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.
It wasn’t the fight back to the ship that took everything out of Cordell—though it had certainly sucked.
No, it was reaching his warm, inviting home, only to turn and see the bright clouds of dust from Bill’s approaching motorcade.
“I thought we had time!” Cordell shouted into his comm as he ran for the rear cargo entrance. Maybe he’d make it before they filled him up with holes.
“And I thought that Gary had properly calibrated the sensors,” Armin said. “Run.”
Bolts of fire shredded the ground in front of Cordell, and he skidded to a halt, falling onto his rump. He scrambled backward as another deadly fence of slinger spells ripped apart the air between himself and his ship. They penned him in; they would’ve already shot him if they were going to do so.
So he stopped moving, knowing that if he tried to summon a shield, he’d be ventilated before he could ever call it up.
Bill’s fast-movers came screaming into the courtyard like a pack of race cars, wheeling about the Capricious before settling in front of Cordell. A precipitation of sand peppered Cordell’s tight curls, which annoyed him, though he’d probably never get another shower unless he was very, very lucky.
“Lamarr!” shouted Bill over the echoing loudspeakers. “Don’t that beat all?”
When the dust cleared, the pack of freshly-arrived goons had formed up a few dozen paces away, alternating looks of paranoia and self-satisfaction. There had to be at least twenty-five, five to a vehicle, and ten of the mercs rushed into the prison complex with heavy weapons and tripsticks to subdue the gladiators.
Bill climbed out of his car, placed his hands on his hips and stretched, thrusting his codpiece out for all assembled. “Whew, lord, that ride never gets easier. Think I’ll have to take a finger from you just for the inconvenience.”
Cordell sat up and raised his hands slowly. “I’m impressed with your generosity. I’d just assumed that you’d shoot me.”
“Why would I do that? Your shields are going to play real good in the fighting pits. Got a nice aesthetic to them,” Bill said, and raised a finger as though he’d just remembered a great idea. “Though we wouldn’t want someone recognizing you, so I’m going to have to tear up your face and cut out your tongue.”
Cordell channeled every ounce of scorn he could muster. “You betrayed the honor of your office, general.”
Bill laughed until he was red in the face. “You’re really serious right now.”
“If the rest of us had known about you, none of the brass would’ve tolerated you. Summary execution in the field, I’d imagine.”
Bill rolled his eyes. “It’s called a retirement policy, Lamarr. General Wynn sold secrets to the enemy. Maximo cofinanced my op here. Hell, you stole your ship, so don’t come squawking to me about honor.”
Sunny climbed out beside him, her tight dress replaced with a tactical suit, her stats and charts traded for a shoulder-mounted ground-to-air missile system. When she looked at Cordell, it was like she’d spotted tilted frame on the wall: kind of annoying, easy to fix without a second thought.
Sunny,” Bill said, making sure Cordell could hear him, “if that ship gets one meter into the air, shoot it down. We’re going to get us a new marauder.”
“Yes, sir.” She aimed the launcher at the Capricious, and lights danced down one side as the crystals charged to fire. Then she made an expression like she smelled something she didn’t like and turned to the right.
Without warning she dumped the launcher onto Bill, who complained in surprise, and snatched out a slinger rifle from the troop transport. When she raised her hand, the others took note, and she signaled them to aim at the nearby buildings. Whatever she sensed on the nearby roof had her fully on edge.
A tiny flash reflected off one of the rooftop units. Then a few seconds later, another flash popped up. It took him a minute to recognize the source—Orna’s beacon.
“Captain,” Armin’s tinny voice was a whisper over Cordell’s comm. “I think I can fire the thrusters again if you can cast a shield.”
“No. No. No,” he whispered.
“It’s just this throttle lever thing, right?”
Cordell tried to stress the urgency without raising his voice. “There’s no way I could withstand that, Armin!”
Sunny immediately turned her gun on Cordell and opened her mouth to speak—
—But Ranger came leaping off the roof in all of its patchwork glory, landing directly atop one of the transports at the rear of the group. The beacon flashed atop its back—a battle standard of makeshift parts. The bot clawed its way inside the vehicle like it was opening a tin of meat, and terrified screams erupted from the cab.
Sunny shouldered her rifle and began pouring spells into the flaming wreckage, backing up like she was taking a casual stroll through a battlefield. All troops focused up on Ranger, who burst from the side of the cab in a whirl of screaming metal and smoke.
That was probably why they missed Orna sprinting ghost-like across the sands, straight for Bill. One of her hands was clasped tightly around a ball of something glittering. The other held a… bat? A sword? Cordell finally understood it to be a huge, rusty rasp, like an iron spike covered in shark’s teeth.
No slingers. She wasn’t trying to live through this. She was trying to inflict maximum pain.
Cordell wanted to call out to her, to tell her to run for the ship, to get that bot to take out Sunny (if such a thing were even possible)—but he would give her presence away. They’d blow Orna away easily, fixing the Ranger problem in the process.
“Armin, get ready to fire the thrusters!” Cordell said, climbing to his feet. “Oh, Cordell,” he mumbled to himself. “What the hell are you doing?”
He wouldn’t let a child throw her life away on Bill.
Gritting his teeth, Cordell ripped out the sort of muscular sigil that had made him such a hit at OCS. It was a rare cast, the kind where everything fell into place and the shield thrummed with whispered power.
Sunny turned on him with wide eyes and tossed her autoslinger rifle aside. Cordell readied himself for whatever magic she had, which would be no doubt horrifying.
Instead, she snatched the rocket launcher from Bill’s hands and aimed down the sights at him.
Cordell had always hoped his last words would be something better than, “Oh… Dang.”
“Bill!” Orna screeched, leaping into the air and bringing the rasp down across his face.
The many blades across its surface flensed the skin from Bill, rendering him a horrifying mess of torn red and white. At first, Cordell had thought the blow lethal—even without the blades, the rasp was still a few kilos worth of metal smashing into Bill’s head.
Then he realized she’d pulled back at the last minute to spare his life.
Orna whipped her hand over him, throwing a pink cloud of eidolon dust into Bill’s bloody wound. All of the healing in the universe was never going to fix the scars that she’d just delivered to her victim. In his years as a captain, through the terrible battles and loss, Cordell had never heard a man scream quite like that.
Cordell threw one foot in front of the other in all-out sprint, even as the engines began to spin up behind him. Orna and Bill grew in his vision, and Sunny abandoned her rocket launcher to protect her boss, a variety of blades ejecting from hidden recesses in her arms.
Orna raised the rasp for another blow, but Sunny came in hot, slashing the weapon from the child’s hand and punting Orna away. Cordell changed course, sliding in beside Orna and shoving her, face-down onto the ground. He whipped his shield over their backs like a turtle and took one last look at Sunny through its glassy surface.
She understood exactly what was about to happen, and the assassin relaxed.
With a deafening roar, a wave of starship exhaust sent her flying into the desert like an ember on the breeze. Bill, his vehicles and his men went tumbling like toys, and Cordell kept Orna firmly pressed against the dirt. The air grew unbearably hot, and each breath seemed to contain less and less oxygen. The shield began to crack.
“Shut it off!” Cordell cried.
His skin felt as though it would slough off. He smelled burning hair.
And the sudden silence rendered his shout of “off” unreasonably loud.
“Sorry,” said Armin. “The handle got stuck in this throttle lock thing. Had to wrestle it free.”
Cordell’s shield evaporated, and he rolled off Orna to allow her to breathe. He looked around for Ranger, and found the bot hunkered down behind him, having used the lee of the shield to spare itself the blast. It looked up at Cordell with its lenses and cocked its head.
“We have to find him,” groaned Orna, teeth gnashing. “Make sure he’s dead.”
He heard a sizzle and looked down to see that she’d gotten eidolon dust in some of her cuts as well. That kind of pain would’ve flattened most people.
In the far distance, he spied the telltale cloud of more vehicles approaching—no doubt scavs who wanted to get into Bill’s good graces.
“No time,” said Cordell, hauling her to her feet.
“Don’t touch me! I’m going to kill him!”
“Orna!” He didn’t let go of her arm, despite Ranger’s approach. “We have to leave now!”
He let her free when the bot was within striking distance, and raised his hands in surrender.
She cast about for her rasp, which had blown away like a pine needle on the breeze. “He dies today!”
“He probably just did! You—” he pointed to her, “you live today! Please—” He mustered every ounce of officer’s decorum that his scuffed-up, bloody clothes would afford him. “Just live, okay? We can get you out of here, but it has to be now. There will always be time for revenge.”
She stood before him, and Ranger lifted her onto its battered shoulders. Her frigid irises seemed to glow in the firelight, and sparks drifted up around her like the eyes of demons rising to her call. This was a child with a destiny, and he wouldn’t see it burned on this scorched world.
He held out his hand. “Orna, come on. You’re more than Bill Scarrett.”
Her eyes flicked to the buildings, screams and slinger fire wafting up to join the acidic clouds above, and there was a franticness to them. Cordell recognized something he’d seen in soldiers at the end of the war: the sudden realization that everything they’d fought for was ruined.
Total war had consumed their pasts. The future could only lay in abandoning their sacrifices.
Orna’s lips pressed tightly together, and a tear rolled from one eye before she wiped it on the back her her arm. She glanced back one more time at the scattered wreckage of bodies. Cordell couldn’t imagine that Bill had survived, but the worm had made it through everything else.
With rattling steps, Ranger carried Orna past Cordell, toward the opening cargo ramp of the Capricious.
Cordell lounged against the central console on the bridge, elbow propped on its housing and a cigarette hanging down in his fingers. He watched the smoke wind over his fingers with some satisfaction before taking another clinking sip of whiskey.
“What have we done?” he asked, voice low in the sunset light of a late afternoon cycle.
Armin slid into the chair beside him, taking extra care to be quiet. He cocked an eyebrow. “Well, we threw away our commission, spent a ton of money on pushing buttons, fired the crew, got into a small war and stole a valuable prize fighter from the worst person I’ve ever met.”
He tapped his glass against Cordell’s wincing with the noise. “So, nothing short of the right thing.”
Cordell popped his neck, and the bones sent a painful jolt into his aching skull. “We should do the bad thing for awhile.”
“And maybe hire some people,” said Cordell.
“Yeah,” Armin replied. “I know a chem smuggler in Thoen. We could run some contraband with him.”
The captain regarded his first mate with considerable side-eye. “After all of your moralizing…”
“Medical stuff,” said Armin, rolling his eyes. “We’d be running blockades to break monopolies.”
“Hm.” Cordell sat back in his chair and took a few puffs. “I like it.”
Armin took one of the cigarettes and lit up as well. “We’re not really going to drop her with the CRA, are we?”
The Clarkesfall Refugee Agency was bad at its best, and corrupt as hell at its worst. It’d been started by war profiteers, and the general public had no idea how many children scarcely ate or slept in their care. Sure, there were good people trying to help, but there were so many needy that the staff always burned out.
Cordell pursed his lips. “No. I suppose we’re not.”
Both men looked to the corner of the bridge where Ranger lay on its side, central armor compartment propped open. Orna slept the pilot’s seat, which was upholstered with a hodgepodge of filthy, tattered fabric. A normal person would never have managed to sleep a wink, but the child was able to curl up inside its chest.
“And I don’t want to leave her anywhere Bill could find her. You know, uh… if he made it.”
“He’s a vindictive one, for sure,” said Armin. “What if she wants to stay on the ship?”
“You know this is no place for a child.”
“Neither is Clarkesfall,” said Armin, ashing into a chipped mug they’d brought out for just that purpose. The Capricious mission badge still adorned the side, though bits of it had worn off.
“So, what? We’re just supposed to be her dads?”
Armin smirked. “I wouldn’t get ahead of yourself. Just think about this—she’s been down there, paying for the mistakes we made. Can’t you give her a measure of happiness?”
That night, they slept in shifts, each watching over Orna as the jump bubble carried them far from the ruinous wastes, the terrible memories, and Bill Scarrett.
When Cordell tried to wake Orna the next morning, she snapped Ranger’s chestplate shut around herself. When he explained that it was time for breakfast, she engaged a remarkable noise-cancelling system that dampened his loudest shouts to mere whispers. She’d certainly made some adjustments to the old rescue armor. So, when she refused to come out, he did the only sensible thing.
He went down to the galley and fried every sausage and strip of bacon he could find. To this, he added a pan of cornbread, and Orna was at the doorway within minutes. He watched her warily enter from his station at the stove, pleased to see his plan had worked.
“I hope you’re hungry,” he chuckled, returning his attention to the food, and when he looked up again, he found her holding his old slinger pistol. “Oh, uh, could you put that down, sweetheart?”
“I brought it back. Figured you’d want it.”
“So you did, but it’s not a toy, so—”
She gave him a disgusted scoff and ejected the mag before racking the slide. Then she threw the empty pistol at his feet, then plopped down at one of the tables.
“’Not a toy,’” she repeated.
Heat prickled in his cheeks. Of course she knew it wasn’t a toy. She’d only been on the ship a day, and he was already screwing this up.
“What do you like to eat?” asked Cordell.
“Food,” was her immediate reply.
He tried smiling at her over the kitchen counter, and it was like grinning at a rock. “What’s your favorite food?”
“ADF-ZX rations have the most calories.” Then she scowled at him. “You’re going to give me some, right?”
He emptied the fryer cartridges onto a big plate, along with a half-dozen wedges of piping-hot cornbread, edges glistening with crispy perfection.
“Why wouldn’t I?” he asked, popping a stray, broken piece of bacon into his mouth. He wiped his hands on his apron and started to pick up the plate when she shouted so loud he nearly dropped it.
“Give me some! Don’t play with me!”
Cordell froze, then looked out to find her standing on the table, eyes turning pink with angry tears. Before he did anything else, he handed the heaping plate through the window, into her trembling hands. She flushed as soon as it was in her grasp, and sat down at the table to dig in.
“Sorry,” she mumbled after one little sausage link. “Sometimes… the guards would cook near us to get us upset.”
“You can’t eat all of that by yourself,” Cordell said. “Not if you’re starving.”
“The winner always gets to eat,” she mumbled around a mouthful of biscuit. “I mostly win the lethal fights. Not a great boxer.”
Cordell poured himself a coffee, grabbed a half-ration bar, and resolved that he wouldn’t try to take any of Orna’s breakfast for himself. By the time he’d reached his seat at the table across from her, she’d eaten half the plate.
“Slow down, Orna,” he urged, and she looked at him like she’d stab him with the fork. “I’m asking you to—”
Her skin went pale, and her eyes widened. She coughed once, and crumbs of food dribbled from her mouth.
“Orna? You okay, kid?”
She looked at him and stood up slowly, her muscles shuddering.
Then she collapsed into a spasming mess.