I had no idea what to say to that, so I just nodded. After several seconds of silence, I made one last stab at bringing the conversation back to something I could understand. “What do you do on the ship?”
“Sensors,” Nova said immediately. “And I talk to all the traffic controllers Basil’s too angry to deal with. I also manage ship power, though my true reward is the chance to travel through the heavens. Getting this job was a dream come true. Most of us never leave the station.”
Unless you wanted to become a Devastator, I couldn’t think of a single reason getting a job on this ship could be considered a dream. “What station?”
“The Unity of the Cosmos,” she said. “We are those who have abandoned the terrestrial to live in harmony with the stars and search for the larger oneness that connects all things. My father’s the abbot, he got me this job.”
I’d heard of the Unity of the Cosmos. Bunch of crazies who’d sworn off planets and lived on deep-space stations seeking enlightenment. Of course, it would probably be best not to mention the crazies part to Nova.
“Well,” I said. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
Nova beamed at me. I smiled back and knelt beside my armor case. I was relieved to see it hadn’t been touched. It would have been an awkward conversation if I’d had to explain to Caldswell that my security system had accidentally fried his weird space girl.
“My case has an electrical shock security system,” I warned her, opening the lid as I popped the pressure release on my suit. “It won’t go off unless you try to open it, but it’s probably best if you don’t touch it at all. Also, I keep a backup pistol under my bed as well as my other gun cases. They’re unlocked for easy access, so it’s probably best if you don’t touch those either.”
“I would never compromise your personal sphere,” Nova said. “It is my pleasure to share space with you in harmony.”
“Mine too,” I said, stripping off my suit and putting each piece in its place. “Any idea where we’re going next, since you’re on the bridge?”
Nova tilted her head thoughtfully. “Mycant,” she said. “We’re jumping late tonight.”
I grinned wide. Unlike Paradox, which kept its colonies to reasonable numbers, the Terran Republic claimed planets like it was afraid they were going to run out, even ones that were clearly way more trouble than they were worth. Mycant was one of these, a far-flung outpost on the edge of the swath of space the xith’cal fleets claimed as their hunting grounds. Not shooting the xith’cal today had left an itch in my hand, one I’d get to scratch if Caldswell’s bad luck combined with a trip into xith’cal space turned out the way I hoped. After a week of boring shifts, the infuriating test on the bridge, and the mess I didn’t even want to remember with Rupert, I was more than ready for some good, honest shooting.
“What are you smiling about?” Nova asked behind me.
“Nothing,” I said, grinning wider as I lovingly stowed Sasha in her case. “Nothing at all.”
We didn’t get to jump that night.
When Nova left for work, I tried to get some sleep. I was tired, but all the new floaty things in our room kept triggering my finely honed paranoia reflex, jerking me awake every time I started to drift off. After two hours I gave up and decided to do some work. I was sitting on the floor in my pajamas checking my armor’s fluid levels when the alarm began to blare.
By the time Caldswell’s voice buzzed through my helmet to tell me what the alarm was for, I was suited up and out the door.
“Xith’cal.” He said it so calmly it would have been funny if I’d been in a mood to appreciate irony. “Two ships. Big ones, probably slavers.”
Cotter’s voice came next. “Can’t be,” he said. “We’re four hours from the Fishermarch. No xith’cal would dare come this far into Paradoxian space.”
As if to prove him wrong, the Fool’s main cannon fired with a rumble I felt through my stabilizers. Outside, other cannons fired faintly in response, and Cotter began to swear.
“Shut up,” I said, getting down to business as I cleared the com channel. “Are they going to try a breach?”
“Xith’cal?” Caldswell snorted. “Always. They’ll probably go for the cargo bay.” There was another hail of fire, and then Caldswell added, “Definitely the cargo bay.”
He’d barely gotten the words out when something hit the ship so hard the metal groaned. The Fool rolled sideways under my feet, and the gravity flickered a moment before slamming me into the wall.
“Boarding pod’s hit us,” Caldswell said unnecessarily.
“We’ll get it,” I said, trusting my suit to adjust as the Fool righted itself. “Can you keep the others away, or should we plan for another pod?”
The floor rattled as the cannon fired again.
“Shouldn’t have to worry about that.” It was Mabel’s voice in my ear this time. She sounded as calm as her brother-in-law, and I began to wonder how many xith’cal slaver boardings it took before you started treating them as routine. “I’ve got the second gun up now, that should keep them from sending anything else out. Basil’s getting us out of range, but you’ll need to clear out the ones that are already here.”
I gave the mental trigger that brought up my active ship map. It flickered across my eyes, and I saw that Cotter was in the cargo bay already. That made me smile. Whatever else might be wrong with him, Cotter’s instincts were right on the mark.
“Cotter,” I barked, sprinting down the hall toward the lounge. “Stay right there. I’m on my way.”
“Don’t give me orders,” he snapped. And then, a second later, “Hurry, though. They’re starting to cut through.”
“Mabel,” I said. “Close the blast doors to the engine room.” The engine room was the only other way into the cargo bay besides the lounge. I didn’t want anyone killed by stray fire.
“Already done,” she said cheerfully. “Good luck!” And the com went quiet.
I was glad of it. My adrenaline was running high now, and the Lady was responding, throwing all my systems into combat mode. I embraced it wholeheartedly, letting the intense focus of the coming fight burn away the frustration I’d been wrestling with over the last week of mind-numbing patrols. By the time I grabbed the doorway to the lounge and spun myself inside, I was as clear and calm as I’d ever been.
As I entered the lounge, I slammed my fist down on the emergency blast door release. The hunk of steel fell with a squeal behind me, locking off the bridge and the rest of the ship from the lounge and cargo bay. The three-inch-thick door wouldn’t hold back a really determined xith’cal with time on his side, but it would stop runners and stray blasts. Of course, I didn’t intend to let so much as a blood splatter get past me tonight. I was ready to fight; no more tests, no more waiting. This was what I was on this ship to do, and I meant to show Caldswell exactly what kind of merc he’d hired.
I was turning to run for the cargo bay when I caught a flash of movement out of my side camera. The xith’cal hadn’t even broken through yet, but I dove all the same, rolling through the tiny galley opening into the kitchen and coming up with my pistol ready, only to see Rupert sitting on his heels in the corner like he was taking a break.
And just like that, my momentum stumbled.
I swore loudly in King’s Tongue before I could stop myself. Rupert’s eyebrows rose, and I snatched my gun back, switching to Universal. “Why didn’t you say something before I locked up?”
“I tried to,” he said, his voice impressively calm for someone I’d just trapped on the wrong side of a blast door. “You were too fast.”
I swore again. This was a complication I did not need, though thank goodness Ren wasn’t there. The cook was bad enough, but there’d have been hell to pay if I’d trapped the captain’s daughter.
I stood up and leaned over the counter, trying to look down the stairs to the cargo bay. I couldn’t see the breach from this angle, but I could hear the pounding of the xith’cal shipbreaker getting higher pitched with every blow. The hull was going to give way any second, no time to tell Caldswell to override the blast door and let Rupert out. It looked like we were going to have to do things the hard way.
“Do you have your gun?” The big cannon he’d had against Caldswell’s head would have been handy right about now.
Rupert shook his head. “That was just for show.”
Remembering how sure his finger had been on the trigger, I sincerely doubted that, but this was no time to push the point. I dropped back into a crouch and grabbed Rupert’s hand.
“This is Sasha,” I said, unlocking my pistol and pressing her smooth, heavy handle into his palm. “She’s made to be used with a suit, so she kicks like a mule. She’ll break your arm if you let her, so be sure to keep your elbow slack.” I put my hand on his elbow and pressed until he let it go limp. “Just like that, let the kick roll through you. Even Sasha can’t take an angry xith’cal down with a body shot, though. You have to hit them here.”
I made a pistol out of my free hand and poked the barrel finger at the dip between Rupert’s eyes, ignoring how uncomfortably close I was to where I’d shot him. “Right below the bone of their eye ridge. Don’t be afraid to take your time lining up the shot. You have to kill a xith’cal with one hit, because he won’t give you two. Got it?”
His eyes met mine through my visor. “I understand,” he said, gripping my gun. “Be careful, Devi.”
I smiled at the absurdity of the unarmored cook earnestly telling the armored merc to be careful. “Just stay out of sight,” I said.
I knew he could handle a pistol, but I checked his grip one last time, just in case. I wasn’t going to give him a chance to fire, of course. Even though I’d told him to loosen his arm, I’d neglected to mention that still wouldn’t be enough to keep Sasha’s kick from doing serious damage. But telling him that shooting would really, really hurt would likely make him too hesitant to land the kind of shot he’d need if it came to that, so I saw no reason to give him the whole truth. Whole truths usually just made things worse, anyway. I avoided them whenever I could.
Satisfied that Rupert wouldn’t drop my darling, I stood up and hopped the counter, slinging Mia off my back as I went. I felt naked without Sasha, but she really would do him more good than she’d do me in a fight like this, even with the kick. Anti-armor pistols were meant for blasting through ballistic plates and into the people beneath, but xith’cal had no soft insides. Those damn lizards were built like cement pillars.
The shipbreaker’s pounding was vibrating through the whole ship now, but it was the squeal of ripping metal that I’d been waiting for. The hull breached with a scream, and then the Glorious Fool rocked as the boarding pod punched itself deep into our side, sealing out the newly opened vacuum with an audible pop. They were in.
The first thing I saw as I flew through the door to the cargo bay was Cotter. He was in his armor, standing before the breach with an enormous gyro ax in his hands. I hadn’t seen an ax in his equipment, but I wasn’t surprised he had one. Skullheads loved their big two-handers, and with nearly a thousand pounds of armor behind it, even I had to admit an ax was a pretty effective weapon. Especially at times like these.
Now that the hull was breached, the xith’cal cutters quickly ripped fifteen feet across what had been our cargo doors and the blast plating around it. Then, with a roar that made my speakers squeal, the sundered hull fell, and they poured out. The xith’cal came like a black tide, enormous crested warriors that made our butcher-turned-doctor look like a house pet. They charged forward under a cover of blaster fire from their ship, their razor sharp scales clattering like an ancient cavalry charge as they pounded toward Cotter.