Killbox (Sirantha Jax #4)

Chapter 6

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He catches my expression, and I feel the telltale warmth that says he’s reading me. I don’t even mind anymore. Once you get used to it, there’s a certain comfort in not having to explain yourself.

“Don’t,” he says quietly. “I’m no hero.”

I smile. He really has no idea.

“You are to them.”

What is it they say? History is writ by the victors, and in the legends of Lachion, March will be known as their crown prince, a chieftain who never ruled and who will come again in times of need, or perhaps simply the savior that came from the skies. It’s a romantic fable. Even now I can see its genesis in the admiring eyes of young men who strive to walk like him.

His arms go around me, and though we have things to do, I stand quiet while he sinks his hands into my hair. I’ve learned what some people never do—not to take for granted what I have, while I still have it. I came within a whisper’s breath of losing him, so if he wants to hide his face against my head to cover his embarrassment, I’ll let him.

I feel his heart thumping steadily against mine. The sounds aren’t quite in rhythm. His comes slow and steady while mine has a funny little skip every fifth beat. I could probably ask Doc what that means, but I don’t need to go looking for trouble when I already have a heaping helping on my plate.

March raises his head, and his eyes search mine for a long moment. His lips brush mine in a prelude to sweeter things, but we both know we have to belay the urge to retreat to our cabin for a week. Our cabin.

Simply thinking it sends a little ripple of pleasure through me. He’s mine again. Maybe even more mine than he was before because I certainly did my best to emblazon myself into him so deeply he’ll never be free. Was that wrong, I wonder?

“I don’t mind,” he says softly.

I grin. “You wouldn’t. You’ve been trying to tie me down since the minute you set eyes on me.”

“Not quite,” he answers. “Close. I think from when you first thought about dropping a giant rock on me.” He traces the pattern on my throat and shakes his head. “If anybody else had done this to you, I’d be asking you to get it lasered off.”

On Ithiss-Tor, Vel put a tattoo around my throat as camouflage for marks March left during one of his nightmares. If I’d shown up to a council meeting so damaged, they would’ve taken it as a sign of weakness, and it would have hurt my status. From what other Ithtorians said, I think the pattern and its placement might have some deeper meaning, but I never asked Vel what it signifies. I figured he’d tell me if he wanted me to know.

“Just as well you’re not asking. I wouldn’t do it. Call the others?”

With a nod, he does.

Our crew meets us at the door. My gaze touches on them one by one: Hit in her dark beauty, with Dina pale as the moon; Doc, stocky and broad enough to bear any burden, with red-haired Rose by his side. Vel stands slightly apart, listening to them talk, but I can tell he’s attentive.

As we exchange greetings and make ready to head on station, Argus comes down the hall toward us. His stride slows as if he’s afraid of presuming too much. I don’t think for a minute he intended to join us. I think he just wants to explore the station. He’s a navigator to the bone. Since I understand him so well, I smile, seeing myself in him.

“You ready?” I ask him.

March raises a brow. It’s not sexual jealousy. He’s secure enough for that. Instead he’s curious at why I’ve included the kid. Argus hasn’t seen enough of the universe to be useful yet, and he’s not a trained jumper, so strategic deployment is out.

I shrug. He’s my apprentice. That makes him one of us. I can’t offer more explanation than that, but it seems right that he attend the meeting with us. My gut feeling’s apparently enough.

“Let’s move out,” March says.

In an hour with Surge, we’ll get more straight talk about galactic affairs than we would in a year of working for Tarn. Placed at Emry, Surge and Kora have been monitoring the bounce satellites that cover the region. At this point, they know what’s been going on close to New Terra better than the Conglomerate.

Of course, that’s not saying much.

I’m braced for the worst. We were here; we saw the evidence of Morgut passage. But braced isn’t the same thing as prepared. You can never be prepared for that.

With the exception of those looking after the kids, the rest of the crew will enjoy some time off, doing whatever they damn well please. As for us, we’ll be planning for war.

CHAPTER 7

The station has been rehabbed from top to bottom.

As we pass through the corridors, the last trace of my unease uncoils. Though it’s not a rational fear, and I know Emry has been well guarded by Surge’s family and the skeleton crew provided by the Conglomerate, I can’t help but remember echoes of horror. Surge didn’t see the worst of it, so it’s probably not as bad for him. The former merc ran with March once; he’s a sturdy man with a rough face and a shock of curly hair.

He greets us in the mess hall, a large open space filled with tables and chairs. Even the gunmetal walls have been enlivened with swaths of color, Kora’s doing no doubt. She’s taken liberties that Farwan would never have permitted. The result is cheerful and chaotic, much like the Rodeisian female herself. She bares her teeth at us in a smile, but her incisors are blunt. For all their size, her people are herbivores, slow and peaceful, which makes the grievous offense Ambassador Fitzwilliam gave their empress so many years ago that much more inexcusable. You just don’t visit a larger-than-human race and open with a fat joke, then compound it with comparisons to Old Terran livestock. As I understand it, they objected more to his denigrating their apparent intelligence.

Kora bears her daughter, Sirina, in one arm. The baby has grown since we saw her last. Now she can propel herself around; she’s a fat little cherub with tufts of fur on her head. We exchange hugs as if this were a family reunion—and as Dina and I stand as godmothers to her child, perhaps it is. When I lean over to accept a one-armed embrace from Kora, Sirina snags her fingers in my hair and pulls, hard.

“Siri!” her mother chides, disentangling.

Ah. The unexpectedness of it blindsides me. I’m not prepared for the pain, and it tears through my chest like a metal hook. The last baby I had charge of didn’t end up so well. Quite simply, Sirina is a vivid reminder of my failure with Baby-Z, the lizardling who died on Hon’s Kingdom. March puts his hand on my shoulder, knowing without being told, and I take some comfort in that. I school my features to something bland and quiet. Conversation washes over me, blurring into one vague noise, until:

“We should take the lift up,” Surge says. “There are things you need to hear.”

Messages, most likely. And hearing them spoken will offer more impact and insight than if he tries to sum things up for us.

March nods, answering for all of us. Once, that irked me to no end. Now I simply appreciate that he is willing. “Lead on.”

We follow Surge en masse to the second deck, where he leads us to the communications center. Display screens line the walls, leaving one big console in the middle as the control. It’s a tight fit, standing room only, but nobody offers to step out. We’re all in this; we all have a stake.

“Play back relay 111647, second shift,” Surge tells the computer.

“Accessing.”

An electronic crackle slides from the terminal, then a grainy image pops up. Through the static and interference I can’t make out much more than a man’s face. It looks as though he’s injured, but the image is of such poor quality I can’t be sure.

“This is the Perseus Queen, a cargo vessel out of New Terra, en route to Venice Minor. Our shields cannot hold. We are under attack and request immediate assistance. We have no weapons on board. I repeat—”

The message ends there.

“By the time New Terra got this, they were toast,” Dina says into the silence.

Nobody looks at me, but I know what they’re thinking. Farwan’s fall left a huge gap out here. The Conglomerate doesn’t have the ships or resources to patrol and respond to cries for help as efficiently as Farwan did. The loss of this ship—and countless others—can be tracked back to me. I made the choice to take them down because they went too far in murdering a whole shipful of ambassadors, diplomats, and council representatives. My lover also died in that Farwan-engineered crash, and I couldn’t let the injustice stand, but like all major decisions, this one has had far-reaching effects.

“Do we know who did this?” Doc asks.

“Any one of the usual suspects,” Surge answers. “Pirates, raiders, Syndicate, Farwan loyalists.”

“But not the Morgut,” Vel says. “They do not blow vessels up. They board them.”

A slow shudder works its way through me. I’m not sure I can stand to see the rest of this grim collection, but Surge has more for us. In the time we’ve been gone, he’s accrued an impressive collection of bounced misery and woe.

Another plea fills the screen. The picture is slightly better this time, so I can see the young woman with the strong jaw and short, fair hair. She isn’t pretty. Most people would call her masculine. Her eyes are dark, her mouth compressed into a thin white line. She gazes at us, probably through the veil of death, determined to deliver her message.

“The captain is gone,” she says quietly. “I am the only officer left. This is Second Lieutenant Evelyn Dasad of the Science Corps, sending this as a record. At 2200 hours, a Morgut vessel came through.” The steadiness of her voice drives the horror home, more than if she wept or sobbed. There is acceptance in the face of Evelyn Dasad, too deep for grief. “They use the beacons with more precision than we can muster. This is not a known jump zone. A brief battle ensued, and our vessel was rendered dead in space. The magnetic tow cables hit our hull at 2245. It is 2304, and they are coming for me. Mary have mercy on us all.”

The message shows Evelyn reaching for her weapon, then she turns off the feed. I can hardly breathe for the ache in my throat. I fight the need to weep, which seems absurd, given that I don’t know this woman. So many personal losses, and I rarely cried, but this one is too much.

“Do you think she killed herself?” Rose asks in a small voice.

Doc’s lover has rarely been off Lachion. She has never seen the Morgut. Her terrors had been limited to what one planet offered. I don’t know if he’s done her a kindness in giving her the universe, but I do know she wouldn’t have let him fly away without her again. I understand that completely.

Kora juggles Sirina against her shoulder. Her broad face is impassive. Doubtless she has heard these messages many times, and she’s already felt everything she can feel. There comes a point when numbness is all you have left.

“No,” Vel answers. “I believe she went down fighting. It has been my experience that some human females do not give up, even when the situation seems beyond desperate and devoid of all hope.”

March flicks a look at me, smiling. “Well said.”

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