Killbox (Sirantha Jax #4)

Chapter 8

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“Anything is possible.” I can tell from the movement of his claws, he finds my thought processes random and disorderly. This isn’t going anywhere, at least not now. I don’t have enough information to ask the right questions.

“What about Psi-Corp?” I ask. “What’s their status?”

More tapping. I wait and sip my choclaste with poorly concealed impatience.

Eventually he says, “The Conglomerate assumed control of the facility the day after we revealed the Farwan conspiracy. As of now, training proceeds on schedule, though the Conglomerate has hired independent auditors to review processes put in place by Farwan.”

That’s good, at least. I’m happy to hear we don’t have a legion of half-trained Psi running around out there. The unleashed scientists are disturbing enough.

“None of this helps us afford a militia and reinstate regular patrols, does it?”

“No.” He considers the problem at length while I finish my drink. “It would seem to make sense to choose one raiding faction and deputize them.”

I think I see where he’s going with this. “Forge an alliance and formalize their presence? We could ask them to go after other raiders and keep what they take.”

“When you deal with criminals,” Vel points out, “there is considerable risk of betrayal.”

“That’s a problem. So how would we make them conform to the agreement?”

Right now it’s all just speculation anyway. First we would need to determine the least bloodthirsty faction, then we’d have to make contact. Worrying about their breaking the deal seems futile since we’re so far from that point.

Vel lifts his shoulders. “One problem at a time, Sirantha.”

He’s right. This is too big for us alone. Thankfully, we have official sanction to solve the problem however we see fit—and Conglomerate backing to make it happen.

“Maybe we should focus on something we can deal with for right now.”

“Like finding out where those kids belong?” March drops down on the other side of me, looking remarkably cheerful. “I’ve been talking to Surge about them. Long story short, he’s bounced scans of them to a database that monitors missing children. Most of them were able to tell us where they came from, so that’ll help.”

I smile. “Thanks. Glad to hear it.” Quickly I fill him in about how the Morgut seem to be targeting science vessels.

His face darkens. “I can’t think of any circumstances in which that could be good.”

“That’s pretty much what we said. So what’s the plan?”

“We need credits, which the Conglomerate is willing to provide—to a certain point. The budget Tarn forwarded doesn’t leave me room to do a lot of shopping. With what he’s willing to spend, I’ll be lucky to make payroll. That doesn’t cover ships,” March adds quietly. “There’s no easy way to make this happen. So far, there is no plan. I know what we need, but I’m not sure how to get us there.” He pauses, gauging my expression, I think. “But . . . my first instinct is to start raiding the pirates. Hit them where it hurts.”

I don’t love the idea, but I don’t discount it out of hand. “If we’re going to do that, we need a home base other than Emry. It doesn’t make sense to work from here. We need something closer to the high-traffic beacons.”

“Agreed,” March says. Then he turns to Vel. “Any ideas?”

“On how best to embark upon a career in piracy?”

March grins at him. “Technically, I think we’d be privateers. We have the equivalent of a letter of marque. Otherwise . . . in a word: Yes.”

The three of us talk strategy for a while, and then it’s time to return to the comm room and give the Chancellor his answer. Without further discussion, March leans forward and taps the terminal. His message to Tarn is as terse as mine. “I’m in.”

CHAPTER 9

Once we bounce the message, a celebratory feeling swells among us. The comm room is crowded again, but the mood lightens. I raise my brows at March. “This calls for a party, don’t you think, Commander?”

With the promise of action ahead, I don’t let the grim memories of Emry Station get to me again. Maybe we can replace them. Kora’s gone a fair ways toward that with redecorating. Even the walls in here are no longer plain gray metal. A quote comes to me; I can’t remember the source: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die. Yeah, that. Exactly. After Ithiss-Tor, we need to burn off steam.

March grins at me. “Already wasting Conglomerate resources? Don’t make me dock your pay.”

I widen my eyes at him. “I get paid? Since when?” But that reminds me. “Hey, Tarn promised to recover my assets if I did that job for him. So where are my credits?”

Vel’s already at work on his handheld. I don’t know my account numbers by heart, but that only slows him down by a few seconds. By the twitch of his mandibles, he actually seems surprised when he glances up. “They’ve been restored to your account, Sirantha.”

He kept his word? Well, I’ll be damned. That bodes well.

“I’m not broke anymore?”

In answer, Vel shows me the machine, which gives me the balance. Everything I had, plus what I can only assume is a performance bonus. It’s not a fortune, but I’m no longer destitute. That’s a fabulous feeling.

“You said something about a party?” Hit prompts.

“Can you two handle it?” I ask.

“It was your idea,” Dina grumbles. “And you want us to do all the work?”

I smirk. “Yes.”

“Come on.” Hit tugs on her hand. “It’ll be fun. We could all use the chance to cut loose before we jump into this with both feet.”

She’s right about that. And a party will show the crew we appreciate them. Call it an exercise in morale building. Besides, the old Jax is anxious to drink and dance. I haven’t let her have any fun in months.

Dina nudges March with her shoulder. “This cleared with you, Commander?” She gives the last word a subtly mocking stress, but it’s affectionate.

He nods, and the other two women head out to prepare for the night’s festivities. Vel excuses himself shortly thereafter. I think he senses when March and I need to talk; Vel and I share a connection, too, though it’s different, nothing I could articulate. Once we’re alone, March turns to me, his face raw with worry. There’s certain magic in that; he won’t show this look to anyone else. To the rest of the crew, he’s captain, commander, savior, or whatever title they’ve hung on him.

He won’t let himself be vulnerable with anyone else.

“It’s just so big,” he says quietly. “I thought the Academy was too much for me to handle . . . and look how that turned out.”

I’m torn between the urge to smack him and the urge to curl up on his lap and tell him everything will be okay. Since I’m not really the nurturing sort, I offer a thump on the shoulder as a compromise.

“Don’t be an idiot.”

He blinks. Clearly he was expecting something else.

“I’m training Argus,” I remind him. “It’s not a genetically engineered race, or a new training academy, but it’s a beginning. It might even be better than an academy. Training jumpers on ships makes sense. If it catches on, we could offer an on-the-job training program as part of the incentive package for people who volunteer.” Seeing his expression lighten a touch, I go on. “And okay, so we haven’t fixed the burnout problem, but you know that with Doc it’s just a matter of time. Maybe instead of breeding a hybrid species, he could do something with the jumpers we already have.”

“Tweak their DNA, you mean.”

I nod. “Maybe. Maybe he can use me for that. I don’t mind donating samples as long as he doesn’t dissect my whole brain.” I offer a fleeting smile. “Though some might argue the fact, I still need that.”

“You always put things in perspective for me. Just when I start feeling like we haven’t accomplished anything—”

“How can you ever feel like that?” I’m honestly astonished. “Since I’ve known you, we’ve toppled the order of the universe, set Gunnar-Dahlgren as the undisputed leadership of Lachion, and forged an alliance with Ithiss-Tor. Even if Emry Station blows up right now, we’d still go down in history.”

Not that I give a shit about that, but March does. Men always want to be remembered whereas women realize that requires being dead.

I continue. “And now we’re going to start trying to set things back on their axis.”

“I wish you hadn’t said ‘axis.’ ” But he’s smiling faintly.

I refuse to be derailed. “One good war deserves another, right? We’ll slap some human raiders back in line, recruit the rest, and see what we can do about the rest of the galaxy as we get there.”

“That’s my first step,” he says, nodding. “I’ll take care of that right now.”

As I watch, bemused, he sends out a message on a smugglers’ channel, telling them he can offer profit and amnesty to any interested captain. They’re to report to Emry Station for more information.

“And now we wait for our ships to come in?” There’s so much to do, so much to organize. The endeavor seems impossible when you examine it from a distance. So we’ll just take it step by step.

“No.” He snags me around the waist and kisses me. “Now we celebrate.”

CHAPTER 10

Hit and Dina really know how to throw a party.

By the time I arrive, they’ve bedecked the lounge with extra lights left over from station rehab. Music comes piping in through the comm system, and everyone looks to be having a great time. March is already there, waiting, but I’ve been working with Argus, and we lost track of time.

I tilt my head in wry acknowledgment, as he’d predicted that would happen. Argus pauses in the midst of scoping out his crewmates; he has his eye on a petite blonde who works with Dina. “You think I’m in trouble?”

“Nah. It’s not your fault. Enjoy the party . . . but not too much. We’ll be back to it first thing in the morning.”

Wisely, Argus excuses himself as March claims me and leads me onto the dance floor. His eyes are laughing. “Surprise.”

“You didn’t dance with me on Hon’s Kingdom.”

“I wasn’t ready to call you mine then.” He spins me as the music picks up.

I arch a brow. “You are now?”

Once, I would have protested the verbiage. Now I know there are ways to belong to someone that don’t take anything away. A relationship shouldn’t impose limits—and if it does, then it’s wrong. A lover should help you exceed your potential, not clip your wings. Pity I didn’t know that when I married Simon. I spare a fleeting thought to wonder what became of him.

“You know the answer to that.” In March, the dark is only ever a breath away, and for a moment, something sharp and feral stares out of his eyes. His gaze touches my throat.

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