This story is really, actually free, but of course, I have an ulterior motive.
A BAD DEAL FOR THE WHOLE GALAXY is doing spectacularly, thanks in large part to readers like you! However, just like A BIG SHIP AT THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE, the story needs reviews to fly higher.
“Oh, no you don’t!” grunted Cordell as another volley of spells lanced out toward them from the hardened installation. He yanked the yoke to one side, pulling the ship’s bulk clear of the firing solution. “How the hell did they get the anti-air tower back up?”
They burned across the sands, flying low to preserve cover, and their target loomed before them. Glittering white bolts appeared across its surface, and more anti-ship lancers came blasting past the Capricious’s hull.
It turned out that Bill’s slave prison was a converted supply depot on the edge of the ruined Montemercy Star Base. Cordell had spent plenty of time in those halls during the war, and he knew it to be hardened against all sorts of attacks. It only made sense that Bill had was using it; it’d been in his jurisdiction back in the day, so he’d simply stolen it as Cordell had stolen the Capricious.
“It doesn’t matter! We need shields!” said Armin, staggering to his side. “I’ll take the controls.”
“You said you couldn’t fly!”
“I’m a motivated learner! Shields, please!”
Cordell let go of the controls and jumped up, allowing Armin to slide into the pilot’s chair. Stumbling across the bridge to the captain’s chair, Cordell slammed down the deployment button to bring his amps online. “Shields up!”
“We just missed the prison,” said Armin. “Should I slow down, or…”
Cordell eyed the geo display, watching their green dot sail past a red location pin. “Turn us around, and don’t hit the rocks!”
“I think I know where the ground is!”
As the ship banked right, Cordell watched the artificial horizon flow past on the projectors. Altimeter klaxons sounded, and he threw his shields across the ninety engine to protect it from the approaching ground.
“You like stats?” Cordell shouted over the glissando of magic as his shields were scraped against the desert gravel. “One in ten pilots die from rocks kills! Now pull up, but not too much or that gun will dice us!”
Cordell held on tightly to the Captain’s station, savoring the pull of his heels to the deck from the hard maneuver. There was nothing like heavy combat, and though he’d never admit it, he’d missed the wild surge of the ship under his feet.
“We’re going to have to land this thing sooner or later, and I know I’m going to crash!” Armin called back to him.
“We can’t land until you shoot that anti-air tower!”
“Shoot and fly?”
“Yes, Vandevere! It’s called piloting!”
“Well where is the damned gun?” he asked, insubordinate sass in his tone.
With an enraged shout, Cordell poured his magic into his shield spell and toggled on the amp locks, freezing it to the front of the ship.
“Switch with me!” said Cordell, rushing down the dais toward the pilot seat.
Armin jumped up and ran past to the captain’s station. A near-miss explosion sent him sprawling, and he scrambled upright with a bloody lip. “Now what do I do?”
“Get ready to divert the shields to aft when we make a pass or they’ll put one up the main drive.” He jumped into the pilot seat and armed the keel slinger. Sure, it hadn’t been used for a couple of years, but it’d be good to blow off the cobwebs.
If Gary hadn’t quit as quartermaster, Cordell would’ve fired his ass right then.
He centered up on the anti-air tower. “Brace for impact, Mister Vandevere.”
“What? Why? …oh.”
The ship slammed into the tower, Cordell’s shields going spiderwebbed before fizzling out. The armored belly took the rest of the hit, toppling the structure like a sandcastle. Armin came careening down the dais into the back of Cordell’s chair with a startled scream, hitting his torso hard on one of the struts. He took a wheezing breath, face turning red, but Cordell didn’t have time to pick him up.
He brought the ship around and set him down in the center of a dusty courtyard, now peppered with streaks of flaming anti-air debris.
Cordell spun the keel imager to see a pack of guards emerging from the nearest exit, hauling tripod-mounted slingers to pop up. He opened up the throttle on the main drive and washed them with gale-force exhaust, melting their clothes and setting their hair on fire before blowing them away.
Armin struggled to his feet, clutching his ribs. “I think that’s the guard shack.”
“How sure are you?”
“Mostly. I can probably access the schematics if I can have more time.”
“Let’s roll the dice,” said Cordell, and he pumped the throttle hard, sending a shockwave into the building to scatter it to the winds.
The ball of light and subsequent explosion really brought it home that no, that building was the ammunition storage magazine.
The Capricious rocked on its struts, and one of them folded up, sending him listing lazily to one side. It’d still fly, but there would be some problems.
“We should probably take more time on the next decision,” said Cordell, trying not to think about all the money he’d managed to lose that day.
“Captain, I can secure the ship and go through the old schematics. I’ll rig a model to predict where they’re keeping Orna. If she built a beacon, there has to be a workshop.” Sweat beaded on his brow, and Cordell couldn’t be sure, but Armin probably had a few broken ribs. “You get her.”
“And if something happens to me, you can’t fly out of here.”
“I’ll drag you down in a fight,” said Armin, eyes bright. “We have the element of surprise. Time to act.”
That had sounded like a really good idea until Cordell was standing at the door to the cellblock, slinger in one hand and shield magic in the other. Beyond, there would be a menagerie of unsavory killers armed to the teeth—the wardens of Bill’s gladiators.
Maybe he’d killed enough of them with the engine trick.
He reared back and directed his shield into the door, buckling it inward. He hit it again, and the regraded steel came flying off the hinges in a cloud of dust. He rushed inside, shield up, slinger at the ready.
Beyond, he found the sterile cinderblock walls of an old government building. Dozens of doors lined the walls: the secure storage facilities that were used for state secrets and heavy tech during the war. Cordell crept up to the nearest one and peered through the narrow window to find a face on the other side, and he almost shot the guy.
It was another gladiator, shirtless and scarred across his dozens of tanned muscles, and he regarded Cordell with a desperate hunger. “Let me out,” he growled. “I promise I won’t hurt you.”
“Uh, hold that thought,” said Cordell, and rushed down the hallway, taking cover where he could behind the odd column or stack of boxes. He tapped his comm. “Okay, where is the workshop?”
“Based on the power grid needs, there should be a milling and machining operation due south of you,” said Armin. “Two hundred meters. I’m sending you a waypoint the old fashioned way, but we need to buy an aggregator.”
“Noted,” Cordell whispered as he pulled up his portable projector to orient.
A slinger bolt struck the column beside his head, spattering him with hot rock dust, and Cordell shouted in surprise. He squeezed into the lee of the column as more rounds chewed up the edges. A look at his tracker informed him that he needed to head straight through the hostiles.
The shots fell silent.
“Lamarr,” came Bill’s voice over the loudspeakers, “is that you trying to steal from me?”
“Yeah,” Cordell called back, unsure of whether there were mics listening for is answer, or the guy just wanted to taunt him before killing him. “You mad, buddy?”
“Do me a favor and surrender. I’m on the way, and we can discuss this like gentlemen.”
Across the hallway, he spotted the cell door control, an old-fashioned mechanical lever designed to perform in case of a power failure.
“I’ve got no more words for a slaving scumbag,” said Cordell, bracing his shield and ducking out to fire.
He took down two of them before the fire spells came roaring at him. Cordell stood in the lee of his shield as the air disappeared, replaced with flames hot enough to singe his arm hairs. He roared with each labored step toward the lever, and by the time he got there, he found the metal red-hot. He’d never get it open by hand.
Cordell flipped the safety on his slinger pistol and hooked the butt around the lever, yanking as hard as he could while simultaneously hoping he didn’t shoot himself in the crotch. The catch came loose on the second try, and the cell doors opened up.
To his delight, the gladiators weren’t exactly stoked to see the guards. They came rushing out of their cells like people possessed, and powerful spells soon joined the flash of slinger rounds. They overwhelmed the fire mage, and the flames went out.
“Mister Vandevere!” Cordell shouted into his comm. “How sure are you about this machine shop? Things got complicated!”
“One hundred percent,” said Armin. “Power needs match large-scale CNC fingerprints perfectly.”
Cordell had to bat away one of the gladiators that mistook him for a guard—or the woman plain didn’t care about friend versus foe. “Okay. Man, I feel sorry for these poor fools.”
He channeled everything he had into his shield, rendering it thicker than plate glass. That’d always been his strong suit—sheer throughput. He positioned it dead ahead of himself and charged.
Brawling guards and gladiators alike were punted out of the way as he rushed for the far doors to the machine shop. He reached his destination and peered back along the hallway to find a lot of stunned, prone people. Then he kicked the doors open and rushed past.
He found a world in chaos. The manufacturing units, typically so pedestrian in their purpose, had come to life to attack and dismember any guards present. No longer did they mill metal, but bone, and Cordell stopped in his tracks. One of the other gladiators screeched at him, so he promptly slammed the door in the man’s face. No point in fighting when it wasn’t necessary.
“Orna!” he called over the buzzing of machines. He wanted to search her out, but he’d be damned if he took another step into that room. Someone tried to kick the door open behind him, and he put a couple of slinger shots through to give them something to think about.
“Orna!” he repeated.
The words were almost too quiet for him to hear, but they softly wafted above the din. He turned to see the little black-haired girl standing beside one of the machines, her palm atop its metal arms. She stroked it as though it were a pet, and the armatures bowed before her.
“Mechanist’s mark, huh? I would really appreciate it if you didn’t have those things attack me,” said Cordell.
“I’ll consider it. If you try to touch me, I’ll kill you.”
He raised his palms, but never dismissed his shield; he couldn’t be certain she wouldn’t try to take him out and hijack the ship. “Yeah, I can see that, and it’s honestly not on the agenda. How did you get out of your cell?”
“I’ve got to work on my gear sometime. They let me come here under supervision,” she said. “Except I made a beacon instead. When you attacked, everyone got real distracted, and I took care of them.”
“Good, uh…” He gestured to the nearest body, trying to keep his stomach calm. “Good job.”
“Sam is dead,” she said. “Heidi left.”
“Bill told me you’d bet on my freedom. Laughed at you.” Her little face reddened. “Laughed at me after Sam…”
Cordell didn’t have the time to be yammering, but he worried about trying to drag her out. How could she trust him? She’d been forced into slavery and murder, starved and beaten. How could he show her that he was safe, that he wouldn’t turn around and drop her into a pit somewhere else? After all, she was so well-known that Bill had cheated to keep her.
But how could he trust her, either? She was a tiny killer, conditioned to take every single advantage an opponent afforded her. If he gave her a slinger, would she shoot him? She was clearly a mechanist; would she steal the ship when it was her watch? It wasn’t hard to imagine her donning a spacesuit and depressurizing the whole thing.
Orna’s nostrils flared. “He basically killed Sam, himself. He has to pay.”
In that moment, Cordell glimpsed the burning spark she held inside, and knew that in Orna’s heart, she wanted to do something good—something right. He pulled out his backup slinger, its safety on, and checked the mag: ten shots. Then he held it, butt-first, in her direction.
The child’s eyes widened like she’d spotted a present she’d always wanted. “You really do want to rescue me.”
Every articulating machine arm in the room spun to face Cordell, deploying a wide array of cutting and grinding implements with a whine.
“Give me your slinger,” she said.
Cordell’s eyebrows knit together. “I am giving you my slinger. That’s what this is.”
“No,” she said. “Give me your slinger. I want two slingers.”
He glanced back at the door, window scorched black by the spellfire in the hall. “Are you kidding right now?”
One of the grinder blades unfolded from the rafters, drifting perilously close to Cordell’s face.
“I never kid,” said Orna. “Give me your slinger or your head… then your slinger.”
He placed both slingers on the ground and kicked them to Orna, who let go of the machines to pick them up. Without her link to the computers, Cordell could’ve bashed her with a shield, fought back out the front door, and been back on the ship for supper.
“Thanks,” said Orna, taking the weapons. “Sorry.”
Cordell’s mouth twisted to one side. “Don’t mention it.”
“Captain,” came Armin’s voice over Cordell’s comm. “The Capricious just picked up a convoy of bandit technicals headed our way. We may have destroyed the magazine, but they’ll have pintle-mounted—”
“I get it. They’ll blow up the ship,” said Cordell.
“And capture and torture you,” Armin added. “Don’t forget the slow death.”
Cordell looked back at Orna. “If you don’t get out of here with us now, Bill’s people are going to swarm this place.”
“That’s what I’m counting on,” she said, walking to the far door, away from the carnage, and peering out. “Going to get my Ranger, and I’m going to make Bill sorry for what he did. You seem smart, so, um… you can probably make it out of here without your gun.”
Putting his hands on his hips, Cordell frowned. “Young lady, that’s not a very nice way to treat your hero.”
“You’re not my hero,” she countered. “And I did ten fights before I got to use weapons. You can manage ten minutes.”
“Aren’t you forgetting that we need to go?”
She opened the door. “No. I’ll see you there. Don’t leave without me, but if you follow me, I’ll—”
“Kill me, yeah. I figured.”
She ducked out into the far hallway, and it took all of two seconds for the slinger fire to start. He winced with each shot, but decided to abide by her instructions and let her clear the scene.
He tapped his comm. “Come in, Vandevere.”
“Don’t tell me we’ve got a problem,” came his acidic voice.
“We’ve got a problem. She wants to wait on rescue until she can take out Bill.”
“Then get back to the ship. There are some rather nasty looking people outside, and I’d love it if you’d shoot them.”
Cordell searched his pockets: a lighter, a few cigarettes and some lint. He cast about for something to use, but Orna would’ve taken any guns she could find.
She had, however, left a spare radial saw armature, which bore an uncanny resemblance to an axe. He hefted it—dangerous in his hands, too heavy for a child, and sighed.
He was never one to manually beat ass.