As he spoke, my mind flashed back to the thing I’d fought in the woods on Mycant, the invisible monster that wouldn’t die no matter how much I carved it up.
“Ah.” Brenton’s voice stopped my thoughts cold. He was closer than I’d realized, staring into my eyes like everything that had just flicked through my brain was written there for him to read. “You’ve seen a phantom.”
I briefly considered lying, but I had a feeling the Nic kid would know. Anyway, there was still a good chance this Brenton was going to kill me. If I was going to die, I’d at least die with some answers.
“I fought something,” I said. “It was huge and invisible. My cameras didn’t work around it.”
“I’m surprised your suit worked at all,” Brenton said. “Phantoms and technology don’t get along.”
“What are they?” I asked, leaning forward as far as I could. “You said they could wipe us out—how? What do phantoms do?” Because other than messing up my suit and knocking me around and being unkillable, the big invisible monster hadn’t seemed that much more dangerous than any other big animal. Certainly not the intergalactic menace Brenton was implying.
“No one knows for sure,” Brenton said. “Suffice it to say, phantoms break what we know about the rules of normal space. They move through the universe seemingly without care for gravity or distance, and they’re attracted to habitable planets. Leave one there long enough and the whole place starts to crumble.”
I swallowed, remembering Mycant’s quakes. “What about time?” I demanded. “What do they do to clocks?”
Brenton looked at me sharply. “You really did fight one, didn’t you?”
“Don’t act so surprised,” I said, tossing my head as much as I could with the pressure. “I’m pretty tough.”
“I know that,” he said, glancing at the dead men on the floor. “I’m not surprised that you beat it, but that Caldswell let you live afterward.”
My mouth went dry, but I couldn’t let him see my reaction, so I set my jaw and stared him down. “Why would the captain kill me?” I said. “I saved him.”
Brenton shrugged. “That’s never stopped him before.”
I gave Brenton a dangerous look. “Look, I’m not Caldswell’s biggest fan, but he’s my captain. So far as I’m concerned, you’re no more than a pirate invading his ship, and the moment your little freak shows let me go, I’m going to make sure you join your fellow ‘good man’ down there. Now, are you going to tell me about the time thing or not?”
My threats rolled off Brenton like rain off a mountain. “I think I’ve given you quite enough information for free,” he said, dragging one of the stools over so he could sit facing me. “Are you familiar with chess, Deviana?”
“No.” His subject changes were giving me whiplash. I really hoped this all came together soon. I hate puzzles enough on a normal day, there was no way in hell I was going to spend my last minutes of life playing guessing games.
“Ancient game of strategy,” Brenton continued, settling onto his stool. “Two equal armies fight until a king is captured. It’s a game of risk and reward where it’s not uncommon to sacrifice even your most powerful pieces to protect your objectives or corner the enemy.”
He placed his hands on his knees, and his face grew wistful. “Brian, your dear captain, is an excellent chess player, and he takes great care to stock his ship with useful pawns. But though Caldswell is king on his little Fool, he always seems to forget that the king is a piece like all the others, and that he is being moved just as much as the rest of us.”
I leaned back into the invisible wall. “Does this have a point?”
“My point, dear,” Brenton said, “is that if you’re going to play with Brian Caldswell, you need to understand that it doesn’t matter how well you honor your contracts or how many times you save his life. The moment you become a liability to his game, he’ll sacrifice you without pause, just like he does all his other pawns.”
That was just going too far. I didn’t need Brenton’s cryptic bullshit to know I’d seen something I shouldn’t have in that clearing. If Caldswell was really as ruthless as Brenton claimed, he would have eliminated the risk entirely and shot me while I was unconscious, but he hadn’t. Instead, the captain had gone out of his way to cover things up so I could stay on as his merc. He had sent me onto the tribe ship, but it’s a merc’s job to do dangerous work, and when things had gone to hell, Caldswell had patched me up instead of letting me die. Sure he was a jerk and a killjoy, but while I hated him sometimes, the captain had never acted as less than what he was: an officer trying to keep a rowdy but useful subordinate in line, and that was something I could understand and appreciate far more than I did the man in front of me.
“You’re very quiet all of a sudden, Miss Morris,” Brenton said, leaning forward with a smile. “Did I upset your view of your captain?”
“Not at all,” I said. “You actually helped me put things in perspective. I don’t know what Caldswell’s up to, but it’s not my job to ask questions, is it? I’m a merc, I follow orders, and Captain Caldswell has been nothing but a captain to me. A captain, I might add, who has the respect and loyalty of his crew. In the months I’ve worked for him, I’ve never seen him needlessly waste the lives of those under his command. On the contrary, I’ve seen him go through great trouble to protect his people, which is more than I can say for you.”
Brenton glowered at me. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, girl.”
“Don’t I?” I snapped, letting my eyes drop to the bodies of the two mercs I’d shot when I first entered the lounge. “You can tell a lot about a man by how he treats his hired guns, John Brenton. Even though you had two symbionts with you tonight, you sent that crash team in here to die.”
Brenton went very still. “What do you know about symbionts?”
“I know they could easily have killed Cotter and gotten me down without the aid of your Terran tin cans,” I said. “And you knew it, too, but you didn’t want to risk your ‘good men,’ did you? No, you sent in the hired armor to soak up some bullets first.”
I gave him a look of pure disgust. “I’ve worked for men like you,” I continued. “Pricks who treat mercenaries as disposable shields to protect higher-value targets. Whatever you may think of Caldswell, he’d never have sent those poor Terran bastards up against two superiorly armored opponents in close quarters. The captain can be a right ass sometimes, but at least he gives a damn about whether people die, hired guns or not. And he certainly would have given Cotter a chance to surrender if all he meant to do was corner a merc with some plasmex and babble nonsense at her.”
Brenton stared at me for a long time after I finished, and then that smug smile was back. “Believe me, Miss Morris, I could tell you stories about your captain that would make what I’ve done here seem like—”
“You just don’t get it, do you?” I snapped, lurching forward against the barrier until I was nearly in his face. “You think that just because Caldswell did something worse, it makes your sins go away? Bullshit. Why should I even believe you, anyway? You come in here, lose a bunch of men, kill my partner, tie me up, and then you try to say you’re better than Caldswell? Please.”
“I’m sure Brian would be touched by your loyalty,” Brenton snapped. “But let me ask you a question. If Caldswell was really the hero in this, if he was really the good captain you claim he is, why does he kill everyone who gets close to the truth?”
I wanted to call bullshit on that, but I couldn’t. Not after Rupert’s behavior on Seni. I could still see him in the rain, staring at me with horror as he pressed his hand over my lips and told me I’d seen nothing on that tribe ship. I might be pissed at him at the moment, but I wasn’t stupid enough to think that Rupert’s fear was unfounded. Whatever secrets Caldswell was keeping, they were the killing kind, but that didn’t mean I was about to give this man an inch.
My determination must have been clear, because Brenton’s scowl fell into a tired frown. “Let me lay it out for you plainly, Miss Morris,” he said. “You might not think much of me at the moment, but for all your misplaced faith in our dear Captain Caldswell, you have to know that you’re dead if you stay on this ship. I don’t know how you’ve avoided it so far, but now that you’ve talked to me, Brian doesn’t have a choice. He’ll kill you for sure. Or he would, if I hadn’t gotten you first.”
I looked at his face and saw what was unsaid. This man was going to kill me. The knowledge wasn’t even frightening after everything that had happened. I was mostly just annoyed he was being so damned high-handed about it.
“Do it if you’re going to, then,” I said, staring him straight in the eye so he’d know I wasn’t afraid. “At least I took one of your freaks down with me.”
“Sorry,” Brenton said. “But you’ll have to wait a little longer. First, I need to know what happened on that xith’cal ship.”
I couldn’t help it. I started to laugh. “Then you should have asked me about it before you told me you were going to kill me. I’m not exactly inclined to talk now, am I?”
“But it doesn’t have to be like that, Deviana,” Brenton said, his voice going smooth. “As you’re so keen on pointing out, I’m not Caldswell. All I want is the truth. Answer my questions about what really happened on that ship and I swear I’ll answer yours in kind. I’ll tell you about the phantoms, about Caldswell, anything you want to know, and in the end, I’ll let you go free.”
“You’re shitting me,” I said. “You’d just let me walk?”
“Of course,” Brenton said. “Caldswell’s the one who kills to keep secrets. I kill to bring them out.” He held out his hand to me. “This is your only chance, Deviana. Tell me what happened on that ship and I’ll have Evelyn let you go right now.”
I stared at him hard, but so far as I could tell, Brenton was in earnest. “Why is the xith’cal ship so damn important?” I asked. “It’s gone. The lelgis burned it to a crisp. If you were after anything, it’s space trash now.”
“That’s why we need you,” Brenton said. His expression never changed, but I could hear frustration creeping into his voice. “Do you think Caldswell just stumbled into that tribe ship? The Recant asteroid belt is almost two light years from end to end. The odds of finding anything in that by chance, even something as huge as a tribe ship, are astronomical. The only way Caldswell found it was because someone tipped him off.”
I’d already guessed as much, but Brenton wasn’t finished. He pulled back his hand and leaned in, lowering his voice even though there was no one but his own people to hear. “The xith’cal were doing something on that ship,” he whispered. “Something that terrified the lelgis. You were there when they burned it, how many ships did the lelgis send?”
I almost answered before I remembered I wasn’t telling this man shit. When it was clear I wasn’t going to say anything, Brenton answered for me.
“A dozen at least,” he said. “That’s a full battle fleet, and all to burn one ghost ship that couldn’t fight back. I want to know why. The lelgis are creatures of nearly pure plasmex. Their drones are disposable, they don’t fear guns or ships, and even the xith’cal don’t raid them. They’ve had nothing to fear in the whole of their history, so why are they so afraid now? What were the xith’cal doing?”