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Chapter 3


Near the jump gate of planet Hardy

"Clear it," I whispered. "Leave the lights off."

Blackness surrounded me. In Lobo's soundless interior, sitting in complete darkness, I still closed my eyes, as if doing so could somehow wipe away the traces of what I'd just watched. Dampness squeezed from under my eyelids and wetted my cheeks. I don't cry. I haven't since the day on Dump when I swore I'd never again give anyone the satisfaction of watching me sob, but sometimes I tear up, usually not knowing I've done so until I feel the moisture on my cheeks or realize that the world in front of me has blurred.

I shook my head slightly. Either Lim's recording was real and she needed my help, or someone was playing me. The first order of business was to determine which.

"You've checked the entire recording—not just what I watched, but all of it—for remnants?" I said.

"Please," Lobo said, the sarcasm in his voice turning the word into two syllables, "what do you think I am? Some household comm antique with hundred-year-old software stupid enough to let a virus-laden message inside its firewall? Surely—"

I cut him off. "I know, I know," I said. "You're a hyper-intelligent Predator-Class Assault Vehicle whose every molecule is a nano-enhanced computing system. Sometimes, though, it helps me to understand a problem if I work through the obvious questions."

"If that's easier for you than thinking intelligently," Lobo said, "who am I to ask you to strain yourself simply to spare me annoyance? Why worry about my psychological well-being? Sure, if I were to snap, I could destroy an entire planet in the throes of my justifiable rage, but you don't need to worry about that. I'll be fine."

"What has gotten into you?" I said. "You're normally dramatic, but suicide talk? Since when have you considered suicide or even come close to losing control?"

"I didn't say I was considering killing myself," he said, "and my control is, as you are well aware, perfect, like so much of the rest of me. I was merely pointing out the risks should I—"

"Ah, I understand." I shook my head again, this time at my own slowness, knowing he could see me in IR. "You've already watched the other attachments, and you're distracting me from them."

He said nothing.

"I don't need you to protect me," I said, "and I sure don't want you deciding what I should and should not see."

"Are you sure?" he said. This time, there was no sarcasm, no irony in his tone. "How do you imagine this can end?"

"Maybe we can help Lim," I said. Only in the silence did I realize how loudly I'd spoken, how tight my jaw was.

"Maybe we can," Lobo said, "but at what cost to us, to you? Does Alissa have any idea what she's asking? Do you even know where Tumani is?"

Alissa Lim and I had served together in the Shosen Advanced Weapons Corporation, the Saw, a group that was for my money the best military force in the universe. We were leading our squads into a battle on Nana's Curse, a sparsely populated planet being raped by a fanatic army, to secure a small collection of huts that passed for a village. What we'd found instead of a fight was a horror show: a few pantless enemy soldiers, a stack of dead bodies, and several raped and killed children.

We executed those men then and there. In the process, Lim lost something of herself. I'd had to pull her off the last of them and force her to leave.

"Yes," I said, "yes Lim does." After a moment, I added, "And, no, I don't know anything about Tumani."

"It's as sad and backward a planet as exists in all the human worlds," Lobo said. "Its one large land mass features a desert on the west, a coast of unusable cliff beaches on the right, and a vast jungle in the center. Other than wood, it has no special natural resources worth the cost of retrieving and shipping them. Its jump gate has two apertures, one that links to an Expansion Coalition planet and the other to a Frontier Coalition world. Its population is under three million, and they and it matter so little that neither the EC nor the FC has ever pressed them to join. It's an independent world no one wants."

That was rare, because the three planetary coalitions were nothing if not acquisitive.

"Fine, it's a pit of a planet. Why does that matter?"

"Because we should know what we'd be risking ourselves for. Because not every fight on every planet is ours. Because whether the government or the rebels win their war is not our problem."

"You think I don't know that?" I said, again louder than I'd intended. "And it's not about their war, not if I know Lim. It's about the children."

"Of course it is," Lobo said, his affect completely flat.

"We didn't seek this problem, but a friend brought it to us, and she asked us for help." I paused and forced myself to continue more calmly. "She asked us, and those children need someone. Are you suggesting we not go?"

"Would it matter if I were?" Lobo said. "That's a rhetorical question; I already know the answer. And to answer your question, no, I'm not."

I nodded my head and opened my eyes to directly confront the blackness. "Good. So let's get on with it. What else was in the data stream?"

"Some contact info woven fairly cleverly among the images. Anyone who found one of these messages and managed to get by the authentication protocol would still have to work to find her."

"Where does she want us to meet her?"


So she was still working where I'd last seen her, where she'd been shot helping me, where I'd met Lobo. I was surprised that three years later she was still there, but it had been a beautiful planet, and her security company had gotten the Frontier Coalition contract to police the colonized portions of that world. Though I'd always thought of her as being one of those people, like me, who never settles anywhere, I realized I had no basis for that assumption; I had projected my own feelings onto her.

"Get us in the queue to jump," I said. "We're going there."


"How many more attachments?"

"Two," Lobo said, "but if we're already committed to heading to Macken, there's no need to watch them."

I was squeezing the arms of the couch so hard my forearms hurt. I forced myself to let go of them and put my hands in my lap. I took a long, slow breath.

"Show me the next one."


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