Her blood thrums with smug joy. “We made it.”
“We’re not out of atmosphere yet,” replies her AI, as acerbic as ever.
“Killjoy.” But he’s right; the planet’s jungle whips by underneath the ship, a blur of green-blue treetops and vivid scarlet fronds. “The base is too close. If we break away now, they’ll see us.” And they’ll be shot out of the sky before they can clear the atmosphere. Ciara punches the coordinates to the rendezvous point into the ship’s navigation panel. The enemy base is a large, pulsating spot of energy on the Corsair’s radar. As soon as they get out of range of its cannons, they can make the jump.
“The crystal’s energy levels are spiking.”
Ciara spares a glance at the orange-hued cluster of rock shards she’d poached from under the Alliance’s nose. It holds an odd, unnerving glow at the centre. She bites her lip and turns back to the viewscreen. “It’s fine. It just needs to be hooked up to a converter – we can do that when we get it home.”
An energy crystal this size could power an entire base – this one had just been installed in the Alliance’s shiny new base to power their whole facility. Right up until the point she’d swapped it for a replica and smuggled it onto her ship. This is one mission she’s going to ace.
The large spot on her radar fluctuates, then flashes rapidly. A second later, the power reading disappears completely. The grin drops from her face. “That’s a bad sign.”
“The base’s power levels have fallen to almost nil,” her AI confirms.
“Damn it, that replica was supposed to last another two cycles.” Orange-red light flashes over the screens and she twists in her seat. The coil of energy at the heart of the crystal flickers, turning her cockpit into a light show. An alarm blips at her elbow. “Zero, what’s going on?” she asks, frowning. “The Corsair just spat out my coordinates.”
“The crystal’s energy is interfering with our navigational drive.” There’s a moment of silence from the AI as the ship hums under her hands. “I will need a moment to compensate.”
She hisses a curse between her teeth. “All right, but hurry up.” She checks their shields again, realigns the sensors. The Alliance base is still dark. Her skin itches with the urge to be away.
“… One moment.”
A second blip interrupts the first, this one lighting up a segment of her console with red dots. She swears.
“You’re out of moments,” she replies and snatches up the controls.
Five enemy ships surge onto her rearview screen, each a standard-class fighter painted with the radiant black sun of the Alliance. “Five fighters,” the AI comments, “coming up from behind.”
“I know! Why don’t you make yourself useful and fix the damn navigation?” She dives left and the ship swerves off course, skimming over the trees in a graceful arc that brings a faint line of mountains into view. Perfect; she can lose them among the peaks.
The Alliance fighters cut across her arc to form a neat triangle behind her, two up front and three in the rear: these aren’t just scouts, these are soldiers. The base must have sent out patrols once they discovered the false crystal. She’s going to kill that trader.
A plasma shot streaks past her left wing. Ciara mutters a curse and dips right, sinking so low she can almost hear the branches snap. The mountains creep closer slowly – too slowly. She’ll have to fight if she wants to get out of this alive.
Ciara slides her fingers over the console and the ship arcs up. For a moment the soft, rose-pink sky fills the viewscreen, dotted with the faintest sparkle of stars. Then the ship plummets towards the planet. She pulls its nose up just before it hits the tree line and zooms forward, barely a klick behind the last fighter.
“Not bad,” Zero comments.
“Focus on getting us out of here, please. I don’t have time for back seat piloting.”
“Ungrateful, much?” But the AI lapses into silence.
She lines up her target, bringing the rearmost fighter into her scopes. Her scanners align and the console flashes. Ciara fires. The shot tears through the ship’s engine, triggering a nice little explosion that drags the fighter down into the jungle. “One down.”
The rest of the ships have caught on to her tactic. They split apart in an effort to get above her. She ducks down under the closest one and flips the Corsair into a barrel roll, exposing the ship’s ventral cannons. Her plasma shot hits the fighter’s wing with a blast of sound. Another shot and it spins off course and crashes into the trees. A burst of flame rips up into the sky. Well, now they definitely know she’s here.
“If it’s not an update on the navigation drive,” she mutters, gripping the controls with white knuckles, “I don’t want to hear it.”
“It’s not,” comes the flat reply. “It’s another ship.”
“What?” She leans over the scanner. “There’s nothing on my sensors – wait.” A red dot pops up ten klicks behind her. Ten klicks – her scanners should have picked that up way before now.
“That’s impossible,” she mutters. “A ship that size can’t maintain a stealth mode.” It’d have to be some kind of Stalker-class vessel, with customised armour plating and-
Ciara punches the console and the thing lets out a blip of alarm. She spits another curse at it.
“Quite,” murmurs Zero.
“You’re sure it’s him?” she asks.
“Confirmed. It’s the High Rook’s ship.” Zero brings up an enlarged image on the rearview screen. The ship is sleek, black and splattered with Alliance emblems. The melodramatic idiot.
“Wonderful,” she replies, though her heartbeat skips a beat. Stupid heart. Stupid ship.
The new vessel slides into position behind her, parallel to the three fighters. She can’t see anything more than the black screen across the nose of his ship. There’s nothing that hints at the man inside. Is he still angry at her? Or did her betrayal mean nothing to him?
A blast of plasma skims her rear wing. She spins sideways. Yeah, he’s still pissed.
“Right,” she says, ignoring her body’s reaction to the sight of his ship. “What are the odds we can get away without making a jump?”
There’s a too-long pause. “Not good,” Zero replies.
“Damn. Not even giving me the odds, huh?” She glances at the reflection of the energy crystal in the panel over her head. She can’t fail Stormhold. Not now. Not after giving up so much. “How long til we can lock down the crystal?”
“I’m not sure. A few more moments.”
Great. She’ll have to hold them off until then. Easier said than done.
Ciara pushes the Corsair faster, until the speed gauge nudges red and the planet whips by in a smudge of colour. This speed is dangerous on manual control – she can’t see enough of what’s coming to make a judgement. But Zero can’t give her the flexibility she needs to outwit them.
She has to chance it.
She twists the controls and the ship makes a sharp left, veering towards the mountains. The three Alliance fighters follow her again, close on her tail, the occasional plasma shot winging wide. But the Rook’s ship continues on its path, heading at a right angle to hers. Either he’s a terrible pilot, or he knows something she doesn’t – and Thad was the best pilot in the Alliance.
“Zero, give me visual on the terrain for the next eighty klicks.”
The AI does as she says without comment, pulling up a scrolling image of the terrain between her and the mountains. It’s all jungle, a mash of verdant flora and bright fungi. And the mountains. They loom into view and she gets why Thad was heading in the opposite directions. The mountains aren’t peaks; they’re a sheer cliff wall that stretches up toward the upper atmosphere. If she wants to stay low, out of range of the base’s cannons, she can’t scale them.
Fine. She swerves to the right, flying parallel to the cliffside. The Rook’s ship spins towards her on an intercept course. He’s coming straight at her. She’ll have to shoot him out of the way. Exhaling, shutting down all thought – all doubt – Ciara pulls up her weapons and fires.
“Zero?” She hammers at the controls. No plasma. “Zero! What is going on?”
“Weapons malfunction,” the AI replies.
“I can see that,” she spits out, pulling the ship into a dive, edging dangerously close to the cliff wall. “Fix it!”
“I’m attempting to.”
Her targeting screen blares an alarm. The Corsair’s floating right in the middle of an Alliance fighter’s crosshairs. Shit. The crystal sparks behind her, lighting up the cockpit with an orange glare. Her consoles go dark.
“Zero!” She stares out the viewscreen, at the sleek black ship that races towards her. One shot and she’s done for. Ciara inhales and widens her eyes, doesn’t look away. She’s going to face him when he kills her.
A plasma shot screeches over her viewscreen. The Rook’s ship pivots and fires again, the shot skimming over her ship. But he’s not firing at her – he’s shooting at the other fighters.
She slams her fist into the console and the screens blare to life, just in time to show one of the fighters explode in a beautiful display of pyrotechnics. Ciara stares at the image. The Rook’s ship circles them, as if it hadn’t just taken out one of its allies.
“The fighters are regrouping,” Zero comments.
The vessels shift into a new formation – a pincer manoeuvre. That won’t work against her, the cliff’s in the way. Then she gets it. The two fighters peel off from the pursuit and turn on the Rook. As one, they open fire.
Thad can’t have expected to be fired on so quickly – the ship jolts and barely misses one of the shots. It swings to the left, right into the path of the second fighter. Ciara realises she’s gripping the controls with sweat-slick hands and loosens her hold. But she can’t seem to breathe.
One shot hits his wing and something bursts into flame. The ship peels off from its course and slides like a falling star into the jungle, disappearing from sight.
“Weapons operational,” Zero comments.
Ciara pulls the Corsair around, heading towards the two remaining fighters at full speed, her lip between her teeth. An odd sort of anger burns at the pit of her stomach. She focuses on the shape of the ships, the way they light up her targeting sensors. And she fires.
The first one drops like so much space junk, blowing a hole through the planet’s canopy. The second fires back and an alarm rings through the cockpit. “Zero-”
She banks the ship, slows down a fraction. Targets the engines. The shot sears a hole straight through the back of the fighter, cutting it almost in half. Only when the Corsair streaks through the resulting blaze and cuts the air clean does she take another breath.
“All enemy ships neutralised,” Zero murmurs.
The jungle rushes by beneath the ship and she slows, circles the site of the explosion, the blackened spot where the High Rook’s ship went down. She can’t tear her gaze from it.
“Just-” She stops, unsure what she’s trying to say.
“With systems restored, the navigational drive should be operational momentarily. I suggest we prepare to depart the planet.”
Ciara doesn’t move, watches the fronds as if something’s about to burst out of them. Nothing does. “Zero,” she says, “what are the chances of surviving a crash like that?”
A pause. “Given the nature of the explosion and the species of fauna on this planet, I would estimate… slim to none.”
The animals. She didn’t even think about the risk of being dragged off and eaten. So even if he survived the crash, he wouldn’t make it through a night. Her hands move over the controls before her brain catches up.
“Zero. Prepare to land.”
“Prepare to – what?”
“You heard me.” She plugs in a location not far from the crash.
“The Alliance base is still looking for this ship,” Zero says. “The longer we stay here, the greater the risk-”
“I’m aware of the risks.” And of Stormhold, waiting for her. “You need time to fix the navigational drive, right? I won’t be long: you can fix it before we get to space.”
The AI makes a grouchy sound that projects extreme disapproval. Ciara ignores it.
She brings the ship into a glide, sinking between the trees in an area that’s slightly clearer than the rest of the jungle. The Corsair descends and she activates the landing struts. Her ship settles on the ground with a soft bump, the viewscreen showing nothing but tangled foliage. She slaps the trigger to open the rear door and a shaft of light spills through the cockpit.
“I’ll be back,” she tells Zero, slinging her blaster onto her hips. The energy crystal is a subdued cluster. “Make sure that thing doesn’t interfere with our jump.”
“Acknowledged.” The AI pauses, then, as she steps onto the gangway, and adds, “Be careful.”
Ciara stares out at the knotted trees and vine-carpeted floor. The humidity slaps her in the face like the tongue of an excited zorlak beast, though it does nothing to dispel the ice in her veins. “I will,” she mutters, and pushes her short hair off her forehead.
Her first step off the Corsair sinks into wet mud. She grimaces and pulls her boot free with a squelch. Thad owes her for this.
Thad will probably shoot her for this.
A fragment of black metal lies half embedded in a nearby tree. Ciara strides over to it and tracks blast marks over the terrain to the crash site, a pile of smoking metal and fire. Her strides quicken and she races to the side of the ship. He must have survived. He must have.
She scours broken ground for any sign of the pilot. But there’s nothing. Ciara yanks hot metal out of her way and tosses the shards aside, hunting through the wreckage for a sign – for anything.
There, under the ship’s nose, is the print of a boot. It’s smeared around the edges, as though its owner couldn’t walk straight.
She follows the direction it’s pointing in, scanning the ground. Another, half-wrecked, shows up a few strides later. Then another, only the toe of the boot showing. He survived.
Ciara looks up, searches the trees. A few feet away lies a figure in black, collapsed onto his front. She breaks into a run and half-falls by his side. He’s carrying a blaster, standard issue, and he wears an Alliance piloting helmet. The visor’s jet-black, hiding any sign of his face. She presses her fingers to his collar. A pulse, though it’s rapid and uneven; he’s alive.
She sits back on her heels and releases a breath that’s half a sob. If he hadn’t made it… she doesn’t even know what she would’ve done.
The AI’s voice in her ear makes her jump. She stands, wipes her eyes. Steadies her breathing.
“What is it, Zero?”
“Sensors indicate the warp ring in that ship is likely to implode in less than ten minutes. I recommend evacuating the area.”
Ciara glances at the prone figure by her feet. The rebels would rather string him up by his spine than let a High Rook into their base. But she can’t leave him here to die.
It takes less than a second – much too short a time – to decide. She bends, hooks her arms under his, and drags him toward the Corsair.
“What?” she replies, gritting her teeth. Thad’s damn heavy.
“It seems you are returning to the ship. With the High Rook.”
“Genius – deduction – work,” she huffs out.
“I do not need to remind you,” Zero says, its voice tinny, “that Stormhold will not take kindly to the arrival of an Alliance officer at their hideout.”
“No,” she replies, “you – you don’t need to – remind me.” She knows exactly what she’s doing.
Thad’s ship fades from view and regret curls through her. She fit that armour herself; no other ship has shields that dense and it’d take months to build another.
Ciara shakes the feeling off. She doesn’t have the luxury of building starships. Not any more.
“You’re coming up on the gangway,” Zero says. “Alter your trajectory by two degrees east.”
“Thanks.” She pulls harder, her shoulders aching at the effort. “Be ready to lift off as – as soon as we’re on b-board.”
“Acknowledged.” The engine hums to life behind her, a steady growl that fills her with relief. Being stuck Planetside would not be a pleasant fate.
Her boot hits the metal gangway with a clang. Finally. She drags the High Rook onto her ship, inch by inch. As soon as his feet clear the earth, the gangway moves, sliding them up into the hold. Ciara pulls the man into a corner, settling him on a panel on the floor. She presses a button and the panel rises until it’s level with her waist. A small rail clicks into place around the edge, keeping Thad stable.
“That’ll have to do for now.” She turns to the cockpit and runs a hand through her sweat-slick hair. As soon as she gets rid of Thad, she’s hitting the showers. “How’s that navigational drive coming?”
The ship lifts smoothly into the air. “Ready for action,” Zero replies, its voice lined with pride.
A sound, like the thud of a boot hitting the floor, and the small nozzle of a blaster presses between her shoulder blades. She really should have taken that away.
“Thaddeus,” she murmurs and turns to face him. His blank visor stares at her and a shudder of unease crawls up her spine. If not for the elaborate insignia on his chest, she wouldn’t know him from any other Alliance officer. Is there anything left of the boy she met in the belly of a starship? “High Rook, I should say,” she corrects with a wry smile, raising her hands. “Thad’s not your name anymore, is it?”
“Where am I?” His voice comes out hollow and she narrows her eyes.
“I’ll tell you when you take that thing off.”
He pauses and the blaster trembles minutely. With his other hand, he reaches up and pulls the helmet off. The sight of his face makes something inside her clench. It’s the same Thad: the same broad cheekbones and tousled auburn hair; the same straight, penetrating gaze. But that flat, heartless look in his eyes – that’s new.
Ciara sighs and tilts her head. “So,” she says, half-dry, half-hopeful, “how’ve you been?”
“I asked you a question.”
Zero’s voice murmurs in her ear, “Shall I incapacitate him?” At least it has the sense not to broadcast its intention ship-wide.
She shakes her head, disguising the movement with an exasperated noise. “Isn’t it obvious? You’re on my ship.”
“The ship that stole our energy crystal?”
“One and the same.” She can’t disguise the smirk and doesn’t try.
His lip curls in response. “I should take you back to base,” he says. “The Commander-General wants Stormhold – you can give it to us.”
She drops all pretence at humour, giving him back stare for stare. “You’ll have to kill me.”
He blinks, then, as if he didn’t think she was serious about this – about any of it. Zero chatters something in her ear, as distressed as an AI can get. She ignores it. She has to know what he’ll do. She has to know what he’ll choose, if the Thad she once knew still exists.
The moment stretches into infinity. He stares at her, searching her face for something – hope, maybe? Fear?
She lets him look, lets him see the resolve that sits in her like star-hardened metal. “I won’t go back, Thad,” she says, finally, into the stillness. “So if you’re going to kill me, do it.”
The blaster wavers. Wavers, and falls to his side. He releases a long, uneven breath. “I can’t.”
Joy soothes the hard knot in her chest. Part of her wants to fold to her knees – the other wants to fall into his arms. She does neither, only levels him with a look. “I can’t take you to Stormhold,” she admits.
“I know.” He looks away, considers the small hold. “Nice ship, by the way.”
“But it’s nothing compared to my Brightstar.”
She snorts. “That’s what you called it?”
The smile he gives her is fleeting. “I can’t let you go,” he says. “I can’t return to base empty-handed.”
“I know.” The hold contains no viewscreens, but the ship’s engines echo slightly. They’re in space, moments from making the jump, assuming Zero’s right and the crystal’s behaving itself.
“That’s why I’m going to dump you on the nearest habitable planet,” she tells him.
He tilts his head, frowning. “What?”
“Zero? Now, if you please.”
A panel over Thad’s head slides open and out shoots a tiny dart. It hits Thad in the neck, dead on. His eyes widen and he grabs at his throat. “You – you’re drugging me?”
“Kind of, yeah.”
“Ciara….” With a groan, he sinks to the floor, his lashes fluttering, and collapses. After a moment she toes him with her boot. He doesn’t move.
“I always knew that trap would come in handy,” she mutters. “Zero, where’s the nearest habitable planet?”
“Does it need to be habitable?” the AI asks, a sneer dripping from its voice.
“Fine. There’s a suitable planet about two hours away. We can leave him there.”
“Good. Make the jump.”
The ship whines and, with a jolt, the Corsair leaps into subspace. Ciara stares down at Thad’s body, at the softness of his sleeping expression. She crushes the flutter of emotion in her chest and turns her back on him. This is for the best – for both of them.
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