Tanner Malone is back on his bullshit! Is he thrilled about it? Of course not! Will YOU have a great time? Hell yeah!
“I DON’T BELONG IN THE MILITARY. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG.”
Tanner Malone never aspired to heroism. For him, the Navy and the Debtor’s War were all about survival. Lately, his life has turned to better days with college, friends, and a growing relationship. He’s not interested when a Union Fleet admiral brings him a mysterious alien threat, but he can’t turn away Alicia Wong.
Ancient warfare between humanity’s alien neighbors threatens to reignite. While tensions rise, the Fleet detects a massive alien craft sneaking through human space. The commando team sent to investigate is tough, competent, and straight out of Tanner’s worst fears. Surviving this will push Tanner to his limits—and he’ll definitely need a note for class.
NO MAN’S LAND is set seven months after the events of LAST MAN OUT.
NO MAN’S LAND is available in ebook and paperback exclusively on Amazon, including Kindle Unlimited!
Audible is reviewing the book for an audio version. I have high hopes, but can’t make any promises; the best way to make that happen is to pick up the ebook!
“HEY, HOLD ON, ELLIOTT,” you say. “Don’t you normally post a prologue or opening chapter when you release a book?”
Why yes, yes I do! And as much as I like the prologue, I feel like Chapter One delivers what you really want to see, so enjoy!
Since the Debtor’s War, Archangel has conducted a remarkable charm offensive to repair its image. Archangel organizations lead disaster relief and charity work around the Union. Forces from Archangel figured heavily in resolving the Minos crisis, and then the system welcomed a third of the resulting refugees—more than any other system by a wide margin.
It is significant, then, that so much animosity and suspicion remain. Rumors abound accusing Archangel of secretly supporting anti-corporate interests across the Union, despite their peaceful overtures.
—”The New (Dis)Order,” Union Relations Review editorial page
Covert ops and crime paid well, but legitimate business at least had hygiene standards.
Leatherback’s five grimy crewmen were enough to make Lynette reconsider this choice of jobs. The freighter looming behind them fit the name, three decks tall and thirty meters long at her center with her bow extending from a bulbous body like a turtle’s head. Layers of carbon and black streaks from atmospheric entry covered the hull, highlighted by dents and chemical stains. By comparison, the cheap rental hangar felt pristine.
Lynette wondered if her white jacket, clean grey pants, and just-washed-today short red hair might come off as passive-aggressive. She also felt better about leaving her two shipmates in the cargo lifter behind her. Sanjay and Val would not resist poking at these guys.
The one to step forward happened to be the least greasy of the bunch. “You lost?”
“Yeah, and past a deadline,” said Lynette. “Maybe I should just drop my payload here.”
The talker offered his hand. He fit the profile and images she got when she took on the job. So did his name. “Call me Steve. I’m the captain.”
“Porter.” Finished with the password exchange, Lynette accepted the handshake. “The lifter has a full payload slider, so we can turn it around and offload everything as one piece. It’s all clamped and secured together.”
“They told me we couldn’t be sure what was coming. What’ve we got?” asked Steve.
“Here’s your inventory.” Lynette pulled a disposable datachip from her belt, activated it with a squeeze of her thumb, and said, “B-3-Q-6. Unlock. Display.” The chip revealed its encrypted data as a blue holo screen with white text hovering over her hand. “Opening this up cleared out my encryption password and voiceprint. You can enter your own now.”
He accepted the chip and paged through the contents, leaving Lynette to look over his crew and his ship again. She didn’t expect up-to-date licenses and certifications. “Safety” took on a different meaning on a run like this, requiring concealment and anonymity rather than schedules and inspections. Transfers happened best out of sight, sometimes as deep space hand-offs or on a moon in an unsettled star system. Such remote operations required more trust than either side could afford here, leading them to this rented bay instead.
The job paid well and the cause seemed justified. Faraway allies in crisis needed weapons and supplies, and the Intelligence Ministry of Archangel needed deniable couriers. Once she and her shipmates unloaded their cargo lifter, their job would be done. Final delivery fell to Leatherback’s crew returning to the Calico system’s thinly-settled moon colonies, asteroid mining ops, and an encroaching private military outfit backed by NorthStar. Lynette supposed she might be judging too harshly; maybe these guys were unwashed and edgy for a reason.
Or maybe the mild disinterest on Steve’s face as he paged through the inventory of electronics, munitions, and medical supplies was another bad sign.
“Hopefully the Sparklers do some good. We know things are bad out there,” Lynette ventured.
“Uh-huh,” said Steve.
“NorthStar didn’t even face some of this stuff in Hashem or Archangel.” She watched for any kind of emotion at all. “Their pilots should be real surprised to get a shot full of chaff from a bunch of miners and farmers on the ground.”
“Sure,” he mumbled with no emotion. The insurgency that sent him here seemed like someone else’s problem. Lynette’s suspicion rose.
“That all sounds like a nice bonus,” spoke up another of the crew. His faux-leather coat bore spikes and chains, along with heavy stitches to hold barely-hidden armor plating. Modern surgery could’ve erased his facial scars, which suggested they were a choice. “We’ll find a good use for it. Or a good fence. Later.”
A change in posture and attitude ran through the other mooks. They held to their not-really-casual spread, but stood straighter and watched closer. Steve killed the manifest screen and stepped back, his indifference turning cold.
Lynette dropped any last benefit of a doubt.
“Little crazy to think people won’t recognize you after all you’ve done, isn’t it, Captain Kelly?” The one in the armored coat strolled forward, hands on his belt and thereby near his guns. “Big hero of the Debtor’s War. Captured all those rich fucks on Fairhaven, made ‘em back down and end the war on your terms. That kinda thing creates a grudge. You were ass-deep in that mess with the aliens on Minos, too, right?”
Machine-born snaps and clanks overhead sounded the appearance of a twin laser turret beneath Leatherback’s bow. The guns hummed to life, barrels pointed straight at the cargo lifter and Sanjay and Val within.
“Turns out, no,” Lynette answered. “The war’s over, and I didn’t call those shots. Same for Minos. Not a lot of people remember me. What about you? Are you the real captain?”
“Yeah, I’m the captain. Steve here plays the role for outsiders and gets us jobs. We’re not exactly career insurgents. We do what pays. And what really pays is helping rich people get their hands on someone who hurt them like you did.”
Lynette knew where this was going. As long as he talked, she could look for a break to pull her L-7 and make a fight of it. Val and Sanjay had to be doing the same thing. She only waited on the chance to make her move.
“Whatever you’re thinking, you can stop,” said the captain. “Those goodies you brought are nice and all, but we’ll blast that lifter into the floor if you’re stupid. You’ll still be wrapped up in our hold and on the way out of the atmosphere before port security or the police get halfway off their asses.”
Her eyes flicked upward again at the turret, knowing he was right—and then did a double-take at the darkened ready lights. She no longer heard the hum of power, either.
“So, if you want to live through this with your friends,” the captain went on, “you’ll tell them to cooperate and be cool. And then you’ll put your hands behind your head and turn around.”
Her eyes went from one scuzzy face to the next. They still had numbers on their side, still had the drop on her stuck out in the open, and she couldn’t be sure of the turret. Every instinct told her to play for time. “Did someone arrange all this, or are you working on spec?”
“The answers don’t make any difference,” said the captain. “All that matters is the guns on my ship and the guys behind me.”
Another such guy walked off Leatherback’s gangway. This one dressed better, looked thinner and younger, but he had stains all over those clothes—red, bloody stains. Blood marred his face, too… his deeply tanned, angry face.
Lynette’s jaw dropped as he strode through the group clutching a blocky, glowing hot plasma buffer in each hand. The crew’s wary shift of stance came too late. “Last chance,” said the captain. “I’m fine with leaving bodies on this deck if—”
Tanner slapped the buffer pads against the captain’s neck. An armored coat did no good against a tool used to smooth down dents and scrapes in a starship’s hull. The captain’s head and shoulders all but disintegrated.
Everyone went into motion before the remains hit the floor. Tanner swung one plasma buffer at the nearest mook. Lynette snatched the L-7 from inside her jacket and shot down another of Leatherback’s crew. Lasers from the cargo lifter cut down two more.
“Steve” reacted faster than his shipmates. He leaped for Lynette rather than for cover, getting one arm around her shoulders and raising his pistol to her head. “Drop! Drop, or I’ll kill her!” he shouted even before he locked in a hold. Anything else he meant to say died with the impact of Lynette’s elbow in his gut, and then the back of her fist and her pistol across his face, and then the shove. A blast from her L-7 finished her rebuke, backed up by another laser burning straight through his sides as he fell.
Her eyes snapped to the cargo lifter. She saw smoking holes in the vehicle’s front cab, but Sanjay remained upright in the driver’s seat. Val hopped out of the passenger side with a cut-down pulse rifle. With both young shipmates alert and unharmed, the holes through the cab made no sense—and then, she realized, they did. Val and Sanjay had fired right through the windshield.
It was all she needed to know. Lynette turned to the only other person standing under the bow of the Leatherback. She didn’t hold back her exasperation. “Tanner?”
He gestured to the smoldering bodies. “Pirates.”
“Pirates?” Lynette blinked. “The ministry said they vetted—what are you doing here?”
“You’re my ride to Zheng He. We agreed to meet up here.”
“No, I mean here. All this.”
“Pirates,” Tanner repeated like it was obvious. He closed the distance with an urgent stride, dropping the buffers on their victim.
She backed up alongside him, trying to process his appearance along with a botched job and all the apparently garbage intel that brought her into it. “Seriously? All of them?”
“Oh yeah. There’s like thirty or forty more on that ship. I only got a few. We should go.”
“Sanjay?” Lynette called out.
“I’m waitin’ on you!” her wheelman called back.
Shouts and footsteps echoed from within the Leatherback. She saw movement through the bridge canopy. “Don’t wait,” Lynette replied. “Go!”
Blue flashes of pulse lasers from Val’s rifle killed the first person to emerge from Leatherback’s gangway and sent the rest scurrying back inside. Sanjay slammed the cargo lifter into reverse. Hover jets whined and wind blasted away from the speeding lifter until its cargo bed smashed through the ordinary garage doors of the hangar.
Bright light from a sunny day and green-tinted skies spilled through the opening, tempered only by the walls of more rental hangars across the lane. Sanjay spun hard, taking the lifter a full ninety degrees before floating it out of the line of sight.
Lynette and Tanner broke into a run, closing the distance to Val. A grin flashed under the strands of her dark, shoulder-length hair. “Hey, Tanner. Nice timing.”
“Val, we’ve gotta go,” he urged.
“Right behind you,” she said, and kept on shooting. At best, she backed up a couple steps.
Tanner hesitated. Lynette gave him a tug. “You don’t even have a gun, dumbass.”
“I grabbed one, but those guys all keep their guns on biometric locks. It’s a whole rule in their charter,” Tanner grumbled defensively.
Popping gunfire and the ricochets of bullets chased them to the corner, along with at least one laser blast. Someone had found a vantage point outside Val’s firing lane. Lynette and Tanner rounded the open garage door to find Sanjay waiting only meters away. They stopped the instant they were outside, turning to check on Val. Once again, Tanner’s lack of a gun limited his options. Lynette gave all the suppressing fire her pistol could offer. Val turned and ran with her carbine tucked under her arm, blindly firing backwards.
“Lyn, what do I tell Veronica?” Sanjay called from the lifter. “She’s about ready to launch.”
“You’ve had Phoenix online this whole time?” Tanner realized.
“Of course, we did.” Lynette took her last shot before Val came around the corner. All three ran for the lifter. “We’re on a sketchy drop. Obviously I had them listening.”
“They could take off and blast this hangar,” suggested Val on her way into the lifter.
“Say again?” came a disembodied, familiar voice from Sanjay’s holocom.
“Do not take off and blast this hangar!” Lynette barked, piling in after Val.
Tanner pulled himself only halfway in, bracing in the open door while the others climbed into seats. “Drive! We’ve gotta go!”
Everyone felt Sanjay agree with Tanner. Half a meter of antigravity waves under the lifter meant for sudden acceleration with little resistance. Lynette felt the seatback against her shoulder before she wrenched herself around to make sure Tanner hadn’t fallen out. Val climbed back into the shotgun seat. Lynette tugged Tanner inside by the wrist, practically bringing him in on top of her. A swerve by Sanjay didn’t make settling in any easier.
“Lyn? Sanjay?” came Veronica’s voice again.
“We’re good,” said Lynette. “We’re away. We’re out of the line of fire.”
“Don’t let that slow us down,” grumbled Tanner.
“What’re they gonna do, chase us through the street in their spaceship?” asked Sanjay.
“They might. These guys are fucking psychos.”
“Wait, who is that?” asked Veronica.
“Hi, Veronica. It’s Tanner,” he answered, finally closing the door.
“Tanner? What the hell? I thought we were picking him up after the drop.”
“Yeah, I thought so, too,” Lynette fumed.
Long, relatively low walls of another rental hangar rushed by the passenger window. Ordinary workers loaded a pallet onto another lifter in the alley that followed. Speed made for only a glance, but Lynette didn’t see any particular alarm. The rest of the spaceport carried on with an ordinary day for everyone else. “We’re on our way back. Get ready to shove all this junk back into the ship so we can take off. We’ll worry about securing it later.”
“On it,” Veronica replied.
Air whistled through the holes Sanjay and Val had blown through the front of the cab. Sanjay took another turn and sped onward. Val power-tested one of the L-7s up front and handed it off to Tanner in the seat behind Sanjay. He accepted the weapon and made the exact same habitual safety and load check with practiced, bloody hands.
Then he had the nerve to look embarrassed when Lynette made eye contact. “Um. Hey.”
“What the fuck, Tanner?” It was the first to escape from the crowd of questions in Lynette’s mouth. She almost felt guilty, except for how the other questions flooded out after it. “What are you doing here? We’re not supposed to meet for hours. Weren’t you waiting for my call after we finished our job? How did you even know where we’d be? And how the hell did you know they were pirates?”
“I got here early,” he explained. “My hotel room has a view of the port. I saw these guys come in yesterday and thought I recognized the ship, so I wanted to make sure.”
“You’ve got a photographic memory for pirate ships?” asked Val.
“No, I got kinda ranty about how I could pick up a minor in pirate studies if it was an actual thing. A professor said, ‘Do it,’ and I said, ‘There’s no such thing,’ and he said, ‘Yet,’ and then he talked to a department head, and now here I am with an independent study program and a bunch of reference stuff on my holocom and—”
“This is fucking college homework for you?” Sanjay cut in.
“Supposed to be less hands-on,” Tanner grumbled. Chagrined eyes returned to Lynette’s. “I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything for sure, except for how you were coming, and sometimes you do shady ministry jobs, and these guys are attached to that rebellion Archangel supports, and… I figured maybe I’d better look into it.”
“All the way into their ship?” Lynette pushed.
“Y’know, one thing led to another. Glad I did, as it turns out.”
“I’m glad you did! I’m glad you were there!” she snapped. “Except why is it that every time I see you, I’m thrilled and annoyed?”
“Hey, do you two need a room?” asked Val.
“Yes!” they answered together. Then Tanner grimaced. “Also, I really need to get back to my hotel room before we leave.”
Flame and debris erupted on the passenger side of the lifter, sending Lynette halfway into Tanner’s lap and him against the door. The lifter’s engines roared and hummed as Sanjay righted their course before crashing against a hangar wall. A second boom followed from behind them before Lynette was upright in her seat again.
Despite dust and smoke through shattered windows, Lynette took stock of most of the crew in a single glance. Sanjay kept driving. Tanner was fine. “Val?”
“I’m good.” The gunner had her head out the window. “Shit, they’re airborne already! Sanjay!”
“I know!” He wrenched the wheel left and cut the speed for a brief instant. Another laser tore through the pavement ahead of them, throwing debris and smoke everywhere. Sanjay hit the accelerator and sailed on through the mess. “Dodging gets a lot harder real fast,” he warned.
“How’d they spot us so quick?” wondered Val.
“Maybe ‘cause we’re the only lifter tearing through the spaceport,” suggested Sanjay.
“Veronica,” Lynette shouted, “get in the air! We need help!”
“Launching,” Veronica replied over the holocom.
Another red beam cut through the street, ejecting superheated bits of pavement. Sanjay jerked away from the blast in time to avoid the worst, but everyone felt the concussive wave.
“Shit!” Val uncurled from beneath the dashboard to watch the road. “That truck on the side—”
“It was empty,” said Sanjay. “I saw. It was empty, but sooner or later… fuck.” Sanjay pulled the lifter into a hard left, abandoning the narrow access lanes despite plentiful warning signs.
Ahead, the spaceport opened to broad stretches between large parked ships. To one side sat a freighter made up mostly of long container cylinders. Far off in the other direction lay a blockier asteroid miner almost the size of a destroyer. The great vessels had plenty of space in between.
Another blast dug a trench along the lifter’s side. The beam came close enough to heat up the interior of the cab.
“Little exposed out here,” warned Val. “It’s a starship. They shoot at harder targets than us.”
“Yeah, but looking for cover in a spaceport means hiding behind other people,” said Sanjay. “I’m not doing that.”
“Surprised they don’t try to catch us instead,” Tanner thought out loud. “They’ve got bomb bay doors and a grapple system. Pirates usually like loot more than revenge.”
Sanjay drove on, constantly looking upward through blasted-out windows. So did the others. No more laser blasts came. Leatherback closed the distance, floating directly above the lifter. Sanjay turned his head for a sour look over his shoulder. “Great suggestion, Tanner.”
“It’s not like they heard me!” Tanner protested.
“Drive under one of the other ships. It’ll buy time,” said Val.
“No, wait,” Lynette realized. “This works for us. Stop. Stop the lifter.”
“What?” Sanjay blinked.
“If they changed their minds about capturing us, they can’t blow the lifter. We only have to hold out for Phoenix. And we’re carrying a load of guns.”
“On it!” Val threw her door open and climbed halfway out of her seat, clinging to the side of the lifter.
“I haven’t even stopped!” Sanjay hesitated with one more look to Lynette before trusting her call. He slowed the lifter so he didn’t send Val flying.
Lynette held back for one last instruction to Sanjay. “Stay there. We’ll need to move.” Then she followed Val out, knowing Tanner was on his way on the other side. “Hit your magnetics!” Lynette called, tapping her boots to activate her own relays. Her gloves paired up automatically for a superior grip. “Stick to the lifter!”
“Knew I should’ve worn magnetics,” Tanner grumbled.
Val twisted the fasteners of one top box and shoved it off the stack. Thousands of credits in tactical holocom earpieces tumbled to the pavement within that first crate. Val couldn’t have cared less. “We need the second layer. Help me.”
Two people were enough for that job. Lynette left Val and Tanner to it, looking warily up to the converted freighter descending directly overhead. She reached into her jacket for her L-7 as Leatherback’s bay doors dropped open. Machinery for Leatherback’s grapple cables and hooks ran along the overhead of the cargo bay, but another threat emerged along the gaps of the open doors. A handful of pirates leaned over the sides, all armed and ready to shoot.
Lynette fired first. Two red beams flashed from her pistol in quick succession. The second cut through a looming pirate, leaving the body dangling by a safety cable. The others flinched for a precious instant. “Shooters!” Lynette warned. More lasers flew from her weapon, soon answered in kind. “Move fast!”
“I’ve got it,” Val announced. Lynette didn’t look down from her problems to track Val’s progress, but a second beam from Tanner’s gun helped her suppress the enemies overhead. More shots flew upward from behind Lynette as Sanjay twisted and leaned halfway out of the cab to join the fight. Clunks and snaps continued as Val worked to free one of the anti-air launchers.
Gunfire popped and flashed from above. Lynette fired back, her heart in her throat the whole time. Little of her experience in the war or afterward involved personal combat. She’d gotten in a couple of up close and personal scrapes, but most of her fighting happened on the bridge of her starship. None in her crew had endured as many gunfights as Tanner.
She focused on her stance and her marksmanship. Though the pirates poured on the fire, they often overshot. Lynette felt the urgency and fear of standing out in the open among bullets and lasers, but the pirates faced that pressure, too. Most of them probably lacked training. They weren’t used to aggressive resistance.
She nearly took out another. The close call sent the greasy-haired man with the laser rifle back into the bay for cover. The whole firefight couldn’t have gone on for more than a few seconds, ten at the most, before inevitability overtook Lynette’s sense of urgency. The pirates had to know their advantages. They only needed to take a breath and act.
And then five of them dove out of the open bay.
Their less than fatal descent had a ready enough explanation. The Archangel Navy preferred barrel-sized anti-grav field generators for aerial work, but personal anti-grav “chutes” could be as small as a dinner plate strapped to one’s back. Despite any criticisms by the navy, the devices worked fine. An otherwise fatal drop became a surprise avenue of attack for a pack of screaming, shooting men.
“Shit,” Tanner growled. He put a laser through one pirate before they landed. The others came down in a spread, suddenly multiplying the number of angles in need of defending. The rest up inside Leatherback held fire rather than risking an accident.
Lynette held fire, too, when one pirate came down within tackling distance. A sharp side kick sent him floating off the cargo stack. His anti-grav chute might protect him from the fall, but it didn’t keep him in the fight. She whirled to find another with his weapon trained on Val, who only now had the right case open and the thick-barreled plasma-fed Ballista out of its foam cradle. Lynette opened up with her L-7, and though she cut the pirate down, she didn’t do it with her first shot. Even point-blank range could be a test with enough pressure.
“Gah, fuck!” Val shouted from the pirate’s gunshot, falling back with a burst of blood. She landed on her right side, her opposite shoulder marred by a wound her combat coat couldn’t fully withstand.
Tanner charged in and practically stabbed the guy with his pistol. A red beam burst from the pirate’s back. The pair twisted around on their feet, one gasping in denial while the other clutched at something on his victim’s belt. Lynette caught a glimpse of a grenade before it disappeared amid fabric and struggling hands. Tanner’s L-7 fell at their feet. Then the pirate staggered, shoved forward by Tanner along with a slap to his back—and suddenly lurched straight up into the air.
“Down,” Tanner urged. He tackled the last remaining pirate on the cargo stack. “Get down!”
Instinct overcame the impulse to watch a man uncontrollably fly up into a floating starship bay. Lynette dove over Val, covering the gunner’s head and upper body from the explosion. She dreaded a rain of shrapnel or burning chaff. Instead, she heard the distinct pop and crackle of a thermal grenade. Men yelped and shrieked as the blast washed through the cargo bay. Only a scattering of debris and embers fell from above.
“Val? Val, you with me?” Lynette rose in a half-crouch, still shielding Val with her body. Wincing eyes and gritted teeth gave Lynette tentative relief. The bloody wound in Val’s shoulder could’ve been much worse.
“Gun’s ready,” Val croaked. “All loaded. Point and shoot.” She pushed the Ballista against Lynette’s hip, still holding the weapon by its thick barrel.
“No way. You’re the gunner. This is your favorite part.” Lynette tugged Val halfway upright before sweeping in around her back. The gunner complained by way of sucking in a sharp and unpleasant breath, but Lynette shoved the long, blocky weapon into Val’s grip and tilted it skyward. “Nobody’s taking this away from you.”
Val gripped the handle and brought the green holographic side reticle over her face. Lynette supported the barrel, allowing Val to use her as a pivot. It wasn’t a good system—and didn’t need to be. Talent and grit did the rest.
Superheated green plasma streaked from the barrel with a cringe-inducing crackle. Most guns of its type fired singular, coherent orbs. The Ballista poured out its payload in a sustained, half-second beam slow enough to see but much too fast to dodge. Floating in place directly overhead, Leatherback had no chance of avoiding the blast. Val demolished the freighter’s chin turret with a single explosive hit.
Leatherback reeled, trailing black smoke and debris from its bow. Clear blue skies returned over the lifter on the flight line. “Okay,” said Val. “I needed that. Good call, boss.”
“Yeah, I’m the nurturing type,” muttered Lynette.
Grunts and thuds took her eyes right. The last of the pirates gave Tanner more trouble than the rest, struggling until Tanner gave up the struggle for the pirate’s weapon and elbowed him in the jaw instead. The brutal strike sent the pirate tumbling off the cargo stack.
Another gunshot from somewhere behind Lynette reminded her of Sanjay. She twisted to look for her driver, only to fall back with the forward lurch of the cargo lifter. Tanner wound up on his hands and knees with a yelp. A jarring bump at the front of the lifter sent one last pirate flying away from the vehicle’s path.
Lynette righted herself and looked skyward. Leatherback held her altitude, but no longer pursued. It wasn’t like Sanjay could coax enough speed out of a cargo lifter to outrun spacecraft weaponry. Leatherback extended a second turret, this one from its port side. “Sanjay, swerve!” Lynette shouted, and he did—but she doubted it would do any good.
Then Leatherback fired her starboard maneuvering jets rather than the turret. For the first time since this began, the hunk of metal moved like a starship, covering real distance in an instant. Roaring jets and the rapid thunder of guns high above the lifter explained it all.
Phoenix floated in overhead with her Interceptor turrets firing from her sweeping, thick wings. The silver-hulled, gracefully designed yacht was much smaller than Leatherback, but packed far more firepower than anything of her class should. Lasers mounted under her bow added to the punishment she dished out on her target from bow to stern.
Already damaged and not built for maneuverability, Leatherback lost the fight the moment it began. Interceptor shells broke through the hull in seconds to set off a fatal explosion. With her maneuvering jets still firing, Leatherback spun as she fell from the sky, thankfully sending her to crash beyond the city.
The lifter glided to a graceful stop. Lynette turned from the finished fight to the hurt shipmate on the cargo stack, with Tanner showing all the same instincts. She heard Sanjay call from the cab, but couldn’t make it out. Rather than asking for a repeat, she tapped her earring to activate her holocom. “Veronica, we’re clear. Val’s been shot. Lower the ramp to the top of the lifter and we’ll get her on board.”
“On it. Elise? Good,” came Veronica’s reply. Lyn figured the ship’s nurse was probably on her way off the bridge before the XO even said her name. Phoenix wheeled around and dropped from the sky in a single smooth move. “We’ve got port control yelling at us. I don’t see any real response yet, but I don’t think we have time to load up the cargo. Should we blow it?”
“No, we’re taking it.” Lynette looked over the edge to find Sanjay standing by the lifter where he could see her. “Pop the clamps on the bottom of the stack,” she told him. “Just the bottom. Leave the rest secured.”
“Got it,” he answered, and ran to the first clamp.
Tanner couldn’t do much more for Val’s wound than staunch the bleeding with the shirt off his back, but better help was on the way. Phoenix floated down with her belly gangway open and extended. “Still with us, Val? How many fingers am I holding up?”
“None, they’re all poking my shoulder, dumbass,” Val hissed.
“Gotta keep you out of shock somehow.”
“I’m not dying when I’ve got reason to brag. Did you see me hit that ship?”
The gangway lined up with the top of the cargo stack. Chun and Jorge emerged with a scoop stretcher between them. Lynette waved the big pair over, but spoke mostly for Veronica over the holocom. “We’re not loading up. It’s all clamped together. We can grab the stack with one of the landing struts and fly it out that way.”
Chun and Jorge hustled down the ramp with the stretcher. The former swept around Tanner to kneel behind Val’s head, producing an emergency compress gel pack. The grey, pillow-like bag molded around the wounded shoulder to squeeze and isolate her wound. Once it was in place, Chun blinked at the bloody-faced stranger.
“Tanner?” Jorge echoed Chun’s silent question.
“Yeah, hi,” said Tanner. “Long story.”
“Nah, you being here explains a lot,” said the engineer. Jorge worked quickly with the others to roll and slide Val onto the stretcher. “Chun’s the new chef. And storekeeper. And corpsman.”
“Lyn told me. Hi.” Tanner didn’t look up from their work.
Chun frowned. “Is that your blood on your face or someone else’s?”
“Y’know, I kinda lost track.”
Jorge and Chun hefted the stretcher and moved for the gangway. Lynette grabbed the Ballista and gave the cargo stack one last look before feeling the whole thing jostle and slide. It was only a matter of centimeters, but the gangway from the hovering starship didn’t explain the vibration. She found her answer with Sanjay climbing onto the stack.
“Magnet on the cargo bed had a polarity switch,” he explained on his way to the ramp. “Don’t want to take the lifter out with us, right?”
“When did you go legitimate?” Tanner blinked.
“Legit, hell. This is a piece of junk. I steal good shit.” Sanjay hustled up the gangway.
“Veronica, we’re good to go,” announced Lynette. The ramp began to rise before she and Tanner made it three steps. Phoenix glided over the cargo lifter to grab onto the stack with the electromagnet on the bottom of her portside-aft landing strut. A low jolt through the deck assured a secure hold as the gangway sealed up.
Lynette turned to look at Tanner: beat up, stressed, exhausted, and very much alive. As long as the latter held, she could deal with the rest—but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t be annoyed. “What the hell, Tanner?”
“Hi?” he tried.
“No. I’m not ready for nice. I mean what the hell with all that.” Lynette waved at the gangway to indicate the mess now far below it. “How did I get set up with a hand-off to a bunch of pirates? The Intelligence Ministry put all this together.”
“Well, there’s your answer,” grumbled Tanner. “Kind of a pattern there. Maybe keep my name out of this when you talk to the Ministry again.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that. Just another day for you, huh?”
“Not really.” His voice changed. She caught the waver. The crack. No tears, no rage, but she saw the vulnerability. Fighting and killing still scared and still scarred. Tanner made only a grudging peace with his violence. Any hint otherwise was only an attempt to cope.
She knew that. Damn it, she knew that.
“Hey. I’m sorry. I’m stressed.” She wrapped her arms around him and tilted her head into his shoulder. “Thank you. I’m glad you’re here.”
“Couldn’t wait to see you.”
“I’m not kissing you until you clean the blood off your face.”
“Your holocom link is still on,” came Veronica’s disembodied voice. “We can all hear you.”
“Whatever. Get us out of here, Veronica. Anyplace we can set down and secure the cargo. Go to the moon if we have to.”
“Um. Problem,” said Tanner. She pulled back. He winced in apology. “My bags are back in the hotel. I kinda need the tuxedo.”
A quick social media note: I’m abandoning Xitter as it goes down the… well, the joke already wrote itself. I also rarely post to Facebook. If you’re looking for me on social media, I’m on BlueSky at @elliottkaybooks.bsky.social and my Tumblr is right here.
As always, thanks for reading. I’d be a sloppy author indeed if I didn’t repeat the link to the book!