The combat armor was too bulky to let me comfortably sit in the captain’s chair, but I didn’t need to manually fly Ardia. I was directly linked to the ship and could fly it from anywhere, though it was safest and easiest from the bridge. If I didn’t need to focus on killing Adams, I could even fly the ship to safety after we’d disembarked—at least until it got out of range.
I spun up the engines and dropped us into stealth as Valentin whispered directions across a private link. I hadn’t gotten a chance to test the Kos tech yet, but I hoped it was as good as he thought or this was going to be a very short, very explosive trip.
When all of the stealth checks came back clear, I disengaged the docking port and it retracted. Then I released the berthing clamps, and Ardia floated free of the station. I eased us away from the dock. According to Valentin, I would have to be very, very careful about the ships around us because neither their sensors nor visual scans would pick us up.
Luckily, traffic was basically zero thanks to the Quint armada hovering in the distance.
I kept our speed relatively low. The less we had to use the engines, the harder we would be to detect. Even so, Implacable loomed in front of us in less than five minutes. We hadn’t been fired upon yet, so either this was an elaborate double-cross on Sawya’s part or the plan was actually working.
I eased Ardia up and around the bow of the destroyer, aiming for the forward hatch in the starboard side. We slid past the main guns, close enough that a direct shot would punch straight through all of our hull shielding and come out the other side.
The guns remained silent and still.
I drew a quiet breath. One obstacle down. We’re coming up on the hatch, I sent across the main group link. It included my team, the three platoon commanders, and Sawya. I got back a chorus of acknowledgments.
With no help from the systems on Implacable, Ardia’s autopilot would only kick in once we were within a few meters of the hatch. I kept an eye on every sensor and camera as I slowly maneuvered us closer and closer. When the docking sensor turned green, I handed off control to the ship, but I held my breath until a gentle thunk and a green light from the airlock signaled the connection was successful.
We are docked, I told the group. Eddie, go.
On it, he said.
On Ardia’s exterior cameras, the fleet from CP57 rose from the camouflage of the station’s many hidden flight paths. Our distraction had arrived.
I led my group from the bridge to the cargo bay. Rows of soldiers were packed in, but a narrow path from the stairs to the airlock remained clear. I headed to the door, where Eddie worked on Implacable’s hatch.
If I could keep all of the people I loved here in safety, I would, in a heartbeat. But they had made their own decisions, and I would respect them, even if I hated it.
I just hoped they would respect mine.
The hatch swung open and two soldiers wedged a thick metal bar against it to prevent it from closing again. Eddie moved on to work on the inner airlock door. We were on the clock now because there would be all kinds of alarms going off on the bridge.
It felt like forever, but it was probably less than a minute later when the inner door opened. Once again, a pair of soldiers wedged the door open. We’d cleared the second obstacle. Eddie would remove the outer hatch brace when everyone was off of Ardia, and the last soldiers would remove the inner brace.
Eddie moved back into Ardia. Captain Howe’s platoon moved forward to secure the hallway.
I snapped down my helmet’s visor and shimmered out of view of the cargo bay camera. Good to know the active camouflage still worked. Imogen, Valentin, and Stella showed up on the visor’s screen with a faint green outline. None of the rest of the soldiers had an outline, but I could see them overlaid with the faint red blobs of the thermal image.
Alpha Team is go, Morley said.
That was all I needed to hear. I bolted into the airlock tunnel. Ari cursed, but the others followed me with only a moment’s hesitation.
Bravo Team is go, Morley said.
Behind us, the rest of the troops began streaming out of Ardia as Morley and Osborne issued orders. I let go of the cameras I’d been watching with the exception of the cargo bay camera.
Howe’s soldiers had spread out on both sides of the airlock tunnel, wedging themselves into the sparse cover the hallway provided. Implacable was eerily quiet. I turned right, following the map I’d memorized.
The Alpha Team soldiers fell in behind us. They all had thermal imaging overlays turned on, but they couldn’t tag Valentin, Imogen, or me as friendlies. We would have to stick close or risk getting accidentally shot if more soldiers in Kos armor showed up.
We moved quickly through corridors that were suspiciously empty. Most of the soldiers would be on the lower levels, but we should’ve run into some crew by now. Adams was planning something, I just hadn’t figured out what.
In the video from Ardia, the last soldiers left the cargo bay. Eddie removed the brace and slammed Implacable’s hatch closed, then closed the airlock on Ardia. He waved at the camera and then disappeared toward the bridge.
While the Quint armada likely wouldn’t attack Ardia while it was attached to Implacable, as soon as Eddie moved away, he would become a target. I hoped the Kos stealth tech held up or Eddie was about to have a very stressful few minutes.
I sped up. We needed to distract Adams to keep him off of Eddie. I rounded the next corner just as Valentin shouted over our team group link, Wait!
The others stopped, but Imogen and I were already in the open.
A dozen soldiers with pistols waited in two lines. None of them wore combat armor. These were the sacrifices sent to slow us down long enough for the others to get ready, and I didn’t have any nonlethal weapons.
I snapped my rifle up, but the soldiers didn’t shoot. They remained focused on the corner.
They couldn’t even see us. Adams had tossed their lives away for nothing. I might be able to edge around them, but Howe’s soldiers couldn’t.
My stomach twisted. We had to go through them.
Before I could decide what to do, an alarm blared and the heavy door just past the soldiers began closing. I moved on instinct. I plowed past the soldiers, knocking down two. The rest spun to shoot at me, but without being able to see me, their shots went wide.
The hallway devolved into chaos as Howe’s soldiers rounded the corner. Don’t shoot Samara and Imogen! Valentin shouted over the link.
The door was more than half closed when I dashed through. Luka would keep Valentin safe and Howe’s soldiers could take care of themselves. I kept running.
Samara! Valentin shouted over a private link.
Be careful and catch up when you can, I said.
Done, he said, his tone wry.
I stopped and whirled around. My visor screen showed a green outline around the red blob of a camouflaged soldier. I scanned the hallway, but no one else was visible and the door was fully closed. Valentin?
Surprise, he said, and his outline waved at me.
I wished I could see his face. I wished he was on the other side of the door, or better yet, safe on CP57. Where is Luka? I demanded.
He’s shouting at me over a private link, Valentin said.
I knew exactly what he meant because Imogen was doing the same to me. Why did you follow me? How?
Valentin closed the distance between us. Imogen got held up by the soldiers. I was the only one close enough to slide through the door before it closed.
I clenched my jaw against the urge to shout. Did it ever occur to you, I said coldly, that I left you behind for a reason?
And I followed you for the same reason, he said, his tone gentle but firm.
I raised my hand to rub my face, only to be stopped by the armor. Valentin had made his choice, and I didn’t have time to wait for the others to blast through the door, not if I wanted to catch Adams off guard.
Are you eavesdropping on the local neural links? I asked.
Yes, but everyone is staying very quiet. Either Adams suspects I’m here or there aren’t many soldiers in this part of the ship.
Let me know if anything changes. Shoot anything that moves and don’t fall behind.
I will follow your lead, he promised.
Cut off from our backup, our strategy became speed and stealth. We narrowly avoided the next group of soldiers because Valentin heard them just before we saw them. We flattened ourselves to the wall, guns ready, but the group came around the corner and passed us by without stopping.
Adams’s soldiers still weren’t in combat armor. Destroyers were nigh impregnable at a distance and weren’t meant to deploy ground troops, but they should still have some combat armor aboard. If I had to guess, Adams had surrounded himself with armored troops and left the rest to fend for themselves.
Maybe we could use that against him and persuade some soldiers to give up the fight. Can you tap into the ship’s intercom system? I asked Valentin.
I sighed. So much for that idea.
Eddie linked me. Boss, the Quints really didn’t appreciate our little stunt. I’m tunneling to Koan. Stay safe.
You, too. I’ll see you soon.
The link cut off and so did my connection to the cargo bay camera. Eddie tunneled, I told the main group. We’d agreed to keep communication to a minimum once we were on the ship, but they needed to know that Eddie hadn’t been blown up.
Morley acknowledged the message and let us know that soldiers had started attacking their position. That was faster than expected, but hopefully with Adams’s people divided, we’d run into fewer on the way to the bridge.
A distant explosion rang through the corridor. Captain Howe’s troops had blown the first door. We needed to move if we were going to stay ahead of them.
I sent Imogen a warning about the soldiers between us and then sprinted for the next door. Adams seemed to be locking down the ship as little as possible, but with the first door breached, he’d lock this section soon.
Valentin kept pace a step behind me. I relied on him to tell me if we were running face first into a trap, but he remained quiet.
I could see the second door when the alarms started. The door was unguarded, but it had begun closing already. Was the timing a coincidence or a trap?
With no time to hesitate, I sprinted faster, pushing myself and the armor to the limit. I slid through with centimeters to spare. I heard armor scrape against metal and spun around, my heart in my throat. If Valentin had missed the timing, the door would crush him.
Valentin jerked to a stop just before he plowed into me. What’s wrong? he asked.
I let out a shaky breath. He was okay. He wasn’t crushed. Anger roared in after the relief, whiting everything out. What were you thinking? You could’ve died!
It wasn’t that close, he said, his tone infuriatingly calm.
I bit my tongue before I said something unforgivable. This was why I hadn’t wanted him on the ship. I should still be sprinting for the next door, but I’d stopped to check on him. He was a distraction that I couldn’t ignore, and my failure would cost us our lives.
As if he could read my mind, he said, Samara, trust me to take care of myself. I may not be as good as you, but I’ve been a soldier for most of my life. I will follow your lead. I won’t take unnecessary risks. Stop worrying about me and start using me. We are on the same team.
If only it was that easy, I grumbled. But I turned and started for the next door.
Valentin fell in behind me. Trust me, I know, he murmured.
Rather than heading straight for the bridge, I turned off and took the longer route. It was a risk, but if Adams was locking down the ship one zone at a time, he might not expect us to take a detour. We passed two more groups of unarmored soldiers and made it through the third door before our luck ran out.
Soldiers, Valentin warned. At least six.
Before I could ask for more details, a side door farther down the corridor slid open, and the first soldier stepped out. They were in Quint combat armor. Turning on thermal overlays wasn’t standard, but Adams had to suspect that we were in Kos armor. It could go either way on whether the soldier would see us or not.
The question was answered when they started to bring their gun up. I beat them to it, and put two rounds into their visor. Today I had equipped armor-piercing rounds, though using them on a spaceship carried some risk. The rounds punched through the visor and the soldier fell, dead.
I didn’t have time for regret because the remaining five soldiers poured out of the room. They were too close for a grenade, and the corridor we were in offered minimal cover, but a cross corridor between us and them at least gave us a place to hide, if we could get there.
Go left. Get to the corner, I told Valentin as I dashed to the right. I kept moving forward, shooting as I went. It was clear the soldiers hadn’t expected to be attacked here. By the time they rallied, we had taken out half of their number and made it to the corner.
Alarms started blaring. If Adams hadn’t known we were in Kos armor, he did now.
I squatted down and quickly peeked around the corner. Across the hall, Valentin did the same. The three remaining soldiers had retreated back into the room, but the door remained open. If they were smart, they would stay put until backup arrived.
I waited a moment, but none of them appeared in the doorway. Maybe they were smart, which was bad for us. I could toss a grenade inside, but I’d rather see exactly what I was blowing up before I made a mistake that jettisoned us all into space.
“Drop your weapons and come out with your hands up, and I won’t kill you,” I shouted, my voice amplified by my armor. I wasn’t sure what I would do with them since I didn’t have an electroshock pistol, but I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
The soldiers remained silent.
If they were relying on thermal imaging, then they would see me as a red blob and aim for center mass, where my armor was thickest. Of course, if they had armor-piercing rounds, then taking shots to center mass was a good way to get dead.
I had almost decided to move forward and take the risk when the tip of a pistol appeared around the corner, followed by a soldier’s head. So much for surrendering. Valentin and I both landed shots, and the soldier collapsed.
I moved forward, my rifle up. Valentin shadowed me.
A pair of empty hands appeared around the edge of the doorway. “Don’t shoot!” a male voice shouted.
“Keep your hands up and come out. What about the other soldier?”
“She’s surrendering, too.”
The first soldier edged around the door only to freeze when he caught sight us. I gestured him out without moving the gun. He stepped over his fallen teammate and moved to the middle of the hall.
“Next, same way,” I called.
Two more empty hands appeared and then another soldier crept into the hall.
Well, now what the fuck was I supposed to do?
“Take off your helmets, slowly.” When they hesitated, I said, “My rounds will punch straight through your armor. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead. Don’t do anything stupid and you’ll live.”
But I still needed this to be quick. I linked Valentin. Watch them.
When he acknowledged the order, I moved to peek into the room. There were no remaining soldiers inside, so perhaps these two really were trying to surrender. The room had been converted into an auxiliary armory, likely for the soldiers working around the bridge.
A quick scan didn’t turn up any explosives, but I found an electroshock pistol on the wall. It would hurt like hell, but they would survive it and it would put them down long enough for us to escape.
I returned to the hallway. A blond man and dark-haired woman waited, their expressions nervous. Without their helmets, they couldn’t track us.
“Back up,” I said. “There are more behind us and we need you away from the dead. You also want to be away from the door”
They gulped but backed up.
“I will tell the others to restrain you. You won’t be hurt as long as you don’t attack. But they will expect a trap, so be very careful how you act. Understand?”
Imogen and the others weren’t actually coming this way because they were taking the faster route, but I needed these soldiers to be concerned about getting up and moving around once the stun rounds wore off.
When the soldiers nodded, I shot them. The stun rounds shorted out their armor in addition to locking their muscles and they fell with grunts of pain.
I tossed all of the fallen weapons into the room and then pulled out a small grenade designed for use on ships. It shouldn’t do much more than make the armory unusable, assuming Implacable had decent automatic fire suppression tech and there wasn’t a fuel line on the other side of the wall.
If not, then I hoped these two knew where the closest manual extinguishers were. I activated the grenade and tossed it into the room so the explosion would be focused away from the door. Then I attached the electroshock pistol to my armor and sprinted for the next door.
A few seconds later, the grenade went off and another host of alarms started, but we hadn’t been ejected into space, so I chalked it up as a win.
As expected, the next heavy lockdown door was closed. This was the last door between us and the bridge. We still had a few hallways to go, but after this door, Adams couldn’t lock us out except for the bridge door itself. We would likely meet the most resistance between here and the bridge.
Imogen, how close are you to the last door?
We couldn’t afford to wait that long. Adams might not have had this route protected because the visible soldiers were taking the other route, but with our little stunt a few minutes ago, he’d be working to fix that.
And if the soldiers we’d just left had linked out before they’d surrendered, then Adams would know there were only two of us—the perfect number to use as hostages.
We didn’t have time to circle all the way back to the other group. The only way was forward. We’re going now. Good luck.
You, too. See you at the bridge. Stay alive so I can yell at you.
Will do, I said with a smile.
I slung my small pack around to the front of my body and carefully retrieved one of the shaped charges I carried. The explosive was incredibly stable and wouldn’t detonate accidentally, but I always took extra care—I liked all of my fingers exactly where they were, thanks.
Valentin watched the corridor while I applied the charge to the door. I set the timer for ten seconds and then activated it.
It was time to see if the gods of luck were still on our side.