If it hadn’t been a horrible breach of decorum, I would have rolled my eyes again. I hate kids when I’m working. If Caldswell tried to make me babysit on top of report writing, I was going to tell him he could shove this job, fantastic recommendation or no. I was already working out all the excuses I could use to get out of any potential kid duty when I caught sight of the man behind the girl and everything else became superfluous.
Now this, this was more like it. The man was gorgeous. He was tall and pale, but beautifully so, with shoulder-blade-length black hair tied at his neck. His eyes were a lovely bright blue under dark eyebrows, and his mouth looked quick to smile. He was wearing a black suit, not the ones they wore in Kingston with the wide lapels, but the old-fashioned Terran kind with the high collar that I’d always considered dashing. Even hidden behind the girl, I could see enough of his posture to know that he had some military training. Combine that with his long-fingered hands and broad, sloping shoulders and I was suddenly feeling much, much better about this job.
“Ah,” Basil said, his snarky tone fading just a hair. “This is Ren, the captain’s daughter.”
It took me a few seconds to realize Basil was talking to me. I looked away from the man with some difficulty and studied the girl instead. She must have taken after her mother, I decided, because no matter how much I looked, I could see nothing of the stocky Captain Caldswell in the girl’s dark, delicate features. The disconnect made me curious, but I stomped down the urge to question. Nosy mercs were dead mercs. Instead, I nodded to the girl politely: “Miss Caldswell.”
Ren didn’t even look at me. She just walked past Basil and me like we weren’t there and sat down on the couch behind us.
If her antisocial behavior bothered him, Basil didn’t let it show. A second later, I let it go as well, because Basil was now introducing the man. “This is our cook.”
The tall man’s face broke into a smile that only made him more handsome as he held out his hand. “Rupert Charkov,” he said, his voice curling around the letters with a soft accent I couldn’t place.
“Devi Morris,” I replied, doing my best not to let my own, far less attractive accent leak through as I took his hand.
When you live around mercs, you get used to bone-crushing handshakes. It’s a dominance thing, a power game, and like all games, I play to win. But Rupert took me by surprise, closing his hand around mine gentle as a caress. His soft grip forced me to dial back my own at the last second, which had the funny effect of sending my fingers sliding under his in a way that felt shockingly intimate between two people who’d just met.
Rupert must have felt it too, because the sudden, knowing look he gave me made his eyes sparkle. “I look forward to working with you, Devi.”
“Same,” I said. I could certainly stand hearing him say my name in that lovely accent a few more times.
Terrans accuse Paradoxians of being overly forward and completely unable to comprehend subtlety. I think that’s an exaggeration, but I have to admit I watched Rupert blatantly as he walked behind the kitchen counter and began moving supplies from the bag he’d been carrying into the fridge. I can’t help it, I’m not a subtle girl. When I see something I like, I go for it, and I liked what I saw very much. Even unloading groceries, Rupert moved gracefully, and as Basil led me back toward the bridge, all my earlier misgivings seemed less damning. Yes, I decided, Rupert would definitely make this job more bearable. All I needed now was for my fellow security merc to be minimally competent and this guard business might not be half bad.
Feeling more confident than I had since Caldswell told me I’d gotten the job, I strode after Basil, nodding where appropriate as he started explaining the dreadful burden of navigation, which my unevolved brain couldn’t possibly comprehend.
Basil’s tour ended at the tiny cabin that would be my home for the next year, but despite his warning that I’d have a bunkmate, the room was empty. Either this Nova girl was one of those who kept everything they owned with them at all times (I’ve known several over the years; fighting for hire makes people paranoid), or Basil had actually convinced the captain to separate us and just didn’t know it yet. Either way, the empty room suited me just fine, and I settled down to the serious business of unpacking my equipment.
Unlocking my armor case always felt like opening a birthday present. I’ve been obsessed with powered armor for as long as I can remember. There’s just something magical about the idea of a lovely machine that slides over your body and makes you superhuman.
It also helped that I’d always been good at it. We Paradoxians don’t mess around with our armor. Our schools have armor teams starting at age ten, and I’d been at the top of every one since I could compete. My mother used to say it was good I liked armor since I’d never be able to get a real job with my grades. I won’t repeat what I said back to her, because now that Basil was gone, I was official on duty, and I try not to swear when I’m on a job.
Whatever my mother’s opinion on the matter, my armor obsession had gotten me a place in the Royal Armored Corps my very first year of mandatory military service, and when all the other kids had gone home after their required two years, I’d gotten a promotion. Two years after that, I’d landed a spot in the most prestigious armored mercenary unit on Paradox. Not bad for a girl whose mother said she’d never be anything but an arena groupie.
The Blackbirds had been on the far edge of Terran Republic space when my contract had run out, and between all the flights and the Republic’s idiotic armor regulations, I hadn’t worn my suit in almost a week. As was always the case after a dry spell, putting it on again was a rush. I pulled the pieces out one by one, examining each segment to see if it had been damaged during all the lugging around. It hadn’t, of course. Even the cheapest Paradoxian armor isn’t like that plastic Terran junk. It wouldn’t get damaged in transport even if you shipped it in a bag of ball bearings. Still, my armor was my baby and my beloved all in one. I checked everything.
When I was finally satisfied, I stripped down to my underwear and dug my underarmor suit out of my duffel. The underarmor wasn’t strictly necessary. My armor has a self-cleaning cycle, but sweating in something I paid so much for was unthinkable, so I zipped myself into my skintight underarmor suit and started putting on the Lady Gray.
The Lady Gray was a suit of Verdemont Knight-class armor made just for me. Verdemont Armory is one of the oldest armor companies on Paradox, which is saying something considering our age-old obsession with the stuff, and they only make custom suits. Nobility or common born, Verdemont is the best you can buy, and I’d dumped two years’ wages to make sure I was buying the best. My equipment is my life; I only buy quality.
The Lady Gray was broken up into a series of interlocking pieces that fit over my body like a shell. Each segment overlapped and locked into those around it, connecting via a close-gap system, no wires for me. The disassembled armor looked stunning in the case, but it was when I put her on that the Lady’s true beauty showed. My suit was the color of morning mist, a light, silvery gray chased through with a spiraling pattern that was only visible in direct light. It was a speed suit, built for strength and flexibility, but the money I’d spent really showed in the suit’s size.
Usually, size is a good indicator of the strength potential for a suit of powered armor, but not always. Fully armored, the Lady added only six inches to my height and a mere hundred and fifty pounds to my weight. Her plates clung to me like a second skin, looking more like a slimmed down armor costume than a full working suit. Her engine case was on my back and so small you’d miss it if you didn’t know what to look for.
Even I’d been a little skeptical when the Master Armorsmith first showed me her power ratings, but my worries had died the first time I’d put the Lady on. Over the two and a half years we’d been together, my suit had jumped me hundreds of feet onto escaping thruster ships and punched armored combat marines through bulkheads without pushing into the red. She might look like a light racing suit, but my Lady was ruthless to those who underestimated her, or me, and I’ve never regretted a cent of the fortune I’d paid for her.
Putting on my suit and feeling its comfortable weight lock around me again was its own kind of wonderful, but the real treat came when I slipped on my helmet. The Lady Gray was well-enough made to follow my movements with or without her head, but in order to really use Paradoxian armor, you have to activate the neural net. As I put on the Lady’s sleek helmet, the neural sensors slid through my hair like a comb to lock onto my scalp. The moment the helmet locked in place, my world shifted.
It was like waking up from a dream. My vision sharpened as my cameras took over for my eyes, and suddenly I could see everything around me in a 360 degree circle. Infrared readings hovered over my normal vision like ghosts for a few seconds before fading into the background as my brain adjusted to the new information the Lady’s neural net was feeding me.
As my senses adjusted, my suit became an extension of my own body. I could feel the floor under my armored knees and the slick surface of my suit beneath the articulated joints of my gloves like I was touching it with my own fingers. All my systems flickered on the edge of my thoughts: ammo, power, maps, chat systems—even my music—were all ready and waiting to flick into my field of vision the second I thought of them.
Feeling infinitely more myself now that I was back in my suit, I moved to my weapons. I hadn’t quite managed to get my guns up to the Lady Gray’s level yet, but my girls were no slouches. As always, the first to go on was Sasha, my anti-armor pistol. She was a variant of the Paradoxian standard sidearm I’d used in the army, but with some major modifications that jacked up her power and a custom sight that linked into my armor’s camera control system whenever I touched her. I locked her into the custom holster on my hip and then reached for Mia’s case.
If Sasha was my bread and butter, Mia was my statement piece. She was a plasma shotgun the Blackbird quartermaster had sold to me after I pulled her off a tank and refused to give her back. I’d already modded her charge to shoot seven shots instead of six, and I was saving up to get her a sight that hooked into my suit’s targeting system like Sasha’s did, but I wasn’t in too much of a hurry about it. Plasma shotguns aren’t exactly hard to hit with.
My thermite blade was already in place, folded into a nook in my armor beneath my left arm, so once Mia was fixed on my back, I was ready to go. I locked my armor case, stowed my duffel and gun cases, as well as the tiny army-issue concealable hand pistol I kept for those rare occasions when I was out of my armor, under the lower bunk. When everything was in place, I stepped out into the hall, ready for business.
As I left my room, I noticed for the first time that the Glorious Fool, though a Terran ship, was retrofitted to Paradoxian armor standards, with ten-foot ceilings and reinforced floor panels. This raised my opinion of my new captain yet again. The Lady might be smaller than most suits, but I was still six feet and almost four hundred pounds once suit, guns, and ammo were counted in. I can and have performed just fine in tight quarters, but I appreciated the extra room. Low ceilings made me claustrophobic.
Being back in my suit put me in full-on merc mode, so when my density sensor told me there was another person in armor standing in the lounge, I put my hand on my gun and went to investigate. I was confident that I could defend a ship this size by myself against pretty much anything. All I needed was for my fellow security officer to not be terrible enough to drag me down and everything would be fine. Caldswell seemed to know what he was doing, so I wasn’t too worried until I stepped into the lounge.
You spend enough years as a soldier for hire and you find that most mercs tend to fall into three categories. There are the career professionals like me who are in this business because they’re excellent at what they do and love to do it; there are the grunts who put on the armor and do what they’re told because it doesn’t take too much thought and the pay is good; and then there are the skullheads, the macho idiots who do it for the power trip. I should have known what I was in for the moment I’d seen the canary yellow Count’s suit parked in the cargo bay. Count’s armor is the biggest suit a peasant can own outside of the arenas. They’re huge, seven feet tall and nearly four feet at the shoulders, and impractical for anything other than wading through infantry and ripping up vehicles, which is exactly why skullheads love them.