In honor of Prime Deceptions coming out next month (gasp!), and because there’s a Goodreads giveaway going on (win a free copy!), now seems like an ideal time to give you a taste of what to expect in the book. So please enjoy a sneak peek of chapters 1 and 2, and pre-order a copy if you haven’t already.
Kick the Puppies
Captain Eva Innocente ran through the snow, trying to ignore that her pants were on fire.
It wasn’t actually snow so much as a highly flammable form of crystalline methane precipitating peacefully from the sky of the aptly named planet Kehma. She also wasn’t actually running, more of an aggressive hobble that wanted very badly to be a run, but her left gravboot was randomly malfunctioning and sticking her to the ground, so she kept having to send a deactivation command through her commlink to get moving again.
Her pants were definitely on fire, though, blue and magenta because of the methane. Her spacesuit protected her from burns, or she would have been more worried about it. And while it would have been funny to note that the fire started immediately after she lied to someone, at the moment she was focused on not getting shot by that person and his accomplices, who were chasing her.
Eva darted behind a rock formation as a bolt of plasma seared past her head. She would have loved to get her own pistol out, but she needed both hands to carry the package she’d gone to Kehma to steal. Well, steal back, since it had been stolen in the first place. Regardless, she had no hands with which to defend herself, so she had to rely on others.
((Help,)) she pinged at Vakar, who was supposed to be providing cover fire. Her quennian partner was much faster than she was, given his functioning boots and longer, back-bending legs. She’d lost track of him in the snow, which in her immediate vicinity was now falling in tiny blue flames as the bits stuck to her legs burned higher and brighter. The air around her shimmered with heat, and she was glad her nose was protected by the bubble of her isohelmet, because she was sure it smelled like spicy farts outside.
No answer from Vakar, either because of weather interference or because the Blue Hounder mercenaries behind her had signal scramblers. The doglike bipedal truateg definitely had expensive plasma rifles, no doubt courtesy of their suppliers at The Fridge. Working for an intergalactic crime syndicate had its perks, which Eva was a little salty about. Why did the bad guys always get better stuff than she did?
A shot tore through the air so fast it left a trail of blazing purple-blue, coming from in front of her instead of behind. Either she’d been flanked, or—
A second later, the sonic boom reached her, and Eva grinned. Unless the mercs had added sniper rifles to their arsenal, that was definitely Pink. And if her co-captain had arrived, that meant La Sirena Negra couldn’t be far behind.
Eva darted from behind her cover toward another rocky pillar, lurching forward and cagando en la mierda every time her gravboot stuck. The methane-fueled fire was up to her chest now, making visibility even more difficult. She shifted the package so most of its weight was on her right side; the damn thing was heavy, and bulky, and she hadn’t expected to be carrying it while running and being shot at. Another plasma bolt narrowly avoided her, sizzling against the rock as she ducked behind it. She thanked the Virgin these mercs weren’t better shots, though come to think of it, that was a little odd. People who got paid to shoot things to death tended to be pretty good at it, or they didn’t get paid for long. Unless they were herding her . . .
The click-whine of a rifle being armed next to her head made her freeze. As much as it was possible to freeze while on fire.
“Give back the cargo,” the merc said. His voice came through her translators as whiny despite his broad, jowly features and beady eyes.
“Wasn’t yours in the first place, mijo,” Eva said. Why hadn’t he shot her already?
“Who hired you?” he snarled, a line of drool falling into his collar. “How did you learn about this facility?”
Ah, information. The real currency of the cosmos.
“A little bird told me,” Eva said.
He pressed the muzzle of his rifle to the spot where her isohelmet met her suit. “Do not speak in idioms, human. Answer my questions or die.”
“Can’t answer questions if I’m dead, mijo,” Eva replied. “Nice rifle, by the way, you get that out of a catalogue with your parents’ credit line?”
The merc made an angry horking sound. “I earned this, you hairless whelp. I’ve been a mercenary for longer than you’ve been alive.”
“And you haven’t retired yet? Qué lástima, you must not be very good at it.”
“Enough!” the truateg shouted. “You and your pack, playing at a profession you barely understand. It makes my testicles itch.”
Eva almost snarked at that, but something moved behind the merc: the palest of shadows, silent as snow.
“When I was your age,” the merc continued, “we had respect for our elders. For the mercenary code. You don’t even have a proper uniform!”
“Times change,” Eva said. “Oye, could you hold this for a second?”
She thrust the package at the merc, who grabbed it reflexively. His rifle swung away from her and she activated the present Vakar had gotten her for her last birthdate: a set of sonic knuckles that formed glowing gold rings around her fingers. Her first punch landed in the truateg’s gut, the second on his shoulder, and by the third Vakar had stepped up to wrench away the rifle and drop the merc with a blow to the back. Eva deactivated her knuckles and took the stolen package back, giving the half-conscious truateg an extra kick in the junk for good measure.
“Where are the others?” Eva asked.
“Gaining ground.” Vakar took the package from her, nearly invisible as his shiny metal armor reflected the whiteness of the not-snow around him. “We should complete our evacuation.”
“Did you sabotage their ship like I asked you to?”
“I would have reached you sooner if I had not,” he replied. “Their navigation systems will be installing a false software update for the next half cycle at least.”
“Dios mío, that’s evil,” Eva said, grinning. “Vámonos, let’s get out of here before I turn into carne asada.”
((Location?)) she pinged at Min.
((Look up,)) came the pilot’s reply.
La Sirena Negra roared in, its dark hull obscured by the methane snow coating the shields. Min brought the ship to a stop so that it hovered a meter above them, breaking some of the stone spires in the process. Eva and Vakar raced over to the emergency hatch.
“You first,” Eva told Vakar. “Get that damn thing inside or we don’t get paid.”
He shifted the package to one side and began to climb awkwardly with his free claw. Just as Eva started to join him, her gravboot stuck to the ground again. This time, it refused to obey her mental command to deactivate, so she had to release the ladder and crouch down to examine the stubborn thing.
A bolt of plasma streaked past, followed by a gargling howl from the truateg. Coño carajo, Eva thought, staying low and frantically jabbing at the manual release on the outer sole of the boot. Still not responding.
“Worthless feces licker!” shouted one of the mercs. “Taste my vengeance!”
“Tastes like chicken!” Eva shouted back. Not that they knew what chicken was.
A sonic boom overhead told her Pink was providing cover fire, buying her a few plasma-free moments. The methane flames completely coated Eva now, but she still couldn’t get her damn gravboot free. With a frustrated groan, she activated her sonic knuckles again and punched the ground around her foot, breaking up the pale rock into gravel-sized pieces. There just needed to be enough left to trick the boots into sticking to them, instead of the solid parts underneath—
A searing pain in her thigh made Eva hiss and bite down hard. Somebody had finally hit her. Unfortunately, that meant her suit was compromised, so she didn’t have long before the methane flames worked their way in as well.
Eva punched the ground one last time, and finally her gravboot shifted. La Sirena Negra hovered above her, with Vakar now dangling upside down from the ladder as he reached his free claw out to her.
Grunting, Eva jumped awkwardly with her good leg and grabbed his arm with both hands. Shots sizzled through the snow around her as the ship shifted, her injury making her scream.
Vakar did the galaxy’s most insane sit-up and hoisted her into the emergency access, the hatch closing beneath her as soon as she was fully inside. He released her gently and she collapsed onto the floor, breathing heavily.
((Jump,)) Eva pinged at Min. The pilot’s response was nearly instant, the whine of the FTL drive preceding the stomach-wrenching sensation of artificial gravity compensating for sudden acceleration. Eva could picture Kehma receding behind them as they flew off into the black, toward the nearest Gate, a few hours away.
They’d made it. And they had the package they’d gone to retrieve, which meant they’d get paid. Despite the pain in her thigh, Eva felt cold with relief.
No, not just relief; also the fire extinguishers coating her in chemicals to stop her from burning up the ship. In moments, she was covered in pale-blue gel, slippery as a dytryrc during mating season but no longer aflame.
Eva deactivated her helmet, which dropped a load of the gel into her black hair. Vakar retracted his helmet as well, releasing mingled smells of incense and licorice; he was worried about her.
“I’ll be fine,” she muttered to Vakar, tugging off her busted gravboot and throwing it against the hull. “But I’m definitely going to need a new pair of pants.”
Eva sat in the med bay, trying not to squirm as Pink’s mechanical eye scanned her for injuries beyond the shot to her thigh. Pink had already patched that with a quick-healing compound and numbing agent, and covered it with the usual self-adhesive bandages and a thick mesh designed to restrict movement. Other parts of Eva ached, from muscle to bone, but how many of those complaints were new was debatable.
“You’ll live, again,” Pink said finally, sliding her eye patch down. “You’re lucky they didn’t hit an artery.”
“I’d be luckier if they had missed entirely,” Eva grumbled.
Pink turned around and rummaged through one of the cabinets. “I’m not wasting the good nanites on you, so you have to take it easy for at least a week. Elevate the leg when you can, pain meds every six hours. And of course, you remember your buddy—” She pulled out a cane and handed it to Eva. Its height was adjustable, but they both knew it was already on the lowest setting for the ship’s second-shortest crew member.
“How can I forget good old Fuácata?” Eva muttered. “Anything else, Captain Jones?”
“I’m Dr. Jones right now, sass mouth,” Pink said. “We still need to have your weekly psych session later. But we should get everyone in the mess to chat, yeah?” She peeled her gloves off and tossed them in the recycler, then gave Eva her arm to help her off the exam chair.
Eva sent a ping to the rest of the crew as she hobbled down the corridor of La Sirena Negra to the mess room. The smell of espresso mingled with incense and anise; that meant Vakar was already there, he had made coffee for her, and he was worried but otherwise in a good mood.
“Look at you, smiling like a fool,” Pink said, elbowing Eva gently.
Eva scowled, but she couldn’t sustain it. Especially not when she saw Vakar waiting, out of his shiny Wraith armor for a change. His pangolin-like scales were freshly scrubbed, and his face palps angled toward her as she entered. The smell of anise shifted to licorice, making Pink groan and roll her eye.
“Are you well?” Vakar asked, his gray-blue eyes staring pointedly at her cane.
“Claro que sí, mi cielo,” Eva said. “This is temporary.”
“She has to rest,” Pink added, pursing her lips and giving Vakar a meaningful look that made him smell grassy, bashful.
There went Eva’s plans for later. She sat down at the head of the room’s big communal table and let Pink prop her leg up with a stool, then accepted her taza of coffee from Vakar gratefully.
“I’m here, Cap!” Min said cheerfully through the ship’s speakers. Eva had assumed so, since Min pretty much was La Sirena Negra as long as she was jacked in, which was always. Still, it was good to be sure. The pilot’s human body had been in the bridge last time Eva checked, with one of the resident psychic cats asleep in her lap. Probably Mala, the unofficial leader of the pack.
That left one more crew member still unaccounted-for.
((Mess, now,)) Eva pinged at Sue.
((Coming,)) the engineer pinged back. A few moments later Sue ran in, her black hair spiked at odd angles like she’d accidentally run a greasy hand through it. Her pink shirt was smudged and streaked with brown, and two of her tiny yellow robots clung to her tool belt, making shrill noises.
“Sorry, Captain,” Sue said breathlessly. “I had to replace a resistor for the aft shields. Min said they were drawing too much power.”
“Your bots couldn’t handle it?” Pink asked.
Sue’s cheeks flushed and she stared at her boots. “I sent Eleven and Nineteen to do it, but they started arguing and I had to separate them.”
The bots’ shrill noises increased in volume, and Sue grabbed one in each hand and brought them up to her face. “Leaky buckets, knock it off already,” she said. “Don’t make me put you in time-out!”
Eva didn’t know what “time-out” meant for tiny robots, but the bots shut up, so it had to be a serious threat. Sue settled into her chair.
Sometimes it seemed like the last six months had been one firefight after another, between sparse cargo-delivery and passenger transport jobs. Fucking with whatever was left of The Fridge had been her crew’s top priority, and thankfully Vakar’s bosses were all too happy to subsidize their endeavors. Eva also got to keep or sell portions of any ill-gotten goods they recovered from their raids, or in situations like the one on Kehma, they returned stolen items for a hefty bounty from the original owner.
It wasn’t an easy life, but more and more often, Eva was starting to feel like it was a pretty good one. Even the food was better than it used to be. She took a sip of her espresso, savoring the sweet bitterness; Vakar had used the stash of real beans instead of the replicator.
“So we got what we came for, and now we drop it off and get paid,” Eva said. Min gave a little cheer of “Jackpot!” while Vakar’s smell gained a brief almond spike of delight.
“Also, we pissed off the Blue Hounders and The Fridge,” Pink added. “It’s like asshole Christmas up in here.”
“Feliz Navidad,” Eva said. “Min, how long until we reach Atrion?”
“About a quarter cycle,” Min replied. “Unless you want to refuel somewhere first.”
Eva shrugged. “Anyone have a layover request?”
Sue shook her head, Pink twirled her finger in a circle, and Vakar’s palps twitched, but he said nothing.
“If we can make it to Atrion, and their fuel prices aren’t ridiculous, let’s just get this job done.” Eva knocked back the last of her coffee. “Nice work, amigos. Take a break.”
Sue wandered back toward the cargo bay, holding one bot in each hand and scolding them quietly. Eva stood and hobbled over to put her taza in the sanitizer, wondering whether she should grab a snack or head straight to her cabin. Vakar appeared at her side, laying a claw gently on her arm.
“Would you like assistance returning to your room?” he asked, smelling like vanilla and lavender under all the licorice.
Eva grinned, raising an eyebrow. “I’m sure Fuácata wouldn’t mind the help.” The snack could definitely wait.
“I said rest, woman,” Pink called from the doorway. “Don’t make me confine you to the med bay. I have a bunch of remote patients in my virtual queue, and I don’t want to waste my very expensive time patching your sorry ass twice.”
Vakar wagged his head in the quennian equivalent of a shrug, while Eva snorted. But as soon as Pink was gone, they shared a look and Eva burst into laughter.
“Come on,” she told him. “There’s more than one way to rest. I can think of at least three and I’m not even trying.”
Eva woke up four hours later with a throbbing pain in her leg, to the sound of Min pretending to be an alarm through the speakers.
“Qué pinga,” Eva said sleepily, raising her head off Vakar’s chest.
“Sorry to bother you, Cap,” Min said, “but you’ve got a call on the new emergency frequency.”
Mierda, Eva thought. That could only be one of three people, and she wasn’t in the mood to talk to any of them.
“Should I go?” Vakar rumbled.
“Nah, I don’t wanna move,” Eva said. “Min, audio only, please.”
A holo image projected from Eva’s closet door into the dim room. At first it crackled with static, but it quickly resolved into the face and upper body of her sister, Mari. Her brown hair was tied back in a ponytail, and unlike the last time Eva had seen her, she wore a dark-red spacesuit with extra armored plating over the chest. Her expression was neutral, controlled, like she’d done a bunch of deep-breathing exercises before making the call. Which she probably had, given how good Eva was at getting on her nerves.
“Eva?” Mari asked, her neutral expression immediately slipping as a crease appeared between her brows. “Are you there? I can’t see you.”
“I’m here,” Eva replied, slapping Vakar’s claw as he ran it up her bare thigh. “It’s been a while. What do you need?”
The furrow smoothed out. “What’s the passcode?” Mari asked.
Eva sighed and consulted her commlink. The key generator Mari had made her install spat out a long string of letters and numbers, which she dutifully repeated.
“And what’s your favorite . . .” Now Mari pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at Eva. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
Eva hmmed wistfully. “Paella. So good.”
“You’re allergic to shrimp, boba.”
Vakar’s palps tickled her face and she stifled a giggle. “Pink has been giving me a lot of allergy meds,” she said. “Really strong ones.”
Mari closed her eyes. Eva could almost hear her silently counting to ten.
“My turn,” Eva said. “What’s your favorite, uh, Mesozoic species?”
Mari smirked. “Ah, see, someone who didn’t know me well might assume it was equisetites, because of the ribbed stems, but actually it’s baculites because they—”
“Ya, basta, I know it’s you because no one else is this boring.” Eva reluctantly sat up and swung her legs over the side of her bed, wincing as her injured thigh protested. “What do you want, Mari?”
Her sister’s face grew serious again. “My superiors need to speak with you. In person.”
Now Vakar sat up, too, smelling as curious as Eva felt. She knew nothing about Mari’s bosses, except that they thought it was totally fine to throw Eva to the proverbial wolves if it meant taking down The Fridge. And now they wanted to talk?
“I thought you didn’t want me anywhere near your business?” Eva said, barely concealing the salt in her tone.
“I don’t, but I’m not in charge.”
Eva’s smirk died quickly. “What do they want from me?”
“That’s not for me to say,” Mari replied, smoothing a stray hair against her head. “But if you’ll agree to meet with them and discuss their offer, I’ll send you the coordinates.”
Secrets, as usual. Great. “I assume I’d get paid for whatever this is?” Eva asked.
“Absolutely. A fair rate, possibly including fuel subsidies.”
Eva wrinkled her nose at Vakar, who blinked his inner eyelids pensively. He smelled minty, but otherwise noncommittal. No help there.
“I have to discuss it with my crew,” Eva said slowly. “I’m not the only captain anymore, and either we’re all in or we’re out.”
“How egalitarian of you,” Mari said. Her features had settled into a mask again, and her gaze flicked up like she was looking at something Eva couldn’t see. “I have to go, but please let me know within the next cycle. We’re running out of time. And options.”
“Right, I’m never the first pick for the spaceball team,” Eva muttered. “Call me back in an hour; I’ll have an answer for you then.”
The holo image vanished, plunging the room back into darkness except for the dim light from the fish tank above her bed. Vakar’s sister, Pollea, had taken care of Eva’s fish while Eva was indisposed—okay, no need to be euphemistic, it was while Eva was in cryo after being kidnapped because of shit that was basically Mari’s fault. But Eva had gotten her ship back, and her fish, and added a few new creatures to the tank for good measure, including the orange-shelled snail currently stuck to the glass, and the hermit crab digging through the substrate. She hadn’t worked up the nerve to add live coral or anemones, but she figured she would get there someday.
That, of course, depended on whether she lived long enough to see “someday” for herself. Her leg throbbed as a reminder that nothing was certain, that every fight she walked into was a roll of the Cubilete dice, and the other side might get a Carabina first.
Eva’s stomach grumbled; must be time for a meal. She did a quick visual survey of her injuries, which were recovering as slowly as one might expect without nanites. Her thigh bandages were intact, but definitely in rougher shape than they should have been for someone supposedly resting.
“Pink is gonna be mad at us,” she told Vakar.
“It is probable,” he agreed, tickling her shoulder with his palps.
“Eh, worth it.” She grabbed her nearest article of clothing off the floor. “Help me put on my pants so she doesn’t see it yet, and let’s get this party started.”
Min’s human body joined them in the mess this time. She was using the hot plate to make gyeranjjim for herself and Sue, so Eva settled for reconstituting a vague approximation of picadillo along with the last of the instant rice. Pink shoveled her own rice and red-bean concoction into her mouth quickly enough to give Eva a stomachache from watching. Vakar wasn’t hungry, and he already knew what the meeting was about, so he sat at the table and waited with a patience Eva found admirable, if baffling.
Eva explained the situation briefly as everyone ate. The first to respond when she finished was Pink, who pushed her empty plate away with a look like she’d bitten a lemon.
“Mari is a liar and an asshole,” Pink said coldly. “And her bosses were good with her busted-ass plan that fucked all of us over. That’s two strikes already and we don’t even know what they want.”
“We cannot trust them,” Vakar agreed. “However, some of our goals are in alignment overall.”
“We all hate The Fridge,” Sue said, blowing on her food to cool it. “And it seems like they have, um, you know . . .”
“Money?” Eva supplied. “Resources? Information?”
“Yeah, all of that, pretty much.”
“Food?” Min asked, poking what was left of her fluffy egg substitute. She’d gotten way more interested in eating once their options had improved.
Eva gestured at Min with her fork. “That, I don’t know.”
Pink leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “If this were any other client, you’d tell them to go piss up a rope. Is the risk worth what we might get out of it?”
“Mari did say they’d pay us well,” Eva said. “Maybe even a fuel allowance.”
“Ooh, a fuel allowance, says the liar.” Pink nodded sarcastically, her eye wide.
“We do need fuel,” Min said. “I mean, I do. The ship me.”
Vakar smelled like ozone with a hint of incense—uncertain, concerned—but there was also an undercurrent that reminded Eva of night-blooming jasmine. Thoughtful, which meant he wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea. She considered his angle, and what he might stand to gain from it.
“You want to know more about them,” Eva told him. “Mari’s people, I mean, whoever they are.”
Vakar shrugged in the quennian equivalent of a nod. “As a Wraith,” he said, “I have been tasked with documenting the activities of the entity known as The Fridge, and disrupting them. Your sister is employed by yet another organization whose identity and motives are unknown, but whose reach appears extensive. Under the right circumstances, they could be a valuable asset.”
They certainly seemed to have reached right into The Fridge itself, if Mari was any indication. How many more spies did they have, and how much information might they be willing to trade?
Pink shook her head, her dreads swaying slightly. “So assuming we agree to meet with them, then what?”
“We see what they want.” Eva shrugged. “Worst case, we turn them down and walk away.”
“Worst case, they blow us up and melt down the scraps,” Pink muttered. “I want to believe we’re all on the same side, but there’s history, and that shit repeats.”
Sue spoke up then, in a quiet voice. “Sometimes good people do bad things,” she said, staring down at her empty plate. “They think the reasons are good and important, and it will all work out in the end. It’s not smart, maybe, but it’s . . . it happens.”
Sue was thinking of her own past, no doubt. Her brother, Josh, had been kidnapped by The Fridge, after which Sue had robbed a few banks and an asteroid mine in the hopes of paying off his ransom. But Josh was still missing, and none of their Fridge-busting fun had turned up any leads so far. Looking at the dark-haired girl, just out of her teens, Eva would never have believed she was capable of such a thing. Sue could barely curse properly, though Eva was trying to teach her.
Then again, the same things could be said about Eva, or Pink, or anyone else on the ship. Eva most of all, given some of what she’d done back when she worked for her father. She had enough regrets to fill their cargo hold, and more. Eva didn’t seem to be the only one following that plutonium exhaust trail of thought, so she cleared her throat to bring everyone back to the table.
“Vote time?” Eva shifted her butt, wincing at the pain that shot through her leg. “I say we check it out, with another vote to decide whether we take whatever offer they make.”
“I also believe we should investigate,” Vakar said.
Min brushed her faded blue hair out of her face and smiled. “Fuel sounds good to me.”
Sue hesitated, then said, “It can’t hurt. Can it?”
“It certainly can,” Pink said. She rolled her eyes. “I feel like I’m having to be paranoid enough for all y’all, but whatever. At least we’re being foolish together.”
“Look at it this way,” Eva said, “if you’re right, we can burn them for good.”
“If I’m right,” Pink said with a scowl, “we’re the ones who are gonna be hosed.” Eva really, really hoped Pink wasn’t right this time.
The coordinates Mari provided sent them to Suidana, a dying binary star system two cycles from the nearest Gate. Pink insisted on collecting their Fridge bounty first, and Eva was only too happy to do so, since they needed enough credits for the fuel to get to Mari’s mystery site. Their client was grateful, if nervous about possible repercussions, but Eva assured them The Fridge would be more pissed at her than they would at him.
“Squirrely little guy,” Pink said as they were leaving. “Are we sure he’s legit?”
“Min and Vakar both checked him out,” Eva said. She smiled as the account-transfer notification pinged into her commlink.
“We did our good deed for the week, and now we can sleep like babies all the way to Casa Carajo.”
Pink’s lip curled. “Sure is a long flight for a big question mark.”
Eva had wondered about that as well, but she didn’t want to back out now. “Should give you plenty of time for your patients, though,” she said.
Pink had joined a pool of remote doctors to handle the massive medical needs of a far-flung universe, the kinds that sophisticated virtual intelligences weren’t adept at diagnosing, or that wanted a pseudo-personal touch. It meant more work for her, but as Pink had put it, “My résumé won’t pad itself.” Besides, she loved helping people, whether by figuring out what ailed them or putting a foot up the right person’s ass.
As pressed for time as Mari had said her employers were, Eva wasn’t inclined to hurry. She let Min proceed well within safe speed parameters, even dropping to sublight a few times so Sue could repair a particularly fussy ship component. Vakar caught up on reports for his Wraith bosses, Eva caught up on administrative bullshit, and together they caught up on each other as much as her healing leg would allow. Sue fixed Eva’s gravboots again and worked on some new mass of metal in the cargo bay, Pink doctored or fiddled with her latest sewing project, Min piloted and played the strategy games she defaulted to when her q-net access was laggy. During the late meal, Min queued up the most recent Crash Sisters holovids, so they could all watch former crew member-turned- star Leroy “The King” Cooper stomp around kicking asses and pretending to be a villain. There was even time for Min to help braid Pink’s hair, which had to be done in stages because it had gotten so long, and for Min and Sue to hang out, chatting about giant mechanical creations and other girly stuff.
It was as close to a holiday as they had gotten for as long as Eva could remember, and she savored every minute of it, because she wanted to be well rested when the shit hit the air filters.
They arrived at their destination during the third cycle out from the Gate. The station was uncomfortably close to the system’s red supergiant, which had already swallowed the planets closest to it. Some of its mass was being stripped by its companion neutron star, but even so, it would collapse into a white dwarf at some point in the near future as cosmic time went, which was at least a few thousand years away.
Eva hated thinking on that scale. It reminded her that the universe was a vast ocean, and she wasn’t even a tiny fish: she was an amoeba. One person on one ship drifting through the black between points of light, her life’s only purpose and meaning whatever she made of it. It was simultaneously liberating and disheartening to be so relatively insignificant. And it didn’t help that people like Mari went around having a huge sense of self-importance about their goals, like every choice they made could wipe out entire galaxies or whatever.
Ending even one life was a big deal, and the farther away from that notion a person got, the more lives became expendable. Numbers in a chart. Collateral damage. Acceptable risks and the cost of doing business, of finishing the mission, of doing what needed to be done according to very particular parameters of need.
Maybe Eva was only one person, but she wasn’t keen on being a statistic, or turning anyone else into one.
La Sirena Negra arrived at a station large enough to house thousands of people, drifting serenely along a trajectory that kept the red giant behind it like a huge, watchful eye. Its hull was putty-colored and smooth, broken only by cameras and other instrumentation, and the docking-bay doors that opened to receive their ship. Eva let Min handle all the standard handshakes and code-swaps, because she was busy ogling the thing being towed along by the station like a toy on a string.
It was a Gate. At least, it looked like one, except it was inactive and covered in construction crews. But the idea that someone had stolen a Gate, or more incredibly, was trying to build a new one? Impossible. Gates were ancient Proarkhe tech, and no one knew how they worked, only how to use them to open holes to other parts of the universe.
Then again, The Fridge had managed to make a pair of guns that created portable Gates, which Eva knew because she’d stolen them and hidden them as well as she could. They didn’t work anymore, but no way did she trust anyone to use tech like that for good instead of super naughty.
Except apparently Mari’s secret club had gotten enough information on their own to do this. And if they could build a whole damn Gate out here, what else might they be able to do?
They finished docking protocols and Eva disembarked slowly, still leaning on the mighty Fuácata since her leg wound wasn’t fully healed. Vakar and Pink followed close behind her, both suited up like they were walking into a fight. The docking bay had enough room for a dozen ships or so, the largest of which was a Standard Reliance Mk II cruiser. It looked familiar, but Eva had seen a lot of similar ships in her time, especially in the BOFA fleet. This one was sleek and white with black-and-red stripes, and Eva coveted it instantly, despite her love for her own ship.
“Are those antiproton thrusters?” Eva asked Vakar quietly.
“Yes,” he murmured back. “And it has kloshian heavy armor in addition to its kinetic barriers.”
Eva gave a soft groan of jealousy.
Mari intercepted them before they made it any farther. She still wore the same red armored spacesuit Eva had seen during their call, and her light-brown eyes were wide from whatever stimulants she was using to stay ahead of fatigue. She hesitated in front of Eva, her expression guarded.
Eva swallowed her pride and stepped forward, kissing her sister on the cheek. They might not be back up to hugging yet, but they had to start somewhere.
“Welcome to The Forge,” Mari said.
“The what?” Eva cocked her head to the side and squinted.
“That’s what our group is called, The Forge.”
Eva snorted. “You know that sounds a lot like The Fridge, right? Who names this shit?”
“Our group came first,” Mari said defensively. “Anyway, thank you for coming.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Eva replied. “I haven’t agreed to anything.”
Mari nodded, glancing at Eva’s cane. “I think this will be a lot less dangerous than . . . last time.”
“We can handle danger,” Pink said, putting a hand on her hip. “It’s secrets that get us all riled up.”
Mari opened her mouth like she was going to launch into a lecture, but stopped herself and held out a hand. “Dr. Jones, it’s good to see you again.”
“The pleasure is all yours,” Pink replied coolly. “Nice suit, it really brings out the bags under your eyes.”
Eva choked on a laugh, which she turned into throat-clearing. “You remember Vakar.”
“Of course.” Mari lowered her hand and offered him a curt bow. “Your work against The Fridge last year was greatly appreciated.”
“I did not do it for you,” Vakar said. “But you are welcome.”
His smell and face were hidden by his armor, his voice distorted and gravelly.
They all stood around awkwardly for a few moments, Eva making a fish face and raising her eyebrows, Pink glaring at Mari, Mari almost starting several sentences, and Vakar just looming since he was taller than all of them. Finally, Mari broke the silence.
“Where is Susan?” Mari asked.
“Sue?” Eva blinked. “She’s back on the ship with Min. Why?”
Mari took a breath, as if choosing her words carefully. “I was not authorized to bring Dr. Jones and Wraith Memitim to this meeting, but I was specifically asked to bring Susan.”
“ ‘Not authorized,’ ” Pink repeated, drawing out the words for emphasis. “So, what, we wait on the ship?”
“You’re welcome to visit our dining hall,” Mari replied. “We also have a lovely observation platform. For security reasons I cannot give any of you a full tour of Forge facilities.”
((Abort mission?)) Eva pinged at Pink.
((Go on,)) Pink replied. ((Be careful.))
Eva shrugged at her, and Pink sighed and gave her a dismissive gesture. “I’m staying here,” Pink said. “I’ll send Sue out.” She flipped up her eye patch to give Mari one last look, and to Eva’s surprise Mari flinched at the scrutiny from the mechanical eye.
“See you around, cupcake,” Pink said. Without another word, she turned and left.
Eva rested her hand on Vakar’s shoulder. “How about you?”
“I would like to visit the observation platform,” Vakar said.
Better than nothing, probably, since he was hoping to get information out of this place. Eva wouldn’t be surprised if he was already trying to hack into their systems. Min at least was likely stealing their q-net bandwidth by now.
Sue emerged a few minutes later, a smear of grease on one cheek and a dazed look in her eye. When she saw Mari, her pale skin flushed pink and she stared at her feet.
“Agent Virgo,” Sue said. “I’m, I mean, I know I was supposed to stay out of, you know, but—”
“It’s fine, Susan,” Mari interrupted, her all-business mask sliding firmly into place. “Come along, my superiors are waiting.”
Mari let Eva set the pace, leading them out of the docking bay into a sterile white hallway, occasional doors and plants and artwork adding texture and color. A few other people walked past as they went, mostly wearing casual civilian clothes. Some had protective gear Eva associated with laboratories, or spacesuits like Mari’s, albeit with less armor. Certainly no one was wearing uniforms with the forge plastered across the chest or back; maybe they all had secret anvil tattoos somewhere. A blue-skinned kloshian conferred with an eac about something that made the eac clack its beak in frustration, while a human and a four-armed buasyr carried boxes marked volatile from one room to another with nervous haste. Everyone looked busy, harried, but also entirely focused on whatever they were doing.
Mari stopped in front of a random door like any other. “The observation platform is here,” she said. The door opened to reveal a large room with dark, nonreflective flooring and a wall that was either entirely transparent or a huge viewscreen. It must have been on the side of the station, because the system’s red giant wasn’t visible, just the blackness of space lit by clusters of stars and galaxies near and far. It was beautiful, awe-inspiring, and not remotely what Vakar probably wanted to see.
“Thank you,” Vakar said politely, stepping inside and bending his knees back so he could kneel on the floor. At least he could hack from just about anywhere, depending on their systems.
The door closed and Mari continued to lead Eva and Sue in silence. As full of questions as Eva was, she suspected she wasn’t going to get anything out of her sister now, especially with every person they passed glaring at Eva like she’d pissed in their protein powder. Her leg was holding up, no doubt thanks to the painkillers Pink had dosed her with, but Eva was starting to regret that she hadn’t asked Mari to get her a hoverchair instead of taking this long walk. At least Sue had fixed her gravboots so they weren’t randomly sticking again.
They eventually entered an elevator, which gave Eva an annoyingly anxious flashback to the last time she’d been to Nuvesta and fought off a slew of bounty hunters, but this one was fast and quiet except for the VI announcing “forty-two” when they reached the appropriate floor.
Like the observation platform, this room was large and dark with a floor-to-ceiling view, but it showed the enormous orange-red star, its surface roiling with heat. In the center of the room was a bare metallic desk with two chairs, one behind it and one in front of it, both occupied by people Eva could barely see because of the star’s placement. She summoned up her isohelmet and shifted its color to shade her eyes.
“Captain Innocente, Mx. Zafone, thank you for joining us,” the figure behind the desk said in a voice that walked the line between smooth and hardass. Her hands were steepled under her chin, the soft glow of an old-fashioned commlink on her arm lighting her face from below. Kloshian, her tentacle-like hair swept back, her skin currently the blue-gray of a Terran marine mammal.
Eva inclined her head politely. “And you are?”
“Agent Elus,” she said. “I am the head of operations at this facility. My associate is Agent Miran.”
Miran was human, but his eyes had the catlike reflective sheen of implants, and neural tattoos ran down the exposed parts of his dark forearms. Probably heavier upgrades under the surface; expensive, and illegal in some places. He leaned back in his chair, ankle resting on his opposite knee, his posture as relaxed as a lion in its own den.
“Charmed,” Agent Miran said gruffly. “Let me be brief.”
“I like brief,” Eva said. “Cuéntamelo.” Sue shifted uneasily beside her, but Eva kept her attention focused on Miran.
“A number of civilian scientists escaped the destruction of the Fridge facility six months ago,” he said. “While we recovered a substantial amount of actionable data during our mission, some items were incomplete or indecipherable, so we’ve been trying to find these missing scientists to obtain their help.”
“I assume this relates to the Gate you and your Forge buddies are building out there?” Eva asked. She still wasn’t sure it was a Gate, but it was worth a shot. Sue gasped next to her, and Eva hoped that didn’t wreck the bluff entirely.
Agent Miran’s gaze twitched slightly to one side; he had looked at Mari, behind Eva’s left shoulder. Well, if he wanted to think she’d told Eva about it, let him.
“It does,” he said. “For security reasons, I can’t tell you more.”
“You were secure enough to invite us here instead of meeting at a more neutral location.”
“Consider it a show of trust,” Agent Elus said.
Or a show of their headquarters being a giant space station that would probably disappear to another system before Eva could even think of selling them out. Which she wasn’t planning to do anyway. Eva smiled and mimed zipping her lips shut.
With luck, Vakar would have plenty to tell her later anyway.
“We want to hire you to track down one of the Fridge scientists,” Miran said, leaning forward with both feet on the floor, resting his forearms on his knees. “You would be compensated appropriately, including a fuel stipend and reimbursement for travel wear and tear on your ship.”
Nice. Eva was used to soaking up those expenses herself to stay competitive. But she still didn’t trust these people, and a hell of a lot of questions came to mind right away. She settled for the most immediate one.
“Why hire me for this?” Eva asked. “You’ve had six months to send your own agents after him, with all your resources.” She glanced back at her sister standing straight-backed with her arms crossed. “Why do you think I’ll do any better?”
“And why am I here?” Sue asked. Eva resisted the urge to pinch Sue’s arm, like her mom used to do when she didn’t want Eva to talk.
Agent Elus waved her hand over her commlink and a holo image appeared above the desk. A human with wild gray hair, apparently dyed because the roots were dark. His skin was pale, ruddy at the cheeks, and his dark eyes had the hooded, sullen look of someone who hated being interrupted. He wore a white lab coat over a bright-green shirt, black-gloved hand raised as if to stop whoever was taking the picture.
“Holy rusty buckets,” Sue said. “Josh?”
“Indeed,” Agent Elus said. “Your sibling, Joshua Zafone. He was one of the head engineers on the project whose research we require.”
“But he, he was . . .” Sue’s mouth opened and closed, and Eva could almost see her thoughts moving at light speed in a hundred different directions. The Fridge had told her Josh was a hostage, that her family had to pay a ransom to free him. “Head engineer” didn’t sound very hostage-like, no matter what language you tried it in, no matter how hard his arm had been twisted to do the work.
Eva knew how it felt, to be lied to about something like that. Mari’s presence behind her was a stark reminder. She gripped the head of her cane and made a mental note to have Pink talk to Sue about it later, in a private psych session.
“So you think Sue might know something you don’t,” Eva said. “Something that could help us find him where you failed.”
Agent Miran nodded, his profile lit by the dying star. “We also suspect that should you locate Mr. Zafone, he will be more cooperative if he’s approached by his own sister instead of a stranger.”
Eva raised an eyebrow. “He got away from you once, didn’t he?”
Miran’s gaze flicked in Mari’s direction again, and Eva suppressed a smile. It was nice to know her perfect sister could fuck things up occasionally.
“Just to make sure I have this straight,” Eva said. “You want me to find Josh and bring him back here, is that it?”
“Correct,” Agent Elus said. Her skin color darkened almost imperceptibly.
“Do you have a deadline?”
“Not a fixed one, but time is of the essence.” Elus waved a hand over her commlink again and her lips parted briefly, exposing knife-sharp teeth. “We can offer you a bonus if you bring him to us within the next twenty cycles.”
That didn’t sound like a lot of time, given that Eva had no idea how to even begin looking for the guy, and that it would be two cycles just to get to the nearest Gate. But she wasn’t about to tell them that.
“I have to check with the rest of my crew before I agree to anything,” Eva said.
“So we were told,” Agent Miran said. “I assume you’ll have a response soon?”
Eva nodded. Like Mari had told her, this didn’t sound dangerous compared to the other stuff they’d been doing for the past six months. But she had no idea where Josh might be, and whether he was in the kind of trouble that called for fists and firearms.
“If we take the job, I’ll need half up front and half on delivery,” Eva said. “And my ship could use a refuel before we leave here regardless.”
“Agent Virgo will see to it,” Agent Miran said, gesturing at Mari. “She will also be your contact as the mission proceeds, should you accept our terms. We would expect status updates every three cycles at a minimum.”
“Yes, sir,” Eva said, flicking two fingers away from her forehead in a mock salute. He certainly seemed confident that she would be on board with this job. She wished he had seen Pink’s face earlier; he might not feel so great about his chances. “Anything else I need to know before I go?”
Agent Elus waved the holo image away, returning the room to its reddish darkness, and linked her hands together in front of her. “As Agent Miran indicated, we cannot give you information that might compromise our mission here. I can say this, however: what we are doing is of the utmost importance, and may help us to preserve the lives of every sentient creature in the universe. We cannot, we must not, fail.” Her shadowy expression was tense, a nearly perfect mimicry of human somberness on her kloshian features.
Eva blinked hard to keep from rolling her eyes. That was exactly the kind of self-importance she wished she could go after with a flamethrower.
“It was a pleasure to meet you at last, Captain Innocente,” Agent Miran said, returning to his relaxed cross-legged position. “And you, Mx. Zafone. Whatever your decision, we appreciate your work against The Fridge.”
Even when it fucks you over? Eva wanted to ask, but she offered him a polite smile instead. “It’s nice to be appreciated,” she said. “It’s nicer to get paid. Adiós, hasta luego.”
Mari led them out of the room, and Eva prepared for a lecture as soon as the door slid closed behind them. To her surprise, Mari didn’t say a damn thing, leading them back the way they came in the same silence as before, her own face a mask of solemnity with occasional flickers of an emotion Eva couldn’t place.
More than Agent Elus and her stirring speech about universe-saving, Mari’s silence spoke volumes. She really believed in their cause, didn’t she? But could Eva trust these people, after what they’d done? Would they happily throw her out the airlock again if it suited their purpose? And what would it mean for them to have their own private Gate, not to mention the ability to build more of them wherever they wanted? Should anyone have that power, no matter how noble their motives?
Better them than The Fridge, Eva supposed. And if she didn’t find Josh first, they might.
Eva leaned on her cane and wondered what exactly these people were getting themselves into, and whether it would be supremely unwise to get involved.
When Eva and the rest of the crew tried to discuss whether they would take the offer, Sue grew so heated that Pink sent her off to cool down. Eva understood: it was Sue’s brother on the line, and given his previous disappearance, there were painful questions to be answered. It meant coming to a decision without Sue, though, and it fell to Eva to deliver the news.
Sue sat in the cargo bay, welding gloves and mask in place, tinkering with her latest robotic creation. She had already built a mech she called Gustavo out of scraps, and had upgraded it little by little over the past six months, but she was also working on a present for Min: the kind of battle bot Min used to fight with back when Eva first met her. It took up an unreasonable amount of space, especially when it was in pieces like now, its torso open in the center of the room while its legs were over by the passenger cabin and its arms were dangling by cables from the catwalk like a creepy puppet.
The rest of the cargo bay was the domain of the cats, who ostensibly belonged to Min but actually belonged to themselves, as cats do. These cats more than most, since they were psychic and eerily intelligent. Their climate-controlled shipping container was shoved up against the plating next to the passenger cabin, but the cats themselves were napping or playing or bathing wherever the hell they wanted. Mala, their unofficial leader, stepped out of the enclosed litter box and, with a very dignified air, flopped down and began to lick her butthole profusely.
“Hey,” Eva said to Sue, prodding the bot’s helmeted head with her cane while Sue turned off the welding torch and flipped her mask back.
“Sorry I yelled,” Sue said, her pale cheeks ruddy—from the heat, or from embarrassment, or por qué no los dos?
“It’s okay. No one is mad at you.”
“We’re going to find your brother, yes.”
Sue’s eyes filled with tears, which she wiped with her shoulders as soon as they fell. “Thank you,” she whispered, her voice hoarse.
“I wish people would stop preemptively thanking me for shit.” Eva sighed, swatting idly at one of the dangling arms with her cane. Candy would certainly not fall out if she hit it hard enough. Mala paused in her butt-licking to glare at Eva as if offended by the noise.
“So what now?” Sue asked.
“Now the hard part: figuring out how to track him.”
Sue shoved some wiring back into the robot’s torso, brushing away one of her little yellow bots as it tried to help. “What did Agent Virgo say?”
Eva collected her thoughts. “His last known whereabouts were Medoral, a big transit hub in a two-Gate system.”
“I know that place,” Sue said. “My family has shipped stuff through there a bunch.”
“Apparently he did a very good job with his identity switch, because he disappeared from there almost immediately.”
Sue’s expression hardened. “She knew where Josh was the whole time I was here, didn’t she? Agent Virgo, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” Eva said. “She never mentioned anything about your brother. She might not have found him until the facility raid.”
“I guess.” Sue brightened. “Well, now that we know he got away from The Fridge, we can stop looking for him there.”
“It’s strange that he didn’t contact me, or my parents.” Sue’s mask fell over her face, and she shoved it back up, frowning. “Maybe he thought he was protecting us. But we’ve been making ransom payments this whole time, so I guess The Fridge assumed we didn’t know where he was.”
“Fair assumption, clearly.” One of the cats rubbed against Eva’s leg, and she reached down to scratch its head. “So if you were Josh, and you were trying to run away without anyone knowing what you were up to, what would you do?”
“Hmm.” Sue tapped the end of her welding torch against the bot’s metal torso. “I’m not sure. Steal some credit chits to buy a ticket on a transport?”
“That’s a lot of stealing,” Eva said. “I’m guessing you’ve never had to use credit chits, but the people who do, they don’t tend to have enough of them for an off-planet shuttle ride.”
“Oh, right. He must not have used any of his personal accounts, either, or The Forge would have been able to track those.”
Eva nodded, carefully sitting on the floor so she could pet the cats more easily. “They could probably even find secret accounts. They’re pretty good about that stuff.” Something Sue had said nudged her brain. “You mentioned your family ships stuff through Medoral. Would Josh have been able to use a company business account, maybe?”
“Oh, maybe!” Sue smiled hopefully, then immediately scowled. “Aw, buckets. No, no, that doesn’t work. We have accountants and stuff. Every expense gets shoved into a special category for when they do taxes. If Josh bought a shuttle ticket, someone would have noticed. I remember my parents getting alerts about suspicious activity sometimes.”
“Dead end, then.” Eva winced as Mala jammed a paw into her leg wound. When had the cat climbed into her lap? So damn sneaky. “Well, I’ll get everyone else together and we’ll keep thinking. There must be something The Forge missed.”
Sue gasped and scrambled to her feet. “I’ve got it!” Her welding mask fell again, and she pulled it off entirely and tossed it to the ground.
“Got what?” Eva asked.
“The piggy bank!”
“We have a special account, for, um.” Sue’s cheeks flushed pink again. “Miscellaneous? It may not be, you know, legal. Maybe.”
“A lot of things are legal that probably shouldn’t be,” Eva said. “So this account was what you would use when you wanted to hide purchases, I assume?”
“Sort of. It’s for stuff that maybe wouldn’t qualify as a business expense, like . . .” Sue stared off into space, half grinning. “Once my parents took us on vacation and charged everything to that account. My dad said it was okay because he talked about business with my mom a few times.”
“Sounds like something my dad would have done, too,” Eva said. “So this account gets a fair amount of use, and nobody is really tracking it?”
“Pretty much,” Sue said. “They charge random things there all the time so it doesn’t look too suspicious.” Her pale skin flushed pink. “I use it to buy parts for my bots sometimes. Hold on, let me pull it up.”
Eva rubbed Mala’s head and face while Sue fiddled with her commlink. After a few failed login attempts and fumbling around with the interface, which Sue grumbled was “as intuitive as quantum physics,” she was able to pull up a list of transactions from the account. Sue snapped an image and pinged it to Eva, who stared at the lists of numbers and codes for a minute before shaking her head.
“I have no idea what any of this means,” Eva said.
“Me either,” Sue said gloomily. “And I can’t call my parents to ask, assuming they even know. They still think I’m working at a parts depot in Atrion until I ‘find myself’ and come home.”
“Yeah, my mom went through that phase of denial, too.” Eva slapped her forehead and groaned. “Of course. I know exactly who can help us.”
“Really?” Sue clapped in glee.
“Really. But I need a few minutes to get my story together, because this call is going to suck.” Eva lifted a highly offended Mala out of her lap and carefully got to her feet, the sharp pull of her regrowing leg skin and muscle reminding her that it was time for more pain meds. She started to limp out of the cargo bay, avoiding the bits of robot strewn around the floor and the cats who had decided she needed emotional support in the form of aggressive leg rubs.
“Who is it?” Sue called after her. “Who can help?”
Eva took a deep breath and sighed. “My mom.”
Thanks so much for reading, hope you enjoyed it! Again, you can pre-order Prime Deceptions at the store of your choice if you haven’t already. And stay tuned for more details on book three, Fault Tolerance, coming in 2022!