The 5 Suns Navy marine was battering on the window of the escape pod with the butt of his rifle. Inside, Jared Clement, former captain of the Rim Confederation gunship Beauregard, looked to his former XO and lover, Elara DeVore.
“I guess there’s nothing to it now,” he said. “We have to blow the hatch or they’ll start using their rifles to cut their way in.”
DeVore reached over to him and took his hand reassuringly. “No more cards to play,” she said.
“I love you, Elara.”
She squeezed his hand even tighter. “I love you, Jared. Whatever happens from here on out, never forget that.”
Instead of replying, he merely nodded, then reached up for the exterior com button. “Stand back from the pod. I am going activate the explosive bolts to release the hatch in thirty seconds.” He could hear muted grumbling at that, but eventually the marines started backing up.
The escape pod they were trapped in was the last one from Clement’s ill-fated gunship, now scuttled on the surface of an ignominious “moon” of the planet Argyle, capital world of the former Rim Confederation, which if it hadn’t surrendered yet would surely do so in the next few hours. He activated the four locking bolts on the hatch and then hovered over the firing switch. He counted down from five in his head, not really sure if he’d given the marines more or less time than the thirty seconds he had promised them, then turned away from the hatch and hit the toggle switch.
The hatch exploded out and away from the pod, landing about a meter from it, clanging on the cold metal floor of the Argyle Station landing deck they had been unceremoniously dropped on. A 5 Suns destroyer had grabbed their pod and dragged them into the station’s landing bay, bringing an end to a near five-year war between the two governments.
As the smoke cleared both Clement and DeVore unbuckled their safety clamps. Two huge 5 Suns marines filled the still-smoking hatchway. “Out!” demanded one of the grunts, who reached in and grabbed DeVore by the hand, forcefully pulling her out.
“Hey!” protested Clement, only to be met by a rifle butt to the chest by the other marine. The blow knocked the wind out of him and pushed him back into his safety couch.
“Don’t you worry, worm. The 5 Suns marines will take good care of her.”
“Bas-tards . . .” choked out Clement, still trying to catch his breath. That earned him another rifle butt blow, this time to his ribs. He moaned—it fucking hurt, and now he was pretty sure a couple of those ribs were broken.
“Don’t fight them, Clement! I can take care of myself!” called DeVore after him as her voice moved further away from him. She was being led away from the pod by four grunts, leaving just two for him. She glanced back his way one last time, then they rounded a corner and she was gone.
“Out!” The huge marine grabbed him by the coveralls and literally pulled him out of the pod with one hand. There were only two of them left now, but after the body blows Clement was in no condition to try and jump them, and ultimately, there was no reason to. The war he had fought so vigorously was over.
They marched him down a series of corridors, one grunt in the lead and the other with a firm grip his shoulder. After going down a few decks in an elevator, Clement was deposited in an empty, featureless cell. They locked the door behind him. He went to one corner of the cell, wondering about Elara, wondering how bad the penalty for his revolt against the ruling power over five star systems would be. He would have plenty of time to think about that.
They fed him twice a day, standard 5 Suns military rations. That wasn’t a problem for Clement, as he been eating those same rations for almost a year. He’d stolen them in a raid on the nearest 5 Suns outpost, Kemmerine Station. He got water three times a day, and eventually they installed a sleeping pad and a toilet. No one questioned him, no one talked to him for three solid days. He wondered if they remembered that he used to be a 5 Suns Navy officer, and thus had been trained on their psychological techniques. He decided it didn’t matter. They were going to do what they were going to do.
Per the Navy book, on what he figured was day four of his captivity, he was taken into another room which had a desk with a 5 Suns officer behind it, rank of major, undoubtedly a psychological warfare specialist. A metal folding chair was pulled out and he was “invited” to sit down in it. At that point the psych officer waved the guards out of the room and then he sat there, looking at and shuffling papers, without saying a word.
Finally, he spoke without looking up. “Are your rations adequate, Captain Clement?”
“The shrimp scampi is a bit spicy for my taste, but otherwise it’s as I expected,” quipped Clement.
The officer looked up at Clement through old fashioned round, wire-rimmed glasses and surprisingly smiled at him. “I see you still have your sense of humor, and irony.” Then he looked back down at the papers on his desk, and slid one towards Clement. “This is your confession to war crimes against the legitimate government of the 5 Suns Alliance, up to and including the murder of innocents and nonmilitary personnel, both onboard navy ships and at Kemmerine Station,” he said.
Clement leaned forward and looked at the sheet. There were many pages. He flipped through them. It had the names of sailors and civilians alike, all dead. All killed by his hand. Clement slid it back across the table, where the psych officer let it lie.
“It’s a long list,” admitted Clement quietly.
“Indeed. More than thirty-two hundred names. And you signed their death warrants. You and your Rim Confederation traitors. Do you know what the penalty is for traitors in the 5 Suns, Clement?”
“The same as it is in the Rim. Death by hanging.”
The psych officer nodded. “I don’t imagine you’ll want to be signing that confession, will you, Captain? It would be like signing your own death warrant.”
“Every war has its casualties, Major.”
“Does it?” snapped the major. “Why did you choose to fight this war? Why did you choose to kill so many innocents?”
“Do you really want to know?” said Clement, raising his voice in challenge.
“Yes, I damn well do!”
“Because you were starving us, the Rim. The governor general was stealing all the goods intended for the people on the Rim, and selling them all on the black market. Food. Seeds necessary for planting. Medical supplies. It was a slow-motion, controlled genocide. That’s why we fought you.”
“The governor general has been dealt with.”
“Too little, too late, Major.”
The major leaned back in his desk chair at that and put his feet up on the table. He looked at some more papers on his desk, took a drink of water, watching Clement’s face. “Would you like some water, Captain? I can have a glass brought in for you.” Clement was parched, and his next water ration wasn’t for another three hours. “After, of course, you sign the confession.”
Clement shook his head. “No.”
“How about a real meal? A steak perhaps? How long has it been since you had real food?”
“Probably since the war started, Major.”
The major slid the confession across the desk again, and turned it to the last page. It had Clement’s name with a line for his signature above it. “Just sign it, Captain. Carrying the burden of guilt must be wearing on your conscience. Sign it, and you’ll have that water, and a meal, and even a cell with a window. We’ll treat you well if you cooperate.”
It took all he had to keep from picking up the pen and signing. “Psychological torture is still torture, Major, and illegal under both the Rim Confederation and 5 Suns military codes of justice.”
“I’m the only justice here now, Captain.” He thumbed a red button on the table and two guards came in to take him back to his cell.
It went on like that for at least six weeks, Clement lost track. Sometimes more than once a day, always trying to get him to sign. In between those sessions they asked him about his military tactics, about how he was able to outwit their own navy commanders so often. He always replied with the same answer; “Your commanders weren’t very good.” Eventually though, he just got bored of fighting them, and he began sharing different tricks of the trade he had learned and used. They seemed happy with this information, and his rations improved considerably. He rarely saw the major, but he was there, behind the scenes, guiding the interrogations, no doubt. And then one day he was back, sitting behind the familiar desk.
As Clement sat down he looked to the table, which for once didn’t have his confession on it. In its place were two single sheets of paper, one facing the major, one facing Clement.
“A final armistice agreement has been reached. Both sides have agreed to prisoner exchanges, a general amnesty, a shutdown of military operations on the Rim, and a restoration of peaceful relations between the two parties. Aid is on the way to the Rim worlds, where it will be fairly distributed to the people of Argyle, Helios, and Ceta.”
“Until you appoint a new governor, who will start stealing it again.”
The major shrugged. “The Navy can’t stay out here forever, Captain. Perhaps we should, but many in the Navy believe that we should just cut you loose, grant you autonomy, let you fend for yourselves. But the politicians, they won’t stand for that. Pictures of starving children would arouse disturbing feelings in the Core, and we can’t have that.”
“What’s the paper?” asked Clement, curious.
The major leaned forward. “This? It’s your release. You’re to be transferred to a private mining camp on the surface of Argyle in the morning.”
“I thought you said there was a general amnesty?”
“Oh, there is. Most of your compatriots are being released back to their home planets in the next few days, but we’ll be holding on to you. There is a clause in the amnesty for “high-value prisoners,” and regrettably for you, you’re one of those. If you sign the transfer agreement, you’ll spend six months on the planet’s surface, working for the Argyle Mining Corporation. Then you will be eligible for parole and eventual release to live a normal life again.”
“So you sold me as chattel.”
The major shrugged again. “If you like. We have to find some way of deferring the costs of this war. Why complain? It’s only six months.”
“Mining is a dangerous business. It could be my last six months.”
“Read it.” The agreement was very much as the major had stated, no secret clauses or contract embellishments. But there was one provision that caught his eye.
“Why am I being banned from seeing my former crew members?”
“The Navy wants to discourage fraternization by former combatants. You won’t be able to meet with former members of your crew for the duration of your work assignment and your parole.”
“And how long is my parole?”
“Twenty-four months from the date of your capture, Captain. Then you can renew your old associations.”
“Except for one.”
“Except for one. You’ll never be allowed to see Elara DeVore again.”
The major shifted in his chair. “Because she has requested it.” That hit him like a punch to the gut.
“Did you really think you’d be able to marry her? Settle down, buy a farm, have little children running around at your feet? No. It’s not for you, Clement. Now sign the release. I’m sick of looking at you.” He stuck a pen in Clement’s face then. Clement looked at it, thinking about the past, and the future. One was filled with regret, the other with black despair.
Six months in a mining camp had hardened Clement’s body, but had done nothing for his mood. True their word, the Argyle Mining Corporation prepared to let him go after his six months of penal duty, most of which had been administrative. Oh, he did his time of hard labor, working the mines like any other grunt, but they knew who he was and how his talents could be best utilized. They even made him an offer of a new contract at thirty-two thousand crowns a year, not a bad wage, but he’d be stuck to the ground for sure. No, he decided his future was still in space, he just didn’t know what it would be yet.
They cut him loose with a standing offer of employment, but Clement figured (or rather, hoped) that he could make at least that much as a merchant pilot on Argyle Station. He had no love for the planet itself, nor did he think he could go home to Ceta and face both his parents and the people he had failed there. Emotionally, he just wasn’t ready. He took his two hundred crowns severance and bought passage to the station, along with a couple of days of rations. It was all he could afford, all that he had to his name in the universe.
After arriving on the station he managed to obtain a single berth based on his former navy credit. It seemed Rim currency was still being honored on a one-to-ten ratio, until the end of the next year. He set about aggressively trying to find employment in the merchant fleets running the supplies from the Core 5 Suns worlds out to the Rim, as agreed to by the armistice. There was plenty of work about, but mostly as a seaman, which didn’t pay much. Eventually he lucked on to a couple of back-to-back piloting assignments on former Rim freighters, and then his flight reputation was sealed. It came as no surprise when one of the big import/export companies called up his file.
He went in for an interview less than three months after arriving on Argyle, and just a year after the war ended. To his surprise, the interview was with Patrick Ngokue, Chairman of the appropriately named Argyle Starfreight Services, or ASS as sailors on the station called it. He smiled at that as he was led into the office.
Ngokue didn’t rise to greet Clement at all when he entered, he just motioned for him to take a chair while he sat behind his desk, shuffling papers. It reminded Clement of his meetings with the nameless intelligence major.
The room was spartan and decorated in a style that reflected the Chairman’s desire to not spend a penny more than necessary. It was filthy. Clement noticed a pest trap under one desk.
Ngokue was a huge African man, and he dwarfed the desk as he continued shuffling for a few more moments, then looked up.
“I have a job for you, Captain Clement,” he said.
“I’m not a captain anymore, sir. Just a ‘Mr.’ will do for now.”
“Whatever you want, Mr. Clement. Now about this job—”
“You’re contact com didn’t mention a pay rate. I always start with the pay rate. That way we can find out quickly if we are wasting each other’s time.”
Ngokue eyed him for a second, then slid him a piece of paper across the desk. Clement looked down at the paper. Forty thousand crowns. “Do we have a deal, Mr. Clement?”
“At that rate you could hire me for a year. You’re paying me this for one trip?”
“You haven’t heard what the job is yet.”
“I’m not likely to care.”
“Well, that’s why you were top of my list.” Ngokue motioned for Clement to read the rest of the bill of lading. “Out loud, please, so there is no confusion.”
“One nine-day run to Kemmerine Station aboard the freighter Shattered Trust, there to pick up supplies of food rations, assorted beverages, and miscellaneous items. Nine days return journey to Helios Station where cargo is to be transferred to Rim Resources Management, Inc. for resale and general distribution.” He shrugged. “Seems simple enough. Why is the pay rate so high?”
“Let’s just say that I need a man with former military experience to guarantee a safe and secure transfer of these goods to their destination. Do we understand ourselves, Mr. Clement?”
“I think we do. It’s odd, though.”
“The name of the ship, Shattered Trust? It’s a bit odd, even for a freighter.”
Ngokue sat back in his chair. “It’s a name that may or may not reflect my personal feelings about some aspects of the war. Before I bought the ship her name was the Kettering. Not really very exciting.”
Clement thought about that answer. Was the ship’s name reflecting his belief that the 5 Suns broke trust with the Rim, or the other way around? His intuition told him to be careful, he was sure the military would be watching him. His training told him to be suspicious of everything.
“What are you running?” said Clement flatly.
Ngokue stared across the table at him. “That information’s not part of the contract.”
“Just you and a copilot. All the moving of merchandise will be done by private dockworkers.”
“Private? I see. Now I think I understand why you’re paying so much.”
Ngokue waved him off. “Enough of this. I’ve arranged for your copilot to meet you aboard the ship. You depart at noon tomorrow.”
“I’d prefer to pick my own copilot.”
“That’s not in your contract.”
Clement looked down again at the one-page document. “I guess it’s not.”
“Half up front into your credit account, half when you deliver the goods at Helios,” stated Ngokue.
Clement took a pen off of the desk and signed the contract. “The twenty thousand has to be in my account before noon tomorrow.”
“Done,” said Ngokue. With that Clement got up and left the office without another word, heading for the station bar, there to buy three bottles of Argyle scotch, the best stuff they had. Nine days was a long trip.
He arrived aboard Shattered Trust ninety minutes before her launch, his small duffel bag and the three bottles of liquor in tow. From there he checked out the freighter’s systems, found them compatible with his skills and experience, and quickly programmed his personal settings into the controls. After that he went to the hold and found that Shattered Trust was almost as big as a Rim Confederation destroyer. There was a huge amount of empty space in the hull, enough for food to feed a small city. But her size displacement meant she was also slow, thus the nine day journey to Kemmerine. He was surprised nothing was going outward bound on the trip, but he didn’t want to ask questions, and there was no one to answer them anyway.
He went to his cabin next, a berth that said “Captain’s Cabin” in faded, grimy letters. Inside was a simple bed and a small desk and chair. Across from him was another, unmarked berth, and down the hall there was a shared bathroom for two, along with several empty cabins, not needed for this trip.
He looked at his watch at 11:45 and made his way back to the bridge. As he walked the metal deck he felt the engines kick in, likely the missing copilot warming things up. When he got back to the bridge the copilot’s seat was occupied. He walked to his seat and plopped himself down in the chair, then turned to look at his copilot.
She had dark hair and dark olive skin; her hair was cut short to almost military regulation. She had a finely featured face, and for moment, just a moment, his mind played tricks on him. She looked remarkably like Elara DeVore, so much so that he felt that it couldn’t be a coincidence. She was about the same age, in her late twenties, and had a similar complexion and sumptuous body type, like many of the ethnic Brazilian descendants of Helios. Someone is playing me, he thought.
“Captain Clement! I’m Tima Morales,” she said cheerfully, reaching out hand to him. “I’ll be your copilot on this trip.”
He took her hand and shook it. “Please, don’t call me ‘Captain,’ it’s just Jared now.”
She held on to his hand a bit longer than required, making their skin contact last beyond a simple business greeting. “Jared, then. Please excuse me if I get a bit carried away with excitement about meeting you.”
Clement pulled his hand away, then said, “You shouldn’t think of me as a hero, Miss Morales. We lost the war.”
She nodded and smiled a bit less. “I know. But still, you gave so many families in the Rim hope. The first hope we’d had in decades.”
“Well, thank you, but let’s focus on our mission, uh . . . I mean our assignment,” he said, embarrassed at how quickly he’d slipped back into military jargon. He set about going through a pre-flight check list, which kept her attention on her work, not him, which was the way he wanted it.
They left dock ten minutes late, but Clement quickly had them on a bearing for Kemmerine Station running full out. By his way of calculating it, they would get there in just 8.25 days, better than the nine the contract called for.
He socialized with Morales a bit, but for the most part he kept things formal between them. He also kept them physically apart, with him running the “day” shift and her running the “night,” with just two hours of necessary crossover time each day which they used to eat and converse. She was always asking him about the war, and he regaled her with a few tall stories, but when she tried to get too personal, he always fended her off.
On the fourth day out of Argyle, Clement was in his cabin, drinking from his precious scotch supply, trying to forget how much Tima Morales reminded him of Elara DeVore. That fact made him question both her and Ngokue’s intent. He wasn’t sure he could trust her, but he wasn’t sure he couldn’t, either.
As he lay on his bunk nursing his third shot of the night and looking disappointingly at his diminishing alcohol reserves, he overheard the sound of the shower running in the shared bathroom across the hall. Morales was supposed to be running the ship. He assumed she’d put the Shattered Trust on auto-pilot, and he debated getting up and going to the bridge himself to check it out, but ultimately decided to wait patiently with his shot glass in hand. The water ran for almost five solid minutes before she shut it off.
Thirty seconds later there was a knock on his door.
He debated what to do next, whether to give in and just let it happen, or to continue to fend her off. She aroused his feelings for DeVore, and those feelings hurt, but it had also been a very long time since he had been with a woman. Too long.
“Come in,” he said.
She came through the door topless, with beads of water running down her body thanks to the artificial gravity. She only had a small towel around her waist. He was glad he’d let her in.
She stepped closer without saying anything, her dark olive skin glistening in the course light of his cabin. “It’s time,” she said.
He sat up. “Yes, it is.”
Their sex was quick and frantic. After the second round of taking pleasure from each other, he “ordered” her back to her station. They carried on like that for the next few days, sometimes on her watch, sometimes on his. He let himself enjoy the moments, but emotionally he kept her at a distance, all the way to Kemmerine.
Just over eight days out from Argyle the Shattered Trust docked at Kemmerine Station. After clearing station customs and confirming their Bill of Lading with the station guard, the private dock workers quickly set about the task of loading cargo, all under the watchful eye of station security. It all looked right as they began filling the large cargo bay with the appropriate goods, so much so that Clement decided to head onto the station to pick up some more supplies for the trip back, including better food provisions. Kemmerine had much better cuisine choices than Argyle did.
Morales seemed happy to “watch over” the loading process as he did his shopping, using Ngokue’s credits. When he got back the deck was almost fully loaded, and he let Morales sign off the cargo manifest. Six hours after they arrived, they were back in space, bound for Helios.
The two of them carried on as they had before in bed, but Clement found himself drinking more and more, and wondering what they actually had in their hold. On the second night out from Kemmerine, when he should have been sleeping, he got out of bed, pulled on his coveralls, and checked his bridge monitor. It showed Morales busy at the copilot’s console.
He slipped out of his cabin and went quietly down to the hold. He walked through the columns of cargo boxes, all carefully marked and logged. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, until he found it.
In one of the back rows against the outer hull, he noticed a metal container with an electronic lock on it. The cargo bill stated it was “Quantar Shiraz” wine, whatever that was. He tried the lock several times, but ultimately he got locked out. He found another box, smaller, but with the same bill and code box. He’d been good with codes in the military, and this lock box certainly looked military grade. This time he pulled the RFID blocker off of the credit chip Ngokue had given him, and applied it to the code box. It was a trick he’d used many times during the war to access 5 Suns Navy contraband. The RFID blocker wouldn’t break the code of the box, but if the box was separated from the security network, it might let him reset the code.
Sure enough the code box went to amber from red, indicating it was offline from the rest of the network. He looked at the keypad. Standard commercial security used an eight-entry key, but the military used twelve. He decided to take a gamble, and at the prompt from the box, he entered in his old Rim Navy twelve-entry key. The code box went green. It had reset the pass key. He turned a handle on the coffin-sized box and the lid opened up.
Inside was a treasure, for any military man. There were many scattered rifles and pistols inside, both conventional firearms (antiques, really) mixed in with used military-grade energy weapons. He reached in and pulled a small caliber gun from the pile of weapons. It had a full magazine with six shots in it. He checked the chamber and it was empty. He tucked the gun in his coverall hip pocket, where it was almost unnoticeable. He counted himself lucky and shut the crate, then pulled the blocking chip from the code box. When he did, the room lit up like Christmas. All of the other crates with code locks were resetting, going from red (locked) to amber to green once they received the new code key. After a few seconds they all returned back to red, indicating they had accepted his new code. He had the keys to the kingdom.
Still curious, he opened up one of the larger containers, and then he knew what Shattered Trust’s cargo really was. Inside were mortars, coil rifles, RPG’s, enough to start a war with, or a second revolution.
Clement quickly shut the container and scrambled back to his cabin, hiding the gun he had taken behind his booze. He didn’t sleep much for the rest of that shift, and deep inside he began to wonder what was really going on.
He cut Morales off from sex after that, saying he wanted to “keep things casual,” and locked her out of his cabin. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her, it was that he didn’t trust anyone anymore.
They were still two days out from Helios when Morales called him up to the bridge in the middle of her shift, when he should have been asleep. He went up and sat in his pilot’s chair across from her.
“What have you got?” he asked.
“I’m not sure, but it sounds like a distress beacon.”
“Let me hear it,” he said, then donned his ear phones. It sounded like a standard merchant distress call, a repeating series of long and short radio bursts. “It’s an S.O.S., no question,” he said as he pulled off the earphones. “Can you tell what direction it’s coming from?”
She nodded. “It looks like it’s coming from an asteroid field fifty-thousand klicks off of our current course. We can be there in ninety minutes.”
“We’re obligated to try and rescue them. Slow the engines and change our course.” Clement made excuses to return to his quarters, and once there he threw on his utility coveralls and placed the gun in his hip pocket, loading a round in the chamber first. If ever he was going to need the gun on this mission, now was the time.
As they closed on the beacon’s position, the reason for the S.O.S. was obvious. A mid-size freighter, maybe two-thirds the displacement of Shattered Trust, had a gaping hole in its side, the entire cargo bay exposed to space. It was drifting, slowly being pulled in by the weak gravity of the asteroid field’s biggest rocks.
“See if you can pick up any communications,” said Clement. Morales tried, but there was no response.
“I’d say their coms are down.”
“I’m going to try to get them using Morse code.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“It’s an old communications method. We learned it in the military as part of our survival training. Give me the com.” She did, and he proceeded to send out a signal. After a few tries, he got a response. “Two survivors in the main cabin, nineteen missing and presumed dead. They say they have about an hour of oxygen reserves left.”
“Lucky we came along when we did. So what do we do now?”
“If I can get us close enough, we’ll use the docking umbilical and try to lock onto their exterior airlock in the crew cabin. Lucky this ship has one. Most freighters don’t.” With that he maneuvered the Shattered Trust to within about ten meters of the drifting freighter. “No time to waste, Morales. They’ve only got forty-three minutes of O2 left.”
“I’ll lock the thrusters down. Be there in two minutes.” Clement nodded and headed off to the cargo deck. He had to override several security protocols to deploy the umbilical.
“You’re very skilled at this,” Morales commented after joining him. He nodded.
“It comes with my resume.”
“Of course it does.”
Seven minutes later and they had a seal on the umbilical, and he began pressurizing it. Once secure, he picked up a wrench and walked the distance to the freighter’s airlock and rapped on the door. There was excited pounding on the other side. With that, the freighter door opened and two very happy looking merchant sailors started to come out of the ship in full EVA suits.
A second later and a blinding flash cut them both down in their tracks, dead. Clement whipped around. Morales was now pointing a coil pistol directly at his chest from just a few feet away.
“What shame to waste a man like you, Clement. You’d be the most valuable man in the 5 Suns Navy,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re talented, smart, a good flyer, almost as good as me, and you’re even good in bed. Your only mistake was giving me two minutes alone to arm myself. I’m sorry, but, this is the end of the line.”
“Is this the part where I start talking to you to prolong my life for a few more seconds?”
“It is. Now raise your hands.” He did as instructed. “Drop the wrench.” He did that too.
“So do I get an explanation?”
She shrugged, but the gun stayed leveled on his chest. “If you want. My job was to evaluate your usefulness to the 5 Suns, and your true level of threat. I can see now that threat is substantial. You broke the 5 Suns best security protocols. You can fly almost anything, even this clunky freighter, and the Rim people see you as a war hero. As I said, a waste of talent.”
“So, I’m going to have an accident?”
“Yes. You’ll be written up in the history books as a man who tried to start a new rebellion after the end of the war. I’ll be dumping all of our cargo here, and when they come to investigate they’ll find your body, and the weapons. Case closed.”
Clement let his hands sag lower. “But who ordered me to be killed? Was it the 5 Suns? Ngokue? The Argyle corporations?”
“Does it really matter? I’ve been paid a handsome sum to make sure you don’t come back from this mission. There are so many people who want you dead. If you’d just stayed in the mining camp, you might have been able to eke out a living for a few years. But they would have got to you, eventually.”
Clement nodded. “They picked you because of how much you look like Elara DeVore. They thought if I was distracted by your looks, I’d let my guard down.”
“Something like that. Now step back onto the freighter, Clement,” she said, waving the pistol at him.
“You’ve only made one mistake,” Clement said, slowly backing up.
“And what’s that?”
“You gave me those same two minutes alone down here. It gave me time to prepare.”
“Prepare for what? If you think I don’t know about that gun in your pocket, you’re sadly mistaken.”
Clement stood on the threshold of the damaged freighter. He shook his head. “No, not the gun. Just this,” he said. He dropped his left arm and a small remote control slid down into his palm. Before she could react, he pressed the control button with his thumb. A charge set at the entrance to the umbilical lit up, and the walkway was suddenly exposed to space. In the same instant, Clement stepped back onto the deck of the derelict freighter, and slammed the hatch control closed. There was just enough time to see Morales being sucked out into the void as the umbilical explosively tore away from both ships. The last thing he heard was her scream, fading quickly into the dark.
Clement sucked in as much air as his lungs could take, kneeling on the deck. The umbilical connection had allowed a small amount of oxygen into the freighter. After a few deep breaths, he said out loud, “If I can’t have Elara DeVore in my life, it’s not worth living anyway, lady. At least you were a good lay.”
It took him fifteen minutes to tear an EVA suit from one of the dead men, repair the hole Morales had put in it, then open the airlock door and drift over to Shattered Trust. The two unfortunate merchantmen floated off into space, their bodies unlikely to ever be recovered, just like Morales. Once aboard he jettisoned the cargo, all of it, the good and the bad, and set his course for a return trip, not to Helios, but back to Argyle Station.
When he docked he reported that the wreck of the freighter was unrecoverable, and that Morales had been killed trying to help with the rescue of the two merchant men. Things like that happened all the time on the Rim.
Once he was cleared by station security and the Shattered Trust was turned over to the port authority, he made his way down to the Argyle Starfreight Services office where he had met with Ngokue. It was empty, completely cleaned out. At least he’d received the first payment. This had been an extensive covert operation, and that implied that the 5 Suns military had been involved. He tapped the gun in his pocket just as a reassurance, and determined he’d need better protection in the future. If he had a future.
A day later Clement walked into the Argyle station bar. There was a collection of assorted scruffy looking sailors, and not much else. It looked safe, for the moment. He went to the bar and sat down in a chair, drinking alone.
“What’ll it be?” said the bartender.
“Argyle whiskey, single malt,” replied Clement.
“That’s our best stuff. It will cost you half a month’s wages.”
Clement eyed the bartender scornfully. “Just pour it, and leave the bottle.” The bartender did as instructed, but demanded payment, which Clement gave him from Ngokue’s still-active credit account.
The bartender stood in front of Clement as he poured his first shot and then drank it before quickly pouring again.
“You trying to forget something?”
“Not something,” Clement said, pouring a second shot.
“Trying to forget a lot.”
Copyright © 2021 by Dave Bara
This story is set within the world of Dave Bara’s October science fiction novel Trinity, the first entry in the Trinity’s Children series. Bara is the author of The Lightship Chronicles Series including Impulse, Starbound, and Defiant. His other works include Saint Cochrane's World, Speedwing and stories in anthologies Infinite Stars, Star Destroyers, and The Chronicles of Davids. Dave grew up as a fan of the Gemini and Apollo space programs and dreamed of being an astronaut one day. Since that time he has restricted his journeys into space to the written word. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. His web page is: http://www.davebara.info/.