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by Wayne Self

“Target sighted, ninety-eight meters down.”

“Hold there, Clement. We’ll rendezvous before descent. What’s its condition?”

“Guvner’s beat to perdition, Boss. These storms done got her spread out like a snake on a radiator.”

Alone back in the Protectorate Assault Dropship, Derus Rustin rolled his eyes at the commlink speakers. These Korhal boys and their hick sayings. He had tolerated their hayseed aphorisms for the eight days it had taken to reach this wind-scoured hunk of ice, like hearing the same ancient folk song over and over again. But if he had to hear one more “whooee” or “yee-haw,” he would fire thrusters and leave these yokels stranded.

Ah, if only. These thrusters would only fire if the proper codes were sent to the ship’s AI, and the “Boss” alone had the codes. Those were the terms of his participation in this mission, and the terms of his parole: no thrusters without the thruster codes, no weapons without the weapons codes, no hyperspace without the jump codes, and no leaving the ship.

“Whooee, Boss, that’s deeper than Hell’s basement.”

Rustin sighed.

“It’s too windy for thrusters. We’ll have to rappel it.”

Rustin adjusted the camera angle so the orbital GPS drones would allow him to account for the depth of the team, not just their surface location. In silence, he watched the five little blips representing the squad slowly descend into the trench.

He had to admit, they had the worst of it, out there in the storms. All he’d had to do was expertly pilot this AX147 through an atmosphere of wrenching, shearing winds exceeding 300 knots and find a place to land it on this meandering, star-forsaken, frozen world of crystallized gasses and jagged rock.

Now he got to sit and watch as they hiked to the trench, initiated assembly of the crane, and descended to the wrecked ship to retrieve the top secret cargo they believed was inside.

“Fifty meters to the wreck, Boss.”

“When we hit the cliff, Clement, you and Mae take flank. I’ll take point. Ezra and Hope, you’re with me.”

Of course, then he’d have to steer them back out of this raging baby of an atmosphere. And once that was done? Well, they’d no longer need a world class pilot, would they? Instead, they’d need to protect the secret of their precious new cargo from a convicted felon.


He’d have to keep that in mind.

Oh yes, he knew how it worked. He’d been there, at the Battle of Korsi, a hot shot kid of a pilot, when Pax betrayed Vanderspool and let the Kel-Morians win the day. He’d barely escaped the drop ship before it exploded into white-hot shrapnel. As a kid, you learn from a near-miss like that, or you never reach adulthood. And what Rustin had learned was simple: despite all the military talk of loyalty, betrayal is inevitable; it’s all in who acts first. From then on, he trusted no one and flew only for himself, even if that meant smuggling and dealing in the occasional illicit substance.

“Twenty meters to target, Boss.”

He adjusted the monitor and overlaid the high def photography from above the trench. The Guvner--Governor Wallace, as it was properly called--had been a hulking crate of a battlecruiser before its Captain and crew had gone rogue. Now the crash landing and constant high winds had pulled at the wreckage until the ship, while still mostly intact, looked spread out on the cliff in the bottomless, narrowing trench like a--well, damn if it didn’t look like a snake on a radiator, all twisted and limp, its port side sitting nearest the frozen rock wall, and its starboard side protruding precariously over the cliff edge.

He watched from directly above as the five blips formed up and entered the wreckage of the Guvner.

                                                   ***

“Boss, schematics indicate that the cargo hold would be roughly one hundred fifty meters from here, starboard side. Shall I take point?”

Sergeant Bosco “Boss” Briggs looked around the creaking, shifting wreckage, the taut akimbo beams of his squad’s searchlights revealing a strewn and twisted cacophony of metal, plastic, and exposed wire covered in thick layers of windblown ice. Given the what he saw, he made a snap decision.


“Negative, Mae. We’re not going to the cargo hold.”'

“Then where to, Boss?” Hope asked.

Bosco didn’t know where the Objective was, but he knew what it was, he knew what he was looking at, and he knew his friends.

The Objective was a Protectorate-developed prototype, a quantum fuel cell component that could increase the energy output of Vespine gas by a factor of a hundred or more--a valuable advancement, given that Dominion blockades had been starving Protectorate worlds of food and fuel, causing rolling blackouts and hunger riots in some cities.

The Dominion had gotten their hands on this highly unstable bit of experimental tech back when they took EB-103, and had taken it off-planet, along with potential artifacts, data, and other spoils of that battle, on the Guvner.

When the Guvner’s charismatic Captain Aphid Jones realized the value of his plunder, he and his crew decided to abscond with it. Bosco didn’t know what Aphid’s eventual post-desertion plan was, but it clearly began with hiding out on this remote rock.

Boss reckoned his old buddy Aphid hadn’t counted on these storms.

“Look around, squad,” Bosco asked. “Do you think an unstable fuel cell prototype sitting in the cargo bay would have survived this crash without exploding?”

“And an explosion like that would’a blew this sucker to kingdom come.” Clement appended to his observation an extended sound effect, in case anyone might need it.

“But ship isn’t incinerated, just badly junked,” Mae noted.

“Then where’s the prototype?” prompted Bosco.

“Either it never got on the ship,” Hope ventured, “or---”

“Or it was snuck off-ship afore the crash,” Ezra interrupted, “or--”

“Or it’s here, but sitting someplace with extra shielding against...impact,” Bosco concluded, waiting.

“The drop pods!” Mae exclaimed.

Bosco grinned behind the faceplace of his hostile environment suit. They were a good squad; thoughtful, resilient, responsive. And they had the right of it. Old Aphid wasn’t going to keep something so precious in the cargo hold. He’d want it under heavier guard, with fewer people coming and going, and with extra shielding, to boot.

“Well, let’s giddy-up, then.”

“Step carefully up there, Ezra. This wreckage is unstable. Wouldn’t want to lose you to an unlucky step.”

“Unlucky? Son, I’ve been playing with house money since Korhal.”

He was right about that. They’d fought side-by-side with Aphid in the Rebellion, standing to the last as the Confederacy swarmed. They’d resigned themselves to death, that day, until a last-minute extraction to Umoja had given them a new shot at life.

Ezra, convinced of his luck, had gone back to mining, taking the riskiest and most profitable jobs he could find. Bosco tried for peace and quiet, taking on a security job planetside, until Dominion aggression had compelled them both to enlist.

But Aphid Jones could never forgive the destruction of his home. He was by turns restless, listless, and feckless until he signed up with Mengsk to take the fight back to the Confederacy and help begin what would become the Dominion.

“Well, at least stay close, old man. Keep your lights moving and your weapons steady. If all goes well, we’ll be back at the ship for your early supper.”

                                                 ***

Rustin idly watched the secondary monitor, which showed the bots busily constructing the crane that would lift the secret cargo from the trench in these winds. Whatever they were after, it was important enough for them to take great care in retrieving it, and to rely on a criminal for a jockey, instead of waiting for a good military pilot to get assigned.

They were clearly afraid someone else would find it first, which meant someone else probably wanted it, which meant someone else would be willing to pay for it.

He returned his gaze to the five blips in the wreckage and pondered the possibility of taking out five soldiers while in hyperspace. He didn’t much like the odds, unless he could find an advantage.

“Sergeant, I’ve got something here. It’s hanging down from the ceiling, like a stalactite.”

Mae’s voice on the commlink penetrated Rustin’s dark thoughts. She was a cute one, and she spoke like a true Umojan, not some redneck from Korhal.

“Well slap my ass and call me a racehorse, what is that thing?”

“On my way over. It’s probably just an icicle.”

“But it’s shaped like a... a giant, stone teardrop? Yellowish. Opaque. Solid as a diamond.”

“Don’t touch it, Hope!”

“It’s kind of…pretty.”

“What do you make of it, Boss?”

“Not sure.”

“Wait. I seen this afore. Back in ‘89 on a mining asteroid where I used to work.”

“Well, what is it, Ezra?”

“It’s biomass. Frozen biomass,” he responded, panic rising in his voice. “Back away, alla ya! Back aw--”

Rustin jerked to attention as the voice on the commlink cut off, replaced by a guttural, gurgling release of air, then the familiar, stomach-churning, sound of clicking. He glanced at the monitor.

Four blips.

A confusion of yelling, clicking, and weapons fire erupted in his ears.

“Shit fire! Zerglings! Too fuckin’ many!”

“Fall back!”

“Where are they all coming from? Under! Under! Look out!”

Three blips.

An old impulse took hold in Rustin and, without thinking, he reached for the ignition. Then he remembered: no thrusters without the codes.

He opened comms. “Send thruster codes for immediate extraction.”

“Negative. I’m laying down fire. Squad converge on my position. We’ll take them out from cover.”

Rustin tried again. “Send thruster codes!”

“Negative! Too much windshear in the trench.”

“Dammit,” Rustin exclaimed into the comm mic, but his voice was lost in the raging firefight below.

“Fuck you in your slimehole, you ass-sucking varmints!”

“Jeez, Clement, you kiss your sister with that mouth?”

“Shut up, Mae”

“Everyone shut up and shoot.”

And the all-to-familiar melody of voices gave way to a long drum solo of staccato gunfire and click, click, click until, finally, there was silence.

Rustin checked the monitor. Three blips. Only three left to kill in hyperspace, and the cute one had lived. But none of it would matter unless they back here alive. He could starve on this iceball. Whatever it was, down there, it wasn’t worth their lives.

He gave it another shot. “Send thruster codes for extraction.”

“Negative.”

“Thruster only. Not jump codes. Where am I doing to go?”

“Negative.”

“This whole planet could be a nest!”

“It was just a few.”

“You know there’s no such thing as ‘just a few zerglings’. Send codes!”

“Negative. Briggs out.”

Rustin pounded the console and stood, pacing the room. He would have to do something about that stubborn Korhal terrorist.

                                                   ***

Bosco would have to do something about that crab-dealing Confederate worm.

If Rustin had the codes to start the ship, he would need the squad less than the squad needed him. Even without the hyperspace codes, he could send a beacon to others of his ilk, and who knew who might come running for their share of Guvner’s plunder, knowing they had an ace pilot who might feel lucky enough to brave the windshear and extract it.

But that wasn’t Bosco’s most immediate concern, as he turned to see Ezra’s fallen form.

He watched Clement kneel beside the old man, reverently pull the dog tags from his neck, and gently mutter “See you in hell, you old coot.”

Bosco bowed his head for a moment. Ezra had been the oldest soldier Bosco had known. He’d open a new bottle for Ezra tonight. Maybe two.

But business first. He had two squad members left and they were close to the Drop Pod bay. There were surely more zerglings around, but they weren’t here yet. With a little luck, they could still retrieve the objective and get back to the ship before they were overrun.

Then, if he had to, he would deal with Rustin.

“Ready, Mae?” Bosco had to ask.

Mae was crouched over Hope’s fallen body, retrieving the antigrav handcart assembly from the fallen woman’s kit. She did not immediately reply. Instead, she removed Hope’s tags and pressed them to her lips. Then she stood, tucked them into her belt, and walked steadily away.

“Let’s go.”

                                                ***

While he waited the long minutes it would them to make their careful way to the aft drop pod bay, Rustin lowered the hooks of the completed crane to their designated spot: an area behind the ship with enough room on the cliff to maneuver and attach the Objective for retrieval.

He kept his finger on the button, watched the monitor, and listened.

“Wait. zerglings.”

“Where?”

“See them there? On the walls, and all over the drop pods, and on those hover carts, too. There’s so many, they just look like the wall.”

“Like the roaches in mama’s kitchen. But why ain’t they after us?”

“Selective sensation. Looks to me like they’re more interested in the vibrations from the Objective sitting there in that drop pod.”

“They do seem to favor that one pod, don’t they? You can hardly even see it, under there.”

“They don’t know what it is, but they like it, anyway. Just our luck.”

“Back at EB-103, they equipped the Objective with a remote-operated self-destruct. I have the code.”

“What?” Rustin exclaimed, sitting up in his chair. He opened his comlink. “This isn’t a suicide mission. You’ll kill yourselves. And leave me stranded!”

“Our mission was to retrieve the Objective or destroy it. Retrieval isn’t looking likely.”

“Then send the thruster codes. I’ll extract you and then you can--”

“Negative.”

“Negative? You contrary Korhal piece of --”

Over the commlink came a whining protest of rusty metal and the sound of cracking ice, then a few gunshots, then second upon second of nothing but static.

No. No, not static; clicks. Innumerable, indiscernible clicks.

A breathless voice returned suddenly to the channel. “Sending thruster and weapons codes. Hurry.”

                                                   ***

Bosco pulled the throttle, taking the hover cart to its top speed. For a desperate plan concocted in seconds, it wasn’t the worst he could have done. He and Clement would lead the zerglings on a merry chase, drawing them away from the Objective, so that Mae could sneak it out the aft of the ship. What could go wrong?

Bosco could have made a list, but who had that kind of time?

He bobbed and weaved through the tight corridor, dodging a mass of icy wreckage and dangling wires before chancing a look back at the swarming, scuttling zerglings.

Too close! He aimed his pistol and took a shot behind him, but it went wide left as one of the creatures butted the back of the hover cart, then latched on. He kicked at the critter, but the torque from his kick made him jerk the cart left, where he scraped the icy corridor wall.

Before he could even cuss, another of the bugs had climbed over the first and boarded the little cart. In desperation, Bosco abandoned the steering and took futile aim at the unwanted passenger.

Suddenly, a quick, piercing rat-tat-tat knocked him against the control panel and an explosion of zergling parts propelled him forward on the little craft. He grimaced as he righted the cart and glanced back at the now-collapsed section of corridor behind him.

“Nice shooting there,” he begrudgingly allowed via commlink. Glancing to his right, through a hole in the hull, he could see the wild card in his plan shifting and shaking in the driving winds: the drop ship and its felon of a pilot.

“You’ve got more coming, from above this time.”

Bosco grabbed his frag gun and shot up into the ductwork as he sped under it, delaying the next wave of pursuing, chittering insectoids.

The plan was to keep the chase in the outer corridors, the ones exposed to the exterior, so that Rustin could pick the zerglings off from the air. It could be a life-saving advantage, or a fatal mistake, depending on whether, when, and how Rustin would fail or betray them.

That was another list Bosco could have made.

“I got trouble over thisaway,” Clement’s twang lit up the commlink channel and, in an instant, the ship’s thrusters engaged, propelling it upward against the wind, out of Bosco’s line of sight. But he could hear its heavy gunfire strafe the upper decks, port side.

“Haw! Hot lead up the tailpipe! I’m clear for now.”

“That’s because they’ve figured us out and are going deeper into the wreckage where I can’t see them.”

“I’ll go get ‘em, then, and lure ‘em back out.”

“Don’t get lost down in there.”

“You kiddin’? I helped build these suckers. I know this crate like the back of your mama’s head.”

Bosco heard the clicking resume behind him. They were crawling through the fissures in the collapsed corridor. They’d be on him again, soon. “Mae, status.”

“Had a few stragglers to deal with. Loading the Objective now.”

He had no time to reply before a barrier upahead forced him to bring his cart to an abrupt stop. He examined the pile of debris stacked to the corridor ceiling. This was no collapse; it was man-made, from the other side. Someone had survived this crash.

He looked around for a way around. He couldn’t double back; the zerglings were too close and would be on him in seconds. But there, in the floor, nearly covered by the barricade--a grate leading to the ductwork. Not ideal, but he had little choice.

He abandoned cart and rifle, strained to lift the grate, then let it lower quietly as he slipped into the ductwork below.

                                                   ***

“Get ready, flyboy.”

“Born ready, hayseed.”

Well, he was. He’d had the natural talent since he was a boy: the hand gentle enough to sense sudden changes in wind shear, yet firm enough to hold the ship steady. But the gift wouldn’t have been enough without the experience flying fast in a tight squeeze--experience he’d earned over years running crab in the Sarengo canyon.


They never had caught him in the air--it had taken undercover work to finally apprehend him in a deal gone bad--so he understood why they had taken a chance on him for this mission.

He still hadn’t decided whether he’d make them regret it.

“This one’s for Ezra!”

Clement’s cart came shooting out of a port side hull breach, airborne, as it careened straight for the cliff wall, and tossed into a tailspin by the torrential winds. Behind him, in hot pursuit, were scores of zerglings disoriented by the sudden onslaught of raging winds, buffeted into a cyclone of flailing bodies.

Clement righted his cart just in time to aim the anti-grav thrusters on its underside at the canyon wall and carve it for 20 meters before arcing back toward the ship, his rebel yell sparking across the comms.

Rustin couldn’t help but grin. He opened fire on the wind-tossed insects, turning the cyclone of zerglings into a swirl of bits and fluids.

“I’m at the aft hull breach.” It was the cute one. “Disembarking the Guvner now and making for the crane hooks.”

                                                   ***

“Roger, Mae. Be careful out there.”

“Roger that.”

This deep in the wreckage ductwork, the storm-beaten cliffside seemed a world away. The ice in here was more of a slippery sludge, and the wind was a distant, ghastly howl. He crawled in the dark as fast as his hostile environment suit would allow down the tight, dark tube, his search light dancing ahead of him with each move of his hand.

Bosco knew he was at a tremendous disadvantage here, where they could crawl so much more swiftly than he, but he wouldn’t make it easy for them. He took as many turns as he could, while still aiming for the fore of the ship, and he’d left them a few surprises to even the odds.

He smirked as a small explosion reverberated in the ductwork, followed by the screams and rattles of dying zerglings.

But his mirth died on his lips as he took a left at a T intersection, only to find himself face to face with a big one. Crying out in shock, he lifted his pistol and opened fire, then backed his uncertain way down the tube until he felt his foot bump with a hard thud against what could only be organic carapace.

He kicked at what he felt, then clambered forward again, twisting his body so he was belly-up, shining his light down past his kicking feet to reveal an oncoming mass of zerglings. He emptied his clip and wriggled around the corner, taking a right this time.

He opened comms. “Rustin, I need you to fire an armor-piercing salvo at my location.”

“Fire at you?”

“No, not at me, at my location! Just a bit behind me.”

“But I can’t see you.”

“You can see my blip, and you have aerial photography! Figure it out! Now!”

“Your funeral, ‘Boss’.”

                                                   ***

Rustin tilted the throttle and swiftly maneuvered the ship to a spot where its guns would penetrate the deepest in Bosco’s section of the ship. He opened fire with a salvo of screaming white armor-slagging metal and felt it land through the commlink in a pandemonium of screeches and clicks and the nearly subsonic hum of twisting, protesting hull. Then, silence.

And more silence. He checked the monitor. Three blips, one in the ship’s bridge.

“You there, Boss?”

“I’m here,” he finally grunted. “Barricaded in the bridge, but condition normal.”

He smiled, relieved. That one had the codes.

“I’ve got a situation, back here.” The cute one.

“Well, Hell’s bells, what now?”

“Some kind of...geological event higher up the trench wall. Like a rockslide, or an avalanche, but...too slow for that.”

“Maybe all this shooting knocked something loose.”

“No, I don’t think it--” she cut off.

“Mae?” asked Bosco. “What is it?”

“Never mind. It’s zerglings.” She sounded strangely calm.

“Well damn, woman,” Clement interjected. “How many?”

“All of them.” No, not calm. Resigned.

Rustin hit the throttle and sped to the aft of the battlecruiser in time to see an avalanche of zerglings come crashing onto the cliff, swarming the crane hooks, the Fuel Cell, and Mae, rifle in one hand, pistol in the other, blasting blindly at the onslaught of chittering, chitinous mass.

He laid down a blanket of gunfire, trying to separate the horde into manageable chunks for her sake, but it was too little, too late.

Two blips.

                                                  ***

Bosco leaned against the battlecruiser’s ruined command console and tried to take stock. He’d fallen into the bridge from the damaged ductwork, and there was no getting out that way.

The crow of the wrecked vessel had barricaded themselves in, and it would take him hours to dig out. He’d already exhausted his grenades in the ducts.

He could activate the self-destruct on the Objective and still take out a bunch of zerglings, but doing it right then didn’t gain them much, as it would lose them the Objective saving any lives. No, there was no use giving up until the very last second. Sending that code would be his very last act.

He looked around the bridge at a dozen or so hostile environment suits frozen in position where the that had survived the crash finally died. Some were still seated in command chairs, some still crouched behind cover, some still cowering in corners, all sucked dry of the life that had once occupied them, husks in ice, like bugs in amber.

In the Captain’s chair sat a husk of a frozen suit labeled “Captain Aphid Jones.”

“Aphid. What the hell?”

Bosco knew his friends, and he’d known Aphid for nearly twenty years. They’d fought side by side and back to back. They’d faced death together, then faced a new life. He knew this man.

But did he, really? Did he really understand why Aphid had fought to the last on Korhal, yet still wanted to fight some more when Korhal was long gone? Did he really understand why Aphid would spend years as a Mengsk loyalist and suddenly turn deserter? Did he really understand why a lifetime warrior would barricade himself into the Bridge and die sitting in his chair, trying to hide from the zerglings?

Had he really know Aphid? For that matter, had he really known Ezra? Or Mae? Could he really know anyone?


Slowly, Bosco approached the chair. He looked down at the glove frozen in position on the chair’s command entry console. He grinned.

Bosco knew his friends.

A sudden, small explosion rocked the bridge and sent debris flying from the barricades. It was Clement, still in his hover cart, a second grenade waiting in his left hand in case the first hadn’t done the job.

“Hey, Boss. Need a lift?”

                                                  ***

“Coming around for extraction.”

“Negative.”

“Are you out of your damn mind? You’ve lost three men. You’ve lost Mae! This is over. Let’s get off this rock.”

“Negative.”

His monitor showed two blips, together now, speeding from the bridge.

“You don’t understand. zerglings are swarming all over that thing like...like…”

“Like maggots on roadkill?”

“Just...don’t.”

“We’re heading aft. Cover us. We’ll stay on the upper decks.”

“Not this time, Boss.”

Rustin watched the blips turn nearly ninety degrees and head for the lower decks.

“Where are you taking us?”

“Told y’all I know this crate.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, and last time I come through this section, I saw a hole in the wall that would give us a straight shot right down to the armory.”

“We don’t have time.”

“We do if we split up.”

“How are we going to--”

“Boss. Head straight out of here.“

“Put those grenades away, Clement, you’ll--”

“Straight out, you hear?”

“Clement, stand down. Stand--”

“Now y’all watch this.”

“Clement don’t---.”

“YEEEEE-HAWWWWW!”

One blip heading up, and one blip accelerating down, down into the belly of the ship.

The explosion erupted from its depths and sent smoke, light, and zergling parts belching out of breeches and bays on the lower decks, while a lone man on a lone cart came spewing out of its topside into the punishing winds.

Rustin sped toward the tumbling cart, as he deployed the robot arms and steadily, expertly righted the little craft, where Bosco hung on for dear life.

He checked the monitor. One blip.

“Take me aft.”

“Negative.”

“Take me aft.”

“Negative. Blow it up and let’s get going.”

“Negative. If you want the jump codes, you’ll take me aft. I’ve got a plan.”

                                                     ***

Bosco crouched in the cart and waited. It had only taken a few minutes to lash the thing to the big cables of the crane and keep it steady in the wind. Now all he had to do was wait, watch, and keep from blowing away while Rustin did his work.

He knew his friends, see, and old Aphid had surely had his reason for sitting in that chair. He’d had his finger on the button to launch the torpedoes, and was going to blow that whole cliff into the trench and take the zerglings with him, if the they hadn't got to him first.

“Good idea, old buddy.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

The drop ship hovered as low as it could safely go in the narrowing trench, just below the cliff, and unloaded its cargo payload, shell by shell, into the wall of the trench. Echoes of the blasts thundered throughout the trench, mingling with the howling wind into a strum and drang like Bosco had never heard.

He peeked over the edge just in time to see the floor of the cliff crack, then slowly start to crumble from the onslaught.

“My turn.”

He leapt out of the cart, hooked his rappel hook to the crane’s cable, and slid swiftly down toward the crumbling cliff below.

Looking down, he could see the drop ship holding steady, far below, though pilloried by huge chunks of falling rock. He wouldn’t be getting here any time soon, if he decided to come at all.

He landed, unhooked, grabbed the cable, and began the chaotic trek to the Objective, dodging fissures and shooting at any unbalanced, confused zerglings that weren’t trying to escape the cliff.

He could see the Objective up ahead. If the cliff would only hold a moment more....

                                                  ***

The cliff wouldn’t hold a moment more.

He maneuvered the ship as best he could in the ever-tightening squeeze of the trench, scraping the sides as he tried to dodge the larger chunks of rock.

He saw the cliff crumble under Bosco’s feet, and watched him fall, tumbling, into the chasm, along with tons of stone, countless zerglings, and the icy remains of the Governor Wallace.

But not the Fuel Cell. Not the Fuel Cell! It remained, in all its priceless glory, hooked precariously to the crane and twisting in the driving wind like britches on a clothesline.

Dammit, now they had him doing it.

He glanced at the monitor. No blips.

He steered the ship to the cable, gingerly hugged the Fuel Cell in robot arms, unhooked it, and flew away fast.

So now what? He had a valuable piece of tech and no way off-planet. Wasn’t that just perfect? Without Bosco’s comm codes, he couldn’t send an encrypted beacon to the Protectorate, only a general distress call, which meant he’d have no idea who would show up, or when, or what mood they’d be in when they got here.

If they got here.

He set the ship down 100 knots away from the trench, flipped on the beacon, and waited, wondering what it might be like to die alone.

                                                  ***

Bosco held on a few seconds longer, both hands slipping on the icy ledge. Life support was out, ribs broken, head swimming, so much pain. Last thing. The very last thing.

His grip was slipping, already, but it wouldn’t matter soon. The codes. Take me aft. The very last thing. He had two, but which to send?

He took one hand from the ledge and used it to type in the code. He hit “send.”

He smiled like a man who knew his friends. Then he let go.


                                             Postlogue


Rustin had always enjoyed the finer things, rare and fleeting as they had been in his life: lovely women, good food, expensive wine.

So of course he’d vigorously explored the open market, looking for the best price he could get for the Fuel Cell. Got some nice offers, too. High six figures, low seven. But they somehow hadn’t seemed like enough.

So he’d entertained one more offer, back on Umoja, where he’d been in jail, and he found their offer surprisingly generous.


If they kept their end of the deal, he’d be out in a year or so, with good behavior, and a full pardon.

If they kept their word.

“Ah, well. Guess I’ll just have to trust them.”

He leaned back in his new cell, looked out the window, and enjoyed one of the finest things life has to offer: a glorious view of bright city lights.

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