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Cordell’s heart hammered in his chest as they brought him yet another tray of food and drink he wouldn’t touch. Armin fidgeted in his seat before reaching over and plucking one of the shrimps out of a nearby cocktail. He bit the tip, then scowled an put it back.
“Duraplast,” he said.
“I know,” Cordell replied. “Only real thing is the veal, and I’m not eating anything cooked here.”
Sandy winds swept through the projected coliseum, mottling the harsh sunlight on the ground. All around them, Bill’s goons busied themselves with fake partying and carrying on. How much was the Link stream worth now? Who was watching it? Who was betting? Did anyone from GATO know?
Cordell gulped, realizing that if Bill ever got raided, his name would be on a betting ledger somewhere. Cordell had just committed a little, teeny, tiny oversight that most prosecutors liked to call a “crime against humanity.”
“Do you have any cigarettes left?” asked Armin.
“Not usually,” he replied, tapping his foot nevously, “but I think I’d like to destroy a little of myself after coming to this place.”
Cordell fished out two half-crumpled sticks from his crushed pack, then handed one to Armin. He lit the finance guy’s cigarette and then his own. Together, they puffed on their smokes and watched the arena clock as it counted down toward zero.
“Ladies and gentlemen, misters, misses and mixes, welcome to the Arcadrome!” boomed Bill from his skybox across the way. “You asked for it, and here it is: the Dervish versus the Desert Rats in a desperate battle for survival! In just a few moments, you’ll be treated to a feast of mayhem the likes of which you have never seen. Fans of the Rats already know what Ranger can do—”
“Ranger?” Cordell mouthed the word at Armin, who shrugged.
“—but you haven’t yet seen chaos until you’ve witnessed the Dervish’s blistering blades! Oh, and as an added motivation: to the victor, I’ll grant freedom, supplies and ten thousand argents.”
“What a bastard,” said Armin. “That was only for the children. No need to motivate the Dervish.”
Cordell watched a close-up projection of the Dervish’s crazed face and sniffed. “I’m pretty sure he’s exactly where he wants to be.”
“Get ready for a treat, because it all starts now!”
In joyful unison, the crowd counted off the remaining ten seconds. At zero, a pair of hidden doors in the arena banged open, revealing their combatants.
The Dervish hadn’t changed much from his introduction, all crazed energy and screaming charge launchers. Plasma blades bounced at his sides, unlit, and Cordell hoped they’d stay that way. The gladiator made his egress in a hurricane of fire, rolling over everything in his path with unrelenting explosions. That, Cordell had been prepared for.
He hadn’t expected the rescue armor, covered with every kind of blade, spike and slinger, to come galloping out of the other side. Upon its emergence, the crowd made such a delighted howl that Cordell’s heart leapt.
Unlike the Dervish, the armor was efficient, never firing an unnecessary shot. It raced between the columns like a rusty porcupine, periodically stopping to check corners. Cordell leaned forward, looking into the cave where it had emerged to find Heidi, Sam and Orna ducking out with slingers in hand. Orna’s face was locked in concentration, but the other two were alert, standing guard around her as they searched for safety from their opponent.
“And there it is, everyone!” shouted Bill. “Ranger: the scourge of the sands! For those watching at home, Orna, our young prodigy, controls the bot’s every move with her mind. We’ve seen this strategy from the Rats before—rather than risk any of themselves inside the armor, they’ll send it in as a shock troop.”
Cordell rushed to the edge of his skybox to watch Ranger as it tore across the field at breakneck speed. “Look at that monster! Go get him!”
“Captain,” Armin said, “please remember this is a bloodsport fought by slaves. No death at all would be preferable.”
The Dervish ceased his blind firing and leapt, his prehensile extra arms digging into a sandstone column. They carried him high up, propelling him between structures with powerful bursts of energy. They would’ve been perfect for crawling along the surface of a starship and welding plates into place, but as combat momentum, they weren’t half-bad, either. As the Dervish passed above Ranger, he loosed a half-dozen grenades, which fell around the bot like raindrops before exploding.
Cordell grit his teeth as fire enveloped the rescue armor. “No!”
“Oh, that had to hurt!” laughed Bill. “Is Ranger’s reign finally at an end? How are the Rats going to pull this one out?”
Black smoke roiled through the arena, obscuring everything on the ground. The crowd fell to a hush, and the procedurally-generated music dimmed to a suitably dramatic timbre.
Then a half-dozen bright bolts erupted from the blackness, tearing the Dervish to pieces. Cordell’s booth popped up projections of all different angles in slow motion, each emblazoned with a “KILLSHOT” graphic. Judging from the expression on the Dervish’s face, he probably hadn’t even noticed he was dead.
The crowd lost its collective mind, and an electric guitar riff deafened Cordell amid all the cheering. The smoke cleared to reveal a battered rescue armor, ailing from a lot of shrapnel hits, but able to walk with a grinding shudder.
“And the Dervish is demolished! There it was, folks: another brilliant battle by Orna of the sands!” called Bill, and another graphic replaced the word “KILLSHOT:”
Cordell’s stomach went cold.
“Don’t you do it, Bill,” he growled, wrapping his hands around the scuffed railing and squeezing. “Don’t you change a damned part of our deal.”
“And if that was all,” said Bill, “we’d call it a day for the Desert Rats, but I believe I said I’d give freedom, ten thousand argents and supplies to the victor, not victors. One has to wonder if any of the Desert Rats would enjoy that treasure. Or, of course, they could simply call it a win and go home.”
Across the arena, Heidi turned and shot Sam before smashing Orna across the back of the head with the butt of her slinger. She kicked Sam’s weapons clear, then knelt atop Orna’s stunned body and ripped the circlet free. Powerful microphones picked up their words, projecting the moment for the benefit of everyone watching.
“Wh… what are you doing?” asked Orna, eyes lolling in her head.
“Getting paid. That money is going to go a long way,” said Heidi, surgically removing every weapon on Orna’s person before smashing her once more across the nose to knock her out.
Heidi stood and leveled her slinger at Orna’s unconscious face. She looked up at an imager and shouted to the heavens, “What do you want, Bill? Because I want a bounty bonus!”
Each character of “VICTORY?” spun in place like an ancient slot machine, revealing the phrase, “BOUNTY BONUS!”
“Well, well, well!” guffawed the announcer. “It looks like we’ve got ourselves a decision to make, everyone! Cast your votes now, and don’t forget, you can vote as much as you want for the next ten seconds.”
A pair of buttons popped up inside Cordell’s booth labeled: KILL HER, 1000A and SPARE HER, 2000A. A shivering status bar depicted a tug-of-war between the two voting options as the wealthy elite poured money into Bill’s coffers.
Armin shoved Cordell aside, sending him sprawling to the floor. Cordell looked up to see his finance guy tap in an unknown account number before hitting the spare option at least ten times, maybe more. Every time the vote got close to fifty percent, Armin smashed his choice a few more times until it was safely at plus four percent.
“Should we add another five seconds onto the clock?” laughed Bill, and though Armin’s skin drained of color, he didn’t flinch at the prospect.
He pressed the button twice more to preserve the lead, and the system blasted out messages of congratulations to everyone in the “spare” camp.
“That was a good chunk of scratch,” Cordell said, placing a hand on Armin’s shoulder. “Could you afford it?”
Armin’s eyes hardened. “Can’t afford to live with myself, otherwise.”
“If it’d been me…” Cordell passed him another broken smoke, and they both lit up with trembling fingers. “I don’t know. I didn’t have that cash ready, that’s for sure.”
“Bad luck, Lamarr. Bad luck,” came Bill’s voice over a speaker in their private booth.
“We didn’t lose,” said Cordell, looking across the arena for Bill. “The Dervish went down and you changed the rules. How about you just pay us and we can be on our way?”
In the opposite skybox, Bill pressed his comm to his ear as he nearly doubled over in laughter. “You bet on the Desert Rats, not the outside possibility that both teams would be destroyed in the combat.”
Cordell knew it was pointless, but he couldn’t stop a complaint from slipping out. “The fight ends when a fighter dies.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Bill. “The fight ends when I say it does. See, there’s always the possibility that they’ll all kill each other, and no one is going to walk away. That’s when I rake in the most money. Ain’t my fault Heidi knows a good deal when she sees it.”
“She shot a little boy and screwed over all of your customers,” said Cordell. “I think this is going to cost you.”
“Stream value got up over ten mil,” said Bill, “and I get to keep Orna, who is my biggest moneymaker. Oh, and Armin, thanks for paying me for the privilege. That ought to about cover my losses on this codpiece.” Then he gave Cordell a pernicious smile across the battleground. “But, uh, I’m sure Heidi is packing her bags if you want to give her a ride. The little freak always ate too much, anyway. Y’all take care now.”
A door slid open behind them, and Sunny stood at the ready with two other guards, as if she’d need them. “Gentlemen,” she said, “I hope you’ve enjoyed the entertainments. As your account with us is no longer in good standing, I’ll be escorting you to your ship.”
“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do!” Cordell shouted at his first mate. “We’re going to report those child-killing slavers to the GATO Human Rights Commission and—”
“You…” Leon picked up his coffee mug with shaking hands and reddening cheeks. “You gambled away our commission, and now you want us to go to war?”
Cordell had taken him down a peg a few times during the bad old days, and he prepared himself to pull out the Mean Captain Voice to put any rebellion to rest.
“Now, I’m not asking—” Cordell began.
“No one wants to hear it, you double-crossing jackass!” Sera interrupted him—tiny, sweet Sera, who had never been anything but the most loyal pilot. “That was my down payment on a house!”
“And if we report them,” said Gary, his ordinarily-drunk quartermaster, “they’re going to put out hits on all of us, so you can take your crusade and blow it out the airlock. None of us want to hear it.”
“I have led you through fire and death, and this is where you want to draw the line?” asked Cordell, but his finality and fury were stymied by the looks on their faces. He shook his head and opened his mouth, but the words didn’t want to come. “Protecting slavers? I will break each and every one of you for this—”
Leon stepped in front of Cordell, filling up the view with his substantial bulk. Back in the early days, the first mate had been a gold-medal prize fighter. Now, he was tougher than jerky and twice as salty. “I wish you would try it, Captain.”
Cordell inclined his head, letting the storms inside him reach a crescendo. He’d have to show these scribblers why they shouldn’t step to a warship captain, and summoned his darkest expression. “So it’s mutiny, is it?”
Leon scoffed. “No, you pathetic washout. Mutiny is for missions, and we’re ashore. I quit.”
“Oh, real cute—” Cordell began.
“I do, too,” said Sera.
“Same,” said Gary.
They couldn’t have hit him harder if they’d dropped an asteroid on his head. Cordell’s breath hitched, and he coughed to cover it up. “What about you, Cookie?”
In the dim corner of the bridge, their heavyset chef climbed to his feet. The fellow had always been a stalwart fixture of the galley, and he’d packed on a lot of kilos after the Famine War, celebrating his new abundance of food. His love of cuisine had been a source of constant joy for the crew since the end of their lean days.
“You told me you’d stop gambling,” said Cookie. “You promised me back in the Belt.”
Cordell shook his head. “I wasn’t gambling. I didn’t have a choice.”
“You are such a disappointment,” he replied, and the words rocked Cordell like an anti-ship round. “I quit, too.”
Leon cracked a nasty smile. “There you have it, buddy. So from all of us to you: screw yourself.”
Armin clapped his hands together brightly. “Well this does tidy things up considerably. You see, by the terms of your contracts, you’ve just given up any rights to shares in the venture or rights to the Capricious.”
Leon wheeled on the finance guy. “You talking to me, pencil-neck? Never said I was giving up my share of the ship for free.”
“But you all did,” said Armin, “and I recorded it, and that makes it binding by the Taitutian arbitration clauses you all signed. Fear not, though. I’m not without mercy. I’d like to buy you all out. Since you’ve devalued your leverage, I will generously offer seventy-five percent of their value.”
“That’s garbage,” said Leon.
“Do you want to spend time fighting in court, or receive a severance package right now? Do you believe your share of this ship, under his command,” Armin pointed at Cordell, who restrained his annoyance, “Will be worth anything in the future? …because it’s just as likely to be scrap on some dead world, given the foolish chances he takes.”
The first mate failed to retort, and so Armin continued on. “Captain, can you afford your half if we go halvsies?”
“Barely,” said Cordell. “I’ll lose my apartment, and it’ll take a few days to get it.”
“Live on the ship, sir,” said Armin. “I’ll arrange an amenable buyout and send these reprobates on their way. I’m happy to float you until we can make the transfer. And, of course, if you fail to pay, Captain, the ship is legally mine.” He turned to Leon and offered a hand and a smile. “Do we have a deal?”
Slowly, the ex-first mate began to laugh. “Yeah. Yeah, that’ll work. I hope you’re ready when he gets you killed, Vandevere, because you don’t have what it takes to command.”
Everyone else agreed to the terms, as well, though they were more pleasant about it.
“I’ve always wanted to be first mate, Mister Woods,” said Armin, pulling up a screen and transferring ridiculous amounts of money to the other crewmembers. “You made it look so easy.”
“Just you wait, because—”
Armin’s polite smile returned. “No. I’ve completed the buyout, and I’ll thank you all to get the hell off my ship.”
And so they did, leaving Armin and Cordell standing on the bridge alone.
“That sucked,” said Cordell.
“Not really, sir. I got fifty percent of your ship for roughly thirty-eight percent of its value, and… Hm.” Cordell’s new first mate gestured to the pilot’s seat. “I can’t fly this thing.”
“I can, a little. Captains have to know that stuff. I want you on sensors,” said Cordell.
“I don’t actually know how to do that, either.”
Cordell squinted at him. “What do you know how to do?”
“Make buckets of money,” said Armin.
“Wow. That’s not going to help us much right now.”
“I disagree,” said Armin. “We have a ship for cheap because of my good financial instincts.”
Jamming his hands into his pockets, Cordell leaned back against the wall. “We just gave Bill even more money for the slave pits, and I’m pretty sure one of those kids is dead.”
“Yes, well… I’m not going to take Bill’s sins on my head. I kept Orna alive for another day.”
With a long sigh, Cordell slumped into the pilot’s chair. The scuffed duraplast upholstery creaked under him, and the cushions had long ago been molded to someone else’s butt. He warmed up the thrusters, and haltingly, brought the ship online for takeoff.
“You’re a smart guy. Would you please try operating the sensor station?” asked Cordell.
“Can I break it easily?” Armin replied.
He ramped the throttle, and the Capricious unsteadily rose into the air. “No. Just keep those scanners online. I want to know if Bill starts targeting us.”
“Hm. I already broke it.”
The ship almost listed as Cordell spun to look back at the fool. “What the hell, man?”
“I hit the calibrate button, and it’s supposed to zero out the data sources, right?”
Cordell’s breath hissed out through his nostrils. “Yes. What else did you do?”
“Nothing. It’s broken, though. Maybe Gary broke it.”
The ship rose higher into the air, and Cordell tried to keep his anger in check. In a single day, he’d managed to lose close to a million argents, along with an entire crew. Sure, he still had a first mate, provided that a worthless lump of skin could be called an officer.
“Just check it again!”
“I am, Captain,” said Armin, stressing each word. “It’s saying there’s a downed marauder fifty klicks from here, but it’s not pinging any hulls. If you want to see for yourself—”
Cordell began to think about all of the different ways he could threaten his new first mate.
And then he remembered the Marauder Distress Network.
Marauders were designed for fast drops into deadly areas, going where other ships simply couldn’t. If they went down, there were only two options: abandon them or get another marauder to mount a rescue. They had their own distress band, almost undetectable to other ships. Someone had a beacon.
“What does it say?” asked Cordell.
“Hold on. It’s in hex. Going to translate it.” A few beeps sounded as he rigged up a rudimentary sim behind Cordell. “Captain, have a look.”
“I’m flying the ship right now.”
“I think you’ll want to see this,” said Armin.
Cordell turned in his chair to see the first mate holding up a projection that read:
ORNA HERE STILL ALIVE ORNA HERE STILL ALIVE
“So what do we do?” asked the first mate.
Cordell smirked. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“A raid on a slaver prison with two crew to handle a whole ship? I think you may have a skewed sense of probability.”
Cordell’s heart thumped once, and the anger cleared from his mind, replaced with a strange exhilaration. “It’ll be a gamble.”
Reviewing is easy! You don’t have to write much. Heck, it could just be two words and a star rating. Your choice! Whatever you do is a huge help!