Killbox (Sirantha Jax #4)

Chapter 16

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I acknowledge that with a quirk of my lips, pointless to deny it. “If she knows anything of value, we can’t afford to let anyone else have it.” Since the former bounty hunter regards me with a tilt of his head, his claws tapping a skeptical cadence, I add, “If nothing else, her work with nanites will prove a big help to Doc. He’s researching two different problems that could be solved via their application.”

“You do not need to convince me, Sirantha.”

That’s when I realize it; he knows my plan before I do. We’re going after her. Maybe she knows something that can help us, but if not, well, I simply feel a kinship to her because of what we’ve both suffered. If she’s not a prisoner, then security shouldn’t be an issue. We’ll slip in and get her out before anyone knows why we’re there. I doubt they’ve moved on her yet. They’ll want to build a sense of trust first.

Since she was a former Farwan employee, they think she’ll jump at the chance to come back. They don’t realize Science Corps is independent now. She doesn’t have to take orders on how she goes about her research anymore, and that kind of autonomy is fiercely addictive. Mary knows, I wouldn’t want anyone telling me where to jump.

“Which ship do you wish to commandeer?”

I consider that. March can’t be spared from his work here. He’s the only one who sees the big picture, who knows what we need to do. He’s been studying old vids until his eyes look bruised from lack of sleep, assembling the Armada structure piece by piece. In addition, he needs to be here to come to terms with the smugglers, and more ships arrive every day. A certain amount of chaos is conducive to doing business; utter anarchy like we have now really eats into the profit margins.

“It’ll have to be Hon’s . . . and his crew,” I say with some regret. “They’ve been training longest. The others have work to do here. But this will be a good dry run, best if we see how far we can trust him in a less-than-dire situation. A smaller ship will draw less comment on Perlas, too. The Triumph is far too memorable.”

“Prudent,” he commends. “But I do not envy you the task of explaining this mission to the commander.”

I wince at his intentional emphasis on rank. “Can I rely on you to talk to Hon if I do the same with March?”

His faceted eyes meet mine in a cant of his head that once looked peculiar. “Sirantha, you may rely on me for anything.”

Warmth surges through me as I push to my feet. “I’ll let you take care of that. I want to leave as soon as Hon can ready the ship. Wish me luck.”

“You will not need it,” he says gravely.

Before going to see March, I stop at the comm array. Something about Evelyn’s message has been bothering me. Surge isn’t anywhere to be seen, but I remember how to queue up the vid. I watch it twice more before I put my finger on it. Because quality was poor, and there was interference, I didn’t notice the first time. But in the background . . . I spot what could be a Morgut. Watching her. I see only its reflection in her wardrober, blurred and damaged. But unquestionably, something is there.

“Constance, can you clean this up?” I touch the screen where I want her to work on the image.

“Will make the attempt, Sirantha Jax. No guarantee of success.”

A few minutes later, I have the proof I need. It’s a monster in her quarters. Why was it just watching her record? That makes no sense; I’ve never known them not to attack. To them, we are meat, nothing more. But Evelyn had stayed its hand, so to speak. Does that mean she’s the reason they have been targeting Science Corps vessels, specifically looking for her? What the hell does she know?

But she was cleverer than they gave her credit for—somehow she slipped away from them, then hid in a seemingly dead pod. We have got to get this woman before anyone else does. I call March to the comm room and reveal my findings, then explain why I think we need to make a rescue run.

He puts up a brief fight. “This is no different than my wanting to go look for my nephew.”

At that I shake my head. “He’s a child, and we don’t know where he is. That’s a waste of time and effort better served elsewhere right now. It’s wholly personal. Evelyn Dasad is a resource we can’t afford to have fall into other hands. Do you want Farwan perfecting that technology to use against us? The Morgut would be even worse. Imagine fighting them, improved by rapid nanite healing.”

“Checkmate. You talk like a commander, Jax. Want my job?”

“Not for the all the choclaste in this sector,” I reply with genuine horror. “I don’t juggle nearly as well as you. Plus, I can’t make the scary face.”

He pulls his hard face into austere lines, his eyes like chips of amber. “This one?”

“Yep.” I don’t have to fake a shiver. “That’s it. Keeps everyone in line.”

“Everyone except you,” he mutters. “You realize we’re twenty-one days from a beacon, which is why we set up here in the first place. It’s going to take you a long time to get there and—”

“Why?” I cut in.

March raises a brow. “Why what?”

“Why does it have to take so long to jump?”

By his expression, he thinks I’ve lost my mind. “Because it doesn’t work that way. The phase drive only works in certain zones, you know that, and—”

“The first thing we learn is that there is no distance in grimspace, as relates to coordinates in straight space,” I counter.

So why can’t the phase drive power up anywhere and tap a beacon?

“Evelyn Dasad said in her message: ‘The Morgut use the beacons with more precision than we can muster. This is not a known jump zone.’ Constance, what information can you find on Morgut phase-drive technology?”

“Searching, Sirantha Jax.” Several moments pass, then she says, “I can find nothing regarding recovered Morgut vessels. I can, however, offer information on their physiology. After the attack on Emry, the Conglomerate cleanup crew dissected several corpses in an attempt to devise more effective weapons to combat them.”

That strikes a chord. “Emry was an emergency station before.” I push to my feet, pacing as I think. March watches me, seeing I’m onto something, but he isn’t sure where I’m going with this. Neither am I. “That means they probably did a lot of monitoring of signals for distress calls. Constance, were there feeds from outside the station?”

A brief pause, and then: “Affirmative, Sirantha Jax.”

“Is there anything prior to the attack?”

She scans. Then a grainy image comes up on the comm screen. Before our eyes, the Morgut ship just appears at the edge of sensor range. No human vessel could do that—and no wonder they weren’t detected hauling straight space before they hit Emry.

I meet March’s worried gaze. He’s come to stand beside me, face taut with the implications. “This means they can jump from anywhere, which is why they have no trouble hitting out-of-the-way outposts.”

He looks horrified. “Places we think are safe because they aren’t near a known jump zone. That means they can strike anywhere.”

“We have to learn how, too. Now. Yesterday would be better.” I’m brooking no argument, already on the move. I hear him protesting behind me, talking about safety, but no place in the galaxy is safe, not anymore.

“Dina!” I shout, tearing through the station at a dead run. “Dina!”

“What?” the mechanic demands in irritation, coming out of the lounge.

“We have work to do.”

CHAPTER 18

I’m a little sick at the thought of this. It’s been two weeks, and Dina has been crunching theoretical numbers with two other mechanics: Hobson from the Dauntless and the woman from the Dark Tide. I showed them the Morgut jump to Emry, then demanded they improve our phase drive, something humans have never been able to do. Constance has been helping.

I think we got limited technology from the ancients. There must be better models out there somewhere if the Morgut have it.

And now it’s time to put all our effort to the test. I don’t want Hon inside of me. As always my stomach churns at the idea of taking a new pilot. At least this time I haven’t lost the old.

But the fighting’s all done. March is furious with me, furious that I’m risking myself like this, and furious that I’m making the jump with Hon. But he’s more commander than lover right now, and he knows I’m doing the right thing, the only thing. The delay chafes me, and makes me worry that someone else may have snapped up Evelyn Dasad in the meantime. We all feel that sending a message to inquire would alarm her if she’s still hiding on what used to be Perlas Station. Better to go and plead our case in person.

“I don’t know if this is a good idea,” Dina says, as I settle into the nav chair. Mary, it’s been a long time, and I fight a moan at the awareness I’ll soon be back in grimspace. “We made the mods, but it’s wholly untested. You could fry your brain.”

“And mine,” Hon mutters.

“If you’re afraid, there are other pilots on station,” I tell him, thinking of Hit.

“Like I’m gonna trust ’em with my ship.”

And the fact is, we don’t trust any of the other smugglers enough to run this mission with them. Even with Hon, it’s not a sure thing, but we’re banking he has some loyalty, and that he won’t decide to sell Evelyn Dasad—and her secrets—to the highest bidder. As to that, I’ll know as soon as he jacks in.

March leans down to kiss me, his mouth fierce on mine. Come back, he commands silently. Come back to me.

I’ll do my best. I love you.

His answer comes in the form of a feeling so profound I have no name for it. Love dwarfs it because it’s longing, need, desire, heat, and a complex sense of belonging coiled around one frail, strong person. Me. It brings tears to my eyes, then . . . he withdraws. I’m going to be alone in my head for the foreseeable future, and I miss him already.

“That’s it,” Hon says. “If you not a pilot or a jumper, get outta my cockpit.”

Of our people, only Dina and Vel are coming with us. We may need the Ithtorian’s deft touch with technology on station, and Dina is the only who can monitor what she did with the phase drive. Please, let this work.

Hon sits ready for clearance—when he hears that March has left the vessel, he starts the cross-check. He goes about it differently than March or Kai, but I can see he knows what he’s doing. His cockpit is well-appointed and clean; the nav computer looks to be the latest model. Sweet; I’ve never jumped with one of these.

While we wait, I examine the coordinates in straight space. For what I want to do, no known jump site will do.

Five minutes later, Surge tells us, “You’re clear, dock five. Mary guide you on.”

There’s reassurance in the way Hon maneuvers us out of the bay, smooth as s-silk. Once we’ve put some distance between the station and us, he turns to me. “Usually I’d say settle in for a long haul now, but you think you can do this another way?”

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