Samantha, Decker, and the crew of the Matilda have finished their business on Mentaryd, even if none really know what the other were up to.
Manu glared across the counter at JR, who was leaning back in a creaking swivel chair. “That’s not what we agreed to,” he said, shaking his head at JR, who Manu had found out wasn’t a junior or senior at all.
“Hey, I can’t help the state of that bucket you fly. Thing should have been scrapped twenty years ago. You told me you knew your list of parts, but we used almost twice that,” JR said, mouth hidden behind a waterfall of mustache, as he folded his thick arms across his thick chest, somehow settling further into the creaking chair.
Manu grimaced. JR wasn’t wrong. The Matilda had seen better days. The fact that it could be repaired at all was a miracle in itself.
Manu placed his hands on the counter. “And that’s why we’re paying your premium. We already added your extra fees, bonus, tip, gratuity, and under-the-table kickback. You’re coming out on this way ahead.”
JR shrugged, guttural grunt reverberating from his chest. “The work is already done, and you had your guy out there, too. He kept asking for more parts, so why don’t you get him to cover it. I mean, I can have my guys go undo it all if you want, but that’ll cost you more.”
Manu sighed, slow and deep. This wasn’t a fight he was going to win. Not alone, at least. This sort of negotiation was more of Decker’s speciality. Even Eliza’s unique brand of intimidation would have been useful. JR knew he had Manu backed into a corner. Even with Samantha’s donated—stolen—Imperium credits, each one they spent today was one they’d come up short tomorrow. And Manu knew there would be something else to pay for later.
“Hey, look, JR, you think we’re paying you so well because we’re loaded with credits? It’s the opposite. We’re paying you because we’re broke and got no other options. You already squeezed us on the way in. You gotta do it on the way out too?”
“Costs what it costs. Those older ships,” JR clicked his tongue making his mustache bounce, “there’s a lot of specialized knowledge needed to work in that mess of mechanical guts. You’re lucky my man spends half his time in the salvage yards and knows his way around a scrap-heap like yours.” The surly shop owner pointed a stubby finger toward the window where the Matilda and another docked ship were visible, mouth twisting into a sneer. “You want your ship released, you pay. Otherwise, I got the right to impound it. Ask the owner of that yacht out there what happens when you can’t pay.”
Another fair point. Manu looked out the large windows that lined the walls of JR’s repair docks. The Matilda was clamped and tethered to one of the dozens of jutting spurs that radiated out from this end of Black-Sky Station. The ship’s starboard secondary stabilizer nacelle was repaired, patchwork plating welded into place. It wasn’t a pretty repair, especially compared to the Matilda’s neighbor. In the next dry dock over was a sleek, white-and-gray yacht, clamped into place. The yacht’s rear power plant hatch was removed, exposing its modern innards. The rest of the ship was a shining hull of gently-rolling, glistening white metal curves. It was something Manu imagined a minor head of state or corporate executive would use. Next to it, the Matilda looked positively ancient.
At that moment, the thud of heavy footfalls reverberated up through Manu’s boots. Backup had finally arrived.
“Hey Manu, all set,” Heavy bellowed as he ducked through the office doorway. “Everything is packed up, and I had Selli run a total restart on all core systems. No sparks or vapors. There were a few clunks and some thumps, but on a ship like this, a little knock-around is nothing to worry about. We have air, grav, and working engines. We are ready to fly.”
Looking up to the new conversational participant, JR pushed his creaking chair to its leaned-back limits. Heavy towered over even Manu’s above-average height, and likely weighed more than him and JR combined. The Matilda’s engineer, and former smashball lineman, looked like he could rip a hole in the station’s walls if he wanted. Maybe this impression could be of use. Manu looked to Heavy, sighing with deep, exaggerated disappointment.
Heavy dragged the back of his forearm against a sweating forehead, his choppy hair slick from the heat of the EV suit helmet. He gave Manu and JR a quizzical glance, putting his hands on his waist. “Uh, everything okay here?” Heavy asked.
“We’re just squaring up on costs. Seems things ran a little over,” Manu said, frowning sourly at JR.
JR unfolded his arms, some of the surliness replaced with a tinge of caution in the presence of this oversized customer; Manu hoped that JR wouldn’t realize that the big man was the crew’s peacemaker, not their enforcer.
Heavy ran one of his enormous hands through his hair. “Well, yeah, once we got in there, Edgar—that’s JRs guy, great helper—he and I saw that the bracket caps on all the vent flex couplers would need all new dampening girdles, and that half of the vertical transom flanges would need their distribution couplers re-torqued and re-aligned at both apexes.” Heavy chuckled, shaking his head. “Both apexes! I’m surprised we made it out of the last jump. Well, the parts supplier on the station didn’t have any, but Edgar and I, we got to talking. He’s a smashball fan, too. Even played a little when he was younger! I was telling him about my time with the–”
“Hey, Hev,” Manu interjected, forehead wrinkled in confusion. “Stick to what the rest of us can understand. The couplers?”
“Oh, right, yeah. Couplers. Edgar didn’t have any on-hand, but we were able to hit an after-hours salvage and scrounge up what we needed. Good helper, Edgar was.” Heavy winked and pumped his eyebrows twice. Manu’s jaw tightened—what had Heavy gotten up to?
JR snorted. “Sounds like we went above and beyond to get you flying again. That’s what we call service around here.”
“And service it was!” Heavy said, slapping his hand on JR’s counter, the surface shuddering from the blow. JR jumped. “Edgar was telling me you had a few cancelations and had a few empty docks, which is how he had the extra time to help out as much as he did. So, looks like it worked out for both of us.”
A sly smile creased Manu’s mouth. “You had empty docks? What happened to the rush job and bumping people to work us into the schedule?”
JR shrugged, face souring. “Eh, if not you, someone else would have pulled up. But it don’t matter. If you want those clamps released, pay your bill,” JR tapped his finger on the counter, sneering with amusement. “Otherwise, I’ll have to auction off your heap for scrap. Ain’t my fault you’re spending all this just to fix something that ain’t worth fixing.”
Manu took a step to the side, knowing what button JR had just unwittingly pushed.
“Hey!” Heavy barked, extending an arm across the counter and jabbing a finger into JR’s face. “You do not talk about the Matilda like that. You know what that ship has seen? We’ve taken fire from cruisers, fighters, surface artillery. Endured three days in an ion storm. Touched down on planets with five times normal gravity. She’s even weathered the outer edge of an antimatter detonation’s pulse radius! She might not be much to look at on the outside but she’s a survivor.”
Heavy’s voice echoed for a moment in the cramped repair shop’s office. JR gripped the armrests of his chair, a substantial gulp forcing his mustache to bounce as he stared up at Heavy’s scowling, reddened face.
Manu stepped to the counter, interjecting before Heavy had the chance to apologize for raising his voice. “We stick to the original deal. It’s plenty fair and you know it.” Manu slapped Heavy on the back. “Or, maybe you can negotiate with the father whose baby you just called ugly.”
JR grunted, shaking his head as he entered information into a datapad. A moment later, he spun it around and shoved it across the counter. Manu gave it an inspection, noting every charge. It was steep, but within the original agreement.
Manu held the datapad up for Heavy to see. The big man’s eyes shifted back and forth as he read. He started to say something, but snapped his mouth shut. Manu intentionally ignored Heavy’s strange reaction. He entered their payment information, using the anonymous account filled with Samantha’s credits. Even knowing it wasn’t his money, it still hurt to see it drain away.
“Okay,” Manu said, sliding the datapad back across the counter. “Maybe see some of this gets to Edgar. Now, please release the clamps on our ship.”
The shop owner checked the datapad and smiled. He’d still made a criminal amount of profit off this job. JR entered a few commands into the computer against the wall, then jerked his head toward the window. “All yours.”
Manu and Heavy both watched through the window as the four, long clamping arms that had held the Matilda in place released, their rectangular teeth rotating back like an opening jaw retracting into the dry dock, followed by the thick tether table that had powered the ship’s systems. All that remained was the enclosed gangway that connected the Matilda’s side entry hatch to the station and the stabilizing clamps that Manu could release from the command bridge.
“Thanks, I guess,” Manu said to JR. They stared at each other for a moment before Manu shook his head in disdain. “Let’s get home, Hev.”
Heavy shrugged at the man who had insulted his ship and waved; forgive and forget, apparently. He and Manu left the shop and turned down the station’s main concourse toward their dock. Station guests walked in all directions. These people over Mentaryd had the same hardened look of everyone who lived in the Fringe. Even those in sharp business attire felt different compared to what he’d seen four days ago on Starview Station, minutes before it had succumbed.
This far away, the Starview attack felt like a bad dream. Imagining something like that happening here was unthinkable, but so had it been on Starview. Manu quickened his pace to the Matilda, knowing Heavy’s strides would have no problem keeping up.
The two reached the docking tube, free from crowds. Manu checked the time on his comm; it was night in Mentaryd city. Hopefully the trio on the surface had accomplished whatever it was they had all hoped to accomplish. Either way, the Matilda would be touching down on the surface in a few hours, ready to lift them all off. Once they were in jumpspace he could relax, but not before. In fact, Manu couldn’t remember when he’d last slept a proper night. At the earliest opportunity, he would be sealing himself in his pitch-black cabin and hibernating for at least a day.
“Hey Manu,” Heavy said, voice an overly loud whisper. “There’s something I didn’t mention back at JR’s.”
Manu stopped, looking back down the docking tube. “This better not mean someone’s going to come running down this tube after us.”
“What? No. I mean, probably not. See, Edgar helped with more than just those couplers. I think we came out way ahead on this deal, even with what JR charged.”
Manu raised an eyebrow. “What’d you and this Edgar get up to?”
“Well, Edgar was a big smashball fan, he’d even seen some matches I played in years ago. He had me sign a ball for him he keeps in his work locker, for when he gets some zero-grav time. Anyway, we sorta became friends while we were out welding and talking ball, and the place we salvaged the couplers from, it wasn’t exactly a salvage like I made it sound. And we didn’t just take couplers.”
Manu glanced down the tube for a second time, voice low. “Heavy…”
Heavy rubbed his hands together, a grin stretching across his face. “Edger wanted to help out an old smasher, and well, that yacht in the next dock, it’s there on impound. Owner seems to have gotten into some trouble with the Mentaryd law and hasn’t been able to pick it back up. So, the couplers came from there. Nice ones, too. And Edgar had already seen we had a busted transmitter… so, we sorta’ took the yacht’s.”
Manu hooked his hand under Heavy’s arm and yanked him forward, opening the Matilda’s side hatch and pulling them both inside. “You stole the transmitter off that yacht? Without anyone knowing?”
Heavy smiled. “Like I said, Edgar’s a good guy.”
Manu did some mental calculations. “That’s worth more than the entire cost of the repairs.” He chuckled through a groan. “We did come out ahead. Way ahead. Let’s get to the surface before JR or anyone looking at that yacht finds out they are a few couplers and a transmitter short.”
Heavy clapped Manu on the shoulder, hand like a vice. “It’s my duty to make sure Matilda can serve the needs of the job, and with the kind of stuff we’re into now, I really need to make sure that happens. We’re on a mission. You know, carrying out…”
Many held up a hand. “Don’t say it.”
“Spy stuff,” Heavy finished with a nod. He laughed and bounded down the metal stairs toward the Matilda’s power plant, shouting as he went. “Nothing to worry about!”
The Matilda’s power plant thrummed with energy as the ship made its long, arcing test-flight around Mentaryd. Heavy was alone in the cavernous, multi-level engineering bay that kept the hulking freighter alive.
The departure from Black Sky Station and JR’s repair docks had been expeditious, and Manu had sent the signal to Decker and Eliza that they would make one quick orbit to stress test the systems before the final make-or-break atmospheric descent. Sellivan had given the ship’s retrofitted digital systems the “okay,” which meant it was Heavy’s turn to make sure that the Matilda’s far older—and in his opinion, more reliable—mechanics in the ten-terrawatt power plant were ready to endure whatever was thrown at them next.
“System checks pass,” Heavy yelled through the ship intercom. “Nacelle is reporting full function. Clear to start hard maneuvers.” He’d flipped the mechanical toggle switch that set the intercom to ‘hands-free,’ allowing him to keep Manu updated without needing to return to the engineering console. Heavy had said they were clear, but there was a lot that needed checking on a ship like this that could only be done when in motion. With its row after row of consoles, readout panels, conduit channels, and scattered cabling that snaked across the deck, walls, and ceiling, the Matilda had a personality, one that wasn’t always predictable.
“Got it,” Manu called back. “Moving into an orbital pattern. I’m going to give the thrusters a workout while we make a lap. Keep me informed of any anomalies.”
The power plant core flared to life, as the Matilda followed its course, filling the bay with its blue light. The Matilda was a stalwart ship, approaching its sixtieth year of service. Sure, it didn’t have all the latest technology. In fact, even fresh out of the shipyards, it would have been considered utilitarian. But it—she—had heart, and that was what Heavy appreciated.
A series of blaring alarms sounded across the bay. Heavy bounded over a mess of thick cables to reach the offending console; power relays on the secondary thrust compensator were miscalibrated. Heavy entered in his new parameters, twisted a gas regulator valve, and after a few seconds the alarm stopped. He wiped his forehead—nothing to worry about.
A buzz on the opposite end of the bay caught his attention. He scampered back again, hopping over the trunk of cables that crossed the room. On a ship like this, everything always needed just a few adjustments. More advanced ships with adaptive machine learning algorithms could operate without as much human intervention. But that’s why Heavy was always busy. He was the living computer.
To alleviate some of the pressure, the power plant was covered with grease-pencil notes on nearly every flat surface; reminders, instructions, diagrams, equations. Things Heavy might need to be able to read while both hands held together an oscillating prim-flange that had become de-flanged, or a spindle-shank that needed to be pushed back into it’s tension housing.
A stack of datapads might have worked, but he couldn’t mount a datapad to every surface. It was just easier to glance over and read the handwritten, blocky letters that told him the proper calibration levels for the jumpdrive’s main causality vortex compensators, or the life support’s reverse-ionization electron separators.
Of course, the scrawled writing covering the walls like an asylum patient’s cell did nothing to help the stereotype of the ship’s engineer who had stood too close to a jump drive one too many times. But, just to be sure, Heavy had administered himself a cognitive test in secret to make sure that any mental slowdown he suffered was from his former smashball career and not whatever radiated from the drives. He’d passed—nothing to worry about.
Another buzzing alarm sounded from the access hatch to the sealed jumpdrive chamber in the center of the bay. Heavy jogged back over to the cables along the floor and came to a stop in front of a panel next to the hatch. He leaned in close and squinted at the readout. There it was; jump telemetry offsets had been deactivated while in dry dock. Heavy reactivated the relay, and the buzzing stopped. It was good that the power plant was equipped with so many buzzers and alarms; trying to jump with one of those offsets deactivated would have left them as an easy target for whoever was going to be chasing them next.
The power plant fell into a comforting state of thrums and thunks that told Heavy all was well with the Matilda. He took a moment to scan the room, looking for any lights that were lit that shouldn’t be, or any lights that weren’t lit that should be.
Of course, calling the power plant a room downplayed its real scale. It was two levels high with a wrap-around balcony that gave access to the main engines and top of the jump drive. Compared to a warship that carried hundreds of crew, the Matilda would have seemed small. But for the crew of five—when really the ship required twelve—it was almost too big to manage. Due to the nature of Decker’s and Manu’s business venture, though, the quality of the crew mattered more than the quantity.
A series of lights on the balcony level around the powerplant core went from green to red, another alarm beeping harshly. He jogged over to the ladder that led up to the balcony and scurried up.
Many people assumed because of his size, Heavy wouldn’t be a fast mover. They were mistaken. It took strong legs to move around at the speeds needed to keep this ship flying, especially considering the engineering bay was designed for three full-time crew. Heavy spent as much time running in the power plant as he had during games of professional smashball.
Heavy pulled himself up through the opening in the balcony’s grated metal walkway and hopped to the gimbal controls. The alarm sounded, but the panel readings indicated that everything was in alignment. He pulled off one of the wall plates and looked inside, pushing the mess of wires and cables away. There it was; a gimbal sensor link had come loose. Nothing to worry about. He plugged it back in and the alignment readings on the panel came back into proper tolerances.
Heavy couldn’t count the times that the phrase ‘had come loose’ had almost resulted in undue panic. The rest of the crew didn’t need to know just how delicate the Matilda’s inner workings really were. Everyone else seemed to have something to hide, so Heavy didn’t feel too bad about keeping some of Matilda’s secrets in confidence.
Manu’s voice crackled over the intercom. “We’re nearing the atmospheric entry point. Any readings of concern?”
Heavy scanned through the displays. “A few expected adjustments were needed. Nothing to worry about. I think we’re ready to descend,” he yelled back toward the intercom microphone grill.
“Acknowledged. I’ll send a notice to our friends on the surface to let them know we’re incoming.”
Heavy gave all visible consoles, readouts, and control panels a quick scan for anything unusual. “Copy that. It all looks great down here!” Heavy yelled, happy to report a bit of good news.
“I’ll take what I can get. Let’s go get our people.”
The displays in the power plant updated to the new trajectory, another arcing line that ended on the planet’s surface, just outside of Mentaryd City. The last time the Matilda had touched down was the Talius job, and once again, they were picking up Decker, Eliza, and a third passenger with a questionable background. Hopefully this one made it aboard alive.
Heavy grimaced. Tough break for Jerith, though Heavy had a hard time believing that Samantha could be killed so easily. She seemed tough, willing to reach her objectives at any cost, regardless of consequence. Hard to intimidate someone when their own well-being wasn’t a priority. Out on the zero-grav smashball fields, that was the kind of player Heavy always kept an eye on; they didn’t care if they got hurt if it meant they could take you out of the game first.
Yep. Things were different on the Matilda since picking her up. Part of mercenary life, Heavy supposed. You never know what was going to come walking up that gangway. Still, it beat working on a big ship with a captain who didn’t know everyone by name, doing nothing but taking orders, and having no control over what you did. That life was safe, but boring. And most of the time, wasn’t even really that much safer. Getting involved in this Imperium and Kestrel business, well, it definitely meant there wouldn’t be any boredom. They were all fortunate that Matilda was as tough as she was, and now, after the repairs, even tougher.
Heavy patted the console lovingly. “Hey, don’t worry ‘Tilda,” he said, “I’m gonna take care of you. Keep rolling with the punches and everything will be just fine.”
Manu’s voice crackled over the intercom. “Heavy, you say something?”
Heavy’s eyes widened. He’d forgotten that he left the intercom on hands-free. He needed to hear Matilda speak, and sometimes, she needed to hear him. But it wasn’t exactly the stuff he needed piped up to the bridge.
Heavy cleared his throat. “Uh, just going over some readings. Nothing to worry about.”
“Uh-huh.” Manu paused. “When you and Matilda are done, I want real readings up to the second once we start to settle into our vertical descent.”
Heavy nodded emphatically, despite no one being around to see. “Yep. Soft landing. You’ll have all the support you’ll need.”
Heavy pressed his lips together as he grabbed one of the grease-pencils on the console. He leaned across the wide, button-and-light covered surface, reached his arm up and wrote in all-capital letters across a blank patch of metal—mouthing the words silently as he wrote.
“Remember: Turn off voice Intercom.”
The hotel door slid open, revealing the darkened Mentaryd night and the solitary individual that blocked the doorway. Samantha took a step backward, inspecting the figure from head to toe as he walked into the room.
“What happened to you?” Samantha asked.
Eliza had sent Decker the hotel’s location while returning from their raid of the misidentified Doctor Landon. Decker hadn’t responded until only a short while ago, creating a gap of several hours he was unaccounted for. Samantha wasn’t concerned with where he was. She just needed to keep the conversation away from where she had been earlier in the day. Taking the risk of meddling with Kestrel business on Mentaryd could make him reconsider proceeding to Senali to pursue Kat Basara.
Decker scoffed, his gait stiff as he walked past. Samantha pressed the panel near the door, locking it behind him. It was nearly morning, and by the looks of Decker’s ragged hair and sweat-ringed collar, he was as ready to leave as she was.
“Had a few drinks. Met some old friends. Got tied up in an unexpected conversation,” Decker shrugged, “Normal Fringe stuff.”
Samantha nodded slowly, walking into the room and taking up a position against the wall. Decker was keeping things detail-free. That was good. Hopefully he’d expect the same lack of candor from her.
Decker sat himself on the bed, glancing at the sleeping Eliza. “She okay?”
Samantha folded her arms and shrugged. “Seems she has no problems sleeping at will. That, or the alcohol interacts with her arm’s painkillers. She’s been out for hours.”
Decker appeared unsurprised, almost distracted. Samantha let her arms fall to her sides. “What’s the ship’s status?” she said, unsure of what else to talk about.
Decker exhaled and laid back onto the bed, staring at the ceiling. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his nether cartridge, pulling off a clear wrapper and placing it in his mouth as he talked. “Ship is great. Manu expects to make planetfall in a few hours, and then we’re up and out of here.” He took a long drag from the nether, letting the vapor escape his mouth as he spoke. “Next stop still Senali?”
Samantha raised her eyebrows. “It’s our best bet. Though Kat Basara has had plenty of time to react. She may not even be there.”
Decker took another drag off his cartridge. “And if she’s not, where will our quest lead us next?”
Samantha closed her eyes, pressing the back of her head against the wall. Eliza’s question just a few hours ago about abandoning the mission still irritated her like a sharp pebble in a shoe. This was the mission she’d left Kestris to complete, there was no backup plan. If Basara wasn’t on Senali, or the trail ran dry, what would be next? Break protocol and contact Clarke and Julian? Wait for the Kestrels to make another move? Knowing that the Kestrels were anticipating some signal from Reed Casto meant waiting was not an option. Immediate action must be taken.
“We find something else. Whatever is happening is just starting.” Samantha paused, impatience growing in her gut. “Did Sellivan calculate the jump time from here to Senali?”
Decker did not respond.
He had fallen asleep, nether cartridge hanging from his partly open mouth. Samantha looked to Eliza. She was still out as well, cybernetic fingers clamped around the half-empty bottle of whatever she’d been drinking.
Samantha crossed the room, carefully plucking the little metal cylinder from Decker’s mouth and setting it on the bed. Wherever he’d been, it seemed to have taken it out of him.
Sleep wasn’t something that came easily to Samantha, and seeing these two, quiet and unmoving, created a sense of envy in her. Why could they let their guard down, but not her? If she were to fall asleep—real, natural sleep—what did she think would happen? There was no one out there coming for her. And even if there was, what did she have to fear? Her entire life had been about becoming someone who was resourceful, resilient, and to be feared. Why was it she who had to remain vigilant and restless?
Standing in the room, watching the ease with which her companions rested was not an experience she wanted to have right now. She slipped her arms into her new black jacket, quietly pulling it over her shoulders. She approached the door, letting it slide open. She’d be back before they woke. For now, she just needed to be alone.
Decker’s hair blew about wildly in the wind created by the kinetic energy blasting from the Matilda’s four, enormous stabilizer nacelles—all now fully-functional. Each was pointing straight downward, easing the lumbering Matilda onto the square pad of asphalt in the shipfield’s short-term departure zone. It was a sight that threatened to bring a tear to his eye, were they not already watering from the kicked-up grit and sand.
Eliza and Samantha stood next to him, waiting with none of Decker’s childlike glee on their faces. The blue energy generators in the nacelles flared as the Matilda neared the tarmac, the final rate of descent slowing to a near-stop. The hulking ship lowered itself onto its landing pylons, making contact with the softness of a feather; Decker got the impression that the unnecessarily gentle landing was Heavy and Manu making a statement about their skills.
The stabilizers powered down and their roar cut out, leaving the ship resting on the landing pad. Decker hadn’t seen his ship from afar since their disastrous escape from Talius, and at the time, he’d been more concerned with the vehicle chase and gun battle. It felt good to be able to board his ship at his leisure, no energy bolts whizzing by or space stations disintegrating around him.
“Always looks bigger from the outside,” Eliza said with a nod of approval. “It’s good to see home.”
Decker smiled, gazing up at the Matilda’s rough, matte-gray outer hull, beaten and scarred but still holding strong. “As long as the ship is flying, we always have options.”
The side gangway extended from the base of the ship, tilting downward as it met the cracked asphalt. The hatch opened and Manu appeared, triumphant smile on his face. He sauntered down the gangway, then turned and waved a grandiose arm back up at the ship.
“Welcome to the newly refurbished Matilda. As you can see, it has survived a descent through the Mentaryd atmosphere and made a landing so smooth that should be taught in pilot’s school. All I need now is three volunteers to see if it can survive an ascent back into the cold, unforgiving vacuum of space. Any takers?”
Decker placed his fists on his hips. “I am so happy to see you.” He shifted his gaze to Manu. “You’re great, too.”
Eliza saluted, heels snapping together. “Permission to board, co-sirs?”
Decker grunted, then looked to Eliza and Samantha, weapons’ crate and supplies on the ground in front of them. His head tilted to the side. “Granted. Head up and get started, we’ll bring this in and meet you on the command bridge. I want to do a quick walk-around with the co-captain here. Admire Heavy’s handiwork.”
Eliza and Samantha proceeded up the gangway, leaving Decker and Manu alone in the Mentaryd sun. Samantha had not said much. In fact, Decker wasn’t sure she’d spoken at all, a worry he currently had no energy for. Best to ponder that after they were safely in jumpspace, enjoying the comfort of his darkened quarters and a fresh nether cartridge, a few more of which he’d purchased after Brooks had so kindly dropped him off on a random Mentaryd street.
Manu looked over his shoulder. He took a step closer to Decker and lowered his voice once Samantha and Eliza had cleared the hatch. “On time and under budget,” Manu said, tone inviting further questioning.
Decker narrowed his eyes. “Under budget?”
“Turns out Heavy is as good of a social engineer as he is a mechanical one. We do need to get back in the air as quickly as possible, but I’ll say right now that he made sure we’re heading back into the fray with a remarkably modern intrajump transmitter.”
Decker’s head jutted forward. “Heavy what? The cost of a new transmitter would have paid for an entirely new stabilizer, maybe two.” He looked back over his shoulder, certain he would find energy bolts being fired from whoever was after them now. None came. “How’d he do it?”
“Well, apparently he made friends with someone who helped him liberate one that was not in use. I’d have told him to leave it be, but,” Manu shrugged, “I ain’t about to give it back now.”
Decker’s jaw cocked to the side. “Huh. Adding thievery to our growing list of offenses. I always thought Heavy was our unshakable moral compass.”
Manu’s grin flipped into his usual reassuring grimace. “He said something about a greater good. Looks like we’re all getting into new types of business. Speaking of which… well?”
Decker puffed his cheeks out and exhaled. “Well what?”
Manu folded his arms. “Braithwaite. What happened?”
Decker forced a grin. “Let’s get off this planet and we can talk about it. There’s a little piece of data waiting for me on my private contact address that we’re going to need to discuss.”
Manu placed his finger against the center of Decker’s chest—over his concealed, fresh tattoo—and pushed. Decker did his best not to wince.
“Hold it, Deck. You want permission to board this ship, you spill it.”
Decker let out a pained, drawn-out groan. “Ever enter into a tense negotiation without realizing what your goal was, or what you wanted to get out of it, and you just sort of let your mouth guide you to places you wouldn’t have predicted?”
Manu winced like he’d just taken a shot of Mr. B’s Rocket Fuel. “No, Deck, I actually haven’t. That is not normal behavior. What did we agree to?”
“We? That’s comforting. I am grateful you’re willing to take part of the blame here.”
“You aren’t on the ship yet,” Manu growled.
Decker raised a hand, serving up his explanation. “I had to think fast with Braithwaite, earn some trust, show him I meant business. Well, it worked.”
Subtle disbelief formed on Manu’s face. “Braithwaite gave something up?”
“In a way. Ended up on a vid call with Reed Casto himself.”
“What?” Manu shouted, quickly turning to make sure the gangway was clear before continuing softly, “What do you mean, ‘Reed Casto?’ Like ‘Reed Casto’?”
Decker smiled at the reaction; might as well enjoy his accidental victory for a moment. “That’s right. I convinced him that I’m a friend of the Kestrels and want to enhance that friendship. He’s given me clearance to rendezvous on Dradari within a week.”
Manu’s eyes widened. “Yeah? And how exactly does that benefit us?”
Decker’s mouth scrunched to the side. “Well, I’m not exactly sure, this was sort of a smash-and-grab type of intelligence hunt.”
Manu shook his head slowly. “Does Samantha know?”
Decker scoffed. “Not a chance. If I tell her, she’s going to want to go for him. Our lifespans would be measured in days if Reed discovered I sold him out to an Imperium intelligence agent, whether she’s officially employed by the empire or not.”
Manu shifted from folded arms to akimbo. “So, what do we do with this?”
Decker hardened his face. “We stick with the plan that we have. Help Samantha carry out her mission on Senali, stay alert, and we can decide what to do after that. With all that is happening with the Imperium and Kestrels, Dradari isn’t exactly where I want to be caught.” Decker paused and looked to the Matilda. “Besides, if we bail out now, where would we go? Back to dodging corporations like Fioli and IoCorp?”
Manu gave a single, bitter chuckle. “Are you saying we can’t back out of this?”
Decker snorted, sighed, then clapped his hand on Manu’s shoulder. “Manu, my co-captain, after what I saw on Starview Station, and what I heard from Reed… I don’t want to be a bystander to all of this. I don’t think I can.”
Manu raised an eyebrow. “I thought we said no quests. No crusades.”
Decker shrugged, then started up the gangway, calling back over his shoulder. “Yeah, I did. But… someone has gotta act on principle and care about what happens out here. Maybe that can be me.”