dell.”

“Who’s got him?”

“I do.” Gavin nodded back toward his ship.

“Well then.” She lifted her foot and Walt yanked his hand back to rub at aching knuckles. He glared at her, as sour a look as he could manage while kneeling on the deck. Her smile feigned a sweetness that did nothing to thaw the frozen fury in her eyes. “I’ll fetch the buggy. If you two are done snuggling, it sounds like my dad has a date with the techs in the med center.”

Dell swung the wrench up to rest over one shoulder, spun on the balls of her feet, and strode away.

Gavin rolled over onto his back with a groan. “That woman is going to kill us one of these days.”

“Think we could outrun her?”

“You, maybe. There’s not a dark enough hole in the ’verse for me to hide.”

“Yeah, well,” Walt pushed himself to his feet with a grunt, “that’s your own damn fault for marrying her.”

Several systems away, on a station much larger and better appointed than Vista Landing, Morgan Brock scowled at a set of numbers on her mobiGlas. She lifted her eyes, shifting her gaze over the top edge of the screen to stare at Riebeld. The salesman sprawled casually in what Brock knew to be an uncomfortable chair. She made sure that it was uncomfortable, so no one felt confident when sitting opposite her desk.

Riebeld somehow pulled it off, though. It was that braggadocio that made him such a good breadwinner for her company. Irritating, yes. But good for business.

She powered down the mobiGlas. “The net profits on this estimate are based off a twelve percent commission.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I think we both know that your negotiated commission is ten, Riebeld.”

“And I think we also both know that this job could double the size of the company within two years.” He sat forward then and leaned on her desk. “I want twelve if I bring it in.”

“And you think I’m going to just give it to you?”

“I know you will.”

It was her turn to lean forward. It put her too close to him, and he should have backed off. He didn’t. “And why,” she asked, “is that?”

“Because I know that you’re not going to let principle stand in the way of profit.” His toothy grin was bright enough to deflect lasers. She was used to predatory smiles from men, but with men like Riebeld, it only meant there was money on the line. His mobiGlas chirped beside them. Riebeld had an incoming call.

He ignored it.

She waited for the incoming alert to stop.

It did.

“You get twelve,” she said. “But anyone who helps bring it in gets paid out of your cut, not mine. And I want three options for one-year extensions. Not one. Bring it to me with three or I won’t sign it.”

“Done.”

“Fine. Now get out.”

He did and Brock leaned back in her chair. She was going to need more ships. Riebeld would get the extensions or he wouldn’t. They gave him something to work toward, and he’d get sloppy if he didn’t have a challenge.

Good sales guys were like racehorses, high maintenance and temperamental. Most days, they were nothing more than a pain in the ass. Come race day, though – you always wanted one in your stable.

There was a quick knock on her door. Riebeld didn’t wait for her to answer before he shoved his head in.

“I won’t budge on the options, Riebeld. I want three or no deal.”

“No,” he said. “It’s not that. Navy SysCom just put our Tyrol contract up for rebid.”

“What?”

“Yeah. We’re allowed to rebid, but they’re putting it out for open competition.”

“Why the hell would they do that?” Escorting UEE scientists to the research facilities in Tyrol wasn’t their biggest job, but she’d put a lot of work into it. They’d spent years clearing the shipping lanes in the Charon system — lucrative years, admittedly — and now the missions were pure profit and promised future growth.

“I don’t have the full story yet, but apparently they are trying to push low-risk contract work out to local companies. Some brainiac in accounting identified the Tyrol run as a candidate and boom, Major Greely pulled the contract.”

“See what you can find out,” she said. “And get to work on the rebid.”

“Already got it covered.”

“And Riebeld?”

“Yeah?”

“Find me the name of that accountant.”

It was late when Gavin left the station. By way of apology, he invited Walt to join him on the short trip to Cassel to meet with Barry Lidst. Whether Walt came along as reconciliation or simply to avoid another run-in with Dell was unclear. Regardless, he didn’t seem inclined to talk about the argument as they flew, and Gavin saw no reason to bring it up.

Barry, a Navy SysCom accountant by trade and freelance rainmaker by inclination, had grown up with the brothers. He had left Goss to join the Navy while the Rhedd boys stayed to work the smuggling routes with Boomer and their father before he passed.

Officially, Barry was responsible for negotiating contracts between the UEE Navy and private vendors, but he also managed to broker a few off-the-record jobs on the side. He was, if anything, an opportunist, and Gavin trusted him about as much as he trusted any of the shady characters they’d worked with in the past. Which is to say, not at all.

The fact that Barry was involved with Dell before leaving to join the Navy didn’t factor into his opinion at all. Nope, not in the slightest. Still, Barry had come through with their first legitimate job. With luck, he’d have more.

Gavin swallowed hard, focusing on the fact that they needed work. Walt kept quiet. By the time Cassel swelled, massive, blue and inviting against the gold and turquoise bands of the Olympus Pool, Gavin could feel his brows drawing down into a scowl.

The brothers landed and made their way to a club that catered to the resort world’s local crowd. It was busy, of course, but Barry was waiting and had managed to find an open table.

“I was beginning to think you two bought it in Oberon.” Barry’s naval uniform was cut from some shiny material that was either freshly pressed or engineered to be wrinkle-free. It looked tragically uncomfortable, but did a reasonable job of hiding a rounded gut.

“Oberon took a bit longer than we thought,” Gavin forced a smile, “but we got them.”

“Everything go okay?”

“Absolutely.” He injected confidence into his words and hoped it sounded genuine. Walt looked at him sharply, but Gavin ignored him. They had to appear capable or better jobs were going to be in short supply. “Pirates are not a problem.”

Barry motioned them to sit and his voice took on a somber note. “Word is that Dell’s dad got busted up. He okay?”

“Jesus, Barry,” Walt said. “How’d you even hear about that?”

“I’m the government. We’ve got our eyes and ears everywhere.” Gavin stared at him and raised an eyebrow, waiting. “Yeah. Well,” Barry shrugged and took a sip of his drink, “those miners on Oberon might have mentioned something.”

“Boomer’s fine. Our ships took more of a beating than he did,” Gavin turned the subject away from his team getting shot up on the job. “I was surprised to hear you were in Goss system.”

“Mom retired here on Cassel,” Barry cast a sour glare around the room when he said it. “I’m just here visiting. Can’t stand it with all the tourist traffic, but she loves the shows and exhibits and stuff. Anyway, I’m glad you guys were able to help out in Oberon.”

“Happy to.”

“Stuff like this comes up from time to time,” Barry said. “It’s not like we don’t want to take care of it ourselves or anything. We do. But the Navy can’t send troops after every brigand and thug in the ’verse, you know? Particularly when they’re camped out in an unclaimed system. So, yeah. No one minds if we feed these jobs to indies like you guys.”

“Well,” Gavin said, “we’re light on work right now. Got anything for us?”

“I might have something — not UEE work, but still a decent job. And I know the client will be happy with your rates.”

Gavin’s heart sank a bit, but maybe they could increase their price without chasing Barry away. He encouraged the accountant to keep talking.

“The job is close, just a couple hops away. It’s hard work, but I can hook you up if you’re interested.”

“What’s the job?” Walt asked.

“You ever heard of molybdenum?” Gavin’s face must have looked as blank as Walt’s. “No? It’s a rare metal used in electronics and stuff. You find it near copper deposits. You know what? Doesn’t matter. A friend of mine knows a guy who just got his hands on the mining rights to a moon.”

“Mining,” Walt muttered. “Why is it always mining?”

“I guess the whole moon is riddled with tunnels and caverns. Apparently there used to be a bunch of copper there, but now all that stuff is gone. The only thing left is the molybdenum. This guy, he’s got three weeks to start producing or he loses his lease to the next prospector in line.”

“Barry,” Gavin said, “if you’re looking for a team to wear hardhats and swing pickaxes, you’ve got the wrong guys.”

“Naw, it’s nothing like that. They’re empty now, but someone set the caves up as a fortified base. Smugglers, probably. They put auto-targeting turrets in there. My guy told me they’re all over the place. Around every corner. Anyway, it’s all Banu tech. A group of them must have hopped over from Bacchus.”

“So what’s the job?”

“They need someone to comb through the whole thing and take out the turrets. They can’t send mining equipment and operators in there until it’s clear. Those guys don’t have shields.”

“That’s it?” Gavin asked.

“Yup. That’s it.”

Walt watched Barry across the table with a bemused tilt to one eyebrow. “That’s the most boring job I’ve ever heard of.”

“Hey,” Barry said, “if you want something with a little higher chance of combat, I’ve got a UEE escort contract up for bid. We were getting absolutely fleeced by the incumbent contractor. I finally convinced the major to rebid the job.”

Now that sounded exactly like the job Rhedd Alert needed.

“Tell me more about that,” Gavin said. “About the escort job, I mean.”

“I, uh listen,” Barry said. “I wasn’t really serious about that. No offense, but that is an armed escort through some pretty rough systems.”

This was it. The chance they needed. “Our guys can do it,” Gavin said.

“It’s a small job now, but it’s scheduled to mature into something big. I don’t even know if you have enough ships to meet the contract requirements.”

“Give us a shot. If we perform, I’ll find the extra ships and pilots.”

“The outfits that sign on for gigs like this are generally ex-military. Highly trained. Lots of contacts in Navy SysCom. Most of the contractors we use are actually based right next to the Navy in Kilian System. I was joking, guys. Forget I mentioned it.”

“No, we can do this. What’s the run? How many —”

“Gav,” Walt interrupted, “we’re talking naval flight formations and tactics. Superior weapons systems. Maybe we should get more info on the turret thing in the mulberry mine.”

“Molybdenum.”

“Whatever.”

“Come on, Walt. This sounds perfect for us. And I’d put you or Jazza up against an ex-Navy pilot in a heartbeat. Any system, any time.”

“Fellas . . . hey, listen,” Barry said. “The UEE is trying to push local work to local contractors. The big defense companies are fighting it. If you feel like sticking your hand in the middle of that fire, I’ll forward you the RFP. Good enough? In the meantime . . . about my buddy with the moon mine?”

Gavin half-heartedly followed along while Walt and Barry discussed the turret job, but in his mind they were already escorting UEE ships through hostile space. Walt startled him out of his reverie when he hushed a surprised Barry into silence.

“Wait,” Walt said, “back up a second. These Banu weapon systems. Did you say this stuff came out of Bacchus?”

“Probably. Why?”

“This moon . . . Barry, where is it?”

“Oberon VI, why?”

Gavin’s heart sank again. A glance at Walt did nothing to reassure him. His brother’s smile looked fantastically strained.

“Ah, come on,” Barry said. “You’ve already done good work for these guys.”

“They’ll kill us,” Walt said.

“Naw,” Barry waved at them dismissively, “They love Rhedd Alert.”

“No,” Walt said, “not the miners.”

“Who?” Barry looked concerned now. “Who’ll kill you?”

Gavin answered. “Our team is going to kill us if we drag them back to Oberon.”

“Hey,” Barry relaxed, “it’s a small ’verse. You’re going to end up passing through there sooner or later. Might as well get paid for it. Am I right?”

“Yeah,” Walt said, “but Oberon?”

“I did mention it pays, didn’t I?” Barry keyed something up on his mobiGlas. He turned it so they could read the projected display. At the bottom was a number. A not-insignificant number. Gavin stared at his hands as Walt absorbed the figures.

Walt’s head made an audible clunk when it struck the table. He groaned something muffled and to the effect of, “I can’t believe we’re going back to Oberon.”

TO BE CONTINUED

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Phantom Bounty: Part Four

Writer’s Note: Phantom Bounty: Part Four was published originally in Jump Point 3.4. Read Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.

Mila was a traitor. She’d risked her career as a bounty hunter . . . had betrayed her partner, Rhys, to free Casey. Was it all worth it? Had Casey been telling the truth about her father developing bioweapons?

Mila snuck a glance at Casey as she returned to the co-pilot’s seat. The dark-haired woman offered her a small smile, then harnessed herself into her seat. Mila’s childhood friend. A terrorist.

The emptiness of space loomed before them, nothing but darkness beyond Devana’s forward screen. Mila gripped the controls so tightly her hands ached.

“I’ve managed to mask our signal,” Casey said, “but it’s a temporary fix only. We have a half hour. No more.”

“How . . . ?”

Casey explained the method, and Mila shook her head, partially in awe of the hacking skills required, partially in dismay over the length of the resulting prison sentence if she were caught at it.

“Could have used that trick myself a time or two,” Mila muttered.

“Not if you want to stay on the right side of the law.” Casey cleared her throat. “After this is over. Of course. Just picked up the signal on the scanner. Gotta be my contact. The ship’s waiting a few clicks from the jump point.”

Mila’s hands grew tighter on the controls as she glanced at the scanner screen. Space normally held the dual promises of endless possibility and endless danger . . . but today it held only danger for her.

“Any sign of the Advocacy?” Mila asked tightly.

“Not yet. But . . . they’ll follow. They always do. Get me to my contact, and we’ll execute the plan.”

Mila tried to calm her breathing, but her heart was racing, and she couldn’t make it stop. It was supposed to be simple. Mila would pull up next to the contact ship; Casey would knock her out, then transfer to the other ship. When Rhys and the Advocacy found Mila, she’d tell them Casey took her ship and ran with it. Then everything could go back to normal. Or almost normal. Would Rhys believe the lie? Could she lie to him?

This was stupid. So stupid. She’d acted rashly. There was no way she could lie well enough to convince the Advocacy and Rhys that Casey had somehow escaped the containment pod, overpowered her, and then locked her inside. But Mila didn’t have another solution.

“Straight ahead.” Casey plotted new coordinates, and Mila followed the trajectory.

A long, sleek yacht came into view in front of them. A few thin lights gleamed along the length of the 890’s hull. The owner of this ship had plenty of money; Casey’s contact was the real deal.

“Freelancer,” came a voice over the comm. “State your business.”

Casey replied, “Tell S Whispering Wind approaches.”

“Around which sun does the finest planet orbit?”

“Ilios.”

Mila’s heart skipped a beat and she slammed a hand over the comm, silencing it. “Ilios,” she hissed. “Like the project?”

Casey’s brows rose for a split second, then her expression smoothed. “Exactly like that.”

“I thought you destroyed all that data.”

“S has cleared you for docking,” the comm interrupted, “but we’ll need to scan you at close range.”

Casey pushed Mila’s hand out of the way and hit the comms. “Roger that.”

“Tell me what’s going on,” Mila hissed. “What is this about Ilios?”

Casey sighed. “I can’t tell you about S. Or Ilios. If I did, I’d have to kill you.”

Mila tensed in her seat. There was no hint of humor in Casey’s voice. None. She was serious.

“I risked everything for you!”

“Look . . . all I can say is that People First has friends in high places. They support the cause. But not all friends are created equal. Many do things . . . for their own reasons. And can be persuaded to help if you offer the right terms.”

Mila pulled the ship up beside the much longer 890. “This contact is connected with People First? And what were her terms for you, to get you out of here and betray PF?”

The 890 commed them before Casey could answer. “We detect two life signs in the Freelancer. S says you were supposed to come alone.”

“I needed help getting here,” Casey replied tersely.

“S says both of you must board. Or we leave.”

Casey glanced at Mila with a veiled expression, “I’m sorry to drag you into this. But we both have to go over there.”

“No.” Panic rushed through Mila, and she tightened her grip on the stick. “No way. That wasn’t the deal. You go over. I stay here. Or I’m leaving.”

“Evony.”

“Don’t call me that,” she said through gritted teeth. “My name is Mila now.”

“Mila,” Casey’s voice was low, soothing. “How do you think it’ll look if we fly away now? They’ll shoot us out of existence and jump without a glance back. You have to go over there. I’ll make sure S sends you back here.”

“How will you make sure?”

“I just will. Now suit up. We’re wasting too much time. S definitely won’t be happy if the Advocacy shows up at her door. But I’m pretty sure you understand that.” Casey left her seat and headed back to suit up herself.

Mila stared at the yacht, trying to decide if she could outmaneuver it and escape. But then what? She had to get rid of Casey, not keep her on board. She let out a frustrated sigh, unbuckled, and headed back to her gear. She ignored Casey, not meeting her gaze.

Her injured shoulder, shot by Casey, cried out in pain as she pulled her suit up. She slapped a new numbing patch on it and continued dressing. As she closed the suit up, her hand touched her necklace.

Mila’s heart twisted as she pulled the bronze token over her head. She stared down at it, at the infinity symbol, the special iridescent “good luck” stones dangling from it, and a new wave of regret washed over her.

Rhys had spent some of their last creds on this. To make her happy. Mila took the necklace and tucked it in the space between the bunk and the wall. She didn’t deserve it. And it hadn’t brought her good luck anyway, had it?

When Mila got back to the cargo hold, Casey was suited up, her helmet under one arm.

“Ready?”

“Yeah,” Mila mumbled.

They both latched their helmets on, then Mila depressurized the cargo hold and opened the back ramp. She and Casey pushed off the ramp and drifted toward the 890’s rear lift. When they were inside the empty space, the cage lifted under them, and artificial gravity gently resumed. A light turned green above them, and Casey took off her helmet. Mila did the same.

They stared at the double doors before them, waiting in tense silence.

The doors finally slid open, revealing a broad-shouldered man in a dark grey flight suit. “S will see you now.”

The man stepped into the lift, one hand gripping a pistol, and gestured for Mila and Casey to enter the ship.

Mila squared her shoulders and met the man’s hard glare with one of her own. She wouldn’t be afraid of these thugs. She’d faced off against dozens of wanted criminals and come out on top. She could do it again.

Another pair of guards met them in the next corridor where it widened. One of them patted Casey and Mila down and removed their mobiGlas as the other kept his gun trained on them. When they were satisfied, they led them down the corridor and into a well decorated lounge.

Mila’s eyes darted around. The lounge was on two decks, and more guards looked down at them from behind the rail of the upper deck. By the taste displayed here, Casey’s contact was old money. It could have been owned by Mila’s parents or any of their friends on Terra. Silk panels from Rihlah, famous Terran brocade applied to the benches, a delicate glass and metallic table at the center, and a very impractical glass chandelier hanging from the middle of the ceiling. Iridescent stones decorated the chandelier, and Mila’s hand almost went to the spot where her good luck necklace used to be. They looked just like the stones on it.

Two more guards entered, bringing the total to five on the main deck. Mila’s lips parted as a woman, apparently the mysterious ‘S,’ walked in behind them.

It was the woman from the market stall where Rhys had purchased her necklace.

Mila did a double take. No . . . there were differences. This S was petite, with space-black hair and light blue eyes, just like the woman at the stall. But the woman before her wore a well-tailored suit and robe, not loose skirts. And her hair wasn’t done up in braids, and she didn’t have a nose ring. She looked more . . . well-preserved — her skin smooth, a product of youth treatments. This was not the same woman . . . but Mila would be willing to bet they had some relation to each other.

The woman walked up to them with a smile, and exchanged kisses on the cheek with Casey.

“Brought a friend?” she asked, raising a brow at Mila.

“Like I said. I needed a ride.”

“And who is this?”

Mila didn’t answer, just tried to keep her expression blank. She couldn’t let this woman know she knew anything about her.

“She’s just an old friend of mine,” Casey said, her voice light.

The woman’s eyes darkened, her polite demeanor fading a fraction. She gestured to one of the guards.

“Come with me, Elaine. Let us talk over here.”

Casey followed her to an ottoman near the center of the room, while the guard grabbed Mila’s arm and pulled her to the edge of the space and out of earshot of Casey and S’s quiet conversation. Did S know who Casey was originally? She’d called her Elaine, the name she’d used on Tevistal.

The two of them engaged in an intense, quiet talk for a few minutes and then Casey lifted the sleeve of her suit and peeled off a piece of her skin. False skin. Mila went cold at the sight of it. Casey hadn’t mentioned any hidden data . . . or details on the price for her passage. Casey scraped a chip from the skin and passed it to S.

Casey was selling data, probably Phan Pharmaceutical data. Had she lied about everything? Was she just stealing data to sell to competitors? Anger started to bloom in Mila’s chest, and she fought to keep her mouth shut. All that mattered now was that Mila get out of this alive and unscathed.

Casey finished her transaction and returned to Mila.

“What was that?” Mila hissed.

Casey’s expression was tight. “She’ll let you go back to your ship just as soon as she checks my payment.”

A new guard ran through the door. “Madame. The Advocacy was spotted by our scout. We need to jump. Now.”

“Wait — no.” Mila looked toward the door they’d come in. “Send me back. Send me back now.”

S shot them a glare and gestured to the guard behind Mila. “Take them each to a room until after the jumps.”

Jumps. This was starting to get a lot more complicated.

“Let me go back to my ship!” Mila’s voice rose.

Casey dug her nails into Mila’s hand and leaned close, whispering. “They won’t let you now. Keep it together if you want to survive this.”

Mila lurched to the side, trying to make a desperate run back out to her ship.

The guards closed in on her, grabbed both her arms, and dragged her the other way. She went limp, no longer fighting it as the realization of what had happened sunk in.

They took her up a flight of stairs and opened the first door they came to, pushing her inside.

“Harness up. We’ll be jumping soon,” one of the guards said.

The door slid closed and she heard the lock engage. Mila took a panicked look around the small room, and then sank down in the jump seat. Tears brimmed in her eyes as she buckled in. She’d messed up.

She’d always been able to get out of scraps before. Always. But not this time. She just kept sinking deeper into a pit that appeared to have no bottom.

The ship hummed softly as it powered up, and in mere minutes she felt the woozy sensation of the first jump. Another soon followed, and Mila’s hope died as they travelled further and further away from her ship.

When the Advocacy found the empty Devana . . . they’d know. They’d know she’d helped Casey escape. They’d think she was working with her.

And it would be true.

The stomach-lurching feeling of the third jump let Mila know her old life was over for good. Now she was a criminal . . . on the run. She could try to say Casey had kidnapped her, but why would she have? There was no good way out of this. And Rhys knew the truth; he’d known about their shared past. If the Advocacy pressed him . . .

Would Mila even get off this ship alive?

When the yacht powered down, Mila unharnessed herself and paced the small room.

Hours passed, and a guard brought Mila food and water. The reconstituted food tasted like death, like a last meal before the end, and a terrible one at that. She could barely wrap her mind around what she’d done — how much her life had changed in just a few hours. Then the locks disengaged on her door again, and she turned as it slid open.

Casey slipped through and quickly closed it. “The guards are busy . . . for the moment. This might be our only chance to talk.”

“You lied to me. You knew.”

“No. I didn’t. I’d hoped to get you back to the ship.”

“I can never go back now, Casey. Not ever.”

“Shh. I’m Elaine here.” Casey looked completely calm, unbothered by the fact that Mila’s entire life was hanging in the balance.

Mila rushed Casey and shoved her against the metal wall. “They’re not gonna let me walk out of here, are they? I’m an unknown entity. I was never supposed to be here.”

Casey winced with pain and her forehead creased with worry. “S — Sybil — will make sure she knows who you are before she lets you leave now. And when she finds out you’re a bounty hunter . . .”

“Well, I think I know something about her. There was this woman selling trinkets at the market—”

“A younger sister. You don’t say a word about knowing anything, understand? She’ll kill you if she thinks you know anything about her. She operates under the illusion that we don’t know anything.”

Mila backed away from Casey, feeling dizzy. “You lied to me. You’re selling data—”

“Not bioweapons! When we do jobs, we collect harmless, or even beneficial, research and sell it to fund our cause. But I’m funding my escape with it this time.”

“What is it? What did you just sell?” Mila’s voice rose as she spoke, and she tried to calm herself down, but her mind was racing.

“The formula for a medical treatment that hasn’t been patented yet.”

“How can I believe that?”

“Look, we don’t have time for this.” Casey placed her hands on Mila’s shoulders, forcing her to look her in the eyes. “You know about her family. She’s going to find out about you. There’s no way she’s letting you just go back to your regular life now. You have one choice.”

Mila shrugged off Casey’s hands. “What?”

“You come with me. I’m going to try to convince her to let us disappear together.”

“No!” Mila began to pace the room again. “I can’t just . . . leave the Empire.”

“If you stay — you just freed me and left your ship stranded next to a jump point. They’ll know you helped me. You have no other choice.”

“You think I don’t know what it looks like? You have to help me get off of here. Have them drop me off somewhere so I can . . . somehow make it right.”

“You know too much! About me — about PF — about Sybil.”

Red crowded around the edges of Mila’s vision, and it took everything she had not to wrap her hands around Casey’s neck and squeeze. “I helped you. You’d be dead if it wasn’t for me. You have to help me fix this. Help me get out of here.”

Casey folded her arms across her chest and glanced back toward the door. “I can’t.”

“You. Will.”

“They’ll catch you—”

“And it won’t matter to you either way. You’ll be long gone, hiding in Xi’an territory.”

Casey met Mila’s eyes and sighed. “Fine. Get yourself killed if that’s what you want.” She reached into her suit pocket and pulled out a translucent swipe card.

“Stole it off a guard.” Casey smiled ruefully. “This should get you into the corridor at the end of this one. They have a little 85X there. I know we’re stopping at a planet soon. Backwater, but plenty of places to hide. I’ll distract the guards for you. When I knock twice on your door, wait five minutes, then it’s time for you to go.”

Mila stared down at the card in her hand.

“Thank you again, for helping me. I owe you my life.” Casey wrapped her in a quick hug that Mila didn’t return. “I really am sorry. Try to be safe.” Casey gave her one last sad smile. “If you change your mind . . .”

“No,” Mila said, her voice breaking. “I’m going to fix this.”

The knocks came after Mila had given up on Casey ever following through.

Two knocks.

Mila grabbed her helmet off the floor and hugged it to her chest.

Heart pumping a chaotic rhythm in her chest, Mila waited through five tense minutes, then swiped the card Casey had given her. The door slid open to reveal an empty corridor beyond. She barely breathed as she gingerly stepped into the corridor and looked both ways. She turned right, as Casey had directed her to, and hurried toward the end. It curved right, taking her to a new door.

She said a quick prayer to the Banu god of luck that the room beyond would be empty, then scanned the card.

The door opened into a hangar bay. The 85X sat at the center of it.

An alarm sounded, and red lights began to flash in the bay.

Mila was sweating freely as she latched her helmet on.

“Hey!”

Someone tackled her from behind, shoving her down on the floor. She fought back, twisting in the man’s grasp until she saw him face to face. A guard, the one who had warned Sybil about the Advocacy’s arrival.

Mila slammed a gloved fist into his unprotected face, and he stumbled backward. She desperately climbed forward, trying to get into the 85X cockpit, but the guard followed her.

Depressurize Bay. The small words flashed in the corner of the cockpit’s interface. As the guard grabbed her leg, she hit the button on the screen. A whole new set of alarms joined the ongoing din. The man’s eyes widened, and he scrambled away from her, toward the hangar door. He scanned his key card, trying to make it open, but it was sealed shut. He would die if she didn’t do something.

Mila paused the depressurization and lurched out of the ship. She crashed into the man, seeking the pistol he held in his grip. She slammed an elbow into his gut again, and he released the gun. She picked it up and trained it on him.

“Last chance to get out!” she yelled. He stared at her wild eyed and scanned his card again.

This time the door opened. Several guards waited beyond, but he yelled something to them and they didn’t try to enter.

The door slid shut, and Mila climbed back into the ship, tossing the pistol into the seat beside her.

She brought up the Starmap, her hands shaking with adrenaline, praying that it would display more than a void. They were in orbit over a settled world! She chose a landing site to the west of the closest city. She could abandon the ship there, hide in the wooded hills, wait it out until she was sure Sybil and her guards had given up waiting for her to emerge. She chose her destination, and then completed the prep sequence.

The countdown began. She harnessed herself into the seat as the hangar bay opened, revealing black space behind.

She throttled up and took off, leaving the 890 behind.

Mila headed directly planetside, sparing little attention for the ship at her back. If they shot up the runabout, she would have no more worries herself. There was nothing she could do but speed to her landing site.

She pictured Rhys. His handsome face, his reassuring words, the way he’d held her. That smirk she’d probably never see again unless she got caught or found a way to fix this impossible situation.

As she entered the planet’s atmosphere, she spared the time for a few tears.

A few days ago she’d been hunting the Phantom.

Now she needed to become one.

Five Months Later

Mila wove her way through dark alleyways, keeping her head down, a hood concealing her face. A lock of her newly short-cropped blonde hair fell into her eyes, and she blinked as it irritated them. The green colored contacts she wore felt dry, scratchy. But at least from afar she wouldn’t be recognized.

She glanced back at a huddle of transients gathered round a rusty heater, and turned down the next alley. She’d reached the hostel sector.

It was dangerous being back in Tevistal so soon after the Incident, but she’d run out of options and time. A dozen small-time jobs had funded her existence along the way, but now there were even more bounties on her head.

She’d been hunted for months, had been nearly caught, but so far she’d always gotten away. And this was the one place they’d probably never expect her to return.

Mila gritted her teeth and walked down the dark alley between two hostels. A cracked globe flickered, guiding her to a hostel entrance. She pushed open the door, and the scent of piss wafted over her. It barely registered. This place was only half as filthy as most of the places she’d slept the past few months.

Voices rang through the thin metal walls. Arguments. The sound of two people moaning and grunting. An old vid playing at full blast.

Mila found an unoccupied room and went inside. Dim sensor lights lit up the room. The place had a film of filth coating it, but it would do.

She shut the door behind her and activated the second-hand mobiGlas on her wrist. Her hacking program did a quick job of activating the RoomTab. The lights and power came on in response, and she pulled her mobi away. It would stay on until she ran her program again. No creds needed. Which was good, because she didn’t have many left.

A glance around the now well-lit room brought a flood of memories back. The pain came with it, weighing Mila down. She sank to the dirty mattress.

She and Rhys had tracked the Phantom to a room like this once.

Mila did something she hadn’t done for weeks. She brought up the news search she’d saved to her mobiGlas, to see if anything had changed since she’d last checked.

PHAN PHARMACEUTICAL CEO UNDER INVESTIGATION

She rewatched the vid of Casey’s father being arrested with the sound turned off. Owen Phan’s face was the same regal countenance she remembered from growing up. When Mila had first heard that the truth about the biological weapons had leaked, it had been a relief to learn that Casey had at least been telling the truth about that. And even more importantly, Mila’s mother had been kept completely clear of the breaking scandal. Knowing that Phan wouldn’t be making weapons anymore was the only glimmer of light in these recent dark days.

Almost without thinking, Mila accessed another archived news story.

An image of herself flashed in the air before her. Or at least what Mila used to look like. It was the photo the Advocacy had been using on her bounty.

EVONY SALINAS CHARGED WITH AIDING AND ABETTINGTHE PHANTOM

The article speculated on the nature of the terrorism, on the relationship between Mila’s parents and Phan Pharmaceuticals, and on Mila’s motives. Even with the revelation of the biological weapons it hadn’t changed the fact that the Phantom had wreaked havoc for months. Casey, and by association Mila, were still considered criminals.

The article had included a small photo of Rhys as well. He had been held for questioning, but with no proof of any wrongdoing on his part he had eventually been released.

Mila reread the final line.

Evony Mila Salinas is still at large, with several bounties on her head for crimes ranging from petty theft to terrorism.

She scanned back up to see Rhys’s face one more time, but it was like a knife through her heart. She turned off the mobi.

She needed to get to Xi’an territory fast, and she only knew of one woman who could get her there. Sybil.

But she’d been unable to dig up anything useful on the woman. All she knew was that she was related to that peddler who had sold trinkets in the Tevistal market square on Pilgrim’s Day. So that’s who Mila needed to find. Sybil might have her guards shoot Mila on sight after what she’d done . . . but Sybil had helped Casey — for a price.

And Mila was desperate enough to pay just about any price Sybil asked. She’d learned a few weeks ago that Rhys was hunting her down, trying to bring her in, that her time was running out.

Maybe . . . maybe if he did find her again in Xi’an territory, free of Advocacy influence, she could explain. She could hope for his forgiveness, if nothing more.

But until then, she’d be a Phantom. Doing what she needed to stay free.

THE END

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Source: https://robertsspaceindustries.com/comm-link/serialized-fiction/16908-Phantom-Bounty-Part-Four

Phantom Bounty: Part Three

Writer’s Note: Phantom Bounty: Part Three was published originally in Jump Point 3.3. Read Part One here and Part Two here.

Mila and Rhys had chased the Phantom for months, had spent nearly every last credit, had put all their hope in finding her and collecting the bounty.

The Phantom stood in front of them at last, cuffed inside their prisoner pod. Mila should have felt elated, but all she felt was shock.

Evony Salinas. Mila had stopped going by Evony a decade ago, yet the Phantom knew her real name. And the Phantom’s face looked just like her former best friend’s — Casey Phan — a girl found murdered ten years ago.

It couldn’t be possible. But it was. The terrorist who had hit all those Phan Pharmaceutical labs was the founder’s own daughter. And she wasn’t dead. She’s alive.

Mila kept her eyes on the Phantom and wavered on her feet. Rhys reached out and grabbed her arm, steadying her.

“You’re supposed to be dead,” Mila whispered.

Casey swallowed and averted her eyes, looking at the wall behind them. “And you’re supposed to be on Terra.”

“You . . . you almost killed me.”

Emotions Mila hadn’t expected flashed across Casey’s face. Anxiety. Regret. “I swear I didn’t know it was you. You shouldn’t have followed me.”

Rhys stepped in front of Mila, blocking her view of Casey, and made a move to shut the pod.

“Stop,” Mila commanded.

Rhys sharply responded, “She’s a terrorist, Mila.”

“I need to talk to her.”

Rhys paused and stepped back, working his jaw. “We can’t stay here. We’re sitting ducks.” He looked at the Phantom. “Did you contact anyone to meet you?”

Casey pressed her lips together and didn’t answer.

Mila clenched her hands into fists. “Everyone thinks you’re dead. How could you . . . and now you’re attacking your father’s labs — killing people?”

Casey’s nostrils flared. “It’s not like that. I’ll tell you. But not with him here.” She pointed to Rhys. “I don’t know him.”

Rhys let out an abrupt laugh. “You tried to kill us three times today. That has to be some kind of record. Now you wanna give Mila some sob story, hope she’ll free you? Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.”

Casey went rigid as Rhys started searching her spacesuit for anything she might be hiding.

Conflicting emotions swirled within Mila, anger warring with relief. How the hell could Casey be alive? She’d seen the reports of her murder, she’d attended the funeral. It was basically a state ceremony, with many ranking Terran officials in attendance.

Mila wore a solid black floor-length dress and a widebrimmed Terran hat. She covered her face, crying the whole time as Casey’s father gave the eulogy. Afterward, her own mother stayed by her side every day, helping her to get through the grief. Her mother had always supported her until the day she’d turned her back on her family to become a bounty hunter.

And it had all started with Casey’s death.

Casey Phan was supposed to be dead.

Mila met Casey’s eyes. This . . . this person in front of her couldn’t be her friend. Was it some kind of trick?

Rhys finished searching Casey, found nothing, and slammed a fist into the button on the pod. The door eased shut, locking Casey away again.

When the door beeped, verifying it was secured, Rhys turned to Mila. He ran a hand through his brown hair, clearly trying to make sense of the situation. He shook his head. “Look. We gotta get out of here and back to Tevistal to hand her over to the Advocacy. We’re too exposed right now if she called for back-up.”

Mila nodded. She cast a glance back at the pod and saw the top of Casey’s head through the glass panel. Her head was hanging low, the expression on her face not visible. How could this be happening?

Mila’s stomach churned as she followed Rhys back to the cockpit. “Please. You fly. I’m no good right now.”

Rhys took the pilot’s seat and fired up the engines. He eased them away from the cargo ship and past Casey’s abandoned Cutlass, through the floating detritus of the junkyard.

Mila pulled up the scanner, searching for signs of powered ships, but she found none. The scans were either blocked by the debris, or they were alone out here.

She and Rhys sat in tense silence until they reached the edge of the junkyard. A few ships popped up on their scanner, but all of them were docked at the nearby platform, Septa. None of them were headed their way.

“The Advocacy will want to go back and search her ship.”

“I logged the coordinates,” Mila said.

They pulled into open space, and the revelations of the last few minutes hung heavy in the air between them.

Mila took a deep breath.

“You asked me back on Tevistal . . . you asked why I couldn’t let this bounty go?”

Rhys nodded, but didn’t speak.

Mila sighed and settled back in her seat, trying not to be so aware of Casey, locked in a pod behind them. “Casey and I were really close. We grew up together. My father owned a components manufacturer, and her father owned a biotech firm, and they did business together. Our families spent a lot of time together. I thought I knew her.” Mila’s voice broke, but she forced herself to continue. “When I was sixteen, Casey went missing. They eventually found her body off-world — she’d been murdered. Her father threw everything he had at finding her, then at trying to track down her killer, but they never figured it out. I thought she was kidnapped or lured off planet. I couldn’t believe she’d just take a transport off-world and not even tell me where she was going.”

“So everyone believed she was dead.”

“Yeah. They did. I did.” Mila turned toward Rhys and gripped the armrest tightly. “Casey’s death ten years ago was the reason I went into bounty hunting. I couldn’t get justice for Casey, but I could for others. My family basically disowned me when I left. And when a terrorist started attacking Phan Pharmaceuticals again a few months ago. . . it brought up all those old feelings.” Mila’s eyes burned, and she tried to keep tears from coming, but failed. “Casey’s murderer had gotten away, but now someone else was hurting the Phan family, and I could actually do something about it this time.”

Rhys stopped the ship and let it drift. He took off his harness and leaned toward her to wipe the tears from her cheeks.

“Thank you for telling me.”

Mila unstrapped her harness and got up. Rhys stood with her, wrapping her in a hug, which only made her cry harder. She gave in, letting him hold her for a few moments, then got it together and wiped her eyes.

She stepped away from him and blew out a breath. “I gotta talk to her. I can’t hand her over without finding out the truth. I need to know what happened.”

Rhys narrowed his eyes. “I don’t trust her. She’s dangerous. I need you to remember she’s not the friend you grew up with. She might say anything to gain your sympathy.”

“I know. I know. I just . . .”

“I’ll stay up here. . . I can listen in if you want me to.”

“No. She said she wanted to talk to me alone. Do you trust me?”

Rhys touched her face, wiping away the last of her tears. “You know I do.”

Mila gave him a small smile and went to clean up at the sink to make sure she didn’t look a mess. She couldn’t let Casey see how much of an effect she’d had on her. Rhys was right. Casey was a terrorist now. She’d faked her own death. Those were the actions of a sociopath, at the very least. But she still needed to hear what Casey had to say.

Mila typed in the pod’s code and stepped back as the door swung open. Casey blinked at her blearily and then straightened her shoulders.

“I want to talk,” Mila said.

Casey narrowed her eyes. “Where’s the other guy? I want proof he’s not listening in.”

“He’s not. Take my word for it, or I’m closing this pod. You won’t get another chance to talk.”

The tension hanging in the air was palpable, and a trickle of sweat made its way down Mila’s back.

Finally Casey relented, and she gave a stiff nod.

Mila let out a breath. “Why did you fake your own murder?”

Casey’s eyes softened at something she saw in Mila’s face, which threw Mila off balance again. Could a sociopath show empathy? Or was she faking that, too?

“That’s not what happened,” Casey said. “Trust me . . . it’s eaten away at me that people I loved thought I was dead. But it was better that way. Safer for everyone involved.”

“Explain.”

“Are you taking me to the Advocacy now? How far out are we?”

Mila stepped forward and jabbed a finger into Casey’s chest. Casey flinched back. “No. I’m asking the questions. And you’re answering. What happened to you?”

Casey licked her lips. “Right before I . . . before I disappeared . . . I discovered some things. About what my father’s company was doing. Illegal bio testing on Human subjects. The more I dug the worse it got. He was making bioweapons, Evony.”

“Mila. My name is Mila now. And you’re lying. If your father was into any of that, the UEE would have shut him down years ago.”

Casey barked out a laugh. “There’s so much that goes on under the surface. People get paid off along the way to keep things hidden. ‘Law-abiding’ Citizens deal in just as much dirt as the people you hunt. But I guess you wouldn’t see it that way. I mean, you’re a bounty hunter now. How did that happen?”

Rage flooded Mila. I did this for you. She suddenly couldn’t stand to look at Casey any longer. She lifted a hand to shut the pod.

“Wait,” Casey said. “Okay. You don’t have to believe me, but I’ll tell you everything.”

Mila let her hand fall away from the button. “Fine. Talk.”

“I heard my father on a private comm. . . He said things about experiments, getting rid of the evidence. It scared me. So I snooped through his mobi, found what I had hoped I wouldn’t — terrible, cold reports. Then I had proof. But I didn’t know who to go to.”

“We were close.” Mila’s words came out like an accusation. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I was terrified you’d go to your parents. Do you know how much stock they have in Phan Pharmaceuticals? They’d want to cover it up just like my dad did. When he caught me poking around, he got so angry I knew he was guilty. I needed to find a way to stop him . . . but how could I turn my own father in to the UEE?”

“You apparently don’t mind blowing up his facilities and employees.”

“I didn’t . . .” Casey shook her head, looking frustrated. “Just listen. I showed up at a few of those anti-pharm meetings. I met a guy who called himself Desh. Said he and some others were secretly working to stop the pharmaceutical corporations that engaged in dirty work. I confessed I had information about a company — and he promised if I provided proof, he and his friends could make it stop. They said that no one else would get hurt.”

“Seriously? You expect me to believe this? Were you really that stupid?”

Casey’s face screwed up with regret. “I was sixteen.”

“And what happened at these meetings? What happened with Desh?”

“He asked me to bring the proof with him to meet the other members. He and I boarded transports separately and met up off-world. But it all went sideways from there. He took me to a ship waiting at the edge of the system, and that’s where I found out he was part of PF.”

“People First. Yeah, I know them. Bunch of conspiracy theory nut jobs. They weren’t mentioned anywhere in your bounty. You work alone. And they were smalltime. They haven’t been active in years.”

“You’re wrong. They’ve just gotten better funding. And got better at covering their tracks.”

“So what happened? You just . . . faked your own death and joined PF?”

Casey shook her head sadly. “Not exactly. Two Advocacy agents infiltrated us. Desh took them both out, but not before they transmitted an image of us back to Terra. We got out of there, but I couldn’t go back to Terra.”

This had to be an elaborate lie, but how else could she explain how her dead friend had disappeared from Terra as a teenager and turned up as a terrorist ten years later?

“PF took me with them,” Casey continued. “They helped me disappear. They had people still on Terra who told me that my dad covered it all up . . . made it look like I was just an innocent bystander who died during the shootout. He made sure my name wouldn’t be connected with PF. He covered it up with your mother’s help, Ev.”

Mila’s pulse sped up, and she shook her head. “No. No, my mother wouldn’t do that.”

“She did.” Casey’s voice turned bitter. “Remember, my dad was making a run for the Terran Senate that year. He couldn’t have it getting out I was seen with terrorists.”

Mila pressed her lips together and laid a hand on the wall to stay standing. Her mother. A cover-up. She felt suddenly dizzy. Nauseous. Her mother had high-level connections as Chair of the Governors Council Budget Committee. If she was part of a cover-up . . .

“PF protected me,” Casey said again, interrupting Mila’s thoughts. “They gave me a new identity. I soon learned they destroyed facilities where illegal experiments were taking place. They freed test subjects who could be saved. We have benefactors in and out of UEE space that help fund our mission. PF seemed to be doing the right thing.”

“You sound proud of yourself.” Mila’s voice rose. “Proud to be a terrorist. How many people have you killed?”

“I didn’t.” Casey pulled against her restraints like she wanted to move her hands, plead with Mila to believe her. A desperate look crossed her face. “Whatever they say about me isn’t true. I get in, get the goods, destroy the labs, and get out. I’m not a murderer.”

“You almost killed us. You planted a bomb in a hostel.”

A rueful smile cracked through Casey’s desperation. “But was it empty when you showed up?”

Mila narrowed her eyes and didn’t respond.

Casey nodded. “It should have been empty. I paid a guy to warn everyone. It wasn’t my fault if they stayed.”

“So that’s how you sleep at night. You just lie to yourself. Explain away everything bad you do.”

Casey got quiet and averted her eyes. “No. I do what I have to do. Doesn’t everyone?”

“Why are you even telling me all this?”

“You wanted to know.”

“If you think it’s going to make me free you . . . it’s not. The Advocacy will try you for your crimes. You have to pay for your choices.”

Casey’s eyes widened. “Look — the things I’ve done probably have saved millions, maybe billions of lives. Do you know what was in the last lab I hit? They were working on a bioweapon that could take out entire worlds. Entire worlds, Ev. My father has been playing with fire for years, and we finally had the funding and information we needed to hit his labs. If I didn’t do these jobs, some other PF agent would have. And they might have left fewer survivors. He’s my father. His crimes were my responsibility. But. . . that job was the last job I was ever going to do for them. You have to believe me.”

“I don’t. Of course you’d say it was your last job.”

“I was giving it all up. PF doesn’t just let people quit the organization . . . once you’re in, you’re in for life. I was on my way to meet someone who was going to smuggle me into Xi’an territory. If you let me go now, you’ll never hear from me again. But I have to go somewhere they can’t find me either.”

Mila stayed silent for a few, long moments, then finally met Casey’s eyes. “You were my best friend. I would have done anything to help you.”

“You can help me now.”

“No. You’re the Advocacy’s problem now.”

Real fear appeared on Casey’s face. “The Advocacy can’t protect me. The second I’m in custody, I’m a liability to PF. I’m a problem to be taken care of. There’s a reason no one knows much about them. And if they don’t get me, my father will.”

Mila’s chest tightened, and she found herself repeating the words Rhys had said to her back on Tevistal. “There’s always a choice. Always. You made the wrong one. I’ll make sure you’re taken to a secure facility.”

“I have to warn you, then. If I do manage to make it to trial . . . I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure my father is exposed. Your mother covered up my death, so I can’t promise she won’t be a casualty. After that . . . if my father doesn’t kill me, PF will. If you hand me in . . . you’ll be responsible for all of that.”

Mila’s anger flared. “Is that a threat? No. You’re responsible for all of that.” Mila slammed a fist on the pod button and the door swung closed on Casey, beeping when it sealed. Breathing hard, Mila stalked back to the cockpit.

Rhys lifted his brows, waiting for her to speak.

“You were right. She’s a liar. Every word out of her mouth was a lie, and she just wants me to free her.”

Rhys narrowed his eyes, searching Mila’s face, worried about her. He ran a hand along her arm. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Mila said, trying to talk around the giant lump in her throat.

“You just gotta keep remembering . . . that’s not your friend in there. It’s someone else.”

“I know. Let’s just get her back to Tevistal.”

Mila and Rhys strapped back in, and she kept the scanner up as they retraced their course back to the planet they’d just left.

“I’m exhausted.” Mila leaned back in the seat. They hadn’t slept in almost twenty hours.

“As soon as we hand her over we’ll crash.”

Mila murmured a noncommittal reply.

“Do you want to sleep while I fly? You do look like you need it.”

“Oh, thanks. No. I don’t think I could, even if I wanted to.”

“Are you really okay?”

Mila released her long brown hair from its tie and ran her fingers through it. “Honestly? No.”

“I’m ready to hear what she said, whenever you’re ready to share it.”

“Just what you said she would. Claimed she wasn’t a bad terrorist, whatever that means. She says her father is into . . . illegal testing. She says she’s working with PF — the People First crazies.” Mila pressed her lips together. She couldn’t bring herself to say the things that could implicate her own mother.

Rhys worked his jaw. “So Casey’s a front for something bigger, and her dad is just as bad as she is, but no one in the entire UEE has caught on to it in more than a decade.” He shook his head. “Well, the Advocacy will know what to do with her. It’s not our job.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Mila thought of the young girl she’d been friends with. Thin and petite, long black hair always hanging in her intelligent eyes. “I don’t get it.”

“People change.”

“Ever since we were children, though . . . When we were twelve, there was this girl at school, Lia. Really wealthy, who held these ridiculous parties at her mansion. They’d bring in games, expensive prizes, the kinds of rides you’d find at fairs. It was crazy. We were all friends with her . . . until I accidentally insulted her one day at Academy. So I was the only one not invited to this party. Casey announced she was done with Lia in front of everyone, then stayed home the night of the party, watching old vids with me in our crash room. She was always doing stuff like that for the people she cared about. Always so . . . loyal. None of this adds up.”

“There’s never a good enough reason to do what she’s done.”

A long silence stretched on between them, and Mila’s mind struggled to come to terms with the Casey she’d known and the Casey locked up in the pod on Devana.

The story Casey had told . . . about finding the illegal research, about deciding to fix it herself . . . it did line up with the old Casey. It made Mila doubt . . . everything. And the fact that she felt doubt scared her. There was no room for doubt in this job.

“What if Casey’s telling the truth?” she blurted out.

Rhys stiffened in his seat. “Then we let the Advocacy determine that,” he said carefully. He looked toward her, studying her face. “We stick to the mission. The right thing to do is hand her over. If they determine she’s telling the truth, the proper authorities can handle it. You and I will get away from all this . . . get some downtime. That was the plan, right?”

“Right,” Mila answered quickly.

After a few awkward minutes, Rhys cleared his throat. “You know, this is the most you’ve ever told me about your past.”

“You’re a bounty hunter.” Mila said, glad to drop the subject of Casey. “Didn’t you research me before we went into business together?”

Rhys smirked, but it had no real mirth behind it. “Yeah. You did a good job wiping yourself off the map. Evony, huh?”

Mila winced. “Yeah. My family kind of disowned me when I joined the guild. This wasn’t the life they had planned for their only child. I decided to start over, use my middle name.”

“We all have histories . . . and a lot of us choose bounty hunting to leave those behind. I followed my gut about you.” Rhys met her eyes, and she could see the open trust displayed there. “And I know I made the right decision.”

Mila smiled, and they lapsed into silence for the rest of the flight back to Tevistal.

Rhys trusted her.

But could she trust herself?

The pit in Mila’s stomach grew worse as Rhys landed back at the Tevistal docks. He commed with maintenance and used up the last of their creds to get the forward screen patched and the maneuvering thruster replaced.

“I have just enough to hire a hover,” he said to Mila, as he brought up the Advocacy office address and a list of the agents who worked there. “We can’t risk broadcasting the Phantom’s whereabouts. I know this Advocacy agent,” he said, pointing to a name. “I’ve worked with him before, and I trust him. I’ll make contact with him personally so we can hand Casey over. Then we get paid, and we get outta here.”

Mila nodded, and Rhys headed back to their quarters to change into planetside clothes and grab his gear. Mila squeezed her hands tight in her lap and watched as the workers began to patch the cockpit from the outside.

I can do this. I can turn Casey over.

Mila stood up as Rhys headed back toward her.

She lowered the forward ramp for him and looked up at him, at the worry on his face, wondering what her own face looked like. His eyes crinkled around the edges and he leaned down to press his lips to hers. She kissed him back, relishing his warmth, willing Rhys and his loyalty and trust to erase her doubt over Casey.

He wrapped her in a tight hug. She listened to the thump of his heart beneath his shirt, and a new feeling of dread bloomed within her.

She didn’t want to let him go, but he finally pulled away. “I should be back soon with agents. Don’t let anyone inside this ship.”

“I won’t.”

“Everything will be fine.” Rhys kissed her gently again, and then she was watching his back as he headed down the ramp to the docks.

Mila retracted the ramp and went back to the co-pilot’s seat, not allowing herself even to look at the pod holding Casey.

She’d never had such a hard time turning in a criminal before. But then, she’d never personally known a criminal like this. It was good Rhys was handling it. She couldn’t.

He had faith in her, and that meant everything. This was her life now. And she needed to do her job.

But . . .

Mila activated her mobiGlas and accessed the local network. She searched a decade back, looking for old news posts about Owen Phan and Casey Phan’s death.

The first image she pulled up was of Owen Phan during his failed Senate run. Owen and Casey’s mother Lynn stood together at a charity event. And next to them: Mila’s parents. Mila’s heart lurched. Her mother stood between her father and Owen. She pulled up another dozen images, and more than half of them showed her parents with the Phans. If Casey was telling the truth, then Casey’s trial would destroy both their families.

And if it was true, it meant her own mother had lied to her, let her mourn when Casey wasn’t even dead. Mila took a deep breath and pushed down her anger at the thought. She searched for articles on Casey’s death.

Phan Pharmaceutical Heir Found Murdered Off-World

Mila had read this statement dozens of times. Casey had taken a trip on her own. Someone had killed her. Wrong place, wrong time. Murderer never found. Family devastated. No new leads. Case closed.

Mila ran a new query.

Phan Pharmaceutical, Illegal Bioweapons

More than a thousand results appeared. Mila raced through them. Most of them were PR releases from Phan Pharmaceutical themselves, promoting all the hard work they’d done to stop the creation of bioweapons. Spectrum wasn’t getting her anywhere. She was going to have to dive deep into the boards. She switched her profile over to a persona she had built up for just such occasions and began pinging threads.

Within seconds messages appeared.

Illegal test subjects.

Proof of bioweapon development.

Suspected facilities.

Heart in her throat, Mila scanned the documents someone named “DarkStar” had uploaded. The list contained all the facilities the Phantom was reputed to have hit in the past few months. Why hadn’t Mila thought to do this research before? She’d been so focused on tracking down the Phantom, she’d ignored any possibility that Phan Pharmaceuticals might have done something to deserve the attacks.

But there was never a good reason for terrorism. There wasn’t.

Another user had posted documents with the claim that Phan’s research facility on Gen was up to its eyes in psychoactive weapons. It was the third facility the Phantom had attacked.

Mila pulled up the documents. Internal memos with the Phan Pharmaceuticals logo on top. Redacted statements recovered. References made to the ILIOS Project. Mila skimmed them, her heart pounding.

100% fatality rate

Spread quickly through physical contact

Quarantine

Buyers from four worlds

This wasn’t proof. Maybe they were working on a cure for something, not a disease. But what disease still existed that had a 100% fatality rate . . . something people would want to buy a cure for? Mila exited her search and got to her feet. Her hands were shaking as she made her way back to Casey’s pod and typed in the code. It beeped back at her and flashed red.

She tried it again. It denied her access. Again.

Rhys had changed the code on it. He hadn’t trusted her.

The realization was a kick in the gut. She assumed things . . . believed things to be true. She’d thought he trusted her. But she’d built her whole life on lies. And now everything she’d taken as truth was falling apart around her.

Mila swallowed hard and held her mobiGlas up to the panel. She activated the hack program she’d used back at the hostel, and the door swung open.

Casey blinked at her. “The Advocacy here?”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth about the bioweapons? Do you have proof?”

Casey’s eyes widened. “I destroy everything when I go in. That’s the point.”

“I can’t —”

“Evony. I knew you. You knew me. Am I lying to you?” Her eyes were wide, pleading. Mila shook her head. “I don’t know . . . I . . .”

She met Casey’s eyes and tried to see the girl she used to know. Mila couldn’t be responsible for her childhood friend’s murder. Not after she’d already grieved once. And she couldn’t risk Casey bringing down the whole Salinas family with her. Because something in her gut told her that her mother might well have done whatever it took to help the Phan family succeed. Her mother was perfectly capable of manipulating reality to fit with her goals.

Mila groaned. “If I let you go, you’ll leave? You’ll leave and never come back?”

A light sprang into Casey’s eyes. “If you can help me get to the meeting with my patron, she’ll get me into Xi’an territory. You’ll never see or hear from me again. I swear it.”

“I don’t want Rhys involved in this . . . I’ll say . . . I’ll say you overpowered me, stole the ship. They can find me later.”

“Yes. We’ll keep him out of it. I promise.”

“You better not make me regret this.” Mila used her mobi to release the cuffs from the interior bar.

Mila clenched her jaw tight as she loosened Casey’s cuffs. If she was wrong about this, Casey could try to overpower her right now and escape. But the blows never came.

Instead, Casey threw her arms around Mila, surprising her with a tight hug. “You won’t regret this.” She stepped back and massaged her red wrists. “Now tell me what I need to do.”

“I’ll fly us out of here,” Mila said. “You navigate us to your meeting point.”

They hurried to the cockpit, and Mila barely breathed, still expecting a betrayal, waiting to see if she’d made a mistake. But Casey didn’t turn on her. Not yet, anyway.

Right after they’d strapped into their seats, the comm crackled. “Mila,” Rhys’s voice came through. “Ten minutes out by hover.”

Mila jabbed a finger into the comm. “Received. Everything’s . . . good.”

“See you soon,” Rhys said.

Dread threatened to engulf Mila, but she tried to ignore the feelings as she took the controls. In the seat beside her, Casey pulled up the comms and requested emergency clearance to take off.

If they made it off-world, Rhys would never, ever forgive her. But it was too late. She’d made her decision, and now Casey Phan, the Phantom, sat beside her, ready to escape UEE space once and for all.

Clearance came in, and Mila fired up the engines.

“Thank you, Ev. I mean it. I don’t deserve your trust after . . .”

Mila just shook her head. “No. You don’t.”

“Mila.” Rhys’s panicked voice came over the comm. “Mila, I have you in sight. Why are the engines fired up? What’s going on?”

Mila activated the comm, and winced against a jolt of pain in her shoulder. The numbing agent was fading, the burn from her pistol wound returning. Casey had shot her, and here she was freeing her. Mila stared at the comm and tried to think of what she could say to Rhys. But there was nothing to say.

She’d have to lie to him if she got out of this alive. Whatever they’d had together . . . it was over now, burned by her decision. And the less he knew, the better off he’d be.

I’m so sorry, Rhys.

She removed her finger from the comm without saying a word and lifted Devana into the sky.

TO BE CONTINUED

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Source: https://robertsspaceindustries.com/comm-link/serialized-fiction/16876-Phantom-Bounty-Part-Three

Phantom Bounty: Part Two

Writer’s Note: Phantom Bounty: Part Two was published originally in Jump Point 3.2. Read Part One here.

Devana lifted through the sky, and the gleaming towers of Tevistal faded away beneath the cloudline. Exhilaration raced through Mila at the feel of the Freelancer moving through the air, her back pressed against the well-worn pilot’s seat, all of the heady power of the ship under her command.

This was the one place she always felt free and in control, as if she could be anyone and do anything. But open space was a double-edged knife, filled with the promise of both endless possibility and danger. And today it was danger she and Rhys were headed toward: their last chance to catch the Phantom. To catch the terrorist who called herself Elaine.

“Did I ever tell you I love watching your face when you fly?” Rhys smirked at her from the co-pilot’s seat.

Mila warmed at the look in his eyes and lifted a brow. “I think you love watching my face when I’m doing . . . lots of things.”

Rhys grinned at her, and Mila knew they were both recalling the quick fun they’d just had in the bunk while waiting for clearance. She wasn’t going to try to label this relationship as anything other than business . . . for now. But being business partners with benefits sure was nice for the built-in stress relief.

When they finished their ascent and hit the emptiness of space, Rhys brought up the system map on the HUD and set a course for Mila to follow. She altered their path to follow a trajectory that would take them to the orbital platform at the edge of the system.

“If that dock snitch told the truth,” Mila said, “the Phantom’s headed to the orbital platform to meet her contact. But what do we know about this Septa platform?”

Rhys brought up the system map and searched for available data. “Septa’s owned by a company called McGloclin, but it looks like they haven’t been active out there for a while. Not sure what we’ll find on the platform. Maybe company workers, probably vagrants. No Advocacy agents there or any law officers at all since the corporation is supposed to be in charge. There’s a pretty large debris field drifting a few klicks from the platform.”

“Great.”

“Here, give me that tag number so we can scan.”

Mila pushed up her sleeve, and Rhys held his mobiGlas up to hers to grab the tag data the WiDoW addict had given them. It transferred over, and he ported it into Devana’s system. “Activating the long-range scanner.”

They both tensed as the scanner completed its initial search.

No hits.

A twinge of disappointment hit Mila, but it didn’t do much to dampen her excitement. “Well, we’re still too far from the platform, if that’s where she is. I’m sure the scanner will pick up something . . . soon.”

She and Rhys rode in comfortable silence born of months of flying together, but as they approached the platform, Mila recalled how Rhys had acted back on Tevistal. How she had acted.

He’d been controlling and had tried to keep her out of harm’s way when he’d needed back-up. And she’d acted hotheaded, violating their agreement about her handling tech and him dealing with contacts.

And now, this was probably it — the end of this mission, whether they caught the Phantom or not. If Elaine escaped, they’d have to find a new bounty, and that would take time and more creds they didn’t have. They needed to keep clear heads if they had any chance of succeeding today.

“Hey,” she said softly. “We’ll play this by the book this time, yeah? I take care of tech. You haggle and get info. We work together once we get close.”

“Agreed.”

“Just one thing.” Mila swallowed and met his eyes from across the small space. “You have to allow me to do my job. If there’s danger, we handle things the way we always have. This . . . this thing we have can’t get in the way of that.”

Rhys’s jaw tensed, and he didn’t answer right away. “I just want to keep you safe.”

“We keep each other safe.”

Rhys shifted in his seat and looked out at the nothingness ahead of them. “I’ve lost people . . . people I cared about before.”

So have I. But Mila didn’t say it. “We can’t let anything get in the way of our judgment. The mission comes first.”

He gave her a stiff nod.

“Mission comes first.” Mila bit her lip. His agreement was the outcome she wanted in this conversation, wasn’t it? So why the hell did she feel so disappointed?

Because you’ve fallen hard for him, idiot. Her cheeks heated at the thought. Now was not the time to be thinking about this.

She kept her eyes straight ahead, afraid the look in them might give her real feelings away. “I’m glad we agree then.”

The scanner beeped, and Mila’s heart rate picked up as she looked over at what it had found.

They’d located the Phantom’s ship. Tentative ID: a Cutlass.

“She’s heading away from the platform,” Rhys said urgently. “We might lose her on the scanner with all the debris.”

“Map a new trajectory. Maybe we can cut her off before she reaches it.” Mila throttled up, her breath coming more quickly as she followed the new course.

In minutes, they came up on the tangle of floating junk. It loomed before them, hunks of twisted metal and dead ships in the distance, sprawled out in a mess that would be tough to navigate.

Just as they reached the edge of it, the Phantom’s ship winked out of existence on their scanner.

“Kak.” Rhys fiddled with the scanner, trying to manually find the ship. “We’re gonna have to go in there. That debris won’t be easy to fly through —”

“We’ll be fine.”

Mila searched ahead, seeking any sign of a ship where the Phantom had disappeared from their scanner.

“There. The only one moving!” Mila pointed to a glint of metal in the distance, weaving through the debris. “I’m taking us in.”

“Let me check where she might be headed.” Rhys zoomed in on his map.

Mila gritted her teeth and directed the Freelancer into the debris field, cutting around a half-destroyed freighter. “Do you think she knows we’re here?”

“I don’t think so. She hasn’t changed her speed.”

Mila edged Devana around a hunk of twisted metal, trying to keep the distant glimmer in view.

“We should get above this mess. It’s safer.”

“No,” Mila responded. “We risk being detected, and then we’ll lose her if she goes deeper into this floating pile of kak. We need to go in and flank her. Catch her by surprise.”

Mila sped up, darting around small pieces of junk. Sweat popped up on her forehead as she tried to watch the debris and keep an eye on the glint of the Phantom’s ship ahead of them.

They were flying straight for the center of the junk pile.

“Shutting down unnecessary systems to increase shielding,” Rhys said. “Elaine’s not gonna let us catch her without a fight.”

“I know.” Mila killed the main engines, relying on maneuvering thrusters. “Hold on.”

As Devana slipped through the detritus, it swayed from side to side, avoiding most of the scrap metal and decommissioned ships.

Rhys grunted and shook his head as small pipes and bolts bounced off their hull.

Mila’s pulse pounded, buzzing in her ears with the thrill of the chase. Then the distant ship suddenly made a hard right and disappeared between two massive cargo hulks.

“Did she make us?” Mila pushed Devana to the limit to catch up.

“Maybe. She could be waiting for us on the other side of that ship.”

Just before they reached the Hull-C where the Phantom had disappeared, Mila rotated the Freelancer to starboard and slowed.

The massive skeleton of the Hull-C blocked their line of sight. She couldn’t see the Phantom’s ship, but it could be hidden just on the other side.

She tapped the thrusters and coasted beneath the cargo ship.

Mila barely breathed as they reached the far side of the dead ship’s hull.

“I got her on the scanner. Hanging right above us,” Rhys said. “A Cutlass, all right. Weapons ready. She knows we’re here.”

As they emerged, Mila’s heart thumped wildly. She rotated the ship in a deft motion to face the Cutlass. Devana was momentarily bracketed between the Hull-C and another freighter — a terrible place to be in a gunfight.

The Cutlass took a shot but missed, instead damaging the Hull-C above them. It was a straight shot; had the Phantom just missed on purpose?

“I gotta get us out of here.” Mila dropped the ship lower, trying to escape the narrow choke point they’d found themselves in.

“Use the freighter for cover!”

The Phantom fired again, this time a steady fusillade that still missed Devana, striking the hulk they were slipping toward.

“Mila, wait!” Rhys yelled, just as the Cutlass’s barrage triggered an explosion in the Hull-C. It burst in a wave of shrapnel, generating a force that sent Devana flying sideways.

Mila gripped the controls tighter as the Freelancer slammed into the other cargo ship with a hard shudder. The shielding held, but barely. Alarms sounded in response to the shield loss, and Mila felt the balance of the ship shift beneath her.

“Maneuvering thruster?” Mila asked, struggling to regain balance.

“Dammit. Yes. We lost one.”

From above them, the Cutlass rained shots down on their weakened shield.

“Shields at quarter power,” Rhys reported.

Another explosion sparked near the second cargo ship, and a new wave of debris headed toward them. Mila watched in horror as a jagged metal panel flew straight at the nose of Devana.

Rhys squeezed the trigger. Half the panel shot off in the opposite direction, but the rest of it stayed on course.

It slammed straight into them, and Mila’s head snapped back against her seat. Alarms blared as the ship rotated wildly, and she gripped the stick firmly, trying to steady them. A thin crack spread across the cockpit, slowly widening, and the temperature instantly dropped.

“Kak.” She and Rhys both said it at the same time.

“Gotta patch the screen. Now.” Rhys moved, grabbing their helmets from the storage compartment, and took the controls as Mila latched hers on.

She took the controls back as he got his helmet on. Rhys stumbled out of his seat.

“Getting the repair foam.” He said, his voice crackling over the helmet comms. He hurried toward the cargo hold as Devana banked through a fractured Starfarer. When Mila came out of the turn, she spotted the Cutlass as it ducked behind a blackened hull that was too far gone to identify. Angling the thrusters, she turned tightly to follow.

Rhys stumbled back into the cockpit and applied the foam to the crack, temp-sealing it.

“This’ll hold until we get to a repair dock,” Rhys panted. “But not if we take another direct hit.”

Mila keyed up the guns, her breath coming quickly now and frosting up on the interior glass of her helmet, as the Phantom danced in and out of sight ahead.

“It could have been far worse.”

Rhys smirked at her tone and strapped back into his seat. “Fine. I’ll say it. You were right about that extra armor.”

“That always does have a nice ring to it.” With Rhys back on weapons, Mila narrowed the distance to the Cutlass.

“Take her out, Rhys.” Mila focused on keeping the Freelancer steady as Rhys targeted the Cutlass’s engines.

Devana’s twin Kronegs opened fire.

The Cutlass jerked sideways, off course, and a small, bright flash told them they’d gotten a hit. Mila darted a glance at the scan. It updated, showing the Cutlass’s left engine had been damaged.

“Targeting her jumpdrive,” Rhys said. As the Phantom regained control of her ship, Rhys fired off a series of rapid shots, targeting the armored drive.

The Cutlass lurched and then took off again, swinging from side to side, this time heading for a half-scrapped Orion nearby. It disappeared on the far side of the ship, and Mila adjusted course to go after it.

“Not giving her a chance to drop another mine,” Mila said.

“I think we got her,” Rhys replied quietly. “She’s not getting out of here.”

Mila suppressed a smile and tried to ignore the giddy feeling in her stomach. “Good shot. But we still have to catch her.”

The Freelancer’s lights illuminated the torn-apart ship the Phantom had disappeared behind. Tangles of pipes and dozens of storage levels were partially visible where armor had been ripped out. The ship was a veritable warren of half-enclosed corridors.

Mila slowed as their lights found the Cutlass. It was stopped dead near the front of the ship, hugging close to the hull. Mila searched along the hull as Rhys activated the comm and hailed the Cutlass.

No response.

He checked the scan again. “I think her systems are failing. Maybe life support. We got some good hits in.”

A white spacesuit floated out between the Cutlass’s far hatch and the freighter’s hull. The Phantom flailed as she hurtled into the freighter and disappeared.

Mila pulled the Freelancer closer to the Cutlass and looked at Rhys. “We have to go in after her.”

“She’s setting a trap.”

“She’s running. She has nowhere to go. We have her.”

“She could have called for help. What if reinforcements show up? What if she met someone back at the platform and commed them? This freighter’s a death trap.”

Mila edged the ship closer to where the Phantom had disappeared and unstrapped her harness. “I’m going in.”

Rhys grabbed her arm. “Don’t. She can’t stay in there forever. We can wait her out. This is what she wants.”

Desperation surged through Mila, mingling with her adrenaline high. She pulled her arm away and headed back to suit up.

Rhys followed her and watched as she pulled on her armored suit and strapped her pistol to her hip.

“She always manages to slip away,” Mila said. She slammed a fist against the locker, frustrated. Knowing the Phantom was so close. . . right next to them in that ship. It was making it hard to think straight. But Mila was sure of one thing. She was going in after her.

“We’re so close this time,” Mila continued, trying to keep her voice steady. “Too close to risk losing her, and you know this could be our only chance. I’m going in. You can come if you want to.”

Rhys wrapped a hand around Mila’s arm and turned her to face him. She reluctantly looked up at him.

“I should be the one to go in there after her,” he said gruffly. “You watch the ship. If she comes back out or anyone shows up, you can comm me.”

“No.”

Rhys narrowed his green eyes at her, clearly worried.

Mila took a labored breath. “We should go in together.”

“Mila, someone needs to stay with Devana, and you’re the better pilot. Let me try to chase her back out here. The mission comes first.”

Mila’s stomach clenched at the thought of Rhys going in alone, but he was right. Someone needed to stay. And the mission had to come first.

Rhys took her silence as agreement, quickly suiting up and holstering his Arclight.

She kept her spacesuit on — just in case she needed to go in after him. Her throat tightened as she returned to her seat and pulled the Freelancer closer to where the Phantom had disappeared.

Rhys came back up to the cockpit and squeezed her arm lightly. “Keep the commlink open. Stay on guard.”

Mila nodded and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. This could go sideways so easily.

She depressurized the cargo hold and lowered the ramp for Rhys. He pushed off and drifted into the dark body of the freighter.

She very nearly commed him to tell him to come back, that they could wait until the Phantom gave up, but she hesitated. Her feelings for Rhys battled with her need to capture this terrorist. Her need won out. This was their last chance to capture the Phantom. Rhys would be fine. He was a great shot.

Several moments passed, and Mila forced herself to check the scanners again. No sign of any other moving ships.

A dull thud sounded from somewhere on the hull, and Mila’s heart rate sped up as she pulled her gun from her holster.

She glanced back at the cargo hold door in time to see the light flash. The alarm sounded — a warning that the door was being opened from the other side while the hold was still depressurized. Mila turned back to the console and scrambled to lock the door, but she failed. It was too late to raise the ramp, too late to repressurize the hold.

Mila got to her feet, her pistol tight in her grip, and trained it on the door to the cargo hold.

At that moment, Rhys’s voice came over the comm. “There are too many places to hide.” His voice rose. “Mila, close the ramp! I just found an empty spacesuit. It wasn’t her.”

“I know. She’s here, Rhys. I repeat, she’s on the ship.”

The door slid open, and Mila’s body lifted off the floor as the artificial gravity systems were deactivated. She reached out to grab her seatback with one hand, and her pistol arm swung wide.

The Phantom floated through the door, weightless, and took a shot. It tore through Mila’s suit, and she cried out.

A terrible burning pain ripped through Mila’s shoulder, and her oxygen began to vent. She shot back desperately, but the Phantom pushed off the ceiling toward the floor in a well-practiced zero-G evasive movement, and Mila’s shot missed, taking a hunk of wall panel out instead.

Adrenaline flooded her. They’d cornered the Phantom and now she’d fight to the death to take Devana. Mila wouldn’t let that happen.

She took another shot, but missed again as the Phantom pushed off the floor. She hurtled forward and slammed into Mila’s injured arm.

Mila gasped and caught a glimpse of herself in the dark reflective glass of Elaine’s helmet, at the bloodied torn shoulder of her suit.

Elaine slammed her pistol directly into Mila’s helmet, then knocked her gun from her grip.

Mila recovered, grappling with the Phantom, and managed to slam a fist into her arm, making her lose her grip on her own gun. Both pistols drifted away, floating toward the far wall.

Mila tried to push off the wall toward the pistols, but Elaine grabbed her in a tight chokehold.

“Almost there.” Rhys sounded panicked, and Mila didn’t have the breath to respond. “Hang on.”

She fought against Elaine, trying to throw her off, but the two of them just spun in weightless rotation, bouncing off the walls. Mila finally got her feet planted on one of them and pushed hard, slamming herself and Elaine back against a cockpit seatback.

Sweat dripped into Mila’s eyes as they struggled, and blackness crowded around the edges of her vision as the oxygen escaped her suit. The cargo hold was wide open, all their oxygen gone. Soon Mila’s suit would be just as empty.

Elaine kicked off the seat, propelling them both down the aisle, sending them flying toward the floating pistols.

Mila was still in a tight chokehold as she reached for the nearest pistol, but the gun spun out of reach. The Phantom punched Mila in the ribs, hard, and squeezed the bloody wound on her shoulder.

Mila nearly blacked out.

Without warning, the gravity came back on, slamming Mila and Elaine to the floor. The pistols clattered to the floor with them. Mila scrambled away from Elaine and closed her gloved fist around the nearest one. She flipped over on her back, pointing the gun up at the Phantom just as she was about to attack.

The Phantom froze and slowly lifted her hands, palms out, in a gesture of surrender. Mila’s pale, stricken countenance reflected back at her from Elaine’s dark glass visor.

Rhys ran through the door, pistol out.

“Cuff her. Throw her in the pod. I need oxygen,” Mila gasped. The pistol wavered in her grip as she fought to stay focused. She was suffocating.

Rhys slammed the Phantom into the wall, then dragged her into a restraint pod.

In moments, he was back, reestablishing oxygen levels from the cockpit. Then he lifted Mila’s helmet from her head, and the dark spots clouding her vision faded. She could breathe again.

She tried to smile up at Rhys, but the stabbing pain in her shoulder made it come out in a grimace. “We got her.”

Rhys took off his helmet and lightly touched her cheek, his brow furrowed with worry. “Yeah, we got her. But it looks like she got you.”

“I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not.” Rhys grabbed a medpen and plunged it into her arm. The healing agent took over, easing Mila’s pain.

Then Rhys leaned down and gently pressed his warm lips to hers. As they kissed, relief flooded her. She hadn’t allowed herself to admit how worried she’d been for him when he went into the freighter.

She lifted a hand to the rough stubble of his cheek, and Rhys laid his hand over hers. “You were right,” he said. “I think my professional judgment’s been compromised . . . by this. By us. I never should have agreed to that plan. We should’ve waited. But I saw that stubborn look on your face, and . . .”

Mila shook her head. “If you’re compromised, so am I.” She gave him another kiss. “We’ll figure this out. The important thing is that we both made it out okay. We completed the mission.”

Rhys finally cracked a smile and helped Mila to her feet. “We did it. Are you ready to unmask our Phantom?”

“I’ve never been more ready in my life.”

Rhys typed in the pod’s code, and the door slid open, revealing the Phantom cuffed to the interior bar.

This was the woman they’d hunted for months, the woman who had nearly killed them on more than one occasion. And they’d never even known what she really looked like.

Rhys raised a brow at Mila. “You want to do the honors, or should I?”

Mila lifted a brow in return, and he stepped out of her way. She winced as she used both hands to unlatch the Phantom’s helmet. She pulled it off with one swift movement and took a step back.

She and the Phantom met eye-to-eye for the first time.

And Mila’s heart nearly stopped. She lifted a shaking hand to her mouth, covering it.

Rhys gave her a confused look.

“Evony Salinas,” the Phantom said. “Who knew a Salinas would ever go into bounty hunting?”

Rhys’s eyes widened. “Who? What’s going on, Mila?”

The Phantom stared at Mila intently. “Going by your middle name now?”

“You know the Phantom?” Rhys’s voice was low, incredulous.

Mila dropped her hand from her mouth and finally found her voice. She backed up another step. “Her name is Casey Phan.”

“Phan? As in Phan Pharmaceuticals?”

Mila nodded. “The same. But . . . Casey Phan was murdered ten years ago.”

TO BE CONTINUED

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Source: https://robertsspaceindustries.com/comm-link/serialized-fiction/16827-Phantom-Bounty-Part-Two

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.

Explosives.

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.”

TO BE CONTINUED

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Source: https://robertsspaceindustries.com/comm-link/serialized-fiction/16770-Phantom-Bounty-Part-One