ROBBER BARRONS excerpt: Victoria

ROBBER BARRONS ebook is available 9/13 from Aethon Books. Click the link to order!

CHAPTER 1

Victoria spotted the bounty hunters as soon as she stepped off the ramp of the short-range freighter she’d been inspecting. Her heart raced, Mahjin senses kicking in like adrenaline. At a hundred meters away, separated by two docking bays cluttered with lifters and with the buzz of refueling equipment heavy in the air, a normal human couldn’t eavesdrop or read the bounty hunters’ datapads without military-grade surveillance equipment. But Victoria Anetti wasn’t a normal human.

The pair of bounty hunters faced a starship captain. The female bounty hunter, who was almost two meters tall and looked like she might last a round against a Mahjin, projected Victoria’s graduation picture from her hand-held datapad. In the two years since the picture was taken Victoria had cut and bleached her long black hair, gained muscle tone from working on starships, and her golden-brown skin had darkened from time spent outside in spaceports under the light of many different suns. The only thing that remained the same was her insincere smile. No disguise could change that.

The male bounty hunter, almost a head shorter than his partner but just as muscular, stepped toward the captain. “Seen this woman?”

Even with enhanced hearing, Victoria strained to determine if his accent was Caishen or Terran. Here on Liber, one of the smaller planets in the Colonial Republic of Minerva, he was a long way from either nation.

He rested his hand on his blaster. “Heard she’s working as a port mechanic.”

Oh, fuck.

Victoria’s toolkit bumped against her thigh as she ducked behind the boarding ramp, sweat that had nothing to do with Liber’s humid climate pooling on her forehead. How had these assholes figured out her cover? Nobody was supposed to know about her job as a port mechanic except Uncle Ben and his crew. Victoria touched the reflective makeup swirling around her eyes, one of the many ways she fooled the security cameras all over the Colonies.

She ground her molars. Right. Her mother also knew about her job.

She blew out a harsh breath and returned her gaze to the trio. The captain’s flight suit bore no corporate insignia. An independent shipper, like Uncle Ben. Although judging by the age of their freighter’s engines—no longer supported by the manufacturer and in desperate need of replacement—the captain wasn’t in possession of a Colonial salvage charter. No one would risk traveling off the spacelanes, where most shipwrecks lay, in that piece of junk.

The captain pushed up their sleeves and wiped the sweat from their brow. “Sorry. She must be working on one of the other ships.”

Victoria adjusted the strap of her toolkit and hurried around the boarding ramp. Time to get the hell out of there before the bounty hunters headed in her direction. She stopped short when she bumped into Captain Harper.

“Oh, great, I was just looking for you.” Victoria stared up at Captain Harper with what she hoped was a neutral expression. She projected the invoice from her datapad and flashed as genuine a smile as she could manage. “I’m all finished with the repairs. If you could sign off, I’ll be on my way.”

Victoria’s foot tapped the ground as he scrutinized the invoice, including the service agreement nobody ever read. Every footstep in a hundred-meter radius pounded in her ears while this guy was busy being nothing but thorough. She tried to focus her attention on Harper, but her senses naturally went on high alert whenever she was stressed. One of the benefits of being a damn Mahjin. Easy for her father to say; he’d jumped at the chance to be a hero. Becoming a genetically-enhanced supersoldier hadn’t been her choice. Hell, she wasn’t even supposed to have been born.

Finally, Harper pressed his fingerprint against the reader on Victoria’s datapad, signing off on the repairs and transferring credits to the account linked to her current fake ID.

Victoria switched off the device and shoved it into her breast pocket. “Pleasure doing business with you.” She fled without shaking Harper’s hand, keeping her head down and adjusting the toolkit slung across her body. As she exited Harper’s docking bay, the bounty hunters entered from the opposite side and called out to him.

Once out of sight, Victoria collapsed against the wall, her breaths ragged. Her father had always said breathing was important to controlling her abilities; today she wished she’d paid more attention to his never-ending lectures.

To her left was the port authority office where she was supposed to file repair paperwork, and about a hundred meters to her right was the exit to the rest of the city. Harper’s voice drifted out of the docking bay as he informed the bounty hunters he didn’t recognize the girl in the photo—at least her disguise still worked—but a woman around the same age had just finished repairing his freighter and hurried off.

With that information, the bounty hunters would expect her to disappear into the city, not corner herself in the port office. Why break her habit of doing the opposite of what people expected of her? 

Victoria tried to keep her step at a normal human’s pace as she crossed the sleepy municipal spaceport, but she was so keyed up she reached the door to the port office in seconds. Thankfully, nobody was inside. By the time she finished filing her paperwork and made her way to the spaceport exit, the bounty hunters were nowhere in sight. Her shoulders sagged as she let out a long exhale, but her senses remained on high alert.

Staying at the spaceport was a bad idea, but Victoria didn’t dare go back to her room now. If the bounty hunters were smart enough to trace her here, they might search the hostels. Only a few pedestrians wandered the streets so late in the day, so Victoria kept her head down, her attention jumping at every speeder that whizzed by. Like most of the sleepy Outer Colony planets, Liber’s main port had little surveillance, but the smaller population made it harder to blend in. After wiping her brow, wishing she could don a heavy jacket and throw up the hood, she headed to the town’s only pub, located about halfway between the municipal and commercial spaceports. At dinnertime the pub should be crowded with spacers, and her stomach was starting to growl anyway. She might as well eat while ducking yet another attempt to kidnap her.

A holographic sign flashing over the heavy door welcomed patrons, and other signs in the window promised strong alcohol and hearty food. She pushed open the heavy fake wooden door with barely any effort. Raucous laughter and conversation filled her ears, the smell of grease heavy in the air. Heart pounding, she slipped around the wood-veneer bar and padded chairs that reminded her of restaurants in old Terran movies, and plopped down at an empty two-top table stuck in the far corner of the room. She dropped a handful of credits onto the sticky table and ordered water and the cheapest meal on the menu. Too bad getting hammered didn’t go well with hiding. 

Only after she received her water did she drop her toolkit on the ground. She took out her datapad and projected one of the local newsfeeds. The report soon changed to the upcoming Attis summit and the possible one-on-one meeting between the prime minister of the Colonial Republic of Minerva and the president of the Janusian Union. The two nations had been at odds for hundreds of years, the conflict finally boiling over when the Terminus War began twenty-six years ago. The reporter droned on about the four years of fighting and the cold war that had existed ever since. Now the Janusians’ increased need for natural resources, not to mention the Colonies’ desire for increased tariffs, finally tempted them to establish full diplomatic relations.

Wrinkling her nose, Victoria turned off the newsfeed and switched to an old episode of Salvager Vigilantes. The over-the-top drama was more palatable than playing nice with the Janusian Union’s military dictatorship. Hell, let the Prime Minister form an alliance with the Janusians. Maybe then it wouldn’t matter she was the only Mahjin left.

A woman approached her table just as the episode was reaching its climax, right when the captain was about to ram into the villain’s warship. Victoria suppressed a scowl at the interruption and glanced up, expecting it to be a server delivering her food.

“There you are.” The woman sat and placed a datapad on the table.

For a moment, Victoria simply stared. The woman sat with her shoulders back, hands in plain sight on the table. She exhibited no signs of aggression, unlike everyone else who’d come after Victoria in the past year. Was she a friend of Uncle Ben’s? No, he would never blow her cover like this. Colonial Security Force? Hell no, they would nab her at one of their checkpoints. If this woman wasanother bounty hunter, why not stun her and drag her onto her ship, so she couldn’t put up a fight?

Victoria studied the other woman’s appearance: thick black hair pulled into a neat braid, khaki-colored skin free of body mods, spacer’s clothes in black and red with crisp lines and perfectly rolled up jacket sleeves. A blaster was evident under the bulge of her jacket. She clasped her hands as if in parade rest. And her datapad wasn’t a civilian model.

This woman might not be part of the Colonial Security Force, but she was a soldier. A Janusian.

Victoria pressed her palms against the table and stood halfway. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get the hell out of my way while you can still see out of both eyes.”

“Wait.” The soldier raised her hands in surrender, but was careful not to touch Victoria. For fear of Victoria’s reaction, or disgust at being in the presence of someone who was genetically modified? “I am Lieutenant Karim. Your mother sent me to find you.”

Victoria didn’t know why she sat back down. Morbid curiosity maybe. While she didn’t care about anything her mother had to say, no one else had ever come this close to capturing her. Victoria scanned the pub; the occupants of the nearby tables went about their conversations as if nothing unusual had happened.

Karim tapped the datapad. “Sound dampener. Nobody can hear us.”

“Ah.” Victoria reclined in her chair, as far away from Karim as possible, and narrowed her eyes. “How do you know my mother?”

“I’m stationed on Agent Lee’s ship, the Vigilant.”

“Right. The Vigilant.” The ship where her mother had been the past two years, ever since she abandoned her family, divorced Victoria’s father, and defected to the enemy. All for Victoria’s own good.

A smile stretched across Karim’s face. “I am very pleased to have found you. Your mother warned me not to underestimate you.” Karim’s Outer Colonies accent was nearly flawless, only the formal phrasing giving her away, and most people wouldn’t notice that.

“She should take her own advice. Sending a soldier to do an intelligence agent’s job?” Victoria snorted, trying for nonchalance. “She must be slipping.”

“I am an intelligence agent. Her orders were to identify myself immediately so as not to alarm you, and to speak to you in a public location.”

Victoria gripped the edge of the table so hard she almost knocked it over. Her mother must’ve hired the bounty hunters to provide a distraction while Karim trailed her. With her mother as a mentor, it was no wonder Karim had managed to get inside the Colonies. Damn them both for being so shrewd.

Victoria loosened her grip, and it was all she could do not to punch Karim in her smug face. “Let’s get this over with, then.”

Karim took a paper envelope out of her jacket pocket and slid it across the table. Again, she was careful not to touch Victoria. The envelope was sealed, Victoria’s name written on the front in her mother’s neat handwriting.

Victoria glared at the envelope. When was the last time she’d seen real paper, much less her mother’s handwriting? Her mother must be desperate if she’d stoop to such sentimental manipulation.

“Are you going to read it?” Karim asked.

“Don’t need to. I know what it says.” Victoria lowered the pitch of her voice to imitate her mother’s serious tone. “‘You’re safer in the Janusian Union than in the Colonies. President Davis has ensured your protection. You’ll be allowed to live as a private citizen as long as you remain faithful to the Janusian Union.’” Victoria slid the letter back with the tip of her index finger. “Did I get all that right?”

“I did not read it. That would have been rude.”

Was Karim kidding? As if the Janusians had any moral high ground to stand on after the Terminus War. “Right,” Victoria said. “You’ll just resort to kidnapping.”

“This is not a kidnapping—”

“No, it’s a recruitment. And if I refuse, then what happens? You’ll slink off and let me go my merry way?” Victoria’s entire body tensed at once, begging for release. “I don’t think so. You Janusians hate the Mahjin and everything they represent. And my mother doesn’t carewhat I want. She never has.” Nobody has.

“My brief did not cover your wants,” Karim said. “I was simply instructed to bring you back to the Vigilant. I have an ID already prepared for you. This will be much easier if you do not put up a fight.”

“For you, you mean. Did Agent Lee,” Victoria’s ears turned hot, and her jaw clenched so hard she had to force it to relax before she gave herself a migraine, “brief you about the full extent of Mahjin abilities? Or did she ignore the subject, like always?”

Karim squirmed. “Agent Lee advised me to remind you with the other Mahjin gone, there is no telling what the CSF will do when they find you.” Karim placed her hand over her heart. “She only wants to keep you safe.”

Victoria scowled. “You mean use me as a pawn against my own government.” At least Karim wasn’t after her blood. The Janusians banned genetic enhancements of all kinds, a remnant of disasters during their early terraforming efforts. If Victoria didn’t do what they wanted, they’d kill her outright.

Then the Mahjin would be gone forever.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Taking a deep breath, she scanned the room for the quickest route to the exit. It’d be close, but she could make it out the door without being grabbed. Her chest tightened as she steeled herself for a fight. “I’m sorry you came all this way for nothing. I’ve prevented a war for the last year by remaining hidden. It’s better off I stay that way.”

“Come with me and you can tell Agent Lee yourself.”

The server returned to the table, cutting off Victoria’s response. She set down Victoria’s plate and asked if Karim wanted to order anything.

It was all the distraction Victoria needed. She grabbed her plate and flung it, hitting Karim in the face. Victoria didn’t throw it nearly half as hard as she could, but Karim’s chair toppled over anyway and the back of her head smacked the fake hardwood floor.

Victoria grabbed the envelope from the table at the same time she snagged the strap of her toolkit from the ground. Food and tables went flying as she slung the bag across her body and raced toward the exit like an out of control lifter in a docking bay.

Behind her, the server asked Karim if she was okay. Another patron commed the CSF to report a disturbance. Two women yelled at Victoria to stop so she could make a report. Like hell. She tuned out the noise, determined to be far away before the CSF arrived. If the CSF caught her in the middle of that chaos, they’d have all the justification they needed for why she should be in protective custody.

Victoria dodged a pair of speeders as she jogged diagonally across the narrow street, carefully regulating her speed to prevent CSF surveillance from spotting her. The shouts behind her grew softer and softer, all pursuit lost. She unzipped the top part of her coveralls and tied the arms around her waist. It wasn’t the greatest disguise, but it was all she was capable of at the moment.

At the next hostel building, she ducked into an alley and made sure nobody spotted her, then jumped onto the rickety metal fire escape. Don’t look at the rust. You can handle the fall. She climbed to the top of the roof and remained in place for a moment, plotting the best route to the commercial spaceport across the sparse rooftops. A hole formed in the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t make it without using her Mahjin abilities. She’d sworn never to consciously use them in public, but with bounty hunters and Janusian spies on her tail, she didn’t have any other choice. CSF surveillance would spot her superhuman feats, but the cameras were sparse enough on Liber that by the time they realized who she was, she’d be long gone.

After leaping over the streets, rooftop to rooftop, and sprinting through the city faster than some speeders, Victoria arrived at the commercial spaceport. Her senses overloaded, like an old computer terminal receiving too many commands, but she ignored them as best she could. She was almost out of this mess. Thankfully she kept hard credits in her toolkit at all times, as well as spare clothes and a few necessary toiletries. That advice from Uncle Ben had been as useful as the stack of fake IDs he’d slipped her before she went into hiding a year ago.

Victoria purchased a seat on a passenger transport to the planet Caelus, scheduled to depart in half an hour. Not the best option, since Caelus was in the more populated and heavily surveilled Inner Colonies. But the CSF, and maybe even Karim or the bounty hunters, would catch up to her if she waited for a transport going further into the Outers. Besides, it was in her best interest to stay as far away as possible from the Janusian Union. Even with only two planets, one barely habitable, its military far surpassed the CSF. Victoria tried not to scowl as she flashed her last fake ID and handed over most of her credits. She should’ve emptied her account after filing her paperwork. 

It’ll be fine. Just get off planet.

Willing herself to act calm, she made her way to the back of the transport and strapped herself into a window seat. The pungent scent of starship fuel usually represented safety and freedom, but now it made her want to vomit. She’d arrived on Liber a few short weeks ago, intending to stay on the planet several months. Her days of running were coming too fast. How was she going to remain in hiding like this? The air left her lungs, and she struggled to inhale, like she was in hard vacuum. She half-expected Karim or another bounty hunter to sit in the seat next to her and shove a blaster into her side.

The engines started, vibrating her seat and the metal floor beneath her feet, but nobody else reacted until a few seconds later. A little girl in front of her squealed and smacked her tiny hands against the window. Most likely her first trip into space. Victoria had been an infant the first time she’d left her home planet of Minerva. Now she had no place to call home. 

The pilot announced they would make landfall at 10:00 a.m. Caelus local time, and ordered the passengers to prepare for the imminent jump. Again, the little girl squealed. The swirls of hyperspace resembled a gray snowstorm blowing outside the viewport, calming Victoria. She would be safe for the next twenty-three hours, at least. She bought the cheapest snack and forced herself to eat so she didn’t pass out and wake up in some CSF lab on Caelus. She downed a bottle of water and went to the bathroom before settling into her seat. Only then did she take out the envelope she’d grabbed off the table during her escape from the pub.

The thick paper was crumpled from being shoved in her pocket. She opened it and smoothed out the letter on her shaking thighs. Her eyes blurred as she scanned her mother’s pristine handwriting. She suppressed a bitter laugh when she finished the letter. Her prediction about the contents had proven true. Her mother didn’t miss her. She didn’t care about her safety. She only wanted to advance her position in the Janusian Union Space Corps, and the best way to do that was to present the galaxy’s last remaining Mahjin to the leader of their former enemy. Even if the last Mahjin was her daughter. Even if the last Mahjin had run away from home in an attempt to escape her destiny. Victoria had inherited the abilities; that was all that mattered to the Janusians. And everyone else. Victoria wiped her eyes and stuffed the letter back into her pocket. The little girl in front of her stuck her hand between the seats and waved. Victoria gave a tight smile before resting her forehead against the viewport and squeezing her eyes shut. Why did she have to be right about her mother’s letter? Why couldn’t her mother get the hint and leave her alone? They’d all be happier that way. Maybe.


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