Despite their threats and grumbling, Sawya did start helping and a plan took shape. My team would head to Implacable, Adams’s destroyer, and forcibly board it while Sawya distracted Adams with negotiations. Then CP57’s fleet would protect the station and draw fire from the other ships while we worked our way to the bridge.
The big question was what the rest of the fleet would do once we captured or killed Adams. We hoped they would surrender, but it was entirely likely that they would turn on us, in which case Valentin’s ships would tunnel in to assist, chaos be damned.
Sawya loaned us three platoons of elite armored soldiers. Fitting an extra seventy-five soldiers on Ardia was going to be a stretch, but we weren’t going very far, so we would make it work.
Plan set, we stood. Sawya rose with liquid grace and held their hand out for a handshake. “Do not betray me.”
I slid my hand into theirs and met their eyes. “Same to you.”
They laughed and inclined their head. “Also, do not die.” They shot a sly glance Valentin’s way. “I am looking forward to my invitation.”
What invitation? Valentin asked.
I could feel the color creeping into my cheeks, but there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. I’ll tell you later.
“My soldiers are already on their way to your dock,” Sawya said. “They will meet you there. I’ve arranged a transport for you. It’s waiting outside. It will stop by your quarters before taking you to the dock. Be quick.”
“We will be. You have my link if something comes up. Otherwise, we’ll see you in a few hours.”
I bowed and ushered everyone out of the room. Ari, Imogen, and Luka were all stone faced, but Stella didn’t try to hide her worry. Eddie grinned like he didn’t have a care in the world.
We had barely settled into the small autonomous transport when Ari rounded on me. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”
“Not as far as I know,” I said as the transport began moving, my voice bone dry.
Sadly, she did not appreciate my tone. Her brows drew together into a truly ferocious scowl, and she jabbed a finger at me. “They are using you.”
“And I’m using them—and seventy-five of their soldiers.”
“You are taking all of the risk while they sit here in safety and move you around like a pawn.”
“Arietta,” I warned.
She threw her hands up. “You know it’s true!”
“I would go after Adams without their help,” I said sharply. “And then I would probably die because no matter how good I am, I can’t take on the entire crew of a destroyer by myself, not even if I took all of you to die with me. When we attacked Adams’s ship outside Arx, the coward escaped and then blew up my fucking home. I will not risk a repeat. You don’t have to help, but you do have to stop talking shit about our allies. I know exactly what they are doing and I am fine with it.”
Ari looked stricken. “You think I won’t help?”
I blew out a slow breath. “No, of course I think you’re going to help—and I need your help. But I also need you to stop focusing on what is done and start focusing on what’s left to do. This won’t be easy, even with the extra help, and I need you to come up with a strategy that gives us the best chance of success.”
Ari’s posture changed as she fell back on her military training. “First priority will be keeping you safe,” she said, a challenge clear in her expression. When I didn’t object, she said, “Second priority will be disabling or defending the emergency shuttles, both so we have an exit and so Adams does not. I need a map of the ship.”
“I’m working on it,” Valentin said.
Ari nodded gratefully. “We’ll need explosives to breach the bridge.”
“We have shaped charges in our supplies. If we need something else, I’m sure Sawya can procure it for us.”
“Do we have more Kos armor than I know about?”
I shook my head. “We just have the four sets. Eddie isn’t wearing one, so we have an extra, and Sawya is going to include a few sets of regular armor with their troops.”
Luckily, the transport stopped outside our building before I had to explain who I thought should be in the Kos armor—and deal with the resulting fight. We piled out of the vehicle. “Grab everything you can in five minutes.” I drew a pistol. “And clear the rooms as you go.”
We didn’t find anyone inside, so everyone retreated to their rooms to pack up. Valentin followed me into our bedroom and we packed in silence. Neither of us had much, so we were done well ahead of the deadline.
Valentin stopped me when I would’ve joined the others. “Why are you avoiding me?”
“Because I’m going to ask you to do something you’re not going to like, and I’m avoiding it as long as possible.”
His mouth flattened. “You want me to stay behind.”
“Yes and no. I want you to stay on Ardia. But if it looks like the ship’s stealth won’t be enough to protect you, then I want you to tunnel to safety.”
He raked a hand through his hair, frustration etched into every line of his face. “You want me to leave while you’re fighting for your life?”
“I told you that you weren’t going to like it,” I said softly.
A wry, bitter grin twisted his mouth. “You weren’t wrong. Why do you want me to stay on Ardia?”
“Honestly, I would like for you to stay on the station, but I figured that would be a no-go. And, selfishly, I don’t want to lose another ship, so someone has to stay behind to fly it to safety once we’re clear. You helped design it. You know it better than anyone. I trust you to get it—and yourself—to safety. And finally, I need to be utterly focused. If you’re with me, I will worry about you.”
“You won’t worry about the others?”
“Of course I will. But Adams is gunning for you specifically. And if you fall, the Kos Empire might fall with you.”
He shook his head. “It wouldn’t.”
“Would Nikolas end the war? Or would he bow to whoever threatened to expose his parentage? Billions of lives hang in the balance.”
Valentin’s eyes slid away from mine. “You are playing dirty.”
“I will do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”
“The great irony is that you don’t seem to realize that we all feel the same way about you. It’s all I can do to prevent myself from locking you in a closet and barring the door until Adams is dead. How am I supposed to fly away and leave you trapped on an enemy ship? Could you? Could you deliver me and then leave?”
I swallowed and dropped my gaze to his chest. I knew with absolute certainty that I could not.
He pulled me into a hug, wrapping me in a cocoon of strength and care. “Please don’t ask me to do this,” he whispered into my hair.
Pain sliced through me. I could hear it in his voice. He would do it if I asked, but it would break the fragile thing between us, perhaps irrevocably. But there were no good options.
I drew a shaky breath. “What would you have me do instead?”
“Take me with you. Let me watch your back. Let me help with Adams. The bastard kidnapped me and attacked my home. I have just as many reasons as you do to want him dead. And I am the only one who can listen in to what they are planning, but I have to be close.”
He was right, but the thought of Valentin on Adams’s ship made my blood run cold. I knew he could take care of himself, but every fiber of my being demanded that I keep him safe. I fought against the urge.
“If you can come up with a better option—truly better, not just one you like more—by the time we leave, we will go with it.”
He pulled me closer and pressed his lips to my forehead. “Thank you,” he murmured.
“Please don’t make me regret it. I can’t lose you.”
“You won’t,” he promised.
I hoped it was a promise he could keep.
The hallway to our docking tunnel had been temporarily restricted, but it was late enough that only a handful of people milled around, waiting for it to reopen. The guards at the airlock waved our transport through.
As promised, seventy-five soldiers wearing heavy armor waited for us. Each soldier was equipped with a plasma rifle, a pistol, and a shield. Two sleds stacked with the crates of supplies from Ari’s ship sat farther down the hallway, and two additional sleds with CP57 logos on them sat next to them.
The three platoon commanders waited by the door to the docking tunnel, and they saluted as we approached.
I turned to Ari. “I’ll let you deal with the commanders. Get them briefed on the high-level plan. Everyone else, grab a sled and help me get this stuff into Ardia.”
The sleds were a tight fit through the docking tunnel, but we managed to get everything aboard. We delayed loading the soldiers until we were ready to go because they were going to be standing shoulder to shoulder, but Ari brought the commanders into the cargo bay to discuss strategy.
Major Morley was in her early thirties with pale skin and blond hair. She had a petite, slender build. She was clearly the senior officer of the three, both in age and rank, and the other two deferred to her without a second thought. She looked around with raised eyebrows but didn’t comment on the obvious opulence.
Lieutenant Osborne was in his mid-twenties, with dark hair and light brown skin. He was an average height and build, but the hard look in his eye told me that he’d already seen more than his fair share of war and death.
Captain Howe rounded out the trio. He was in his late twenties. He had tan skin and black hair, cut short. He towered over the rest of the group—except for Luka—and looked like he could run straight through a wall and keep going.
After the introductions were over, Valentin sent everyone a blueprint and spec sheet. “This is the default layout of the type of ship Adams is on. There may be minor differences, but it should be similar enough to Implacable for planning. The ship has a standard complement of 150 soldiers and officers.”
I did not ask him where he got the information, but I was desperately curious if he’d asked Copley Heavy Industries for a favor.
We all studied it for a few minutes, aware that we’d be outnumbered by at least two to one. Major Morley turned to me. “You are aiming to take the bridge?” When I nodded, she continued, “How many soldiers will you need?”
“At least two squads. The bridge usually isn’t heavily guarded, but it will be the first place extra soldiers are deployed. If we don’t get there first, then we’ll need the extra firepower.”
“A platoon should go with Queen Rani,” Ari said. “Once the bridge is secure, we might be able to send teams elsewhere, but the bridge is our highest priority target.”
Morley nodded. “I agree. Captain Howe, you are with Queen Rani and her people. Lieutenant Osborne and I will secure the emergency shuttles. We’ll be in the open, so we’re counting on you to take the bridge and put the ship in lockdown.”
I looked at the ship’s map. Valentin had highlighted the closest exterior hatch to the bridge, but it wasn’t exactly close. “How many doors will we have to clear if Adams locks down the ship before we get to the bridge?”
“Three,” Valentin said. “Maybe four if you have to take the longer route. Plus the bridge door itself.”
“He won’t lock the ship down unless he has no other option,” Ari said. “We’re entering in the same zone as the emergency shuttles. If he locks it down, he won’t have an escape path, and his soldiers won’t be able to reach us.”
“I want my team carrying enough explosives to clear ten doors,” I said. “Adams absolutely will try to fuck us over and he won’t care who he hurts to do it. We do not want to be stuck on the ship when the stardrive recharges because I don’t think he will take us to a nice tropical beach. And I don’t want to sit in an emergency shuttle for a month while we hop back to populated space.”
“How long until the drive is ready?” Morley asked.
“Probably around two hours.”
She sucked in a breath. “Then we need to move. I’ll requisition more explosives. The extra armor is in the boxes you brought in. You should put it on to ensure everything fits.”
“Give us a second,” Ari said.
Morley nodded and she and the other two stepped away to the other side of the cargo bay.
“Who should wear the Kos combat armor?” Ari asked.
Valentin responded before I could. “Samara, Imogen, Stella, and me.” Valentin cut me off before I could utter a word. “I’m going with you. Eddie will fly the ship to safety after he opens the airlock.”
Not one person in the group looked surprised, and I realized why the trip from our temporary quarters had been so quiet—Valentin had been busy plotting behind my back.
“What about Luka and Ari?” I asked as Ari started stripping off her armor without complaint.
“He and Ari will wear the armor Morley brought. The standard Kos armor doesn’t fit Luka well, and it’s better to keep Stella hidden since she’ll be the one patching us up. Ari and Stella will stay with the two platoons near the emergency shuttles. Imogen, Luka, and I will accompany you to the bridge.”
Ari’s mouth pinched into an unhappy line, but she didn’t contradict him.
They’d decided without me. Pain stabbed deep, but I boxed it up for later. I buried everything under a layer of emotionless determination. “Let’s get ready, then.”
Valentin frowned and drew me aside as the others moved to don their armor. “Are you okay?”
I ruthlessly smothered the panic that tried to rise at the thought of him on Adams’s ship. “Yes.”
“Are you sure?”
“I already shared my concerns, but I also agreed that if you came up with a better plan, we’d do it. You apparently did.” I couldn’t quite keep the bitterness out of my voice.
“No,” I said, slashing a hand through the air. “I need to be utterly focused, and dealing with this right now isn’t that. You don’t get to have it both ways. We can talk later.” Assuming we both survived. Panic slithered through me again, and I took a deep breath. “Let’s get ready.”
Valentin looked like he wanted to say more, but finally he swallowed and nodded without speaking.
I silently donned my armor and loaded up on weapons and gear. I disliked combat armor, but I understood how important it was to my survival, so I dealt with it.
But I would leave my visor up until the last possible moment.
My standard gear consisted of a compact rifle, a pair of pistols, a combat knife, and a few grenades, both explosive and smoke. I also carried a trio of shaped explosive charges used to breach doors. Imogen had an additional two. If we were separated from the Captain Howe’s soldiers, we wouldn’t be entirely trapped. The others had different gear, including a few of the active camouflage pucks that Adams had used when he attacked Arx.
Imogen, Luka, Ari, Stella, Valentin, and I retreated to the bridge while Sawya’s soldiers loaded into the cargo bay. Eddie stayed near the airlock because he would have to work fast once we attached to Adams’s ship.
Once everyone was loaded, I sent a message to Sawya. We are ready when you are.
While I waited for the response, I mentally went through every plan and contingency. I firmed my resolve. Adams would die and my people would live—no matter what I had to do to make that happen.
Sawya’s response, when it came, was a single word. Go.