Killbox (Sirantha Jax #4)

Chapter 15

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Hanna nods. “But some of the little kids didn’t know much before they were taken, and we were on that ship for weeks.”

So likely, the slavers were waiting for all buyers to approve their wares and agree to a certain rendezvous point to finalize the transactions. They might’ve been hanging around that sector for a while. By the time we arrived, our ship probably looked like it was Mary-sent for entertainment purposes.

“We’ve uploaded your pictures to the databases. If your parents have reported you missing, there will be a match, sooner or later.” I smile in what I hope is a reassuring manner. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you home.”

“Will Rose take care of us the whole time?” Hanna asks.

They know her. They trust her. So I can understand the question, but I have to be honest. “When we ship out, she’ll come with us. But you’ll stay on station, where it’s safe.”

A couple of lower lips start to tremble and Rose cuts me a sharp look. Hm, maybe I’m not the best person to deal with this. I thought it best to be straight with these kids, who probably have a bullshit detector after all they’ve been through. I don’t want them to think we’re just jerking them around, same as the slavers.

“I’ll make sure you like whoever takes my place,” she reassures them.

“You mean we get to pick?” Hanna seems to be the spokesperson for the group.

I can field that one. “Sure. We’ll give you first choice of all hands remaining on station just before we ship out.”

“I guess that’d be okay,” Hanna says grudgingly. “But how long do you think that will be?”

I shrug. “Whenever we wrap up our business.”

There’s no way I can be more specific. I don’t know how long the training and recruitment phase will take. That’s up to March and the Conglomerate.

Rose pushes to her feet, running a hand through already tousled red-and-silver hair. “It’s time for lessons now. Constance will be waiting for you in conference room one.”

I must admit, I admire the smooth way she’s organized them. They file out for their makeshift schooling. She must have some experience with children.

Apparently interpreting my look, she says, “Before the McCulloughs attacked, I was a teacher on Lachion.”

Not Doc’s medical assistant then. That was a wartime role, not her choice.

“You’re good with them.”

“You’re not. They’ve been through enough—they didn’t need to think about my leaving them right now. No matter how mature they seem, they’re not adults, and you can’t treat them as such. Don’t spring news on them without running it past me first, please.” That “please” is only meant to soften the order, not take the teeth from it.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—”

“Obviously not,” she snaps.

I hold up both hands in a placating gesture. “Hey, we’re on the same side here.”

“That may be, but I don’t come to the cockpit and tell you how to jump, do I?”

I restrain my annoyance. She hasn’t liked me since we first met on Lachion, so I suspect she’s overreacting to my visit. Anybody else would likely receive a more civil response. However, I can’t argue that I upset the kids, at least a little bit, even if I didn’t mean to, and I can’t argue that results matter more than intentions.

“Sorry. I thought you might need a hand with them; but I can see you have things under control here, and I won’t interfere again.”

At that she relents a bit. “I’m a little overprotective of them, I guess.”

“It’s understandable. Let me know if you need anything?”

“Of course.” Rose hesitates and then explains, “I’ve found it’s imperative for them to have a sense of continuity. It eases the trauma if their routine is consistent and reliable.”

“Are you saying you’d rather stay here on station with them?”

I don’t blame her if she does. She wasn’t raised on starships. She doesn’t have the love of space travel pulsing in her veins.

Rose considers for several long moments. Many women have a strong maternal instinct, and it seems Rose is no exception. Mary, Doc will not be happy with me if I’m the reason his woman deserts him. But hopefully he’ll understand.

She finally shakes her head. “No, I want to stay with Doc on the Triumph. If I don’t, it makes leaving Lachion rather pointless.”

Since you left because of him.

I nod. “Do you ever wish you hadn’t?”

Her face is tired, new shadows beneath her eyes. Since we’ve been gone, she’s aged, unaccustomed to the stresses we call normal. “Sometimes. There were a lot of gaps in our turns together, time he spent off world, and I wasn’t part of it. I thought if I went with him, it would help me understand him.”

“Did it work?”

She shakes her head. “Not really. I don’t find him any easier to access out here.”

There’s not a lot I can say to that, as we’re not friends or confidantes. So I merely nod and excuse myself.

As the weeks pass, and word gets out about Hon enlisting, more ships arrive. The first to join us is a sleek pirate vessel called the Dark Tide. Its crew seems none too thrilled, but they’d follow their captain anywhere. Finnegan wears a scar across his left eye socket, and no patch to cover it. His smile is infectious, and he has a booming voice.

“I never thought I’d see the day,” he announces, after we sign the contracts. “Me, fighting for the establishment.”

Hon grins. “Know what you mean. But some deals are too sweet to pass up.”

Soon, more follow. A few vessels leave without signing on, and we let them go. But most take the offer of pardon and limitless Conglomerate-sanctioned booty. We may get a few who still hit freighters, but we’ll deal with the transgressions as they happen. For now, at least we have bodies to fight and the start of a militia.

Between the two of us—with Constance’s help—March and I organize the classes. There’s so much to cover in a short time: ship-to-ship fighting, tactics, personal combat, weapons training, and more. And each ship needs a trained medic. Most pirate vessels don’t bother with a full complement of crew; they just take whoever’s handy and hardy and figure they can replace personnel easier than they can heal them. We can’t treat our soldiers as that expendable. People die in war, but that doesn’t mean we won’t try to save them.

One month after Hon’s arrival, the station hums with activity. Cadets head down the halls to various conference rooms, now converted to classrooms. It’s funny to see hardened smugglers and pirates taking classes on how to obey orders. That’s a simplification, but essentially what we’re doing here. Tarn is sending men, too, as his New Terran recruitment campaign takes off, and he’s spending seized Farwan assets on ships and equipment.

Such things take time.

CHAPTER 17

“I have information for you, Sirantha.”

I’m in the exercise room, running in place. That seems like an unhappy reflection of our current situation, but I need the activity. March has too much on his plate to assist with the problems I’ve shouldered. Somehow I wound up in charge of enforcing discipline, and given my nature, I find it hilarious. Who am I to chastise some poor bastard for his failures? Yet we each have to bear our share of the weight or this unsteady structure collapses.

“What’s up, Vel?” I don’t stop running.

He comes alongside the machine, unfazed. “You wanted me to find out what happened to Evelyn Dasad, whether her body was ever recovered by salvage teams.”

Oh. My steps slow. It seems disrespectful to listen to the tale of a woman’s death while sweat runs down my back. I let myself cool down, then I step off the belt and head for the bench along the wall. This is a small workout room; it offers little in the way of amenities, but Farwan never expected to house so many people here at one time.

“Ready,” I say.

“It is something neither of us expected,” he tells me.

“She made it.” Not a surety so much as a hope.

“She slipped past the Morgut and launched herself in a pod, wherein she set the life support to minimal so as to appear flotsam from the pitched battle that occurred prior to boarding. She drifted until they abandoned her ship and jumped. At that point, she reengaged life support and turned on her emergency beacon. A freighter rescued her when she had but four minutes of oxygen left.”

All too clearly, I can imagine her terror, trapped in a tiny pod and barely able to breathe lest she use up too much air, wondering how long it will take for her enemies to clear off. Those hours, while waiting but not daring to hope for rescue, must have been interminable. Like me, she’s a sole survivor.

“Where is she now?”

With a few taps, Vel checks the records. “Recovering from her ordeal on what used to be Perlas Station. It was the easiest jump for the freighter in that sector.”

Then the fight took place in the Furlong galaxy, where you can also find Matins IV. That’s where my love, Kai, and all my illusions about Farwan died. So Evelyn and I both survived a catastrophe in the same galaxy—the only ones who did—and we were both transported to Perlas for recovery. I only hope she didn’t wind up in a cell, like me.

That’s just too much of a coincidence, and I don’t tend to see mystic cosmic connections, unlike my mentor on Gehenna, Adele. Now I can hear her whispering in my ear that this means something, that this is Mary’s hand on both of our lifelines, entwining their threads. Maybe I’m not ready to make that leap, but a few more questions won’t hurt.

“Who runs it now?”

“Nominally, the Conglomerate, but it is full of ex-Farwan employees,” he says.

I don’t know why that makes my flesh crawl, but it does, in a big way. Thankfully, it doesn’t take my rational brain as long as it once did to make a connection between my primitive dread and the reason behind it.

“If the Syndicate sees the Morgut as a way to provoke a war, wouldn’t Farwan loyalists feel much the same?”

Vel inclines his head. “At this time, all factions feel that unrest may strengthen their claim that their organization is best suited to govern during such difficult times.”

“So Farwan could eventually step up and say, ‘Yes, so we killed a few representatives . . . but look at the mess you’re in without us.’ And people would welcome them back with open arms.”

“It is a regrettable situation, but plausible.”

I shake my head fiercely. “No, that can’t happen. They can’t have Evelyn Dasad, after all she’s been through.”

Farwan might have some idea of what she was working on—and now they’ve got her under the pretext of sanctuary. Mary, are they subjecting her to dream therapy? No, they wouldn’t do that if she has valuable information or expertise locked in her brain. They don’t want to damage her.

“You seem to have a personal stake in this,” Vel observes.

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