Author: Rachel Bach

“Now that we’re all here,” Rupert said slowly, that lovely accent as cold as the rest of him. “This is how things stand. If anyone speaks without my permission, I will shoot the captain. If anyone moves, I will shoot the captain. If you do not lower your guns, I will shoot the captain. Understood?”

He was looking right at me as he spoke, and though it made me sick to do it, I nodded. When my gun was pointed at the floor, Rupert continued.

“We are going to change course toward the Hereford colony,” he said. “When we get there, I will give you further instructions.”

“Ignore that order,” Caldswell said. “This ship stays on—”

He cut off with a strangled sound as Rupert stabbed the big pistol deeper into his throat, barrel pointed up. “Change course, Basil,” Rupert said calmly. “Or I will blow his brains out.”

Basil gave a frightened squawk, and I tightened my grip on my lowered gun. This was a bad, bad situation. I’d thought Rupert had a military posture when I’d first met him, but his steady finger on the trigger told me for certain that he’d used a pistol to kill at close range before, and he meant to use it this time. This wasn’t the Rupert who’d slipped me free drinks and refused to take advantage of a drunken girl. Maybe that Rupert never even existed. Maybe he was just a mask for this Rupert, who was almost certainly going to shoot Caldswell in the next minute if the ship didn’t start turning.

He’d set himself up well for it, too. On the small bridge, there was no room to get behind him, and while my suit could move faster than he could, with his gun pressed into Caldswell’s neck like that, all Rupert had to do was pull the trigger. He was standing in the classic hostage position with the captain in front of him as a shield. If I shot to wound, body, leg, or arm, I would almost certainly hit Caldswell, too. But he’d left one area open. For all that Caldswell’s wide, stocky body made for good cover, Rupert was taller than the captain by a good six inches, and that was where I took my chance.

With bitter regret at the waste of such a nice face, I snapped up my pistol and squeezed off a shot. It happened so fast my targeting program didn’t have time to line up the sights, but I’ve never needed a computer to shoot straight. Sasha struck true, her armor-piercing bullet hitting Rupert right in the middle of his forehead.

I caught one last glimpse of his face before it hit. He was shocked, which was normal in people realizing they were about to die, but the fear and anger that were usually mixed in were missing. Instead, Rupert looked almost … impressed. That was all I saw before he was flung across the bridge by the force of a shot from a pistol meant to take out armored targets, crashing into the railing beside Basil’s pilot’s nest.

I was moving before he landed.

“Get the captain!” I shouted to Cotter as I surged forward. I saw through my rear cam that he obeyed, grabbing Caldswell and dragging him back. Technically, he didn’t have to take orders from me, but after our dustup in the cargo bay he wasn’t going to argue.

I wouldn’t have listened if he had. I was killing mad. Try it again tomorrow, he’d said. Bullshit. Rupert had planned this from the start, and I’d eaten it up. I’d let him lead me around by the nose like a goddamn idiot, and someone was going to pay.

The first thing I noticed when I reached Rupert’s body was there was no blood, which made no sense. A shot like that should have splattered his skull, but while he wasn’t moving, his head was still in one piece. I reached out to grab him for a better look, but my fingers ran into something that felt like stiff jelly an inch above his shoulder. I guessed what it was the second I felt it, but my display quickly flashed the truth across my vision. Rupert was covered in a personal shield.

Snatching my hand out of the shield’s invisible barrier, I grabbed Sasha and pointed her barrel at the hollow of Rupert’s jaw, just as he’d done to Caldswell. I couldn’t push my gun through the shield without damaging her, but the plasma had already deflected one of my bullets. There was no personal shield in the universe that could take two shots from an anti-armor pistol, especially if the second was point-blank.

As I paused to let my computer calculate exactly how hard Sasha would need to fire to punch through the shield without risking the bullet going through the floor and possibly out the hull, it briefly occurred to me that I should probably stop here. If I killed Rupert, Caldswell couldn’t question him, and we’d never know why he’d betrayed us. But my instincts were pounding louder than my common sense or curiosity right then. That, and I don’t like being made a fool of.

“Stand down!”

Caldswell’s voice tore through my bloodlust like a gunshot, and I glanced through my rear cam to see the captain shoving his way out of Cotter’s hold.

“Stand down, you damn bloodthirsty Paradoxians!” he yelled again as he succeeded in ripping his way free, something he really shouldn’t have been able to do given how strong Cotter’s armor was. “He’s out, threat’s over, so you stand down right now or so help me I will shove you both into space!”

Caldswell was furious, and Cotter stepped back instinctively. I wasn’t so smart. Keeping my gun pressed against Rupert’s shield, I spoke without turning. “You mind telling me what the hell is going on, sir?”

“Ease up the gun, Morris,” Caldswell said, holding out his hands. “You did it. You passed the test.”

If I’d been seeing red before, I was almost blind with it now.

“What?” I screamed, whirling around.

Caldswell’s fury vanished in the face of my own, fading to something insultingly close to open amusement. “It was a test,” he said again. “Response time, ability to act decisively under pressure, who would take the leadership role. It’s a dangerous business out here. If I’m going to trust you with my ship, I had to see how good you are.”

“A test?” Cotter said, his voice as bewildered as I felt. “You mean, you and the cook?”

“Charkov’s a friend of mine,” Caldswell said, stomping down the bridge steps. “I asked him to help, and he agreed to play his part. I gave us both a shield in the hopes that you would shoot and I could keep you around.” He looked down at Rupert. “Of course, I didn’t expect you to use an anti-armor pistol on an unarmored target, or armor-piercing rounds, or to shoot him in the head. Most mercs have normal guns and take the body shot.” He sighed. “Should have known better with you crazy Paradoxians.”

I stared at him. “You’ve done this before?”

“First thing I do with any new team,” Caldswell said, kneeling beside Rupert’s prone body. “You can drop the gun now, Morris.”

I obeyed, letting my arm fall to my side as Caldswell deactivated Rupert’s shield.

“How bad is he?” I asked cautiously, fighting to contain my anger until I figured out who most deserved it.

“Just knocked out,” Caldswell said, his voice strained with effort as he heaved Rupert up. “He’ll be mad at me when he wakes up, though. This wasn’t part of the plan.” He glanced at me. “Little help?”

Holstering my pistol, I grabbed Rupert from Caldswell. The Lady can carry up to six hundred pounds, but even so, Rupert was heavier than I’d anticipated, and I had to pause a moment to let my stabilizer adjust. When I was steady, I slung Rupert’s body over my shoulder and followed Caldswell to the infirmary.

“Thank you,” the captain said as I laid Rupert down on one of the long beds. “Good shooting up there, Morris.”

“Thank you, sir.” I bit the words out. Much as I despised Caldswell at the moment for putting me through this farce, he was still my employer, and I had ambitions to fulfill. That meant I needed to get out of here fast before my temper got the better of me, so I was more than a little upset when Caldswell spoke again, forcing me to stop and listen.

“I’m not going to apologize for doing this,” the captain said. “In my line of work, I have to be sure I can trust the people below me. But I’m glad you passed. Cotter’s everything I expect from a Paradoxian—rude, violent, and simple. Men like that have their uses, but you’re different. You seem like you could make a damn fine officer someday. Maybe even a Devastator.”

I froze, but Caldswell just smiled. “Oh yes, I know why you’re here,” he said. “I saw the ambition in your eyes the moment you walked into the interview. After that, a few questions around the Royal Office cleared up the rest.”

He reached into one of the cabinets, pulling out a plastic-wrapped trauma dampener for Rupert’s head. “I’m watching you, Deviana Morris, and I meant it when I said you did well. I know you’re probably not feeling very kindly toward me at the moment, but that shouldn’t stop a good soldier from doing her duty, especially since I’m the one who can get you what you want.” He glanced over his shoulder. “My recommendation carries weight even on Paradox. Do me proud, and I’ll make sure you get your ambition. We understand each other?”

“Yes, Captain,” I said slowly. “Thank you, sir.”

He nodded. “Dismissed.”

I bowed out of habit and walked into the hall. Back by the bridge, I could hear Basil’s whistling voice as he lectured Cotter both for not shooting first and for letting me jump on Rupert to shoot him again. Cotter screamed back that he didn’t see the damn bird doing anything, to which Basil replied he was acting, a refined art Cotter wouldn’t understand. The argument was still going when I entered my room and shut the door, cutting off their voices. I sloughed off my armor with less care than usual, fitting the pieces into their slots with shaking hands.

I still hadn’t decided who my fury was for—Caldswell for testing me, Rupert for tricking me, or myself for getting so spectacularly taken in. I tried to lighten my mood by remembering that I’d passed the test. Passed it well enough that Caldswell had dangled the bone of a recommendation to the Devastators in front of me. But the fact that he’d found out so easily exactly what he needed to lure me along made me angrier still, and I fell into bed with a smothered scream.

I punched my pillow a few times for good measure and turned over, throwing myself into sleep. Maybe when I woke up, things would be less insane. Somehow, I seriously doubted it.

I was still pretty mad when I got up six hours later. I was also starving. I’d eaten like a bird yesterday, and I was feeling it. This wasn’t helping my mood at all, so I threw on my sweats, shoved my hair in a messy bun, and set off to raid the kitchen.

I didn’t even want to look at Rupert or Caldswell yet, but the captain would be on the bridge, and I’d had enough head injuries to know that Rupert would be out of commission for at least another few hours. My plan was to get some food, get suited up, and do my damn job, but when I saw that the door to the infirmary was open, I couldn’t help sneaking a peek. Considering how he’d looked when I’d gone to sleep, I expected to find him still flat on his back, so you can imagine my surprise when I looked in to see Rupert sitting on the bed putting on his shoes like he was about to get up.

“What are you doing?” I cried, running over in horror. “I’m pretty sure you should be lying down.” That’s what doctors were always yelling at me to do whenever I got knocked out.

“I’m fine,” Rupert said, waving me away with a small smile. “Didn’t expect to see you here, though.”

I stiffened, suddenly remembering I was angry at him. Not as angry as I was at Caldswell, but still. “Don’t get any ideas,” I said, folding my arms over my chest. “I was just making sure I hadn’t killed you.”

Rupert’s smile widened slightly. “Not yet.”

“I’m not going to apologize,” I announced, just to be sure he knew. “The moment you pointed a gun at the captain, shooting you became my job.”