Page 12

Author: Rachel Bach

“That’s why you wear the big armor,” Cotter announced to anyone who would listen, which at the moment was myself and Mabel. “This baby can put three thousand pounds of pressure behind an ax swing. That’s enough to slice a suit of king’s armor in half.”

“Only if the person in the armor is dumb enough to let you,” I said, slamming my mop into the bucket of very bloody water by the stairs. “Only three kinds of people wear king-class armor: the king, royal knights, and Devastators, and none of them would be that dumb.”

“What are you talking about?” Cotter scoffed. “Gerald Reddeath is the undisputed master of ax work, and he’s taken two Devastators.”

“Gerald Reddeath is a hack,” I snapped. “He doesn’t even fight in the actual gladiatorial games. He’s in the demonstration league, which is scripted.” I made my voice as disgusted as I could. “His whole career is a publicity stunt, and he didn’t take two Devastators, he took two guys in Devastator armor. There’s a difference between actual Devastators and idiots dressed up to look like Devastators. I could beat Reddeath.”

Cotter gave me a nasty look. “Don’t insult the Red Death, Morris. He was the Kingston Count-class champion before he went into the demonstrations. He’d wipe the floor with you.”

“I’d like to see him try,” I scoffed. “Gladiator battles have as much to do with real combat as being carnival king has to do with actually being king.” I slapped my mop down on the sticky patch by my feet. “In a real fight, all that matters is killing the other guy before he kills you. If you waste time standing around swinging your ax, you’re going to get shot.”

“Says the little girl who fights in a dancing suit,” Cotter sneered. “You gonna get a pony next? Maybe some pink ribbons to—”

He cut off when my mop hit him dead in the face shield.

“Ass,” I muttered, walking over to where Mabel was working on getting the crashed xith’cal boarding pod detached from our ship.

“Please tell me you need some help,” I said, crouching down beside her. “If I have to listen to Cotter say one more thing, his ax is going to be in his head and your security team’s going to be down to one.”

“In a sec,” Mabel said, examining the seam where the xith’cal’s pod had fused into the Fool’s hull. “They slagged us good. There’s two anchors outside as well.”

“Can you fix it?” I asked.

“Oh sure,” Mabel said, grinning at me. “We’ve had worse.”

I paled at the thought and left her to her work, turning to grab the last of the dead xith’cal only to see a live one had beaten me to it. Hyrek crouched over the fallen warrior, his claws hooked delicately under the larger alien’s head as he examined the back of the creature’s neck.

Suddenly, I felt like I was going to be sick. “Oh, god,” I groaned. “If you’re going to eat that, can you please do it somewhere I can’t see?”

Hyrek fished his handset out of his pocket, typing on it rapidly. Really, Devi, these warriors were killed by two humans. I’d never eat such unworthy meat.

I made a face. “What are you doing, then?” I asked. “Making sure the ‘unworthy meat’ wasn’t someone you knew?”

Hyrek didn’t answer me until he’d checked the necks of each of the three remaining xith’cal. It was almost funny to see him standing over the warriors. The dead xith’cal ranged from nine and a half to nearly eleven feet. At seven foot eight, Hyrek looked comically small beside them, like a child playing doctor over its parents. But there was nothing childlike in the matter-of-fact way he straightened up and wiped the blood off his claws with a tissue before he touched his handset again.

In a manner, he typed. The captain asked me to check their tribe marks. These warriors were Reaper’s flesh.

“Reaper?” I said. “As in Reaper’s Fleet?”

There were three known xith’cal tribes whose hunting grounds touched colonized space, and of them, Reaper’s Fleet was the nastiest. Nastiest, but also supposedly the farthest away. “Wait,” I said. “What are Reaper’s lizards doing way out here?”

A good question, Hyrek typed back. His hunting grounds range wide, but this is a bit far. My guess is they were out here for some other reason and decided to take a risk when they spotted us. He looked at me with a proud smile. Caldswell is one of Reaper’s blood-sworn prey. As such, his flesh attacks our ship on sight, no matter the circumstances.

I whistled. “No wonder Caldswell gets in so much trouble.” The real wonder was that Caldswell was still alive after pissing off Reaper that much.

Our captain is a resourceful man, Hyrek typed. He manages.

I would have asked more, but Mabel was calling for me to help get something off the wall. I went over and lugged down a battered industrial shield generator under her direction, placing it on the floor in front of the hole the xith’cal had punched in the metal hull surrounding what had been our cargo bay doors. Mabel hooked it into the ship’s power and fiddled with it for a few minutes before straightening up with a smile.

“That should do it,” she said, dusting off her hands. “Soon as we clear the blockage, we can seal the hole.” She grinned at me. “Ready to push?”

“Cotter!” I yelled. “Time to earn your keep.”

Cotter muttered something about bossy women, but he didn’t dare say anything more as he stomped over. Mabel, meanwhile, grabbed Pickers, who’d been watching from the stairs, and walked back to her engine room. Hyrek followed as well, his clawed feet clicking on the wet and still bloody floor. Once they were inside, Mabel closed the blast door.

“Lounge is already sealed,” she said over my com. “Hit the red button on the generator when you’re ready to deploy the patch.”

“Got it,” I answered, turning to Cotter. “On three.”

He rolled his eyes behind his face shield but waited for the count. When I got to three, we both pushed as hard as we could on the edges where the xith’cal pod had fused to the Fool’s hull. The makeshift seam popped after barely ten seconds, and my suit flashed a warning as the cargo bay’s atmosphere started hissing out into space.

The anchors hooked into the outer hull were more difficult to remove. Cotter and I had to actually climb through the blasted remains of the hull and out onto the ship’s exterior to pry them off by hand. Only when the final hook snapped did the landing pod and the dead xith’cal we’d tied down inside it break off and float away into the blackness.

We were working weightless by the time we climbed back into the cargo bay. For reasons I’d never bothered learning, it’s harder to generate gravity in a vacuum, and with a giant hole in its side, the cargo bay had lost both its pressure and its pull. Fortunately, my Lady is certified for spacewalks, and I was able to fly around no problem on my small thrusters. Cotter’s suit, on the other hand, had no thrusters at all. He spun like a piece of space garbage, kicking his legs while I laughed at him.

I left him hanging for a few minutes before I pulled him inside and hit the button on the shield generator. It shook for nearly a minute after I turned it on, and then a blob of rainbow-colored plasma shot out, filling the hole in the ship’s side that had been our cargo bay doors plus a good five feet of hull. The plasma hardened instantly, forming a bulbous seal that locked out both the vacuum and the radiation. When the breach was fully sealed, the vents started pumping in air to pressurize the cargo bay again, and I gently set myself and Cotter back on the floor before the reemerging gravity could yank us there.

“Thanks,” he grumbled.

I nodded, but my attention wasn’t really on Cotter anymore. I was staring at the seal. It had hardened to an off-white color with a rainbow sheen across its surface, almost like oil on water. However, though it was more opaque now than when it had started, it was still semitransparent, and that gave me the jeebies. Seeing space through a window is one thing, seeing it through a temporary patch so brittle I could probably put my foot through it without my suit’s help was something else altogether.

I brought up the engine room com. “Mabel, are you sure this thing will hold until we get back to the Fishermarch?”

“Oh sure,” she said, her voice distracted. “But there’s no reason to go all the way back to the Fishermarch. We’re headed to Mycant anyway, so we’ll just get the repairs done there.”

My heart jumped so fast my suit almost switched back into battle mode. “You mean we’re going to do a hyperspace jump with a patch?”

“Course,” Mabel said. “Do it all the time.”

“All the time?” I cried. “How often do you get giant holes in your hull?”

I could almost hear Mabel’s shrug. “Pretty often. Whose ship do you think you’re on?”

She had a point. “We’re all going to die,” I muttered, eying the patch one more time before stomping up the stairs toward the lounge. “Finish mopping up, Cotter.”

“What?” he roared. “Why do I have to clean?”

“Because I cleaned while you were standing around giving speeches,” I answered, hitting the pressure lock on the lounge door. “Do it right or Mabel will just make you do it again.”

I cut off our com link before he could start complaining and shut the door behind me.

We’d cleaned up the bodies here first, so the lounge looked the same as always. Ren was back on her couch, playing with her chessboard like nothing had happened. I saw her and dismissed her in the same moment, looking instead for the man I’d been trying my best not to think about.

For once, Rupert wasn’t in the kitchen. He was sitting at the battered dining table in the middle of the lounge where we’d shelled the seeds, reading something on a ledger. When I got closer, I saw it was a Paradoxian cookbook.

“I thought I’d make something for the glorious heroes,” he said, flicking off the projected display.

I stopped in front of him. “You mean that wasn’t a test, too?”

“Anything can be a test if you want to make it one,” Rupert said, his voice calm as he looked up at me. “Caldswell didn’t pay the xith’cal to put a hole in his hull so he could test his security team, if that’s what you’re implying.”

I wasn’t, though the thought had crossed my mind. “I was just wondering,” I said. “You’re normally a pretty smart guy. Why didn’t you run when the alarm went off? Why did you duck behind the counter?”

Rupert shrugged. “Panicked a little, I suppose. As I said, you got here pretty fast. I never had a chance.”

He was lying. First, Rupert didn’t panic. Even when I’d shot him in the head, he’d never been anything but calm, cool, and collected. Second, even if I hadn’t known anything about him before this moment, I still wouldn’t have believed his story. No one with enough training, experience, and guts to one-shot kill three xith’cal in a row would let himself get caught anywhere he didn’t want to be.

But I didn’t call him on his lie. Instead, I smiled, told him I was going to wash up, and walked out. He watched me the whole way.

Back in my room, I shoved the Lady into her case and hit the self-cleaner. Once my suit was taken care of, I went down the hall to the showers.

Alone at last, standing in the tiny stall as the recycled spray ran through my hair, I finally gave in to the flood of questions I’d been holding back during the whole cleanup. Why had Rupert stayed? Was it because he’d wanted to or because Caldswell had asked him to stay as backup in case Cotter and I failed? And if so, what kind of fighter was he, walking without fear into a xith’cal raid when he had no armor and wouldn’t have had a gun if I hadn’t given him mine? And most important of all, how had he killed three xith’cal with my Sasha and not broken his arms? Did it have to do with his ability to get shot in the head and thrown across the bridge without so much as a bruise?