SALVAGE, Book 2 of ROBBER BARRONS, releases Tuesday, October 11. Preorder at the link!
Victoria stood in the middle of the cramped engine room, staring in the direction of the bulkhead display. Ever since the Robber Barron broke down in the middle of Janusian territory several months ago, she made sure to check the hyperdrive at least once per jump. Sure, she could monitor the status from the cockpit, but being in engine room, where her Mahjin senses allowed her to feel the subtle vibrations and pick up on imminent problems before any instrument could, gave her a greater sense of security. That’s what she said every time Uncle Ben asked.
Really, shutting herself in the engine room allowed her to escape the growing dread that she didn’t belong on this mission.
At the beginning, tracking down the transmissions from Ekar Base felt like her chance at redemption. If she helped locate the secret base where the Janusian scientists had sent their research, she could rectify the mistake of giving President Davis access to Mahjin blood. Working for her father and the other Mahjin, for the good of the entire Colonies, was supposed to put her on the correct path.
But as time passed and they failed to make headway, President Davis’s words began to haunt her. Was Victoria’s rebellion against becoming a Mahjin because she didn’t want to be one, or because she didn’t think they should exist at all? She’d said as much to her father in the heat of an argument. On more than one occasion. Maybe President Davis was right, and Victoria’s defiance hadn’t been an act of teenage rebellion, but one small way of assuring the Mahjin legacy didn’t continue.
Yet here she was, on a mission to ensure any remaining Janusian research was destroyed and a way to reverse Mahjin abilities was never created, thus protecting their lineage.
Even though Victoria craved the reversion formula for herself. Desperately. She just wanted to turn off all her abilities forever.
How much of a hypocrite was she?
Victoria jumped, her heart pounding in her ears. Matthew had made a bad habit of sneaking up on her while she was deep in thought, something that should’ve been impossible for someone with her abilities. But she’d never been that great of a Mahjin, even after meager training sessions with her father whenever he was available these past few months. She’d be better if she’d trained with him before, when he actually had the time.
“Oh. Hey,” she said, crossing to the readouts and peering at them. Maybe if she pretended to be busy working instead of being annoyed at herself, he’d leave her alone. “Do you need something?”
“You’ve, uh, been back here for a while? We’re supposed to revert soon?” Matthew was doing that adorably awkward thing where he said everything in the form of a question. If only things could be different between them.
She checked the chrono on her datapad. She’d been staring at the wall for half an hour. Some mechanic she was.
She took a deep breath, deciding now was the moment when she’d stop being ridiculous. One, two, three, stop.
“Sorry. I wanted to monitor the hardware/software interface for a longer duration.” It was a decent excuse—the software was still relatively new and the scare in Janusian territory had shaken the entire crew—but this wasn’t the first time she’d stayed in the engine room too long. Normally, Matthew sought her out under the guise of wanting to help, but he hadn’t offered yet. She looked back at him, and he bit his lip, shifting from foot to foot. Hell, he hadn’t come here of his own accord this time.
Her cheeks flushed. She checked the readouts one last time—this time actually paying attention—shoved the extra tools back in storage, and turned to Matthew with a bright smile plastered on her face. “I’m ready now.”
“Good, because Nika found the terminus of another one of Davis’s transmissions. We might be able to search this one.”
Victoria nearly dropped her multitool. Most of Aunt Nika’s finds were dead ends: unsettled systems, abandoned bases that required navigating through stellar death traps, blah blah blah. After months flying through the Borderlands, avoiding pirates and making landfall at neutral ports only to refuel and resupply, could this be the break they’d been waiting for? She should be ecstatic, not nauseous.
“Did Nika say where it was? A planet? Ship? Janusian territory?”
Matthew cocked his head at her, a slight frown marring his otherwise handsome features. “She, uh, didn’t say?”
“And you didn’t ask?” Victoria shoved the multitool into her jacket pocket. “Weren’t you helping her?”
Matthew shrugged. “Navigation’s not my strong suit, and I figured she’d tell us eventually. Anyway, we should go?” He gestured in front of him. Was it chivalry, or wanting to make sure she actually made it to the cockpit? She rolled her eyes and preceded him out of the room.
Once in the cockpit, she strapped into her chair and brought up her screens, ignoring the raised eyebrows from Uncle Ben. “Everything’s good with the hyperdrive,” she said. “We’re ready to revert.”
“Like you needed to go to the engine room to tell me that, but that’s good to hear.” Uncle Ben’s Minervan accent, the poshness nearly scrubbed out by decades working as a salvager, dripped with sarcasm.
Victoria tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and continued to stare straight through the readouts hovering above her station. The awkward length between her undercover pixie cut and preferred mid-length hair was one more thing annoying her lately. “Aunt Nika found something?” she asked as casually as she could manage.
“Indeed.” Uncle Ben regarded her with perceptive brown eyes before swiveling his chair to face the forward viewport and gesturing at Aunt Nika.
Aunt Nika pursed her lips then pointed at the comm station. “At first, I didn’t think anything about this transmission. It was wide-band, not tight-beam, so I figured it was some last-ditch SOS during our raid.” When they had to rescue Victoria from her own stupidity. “But when I tracked the various systems the signal went through, I realized it terminated in the Borderlands, and there’s a shipwreck there. Judging from the emergency transponder bouncing off the local comms, the ship is Janusian.”
Victoria sat up straighter. “How old?”
“The ship itself has a manufacture date of several decades ago, but I couldn’t find any record of this shipwreck before a few days ago,” Matthew said.
Victoria’s heart beat faster. If this was a newer shipwreck, it might have something to do with the research performed at Ekar Base—a traveling lab, or a courier vessel with information about reversing Mahjin abilities.
A red light flashed above Aunt Nika’s station. “Here we go. Dropping out of hyperspace in five seconds.”
She counted down. The mottled gray storm around the ship coalesced into pinpricks of light. A hush fell over the cockpit, anticipation thick in the air. Goosebumps rose under Victoria’s lightweight jacket. She couldn’t see any celestial bodies or ships outside the viewport, so she zoomed in on the local radar. A ship drifted approximately a hundred klicks off their bow on the port side. Before Victoria could point it out, Aunt Nika veered the Robber Barron in that direction.
“It’s a Janusian ship, all right,” Matthew said after a few moments. “I’m not familiar with all their ship designations, but it appears to be a military design.”
“Gunship, Vantor-class,” Uncle Ben said, his deep voice rumbling. “They became obsolete after the Nemesis ships were deployed, but the heavy armor allowed the Janusians to use them as transports through hot zones.”
Victoria furrowed her brow. “Why would they send a gunship into neutral territory? And why would a gunship have received a transmission from Ekar Base? If the shipwreck is only a few days old, it wouldn’t have been here when the transmission was relayed… would it?”
“Honestly? I have no idea.”
Coming from Uncle Ben, that was never a comforting statement.
Aunt Nika shifted the Robber Barron’s flight path slightly toward the gunship. “What do you think?”
Uncle Ben made a thoughtful noise that sounded like a rumble in his throat. “It’s our best lead so far. If someone went through all this trouble to fake a signal and get a Vantor gunship out here, we should at least spring their trap for them. What are your readings, Matthew?”
“Environmental systems are running,” Matthew said. “The transponder is broadcasting, but no distress signal. All the other systems are running on emergency power.”
“Any life forms?”
Matthew scrolled through several sensor screens. “Nothing. This doesn’t look like a shipwreck to me. It looks like it just… stopped.”
Victoria stared out the window at the gunship looming closer and closer. “Why the hell would it do that?”
With pinpoint precision, Aunt Nika maneuvered the Robber Barron to pull alongside the gunship. “All right, kids, you know the drill. We don’t have salvage rights for this vessel, so don’t make me stay out here any longer than necessary.”
Uncle Ben stood and glared down at her. “Kids?”
Aunt Nika shrugged, her long braid slipping from her shoulder. “Sometimes it fits.”
Uncle Ben rolled his eyes and motioned for Matthew and Victoria to follow him.
The three of them filed out of the cockpit, through the common area, and into the corridor outside the airlock. After several months aboard the Robber Barron, Victoria could don her pressure suit without thinking. She turned to Matthew and held out her hand so he could double-check her connections. He reached out at the same time, and their gloved hands clasped. Her eyes darted up and met his; redness bloomed on his cheeks, bright even through his faceplate. Her own cheeks warmed and she jerked her hand away at the same time he did, causing them to stumble away from each other. She cleared her throat and put her hand back out, careful to avoid touching him, and Matthew did the same. They both focused on the readouts shimmering above each other’s wrists.
His voice cracked inside her helmet. “You’re, uh, good to go?”
“So are you,” she said, grateful her voice remained steady. She turned to Uncle Ben, who was fiddling with the jetpack, pretending not to watch them. “I can check you now.”
He raised his arm, lip curled up in amusement. She avoided his gaze as she scanned his readouts. “You’re green.”
“Good to know.” He handed her the tether and glanced at Matthew. “Strap in, you two.”
Victoria pursed her lips and ignored her uncle, taking the middle position, preferring not to change things up until she was more confident crossing the blackness of space. Although her Mahjin abilities allowed her to survive vacuum longer than most humans, she preferred having both feet grounded by gravity, whether it was natural or manufactured. Space was always trying to kill you.
Once they crossed to the shipwreck, Uncle Ben stopped in front of the airlock and cocked his head. “Huh.”
Matthew groaned, the sound coming clearly through her in-suit comm. “That’s not a very reassuring thing to hear while on a spacewalk.”
Victoria used the tether to pull herself closer to Uncle Ben. “What do you mean, huh?”
“Generally, airlocks aren’t functional if the systems are on emergency power.” Uncle Ben glanced over his shoulder. “You sure the readings were correct?”
Victoria glanced between the men. Matthew raised his arms in defense. “That’s what the computer said.”
Computers were known to be wrong, especially on a Janusian ship that was starting to feel more and more like a death trap. She almost told Uncle Ben to turn around and go back to the Robber Barron, but what other options were there? Other than a bunch of garbled transmissions that confirmed the Janusians had another research facility somewhere, this was their best lead. And, dammit, she needed to know how close Davis’s scientists had been to creating a reversion formula, and if they were still attempting to do so in the absence of the former Janusian Union president.
Uncle Ben studied the control panel and pressed the button in the middle of the bottom row.
The outer airlock door cycled open and Uncle Ben immediately floated inside. But Victoria hesitated at the open doorway, apprehension filling her lungs. She didn’t understand why investigating this ship spooked her. She’d explored a space station in Janusian territory and lived to tell the tale. She’d escaped a Janusian military base. This should be old hat by now. But sometimes she still felt like she didn’t belong.
A hand grabbed her shoulder. She whipped around as fast as she could in zero gravity. Matthew held up his hand and met her gaze. “Are you okay?”
“Just waiting for Uncle Ben to get clear.” Matthew frowned, but got the hint and gestured her into the airlock. She shook her head at herself. Matthew had only gotten nicer to her over these past several months, and all she could manage was awkward responses. He deserved so much better than her.
As soon as they were inside, Uncle Ben closed the outer door and began the pressurization cycle. The airlock cramped her, even though it was more spacious than the Robber Barron’s airlock. Handholds lined the walls and there were plenty of places to strap in, like this gunship often deployed squads to open space. Or like they were inviting Victoria to intrude. She drummed her fingers against one of the handholds, pushing away her dread.
When the inner door opened, she pushed herself off the bulkhead, trailing after the others. Uncle Ben’s orders were always the same: use her Mahjin senses to find anything he couldn’t. Matthew floated off to the cockpit to figure out why this gunship had picked up one of the Ekar Base transmissions and why it had stopped in the middle of the Borderlands. Victoria wished she could go with him. Those mysteries were far more interesting than exploring an empty ship.
As she pulled herself into the main corridor of the gunship, her grip on the handholds faltered. She heard a noise that had been burned into her ears when she hid inside the Robber Barron’s cargo hold while Admiral Parshant’s crew had searched the ship. Every time Victoria had shifted her weight, her pressure suit scraped against the outer hull, not loud enough for anyone with normal hearing to notice, but her hearing hadn’t been normal in almost a decade.
This ship wasn’t empty.
Uncle Ben had drifted down the corridor away from Victoria, falling into their normal search patterns. Victoria remained in place for a moment, trying to pinpoint the source of the noise. It stopped and started several times, like a person nervously shifting. Victoria couldn’t tell for sure, but it sounded like it was coming from close to Uncle Ben’s position, the susurrus of only one person.
Why would one person stay behind on a gunship?
“Uncle Ben?” she whispered. Habit, as there was no way anyone inside the ship could hear her without access to their suit comms.
He responded instantly. “What’s wrong?”
It was almost a relief not to have to hide her trepidation. “Don’t move. There’s someone inside the ship.”
His hand dropped to the blaster strapped to the outside of his pressure suit. He glanced over his shoulder at her, his clenched jaw visible from ten doors down. “Matthew said there weren’t any life forms.” He didn’t sound so certain, though.
“And we all know it’s possible to mask life forms from scanners.” Thanks to her own mother. Victoria clenched her fists. She hated thinking about Katrina’s time with the Janusians. “I hear someone.”
“Someone, or something?” Uncle Ben asked.
Victoria closed her eyes. The noise had stopped, but the memory was clear in her mind. “Someone.”
“Maybe it’s an animal,” Matthew chimed in, ever helpful. “That would explain why it didn’t show up on the scans.”
“It sounds too big for that,” Victoria said. “I’m coming to you, Uncle Ben.”
“Already got the next jump programmed in.”
As Victoria pushed and pulled herself down the corridor, a memory of her first spacewalk sprang to mind. She’d been so nervous then, it had felt like it had taken an eternity to explore the small cargo freighter. Now it took only a second to reach Uncle Ben on the opposite end of the corridor. His eyes grew darker and his brow heavier as she came into his field of vision.
“You’re not joking,” he said.
“Why would I joke about this?” With her chin, she gestured at the door. “The noise sounded like it’s coming from far end of the room.”
He drew his blaster and smacked the door controls with the other. The door slid open, revealing a narrow barracks with a dozen bunks lining the sides, lockers lining the end of the rows. After a cursory scan with his datapad, he shook his head and took his hand off his blaster. “It’s empty.”
Victoria pushed past him and entered the room. The noise had disappeared, but she knew she hadn’t imagined it. “It’s not coming from inside the room.” As she brandished her salvager’s tool, Uncle Ben nodded in understanding. He closed the door behind him and took out his own tool. She chose a hull plate in between two bunks on the far side of the room and quickly unscrewed the top bolts.
The noise came suddenly, this time much closer, only a few hull plates to Victoria’s right. She froze. “Uncle Ben.” When he whirled around, she jabbed her finger at the hull plate behind the bunks. “Over there.”
The two of them rushed over. As she shoved the bunk aside, she heard the noise again. The person was shuffling between the inner and outer hull plates toward the cabin door, trying to escape before Victoria and Uncle Ben could get to them. Victoria dove back to the hull plate closest to the door, shoved aside the bunk blocking it, and got the plate off in less than three seconds. Uncle Ben remained where he was and got the hull plate in the middle of the room off before the noise could shuffle back.
The person was trapped between them.
Victoria pointed at Uncle Ben. He ducked between the inner and outer hulls to grab the offender. A startled yelp emanated from the comm and a blurry figure launched from the open hull, aiming for the door. Victoria shoved herself off the hull and grabbed the person by the waist. They tumbled over each other twice in the weightlessness before Victoria grabbed the closest bunk and used the leverage to shove the person against the door, holding them in place with her other hand. Then she froze again as the face of Lieutenant Karim stared back at her.