The giant swordsman thrust Rafe’s short sword aside with a roar, thumping the blade against the steel bulkhead and upsetting his balance. He felt more than saw his second opponent’s strike, and ducked just in time to avoid a thunderous blow. His forehead glanced off his assailant’s knee, rattling his brain and blurring his vision. He’d thought he could take on two at once. He was better-trained, more experienced and at thirty, still as quick as he was ever likely to be. But they were both built like gorillas and quicker than he’d expected. Each topped six feet by a several inches and had the long reach to match, while Rafe barely made a lithe five foot ten. He was going to get killed.
He growled and shook the stars away from his eyes. The prize was worth the risk. He was damned if he was going to lose this fight.
Rafe feinted to the left, dove into a forward roll down the space yacht's companionway, rose, spun, and thrust a killing strike to the kidneys of one of the men. The other surged forward, his shoulder taking Rafe in the chest like a mad bull charging. Rafe went down hard, and rolled left as his adversary's sword crashed into the deck with rib-crushing force. His hip thumped into the bulkhead, and his opponent hovered over him—there was nowhere left to hide. He kicked out, catching the man in the knee and unsettling his balance long enough for a last, desperate thrust to the throat.
"Ow!" shouted his opponent, clapping his hand to his neck.
Rafe scrambled to his feet and offered the man his hand. "Oops. Sorry, Cookie, guess I got carried away. You okay?"
The ship's cook laughed and placed the rubberized practice sword into Rafe's hand, then tapped on his nanocom gauntlet. "Alright, Mr. McTavish, you've won the bet. I'll upload my chili recipe to your account."
"Rafe. Call me Rafe. Make sure you don't forget any secret ingredients." He grinned and pushed sweat-dampened hair off his forehead. His own nanocom chimed, and the date and time on the tiny screen—23:45, 11 March, 2040—was replaced by an announcement of unopened mail.
The cook's assistant, whom he'd skewered in the kidney, handed over his sword and clapped him on the shoulder. "Thanks for the sparring match. Haven't had so much fun since I left the service. You're strong for a little guy, I'll give you that."
Rafe tried not to wince at the assistant's powerful grip. He'd heard that backhanded compliment a million times. It brought back fond memories from when he'd led a squad of mercenaries in the field instead of languishing behind a CEO's desk. He couldn't remember now why he'd thought that running his own security company would be more satisfying than commanding a close-knit combat team for Earth Authority. Maybe he'd taken too many blows to the head.
The constant vibration of the ship's engines changed pitch, and a second later, Rafe felt the bang of a docking collar locking in place. The other two registered the change and glanced down the long gray companionway that lead to the cargo bays and airlock. They exchanged a wary look and turned to go.
"What's up?" Rafe asked. "I thought once we cleared the Earth-to-asteroid-belt jump gate, we were going straight through to the mining station?"
Cookie spoke over his shoulder without stopping. "Captain Benson didn't tell you? We're picking up passengers at the jump gate station."
The men disappeared into the ship's galley like smoke disappeared into fog. Little prickles raised the hairs on Rafe's arms. He could think of only one person with the authority to divert the EcoMech corporate yacht, and he was the last person in the galaxy Rafe wanted to see right now. Okay, second to the last, but close enough.
The hatch at the end of the companionway banged back. As Rafe feared, Leon Goldman, the subject of his stealth mission to the asteroid belt, stamped through. He looked fifteen years older than Rafe, even though only four years separated them. His brown hair was swept straight back and plastered down by too much hair gel. He wore the latest style business suit made from expensive genuine silk, but it did nothing to enhance his pudgy shape. Even at a distance, the chunky gold wedding ring on his left hand and the diamond studded band on his right flashed in the light. His beefy cheeks, fleshy jowls, and bulbous nose glowed pink, like he'd had one too many drinks, but his walk was sure and swift, and his hazel eyes promised trouble.
Captain Benson trailed in Leon's wake, his normal upright posture slightly bent in deference to the CEO. Rafe steeled himself for the coming confrontation, uncomfortable in Leon's presence, but confident he could suffer through.
Then Leon's wife, Amaya, clattered down the companionway on high heels, the flared legs of her black pantsuit swishing around her swollen ankles, her skin more yellow than Rafe remembered. In the dim light, her slanted brown eyes appeared sunken, the look intensified by black hair that hung straight and unadorned to her waist. Her expression made his breath catch, the same sour, judgmental air she'd had since she was ten.
The blood curdled in Rafe's veins, and the temperature in the companionway dropped ten degrees. He hadn't seen his sister-in-law since his wife's death, fourteen years ago. Amaya leaned on the arm of a young Adonis, Leon's eleven-year-old son Gabe. His bright blue eyes darted around the ship, awe on his face. The sight of the boy, so bursting with life, nearly stopped Rafe's heart. He forced his gaze back to his brother-in-law.
Leon slammed open the hatch to the executive suite and glanced inside. "Benson! Clear this room and get our things in here."
"Sir, Mr. McTavish is using that suite. I can put you—"
"This isn't a debate. Get it done."
Benson's eyes communicated apology, and Rafe gave a tiny shrug. The captain flagged a crewman loaded with the Goldman's luggage into the suite.
Leon advanced down the companionway.
"Still playing pretend I see."
Rafe glanced down at the practice swords. His cheeks warmed, the only source of heat in the suddenly chilly space. Focus. Breathe. Speak. He sucked in air, but his lungs seemed unwilling to inflate. "Hello, Leon."
"What brings you way out here, McTavish?" The man's smug eyes glittered like a crocodile's. He folded his arms across his chest, waiting.
Crap, he knows. So much for conducting a quiet investigation. Still, Rafe had an obligation to finish what he'd started. He had his lie well rehearsed. "I've been hired to check out this mining station EcoMech wants to purchase. Seems like someone forgot to do the onsite inspection, and it needs to be completed before the sale goes through."
"And you're such an expert on asteroid mining that you're qualified to do it?" Leon sneered. "Anyway, you're on a fool's errand. I signed the purchase papers yesterday. You can run along home now, back to your toy soldiers and war games."
Rafe counted a slow five and fought the urge to bunch his fists. His brother-in-law was a pompous ass, but confrontation would get him nowhere. "Sorry, I have a contract to fulfill, and this is my ride, provided by your father."
Leon's pink face reddened, and the veins threading his thick skin bulged. He stepped closer and dropped his hands to his sides. "You think you're so hot building your little company from your momma's money, living the high life, fast women and faster flyers, a real playboy. Do those mercs you lead know what a coward you are? How you ran away from your family? How you couldn't be bothered to show up for your wife's funeral? Don't tell me you don't break contracts."
Rafe's nerves burned like he'd been poked with a taser. He wanted to run from Leon's accusations, but his muscles wouldn't respond. Fourteen years vanished in a heartbeat, and he stood again in his wife's bedroom. Blood spattered the yellow walls and soaked the lacy white coverlet on the bed. Congealing blood oozed between his bare toes like the warm mud around a hot spring. The scent of slaughter poisoned the air. The memory made his stomach float as if he were in zero gees. He thought he might vomit on Leon's fancy Italian shoes. The CEO's face glowed with the light of victory.
Rafe jerked closer and smelled the bourbon on Leon's breath. "I follow your father's orders, not yours." His voice came out barely louder than a whisper.
Leon's muscles tensed, and he shook with the effort to maintain his composure. Rafe felt sure a punch was coming, almost hoped he'd lose it. His brother-in-law frowned, his control returning but his rage undimmed.
"You won't find anything, McTavish." Leon grabbed Gabe by the shoulders and dragged him away, ruffling the boy's hair. "Come on, son. Let's go kill some orcs. I've got a new strategy I want to try out in that Galaxy at War game of yours."
Rafe stared after Leon, confused by the man's retreat. Amaya stood by the open door to the executive suite, an icy glare frosting the air between them. She waited. He didn't know what to say, still couldn't express the grief aloud, make the apology he should have made fourteen years ago. With a snort, she disappeared inside and slammed the hatch.
Kamala Bhatia slid silently along the empty mining station corridor in the dim half-light of the artificial night. If she hadn't lost her way, the administrative section ought to be just around the corner. She'd spent the last hour trying to access the business server from the safety of her rat hole of a cabin before determining it was offline.
Damned administrators shutting off the computer at night. How was any self-respecting hacker supposed to crack it when they'd powered it down? She'd find the computer closet, pick the lock, and power up. A few more minutes decoding the log-on credentials, and she'd plant her search-and-destroy program. Maybe she'd have time to go back to bed for an hour before that bear of a smelter supervisor, Browning, came for her. She hated managers, especially when she'd had less than four hours sleep on a cot that wasn't much softer than the metal deck of her quarters.
The lights brightened without warning. Kama's heart jumped. In the distance, she heard hinges creak, male voices mumble and complain, and the thump of boots on decks. She focused bleary eyes on the nanocom on her wrist. Vishnu preserve us, they start at 5:00 a.m.? She couldn't risk breaking into the computer closet with the station awake.
With all the aplomb she could muster, she slung her duffel bag of computer tools over her shoulder and strolled back the way she'd come. As she walked, she set her nanocom to play They're Coming to Take Me Away and chanted along under her breath. It didn't take long for a crowd of miners to gather up ahead. She chided herself for not paying more attention to the station layout and avoiding the living quarters. The wolf whistles and cat calls began at once.
Damn! These guys looked more desperate for female companionship than she'd anticipated, and here she was parading through the thick of them. She never wore makeup, always hid her shapely figure under baggy Oasis Corp coveralls, and pulled her hair back in a business-like ponytail at the base of her neck. Short of a sex change, she couldn't do much else. And still men swarmed toward her like bees to a butterfly bush. Such Neanderthals.
Kama pulled plugs from her pocket and embedded them into her ear canals. A touch to her nanocom and the music changed to something old called "heavy metal" but that Kama thought of as irritating noise. Another touch and the heavily customized device rose to a volume loud enough to rattle her teeth and vibrate her chest cavity. She hooted and stamped down the corridor to the grinding beat of the bass like some lunatic fresh from the asylum. The miners covered their ears and fled. Excellent. She hated using the backup plan: a little vial of eau du road kill guaranteed to put off unwanted attention from sex-starved men.
A hand touched her shoulder, and she pivoted in response. Behind her stood Edgar Browning, a short, black-skinned man with close-cropped hair, a pugnacious face, and an enormous upper body. He was dressed in work-stained overalls and thick boots. She guessed he was about forty-five—old for a miner. Two tattoos covered his dark forearm, one a crudely-drawn dragon, the other a stenciled prison serial number. He pointed to her nanocom and shouted something she couldn't make out. Kama silenced the noise and removed her ear plugs.
"I told you when you arrived last night to stay in your quarters until I came for you," his gravelly, dark voice scolded. "The last thing I need is you stirring up the guys or getting yourself lost. Hard enough to keep the men focused. Out here, inattention can kill."
She bristled. Just because she hadn't gotten where she was going didn't mean she was lost. She did her best to feign contrition. "Sorry. I was looking for the com facilities. I need to let my boss know I arrived."
"Long range com's down. Hell, truth is, it's down more than it's up. But we can't afford to fix it just now. Miss Patty'll look into it when she gets in later." Browning gestured to another man beside him."This is Yuri Roshal, our shipping manager."
About forty, immensely tall and thin, with nervous eyes and enormous bony hands, Roshal had dark hair and a Slavic cast to his face. He wore cargo pants and a garish yellow t-shirt emblazoned with a sports logo half obscured by blotchy red stains.
Kama flashed a smile and shook the cool hand he offered.
"Mr. Levine around?" she asked.
Browning grimaced. "Admin side don't start the same time as the rest of us. He'll be up soon. Got something to fill your time with, though. Urgent job's come up, and we could use your help."
The smile froze on her face. Buying Levine's silence and recovering that bloody contract was her mission, not helping the two hundred workers at this owner-operated startup. "I really ought to check in with the manager before I start. I haven't had a rundown of my duties yet."
Browning's brow furrowed. "Your duties are to do what I damn well need doing," he muttered, rubbing his temples. "Look, it won't take you long. Yuri here can give you the lowdown, then you can see Mr. Levine once he's up and about."
"We've got a mass spectrometer array that's acting twitchy," Roshal put in. "We haven't got the tech skills to do much repair work on that kind of gear." A fidgety man full of nervous energy, he didn't look much better rested than Browning. He wasn't covered in muscle like some of the miners, but those huge hands had a strong grip.
Kama looked at her nanocom. She figured she could fix a mass spectrometer in about five minutes and be knocking on Levine's door within ten.
"It can't wait," Browning said. "If we don't get it fixed right now, we stand to strike out on an asteroid claim. That's not a find we want to lose."
"R. S. Steele's been sniffing around it, the boys tell me," Roshal added.
Browning's muscular shoulders quivered. "Those bloody cowboys. Just how the hell do they always know whenever we make a good find?"
The smelter supervisor exchanged worried looks with the lanky Roshal. With a twinge of guilt, Kama realized the importance of this issue for them. Whatever her private objectives, however many faceless thousands counted on her, these people were counting on her help right here, right now. They weren't powerful executives or company drones; they were independent people trying to make their own way ahead on the backs of their own skills. Just the kind of people she and Oasis said they wanted to help.
"All right," she said. "I'll take a look. But then I'll need to see Levine, okay?"
Browning broke into the first smile she'd seen from him, somehow all the more charming for its missing canine tooth. "Thanks, Miss Bhatia! Levine'll be flattered when he finds out how keen you are to meet him. Yuri here will ferry you out to the ship."
"It's no problem," Roshal chimed in. "I only stopped back here to pick up some parts anyway. I'll drop you off on the way back to my tug."
Kama did a double-take. "Ship?"
Browning nodded. "Yeah. You know, the ship with the mass spec? Got a prospecting team heading out in a couple of hours, and they won't be much good without a working mass spec."
Kama's stomach gnawed on itself, and she struggled not to swear. Five minutes' work, but probably half an hour's journey to and from some isolated ship, and no possibility of an early return. She hoped she wouldn't be too late getting to Levine, or the failure of the entire Sharma Network project might fall on her shoulders.