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Chapter 1


Near the jump gate of planet Hardy

"If I show you, you'll be in."

Alissa Lim, the woman in the holo floating in the still air in front of me, paused and stared intently ahead, confident I would be listening, sure I would be focusing on her.

She was right. I was.

"I don't know where you are," she continued, "or when you'll find one of these messages, so maybe it'll be too late, and you won't have to make this decision."

Another long pause. Another focused stare.

"But if it's not, and if you watch any of the attachments, you'll find me, and you'll argue with me, but in the end you'll join me. That's even what I want, obviously, or I wouldn't have planted these recordings on every planet I could manage, but I guess I felt—" she hung her head "—I felt that you should know I have a sense of what getting involved might cost you. If I didn't think we needed you, I wouldn't ask, but we do. We need you, and we need Lobo."

"Freeze it," I said.

"Done," Lobo said, his voice coming from everywhere and nowhere, "but all that remains is a few seconds of her standing there."

I got out of the pilot couch and approached the holo slowly, as if Lim might spring from it and attack me. Lobo had positioned it exactly in the center of his front cabin command area and angled her face toward me. He rotated it as I moved, until I said, "Leave it." I walked around it, examining the image from all sides.

"There's nothing else to learn," Lobo said. "If someone made Alissa do this, they were wise enough to rinse this part of the recording of everything except her."

Lim wore a plain black jumpsuit, no visible pockets, no logos, almost certainly armored. On most people it would have faded into the kind of bland garment you pass in a crowd and never notice. On her, it accented perfectly the richer, darker black of her long, straight hair, the almost glowing mellow golden tone of her skin, her full and wide and ever so slightly reddish lips. She was as astonishingly beautiful as the last time I'd seen her, a bit over three years ago.

When she'd rescued me from a torturer.

When she'd gotten shot helping me save a girl I'd inadvertently placed in harm's way.

I owed her, and she knew it.

I settled back into the pilot's couch.

"Turn off the lights," I said.

"You could heed her warning and stop watching," Lobo said. "We could jump to another planet and pretend we never saw this."

"You know better," I said. Lobo wasn't just my ship, nor was he simply the most capable artificial intelligence ever created. He was also, after three years together, my closest friend.

"Yes, I do," he said.

The lights winked out.

For a moment, I sat in total blackness. The soft couch gave me the illusion of floating in a silent, dark, and still nothingness, much as Lobo and I were suspended in space near the jump gate for Hardy, the planet where I'd spent the last six months staying as far from the attention of any planetary coalition as I could and wondering what to do next.

"Play the first one," I said.


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