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Rust Hand by Jonathan Moeller (Silent Order 11) Book

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Rust Hand by Jonathan Moeller (Silent Order 11) Read Book Online And Download

Overview: A lawless space station. A ruthless pirate gang. And a superweapon that might destroy everything.


Jack March is on the most important mission of his life - find the Pulse superweapon before it can destroy the Kingdom of Calaskar.


To find the Pulse, he needs a ship that can make the dangerous journey to the Non-Aligned Systems.


But to get that ship, he'll need to return to Rustbelt Station and survive its dangers.


Because in the lawless depths of interstellar space, it's might that makes right...


Rust Hand by Jonathan Moeller (Silent Order 11) Book Read Online And Download Epub Digital Ebooks Buy Store Website Provide You.
Rust Hand by Jonathan Moeller (Silent Order 11) Book





Rust Hand by Jonathan Moeller (Silent Order 11) Book Read Online Chapter One




NEUTRAL TERRITORY



Jack March missed having his own ship.

Given the catastrophic events of the last month and a half, he supposed it was a minor concern.

Indeed, it was astonishing that he was still alive at all.

If March had been a little slower, a little less quick-witted, and a whole lot unluckier, he would have died dozens of times on the day the war started.

For that matter, there had been times in his life when he had been much worse off.

Still, he missed having his own ship. He had never thought to leave Calaskar again after he asked Adelaide to marry him, intending to settle into the role of security director for the Museum of the Ark and Sigma Operative of the Silent Order. March had even been days away from selling the Tiger.

Given that the Machinists had blown the ship up, it was probably just as well March hadn’t finalized that sale.

But he still would have preferred to make the trip to Rustbelt Station aboard the Tiger instead of the Adventurous Maiden.

The Maiden had started life as a Falcon Republic Starship Yards heavy mining freighter, with a thick hull and a reinforced frame designed to withstand the radiation and gravitational stresses inherent in mining rare ores from near-solar asteroids. Maxwell Nagin, the current owner and captain of the battered old freighter, had gutted the ship’s interior and made substantial upgrades. The engines were three times more powerful than those included in the stock model, and Nagin had added an additional layer of armor, redundant shield generators, and a lot of weaponry.

The modified freighter handled like a pig wallowing in mud, and everywhere March went aboard the ship, he saw things he would have fixed, repairs he would have redone, shoddy work that ought to be ripped out and rebuilt.

But the Maiden had made the long and dangerous journey to the Non-Aligned Systems and the borderlands of the Final Consciousness’s empire many times, and Captain Nagin was still alive, and his ship was still in one piece. That alone was proof that the Maiden’s crew was doing something right.

Especially since the armored assault shuttle in the cargo bay meant that Nagin wasn’t above a little piracy when the opportunity presented itself.

Additionally, given that open war had begun between the Kingdom of Calaskar and the Final Consciousness, it wasn’t as if there were many legitimate ships making the trip to Rustbelt Station and system NB8876X.

Especially since the Machinists had seized the Antioch system, cutting off most of the easy navigation routes to Rustbelt Station.

Captain Nagin and his ship had been at Sibley Station when March had arrived. Nagin and his crew had been available to hire, they had been willing to fly out to Rustbelt Station, and perhaps most importantly, they hadn’t asked too many questions about March’s false identity documents and the locked containers he had brought aboard. No questions asked and no curiosity allowed was Nagin’s business model…in exchange for a high enough price.

The locked containers weren’t the only cargo on the Maiden. Captain Nagin had a long trip through the borderlands planned, and including the assault shuttle, the ship’s hold was stuffed full of a variety of cargoes. March would have thought a trip through the borderlands would be dangerous for a single trading vessel, but Nagin argued that the Machinists’ full attention was now on the Kingdom of Calaskar and the Royal Calaskaran Navy. The borderlands, Nagin said, would be the safest place in human-settled space until the war was over.

Except for the pirates, slavers, and alien marauders.

“But don’t talk to me about danger, mate,” said Nagin. “You’re the one who’s going to Rustbelt Station.”

March sat with the captain in the Maiden’s galley, a rectangular room with four sets of benches and tables bolted to the deck. A counter along one wall held the food appliances common on a starship – a rehydrator, a microwave oven, a coffee maker, and a few other devices. As usual, March had awakened early and completed his workout in the ship’s gym before Adelaide and Cassandra woke up. They were in the gym now, spotting each other, and March decided to eat a quick breakfast and drink a cup of coffee before they finished.

He had thought to do so in peace and quiet, but instead, the captain had proved to be in a chatty mood.

Maxwell Nagin was so thin that he either had a metabolic disorder or had grown up on a world where malnutrition was common. The combination of his sharp features and pale skin made him look a bit like a statue carved of marble. His left eye was blue, and his right eye was vivid orange, a scar marking the brow and cheek above the socket. March hadn’t asked, but Nagin claimed that he had lost the eye in a bar fight on a space station, and when he had gone to replace it, the medical clinic had offered a thirty percent discount on orange eyes.

Nagin liked to talk, and he had the gift of talking at length without revealing any actual information about his business.

“You’re the one who’s flying to the borderlands after stopping at Rustbelt Station,” said March. He took a sip of coffee and set the mug back down. “Rustbelt Station’s dangerous, but the borderlands are riskier.”

“Eh.” Nagin gestured with his own cup. “Things are different now, yeah? Everyone always knew that the Machinists and the Calaskarans were going to take another shot at each other. Of course, no one expected that the Machinists could conquer the entire Antioch system in a single day.”

“That was unexpected,” said March, his voice giving no hint of his thoughts.

In a way, he was indirectly responsible for the start of the war. He had discovered the Wraith machines, the secret mind-control devices of the Final Consciousness. A few years later, he had rescued Cassandra Yerzhov, who had accidentally discovered a method of detecting the quantum entanglement effect produced by the Wraith technology. The Ministry of Defense had begun mass-producing Cassandra’s Eclipse detectors, preparing to install them on every warship and military installation.

Rather than lose the advantage offered by the Wraith devices, the Machinists had decided to use it all at once and to spectacular effect. They had seized the Antioch system, one of the seven core systems of the Kingdom of Calaskar, and wiped out the Calaskaran fleet there. The Kingdom had started the war on the back foot.

And Adelaide had been entangled with a Wraith device and sent to kill the King.

“Bloody right it was,” said Nagin. “I, of course, have never had to outrun a Calaskaran customs frigate. But their navy is usually pretty competent. Or so I’ve heard. But with the fall of Antioch, Rustbelt Station’s cut off. The Machinists haven’t bothered to take over the place. It doesn’t have any strategic value, and they probably don’t have the ships to spare anyway.”

“So?” said March.

“Rustbelt Station’s going to become a nest for pirates and slavers,” said Nagin. “And, not to be indelicate, Mr. Sylvester, but you’re traveling alone with two very attractive women. There are people who would pay a lot of money for your wife and sister.”

“I know,” said March. He was traveling under a false name. So was Cassandra, and her cover identity was that she was March’s sister. Adelaide, of course, actually was March’s wife. “I trust you’re not one of them.”

Nagin’s mismatched eyes flicked, just for a second, to March’s left arm. March usually wore a leather glove and bracer over his left hand and forearm, but Nagin was clever enough to have worked out that the limb was cybernetic. “No, no. Bad for business to stab paying customers in the back, yeah? I was hired to fly the three of you to Rustbelt Station, and that’s what I’ll do. Once you get to that miserable rock, you’re not my problem anymore.” He shrugged. “But I’m a kindhearted gentleman, so I feel obliged to warn you.”

“That’s very considerate,” said March. “But you don’t need to worry about us. We have well-armed friends on Rustbelt Station.”

Still, he would heed Nagin’s warnings. The captain loudly and frequently announced that he refused to work with slavers, but March suspected that Nagin was nonetheless was open to practically any other kind of illegal enterprise. If someone like Nagin thought that Rustbelt Station had become dangerous, then March needed to take extra caution.

“It’s good to have well-armed friends,” said Nagin. “Just so long as you’re sure that they’re actually your friends.”

“What about you?” said March. “If Rustbelt Station has become dangerous, then you’ll need to watch your back as well.”

Nagin smirked behind his coffee cup. “The Adventurous Maiden has a lot of guns. And my crew has some experience repulsing pirate boarders...”

The captain launched into a rambling story about a pirate raid in the Non-Aligned Systems that March was sure hadn’t happened. Or, if it had happened, then the Maiden’s crew had been the pirates. Nagin had a crew of about twenty-five men aboard the ship. Most of them were hard-faced, cold-eyed men who never spoke unless spoken to first…and who stared at Adelaide and Cassandra whenever they thought March wasn’t watching. To judge from the tattoos on their arms and necks, some of the crewers had been part of pirate gangs before they had joined Nagin’s ship.

Dangerous men, and not the sort of people March would turn his back on. Despite that, Nagin had control of his crew, and while they hadn’t been friendly, there hadn’t been any incidents.

The galley door opening interrupted Nagin’s story. Two men stepped inside, boots clanking against the deck. One was a hulking man with a perpetual scowl, a shaved head, scarring on his scalp that looked like it had come from standing at the edge of a plasma explosion, and tattoos on his muscled arms that marked him as a former member of a pirate gang that operated near the Falcon Republic. He was Mercer, the Maiden’s chief engineer. The second man was wiry with a ferret-like look. His name was Carmine, and he was Mercer’s assistant. The chief engineer more or less ignored the passengers. Carmine refused to meet March’s eyes and watched Adelaide and Cassandra whenever he thought he could get away with it.

“Cap,” grunted Mercer. “We’re out of hyperspace. Gonna recalibrate the dark energy resonator before our next jump.”

“How long?” said Nagin. “We don’t want to keep our passengers waiting.”

“Six hours, probably,” said Mercer. “Nav computer says it will take us four hours to fly to our next jump point, so we won’t lose that much time.”

“Right, right,” said Nagin. He grinned at March. “Don’t want to get a reputation for slow passenger service.”

Mercer rolled his eyes. Carmine merely leveled a glare at March. He met the assistant engineer’s gaze, who found something interesting to look at on the floor.

“I don’t have a hard timetable,” said March. “I rather we arrive a few hours or even a few days late than have a resonator break down in hyperspace.”

“Better late than never,” agreed Nagin.

Mercer grunted. “You ever been aboard a ship that had a resonator failure? I have. Bloodiest mess I’ve ever seen. A third of the crew was possessed before we did an emergency cut-off to the hyperdrive. Took two days to kill them all.”

March shook his head. “No. But I responded to a distress call to a ship that had a resonator failure. Managed to get a few survivors off, but most of the crew was possessed and had to be killed.”

That had been the dismal fate of the Alpine, shortly after March had met Cassandra for the first time. Every starship crewer and officer feared macrobe possession, that the dark energy creatures in hyperspace would take control of their bodies and mutate them into insane abominations. Thankfully, the technology to block macrobe possession while in hyperspace had been well-known for millennia.

But sometimes, the dark energy resonators failed.

And March knew things that Nagin and his crewers did not. He knew that sometimes the possession process resulted in a symbiosis, creating a human who could perceive the dark energy currents of hyperspace. The Calaskaran Royal Navy recruited such men as Navigators and used them to perform incredibly accurate feats of astronavigation, targeting hyperspace jumps with pinpoint accuracy. The King of Calaskar himself was possessed by a macrobe. It rendered him unable to tell a lie…but neither could anyone lie to him. That ability was one of the reasons the Calaskaran monarchy had endured for two thousand years.

An Omega Operative of the Silent Order knew many things that most people did not, secrets he could never share with anyone else.

“Sounds like a mess,” said Mercer.

“It was,” said March. “Trust me. I don’t have any objection to a delay for resonator maintenance.”

“Smart man,” said Mercer, and he left the galley. Carmine shuffled after him, eyes on the deck. He tried to glare at March and thought better of it, electing instead to retreat back to the corridor.

“What’s his problem?” said March.

“Who, Carmine?” said Nagin. “Eh, he thinks you’re Calaskaran law enforcement. Carmine used to run a repair bay for cargo shuttles back on New Constantinople Station, and started ordering twice as many engine parts as he needed and selling the rest. Sadly, station security took a dim view of his enterprise, and so poor Carmine has been forced to accept jobs he views as beneath his station, such as helping Mercer fix the resonator.”

March grunted. “If I’m Calaskaran law enforcement, maybe you shouldn’t tell me that.”

Nagin grinned. “I never ask questions about my passengers’ business, mate. Far as I’m concerned, you’re missionaries from the Calaskaran Church on your way to spread the good word of the Lord to those reprobate heathens on Rustbelt Station.”

“Wouldn’t missionaries be obliged to report Carmine’s thefts to the authorities?” said March.

Nagin’s smirk widened. “And here I thought we were supposed to forgive one another our trespasses, yeah?” He stood up and put his tray into the recycler. “While I’m sure you’d love to hear more of my stories, I should go to the bridge. The software controlling the hyperdrive freaks out whenever Carmine recalibrates the resonator.”

“Maybe he needs a gentler hand,” said March.

“Or a harder one,” said Nagin, glancing at March’s left arm for just a little too long.

The captain left without another word, the galley door hissing closed behind him.

March finished his breakfast, enjoying the peace and quiet. One of Nagin’s other crewers came into the galley, a sour-faced man with an unfortunate attempt at a mustache, but like March, he preferred quiet. March drained off the rest of his coffee, put the dishes in the recycler, and left the galley.

Adelaide and Cassandra would be up by now, and he should check on them.

The Maiden’s physical configuration was basically a long boxy rectangle with a U-shape mounted on the front. In its past life as a mining freighter, plasma cutters and graviton beams had been mounted within the interior of the U, tools that allowed the crew to carve ore from the surface of asteroids and haul it into the cargo hold. The mining equipment was still there, but Nagin had a wide variety of weaponry mounted on the U. No doubt Nagin used the mining equipment to slice open the hulls of captured cargo ships.

The crew quarters occupied the rectangle’s spine, with the galley, the entertainment room (stocked with a wide array of pornographic movies), and the gym towards the rear of the ship. March walked to the gym door, and it slid open at his approach.

The gym was generally as dilapidated as the rest of the Adventurous Maiden. It had the usual array of exercise machines, none of which March would have used because he wasn’t sure how well they were maintained. However, the free weights were in good condition, and they were always racked properly after a crew member used them, probably because Mercer threatened to inflict brutal violence upon anyone who left the weights out since they could cause damage to the bulkheads if the artificial gravity or the inertial absorbers glitched.

March’s wife stood over Cassandra Yerzhov, spotting her as she performed military presses.

Adelaide glanced up as he entered, her hand straying for a second to the stunner she wore clipped to the waistband of her exercise pants. She looked better than he would have expected, all told, given that she had lost her left forearm and suffered considerable internal damage in the explosion that had destroyed the Tiger. Her face was thinner and paler than it had been, and there were dark circles under her gray eyes that hadn’t been there before. She wore loose black pants, a black jacket, and a ball cap. Adelaide almost always wore the hat, since her head had been shaved for surgery after the explosions, and the loss of her hair bothered her more than she wanted to admit.

The synthetic skin covering her cybernetic left hand looked almost like the real thing.

Cassandra Yerzhov, dark energy physicist and Beta Operative of the Silent Order, lay on the weight bench, her face shining with sweat. She wore the same sort of clothes as Adelaide, though she had taken off her jacket to reveal a black tank top that fit her very well. When March had first met her years ago, she had been afraid to exercise, preferring to focus on her mind. During the near-disasters that had followed, March had persuaded her that the mind was dependent on the body, and so Cassandra had taken to weightlifting the same way she did everything else – with extensive research and meticulous planning and mathematical modeling. She had shown him the spreadsheet she used to track her workouts and nutrition, and it looked almost as complex as the financial records of an interplanetary corporation.

“Six,” said Adelaide as Cassandra lifted the bar. She had about fifty-five kilograms on the bar, which was an impressive weight given her size and height. If she kept at it, March thought that eventually she could bench press her own body weight. “Seven. Eight. Nine. Come on, Cass, you’ve got one more in you, you know you do. And…ten! Good job.”

Cassandra slumped against the bench, wheezing a bit, her face red. Finally, she sighed, scooted forward, sat up, and blinked when she saw March. “Jack! How long have you been standing there?”

“Since your third rep,” said Adelaide. She tried to smile, though the haunted look didn’t leave her eyes.

“So much for keeping an eye on my surroundings,” said Cassandra, picking up a towel and wiping off her face.

“That’s why you have a spotter,” said Adelaide.

“I talked to Nagin,” said March. “They’re going to do some maintenance on the resonator. We’ve got a six-hour flight to our next jump point anyway, so it shouldn’t delay us.”

A flicker of old anxiety went through Cassandra’s expression. “You’ll check to make sure they did it right?”

“I will,” said March. Given that the week he and Cassandra had met, they had been attacked by the macrobe-possessed crew and passengers of the starliner Alpine, he could see why the thought of resonator repair made her anxious.

“Good,” said Adelaide. She pointed at the ceiling. One of the light panels had gone out and hadn’t been replaced. March suspected it had been out for months before they had hired passage aboard the ship. “Given the maintenance standards aboard this rust bucket, I’m relieved the entire ship hasn’t fallen apart.”

After several days aboard the ship, March’s assessment wasn’t quite so grim. Nagin and Mercer made sure the vital systems, including life-support, were well-maintained. The more cosmetic maintenance fell by the wayside. March wondered if the captain was simply cheap or if he used the ship’s dilapidated appearance as a sort of protective camouflage, concealing the true power of the Maiden’s considerable armaments.

Knowing Nagin, it was probably both.

“I’ll offer to help Mercer with the repair,” said March. “He won’t turn down competent help, not when it’s free. I’ll make sure it’s done right.”

“Okay,” said Adelaide. “We’ll go back to the cabins. Get back to our reading.” Censor had sent March on this mission with a lot of equipment. Some of that equipment included encrypted data files – everything the Kingdom of Calaskar and the Silent Order knew about the artifacts of the Great Elder Ones and the Pulse, the mysterious superweapon the Machinists were building to destroy Calaskar and win the war.

And Dr. Taris Cigrande, who apparently knew where the weapon was and was hiding out in the Non-Aligned Systems.

It was less information than March would have liked. He had been hearing rumors about the Pulse, the Machinists’ mysterious superweapon, for some time now. Unfortunately, what the entire Silent Order knew about the weapon was little more than what March had heard during his previous missions. The Pulse was derived from the technology of the Great Elder Ones, much as the hive mind of the Final Consciousness itself had been. It would rely on a band of dark energy radiation that in theory couldn’t exist in this universe, but March had seen it used in experimental tests. That band of radiation was lethal to organic life, and the Final Consciousness seemed certain that their weapon would destroy Calaskar.

Beyond that, very little was known about the Pulse.

“That’s good,” said March. “We’re only two days from NB8876X. Once we have our own ship, we can head directly to the Non-Aligned Systems.”

“I wish I knew what kind of ship we were getting,” said Adelaide. The fingers of her left hand closed and opened as she spoke. She had been doing that a lot lately and didn’t seem aware of it. It was a common response in people who had received cybernetic limbs.

March shrugged. “We’ll find out in two days.”

“Unless this rust bucket breaks down,” said Adelaide.

“Suppose I had better help keep that from happening, then,” said March.

Adelaide turned to help Cassandra finish her workout, and March left the gym and made his way aft along the ship’s central corridor to the engine compartment. He found Mercer and Carmine just getting ready to recalibrate the dark energy resonators. Mercer accepted the offer of help without complaint, Carmine with obvious suspicion – no doubt he thought March was chasing those missing shuttle parts that Nagin had mentioned. But recalibrating a dark energy resonator was always a big enough job that help was welcome.

Fortunately, the task did not prove difficult. Nagin might not have been too concerned about his ship’s appearance, but the vital systems were in good shape, and recalibrating the resonator proved a straightforward if time-consuming task. They were ready to go before the Maiden reached its next jump point.

“The captain’s not going to refund any of your passage fare for this,” said Mercer, packing up his tools.

“That’s fine,” said March. “Not getting possessed by a macrobe is a good payment.” Not that March could be possessed by a dark energy macrobe. The cybernetic alterations the Final Consciousness had installed in his flesh made that impossible. But Adelaide and Cassandra had no such protections. Nor did the rest of the Maiden’s crew, for that matter.

Mercer grunted. “Wife put it up to you, did she?”

“Yeah.”

Mercer managed to smile for a half-second. “Suppose some peace and quiet is your real reward then?”

March kept his thoughts on that to himself.

That night he returned to his cabin. The passenger cabins aboard the Adventurous Maiden were little different than hundreds that March had seen aboard various ships over the years. The cabin he shared with Adelaide had three bunks built into the right-hand bulkhead, with a small desk and storage compartments on the left. To the rear of the cabin was the toilet (with the necessary attachments in case of gravitational failure) and the sanitizer booth since water was too precious of a commodity aboard a starship to waste with bathing. The cabin had been clean but a bit musty when they had come aboard at Sibley Station – March suspected that the crew had used it for storage until they had passengers and that the machine parts that had been kept in here had been hastily pulled out.

Adelaide was waiting for him.

She had been lying on the lowest bunk, but she rose to her feet the second he locked the door behind him. An instant after that, her arms were around his neck, her mouth hard against his. Soon after that, she was pulling at his clothes, and then she drew him down to the bunk.

Ever since she had recovered from the surgery and stopped the painkillers, she had been more aggressive. March wasn’t sure why, but he could make a few guesses. The Final Consciousness had all but destroyed her life on Calaskar, and he was nearly the only thing that she had left. Ever since they had met, March had realized she tended to deal with stress by either chain-smoking, overworking, or lovemaking, and they hadn’t let her smoke in Calaskar Station’s hospital, and for all the Adventurous Maiden’s lax maintenance standards, Nagin absolutely refused to allow anyone to smoke aboard the ship. And, of course, sometimes cybernetic limbs resulted in neurological changes that made it difficult to reach arousal and climax.

Maybe Adelaide wanted to prove to herself that she could still do this.

He could give her what she wanted. Gladly, even. The augmentations of an Iron Hand had given him a seething, elevated libido, one that he had ignored for almost ten years before he had met Adelaide, and with her he could let go of his self-control.

“I love you, Jack,” she whispered when they had finished, her arms wrapped around his back, her skin shining with sweat. Only a bit of stubble had regrown on her scalp after the surgery, making her face seem larger, her gray eyes enormous.

“I love you, too,” he said, and kissed her.

She pressed her face into his shoulder, and they lay like that for a while. March started to doze off. Finally, Adelaide shifted beneath him.

“I hate to say it,” she said, “but I need to stand up.”

“Right.” They had been sleeping in separate bunks simply because there really wasn’t room for two people to sleep in one. He rolled off Adelaide, gripped the bunk above his head, and pulled himself to his feet. Adelaide rose, a pale, slim shape in the faint glow from the recessed light over the sanitation booth. The synthetic skin over her new forearm almost exactly matched the rest of her body in the dim light.

March waited, watching as she stepped toward the toilet.

“A lot of sweat,” she said. “I…I…”

She dropped onto the toilet, buried her face in her hands, and started crying.

He crossed the room and knelt next to her, putting his right arm over her shoulders.

“Damn it,” said Adelaide, rubbing at her face. She sniffled and swiped the tears from her eyes. “Damn it. These mood swings…Christ, it’s like when I was pregnant, but worse…”

“It’s your nervous system adjusting to the implant the surgeons put in your brain to help control the new arm,” said March.

“I know,” said Adelaide. “I know, damn it. I just wish…I just wish that I could get pregnant. That I could get pregnant with your baby. That we could just live quietly somewhere…”

March said nothing but rubbed her shoulders. The damage from the bombing that had killed her first husband and her unborn child had left her unable to conceive. For that matter, the genetic modifications that were part of becoming an Iron Hand had left March sterile. He could not impregnate a woman simply because the genetic incompatibility would make fertilizing an egg impossible. March had become an Iron Hand at a young enough age that he had never even considered having children, and the loss of the potential did not trouble him. In his mind, lovemaking had always been for pleasure and companionship, not procreation, and in the few and infrequent moments he had thought about children, he supposed it was just as well that he would not bring a small, helpless creature into a universe that so often tormented and devoured the weak.

But sometimes, he thought it might have been nice to have a child with Adelaide.

“I know,” said March. “It’s not in the cards for people like us. But we can give others a chance. Your sister Sydney and your brother William.” Adelaide had been close to her family, and her banishment from Calaskar had hit her hard. “Perhaps their kids will be able to grow up peacefully because of what we’re doing.”

“I know,” said Adelaide. She reached up and grabbed his right hand with her left. “We’ll do it, Jack. We’ll find and destroy the Pulse, and we’ll go home.”

“Yes,” said March.

At least, that was one potential outcome. The various other outcomes of their mission were both more unpleasant and much more probable.

But Adelaide knew that as well as he did. No need to point it out.

“I’m glad you’re with me,” whispered Adelaide, and she rested her head against his shoulder. The stubble on her scalp scraped against his skin. “This would be so hard alone.”

March said nothing, old guilt squeezing his heart. Odin had hoped to use the Wraith devices to assassinate the King of Calaskar. He could have chosen anyone to entangle with the Wraith, but he had picked Adelaide specifically because March had thwarted him several times. The Cognarchs of the Final Consciousness had a vengeful streak as wide as the galaxy, and Odin had been especially vindictive.

Indulging that vindictiveness had been a mistake, considering that March had killed Odin.

But Adelaide had paid the price for it. March had never cared about what happened to his own life, which was why he had spent so much time as an Alpha Operative, far longer than most men did. He cared very much what happened to Adelaide, and he knew that if he had been a little slower and a little less lucky on Calaskar, he would have seen her die.

Eventually, she calmed down, the storm of grief passing. Her careening emotional pendulum swung back to affectionate, and March guided her back to the bunk and climbed atop her once more. After they finished, she sighed contentedly and drifted off to sleep in his arms.

Once he heard her snoring, March eased back to his feet and dressed in silence. He ought to get some sleep himself, he knew, but his mind would not settle. Strangely, he found trying to comfort Adelaide when she was at the nadir of her mood swings to be exhausting. He would rather have done something for her, but there was nothing to be done but continue their mission for Censor and the King.

Life and experience had made March into a killer, not a man equipped to take care of someone he loved.

Still, he was all that Adelaide had now, so he would do the best he could.

He left the cabin, walked down the corridor, and came to the Maiden’s galley. Nagin ran the ship on a three-shift rotation, and it was 0200, the middle of the third shift. Likely the only people awake were the pilot and whoever had been assigned to monitor the engine room. March expected the galley to be deserted, but to his surprise, Cassandra sat at one of the tables. The table had a built-in holoprojector, and she was currently playing a chess game against the computer and winning.

“Couldn’t sleep?” said March, sitting opposite her.

“No,” said Cassandra. She tapped one of the holographic chess pieces. It moved to a new position, and a notification appeared that she had forced a checkmate. “I stayed up late reading some of the scientific papers in our luggage, and my head was spinning with it. You?”

Between helping with the resonator calibration and certain other activities he had enjoyed with Adelaide, March was quite tired. But his mind remained restless. “Something like that.”

“Game?” said Cassandra, resetting the board.

“Sure. You always win, though.”

Cassandra tapped a button, and the holographic chessboard reset itself in two-player mode. She took white, March took black, and Cassandra made the first move.

“How’s Adelaide?” said Cassandra.

“Sleeping,” said March. He moved one of the pawns. The hyperdrive allowed mankind to covert unfathomable distances at speeds the human mind could not comprehend. Nevertheless, interstellar travel could still take days or weeks, and at some point, on a properly maintained ship, you ran out of work to do, and so chess and other board games were popular.

He had always been better at cards.

“That’s good,” said Cassandra. “She told me she used to have insomnia even before she got hurt.”

“Yeah,” said March, wondering why Cassandra had just moved her knight. “That was how she got so many books written. Couldn’t sleep, so she got up and worked.”

“Suppose you finally tired her out enough to sleep,” said Cassandra.

March looked at her.

Cassandra smiled.

“You used,” said March, “to be a lot more reticent.”

Cassandra shrugged. “Then I met you and Adelaide and got shot at a lot.”

March moved a game piece. “As I recall, you were already getting shot at when I met you.”

“That’s fair,” said Cassandra. “That sort of experience changes people, I guess. I used to be anxious all the time. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m still anxious, but I think I’m accustomed to it now.”

“When we met,” said March, “you’d never have sat alone in the galley on a ship full of strange men.”

“They’re not strange, just shifty and probably criminal,” said Cassandra. She tapped her belt where a stun pistol rested in its holster. “Also, they’re all afraid of you.” She moved her bishop and captured one of March’s rooks.

He glowered at the board for a second, sighed, and made a new move. “Makes it easier, I suppose.”

“Is Adelaide coping well?” said Cassandra. “I mean, I’ve never had to have a limb replaced. But I have had to leave my home and fly off into the dark. Not that I really missed Oradrea that much. I didn’t have any friends or family left. I liked Calaskar a lot better. But…”

“It’s still a shock,” said March. He moved his remaining rook.

“Yeah,” said Cassandra. “But I’ve done this kind of thing before, you know? Left everything and ran for it. And…” She paused and moved her bishop. “Checkmate.”

March stared at the board.

It was indeed checkmate.

“Hell,” he muttered. “Every time.”

Cassandra grinned. “For once, I have the unfair advantage. Chess is basically the Oradrean national sport.” Her smile faded. “I can never get Adelaide to play.”

“She doesn’t like to lose,” said March as Cassandra reset the board for another game. “She told me once that she likes to deal with things by working.”

“Better than alcohol and drugs, I suppose.”

March nodded. “And we’ll have a lot to do when we get to Rustbelt Station.”


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