“Of Shadows and Caves” by David Weber and Richard Fox
Visitors to Port Montclair had to remember three things: Head down, mouth shut, and no questions asked.
The planet Montclair had an appealing enough name, but the world was not a “clear mountain,” but a desert with hurricane force winds and blown sand that would scour anyone down to the bone within minutes. Being aboard the orbiting station was a bit safer, but not by much.
A dark-skinned spacer in a longshoreman’s cheap vac suit and worn equipment harness sat on a barstool overlooking the station’s "walking street." This part of the promenade was one of the first stops for spacers after months in vacuum. The many bars and clubs promised to exchange pay for all manner of pleasure—human, alien, and robotic.
Silas took a sip of his beer, which was awful but at least cold. The street was busy with scruffy spacers. The foot traffic had doubled in the past ten minutes, which lined up with the expected arrival of passengers and crew from the Arizona Bay.
The pedestrians and customers of the walking street were almost all human. A few Quarn lumbered past in their heavy atmosphere suits, though, and a single Rishathan matriarch—three meters tall, with a saurian-looking head and jaws that could effortlessly amputate a human arm—stalked down the middle of the street with all the arrogance of her kind, accompanied by three of her harem. The three males were barely a third her height, with froglike eyes, pale green skin with flat scales, and body language that was decidedly timid.
Rishathan males wouldn’t last long in a fight with the rough and tumble types aboard Port Montclair, but bothering the males would surely bring the matriarch's wrath, and no one wanted that kind of trouble.
“Target acquired,” Baxter said through Silas’s ear bud. “Captain Ma just checked in at the new arrivals concourse. Got four of her crew siding her.”
His voice struck Silas as unreasonably normal sounding . . . for someone who'd been perched on the outside of the station's hull ever since they'd arrived, over forty-seven hours before. Station workers routinely pulled eight or even twelve-hour shifts in vacuum, but not in isolation, with no buddies to keep an eye on them or be close to hand if something went wrong. And Baxter had been out there, reliant solely on his rather specialized vac suit's internal resources, for almost two full days. The fact that he managed to stay so calm while he did it impressed Silas. It was rare to get a competent slicer and adrenaline junky in the same agent, but the Federation’s Intelligence Agency attracted the best.
Silas took a swig of his beer and tapped the bottle on the bar twice to signal that he'd gotten the message.
A few blocks away—between a massage parlor and what was either a restaurant or pet store—a knot of humans turned down the street. Four bodyguards walked almost shoulder to shoulder around a small woman in a no-nonsense cheongsam dress. All of them were clearly of Asian descent, and the guards weren’t focused on the dancing boys and girls or the holographic depiction of unnatural acts on either side of the street; they were watching the crowd around them.
“Doesn't look a whole hell of a lot like the kind of skipper I'd expect a ship with a name like Arizona Bay to have," Whiteside said over the same ear bud. She was a few bars down, ready to keep a visual lock on their target should Silas fail in his task. "More like Hangzhou Bay, I'd say. Still doubt that they’re League special forces, like I said they’d be?”
“Which means we paid off the right people . . . for once,” Silas muttered back.
“Now, mister?” A girl of around ten looked up at him from the other side of the rails separating his bar from the street. She was dressed in little better than rags and her hair was matted.
“Not yet, but get ready." He flicked a station crypto chip off the bar and she caught it. The coin vanished into her rags and she narrowed her eyes at him. She'd been promised two more, so long as she did what she was supposed to.
The bodyguards and their principle continued past Silas. He laid the forearm of his nondrinking hand along the railing demarking the edge of the bar, exposing just the muzzle of the very small barrel hidden in his sleeve.
He nudged the girl with his foot, and she rushed at the bodyguards.
“Mister, mister!” She held out her hands to beg and came at the left rear guard from his right side.
The man stepped aside and thrust out his hand, strongarming the girl in the shoulder and knocking her down. Captain Ma shrank back, her cheongsam swirling around her legs.
It bought Silas the opening he needed. A puff of air hissed from his sleeve, and a tiny dart tagged the edge of her dress.
The girl fell on her backside hard. She swore at the bodyguard in a variety of languages, then jumped back to her feet and ran away into the crowd.
Silas drank his beer, feigning disinterest as the security detail reformed around the woman and continued on their way.
“Squawker dot is embedded in her clothes . . . moving it a bit deeper into the folds. Nice shot,” Baxter said. “Tracking transmission is go.”
Silas nodded mentally in satisfaction. The tracker would probably never be needed, but he was a firm believer in covering all his bets. Port Montclair's obsolete security cameras left too many potential blank spots Baxter's hack couldn't cover . . . and in which she could meet any number of inconvenient people. Now it wouldn't have to; he could track his dot wherever she went.
“Need secondary?” Whiteside asked.
“Don’t. If we’ve got a solid contact then save your dart. You know how much those things cost?” Silas palmed two coins and lowered his hand. He felt a tug, and a moment later he caught a glimpse of the girl as she slipped into the crowd. She’d almost picked his pocket on his way to the bar, which led to a quick offer for her to make money and keep all her fingers unbroken.
“Since when do we care about costs? Target went straight for the port authority kiosks. Guess they aren’t hungry,” Whiteside said.
“Pull up stakes.” Silas left the bar and stepped into the street. “Baxter, show me what she’s doing.”
A holo projected onto the contact in his right eye as Baxter opened a feed from the station security cams' view on a room marked “Captains Lounge: Ship Masters Only.”
The captain's bodyguards blocked the door as the Arizona Bay’s mistress went inside.
“Fingers crossed,” Silas said.
Shipping and logistics activity beyond the jurisdiction of the League or Federation was rarely on the up and up. As such, captains were picky about their consignments and preferred to do their business in privacy. Because of that shyness on their part, there were no cameras inside the Captains Lounge for Baxter to peek through. Not officially, anyway. But when someone could hack the station maintenance systems, commandeer a repair remote, and steer it to the right location . . .
“O ye of little faith,” Baxter said.
He'd used one of those commandeered remotes to drill a tiny hole in the compartment's overhead and install an equally tiny fisheye lens within hours of their arrival. Now he activated that lens and patched its output to Silas's contact lens so both of them could look down from the ceiling as Captain Ma entered its field of view.
The captain’s lounge was comprised of several semi-circular booths with work stations that accessed the station’s contract database. A half dozen other captains were already present, but Ma went to a booth far from the other occupants and sat down. She put a hand to a reader, then whispered her name.
“Silas? Slight problem,” Baxter said. "The machine she’s using isn’t tied to the station’s system. Maintenance log has that one offline. But she’s got a screen up and she’s using it. Wait. Hold on . . . ”
The captain moved over to another booth and double tapped a signet ring to a reader. Most captains in free space kept their personal access codes and other cypher keys on their person. Silas made a mental note of what to lift off of her should the need ever arise.
“She’s in booth eleven . . . let me tap that feed and . . . bingo! She just put in a longshoreman contract to move cargo from Warehouse Thirty-Seven to the Arizona Bay,” Baxter said. “Damn, I’m good.”
“Thirty-Seven. . . . That's on the alien dock arm,” Whiteside said as she caught up to Silas. She was thirty centimeters shorter and dressed very much like him. “Baxter . . . there’s a Rishathan freighter here, right?”
They slipped into a short, seedy alley that reeked of urine. Flickering signs pointed to an emergency evacuation route at its far end.
“Correct. It's docked at the far end of the spar. I can see it with my bare eyes . . . but there’s no record of how long it’s been docked. Funny, ain’t it?”
“Eight days,” Whiteside said. “Rish got here eight days ago and they've been in trade negotiations with some three-star pirate kingdom for bio samples." Silas raised an eyebrow at her, and she grimaced. "What? Bunch of spacers were talking in my restaurant. Didn’t take much to get them to keep talking.”
“Cover story passes the smell test," Silas said. "Maybe."
He and Whiteside stopped at the doors to the life pod bay. He pressed a wrist band, loaded with override codes provided by Baxter, to a reader and the doors slid open. Flakes of rust fell away as the panels parted.
“I feel so confident in this station’s safety measures,” Whiteside said with a sigh.
The evacuation bay mounted a double row of life pods. Most of the doors were ringed by white lights, but several had blinking red.
“Huh. Internal security system recorded your arrival," Baxter said. "I’m kind of impressed.”
“This an issue?”
Silas thumbed the collar of his vac suit—which was far more capable than its shabby appearance suggested—and drew out a transparent air hood. It wasn't as proof against puncture as a full bore helmet would have been, but it would serve. Pressure seals locked down on his wrists, sealing the ends of his sleeves, and thin gloves extruded from the suit cuffs. They were flexible enough for fine manipulation but would protect his hands from vacuum and maintain a comfortable temperature, although they weren't pressurized themselves.
“What?" Baxter snorted. "Hell no! I have full access. This system runs on a kludge of Federation AI that’s almost two decades out of date. Of course I brought all the sys-keys made by the manufacturer. You’re all set for Pod Seventeen.”
Pod Seventeen’s border blinked red and Silas looked into the small porthole in the hatch. No escape pod within, just the empty hull blister where one should have been. He lifted a weighty switch and the pod bay door shifted on squealing servos and opened almost all the way.
Air blew past them and hissed into space through micro cracks in the hull blister.
“It going to close?” Whiteside—her own hood and gloves in place—stepped into the void where the pod should be.
“Eh . . . we’ll see! I can stymie the alarms. There might be some atmo venting but it’ll be limited to the evac bay. Course, if there's an actual emergency, people won’t appreciate that the alarms aren’t working.”
“We’re not here to make friends,” Silas reminded the others as he joined Whiteside in the empty blister.
The pod doors closed behind them and a warning light spun overhead. Then the shell slammed open, the pod bay's air vented explosively, and Silas and Whiteside looked down the unobstructed depths of the planet's gravity well.
Montclair spun far below, a peach-colored world with striations from planetwide storms that stretched from horizon to horizon. Four kilometers-long arms stuck out from the rotating hub of the central station, as if it were a spider with too few legs. Each of those arms was a docking pier, capable of handling up to a dozen cargo pods apiece, although that was far more traffic than a station like Montclair would normally require.
“There we go,” Whiteside said, and pointed to the end of the nearest arm.
FTL freighters were huge. Anything that mounted a Fasset Drive had to be. As a result, they used externally mounted parasite cargo pods on hull racks, much as a naval FTLC carried its sublight parasites. That was by far the most flexible—and logical—way to do it. But not everyone shared human notions of logic, and at least half of all Rishathan freighters were designed with integral holds, instead of pods. Because of that, frontier stations, especially out beyond the blue line, were normally designed to handle those leviathans. Indeed, that was one reason Montclair's docking arms were as long as they were. Cargo bays were located every few hundred meters, like giant warehouses bolted to the arms, but the real reason for their length was to get the mooring collars at their very end far enough out from the hub to accommodate ships that might be a couple of kilometers long.
Like the one Whiteside had just pointed to.
“Nothing like a little space walk to get the blood going,” Silas said, and pushed off from inside of the pod bay and floated out into the vacuum. He flexed his feet back and forth to activate the propellant jets built into the sides of his vac suit's legs, and a brief burst sent him sailing away from the hub, with Whiteside a few meters behind.
They coasted through the vacuum, toward the cargo bay where the Arizona Bay’s new cargo awaited her, and the running lights on shuttles traced orbits from arm to arm around them.
“I’d enjoy this a lot more if the risk of getting splattered against a shuttle was a bit lower,” Whiteside said.
“Hey, you see me?”
Silas bent at the waist, then kicked his legs out, rotating so that he was moving feet first. At the base of a communication array, Baxter leaned out and waved. There were so many data lines attached to the hacker's oversized helmet that they looked like thin dreadlocks.
“You look ridiculous,” Whiteside said.
“Every line needs a splice, and this place is one archaic system built on top of another archaic system, with some alien tech built in for good measure. You’re welcome!”
“Yeah, yeah." Whiteside shook her head. "Want to trade spots?”
“Focus up. We’re close,” Silas said. “Status on the transfer?”
“A half dozen robot firms are bidding to move the goods . . . fifteen standard containers. I’m futzing with the low bidder and adding an extra zero to their price. Which cancels the contract each time it goes through whatever mushroom’s doing the manual review. Which sends the contract back to bid yadda yadda . . . Should buy you about half an hour.”
“You think this is it, Silas? Finally?” Whiteside asked.
"I sure as hell hope so," Silas said grimly. "Most of the cloak and dagger types back home think we're crazy, I know, but . . . "
He shrugged irritably. The war between the Terran Federation and the Terran League had raged for almost half a century, and every projection Silas had ever run said that the League's economy could never have sustained the conflict this long. As far as he knew, every honest projection had said the same thing. Yet the war still raged on and on, endlessly. Which, as his superiors had told him—with increasingly less patience each time he raised the point—clearly meant the base assumptions about the League's productiveness were flawed. It certainly didn't mean that anyone else—like, oh, the Rish—might be supplying the Leaguies with lethal aid. There was zero evidence for that tinfoil hat theory, so please stop bothering them with it.
“Bottom line," he said now, "even if any of the chairwarmers decide we're not total nut jobs after all, the Federation can’t lean on the Rish without proof. So if we can finally find it . . ."
Silas touched the holstered pistol hidden in his equipment harness.
“‘Lean’?” If she hadn't been wearing a helmet, Silas thought Whiteside would’ve spat. “Rish bastards have propped the League up for who knows how long while we bleed on the front lines. How many billion more people would be alive if the League had surrendered after we hammered them at New Derba or the Battle of Deep Belt?"
“You think the League will ever stop fighting us?" Silas shot back. "Billions of them have died too. But we get the Rish to stop meddling and maybe the League will read the writing on the wall . . . or Intelligence Command will authorize a few more teams to cause a few ‘convenient accidents’ for those running supplies from free space. It’ll either get the Rish to pull out or go overt with their aid. And if the League takes their help out in the open, maybe it’ll piss off the families in the Five Hundred enough for them to finally sacrifice a bit of their wealth to finance an offensive that’ll actually end this war.”
He used a laser range finder and checked the distance to the cargo bay.
“The Five Hundred don’t care if the war never ends.” Whiteside drew her pistol. “They’re not the ones fighting it, just the ones making money supplying ships and weapons.”
“You ever hear the one about a dagger in the dark versus a thousand swords at dawn?" Silas asked.
"Well, yeah. You're kinda fond of bringing it up," Whiteside told him with a chuckle.
"That's because I'm so damned smart. Now, let’s do this.”
Silas slowed his velocity with his suit thrusters and landed on the outside of the cargo bay. Mag locks in his boots gripped the metal and he slid to a stop.
Whiteside hit next to him and skidded into the hull.
“Hate space walks,” she muttered as she rubbed her shoulder.
“Baxter. Get us an entrance,” Silas said.
“Internal alarms are all over the place . . . They don’t want anyone coming in through the atmo tunnels in the pier, but the external air locks are meant for robot cargo haulers . . . not so many alerts, and . . . bingo!”
A barn door sized slab of metal slid open a few dozen meters away. The inner air lock door was still shut.
The two spies floated into the lock and it closed behind them.
“Closing the outer lock,” Baxter said. “Can you still hear me?”
“Good to go.” Silas drew his pistol and checked the round count.
“No activity inside the bay. I’m getting some weird activity on the network. Let’s go radio silent unless it’s something critical, good?”
“Roger. Get us inside."
Silas went to one side of the air lock, locked his boots back to the deck for stability, and readied his pistol. Whiteside went to the other, and the inner door opened smoothly. Lamps on the ceiling cast white pools around cargo containers. Each container was mag-locked to the deck—or the container under it—to keep it in place, and row upon row of them stretched evenly from one corner of the bay to the other.
“Look at all that hay,” Whiteside said.
“Maybe they’re all needles. Only need one.” Silas pushed off and floated to the nearest cargo container. He swiped fingertips down the manifest box, and text came up.
“Seriously, boss? You think the Rish are going to list what’s really in here?” Whiteside pulled a small cylinder from a slot on her harness.
“Content manifest isn’t what I’m looking for. What I'm checking is . . . There! This one was dropped in here ten days ago. Too long ago to be from the Rish.” Silas looked to the ceiling and pointed at the magnetic lift mounted there. It was off center, not near the command center at the back of the bay like it should be, if the place was run by competent longshoremen.
“That way." He took off at a slow jog. “I’ll bet that lift is parked directly above the last crate anybody stacked. No one's been in here since the lizards dropped their cargo, anyway. The bastards locked down the bay when they left. You'd almost think they didn't want anyone snooping around in here after they dropped off something valuable.”
“Or incriminating,” Whiteside added.
They got to a container beneath the mag lifter and Silas checked the manifest box.
“Three days in place." He slapped it with a palm. "Think we should open it to check?"
The look Whiteside gave him should have reduced him to cinders. Cargo containers logged every time their doors opened or shut.
“I’m not all that crazy about leaving traces, thank you,” she told him acidly and double tapped one end of the cylinder in her hand to activate it. She pressed the spy drone's other end to the side of the container, and there was a hiss as it burned a hole through the container wall, fused itself to the metal, and deployed its scanner head inside the container.
Silas took cover next to the container, his eyes on the bay's command center. It was lit, but unoccupied.
“Three years on a League planet working security for the local triad boss.” Whiteside bent her arm and brought the pistol next to her face. “All that to figure out which free traders came and went in-system with too many voids in their cargo bays. Then we get the Arizona Bay and now we’re out here flapping.”
“Why’s your drone taking so long?” Silas asked.
“It’s a single-use scanner." She looked at him, obviously wondering if he was more nervous than he cared to appear since he knew that as well as she did. "Can’t alter the quantum matrix once it’s set, so nobody can futz the data. But that means that if it’s got something it’ll be slow. Good sign?” She glanced at the glowing drone.
The drone released itself from the container and floated in the bay's micro gravity, one end still red hot but cooling quickly. Whiteside snatched it out of the air.
“Hot potato. Hot!” She waggled it from side to side, then touched a tip to a reader on her wrist. Scans from inside projected on the contact in Silas’s eye.
X-ray and graviton scans resolved into cones with deep circuitry and sensor banks.
“That . . . that's a League Tán missile warhead.” Whiteside swallowed hard. “That is lethal aid from the Rish to the League. We’ve got them!”
Silas waggled his fingers in front of his eye and the scan zoomed out, showing dozens more warheads.
“This isn’t enough,” he said. His voice was flat, professional, even as his heart soared triumphantly. “We’ve got to have a mountain of evidence to convince enough people back on Earth. More than they can explain away as circumstantial. One box of warheads? Could be going to some pirate fleet.”
“I’ve got four more single-use scanners,” Whiteside reminded him.
“Find containers with the same transfer time. I’m going to the command center. There should be a record of this stuff coming in off the Rish ship.”
Silas gave her a double pat on the shoulder and kicked off, hard, sending himself scudding towards the back of the cargo bay.
“Hurry!” she called after him.
Silas flipped end-for-end, using his suit jets to brake, then caught a handhold at the command center entrance.
“Second container’s got ballistics computers,” Whiteside whispered through his ear bud. “One of those things costs more than I’ve ever made on my joke of a government salary.”
“Use your woman’s intuition for the next one.” Ha, funny. “Let me get into the logs to see if there’s anything more incriminating."
Silas tried the command center door, but—not to his surprise—it was locked. He pulled a small unit from his harness and pressed it to the lock. It manipulated magnetic fields until it popped open, and he pushed himself inside. He waved his hands over the screens and they came to life.
When the hacker didn’t answer, Silas plugged a line from the back of his collar to a port at the top of the workstation. A pulse went into the station’s systems, and the speakers in his collar fluttered with static a few seconds later.
“Iron,” Baxter said, giving the team challenge.
“Horn,” Silas responded, signaling that he wasn’t under any duress. “Need you to unlock the data banks. We’ve got what we’re looking for but we need more. Have you cracked the Arizona Bay’s data stacks?”
“Not yet. Security's better than I expected. But I’m linked through your suit, so I can crack the cargo bay’s stacks now. Maybe I can backdoor into Arizona Bay that way and—Wait, did you say what I thought you just said?”
“Whiteside’s getting more data on single-use scans, but yeah. We’ve got something solid, this time. Really solid. But we need more to get the whole picture for the brass at the Oval before anyone's going to believe us.”
“No shit? Well, I will be damned . . . . Okay, I'm in. Sending you the Arizona Bay’s data logs now. Wait one while I—huh? That’s funny.”
A data transfer pulsed on Silas's HUD, then the screens on the consoles fluttered and went pure white.
“This doesn’t look like your usual work,” Silas said, then stiffened as an echo of metal slamming against metal sounded through the bay.
“You hear that?” Whiteside asked.
“Close up . . . we might have a problem,” Silas replied, and tapped a button on one side of the screens, trying to clear it. What the hell was —?
“Boss! Boss, I’m made!" Baxter cried. "They’re coming out of the air lock! No. No don’t! Don—!”
The transmission cut off.
“Carla, we’re made!" Silas yelled. "I’m coming to you!”
He hurled himself back out the control center door, sending himself streaking through the bay's micro gravity in the lowest trajectory that would clear the containers . . . and the sharp bark of a pistol echoed through the bay.
It cracked again. Then an automatic weapon chattered in reply.
Silas flipped in mid-air, driving his boots down onto the top of a container and maxing the mag plates. The shock seemed to rip his legs right off, but it stopped him dead, and he braced himself against the sudden anchor.
Whiteside was bellied down behind a container. Two dead men in the shipboard utilities of the Arizona Bay lay on the deck in front of her, and blood oozed thick in the micro-gravity. Another crewman crouched behind his own container, one leg hooked through a handling loop for stability, while he hosed short, controlled bursts at her. He was obviously a pro. His fire was accurate and steady, despite the zero-gee, and he had Whiteside well and truly pinned. Unfortunately for him, he was fully focused on her instead of looking up.
Silas leaned forward, took careful aim and shot him directly through the top of his skull. His head snapped back in a grisly explosion, and a red and gray cloud of blood, brain matter, and bone splinters spread like an obscene halo.
Silas looked around, eyes sweeping as much as he could see of the once again silent bay for any sign of movement. He detected none, so he unlocked his boots and used a handhold to send himself down to where Whiteside crouched.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Almost.” Whiteside held up an arm. The vac suit was punctured—torn, actually, in a gouge that he saw burrowed through the outside of her forearm, as well. Blood flowed from the gouge, but without the heavy flow of a deep wound. "Bastard you nailed clipped me before I knew he was there," she said.
"You can still use it?"
“Hurts like hell, but yeah. And at least it's my right. The scans are still good,” she wagged her left, arm with the five drone cylinders clamped to it.
“Hold on,” Silas holstered his pistol and took emergency sealant spray that was standard on every spacer’s kit from her belt. He held the nozzle close to her wounded forearm and gave a generous coating over each tear.
“Shit!” Whiteside clenched her jaw. “Next time warn me, Silas! Hurts like a bastard. And it’s going to bond to the wound, you know that? Not like a band aid I can just rip off.”
“You want to go back into vacuum with punct—?”
A door on the far side of the cargo bay opened, at the far end of the aisle in which Silas knelt working on Whiteside's forearm. He looked up in time to see the shadow of something big and reptilian coming through before it disappeared. From the limited glimpse he'd had, it was headed toward the control center.
For now, at least.
“Problem . . . big one,” he said. “We need to get back to the air lock.”
“Fine by me,” she said, and switched her pistol to her off hand.
Silas led the way down another row in the low, swooping bounds zero-grav made possible, skimming just off the deck for concealment and zig-zagging their way towards the air lock through the grid of containers. He had no way to know if the newest intruder was alone or if there were more League special operators scattered through the bay, and he had no intention of moving high, fast . . . and right into someone's sights.
A deepthroated, savage roar of fury sounded from where they’d left the dead Leaguies. That was close. Closer than he'd thought even a matriarch could be this quickly.
“Go! Go!” he shouted.
The container behind them burst forward, striking him in the back. He smacked into the metal side of another, then fell back. The moving container slammed into it beside him, so close he barely escaped being crushed by its ponderous mass. The impact staggered the stack Silas had hit, and the upper containers shifted. One slid outward, above him, just as the moving one crashed down on the deck, and the mag locks built into every container's base plate automatically locked it in place before it could fly any farther.
Directly between him and the aisle down which they'd been headed.
He looked up and snarled. The container which had shifted roofed him in. He couldn't just go up and over the obstruction, but he might be able to squeeze through the gap at deck level. Only that damned lizard had to be right on top of them.
“Get out, Carla!" he snapped over the comm "Get it back home!”
He moved toward the gap, but before he could reach it—
Onyx tipped claws curled around the gap. The containers were cubes, ten meters on a side, and micro gravity didn't negate mass. It took just as much energy to overcome inertia and get them moving in the first place, but those claws didn't care. They heaved, hurling the lowest container aside, and Silas found himself face-to-face with a Rishathan matriarch in full fury.
The gray-scaled alien towered over him. Her scarlet cranial frills were flat to her massive skull, spiked, articulated armor covered her shoulders and spine, and psychedelically colored fabric streamers hung from that enormously broad shoulder carapace. They should have looked ridiculous. They didn't. Not with those flattened frills and the short, spiked, angrily lashing tail. Huge golden eyes locked on Silas, and her jaws parted to show serrated teeth at least four centimeters tall.
Yet despite her monstrous appearance, there was intelligence—and speculation—in those eyes as she glared at him.
“You’re no thief.”
Humans and Rish were incapable of reproducing one another's languages, but the translator she wore like a necklet could.
“And you’re not here trading tchotchkes.” Silas backed away. If he could keep this big bitch's attention, give Whiteside more time to get away . . .
The Rish’s nostrils flared. Its eyes dipped slightly, and Silas looked down. There was blood on his gloves, he realized . . . but nowhere near as much as on Whiteside's vac suit.
And this alien could hunt by scent.
Those Rishathan eyes narrowed, and then the matriarch whirled. Her incredibly powerful legs sent her flying down the aisle, and even as they did, her tail snapped behind her and struck Silas in the stomach.
The blow knocked air from his lungs and he flew backward almost a meter before a container side stopped him. But he never lost his grip on his pistol, and temporary lack of oxygen didn’t send him into a panic. He fired at the Rish’s back, hitting her in the legs and hips even as she twisted away. The carapace covering her spine was thick enough to defeat pistol rounds, but blood splashed from at least two hits beside it.
If they hurt her, she didn’t seem to notice.
Silas fought to breathe, his vision darkening until he managed a ragged breath. Ribs ached and a few were likely broken. He coughed and kicked off, suit jets blasting at maximum as he streaked to catch up. It was risky as hell in such restricted quarters, but the aisles were straight, and —
More pistol shots rang out. Whiteside came through a cross gap ahead of him, flying backward in the micro gravity, her pistol held in both hands and firing nonstop. She swept across the aisle, and Silas slammed his boots to the deck. If he'd thought his legs had hurt the first time he tried it, he'd been wrong, he discovered. This time they really hurt. But it also stopped him, and he thumbed his weapon to full auto and raised it, his finger on the trigger, and —
The Rish flashed into view, and he squeezed the trigger.
Violet blood flew from at least half a dozen hits, but the matriarch's momentum carried her across the aisle and back out of his sight before he could tell how much damage he'd done.
Whiteside let out a shriek.
Silas hurled himself forward, sling-shotting around the angle, pistol ready—then braked to a stop.
The Rishathan lay stopped between him and Whiteside. She was a few yards from the alien’s head, and her fire had obviously hit it more than once, as well. Blood pumped from bullet wounds in its flanks, back, and chest in a slowing rhythm.
“Think we got it?” she asked with a shaky smile.
“I don’t know . . . I’ve never seen one in person before. Let’s get out of here before more show up.”
“Sounds good to me. Air lock's that way.” She pointed to one side and dropped the magazine from her pistol. She drew a fresh mag from her harness as Silas stepped over the Rish’s tail to join her, moving past the downed alien carefully.
He was almost clear when a massive hand grabbed him by the ankle. He twisted around as the alien’s jaw snapped up and clamped onto the forearm of his gun hand. The thick, tough fabric of his heavy duty vac suit blunted that savage bite—some—but not enough. He lost his weapon as teeth sank deep into the meat of his arm, and the Rish jerked him to one side, then flung him down the passage and against the bulkhead near the air lock.
Whiteside fumbled her reload.
The Rish raised an arm and swiped at the spy while she was still trying to seat the magazine, and Whiteside shrieked as claws raked down her chest. They ripped her open, from neck to belt, and the alien caught her before she could fall and ripped her left arm out of the socket.
The shredded corpse flew backward, trailing blood clouds and torn viscera, but the Rish ignored it as she sniffed at the arm she held. The one with the single-use scan rods. The alien snarled in triumph, then shoved the arm between its jaws. It bit down, shattering the scan rods—and the flesh and bone of Whiteside's arm—into bloody pieces.
Silas lay stunned against the bulkhead, his vision swimming. The pain from the bite throbbed, growing stronger with each heartbeat. But the airflow hissed in his ears when he sucked in a deep, sobbing breath.
His helmet still had a good seal, and he rolled to one side and pushed himself into the air lock, his injured arm held tight to his chest. The emergency release was under a black and yellow plate with a single twist latch, and he caught the latch as he crossed it.
The Rish spat out what was left of Whiteside's mangled arm, then roared and pushed itself back up. It was slower than it had been. Not surprisingly, given the blood pumping from its multiple wounds. He was pretty sure it had to be mortally wounded itself, but dying or not, it was still lethal, and it started towards him.
He twisted the latch. The plate snapped up, and he reached into the opening with his good arm. He grabbed the red handle and yanked, but it refused to budge. He yanked again, harder, as the Rish gathered speed toward him. Nothing.
He got one foot on the deck, then straightened his leg explosively, heaving at the handle with the full strength of his back and legs . . . and panic.
The handle clicked up. The air lock doors burst off their rails. They went tumbling into the vacuum, and a hurricane of venting atmosphere blasted him out right behind them.
He watched the Rishathan turn end-over-end with him, still reaching, still trying to kill him. But he had a helmet and vac suit . . . she had nothing.
The alien struggled for a seeming eternity that couldn't actually have been more than eighty or ninety seconds, then went still, the blood from her wounds freezing in space.
Silas felt ice growing in his own mauled arm. He was close to passing out as air and blood bubbled from the tears in his vac suit, and he knew it. But he fumbled behind his back, tumbling through space as he fought to get to his emergency sealant.
He gripped it as the pain flashed up his wounded arm to his shoulder and the readout projected onto his contact in lieu of a normal helmet's HUD warned he was losing both pressure and oxygen. He pressed the nozzle and sprayed it uselessly away from him, then turned it to the biggest tear on his sleeve.
The pain of the sealant bonding to his skin was negligible compared to what he'd already been through, and he used the entire bottle to coat the rips. Then he let go of it and watched it sail away from him as he turned end over end in the vacuum.
His teammates were dead. He had no evidence to take back to the Federation, and now he was adrift in the vast nothingness . . . either to float for the rest of eternity or eventually burn up in Montclair’s atmosphere when he finally deorbited. No one back home would ever know what happened to him.
Such was the life of a spy, he told himself.
As he turned over and over, contemplating his fate, the Rishathan ship pushed off from her mooring, and he watched as a half-dozen camouflaged ports opened all down one flank of what was supposed to be a cargo hold. The emitters of what had to be capital ship-grade energy weapons crouched inside those ports, and fury flashed as lasers blasted into the station. The Rish splintered the entire docking arm—and annihilated the cargo bay—with the first strike. But they weren't finished.
They turned their lasers on the rest of the station. The beams bracketed Silas on either side, close enough only the vacuum saved him from being flash fried. It took only two volleys to smash the central station's upper levels. Hull splintered, wreckage spiraled away as the lower levels began to come apart, and atmosphere blazed around the laser impacts as the mortally wounded port burned.
Ships moored to the other long arms cast off frantically, and thrusters flared at full power as they clawed away from the wreck. None of them wanted any part of whatever fight the Rish had decided to finish, and Silas didn't blame them one bit. Life pods blasted away from the station, and their SOS signals squawked in his ears.
The Rishathan ship turned from the station and accelerated away.
Silas listened to his breathing and the panic over the comm as Port Montclair fought to survive.
He sat in a bar a few blocks from the Oval, home of the Terran Federation’s supreme military headquarters, and batted a small data chip from thumb to forefinger. The ice in his drink had nearly melted.
The wounds from the Rish’s bite had healed, and modern medicine could have repaired even the scars. But he'd refused . . . and kept them as proof of what he’d been through.
Even if—or perhaps even especially because—the Powers That Were refused to believe a word of it.
A tramp freighter had picked him up after Port Montclair's destruction. The ancient laws of Old Earth's seas still held for spacers, and refusing to rescue anyone in peril was not an option for some ships and some crews, wherever they might hail from.
It had taken months to beg borrow and steal passage back to Federation space, where contacting Intelligence command had solved most of his problems—his immediate problems, at least—and gotten him on the first ship back to Old Earth and to the Oval.
His report to his superiors had not been received well. One data chip and his testimony were not enough to convince the first line of the Federation’s decision makers to take action against the Rish . . . or to do anything against them at all.
Baxter and Whiteside dead. Countless thousands lost aboard the Port Montclair. All for nothing.
A man dropped onto the stool next to his and tapped out a quick beat against the bar. The newcomer was about Silas’s age, with green eyes, auburn hair, and a moustache.
A robot with a bowtie and an embossed tuxedo slid over on a rail in response to his summons.
"May I serve you, sir or madam?" it inquired.
“Sazerac,” the newcomer replied, and Silas raised an eyebrow. The order was the same as his untouched drink.
The robot prepared the drink with quick efficiency and pushed it to the new arrival.
“I don’t thank robots," the other man said. "They’re not programmed to care, anyway. There are some that might think that’s a tragedy. All that effort and no one appreciates it."
He took a sip.
“Yeah," Silas muttered. "Robot’s got it real rough.”
“But—" the man turned his head and looked squarely at Silas "—men and women who do sacrifice, who do go above and beyond . . . they should be respected and believed. Not that you’d find someone like that behind a bar. Or —" he took another sip "—in the Oval."
Silas raised his eyes to the mirror behind the bar, checking to see if there were any other new arrivals, but the place was nearly empty and all his exits were still open.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“We’re part of the same fraternity. One that knows what the Rish are doing to prolong the war," the other man said. "We just haven’t been able to prove it to the general public. Yet."
“Too bad there’s no such thing as a tinfoil hat drink,” Silas said.
“It would be despised across the galaxy until it became widely accepted as a bar room staple," the other said. "All of a sudden. Same way people treat conspiracy theories that turn out to've been right all along. Not to the surprise of people who've been drinking it the whole time,” the man lifted his glass. “You ever heard of an old drink called Kool-Aid? Pre-expansion Earth.”
“I’ve been drinking it for years,” Silas clinked his glass against his bar mate’s.
“You came back with more than scars." The man pointed a finger at the data chip. “You’ve got a lead.”
“Crew manifests, false bills of lading, equally false ship registries for the Arizona Bay . . . not much of a lead.” Silas palmed the data chip. The fact that a total stranger was interested in it made him cautious.
“Funny thing about liars," the other man said. "The more they lie, the more they tell the truth by accident and omission." He set a pair of data chips on the bar. “Some like thinkers and I took a look at the data you brought back. We found several planets, trade routes, and crew manifests with some . . . interesting overlaps with what you found on Port Montclair. You don’t think the Rish are going to quit just because you got a peek behind their curtain, do you?”
Silas worked his jaw from side to side.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“We need capable and determined agents to go after truths that others don’t want to find. If you’re up for another trip beyond the blue line to free space . . . I can make that happen.”
Silas looked at him for a moment, then swept the two data chips into his hand.
“What’s your name?”
“Harrison O'Hanraghty." He extended his hand. "Pleasure to meet you.”
Best-selling author David Weber is the creator of the Honor Harrington series. Additional Honorverse collaborations include the spin-off miniseries Manticore Ascendant with Timothy Zahn; and with Eric Flint, Crown of Slaves and Cauldron of Ghosts contribute to his illustrious list of New York Times and international bestseller lists. Weber is also the creator of the Oath of Swords fantasy series. Weber’s collaborations include the Starfire Series with Steve White, the Empire of Man Series with John Ringo, the Multiverse Series with Linda Evans and Joelle Presby, The Gordian Division series with Jacob Holo. He lives in South Carolina.
Richard Fox is the winner of the 2017 Dragon Award for Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy novel. He is the author of The Ember War Saga, a military science fiction and space opera series, and other novels in the military history, thriller, and space opera genres. Fox graduated from the United States Military Academy and spent ten years on active duty in the United States Army. He deployed on two combat tours to Iraq and received the Combat Action Badge, Bronze Star, and Presidential Unit Citation. He now lives in fabulous Las Vegas with his incredible family.
Copyright © 2021 by David Weber and Richard Fox