Fortune's Pawn / Page 41

Page 41


Author: Rachel Bach

She beamed at me and left, walking back into the hall in that floaty way of hers. I waited until the door closed before I let my face drop into a scowl. Technically, I was off duty and should have been sleeping, especially with a planet stay coming up, but I couldn’t resist checking out Falcon 34.


My handset didn’t have much. Falcon 34 appeared to be every bit the middle-of-nowhere speck it sounded like, another brand-new claim for the Terrans with a population of less than ten thousand, most of whom were laborers on the terraforming platforms that were still working to make the planet habitable. Certainly not the kind of place you took a private trade ship to, or anything else for that matter.


Lying back on my bunk, I wondered briefly if Rupert would be going with Caldswell on this “last-minute trade tip” before I remembered that I wasn’t worrying about Rupert or secrets or anything other than my job anymore. With that thought firmly in mind, I pulled the sheet over my head and went to sleep.


I was glad I’d found out where we were going from Nova, because no one else seemed to know we’d changed course until we landed on Falcon 34 seven hours later. The planet proved worse than I’d feared. There wasn’t even a proper spaceport, just a stretch of mountain that had been leveled to form a landing space for supply freighters.


The planet looked to be nothing but dry, flat, yellow desert broken up by long mountain ranges. With clear air and no vegetation, I couldn’t tell if the mountains were ten or a hundred miles away. They were big, though, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I was here under duress, I might have called them majestic in a desolate sort of way.


The terraforming was far enough along that the air was breathable, if thin, but not so far that there was a suitable atmosphere to bounce the fantastic heat from Falcon 34’s sun. It was a hundred and forty degrees in the shade, and even though the ship’s climate control was going full blast, we started feeling the heat immediately. I could even feel it through my suit, and Cotter was sweating openly, but it wasn’t until Basil started proclaiming that he would die of heat exhaustion that the captain pulled some strings and got everyone rooms at the soon-to-be colony governor’s mansion.


This cheered the crew up immensely, especially Basil. I suspected Caldswell must have flashed his Warrant, because the terraforming office, which couldn’t be bothered to return our calls half an hour ago, sent a complimentary shuttle not ten minutes after the captain’s announcement. The whole crew loaded in, even Hyrek, much to my amazement.


“I thought you never left the ship,” I said as he climbed in.


He gave me a cutting look and held out his handset. Xith’cal do best between seventy and ninety-five degrees. The ship’s interior rooms were one hundred and ten when I left. Compared to that, a night listening to Basil complain about the accommodations in a mansion is nearly tolerable.


“Don’t eat the staff,” I said.


Hyrek turned up his snout so fast I thought I’d actually insulted him, but then I saw his handset. Spoilsport.


I laughed and closed the shuttle doors, waving as the crew flew off toward the tiny smudge of the villa’s climate-controlled dome on the horizon, the only spot of green in any direction.


Cotter and I weren’t going, of course. Whatever Caldswell was here for, we still had a ship full of cargo to watch. Caldswell wasn’t going to the mansion either. He, Ren, and Rupert had left right after Caldswell made his arrangements with the colony brass, flying their skipper off into the desert. It was the same little trio who’d gone out on Mycant, and, just because I could, I started watching my clock like a hawk. But it stayed perfectly on time, and I didn’t feel so much as a tremble of a quake as the afternoon wore on and the temperature crept up.


We closed up the ship and shut down everything we could except the air, but it didn’t make much difference. By the time it was my turn to eat dinner, I was sweating buckets even in my suit. Cotter wasn’t much better, and we eventually gave up any pretense at decorum and sat sprawling on top of the cargo watching last year’s gladiator world championship on the cargo bay vidscreen. I already knew who’d won, but watching two enormous suits of armor chop each other to pieces took my mind off the heat, and it wasn’t like we were actually slacking on guard duty. After all, with us sitting on the cargo like we were, any would-be thief would have to steal us, too.


By the time the sun had set, taking the temperature down just a little, we’d reached the semifinals, and I was bored stiff. Even with heat parboiling my brain, there’s only so much show fighting I can take. I didn’t feel like patrolling, though, so I pulled out my handset to see if Anthony had written me back.


Checking while I was on the ship was risky, but with the crew gone and Cotter half asleep beside me, I felt I could chance a look. I wasn’t actually expecting an answer yet anyway. We could terraform planets and jump ships through dimensions, but no one had ever mastered real-time communication across the universe. My message would have been relayed through hyperspace on the back of whatever drones were available, but even if it had made it to Paradox the night I’d sent it, Anthony would still have to actually read the thing and reply, something he’d never exactly excelled at. Add to that the part where I’d asked him a question that might take some research, and I didn’t expect to hear anything for at least a month. So you can imagine my surprise when I found that a message bearing Anthony’s ID had arrived the day we’d left Seni Major, a mere nineteen hours after I’d sent the first one.


And not just any message, either. The letter was encoded with top military security. I didn’t even know Anthony had access to that sort of encryption, much less the freedom to use it writing notes to me. I glanced at Cotter, but he was completely absorbed by the carnage on the screen. That was about the best distraction I could ask for, and I casually turned over on my side, using my body to block my handset screen as I unlocked the message and began to read.


Devi, love, as you probably guessed from the encryption, what I’m about to tell you is top secret. I could lose my job five times over for this, so I hope you’ll respect the risk I am taking for you and listen for once.


I did some checking with a contact who knows about this sort of thing, and he believes the scaled figure you described is a Terran weapon called a symbiont. They were used against us in the Border Wars, but the Terrans supposedly destroyed them all decades ago because of their extreme instability. Thanks to that, our info is a bit out of date, but I can tell you that symbionts are alien parasites, created in the lab and put into a human host.


Since we’ve never caught a symbiont alive to test, we don’t know their exact abilities, but we do know they’re incredibly strong, fast, and damn near unkillable. They can also switch back and forth between the thing you described and their old, human body. Don’t let that fool you, though. Symbionts are not human. If you’ve really seen a symbiont, Devi, I need you to let me know right away. If the Terrans are breaking their treaties, I have to report it to the king’s office immediately.


In the meanwhile, I want you to forget Caldswell and get out of there. I know you’re dead set on a quick promotion, but this is too much. Symbionts are a death sentence to everyone around them, and you can’t be a Devastator if you’re dead. Please, Devi, for once in your life use your damn sense and come home. Contact me the moment you’re safe and I’ll send someone to pick you up.


See you soon, A.


PS: For the love of the king, don’t even think about fighting one. Even Devastators don’t take symbionts solo. You see one, you run as fast as you can in the other direction. We’ll talk more when you’re home safe. I’ll be waiting.


“Morris?”


I looked over to see Cotter staring at me. “You all right? Your suit’s shaking.”


“Heat’s getting to me,” I said, standing up. “Cover for me, would you? I’m going to take a quick shower.”


Cotter shrugged, but I was already walking away. I made it all the way up the stairs, through the lounge, and into the hall before I whipped out my handset to read the message again.


It didn’t get any better the second time, or the third. By the fourth reading I gave up on all pretense and sank to the floor so I wouldn’t fall.


Anthony was wrong, of course. No matter how sure his contact was, there was no way Rupert could be one of those things. He was the picture of control and discipline, so much so that I wanted to strangle him sometimes. He certainly wasn’t unstable, though he was surprisingly strong. And fast. And able to shoot Sasha without breaking his arms and get knocked across the bridge without taking a mark. And he was able to change shape into that alien … thing.


I looked back down at Anthony’s message. My hand was shaking so badly I couldn’t read the text, but I wasn’t really trying to. My mind was back on Seni Major, looking up at Rupert’s cold face against the rain as he’d said he’d put me in danger, that he was dangerous. At the time I’d thought he was full of it. Now, though, I wondered if he hadn’t been speaking literally.


One of the things I loved about Rupert was how intense he was. I loved how tightly he held me, how hard he kissed me. I’d thought it was a sign of how much he wanted me, but now I wasn’t so sure. What if he’d been like that because he was fighting for control? What if I really had been in danger when he’d taken me to his room?


Even as I thought it, I dismissed the idea as absurd. Angry as I was at Rupert, I couldn’t believe he’d hurt me. Not physically, anyway. I scowled at that thought and looked down at Anthony’s message one last time, and then I deleted it.


I deleted all the backups too, wiping my whole box. My gamble had paid off. Anthony had given me the truth, just like I’d wanted, but I didn’t care anymore. I was tired of gambling, tired of worrying, tired of getting hurt. This shit was way too heavy for me.


Before I could chicken out, I deleted my Bargain footage too, all of it. I knew I’d probably regret it later, but right now, all I wanted was for this to be over. Rupert, Caldswell, Ren, mysteries—I wanted all of them out of my life. I was going to finish this damn tour, and when the Devastators asked me about my time on Caldswell’s Fool, I’d tell them I fought a lot of xith’cal and put up with a lot of bullshit, but I’d never tell them a damn thing about alien monsters, not the invisible ones or the ones with kind smiles. Rupert could keep his damn secret; I was done.


When I’d cleaned everything off my Blackbird box, I sent another message to Anthony, a perfectly innocent one, through the ship system. I thanked him for being such a sweetheart, but I’d been overreacting. There was no need to report anything or send someone. I was fine, and I’d see him in a few months when my tour with Caldswell was up. I put the message on Falcon 34’s queue to go out on their daily communication drone, and then I pushed myself off the floor to go take that shower. I was thinking about how lovely the water was going to feel when the first blast rocked the ship.


Even with my stabilizers, I was thrown against the wall. The explosion was powerful enough to tip the Fool up on its side, and I almost fell again as the ship slammed back down so hard the lights flickered. By that point I had an emergency signal out on all channels. I heard Cotter’s alarm go out a half second later, and then everything in my helmet went silent as a jamming field landed on the ship like a hammer.


“Shit,” I whispered, flicking through channels as fast as I could think. “Shit, shit, shit.”


All outside channels were black, and there was no getting through. I could still get Cotter, though, and I patched him straight in, switching one of my camera feeds for his just in time to watch a second blast explode right in front of him.


“Cargo door!” he shouted in my ear.


“I see it!” I yelled back. “Hang on, I’ll—”


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