Killbox (Sirantha Jax #4)

Chapter 7

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I turn to Vel. “See what you can find out about Evelyn and her ship. Official records, unofficial, whatever you can dig up.”

“As soon as we are finished here,” he answers.

I muster my strength, then address Surge. “Is there more?”

There is. So many cries for help went unanswered. Sometimes they tell us it’s a Syndicate hijacking before the screaming starts. In other bounces, we hear nothing but cries of anguish and despair. Final tally: twenty ships in this sector alone.

By the time we’re done, I feel battered. Nobody else looks any better than I feel. Rose cries silently against Doc’s shoulder when Surge powers the terminal down. The room feels close and warm, full of salty sweat and tears, and silence burns like a brand.

Nobody has the answers. I don’t even know where to begin. The space between tier worlds is impossibly vast. We need well-armored ships with powerful weapons and trained crews to man them. We need battle-seasoned pilots and combat jumpers who know how to handle themselves.

There haven’t been any combat jumpers since the Axis Wars.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so sorry that I didn’t just go down easy like Farwan wanted. Whatever their flaws—and they were legion—they did keep the star lanes safe. Now it’s a giant free-for-all, and the body count just keeps piling up.

“Things are seriously fragged up,” Hit says at last.

That prods a smile out of me.

“They sure are,” Surge says. “And it’s breaking my heart to listen to this shit without being able to do anything about it.”

March would be pacing if there were room. Since there isn’t, he stirs beside me restively. “We need a militia to replace Farwan’s patrols, one with access to the emergency sats, so we could relay distress calls, allowing the closest vessel to respond.”

I nod. “That’s how Farwan did it. And they destroyed all enemy vessels, even if they couldn’t save the beleaguered ship. They were big on object lessons.”

“They’d chase you to the ends of the earth,” Dina mutters.

I get the feeling she has some personal experience with that.

“An undertaking like that would require extensive capital,” Vel points out.

Surge glances at him. “You got a spare fortune lying around?”

The former bounty hunter inclines his head. “As it happens, I do. But even so, it would not be sufficient for this cause.”

“No kidding.” Argus speaks for the first time. “Ships cost a sweet bundle, and that’s just one good one. For a whole armada . . .” He trails off like he can’t, imagine the outlay.

To be honest, I can’t, either.

Before Vel can answer, Surge taps the comm array and glances over at me. “Jax, you just got a message from Chancellor Tarn. They forwarded it from the ship.”

I shrug. “I don’t care. I don’t work for him anymore.”

Hit says, “Not as an ambassador. But . . . you might want to keep your options open.”

I really don’t like the way they’re looking at me. This is how it begins. “Oh?”

“Maybe we should take a look.” March glances at Surge. “Can you play it for us?”

“Got it queued up already.”

“What the hell,” I say. “Let’s see what he wants.”

CHAPTER 8

“Ms. Jax, I accept your resignation.” Suni Tarn has surprised me once again. His image on the terminal looks composed, not insulted. Perhaps he is one of the rare politicians who has more sense than ego. “Given your personality, I would not have employed you as an ambassador had there been any other viable alternative at the time. Nonetheless, you performed well, and the Conglomerate is grateful.”

He pauses, as if trying to find the words.

“Oh, yeah?” I mutter. “Then why do I feel you’re buttering me up for something?”

“Because he is?” Dina offers.

I motion her to silence as Tarn goes on. “Though I hesitate to ask, we could use your help again.”

I sigh. “Here it comes. What now?”

“I am given to understand that your partner is a former mercenary with a wide web of contacts,” Tarn says directly. “The Conglomerate needs to build a fleet of starships capable of offering protection to tier worlds, or everything we have accomplished to date will be for nothing. Mr. March, the remainder of this message is for you.”

I sit back, relieved and pleased. For once, I’m not on the hook, forced into a Hobson’s choice. Like Dina and Hit, I can just listen.

“We would confer upon you the title of commander and put you in charge of building said armada. As our resources are not unlimited and time is of the essence, we will not cavil if you must use creative methods. Please discuss the matter and use my private code for urgent communications. I wish to be able to report back to the representatives that I am actively pursuing a solution.”

From what I can see, this is pure win for us. No more operating in the gray areas. By their expressions, Dina and Hit agree. The mechanic is glowing, and her lover looks almost as excited.

“They’re offering you carte blanche,” Dina says. “You’ll be able to do almost anything you want. Confiscate ships in port for running contraband and turn them over to our people. You’ll be able to build the Conglomerate fleet from the ground up.”

Put that way, it sounds thrilling as hell.

“Why March?” I wonder aloud. “Doesn’t Tarn know any other soldiers?”

“Doubt it,” Hit answers. “There hasn’t been a standing army for centuries. Everything filtered through Farwan. The only soldiers left are those who fight in private wars, and most of them die on Nicu Tertius or they’re still there.”

It’s true. Besides Surge’s salvage crew, I haven’t met a lot of mercs who retired or moved on to other things. March has been running his own ship like clockwork for several turns, and despite many entanglements with Farwan, they never managed to haul him in. His credentials for executing this endeavor sound promising to me. For Tarn, he has to seem like the last chance to make the center hold.

I glance at him. March has been oddly quiet, his dark face thoughtful. He’s staring at the screen, gone blank now. I touch him on the shoulder.

“What do you think?”

“I’d be dumb to turn it down,” he says briskly. “It worries me a little to accept work with the establishment, but maybe that’s suspicion left over from Farwan’s regime. I want what will save lives, and if I can use the Conglomerate, if I can create some of the policies myself, I may be best placed with them.”

“But you’re not sure.”

His breath puffs out. “No. I’ll have a hell of a lot more people to worry about than just those on my ship. I don’t know if I want that much weight, but I don’t think I can walk away from it, either.”

Vel has been listening silently, but at that, he inclines his head. “It is good that you recognize the opportunity does not come without its share of thorns.”

March shakes his head wryly. “No free lunch, isn’t that what they say?”

“Speaking of which”—I push to my feet—“I could eat.”

March chooses to stay and talk with Surge, while everyone else takes a break. We disperse from fruitless brain-storming, and I sit by myself in the mess hall, nursing a cup of hot choclaste. The room is big and empty, except for me. Overhead, the lights give a faint hum.

I like Kora’s murals. They’re abstract, but they brighten up the endless gray. You can look at only so much neutral without feeling your mood start to drop in answer. Farwan officials would’ve had a fit.

I can see the faint reflection of my face in the silvered tabletop. My features look monstrous, elongated, with great hollows where my eyes should be. The surface also shows me the glimmer of movement over my left shoulder.

I greet Vel without turning. “You discovered something?”

He rounds the table and sits down beside me, then places his handheld on the table. “Evelyn Dasad worked for the Science Corps. Since Farwan’s fall, they operate unaffected by the collapse. They had their own budget and financial officers, so they have continued their research. Recently, they filed with the Conglomerate to be recognized as a non-profit, nonpolitical organization.”

“How long did she work for them?”

“Eleven years, four months, and twenty-three days.” It seems he anticipated my question.

But then, he knew I wanted to learn more about her. Her face, as she leans over to turn off the terminal, haunts me. Such resolution there, such finality. I don’t know if I could offer such composure in the face of death.

“What did she study?”

“She specialized in biomechanics,” he tells me.

“Like . . . cybernetics? Or ways to improve the fusion of man and machine?”

“Both. She was instrumental in the perfection of nanite technology.” He pauses, reading on in the file, then continues: “Her IQ was 162. She painted in her spare time. And she liked choclaste almost as much as you do.”

Such bare-bones facts to sum up a woman’s life. I put my fascination with Evelyn Dasad aside for the moment. There are other lines of inquiry to pursue.

“How many ships has the Science Corps lost in the last month?”

He didn’t anticipate that one, so he has to tap on the handheld a few times. “Three.”

My fingertips drum lightly on the table. It’s not an alarming number, so why am I alarmed? What would the Morgut be doing with human scientists, besides eating them?

“How many to slavers or pirates?”

Vel shakes his head. “The Morgut took all three vessels.”

“There’s some connection we’re not seeing.”

“That is almost always the case.”

I offer a wry half smile in acknowledging the point. “Let’s go at this from another angle, then. What was Dasad’s ship working on? What were they doing in this sector?”

It’s possible that I have a hold of the wrong end of the stick. Maybe the Morgut were hungry, and the Science Corps ship was there. But I don’t think so. From what I’ve seen and heard, they prefer to prey on outposts, not ships. Hole up somewhere and wait for more prey to come to them. If times are tough, and they’re starving, they do board, of course, but it’s not their preferred method.

A few moments pass while Vel searches for information. At last he comes up with a curious expression, mandible flexing. “It is classified.”

I prop my chin on my hand. “Who would have the power to do that? Science Corps is autonomous now, accountable to no one.”

At least until their credits run out. Let me tell you—there’s a scary thought. Scientists running amok in the galaxy, unfettered by rules, regulations, or bureaucracy.

Vel looks uneasy—and uncertain with it. “I do not know.”

If Dasad specialized in biomechanics . . .

“Could it have anything to do with wetware?”

The Morgut have to jack in, just as we do, to navigate grimspace. That requires particular biomechanical technology. Unlike us, they don’t need both a navigator and a pilot. Their physiology is such that they can split their vision to do two things at once.

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