Mas worked the star runner’s scanner as Alex guided the ship towards the rendezvous coordinates the courier had delivered to her a few days earlier.
The relative quiet of the Duck proved to be unnerving rather than the relief she had expected. And even though she should have been able to take a break from looking over her shoulder now that she was back aboard her own ship, Alex still felt on edge. Nothing about this job was sitting right. Why would Grouse want them to purge useless data? Why would the Advocacy be treating them like the Empire’s most wanted? Why did Grouse want to meet again rather than just sending the credits. Why couldn’t she figure out what the hell was going on?
“This is a trap, yes?” asked Mas, having similar thoughts.
“Yeah,” agreed Alex. “You want to forget the credits and bail?”
“It is a lot of credits.”
“It is so many credits.”
Mas thought for a beat. “We can always get more credits. I am a very good hacker and you are also good at things.”
“Yeah.” Though she was sad to be losing the money, a huge sense of relief came over her now that the decision had been made. “Where do you want to go? Spider? Maybe finally check out Kayfa?”
“Neither, I’m afraid,” said Mr. Grouse from behind them, the energy pistol in his hand trained at Mas’ head. “You will maintain your current course.”
Alex, cursing herself, swore that from now on she and Mas were going to search all the berths for stowaways before taking off.
“Let me guess, Advocacy are waiting for us at the rendezvous?” asked Alex.
“Correct, Ms. Dougan. You will be arrested, tried and convicted. Of course, there is a chance I will be forced to kill you both before then, but I would prefer not to.”
“You know we’ll tell them about you, right?”
“That has always been the plan. The only surprise was you managing to evade capture this long. I was certain they had you at the Davien jump point. It was most impressive when your Mercury gave them the slip once again.”
“Wait,” said Mas. “If you wanted the thieves arrested, then why did you hire us? Why not hire bad thieves?”
“The job needed to be successful. A lesser team would have been caught before deleting the project.”
“But the files were worthless!” protested Alex.
“Enough, Ms. Dougan. We should be arriving at the ambush any moment now.”
“What about Prairie Lightning Delta?
A moment after she had uttered the phrase-key, the EMP rigged under the main console went off.
With a sickening lurch, the ship powered completely down.
Mr. Grouse, unprepared, tripped forward off balance. Mas, very prepared, slipped his knife from its sheath and slashed at their captor’s arm. The pistol dropped to the floor and Alex dove, recovering the weapon before Grouse could.
“An EMP. Clever,” said Grouse, breathing hard, the deep gouge on his arm dripping blood onto the floor.
“Mas’ gets full credit,” said Alex. “Now, if you don’t mind, why don’t you start explaining what in hell it is you’re up to.”
Before Grouse could respond, bright headlights suddenly shone into the cockpit. An Advocacy Vanguard flanked by two Banu Defenders was quickly approaching their ship. The Agents must have negotiated their way in with the Security Souli in this sector.
“I am afraid it’s too late,” said Grouse.
“Comm them and tell them we’ll kill you if you don’t stand down.”
“Why would they care about a corpse?” asked Grouse, reaching his fingers inside the wound on his arm.
“Mas! Stop him!” shouted Alex.
Mas reached out, but not fast enough.
“Your Empire thanks you for your service,” said Grouse as he used his fingers to sever his brachial artery. The trickle of blood turned into a gushing flood. Grouse collapsed to the floor unconscious.
Alex was certain that the memory of what Grouse had just done would hold the top spot for the most terrifying thing she’s ever seen for a long time to come. “Crap! Do you know first aid?”
“No.” said Mas, looking down at the body and its widening pool of blood. “Did we ever buy more medpens?”
“Crap. Crap. Crap. Help me get some pressure on him or something.”
It was then that the ship’s power kicked back on.
“—gent Duck. This is the UEE Advocacy. Prepare to be boarded.”
It seemed Alex and Mas had a choice. Either tend to Grouse before he died, or try to avoid capture. It was a very easy choice. “Mas, dump his body in the lock and strap in!”
Alex threw herself into the pilot seat and opened up the throttles to max. The Mercury burst to life and hurtled towards the Vanguard, rolling to bring their port side to the Advocacy’s ventral. The shields flared as the twin Sawbucks on the Vanguard’s turret scored a direct hit. They held for now, but a few more hits like that and the Duck would be done for.
A head to head fight wasn’t an option here. They were outclassed. Emergency escape maneuvers were the order of the day.
Gaining a bit of distance from the pursuers as they rushed to turn around and give chase, Alex quickly opened up the rear ramp and turned off the cargo grid.
“Mas, special delivery!”
Alex pulled hard on the controls and Mercury flew straight up, leaving the ten crates in their hold floating behind them. She grabbed the blackout helmet she kept nearby for just this moment and quickly slipped it on, giving all new meaning to the phrase ‘flying blind.’
Mas began counting down, “Three… two… one… “
Alex heart skipped a beat before she remembered that Banu counted down to zero.
Behind them, a small new sun burst to life as the crates exploded. Or at least that’s what it looked like. Or would have looked like if Alex could see anything.
Each of the crates had contained the equivalent of a hundred flares. The ten crates combined was enough to overload any nearby sensors long enough for them to clear range. And forget trying to track them visually. Those poor pilots would be lucky if they got their vision back any time soon.
Alex pulled off the helmet and lined up a QT towards the Bacchus asteroid belt.
“If we are going to be on the run again,” said Mas. “I think I would like to go visit Leir.”
“Sure, Mas.” said Alex. “It’s your turn to pick anyway.”
Alex let out a deep sigh and for the moment tried to ignore the pool of blood at her feet by concentrating on flying.
No answers. No money. But for now at least, they had their freedom.