59

From within the two women watched the nearby dogfight between Harper’s Drift 9 and their attacker. There wasn’t much debris nearby, so Harper used the Entropy 8 as a maneuvering focus. Rosh watched shots fire past the hull of her ship with clenching fists. “Where’s that gun of yours. Quit dancing.”

The attacking fighter popped in from a blind angle, straight toward the window of the pod. There was a split second to grab hold before the blow sent them careening.

“I think it fair, perhaps, to discount your trip fee,” Rosh breathed as the pod slowed.

“It’s my rotten luck.” The passenger, a lovely woman though currently disheveled, shot her a fey look. “Listen, if we get through this, I will pay double.” She sighed and muttered.

The window drifted round in time to see the fighter release a beam that stretched into a razor-thin plane. Drift 9 dove out of the way, but Rosh’s ship was helpless in its path. “No stop – why -” She watched the beam fatally interrupt both of her engines. “ENTROPY,” Rosh wailed as her machinery crumbled.

A wide white flash suddenly cut across their field of vision. The fighter wobbled past, now missing part of a scorpion wing. Another gigantic beam flashed out of the Drift 9, making a square hit before anyone could blink. The fighter just drifted now, leaking fuel into space, the rear of it shredded.

The two looked at each other, holding their breaths. Drift 9 popped up in front of them, hatch open, pulling them in.

59

After steadying the pod, Leiv Gruun opened the door. The passenger exited, staggering over to sit on a nearby cargo case. As Rosh stepped out, she clapped Gruun on the shoulder. “SkyFather?”

Leiv nodded and grinned. He was a crack shot with that beast of a thing, from the time they went asteroid shooting. Emira felt the ship beneath her on its way into the next neighborhood.

The green-haired passenger looked up from where she sat. “Where are we headed right now?”

“Out of here, first,” Emira Rosh replied. “After that,” she looked at Gruun, “we’ll talk it over.”

“I’d like to discuss it before we go very much further.” She stood and approached them. “My errand is urgent.”

Leiv and Emira gave each other a look. “We’ll take it to the captain,” he said, gesturing for them to follow.

Toller vacated the copilot’s chair when the three of them entered. Leiv touched Wendel on the shoulder before he took the seat. She unbuckled and embraced Emira. “I’m sorry about your ship.”

Emira began the laughter, but they both carried it for a moment. “Ah. I’ve caught up with you. Now we’ll both have nines.”

“Great number. Badge of pride.” Wendel wiped her eye.

Emira indicated her passenger. “This is Arcta Hydraia. She’s looking to contract a private transport.”

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Hydraia. You’ve found the best ship round these parts.” The two of them enjoyed the joke. “Well, where is it you’re headed?”

She drew herself up, smoothing her hair. “To Alisandre Capital, with haste.”

57

Drift 9’s passenger door whooshed shut, and Leiv Gruun, Wendel Harper, and the boy Toller collapsed just inside. It was a couple breaths before Wendel picked herself up and headed to the cockpit. There, she opened a channel to the Entropy 8, Emira’s ship. “Rosh,” she projected, “Rosh, are you there?”

“Harper, I’m here, yeah. What do you need?”

“We’re leaving, and you have to come with us. Sorry, I’ll explain once we’re away. Where’s Manoukian?”

“His ship left about an hour ago. I have a passenger, though -”

“Bring em, leave em, either way we really can’t wait.” As she spoke, Harper turned her ship live, locking seals and decoupling. Gruun joined her, getting things ready. “It’s me they’re after, but I think we’ve all been noted.” She ran a hand through her short blond hair. “We’ll be safer leaving together, now. If we’re separated, meet us at this system’s freight shipstream. We’d better hop out of this galaxy, at least.”

“Ghosting the party, hm?”

“Exactly.”

“Alright. I’m fueled up, systems tested and smooth. I’ll be right behind you.” The two cargo ships detached from their outer bays and drifted casually away from the refugee resort. Wendel was glad for the other vessels in nearby space masking their departure.

It would be twenty minutes before they reached the freight shipstream. Toller stood behind the pilot’s chairs, watching the aft display. Odessia 6 had dwindled almost completely, Genesee behind it covered in clouds. He remembered his pack, still on board the resort.

Toller blinked at the display. Something approached them from behind. He studied it as it grew larger. Once he could glimpse thruster flare, he tapped Gruun’s shoulder.

Leiv turned to squint at the monitor. A few seconds, then a few seconds more. He activated his mic. “Drift 9 to Entropy 8. Check your aft display and tell me what you see.” Harper paused to look over as well.

Rosh took a moment to respond. “I see someone closing with us in our wake.”

“That’s what I thought,” he muttered. “Let’s arm-”

“I’m target locked.”

The channel crackled loudly as the frequency was hijacked. The voice of the man Toller slapped with his handcuffs snarled over the line. “You thought you could just skip town. No Ms. Harper, you’re coming with us. So unless you consider your friend’s ship reasonable collateral-”

Just then a hatch opened in the back of Entropy 8, letting out a couple dozen fast, bright objects in a miasma of heat. It dropped suddenly out of path. Audio crackled as the intruding connection cut off.

Harper pumped a fist. “Scatterbugs! That’ll keep his lock occupied. Alright, let’s shake em.” She peeled the Drift 9 up into a cloverleaf arc, pointing her nose to Rosh’s flank trajectory. Toller, meanwhile, hung onto two wall handles as the ship swung around.

Leiv turned during the two seconds of level flight. “You. Strap in.” The boy lunged for the fold-down seat, clicking the belts shut in time for a plunge toward the Entropy 8.

“Harper!” shouted Rosh over the channel. “Who is this asshole?” The pursuant ship was fast, a streamlined model not designed for cargo. It fired intermittently at the both of them.

“Aynsdotr and crew. They want me alive. They’ve been redirecting shipments from all over. Their methods tipped me off to the existence of an entire network, and I wasn’t wrong.”

57

Grunn finished setting impact shields, and checked his gauges. “Auxiliary turbos are up.” He looked back at Toller, then nodded to the pilot. “Let’s helix.”

“Helix?” shouted Harper.

“Helix!” Rosh concurred. The two ships parted on their own rotational paths, switching relation while expanding and contracting the space between, slowing and speeding on coordinated whim. They were followed by the scatterbugs, weaving a flashing net that effectively distracted targeting.

“I started keeping tabs on them, connecting incidents.” As she spoke, Wendel torqued her yoke, leaning from her chair. “I got in the way of a couple shipments, just to see.” The following ship fired a few missiles, detonated by intercepting scatterbugs. “I thought this was head guy here, but now I’m not sure.” She checked the monitors. “We have to cripple him, ship’s too fast. We can’t get away like this.”

“Breaking out,” replied Rosh. She pulled a side split stall maneuver that set her above the incoming fighter. “Passenger can’t operate the big gun, so I can’t do more than this.” She sprayed an arc from her forward turret that shaved the pursuer off his path.

“Oh – we’ve got a gun.” Wendel gave Leiv a hot stare, and he lifted his eyebrows and got out of his chair. He pointed to Toller, then back at the copilot’s chair. “You, sit there.” Harper nodded agreement while watching her flying.

Toller waited till he could make the leap, then lunged in. He strapped up, and went ahead and started touching things.

“Just don’t actually use any controls unless I ask you to.”

“Yup.”

With only two scatterbugs left, the Entropy 8 was doing the hummingbird, firing the occasional salvo on the chasing fighter. Harper could see Rosh was tiring. “How’s the SkyFather back there, old man?”

“Warming up!” replied Gruun over the com.

“Tell me when.” Harper ramped up her speed, arrowing toward the fighter’s belly. She had the pistol sprayer and Potato Gun up front to use, and she realized she didn’t have enough hands. “Okay – boy – Toller – I need your help, this is simple.” She pointed to a trigger stick to the right of his seat. “Pistol sprayer. Give that a try.”

“I’m not right-handed,” he warned her.

She sighed. “Oh well.” He moved the control and squeezed the trigger. It gave bursts of light fire in the directions he guided it. “Waste as much of that as you want. Superficial damage, but still don’t hit our friend. Can you handle that?”

Toller gave a serious face and a cool nod, wiping his palms on his pants.

“That display is your targeting,” Harper pointed. “No target lock on your gun, but you’ll see when he’s in range, just a second.” With the ball control on her dash, she aimed the Potato Gun before smacking in the command. A pause, then a muffled fthoom as a plasma ball released. The glowing blob drifted slowly at first, becoming denser and gaining in speed until it was hurtling toward the fighter like a fist. As it hit critical density and released its phronium-fueled boom, the fighter just barely outran it. The shockwave, however, threw the ship into a barrel roll as the Drift 9 sped past it. Toller saw some of his shots connect with the hull.

The pursuant ship hung still after coming out of the tailspin. The Entropy 8 banked around it in successively tighter circles, trying to do enough damage to keep him off. Harper realigned herself to face them, watching him float.

In silence, a shell of white light exploded from around the fighter and grew, expanding past the Entropy 8, nearly reaching Drift 9 before vanishing. Wendel and Toller glanced at each other.

“Rosh?” Entropy 8 was afloat, and the smaller ship headed towards it. According to a quick check, Drift 9 was fine.

“Entropy 8?” The fighter ship began to dock alongside Rosh’s ship.

“Emira!?” Harper tapped the mic, wall com, controls, but hers were all fine. Only silence on the other end.

The com channel crackled again. “Your friends aren’t answering because they can’t. If you want to ensure their safety, join us. Please.”

Harper steered them in that direction. She waited before hearing the channel disconnect before calling to the back of the ship. “What’s the word?” she asked with an edge in her voice.

“SkyFather’s charged and ready.”

Harper exhaled. “Good. Only issue now-”

“Look!” called Toller. He pointed out the oval of light appearing on the side of Entropy 8.

Wendel lifted her head with a sudden rush. “They’re activating the escape pod.”