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The display tracks everything down to the cubic inch, complete with running time markers, accelerator calculations, fuel estimates and the beacons of other ships, all travel between Earth and Mars presented in real time.

The dock slides away, the open arms of Copernicus falling into shadow.

The flight deck screens aren’t sentimental. There’s no view of the mother planet diminishing behind the burn of engines, no last glimpse of its shining skies, or its vast oceans, none of which Petra has ever seen at closer than a distance of six hundred miles. Earth might be the mother of humanity in general, but it’s not her mother, and it’s got no sway in her heart or memory.

She’s a creature of Mars, sure enough. Not of grand filter, but of the type that’s not supposed to exist and does anyway, the daughter of a willow house geisha and whatever corporate executive paid for the pleasure of her that day, an infant cast off at birth and raised by those who clean the messes and change the sheets, long ago and far away.

She’s got nothing in her heart for that either. Way it is. The mother she’s never known appears every day in the mirror, in high cheek bones and curving eyes, in a slender frame and honeyed skin, all of it prized by the willow houses. She’s got the look of the most beautiful, but not the wit, not the grace, not the serene temperament, or the will to possess any of those things. Without them, she’s the kind that fights, the kind that survives, even when she’s battered, even when she’s almost dead… which is a point proved often enough.

There’s a break in the whistling.

“We’re clear,” Clara says. “Do what you’re gonna.”

“I’m fine here.”

“Yeah, but I don’t want you on my deck. You’re brooding.”

“I’m not.”

“You worked four straight shifts during loading and now you’re brooding.”

“I’m Captaining.”

Clara rolls her eyes. “Tell it to me simple. What for we got all the good stuff? Premium vodka. Smoked delicacies. Chocolate. None of it for selling, but just for us two, and you’re stuck in float, not partaking of your share… when the work’s done and now’s the time.”

“Gonna save it for mid-flight blues.”

“You will not.” Clara levels a dark look. “Mid-flight blues is what we got the Midstation for. C’mon, now you’re just pissing me off.”

Petra supposes that’s true. Still, the rec cabin’s got no appeal for a woman in a broody mood. The vodka, however…

“Let me know if something changes.”

“You really have lost your mind, haven’t you? We’re on flight path in big sky, Petra. This is it. Accelerators fire at their interval times and we coast along and count days. Same as all the times before.”

Petra nods, her attention drawn to the tiny speck that is the
on the holo grid, a glowing dot headed straight into a long stretch of dark space.

“Nothings gonna change,” she murmurs, like it’s comfort, like she’s not gonna let it happen any other way. “Same as all the times before.”

Voss watches the girl, searching for some flicker of consciousness. Niri drifts in zero G, released from the heavy canvas sack they’d bound her in, her hands now floating free, her hair forming a dark halo around her face. There’s no hint of the tortured wunderkind, her features now smooth, glowing, a drowning victim suspended in bright water.

Not like the others we’ve rescued. Something else, something darker…

His gaze strays, catching a thoughtful look from Wyatt. After so many years, the man can read him without much effort, and share his own thoughts without saying a word. A raised brow. A cocky grin.
Look at the shit we’re in this time, Col. How we gonna keep a handle on this?

Voss shakes his head, cutting his gaze to Logan. The kid’s a good medic, better than most, with a fair amount of time served in the both field and surgical rotations. He looks lost in zero G, hands constantly gripping onto things, his body bouncing off walls when he gets too close… first time in big sky.

“Can we keep her sedated?” Voss asks.

Logan glances at the girl and frowns. “For three weeks? I dunno. Maybe. I’ve got my kit. We can keep her at really small doses… and yeah, maybe it’ll last. Still, I mean, it isn’t good. You run the risk of creating damage, or turning her into a serious addict. She’s really that mental?”

“Came after Voss with a knife,” Wyatt says.

“C’mon,” Gojo scoffs. “Not the first woman to do that.”

Wyatt laughs.

Logan doesn’t even crack a smile, his eyes suddenly wide. “We got a lot of knives in here. And guns. And ammunition.”

It’s a good point.

“Wyatt,” Voss says. “Find a secure location to cache the weapons. Nothing stays in this cabin. We need a guard schedule.”

“On it, sir,” Wyatt acknowledges the order.

Logan, though, is still in the dark. “But, sir… that brings us right back to the question of what to do with her. She could wake up any minute.”

“You have to keep her quiet.”

“Which means what, sir? We sedate her, despite the risks?”

“Absolutely,” Voss says it without hesitation, knowing there isn’t any choice, and it’s the call that needs to be made. “That’s exactly what we do. Keep her calm. No one on this ship can know about this girl, not the crew, not the captain. We’ve just logged a false position with command, put our names on the cruiser manifest and blinked out of real time because I don’t want us tracked through big sky. If this woman starts screaming, we’re done.”

“We got the right ship, Colonel.” Gojo chimes in. “Enough contraband hidden in the cargo hold to supply half the willow houses in Red Filter. These guys might be actual transporters, but they’re damn good smugglers. Odds are, this crew will sail us straight through all the checkpoints, no problem.”

Voss nods, hoping that proves true. “In the meantime, Logan, I need you to test this girl’s blood. You’ve got scanners for pathogens and analysis… ”

“Yes, sir. I’ll run it all.”

“And Gojo,” Voss shifts his gaze. “I need you monitoring the ship comms. I want to know immediately if there’s chatter.”

“Sir,” Gojo says.

Wyatt nods. “What about the Captain? He the inquisitive type?”

“She.” Voss corrects.


Now Wyatt, the entire team, is interested.

Voss sits there, waiting for it.

And here it comes.

Big grins, some laughter.

“The Captain’s hot, or what?” Gojo asks.

“Not bad,” Voss replies, knowing that it’s a significant understatement. “But not friendly either.”

“I can work on that,” Gojo volunteers.

“Easy, Go Poke,” Wyatt says. “You’re not so good with the smart ones.” He cuts his gaze to Voss, eyebrows raised. “What about you, Col? She’s already laid eyes on ya. Did she approve of what she saw?”

Voss doesn’t like the question, but he knows the answer, those dark eyes still sizing him up in the back of his mind. “She wasn’t horrified.”

“Then it might be time to turn on the charm.”

“She’s getting paid three times what this vessel is worth. That’s charming.”

“Doesn’t guarantee our security though, does it?”

Voss tries not grimace. “You’re suggesting I distract her.”

“From the woman we’re hiding… the one everyone wants to find and kill? Uh… yes… God, yes, but also soften her up a little. We can’t afford a ‘not friendly’ captain. The way this mission is going, we need her friendly. We need her very, very friendly. We need her in our pocket.”


“C’mon, Col,” Wyatt says, his voice a little lower, conspiratorial, his expression carrying the weight of shared memories. “Once upon a time, you enjoyed this kind of hunt, remember? Had ‘em falling all over you.”

Of course, he’s referring to the Voss of about one million years ago. a kid—a thief—recruited from the ghettos of old Angeles and reborn under company contract, forged into an Assaulter through an excess of sweat, brass and blood, rising up through the ranks, cocky and grinning, larger than life, addicted to combat and flying high on ambition.

Hit the bar at the base and it’s all there, all that arrogance, the smiling superhero that no woman can resist. He’s been that, and he’s also been the flip side of that, the haunted, hollowed out soul, too drunk, too quick to anger, to throw punches and crush heads against the floor.

Everything has a price. Becoming a creature of wrath has a price, continuing to live when others die has a price. Years in the fray changes body and soul, able to spin pride into moments of pure self-loathing, grand ideologies to shattered hulls, fiery resolutions to the kind of grey horizon that becomes lethal.

At some point, he shut it all down.

Outside the wire, there’s no problem. Destroying drones and hunting gunmen fills the void with the bright high of engagement, rhythms of adrenaline and exhaustion which keep him focused, rooted in the present.

Living inside compounds… interaction with civilians… those things now require significant barriers. Other guys go to bars. Other guys do the charming, the boasting, the brawling and the fucking. He’s still got it in him, in spades, and that’s the danger. So he buries the urge, exhausting himself with weights, with training and planning as much as he can, seeking battered refuge in Rhys Corp’s vast digital library, in strategy simulations, or in whatever philosophy, creed or furtive distraction that will get him through the night.

There are good days, and there hellish ones, but he’s maintained his sanity through distance, and it’s simply worked for too many years… no longer a switch to be flipped, or a vest that can be unstrapped. He’s not the guy to cajole a defensive woman, earn her trust, or her loyalty.

He doesn’t want any of it.

“I didn’t suggest you marry her,” Wyatt adds, as if it’s a compelling point. “Just be nice. You can be nice. Keep her looking at you, and not at us. We need her happy and on our side. Tell me I’m wrong and I’ll shut up, Colonel.”

Wrong? For pointing out the obvious?

Voss relents, because he has to. “You’re not wrong.”

“Tough, I know, you being a monk now and all,” Wyatt’s suddenly grinning again, enjoying this way too much to hide it. “But with all due respect, sir, sometimes you just gotta take one for the team.”

Accelerators thrum along the inside of a ship, through cable trays, access tubes and cabin walls, but on the outside, they’re soundless, a triple glare of thrust, flaring at precise intervals to hurtle an object through an infinite field of stars, ice, and heat, radiation and phenomena that humans may calculate the depths of, but never see. Big sky. The shadow road… the haul that can break a mind, or a heart, with nothing more than the relentless accumulation of hours.

Shadow road’s got its ghosts. People who went out and didn’t come back, good smugglers lost to bad engines, defects and malfunctions that cast them adrift, sometimes even mutiny, or murder, bodies found throat-cut in the deep freeze of dark ships, or never found at all.

And shadow road’s got its monsters, tales to rival any told by the ancient sailors who took to the early seas of Earth, chasing light on a flat horizon and seeing beasts and mermaids in every spin of froth.

Haulers in big sky see all kinds of things, either because they do, or because they want to, or because they go mad and got no choice. Whatever way it happens, there’s the lights that dart, the hooded figures that lurk through tubes on doomed ships, the mystery pulses that take out accelerators, the whispers that bring dreams and nightmares during sleep… whatever can be imagined gets regular lip service from those who cross big sky and set to drinking too much at Midstation.

Far better to simply drink too much during flight, and avoid the demons altogether, avoid lengthy contemplation of dimly lit walls and the abyss peering back through every window.

Many kinds of vodka alleviate stress, and the most common—the least expensive—is still made by those who occupy the old Russian ghettos. It tastes like fire, and that’s a delicacy for some, but the vodka liquors are where the heaven comes in.

Sugary, and flavored with grapefruit, lime, or any other rarified candy, it’s one sip after the other, with bliss soon to follow. And now, what with cargo loaded and accelerators lit, muscles aching and a head full of pain, mind dumbed down by exhaustion… the liquor, and the drift, are well in order.

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