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The Robber Barron dropped out of hyperspace like an ancient rocket slamming into a body of water. Ben Barron gripped the armrests and barely moved in his station chair. As soon as the sensors switched to realspace mode, Barron activated a scan of the surrounding system, eager to start his search. According to the distress signal, the starship wreckage should be in the vicinity of the fourth planet—a gray, cragged rock barely visible in the distance. Before Barron could give the order to fly closer, the Robber Barron jostled much more violently than during the dropout. He jerked forward against his restraints and spat a spacer’s curse.
After the freighter steadied, Barron rubbed under his arms and scowled. That was going to leave a bruise. “What was that?”
Nika smacked the console on the pilot’s station to turn off the alarm. “Felt like the capacitor. Sounded like it, too.”
Bloody hell. In the two decades he and Nika had crewed together, the hyperdrive capacitor had fritzed out only once. Between the boredom, losing a lucrative contract, and worrying about Janusian patrols in the borderlands, being stranded in space together had been nowhere near as romantic as on the series finale of Salvager Vigilantes. They’d spent the week trying not to bite each other’s heads off. And now, Barron had a third, much younger crewmember to be responsible for, too.
Barron rubbed his temples, attempting to chase away an oncoming headache. “Are you sure it wasn’t some sort of hyperspace anomaly?”
“Oh, sure.” From the systems analyst station behind Nika, Matthew examined four data screens at once, frantically inputting commands as his elbows knocked the control panels. “Because a hyperspace anomaly while traveling outside normal spacelanes is any less terrifying than a broken capacitor.”
“I went over the calculations half a dozen times after plotting the course into the navicomputer.” With a swipe of her finger, Nika brought up a flickering image of the hyperdrive. “Oh yeah. Definitely the capacitor. We’re gonna need to replace it soon.”
Barron groaned. Not the words he wanted to hear. “How soon?”
“I don’t know, I’m not a damn mechanic.” She waved away the projection like she was waving away his question. “A month or so?”
Barron rubbed his face. A new capacitor would cost thousands of credits they wouldn’t be able to scrounge up for a few more jobs. Not that he wanted to consider flying through the borderlands with a busted capacitor. He might as well send the Janusians an engraved invitation to commandeer his ship. “I’ll get a mechanic to check it out at our next port.”
“You better.” Nika’s eyes narrowed to mere slits, but she let the subject drop and turned her attention to her station. She pushed up the sleeves of her beat-up jacket, a remnant from her time flying starfighters in the Colonial Security Force. The navy fabric had faded over the years, but the silver squadron patch and commander’s rank insignia shone as vibrantly as her blue eyes. Barron had tossed his old uniforms in a donation bin as soon as he’d been discharged. Didn’t even keep the patches.
Barron sighed and zoomed in on his sensor screen. When the screen refreshed, he clapped his hands. “There it is.”
A passenger transport floated a hundred klicks away, dead in space from a mechanical failure. The ship, commanded by Barron’s stepbrother, was much more massive than the Robber Barron, three decks high and about three z-ball fields in length, capable of carrying the Mahjin, their families, and civilian crew. Barron and the others had been searching for the missing passenger transport in between their regular jobs for the last year, unable to pick up the transponder and pinpoint the last known location thanks to unreliable and rarely serviced borderlands comm satellites. Until last week, when Matthew finally detected its distress signal.
Barron had immediately rearranged their delivery schedule to swoop in and claim the wreckage before any other salvagers had the chance. Not just for sentimental reasons. The newsfeeds all reported the Mahjin ship had malfunctioned while on its way to settle an outpost outside of Colonial jurisdiction. But that hadn’t been Alessandro Anetti’s only mission.
Barron’s stepbrother had been searching for a lost Janusian warship. The kind of warship that turned the tides of wars or, when scrapped, provided freedom from CSF salvage charter guidelines. Alex had wanted it to ensure the safety of his people, but with the Mahjin gone, Barron didn’t have any qualms about hawking it for parts on the black market. At least, not until he came face to face with his brother’s ship.
Barron gave a tight smile. Finding Alex’s ship was supposed to be a victory, the next step to finding the Nemesis-class warship, not an invitation to reopen old wounds. He thought he’d already accepted his brother’s death. As the leader of the Mahjin, fighting on the front line of the Terminus War, Alex had far surpassed his life expectancy. But seeing the transport in person made Barron’s memories as raw as they’d been when he’d first learned of the ship’s disappearance. Perhaps it was old guilt worming its way to the surface. Despite his arguments to the contrary with his former sister-in-law, he’d always felt responsible for his brother’s family falling apart.
Barron forced the victorious smile he should’ve felt and kicked his boots up on the console. No point depressing everyone else. “Told you I’d find Alex’s ship eventually. You want to pay up now, or later?”
Nika chewed her lower lip before looking at Barron. Her eyes were wet, and she wiped them with a shaking hand. But she played along with his fake good humor. “Don’t be ridiculous. Matthew located the distress signal. I’m the one who plotted the course.” She caressed his leg and flashed him a soft smile. “And get your dirty boots off my ship.” She shoved his feet off the console.
“I think you owe me anyway, as punishment for doubting me.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Right, Matthew?”
Matthew raised his hands in surrender. “I’m staying out of this. If you need a systems update, I’ll be glad to offer my input.”
Barron shook his head. If Matthew didn’t stay neutral, he always took Nika’s side. Which was fair, considering Nika usually had a point and she did own the ship. Barron was only the captain. “Well then, how are the rest of the systems?”
Barron didn’t press for more information. When everything was fine, Matthew’s updates were one-word responses. When something was wrong, there were full-blown media presentations. The last slideshow resulted in a complete upgrade of the environmental systems. “Good” was the best possible response Barron could ask for.
He wrung his hands. “Is the other ship broadcasting?”
“Just the distress signal on emergency power.” Matthew zoomed in on the information. “Definitely the Minervan Dream.”
Barron swallowed hard, remembering his laughter when Alex told him that name. Leave it to his brother to choose something so patriotic while breaking away from the Colonial Republic of Minerva. He cleared his throat. “Any signs of survivors?”
Matthew bit his fingernails. “All life support systems are offline.”
Why had Barron bothered to ask? The Minervan Dream had been drifting in the borderlands, the wild space between the Janusian Union and the Colonies, for a year. If anyone had survived the hull breach, they’d be long gone by now. Even a Mahjin couldn’t last in hard vacuum longer than a few minutes. “What about the escape pods?”
Matthew brought up another sensor screen. “Looks like they’re still attached to the ship. I can run a diagnostic on them, if you want.”
Barron waved him off. So much for that theory. “Don’t worry about it.”
As Nika flew closer to the Dream, a hull breach came into view along the center of the ship. Jagged lines created a gaping maw in the transport’s silver-plated hull, worse than some of the wreckages he’d witnessed during the Terminus War.
Memories of hard vacuum exposure followed by weeks in intensive care wormed into his mind. He shook his head, refocusing on the ship in front of him. Certain mechanical failures could lead to explosive decompression, which was capable of tearing smaller ships apart. Nothing as large as the Dream, though, which could carry up to two hundred passengers.
Nika leaned across the aisle and whispered into Barron’s ear. “You seeing this?”
“Yeah.” Barron’s voice lowered into a growl. “That hull breach wasn’t caused by a mechanical failure. It was caused by an explosion.”
Despite the official reports of a mechanical malfunction, Barron had always wondered if the Janusians were involved with the death of the Mahjin. Now, glancing around local space, nobody could convince him otherwise. This system had no inhabited satellites, no outposts, no nothing. The closest habitable planet in the Outer Colonies was three week’s travel time away on regular engines and almost a day on the spacelanes. This sector was the worst place for a transport to experience mechanical failure during a course correction—and the best place for the Janusians to launch an ambush and finish the slaughter they’d started during the Terminus War. Damn it, he hated being right all the time.
Nika changed the Robber Barron’s course to draw as close as possible to the Dream. Barron unbuckled his restraints and flung them off. Salvaging the Minervan Dream was his one chance to find answers. God save anyone who tried to stop him. “You ready, Matthew?”
The young man grumbled, shoulders slumping. “I’m never ready for spacewalks.”
Barron gave Nika a quick kiss on the cheek, and let his lips linger near her ear. “Don’t leave unless I tell you to, okay?”
She squeezed his hand in a silent promise. “You know I won’t.”
Barron left the cockpit, hurried down the main corridor, and opened the inner airlock door. Matthew followed behind and grabbed their pressure suits. With each other’s help, they were suited up and tethered at the waist in less than five minutes. Once in the airlock, Barron hooked the jetpack over his shoulders. “I assume you don’t want the controls?”
Matthew’s beige cheeks were paler than usual. “No, thanks. I plan on keeping my eyes closed the entire trip over. Kick me if something goes wrong. On second thought, don’t. I’d rather die peacefully of asphyxiation.”
The artificial gravity in the airlock shut off. Barron grabbed one of the handholds to stop his head from knocking the ceiling, then took a few deep breaths to stave off the sensation of falling. After spending half his life on various ships, transitioning to zero-G was as easy as rolling out of bed in the morning. When the airlock indicator lights shone green, he cycled open the outer door. “We’re heading over,” he said over his suit’s comm, Nika acknowledging with an abrupt click.
Barron traversed the distance between ships as fast as he dared in the jetpack. Enough horror stories about amateur spacers smacking into the hull of a wreck, knocking themselves unconscious, and floating in the opposite direction forever circulated throughout the salvaging community, and Barron didn’t care to make himself a statistic. When he reached the Dream’s no longer functioning airlock, he used the pry bar side of his salvager’s tool to leverage it open.
Barron pushed himself inside the passenger transport, gazing around at the emptiness. The thin red strips of emergency lights cast a haunting glow down the corridor. His helmet’s bright white spotlight turned bulkheads into looming shadows as he turned. His breath caught, his brain conjuring images of Janusians back to finish the job, and he resisted the urge to switch off the light.
Matthew followed Barron inside the ship. When he drifted forward, he startled. “Whoa. This is creepy.”
Barron swallowed his agreement, working moisture back into his throat. The Minervan Dream shouldn’t be any different than all the other wrecks they explored, but the combination of personal connection and mysterious circumstances made his skin clammy. Shaking off his unease, he unhooked the tether and turned to Matthew. “Get to the bridge and copy everything you can from the log. I’m gonna search the living quarters.”
Matthew shoved himself down the corridor without protest, brandishing his own salvager’s tool to open any sealed airtight doors on the way to the bridge. The promise of a challenging computer job always overrode his nerves. If only Barron was so easily distracted.
The first section of cabins revealed nothing but more eerie lighting and random clothing and other personal items floating around the rooms. Surrounded by memories of the Mahjin, moving deeper into the ship, Barron’s thoughts drifted to his first boarding operation during the Terminus War. The Janusians had disabled the grav generators on their warship, thinking that would prevent the Mahjin from swarming it by foot. Instead the Mahjin assigned to Barron’s Spec Ops team had used zero-G to their advantage, pushing themselves down the corridors like they were flying and taking over the bridge and engine room in mere minutes. Barron hadn’t been surprised by the results. Commandeering the near-indestructible Nemesis ships was the entire reason the CSF had created the Mahjin.
Barron paused as he reached the middle of the first deck of the Minervan Dream, the cold seemingly seeping into his pressure suit. Taking care of dead bodies was the worst part of searching shipwrecks, and the reason most spacers never got involved in salvaging. Barron had always refused to let superstition or squeamishness get in the way of lucrative cargo or valuable information. But, to his surprise—and confusion—he hadn’t found any bodies floating inside the cabins.
He remained in place for long seconds, the drone of the emergency lights buzzing over his comm pickup. If the Mahjin weren’t aboard the Dream, and no escape pods had been launched, where were they? He clicked on his comm, trying not to get his hopes up. “How’s it going over there, Matthew?”
“Just got to the bridge,” Matthew said, panting. Working in zero-G was harder than most people expected. “Thankfully I didn’t bump into any bodies along the way. I assume they were all in the cabins?”
“Yeah.” Barron cringed at the lie, but he needed to keep Matthew calm and focused while in the middle of their search. “It must’ve been the night cycle.”
“Right.” Matthew paused, probably confirming the ship’s time for the attack. “Wait, wouldn’t someone have been on the bridge to keep watch?”
“Did you want a body up there with you?”
“No! Obviously. I’m just curious.”
“Well, get to work. Hopefully the log’ll tell us what we need to know.”
Barron searched the remainder of the first and second decks without incident or bodies. The stale air of the dead ship filtered into his pressure suit. On the third deck, he came across a cabin larger than all the others. The furnishings were standard issue for this class of passenger transport—tiny bathroom, chest of drawers bolted to the floor, and shelves built into the bulkhead above the single-sized bunk. A digital photo frame was affixed over the bed, stuck on a picture of Victoria in her old school uniform.
Barron rummaged through his brother’s drawers, coming up empty in the obvious places. He turned to the bed, his gloved hand lingering on the white sheets, his breath quickening with a memory of where Alex stashed his diary as a kid. A datapad was shoved into a hidden compartment inside the bunk, under the mattress. He snatched the datapad and switched it on. The projection flashed a few times before resolving into focus. He tried to navigate to the main menu, but the screen remained on an encrypted page.
Matthew’s voice in his ear jolted him out of his search. “Barron, I’m finished on the bridge.”
“I’ll meet you at the airlock,” Barron said, frowning. How had Matthew copied the log so quickly? For a ship this size, it usually took twice the amount of time they’d been aboard. Barron took one last look around the room before zipping the datapad inside his pressure suit and pushing his way into the corridor. No use staying amongst bad memories longer than necessary. “What did the log say?” he asked over the comm.
Matthew hesitated so long Barron thought the comm had died. Then Matthew said, “Yeah, about that … I’m sorry, Barron. The log was erased.”
Barron nearly missed the next handhold on the bulkhead. “What? How? It’s illegal to erase a ship’s log.”
Matthew’s snort sounded like a crackle of static over the headset. “Like that’s stopped anyone before.”
Matthew had a point. But they were talking about Alex, the most righteous man Barron had ever met. Alex would want whoever found his ship to learn what’d happened to it, and to him. Unless …
Barron’s breath hitched. Unless the Janusians had figured out how to erase a Colonial ship’s log. Considering the Janusians’ military prowess, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. If that was the case, what had they done with the Mahjin? All Barron’s hopes collapsed into a full-blown crater.
His hand brushed against the datapad burning a hole in his pocket. Would it reveal everyday nonsense, or something more? There was only one way to find out.
Several minutes later, he met Matthew back at the airlock. “Did you find anything?” Matthew asked as Barron reattached the tether.
Barron focused on slipping the jetpack over his shoulders. “I’m not sure yet.” He’d reveal the datapad later, when they were safely back in the Robber Barron’s cockpit. Matthew started to ask something else, but Barron pushed them out into space. “We’re heading back, Nika,” he said over the comm.
Nika responded immediately. “Ready to leave as soon as you’re on board. Did you—” A proximity alarm blared, cutting off the rest of her question. A pause stretched over the comm as she smacked off the alarm and presumably checked the console. “Oh, fuck.”
The perpetual motion of the jetpack was the only thing that kept Barron from stopping short. Nika cursing wasn’t unusual. Her cursing while they were on a spacewalk, knowing how much they freaked out Matthew even when everything was normal, was not a good sign.
“What’s wrong?” Barron asked.
“Nothing. Just get back as fast as you can.”
“Nika, what’s wrong?” His tone was more demanding, a subtle hardening he’d acquired from listening to her. She sighed. “Oh, you know, the usual. The Janusians are here.”