In the end, we took three ships. Valentin, Luka, Imogen, and I were in Ardia. Stella and Ari were in a small corvette with a crew of four who would stay on the ship. Eddie was in a tiny little ship that was best for stealth missions. He’d claimed that he could slip through CP57’s defenses and dock without permission, but I made him promise to come in legally—sort of.
All of our ships were using faked registrations that were tied to dummy companies with information trails that led to even deeper lies. It would take an information specialist at least a month to sort everything out, and even then, it would never lead back to the Rogue Coalition or Kos Empire, which was exactly the point. If Adams wanted to find us, he was going to have to work for it.
Each ship took a different route to get to CP57. Eddie had two tunnel transits, so he would be the last to arrive. Ari and Stella’s route only had one transit, but they were aiming for a tunnel endpoint several hours away from CP57.
Our group tunneled as close to CP57 as we legally could. The exclusion zone around the station was only twenty minutes in a reasonably fast ship, and Ardia proved to be exactly that. By the time we had docking authorization, we were only a few minutes away.
CP57 loomed huge in front of us. The already massive central station had been expanded so much that it had been swallowed up by the new sections built around it. Open flight paths cut swaths through the outer sections of the station, allowing well-heeled guests to dock close to the popular central district. I didn’t want to draw quite that much attention, but I had paid for a dock in one of the better areas not too far from the inner hub. Flight control guided us in.
The arrival timing had been another fight. No one thought Valentin and I should arrive first, which was exactly why I’d pushed for it. If Adams was already on-station, he would expect my team to arrive before me, which might allow Stella, Ari, and Eddie to slip in unnoticed.
And the only way Adams could take Valentin, Imogen, Luka, and me would be if he’d bribed CP57 to assist him, which meant that three more people wouldn’t help anyway—and it would be even more important for them to be free to come to our rescue.
The berthing clamps attached to Ardia with a brief jolt. Once the ship was secure, the docking port extended and fastened onto Ardia’s starboard hatch. A series of pressure tests came back green, indicating the seal was secure.
An external berth offered a faster escape than a landing bay because once the clamps were released, the ship was free to move. A landing bay had to be depressurized, which could take thirty minutes or more, depending on the size.
Eddie also planned to dock at an external berth, but Ari and Stella would dock in a landing bay. Their ship carried most of our supplies and offloading them through the larger landing bay doors was far easier and less suspicious than trying to maneuver them through the smaller external docking port.
I unclipped from the captain’s chair, and my nerves settled, as they always did when I was on a job. Valentin, Imogen, and Luka were already standing. I looked them over with a critical eye. All three wore simple, dark clothes. Luka’s height and breadth gave him a distinctive silhouette. Even with a hooded coat, he would stand out.
This was one area where being petite helped quite a bit. It was much easier for me to disappear into a crowd than it would be for Luka. But even if Adams was already on-station, he wouldn’t have the resources to watch every dock. As long as we kept our faces hidden, we would just be four random people here for private business.
And private business had built CP57. My money was good, and that was all that mattered. No one would ask any inconvenient questions.
“I’ve booked us rooms for a month. We hopefully won’t be here that long, but I’m going to let it slip that I’m working on a sensitive deal with multiple parties. That will explain the rest of the team coming and going. As far as anyone else is aware, you’re all my guards.”
They all nodded. We’d discussed this previously, but as Ari had pointed out, I tended to get bossy when I was worried. And going over the plan one more time before we left the relative safety of the ship was never a bad idea.
Valentin slid his hand into mine and my heart fluttered. He met my eyes. “We’re prepared. We have a solid plan. That bastard won’t know what hit him.”
Luka and Imogen silently slipped out of the bridge, leaving us alone. “I hope you’re right,” I murmured.
Valentin drew me close and pressed my hand to his chest. “I’m always right,” he said with a perfectly straight face.
“Must be nice,” I whispered. I could feel his heart beating under my palm. It took so little for that fragile organ to be silenced forever. I vowed it wouldn’t happen to anyone I cared about this trip.
Valentin tipped my face up and brushed his lips over mine, softly, gently. When I responded, he deepened the kiss until we were both breathing hard.
He pressed his forehead to mine. “Don’t put yourself in danger. Trust your team. Trust me.”
“I do, never doubt that.” I pulled back so I could see his face. “But you need to trust me, too. This was my job for many years. I know what I’m doing. If I see a way to save lives, I’m going to take it, even if it wasn’t in the plan.”
His mouth flattened. “Promise me that you won’t take unnecessary risks.”
I agreed easily. The risks I would be taking were entirely necessary.
We found Imogen and Luka in the cargo bay, drawn by Luka’s low rumbling voice and Imogen’s light laughter. Imogen sat on a crate while Luka lounged against the wall nearby, as relaxed as I’d ever seen him.
“You think Ari’s got a pool going on them?” I asked under my breath.
Valentin laughed. “I’m sure.”
I thought so, too. But anyone who bet too early was going to lose their money. Luka and Imogen might have a strong attraction, but they were both too honorable to act on it when it might affect their jobs. It was a good reminder that more than my and Valentin’s happiness rode on this mission.
Imogen hopped off the box. “All set?” she asked.
“Yes. Let’s do it.”
We each had a large pack with essential supplies. On the off chance that Stella and Ari were denied entrance, we had enough gear to keep us safe until we could locate a trustworthy supplier on the station. And we left a few surprises behind on the ship, just in case things went really sideways.
My pack included a few sets of clothing, emergency medical supplies, and a wide array of weapons. It weighed almost as much as I did, and I wouldn’t have been able to carry it without my strength augments.
I’d designed the pack myself. In addition to the weapons I’d be wearing visibly, I could grab two hidden plasma pistols and a quartet of knives from the pack without removing it from my back. If I needed more firepower, it took less than ten seconds to swing the pack down and draw a plasma rifle.
If I needed more firepower than that, I’d be looking for an escape route.
We donned our packs and lightweight hooded coats and left the ship. I counted while the airlock cycled us through into the station. It took twenty seconds for the inner hatch to open and that was when the airlock itself was already pressurized.
We stepped through and as soon as the hatch closed behind us, I cursed and turned abruptly, like I could prevent it from closing. I glanced over my shoulder at the group. “Sorry, I forgot something important.” I gave them a significant look, as if I expected them to know what I was talking about. “I’ll be right back.”
Both Valentin and Imogen tried to link me, so I opened a group channel with them and Luka. I want to see how long it takes to access the ship, I said. Wait here.
Despite just going through the airlock, it took another twenty seconds for the hatch to open from this side. Once inside, it took ten seconds for the system to send the all-clear to Ardia which allowed me to open the ship’s hatch. I could override the safety check and open Ardia’s hatch early, but it would set off alarms.
Inside the ship, I puttered around in the cargo bay for a couple of minutes, long enough to have legitimately grabbed whatever it was that I’d supposedly forgotten. I doubted that we were being surveilled already, at least not more than usual, but forgetting something was far less suspicious than testing the airlock speed.
I rejoined the group. “Got it,” I said. “Let’s go.” In the group link, I continued, Keep your eyes open. If we need to leave in a hurry, it’ll be good to know where we might run into trouble.
Everyone agreed and we delved deeper into the station. Our short private docking tunnel soon dumped us into a large shared hallway dotted with the entrances to the berths beside ours.
The station’s time ran about six hours earlier than the local time on Arx, so it was either very early morning or late night, depending on your perspective. A few people hurried by even at this hour. CP57 never truly slept. Most of the others in the hallway had hats pulled low or hooded coats or cloaks covering them from head to toe. At least that much hadn’t changed since the last time I was here.
I checked that the door to our private docking tunnel was closed and locked. We each had a virtual key that would open the door, and the keys were tied to the ship’s registration rather than our personal IDs. The inner hatch was also locked, and the ship itself wouldn’t open for anyone outside of our group, but in the privacy of docking tunnel, someone could get up to no good far easier than out here in the public hallway.
Our coats hid whether or not we were armed, making us less interesting targets. CP57 cracked down on major crimes, but in parts of the station a friendly robbery or two was the cost of doing business—at least for the unwary.
I mentally accessed the station map and headed left down the hallway. Imogen, Valentin, and Luka silently fell in behind me. Nothing to see here, just a businesswoman with three well trained guards. The fact that I carried my own pack made me even less of a target, the guards notwithstanding. It meant I was used to getting my hands dirty and doing my own work. I wouldn’t roll easily.
We crossed the emergency airlock—left open until said emergency—and entered the main part of the station. CP57 was divided into numbered blocks. The block numbers had started out sequentially from the interior, but as the station had grown, the numbering system had fallen apart. So while it was a good bet that blocks less than fifty were near each other, after that, the numbers no longer indicated relative position. We’d entered in Block 83 and would travel through Blocks 68 and 61 before reaching our destination in Block 48.
Each block was separated from the others with thick firewalls and emergency airlocks built to contain any loss of pressure. Hull breaches, while rare, were the worst-case scenario on a space station, right up there with explosions and uncontrolled fires. If an emergency was detected, an automated system would lock down the affected blocks, essentially sacrificing everyone inside.
Sure, people could theoretically escape through the airlocks, but trapped, panicked people had to let the inner door of the airlock close with nothing more than the hope that it would open again after those inside made it through. And in any crowd there was always that special asshole who refused to wait their turn and so ended up killing everyone.
Each building was also supposed to have an emergency shelter capable of supporting its occupants for at least three days, but as the station had grown, the requirements had been loosened. Shared public shelters had replaced per-building shelters, but there were never enough, and once the doors closed, it was straight back to the airlock problem, just on a smaller scale.
A full block lockdown had happened three times in the history of CP57. In all three cases, no one had escaped through the airlocks. In two of the cases, the block and nearly everyone inside had been a total loss. Less than a hundred people had survived thanks to the shelters.
In the third lockdown, the fire that had triggered it had been quickly contained thanks to the efforts of a large group of volunteers who had run toward the fire. Many succumbed to burns and smoke inhalation, but the vast majority of the block residents had survived.
A small memorial square still honored those who’d given their lives to save the others.
Blocks varied in size, and some of the inner blocks were huge, with soaring ceilings that felt almost like a sky stretching overhead. Others were small and closed-in, with every square centimeter used so the pathways felt narrow and dangerous. Each block operated like an independent city within the station itself, and while transit crisscrossed the station, many full-time residents rarely traveled farther than a block or two from their home.
Block 83 was a fairly typical dock block. The ceiling was low, less than three stories, and it hunkered over a space filled to the brim with shops that offered every conceivable vice—and some I’d never heard of. Bright signs, beautiful bodies, and slick sales pitches drew in the unwary. I’d heard stories of people who had visited CP57 and never made it more than ten meters inside before losing all of their money, some willingly, some not.
The overhead lights were dim, signaling that it was still night, but it was hard to tell with all of the shops lit up like stars. I sliced through the crowd with a bold, determined stride. Most of the merchants recognized I wasn’t worth their time, but there were always one or two who had to try their luck.
A tall woman in a sheer gown stepped into my path. She was beautiful, with long, curly blond hair and a curvy figure. Her makeup was flawless, accentuating her cheekbones and lips. When I moved to step around her, she darted into my path, fast and smooth. I stopped and held up a hand when the group behind me would’ve moved closer.
“Hello,” the woman purred, her voice a lovely contralto. “See something you like?”
That pulled a grin from me. Most of my face was in shadow, thanks to the hood, but she must’ve caught sight of my mouth, because her lips tilted up, too. “You’re gorgeous,” I agreed, “but I have business in 48.”
“That’s a long walk. You should rest first.” Her smile turned sly. “I know just the place.”
“I’m sure you do, but sadly business must come before pleasure.”
“Perhaps you just haven’t found the right pleasure yet.” She snapped her fingers. An incredibly handsome man stepped up next to her, muscled chest bare and low-slung pants barely clinging to his hips. He gave me a smoldering glance. Behind me, Valentin growled something under his breath and Imogen smothered a laugh.
When I didn’t immediately accept, the man’s smolder turned into a pretty pout. The woman, however, wasn’t so easily deterred. “Perhaps I could help you with your business. No need to go all the way to 48. Whatever you need, I can get it for you here, and you can relax while you wait.”
You know, now that I think about it, I am tired, Imogen said on our group link, a grin in her mental voice. It was such a long walk from our ship.
It was five minutes, Luka growled.
As much as I would like to poke them both, I had to answer the woman or she’d think I was considering her offer, and I didn’t want to waste her time. The faster she was done with me, the faster she could move on to more lucrative clients.
“Unfortunately, I must go, but good hunting.”
The woman sighed and stepped aside. “Remember me when your business is complete. I’ll be here.” She pointed at the man next to her. “So will he.” Her eyes glinted in the light. “But I’m the best you’ve ever had, guaranteed.”
I smiled at her easy confidence. She was a professional and a successful one based on what I could see. But she wasn’t Valentin. Still, I inclined my head to her. “I’ll keep it in mind.”