Author: Rachel Bach

This Count’s suit was a piece of cheap Maraday assembly-line garbage, but it was polished to a sheen. Caldswell was standing beside it, neck craned back as he talked to the man with the shaved head who was leering with a superior sneer from the armor’s open cockpit. But if his looks and armor hadn’t been enough to clue me in that this man was a jerk, the first words out of his mouth removed all doubt.

“Morris,” Caldswell said as I walked in. “This is Jayston Cotter, the other half of your security team. Cotter, this is Devi Morris.”

The man’s face broke into an enormous grin as soon as the captain said my name. “I’ve heard of you,” he said, eying me up and down even though he couldn’t possibly see anything of interest through my armor. When I didn’t answer at once, he switched to King’s Tongue. “You’re the Blackbirds’ crazy slut.”

I gritted my teeth. Of all the crap that got thrown my way, “slut” was the putdown I hated the most. Sure I had a lot of flings, but all mercs did. It was stupid not to live your life to the fullest when you could die tomorrow, and I sure as shit wasn’t about to take hell for that from some macho skullhead idiot.

But I knew better than to show my anger, so I kept my face neutral as I flipped up my visor to give Cotter a slow once-over. “That’s funny,” I drawled, switching to King’s Tongue as well. “I haven’t heard of you. You’d think an asshole as big as yourself would be famous by now. Guess you need to work on your insults.”

Cotter stepped forward, his enormous boot landing so hard I felt the rumble through my shocks. I grabbed my pistol, ready to shoot this moron’s stabilizer right out of his cheap suit and send him tumbling over like a turtle, but Caldswell got between us first.

“Children,” he said, his voice low and deadly. “That’s enough.”

We both stepped back, Cotter giving me a lewd wink in the process. I smiled cold as I could and made a note to deal with him quickly before he got any ideas. If we were going to be working together, I’d have to make sure he understood the boundaries in a real and bloody way.

Now that his security team had been introduced, Caldswell took us down to the empty cargo bay and showed us where we could strap in for launch. The second the captain was gone, the heckling began. It wasn’t even original, just more of the same old armored whore catcalls I’d heard since I was a teenager. Now, I knew how to follow orders. I also knew doing this before we’d even left Paradox was a bad idea, but nine years as a fighter had given me some instincts that had nothing to do with fighting.

Mercs are a lot like animals in some ways. Dominance is very important. Dicks like Cotter were everywhere in the merc world. They got their power by bullying anyone they thought was weaker, pushing at whatever vulnerability they could find. If they locked on to you, the only way to get them off again was to push back so hard they learned to keep their mouths shut. That or kill them, but I didn’t want to make a mess quite so soon into my new job. So, with shove not being an option, I had to make do with push, and the moment the captain called two minutes to launch, I dropped my safety harness and motioned for Cotter to come to the center of the cargo bay.

“What?” he said, grinning as he clomped over, his giant suit clanging on the scuffed metal floor. “If you want a tumble, sweetheart, you’ll have to wait until we get—”

I was in the air before he finished. The Lady Gray couldn’t fly, but she could jump so high and fast it didn’t matter. I shot up until I was eye level with the cargo bay lights and then dropped, flipping in midair to land hard with both feet on Cotter’s broad shoulders. I’d angled to land right on the weight balancer that kept his tank of a suit upright, and my impact sent him tilting with a strangled gasp.

It only knocked him for a moment, but a moment was all I needed. I reached down and popped the hidden safety that’s always in the same place on assembly-line suits, yanking up his face shield with one hand while my other dove to grab his now-bared throat. It was a move that would never have worked on small armor like mine, but then people who wore reasonably sized suits rarely needed this sort of discipline.

The moment I touched him, Cotter froze. Snapping his neck would be nothing to my armor-powered hand, and he knew it. Very slowly, taking my time, I reached up and plucked the neural net off his shaved head. As was the default in cheap suits like this, his armor went into idle as soon as I broke the connection, trapping him inside.

Now that he couldn’t throw me off, I shifted my weight and crouched down, lowering my head until I was an inch from his nose. I stopped there a second, letting him take a good, hard look at the reflection of his terrified face in my silver-tinted visor while my fingers slowly tightened on his throat until I was pressing on the last millimeter of space he needed to keep breathing.

The launch timer ticking just out of sight on my left told me we were running short on time, but I didn’t pick up my pace. Dominance is an animal game. You’ve got to give the animal part of your enemy time to understand they’ve been defeated, otherwise you’ll end up fighting the same fight a dozen times before they get it.

When I was certain I’d scared him enough, I whispered into my suit’s speakers, nudging the levels slightly to make sure my voice had just the right metallic edge that made people hear your words in their nightmares.

“Now that I have your undivided attention,” I said slowly, “here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to start this relationship over. This time, you’re going to be a gentleman, or I’m going to make sure you end up a casualty of Caldswell’s infamous bad luck.”

For a second, it looked like he was going to try and fight. I tightened my grip, cutting off his last fraction of air. “Do you know how to be a gentleman, Cotter?”

Eyes bulging, Cotter nodded.

“Show me,” I said, relaxing my hand just enough to let him take a gasp. “What does a gentleman say?”

“I’m sorry,” he choked.

I tilted my head. “I’m sorry … what?”

Cotter was starting to turn a little blue. “I’m sorry, Miss Morris.”

I smiled and released my hand. He collapsed at once, slumping into his idled armor. I let him pant a bit before I slapped the neural net back on his head and hopped down. “You’d better get strapped in,” I said, walking back to the wall and sliding my arms through the harness as the ship began to rumble. “Launch in thirty seconds.”

This was the point where a normal jerk would have told me I’d pay for this insult or something else equally stupid, but Cotter, for all his skullhead flaws, was a merc like me. We both understood that this had been a fight for control, and I’d won. Of course, that didn’t mean he had to like it.

“You’re a crazy bitch,” he said, stomping back to his harness.

“Crazy bitch I’m fine with,” I answered. “But hit on me again and I’ll hit you through the bulkhead.”

He didn’t say anything else, just locked himself down as the thrusters kicked in, pushing us off the planet with a deafening roar.

I fully expected to have to make my point at least two more times before it stuck, but Cotter didn’t bother me again. He was still a complete ass, bossing people around and bragging endlessly about the time his team saved some minor baron’s life to anyone who would listen, but he never said anything else untoward about me in my hearing. He wasn’t quite as good about not leering when I was out of armor, but he kept his comments to himself, so I let it slide.

Given Caldswell’s reputation, I was braced for attack the moment we left Paradoxian orbit, but none came. I quickly fell into the rhythm of ship life. Cotter and I had split shifts; I had the night cycle and early morning while he took the ship’s day. With a nine-man crew on such a small vessel, I’d expected to be up to my elbows in crewmates, but I didn’t actually see anyone except for the handful of people I’d met my first day. When I managed to catch Basil outside the bridge long enough to ask where everyone was, he gave me a huge lecture about minding my own business and then told me they were waiting for us at the Fishermarch.

“You left your crew on the Fishermarch?” I said, horrified. “Why would they want to stay on that waterball when they could have come to Paradox?”

“It’s called a vacation,” Basil snapped. “Captain Caldswell is very thoughtful when it comes to his people, and he wanted them to have a little time off. The captain kept back only those who were absolutely necessary for the trip to Kingston.”

His puffed-out chest told me what the bird thought about himself being included in the “absolutely necessary” category.

A skeleton crew and no cargo meant nothing much to guard when I was on duty and no one to talk to when I was off. As a result, I ended up spending most of my downtime in the lounge with Rupert. Not that I minded. In fact, sitting at the bar watching him chop vegetables with the quiet intensity of a heart surgeon was one of the few times I didn’t worry I’d made the wrong choice taking this job.

Caldswell kept a liquor cabinet in the lounge where he sold drinks to the crew at cost. Rupert tended it in addition to his cooking duties, and he’d been very kind about sneaking me free drinks, a habit that made me like him even more. I had one in my hand now, a Terran whiskey with a deep, smoky burn that made me feel lovely even though I was fresh off twelve hours of standing around.

I was still standing, actually. I hadn’t taken off my armor yet, and I didn’t trust the bar stools to hold the Lady’s weight. Instead, I leaned on the counter that separated the tiny kitchen from the rest of the lounge with my chin on my discarded helmet, holding my glass delicately between my armored hands as I watched Rupert’s knife turn a pile of fat turnips into neat little sticks.

“I saw what you did the other day,” he said, never looking up from his chopping.

“Hmm?” This was my fourth whiskey, and I was already more drunk than I’d intended to get. I still trusted myself to shoot straight, but translation was getting difficult, especially when he kept speaking in that delightful accent of his. The fact that he’d taken his jacket off and was working in his shirtsleeves with the cuffs rolled up didn’t help either. The man’s arms went on forever.

I was surprised to see a small black tattoo across the inside of his left wrist, a thin, delicately lined pattern about two inches long. He didn’t seem like the tattoo type. I smiled, wondering if he had any more.

“Your fight with Cotter,” Rupert said as he scraped the white turnip sticks into a bowl. “You were fantastic. That flip was what, forty feet?”

“Wait, you saw that?” I said, snapping out of my daze. “How?”

“We have cameras in the cargo bay,” he answered, his words rich with hidden laughter as he pulled a bunch of leafy greens onto the cutting board. “I’m glad, otherwise I’d have missed the show.”

“Crap.” The curse slipped out before I could stop it, another sign I should stop with the whiskey. Of course they’d have cameras in the cargo bay. The real question was what kind of idiot was I for forgetting them. Disciplining Cotter should have been the captain’s job, not mine. That little stunt could have cost me my position.

“Well,” I said at last, putting my glass down with a clink. “I guess if Caldswell hasn’t fired me yet, he’s not going to.”

“He wasn’t happy,” Rupert said. “But you didn’t do any serious damage, and Cotter was out of line. The captain prefers to let people settle their own disputes so long as it doesn’t hurt the ship.”

“Good to know,” I said.

He smiled at me, his face lighting up. I smiled back automatically, suddenly giddy. He really was good-looking, and he seemed to have an easygoing sense of humor. Add in the free drinks and I was sold. But before I could turn the conversation back to something more pleasant, his eyes slid over my shoulder.