Safely back in my own quarters, I told Invictia to turn on monitoring in Valentin’s cell. It would alert me to any irregularities, including if his vitals dangerously spiked or dipped. I had waited until I was alone because I didn’t want to give him any ideas about how to get my attention. But I also didn’t want him to die just because he couldn’t call for help.
I drank the rest of my rehydration drink mix and choked down the energy bar. Without a neural connection, I had to use the terminal embedded into the wall to check on the ship’s systems. I’d forgotten how much trouble it was. All the sensors came back normal and no other ships were in range. Our flight was on schedule and proceeding as planned.
With a little more than three and a half hours to go until our next jump, I decided to take my own advice and get some sleep. I flopped into the bed and sighed in relief as some of the pressure on my thigh eased. The renewal gel greatly accelerated healing, but it would be a painful few days. I’d probably have to take another dose of painkiller when I woke up. I’d just stay far away from Valentin and everything would be fine.
“Invictia, set threat level four,” I said. “And wake me up for any contact.”
“Yes, Captain,” the ship responded.
Threat level four was the highest level. At level four, the ship would sound an alert for anything it considered an anomaly, including if another ship moved within sensor range, even if the ship was flagged as medical or merchant. This far out into dead space, the chance of randomly running into another ship was miniscule.
Aware that the ship was far better at spotting threats than I would be, I lowered the lights. Fatigue dragged at me and I easily slid into sleep.
I snapped awake to blaring alarms and flashing lights. I sat up and instinctively reached for my mental connection to the ship, only to come up empty. It took precious seconds to remember that I’d shut down all neural connections.
“Invictia, report,” I said. “And silence the damn alarm.”
“Unknown ship within sensor range,” the ship said.
“Show me,” I said. I checked the time. I’d slept for three hours. We still had half an hour until we could jump again.
The screen embedded in the wall lit up with a view from outside the ship. My stomach dropped at the sight. A large destroyer was well within attack range. The stats streaming on one side of the display showed the ship was not broadcasting an allegiance. And they weren’t running cloaked—they wanted me to know how outgunned I was.
So they weren’t here to chat.
“Invictia, turn off soundproofing in the cells,” I said as I ran in that direction. A second later, I heard Valentin’s shouts.
“Did you call a destroyer?” I asked as soon as I cleared the door.
“What?” he said.
“Did you get a message out? Is that your destroyer outside?”
“What? No. I don’t think so,” he said. “Is it flagged Kos?”
“No flag,” I said.
“Then it’s not mine,” he said. “Are you sure it’s here for us?”
“Oh, I’m sure,” I said. “Hold on to something, it’s about to get bumpy.”
“Let me out! I can help!”
I ignored him and ran for the bridge. I dropped into the captain’s chair and immediately started a system scan. Jump points were not broadcast and this was not a busy hub—we were in deep space. The odds that a destroyer randomly jumped to our exact location were so infinitesimal that it might as well be called impossible.
Someone had tracked my ship.
And I only knew one slimy little shit with the skills and opportunity to slip a tracker into my systems—Jackson Russell, my soon-to-be-dead former security specialist. Two weeks ago, I’d bailed him out of a tight spot and given him a lift as part of our agreement. I should’ve known better than to let him on my ship.
While the scan ran, I pulled up the feeds from the outside cameras and put them on the main screens lining the front of the bridge. The walls seemed to disappear as I stared out into the inky blackness of space.
The destroyer was tiny without the help of a long-distance zoom, but the fact that I could see it at all proved just how close they were. The ship twinkled as their signal light flashed the pattern that indicated they were attempting to hail me.
Invictia’s stealth systems were second to none, but destroyers were designed to hunt and kill hidden ships. If they didn’t know exactly where we were already, then it was only a matter of time—most likely a very short time—before they did.
I debated the pros and cons of bringing up external communication and finally decided I didn’t lose anything by listening to their demands. And it might buy me some time. If I pushed it, Invictia could jump again in twenty minutes. Until then, we were sitting ducks.
The connection came through as soon as the communication array went online. I accepted and Commander Adams’ grizzled face appeared on screen.
Son. Of. A. Bitch.
I hid my fury behind a lazy smile. “Commander, what a surprise. Have you also come to enjoy the solitude of deep space?”
“Surrender yourself and Emperor Kos or we’ll shoot you down,” he said.
“You’re too late. I’ve already dumped Emperor Kos,” I said. “So you came all this way just for me. I’m flattered.”
“Our sensors show two people aboard your ship, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe you,” he said.
“You didn’t seriously think I broke into an enemy building by myself, did you?” I scoffed with a laugh. Now that I’d been caught, I needed to shift blame away from the Rogue Coalition.
Luckily, I had the perfect scapegoat.
“The Kos Empire paid me a fortune to rescue Emperor Kos,” I said. “They had a team waiting for him. I sent them on while my bodyguard and I stayed behind to play decoy.” I waved my hands with a flourish. “Ta da!”
Commander Adams remained skeptical, but I didn’t care. I’d planted the seeds of doubt, and now I just needed to keep him from shooting at us until we were ready to jump. Invictia was a hell of a ship, but she was no match for a destroyer.
“Surrender peacefully or die,” Adams said.
“Are you authorized to negotiate terms on behalf of the Quint Confederacy?” I asked.
“There are no terms to negotiate,” he said.
“So that’s a no, I guess,” I said. “Stop wasting my time and contact me again when you have someone authorized.”
I closed the link.
My system scan came back with a whole lot of nothing. Whatever Jax had done, he’d hidden it well. I’d have to shut down the whole damn system until I had time to go through it properly.
I started bringing all of Invictia’s defensive capabilities online. We were going to have to evade a ship designed for war. It was not going to be pretty.
A new connection came from the destroyer. I waited thirty seconds before answering it. I stared at my terminal and let my peripheral vision do the work. Commander Adams’ enraged face once again filled the screen. “That was fast,” I said. I made a point of looking up. “Oh, it’s you again. Didn’t we just have this conversation?”
“This is your final warning,” he said.
“Okay, I’ll play. Why should I surrender to you? The last time I was in your care, I wasn’t exactly treated well.” I pointed to my black eye. “So why would I choose to die slowly instead of quickly?”
“I give you my word that if you cooperate, you won’t be harmed,” he said with a smarmy smile.
“And Ari, my bodyguard?”
“Emperor Kos is a political prisoner. He will not be harmed as long as the Kos Empire concedes to the Quint Confederacy’s demands for his release.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m sure Ari will be thrilled to learn she’s become the Emperor of the Kos Empire.”
In reality, Ari would be horrified. She thrived in the shadows and she took her job seriously. She was going to be beyond pissed that I’d left her behind.
“No more stalling,” Adams said. “What is your decision?”
The stardrive still needed at least ten minutes of cool down and even that was pushing it. Jump too early and the drive would fail catastrophically. But the odds that I could hold off a destroyer for ten minutes were also incredibly slim.
A ship of Invictia’s size usually required a much longer cool down, so Commander Adams might think he had time to attempt a capture before moving on to the big guns. Then again, he might just blow us to bits and be done with it.
“After careful consideration of all options,” I said, “I’m going to have to decline your gracious invitation.” My smile was all teeth. “If you want me, you’ll have to catch me.”
Commander Adams laughed. “You think you can avoid Ticon? You’ll be dead after the first shot.”
“Probably,” I conceded. “But I’ll take one of the Quint Confederacy’s flagships down with me. Seems a decent way to go.”
“And how exactly do you plan to take out a destroyer?” Adams asked.
“I’ll guess you’ll just have to wait and see,” I said. “Enjoy hell.”
I closed the connection before he could respond and enabled the ship’s internal intercom. “I’m going to attempt to lose our Quint friends in the destroyer, but there’s a tracker in Invictia’s systems. I’m shutting down everything including life support, so prepare for zero gravity in five seconds.”
Valentin let loose a string of curses so creative that I couldn’t help but be impressed. “Don’t get us killed,” he said.
“I’ll do my best,” I said as I started shutting down the ship’s systems. “It’s going to get rough. We can jump in ten.”
The harness kept me in the captain’s chair as gravity died. I’d trained in zero gravity, as all pilots did, but it had been years since I’d used the training in practice. And I’d forgotten exactly how annoying zero gravity hair could be—mine drifted away from my head like Medusa’s snakes.
I had to assume our entire route was compromised, so I changed the jump location to the near side of CP57 and locked in the route. My system scan didn’t show any activity, but that didn’t mean anything. I changed the route again, moving it below CP57. This time I didn’t lock it in, merely copied the coordinates. Then, I calculated a third point and locked it in.
I didn’t know if any of these routes were being transmitted, or if it only transmitted when we jumped, but I had to try to throw off our pursuers.
Warnings screamed across my screens as Invictia jerked hard to port. Apparently Commander Adams hadn’t been joking about the whole killing us bit. I shut down all navigation control and manually entered the coordinates I’d copied into the stardrive controls.
I shut down all of the remaining systems until we only had defense and piloting. I would drop those at the very last second.
Invictia was small and agile, but we were too close for it to make much difference. The autopilot flew us in a random pattern while the defensive systems did their very best to keep Ticon’s weapons systems from locking on to us.
It was a losing proposition.
The ship shuddered and more warnings flashed as we took a direct hit the shields couldn’t fully deflect. Invictia was a lightweight ship with minimal hull shielding. And if they breached our hull, we were done.
My world narrowed to watching for shots from the Ticon and twitching Invictia out of the path in the fraction of a second between seeing the blast and it arriving. The autopilot reacted faster than I could, but it behaved in a predictable manner. I added an element of randomness that made predicting our moves more difficult.
Or so I told myself.
But with five minutes to go, it was clear we weren’t going to make it. We’d taken a half dozen hits and a third of the ship glowed red on my control screen.
“We’re going to jump hot,” I told Valentin over the open intercom. “If you believe in any deities, now would be a good time to ask for a miracle.”
“How close are we?” he asked.
“Five minutes,” I said and he groaned. Five minutes was right on the border between survivable and suicidal. “No choice,” I said as Invictia shuddered again.
I overrode the stardrive’s safety controls, then I timed the shots coming from Ticon. After we barely avoided the incoming blast, I shut down every system on board except for the manual drive control. Another blast lit up Ticon as I slammed my hand down on the jump override.
The ship lurched and the stars disappeared.
Then everything went dark.
I decided to post the whole chapter a little early, Merry Christmas!
And I promise I didn’t write you a Christmas cliffhanger on purpose. :) I usually run a chapter or two ahead, so I forgot how this chapter ended until I started to post it. But I don’t want you to worry—I promise I’m not going to kill off our main duo halfway into the story. :)