Ramsay strode along the length of the Kratos
with Eli following one step behind him in perfect military form. Tom figured Eli was so military he’d keep on starching his shorts until Captain Ramsay told him to knock it off or the guy transferred away.
“Tom, you seen Da’shay?” Ramsay called.
Tom kept his face to his handheld as he checked numbers. “Nope,” he said honestly. He hadn’t seen her today. Hadn’t seen her since the wee hours of yesterday when she’d nearly scared him out of the ability to have children.
Ramsay grunted as he checked the dockside readout on the ship’s readiness. “We’re getting ready to go, so she’d better show up soon.” Ramsay walked away from the workstation, and Eli slipped into the space he’d abandoned.
“Yep,” Tom agreed. If they were all lucky, she’d go get herself a case of dead.
“Eli, take second pilot.”
“Yes, sir,” Eli said, immediately shutting down the station and pressing the button that would lower the whole workstation into the deck where plating would protect it during blastoff.
“Tom, Becca has a faulty read on thruster two. Get in there and see if that new seal is holding.”
“Checked the seal myself yesterday,” Tom said, but he headed for the back.
was rumbling, the engines warming as Becca prepped. After their last mission, Tom was really hoping someone else would be piloting for a good long time because the idea of Becca at the helm made his palms sweat, even if it wasn’t exactly her fault someone had rigged a crate to blow.
Tom heard Ramsay’s footsteps coming up behind him, and he pulled his handheld out before the captain could give him shit about not following orders about checking the seals. As much as Ramsay was willing to overlook certain regulations, he didn’t put up with people who didn’t follow orders. That was one of the things Tom liked most about working on the Kratos
—the captain gave real clear orders. Tom didn’t even have time to fasten the handheld to his wrist before a blast slammed into him. His arms flew wide, and his computer hit the ground with a hard cracking sound right before Tom crashed into the blast wall so hard he couldn’t breathe. He’d been hit by pulse guns in the past, but not often. They were the sledgehammers of weapons; one blast and you took out anyone in the area—friend and foe alike.
Dizziness forced Tom to his knees, and he felt something cold lock around his wrist. Tom tried to twist away, but the blast had scrambled his brains.
“You with me, Tom?” Ramsay slapped him on the face, and Tom jerked at the chain that now held him. Ramsay backed off a step. “Talk to me, Tom. You talk to me about ship security.” Ramsay stood there with Tom’s own blast gun, the one Tom had taken from his stepfather the night he’d run away for the last time.
“What?” Tom asked as he tried to figure out how much Ramsay knew and just how he was going to get out of this.
Ramsay threw something down on the ground, something silver with black threads hanging from long, spiderlike legs that looked like a meaiai
all curled up in death. Tom stopped breathing.
“Fuck. You do recognize it.” Ramsay slapped his palm against the blast wall. “God damn it, I never—” With that, he stopped, his face twisted with fury.
“They wanted to see what she was up to, and that didn’t seem like such a bad idea.” Tom defended himself. “Seemed like someone should keep an eye on her.”
“And you appointed yourself the one to make that decision? In six years, I’ve never seen you get this flat-out stupid. Suicidal? Yeah, some days it did seem like it, but this…” Ramsay pressed his lips tightly together, and panic crawled through Tom’s guts. Fuck. He’d never meant for Ramsay to get this upset.
Ramsay cut him off before he could say more. “Conspiracy against Corps personnel, conspiring with the intent to commit murder, possession of illegal weapons, attempted murder. Damn it, Tom. Could you have fucked this up any more if you tried?”
“Attempted murder?” Tom shook his head. “I ain’t been trying to kill her. Now if she gave me an excuse, I wouldn’t mind putting a bullet—”
“Stop. You say shit like that, and then you put that on her… You’re going in for attempted murder, Tom, and I can’t figure out why you would turn on crew.”
Tom’s guts curled up and died in the face of that pure anger. “I wasn’t going to let her wear it on board,” Tom said. That would have been just stupid because someone would have seen it on her back, and that would have been the end of that. “I’ve got an electronic safe for the thing when we were flying and we could keep an eye on her without that little man getting himself involved.”
Leaning against the blast wall, Ramsay hung his head and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes as if he were trying to press something right out of his brain. “Look at the tech, Tom. You’re rated in weaponry, so you look at the tech.”
Tom reached out with his free hand and pulled the disk closer. The bottom was open now since the disk had been ripped out of the cloth instead of getting deactivated so that the little legs tucked back inside. Turning it so he could see inside, Tom frowned.
“Can’t actually see much without magnification,” he admitted, but an uncomfortable feeling was crawling up his legs as if he were sitting in ice water.
“You see anything missing?” Ramsay asked, his voice deadly quiet.
“Ain’t got no transmitter that I can see.”
“Not one large enough to transmit voice,” Ramsay agreed. “But there’s a transmitter in there. One so small you can’t even see it unless you’re looking right at the circuitry nanowired into the casing under the attachment legs.”
Tom’s fingers went numb. “It’s just a bug…a way to listen in on what she’s doing when she wanders off.” Tom said it, but he wasn’t sure he even believed that anymore. Nanotech. Shit.
Ramsay gave a rough and dark laugh. “Someone shows you a pretty picture, and you…” He threw up an arm, and Tom knew the man was done with him. Just done. Tom looked down at the ground, not even sure what to say. Six years he’d followed Ramsay, and now he could feel something important crumble under him as Ramsay looked at him with hate. “You know weapons, Tom. You fucking know them, so why would someone gut a listening bug and retrofit it with nanowiring?”
Tom didn’t want to answer because he could think of all sorts of applications for tech like that. He’d never seen a bug with nanowiring because that technology was usually too damn expensive to waste it on something you planned to use once. It could be used as a quantum disruptor to throw a ship off her quantum string. It could be a beacon, transmitting a signal that mimicked solar noise to help someone track the ship. It could… Hell, it could be pretty much anything.
“And here you are saying how you’d like to kill Da’shay.” Ramsay shook his head and ran his fingers through white hair that hung to his shoulders.
“But I couldn’t manage nanowiring. Not even Becca could do that, and she’s a whole lot smarter than me,” Tom protested.
“You think your defense attorney can really build a defense out of you being too stupid to pull off what has to be the world’s stupidest assassination attempt?” Ramsay was backing away. Tom struggled against the cuff, desperate to follow and explain how this all got so out of hand. “The best that proves is that you had friends in this. You helped someone target this crew, and depending on what that thing does, you just about helped someone murder all of us.” Ramsay’s voice dropped to a whisper barely audible over the Kratos’s
engines. “Fuck you, Tom. Fuck you and your traitor friends.”
“I ain’t your captain, Tom, not anymore.”
Tom tried to find the right words. “I didn’t mean—”
“I figure you have two choices,” Ramsay said. He had a real calm tone that made Tom worry. “I can call the Corps and hand the evidence over. Make no mistake—you’ll never see daylight again. That’s the last look at blue sky you’ll ever have.” Ramsay poked his thumb at the sky visible just past the Kratos
. “Your other choice is to stand right there.”
It took Tom several seconds to realize what Ramsay was saying. The Kratos
was rumbling, but even looking down the butt end of her thrusters, it hadn’t occurred to Tom that he was in grave danger of being very dead. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was so dry the sides of his throat seemed to stick together and sting.
“You’d do that?” Tom tried pulling on the chain quiet-like, but he was trapped and now he was looking death right in the face. He didn’t think he’d ever been so scared—not when he was five years old and watching his father die, not when he was seven and watching his stepfather come toward him with a stick in hand, not even when he’d stared down the barrel of more than one gun in the line of duty. Ramsay. It was Ramsay who was finally teaching Tom about cold-white terror.
“Your choice, Tom.” Ramsay raised his own handheld. “I’m calling the Corps on this, but I can either call them right now and tell them to come get your traitorous ass, or I can call them from orbit after we find your suicide note, and say that you chose a particularly effective form of suicide.” Ramsay pulled out a magnetic controller and dropped it on the ground. “Seems like Tom Frieden was afraid he might back out at the last second, but he knew how to kill a man. It seems like that extended to doing a pretty good job on himself when he was cornered because he chained himself to the wall.”
Tom stared at the controller.
“So, when do I call them? Now or after we blast off?”
Tom stared at Ramsay, his mind blank. This wasn’t the sort of question he had an answer for. Tom wrapped his fist around the chain that trapped him. Slowly, he sagged, his whole body weak.
“Do you want me to make the call later?” Ramsay’s voice had gone cold with frustration. Tom’s inability to die quickly was ruining their schedule, more than likely. Tom nodded mutely. He kept his gaze focused on the thrusters even though a big part of him didn’t want to see death coming at him head-on. It’d be quick, that was sure. Tom wondered if he’d see anything at all. With the decision made, Tom felt stripped of all emotion.
“Captain,” Tom called out. He remembered too late that Ramsay had told him not to call him that. He supposed it didn’t matter anymore. Ramsay stood off to the side of the ship and looked back at Tom with the sort of pity Tom hated coming from most men. He figured right now he’d earned a little pity, even if he couldn’t get any forgiveness. “You be the one to launch the ship. You don’t let Becca or Eli anywhere near that.”
Ramsay stared at him for a time before answering. “I take care of crew.” He closed his eyes for a second. “Hell, you’re crew too, Tom. If you weren’t, I would have called Command the second Da’shay showed me the pretty little gift you’d given her. That nanotech is so illegal I thought I was going to have to arrest myself for seeing it.”
Tom didn’t know why Ramsay wanted to torture him now when it didn’t matter, but there wasn’t much he could do to stop him. He looked up, and Da’shay was standing beside the Kratos
, watching him with wide, dark eyes. He’d expected her to be gleeful. Hell, he expected her to be inside the ship since they were ready for takeoff. But she looked at him with her head cocked as if she couldn’t understand something.
“Who gave it to you?” Ramsay asked.
“Same little man who showed me the pictures.”
Ramsay sighed. “I should call Command and have them pick you up. If you could help them sketch the suspect, they might be able to track down whoever’s targeting Da’shay and the Kratos
. I just like you too much to make you live in a cell the rest of your life.”
Tom didn’t react. Whatever Ramsay said, Tom didn’t have the energy to disagree. Da’shay inched closer, her fingers splayed out on the side of the ship as she watched him with those big dark eyes.
Moving closer, Ramsay crouched down next to Tom. “How much they pay you? I need to know how many resources are lined up against us, so this is important.”
“Paid with pinpricks of light through the red,” Da’shay said as she moved to the captain’s side. Tom hated that she showed up now, when he was facing his death. A man ought to be able to die with a little dignity, and here he was, forced to watch his worst mistake. Da’shay reached out and put her hand over Ramsay’s so they both held the chain’s controller.
“Go into the ship,” Ramsay said. When he moved to intercept her, it was pretty obviously he was trying to protect her. He would make sure Tom’s death made as few waves as possible. Tom tried to ignore a tightness in his chest so bad that he couldn’t take a full breath. His air came in pained gasps.
Da’shay simply said, “No.”
“Da’shay,” Ramsay warned.
“Red and red and shafts of light.” She must have tightened her hold on the captain’s hand, because he grimaced, and then she took the controller from him. Tom forced himself to stand tall on shaking knees. Dying at Ramsay’s hand was mighty horrifying, but he did not want to die at her hands.
She smiled at him. A buzz startled him, and then Tom realized that Da’shay had turned him loose. That didn’t make a lick of sense. Not one. He frowned at her, but she still had that look on her face like she might be looking at a puzzle.
“Da’shay, this ain’t right. What he did… He’s dangerous,” Ramsay said, and Tom tried hard not to show his hurt at those words. He hadn’t ever tried to do anything except protect his crew. Da’shay stared at Tom with some emotion he couldn’t even hope to understand. “Give me the controller,” Ramsay demanded.
Tom held his breath. The captain still had the pulse gun, so if he ordered Tom to put the chain back on, Tom didn’t have much choice. The captain was right that dying would be a good deal compared to living in a prison cell for the rest of his life. Da’shay took the controller and very slowly and deliberately put it down the top her dress, tucking it between her two small breasts.
“Aw, hell, Tom. You do complicate things.”
Tom looked at the Kratos’s
thrusters. “Not for much longer.”
“Red stains wash out the broken wires,” Da’shay said in a tone that made it pretty clear she thought that bit of insanity was important.
“It looks like she’s not ready to have you die,” Ramsay said, but Tom wouldn’t survive a cage. It was better this way. He had a weird sense of calm looking at the end of his life and knowing that Ramsay had lined it up and all Tom had to do was die. It was also ironic that it was Ramsay and the Kratos
killing him because he would have said that of all the ships he’d served on, this was the one where people were least likely to harbor homicidal thoughts about him.
“Dying’s better than getting turned in to the authorities when I didn’t mean any harm by what I did.”
Captain Ramsay rubbed a hand over his face, and Da’shay took a step toward him, her movements jerky where normally she was all grace.
“He comes too,” she said fiercely.
Tom didn’t know how to feel about Da’shay taking up his cause. She was the only one he’d been gunning for, and he still thought she was about as dangerous and unpredictable as a person could get. He might admire the first quality in any woman, but he was not a fan of caprice.
The captain looked from one of them to the other before he sighed and turned toward the ship. “Hurry up. We’re burning hydrogen,” Ramsay said.
For a second, Tom braced himself against the wall. Da’shay walked toward him, her eyes half-closed and a pained expression on her face. Then she made a little keening sound that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
Ramsay was talking, and Tom had to concentrate on the words. “If I trusted Command to treat you fair, I’d let them punish you. A dozen lashes or a year in a prison cell wouldn’t be a bad way to remind you to stop and fucking think. Problem is that Command does tend to overreact when someone says something like illegal tech
or attempted murder
. But you will pay. There will be ship punishment for this, and if we don’t report this, that means we’re going to have to figure this out ourselves.”
Tom could only stare at Ramsay, not even sure he could follow the conversation. He’d had too many changes hit him too fast.
“As soon as we get back from this mission, we’re going to approach this just like we would any other investigation.” Ramsay glanced over at Da’shay. “We try to get some straight information about who might be trying to kill her, we run a sketch of the man you met through facial recognition and we figure out if anyone’s been checking on our files to see who might turn. And you remember that you’re not going to breathe without asking me for permission, because you’re the one who turned, Tom. Got it?”
Tom asked, “That’s it?” Tom couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t still chained to the wall.
“No, that’s not it. You’re on restriction to quarters until I feel like letting you out. If you want to pull a stunt this stupid again, let’s make sure you know what it feels like to live in a six-by-six box for a while.” Ramsay turned and walked toward the still open hatch.
Da’shay bent over and picked up Tom’s handheld and came over with it like an offering. Tom stared at her, half expecting her to gut him on the spot. Instead she waited with her hand outstretched. Tom took his handheld and shivered from the intensity of her gaze. She moved forward slowly, her dark gaze on him as she reached out to touch him on his left temple. It was a whisper of a touch, but a full shiver took Tom, and he thought about her with a weapon in hand slaughtering slavers. No one denied that truth, but if that was the truth and if she was dangerous, he couldn’t see one good reason for her to save him.
She tilted her head and frowned as though confused. Tom was relieved when Ramsay shouted out an order.
“Get the lead out!”
Tom headed for the ramp, trying hard not to fall down because his knees still felt like rubber, Da’shay right behind him.