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A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy

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A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy

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Author: Alex White
Publisher: Orbit, 2018
Series: The Salvagers: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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The greatest dangers hide the brightest treasures in this bold, planet-hopping science fiction adventure series.

The crew of the legendary Capricious are rich enough to retire in comfort for the rest of their days, but none of it matters if the galaxy is still in danger.

Nilah and Boots, the ship's newest crew-members hear the word of a mysterious cult that may have links back to an ancient and all-powerful magic. To find it, hot-headed Nilah will have to go undercover and find the source of their power without revealing her true identity. Meanwhile, Boots is forced to confront the one person she'd hoped never to see again: her old, turn-coat treasure-hunting partner.


Chapter One


The crowd writhed and swayed, bodies in motion to a blistering-hot beat. Wisps of arcane fireworks drifted overhead--glimmering wireframe dragons and murmurations of cormorants spraying cool flakes of magic as they passed.

At the premier concert event in the galaxy, every stare that wasn't trained on the light show overhead should have rested on the singer Indira Panjala, whose silvered hair flowed in time with the kick drum. No one should've been looking at Nilah Brio.

But Aaron Forscythe was, recognition in his expression.

She'd taken every precaution. She'd stuffed her now-famous mohawk under a purple wig. She'd done up her face, accenting different contours, flowing lines of neon makeup covering most of her features. She'd worn the sort of short party dress she hated. The glowing, tattooed dermaluxes that covered her arms were covered in translucent sleeves, obscuring the patterns.

Confirming her fears, Aaron spun and began shouldering through the crowd away from her.

"I've been made!" Nilah shouted into her comm, taking off after him.

"Hunter Two, hit him with a sleeper, say he's drunk, and bring him back to the ship." Cordell Lamarr's deep voice entered her ear, overpowering Indira's crescendo.

Aaron shoved a woman so hard she went sprawling to the floor. He plowed through the bystanders with an unnatural strength, creating a rising chorus of protestations.

"I'm bloody trying," snapped Nilah, vaulting over a stumbling drunk before juking past another. Her dermalux tattoos filtered through her translucent sleeves with strobing white light, temporarily blinding anyone unfortunate enough to look directly at them. The crowd parted before her as people covered their eyes and looked away.

If Aaron hadn't been smacking everyone around, he might've disappeared into the crowd with little difficulty. The shifting light show of the Panjala concert made him tough to track across a sea of bobbing heads. A few meters away, hands flailed as Aaron shoved another concertgoer, drawing Nilah's attention. He'd almost reached the exit to the arena.

"Planetwise exit! Hunter One, block him off," she called out into her comm.

"Damn." The gruff voice of Orna Sokol, quartermaster of the Capricious, joined the radio chatter. "I'm too far away. There are a lot of tunnels down there. Don't lose him. ETA two minutes."

"I'm not going to lose him," said Nilah, dodging a spilling drink. "I'm the one that found him."

"You're also the one that got spotted," said Orna, chuckling.

"We'll talk about this on the ship," hissed Nilah.

"Focus up," said Cordell. "We're hearing a lot of chatter from concert security. You might want to shut those tattoos off."

"Blast it," Nilah grumbled, suppressing her dermaluxes as her target made it to the arena's emergency exit.

Aaron kicked the door open and stormed out into the balconies above Goldsmith Park, leaving Nilah to wrestle through the remainder of the crowd. By the time she pushed outside, the only sign of him was the clang of his feet on the stairwell below. Cool, night-cycle air tickled her bare skin, and this high up, wind whipped at her dress. She leaned over the railing to see if she could spot him--and was rewarded by the sizzle of a flame bolt passing by her head.

"He shot at me!" she said, ducking away from the edge.

"That slinger fire triggered the detectors," said Cordell. "Cops are on the way."

"Hang back, babe," said Orna. "Wait for backup."

Nilah quickly leaned out once more to catch a view of her quarry near the base of the stairs, headed for the lush greenery of Goldsmith Park. If she didn't stop him now, he'd get into the Morrison Station superstructure and vanish. All the hunting they'd done would be worthless if he went to ground. She took hold of the handle on the stadium's emergency descender box and swallowed. It was only sixteen floors or so to the sidewalk.

"Not the stupidest thing I've done," she muttered.

"Wait. ETA eighty seconds," said Orna.

Nilah pulled open the emergency box, finding ten shiny descenders inside. She took one of the clear discs and pressed the tester just to make sure the binary spells inside were still good.

A former race car driver, she would've been an Ultra GP galactic champion if Mother and her crew hadn't ruined her last shot at the crown. At least her experience made her an expert at judging speed over distance. Forty-eight meters to the ground would make for a pretty quick fall. She spied Forscythe's shadow as he rounded the final corner and burst out into the open.

Now or never.

Nilah swung her legs over the railing and leapt into the neon haze of Morrison Station's downtown, the descender clutched tightly in her hand. Wind roared in her ears. The shadowy figure of her target grew exponentially in size.

She snapped the descender mere feet away from Aaron's head, gelatinous phantoplasm instantly enveloping the both of them, blunting the kinetic energy of her fall. Their limbs interlocked as they bounced across the park grounds, the world free-spinning.

Eventually, the bubble of goo burst, spitting them out onto the summery grass beneath the statue of Carrie Morrison. The pair arose, dripping with smoky gelatin, and regarded each other. Nilah brought her fists to a fighting posture, and her dermaluxes began to pulse in time with the distant music.

Aaron was doughy and soft, not exactly the image of a dangerous criminal and cultist--and a lot younger than expected. He couldn't have been much older than eighteen.

"Nilah Brio," said Aaron, smirking. "The little racer who never did."

"'Never did' what?"

"Win the Driver's Crown," he said, a tremor entering his voice. "He'll be pleased when I bring him your body."

She narrowed her eyes and smiled. "You can't be serious. I saved the universe from your lot and literally punched out a horde of springflies. It was all over the Link."

"The news always lies," he said, whipping his slinger level with her face and blasting off a few spells.

She tumbled away from his wavering aim with little difficulty, rolling to her feet and bolting forward. Two more shots erupted in her direction, but Aaron didn't have the military precision required to make them land. His grip on the slinger was too tight, too amateurish.

Nilah whipped her arms toward him, momentarily blinding Aaron with the spray of light, then sent a kick straight into his jaw, lifting him up off the ground. He came down hard on his back, going slack.

"ETA thirty seconds," said Orna, her voice almost panicked. "What's going on over there, babe?"

"I just took him down. Glass jaw, as they say--"

Two figures emerged from the shadows around the Morrison monument, daggers in their eyes. One male, one female, clad in fine suits, their postures spoke of expertise. Perhaps they were bodyguards for Aaron. Perhaps they were assassins come to cut her throat. Either way, she'd have to deal with them alone--thirty seconds would be an eternity once the spells started flying.

"Forscythe has friends," said Nilah. She squared herself to the newcomers, her dermaluxes gently pulsing, like lightning in a storm cloud. "Hello, chums."

They spread out to flank her, silent as ghosts. Aaron began to stir. His beady eyes flew open, and he scrambled to his feet, dashing away between the two goons. In two seconds, he'd be into the access corridors.

"Why don't we skip all of this?" Nilah asked of the closest one. "You can just walk aw--"

They slashed glyphs from the air with their fingers--one elemental sigil of ice, the other of wind. Together, the spells could form a flash-freeze that would kill her instantly. Her eyes darted from spell to spell, searching for the more powerful of the two casters.

Nilah dashed for the wind caster, peppering her with a hail of flashing blows. The caster flipped out a baton and took a swing, but she kicked it away; the woman's wind spell fizzled in the jolt. With the killer's guard softened, Nilah leapt for her like a great cat, latching on and attacking. The woman shouted in pain as Nilah wrapped her legs around her chest, boxing her ears and eyes with punishing fists. Uncoiling like a spring, Nilah kicked off of her, knocking her backward against a rock, where she lay still.

Nilah rose to her feet to find the frost caster's glyph engorged with power. The fellow moved with surprising alacrity, ripping arcane ligatures from the night. She'd misjudged their skill, taking out the wrong target first. The ice caster's fingers brushed closed the last throbbing line of the glyph, and the air crackled with frost.

He released the spell, and it was like being thrust into the raw vacuum of space. Every inch of her overexposed skin seared with pain as frigid air wicked moisture away from the surface. Her eyes stung, and she shut them on reflex. Nilah wanted to shout, but when she opened her mouth, freezing air bit her throat. Orna had been right; she shouldn't have engaged them alone. The spell howled, wrapping around the distant sounds of Panjala.

Then came another noise: a familiar, mechanical galloping.

A metallic screech erupted from above them, and a suit of bloodred robotic battle armor landed on the ice caster, crushing him into the dewy grass. As soon as Nilah could move a muscle, she looked away, shivering. She was glad to see Charger but would've preferred a less lethal resolution.

Charger's cockpit hissed, popping open to reveal Orna strapped inside, a smile on her face. "Told you to wait, babe."

"And how were you supposed to come to my rescue if I did?"

"Hunters, enough banter," interrupted Cordell. "Have we got eyes on Forscythe?"

Nilah bounded up to Charger and mounted his back plate, sinking her feet into his vents like stirrups. "In pursuit, Boss."

Orna shut herself back inside the cockpit, and the battle armor rocketed in the direction of the Morrison Station access corridor.

Nilah held on for dear life, her arms around Charger's metal neck as the creature beneath her loped along. "We really should put some handholds on the big guy for this! Some up top, and footholds on the side."

"I'm not putting love handles on my killbot."

They reached the superstructure access hatch, which poked out from between a pair of bushes. Charger's claws left long ruts in the grass as the pair skidded to a halt. Caution flashers blinked around the thick door frame, indicating the lack of gravity beyond--the grav drive range didn't extend to the outer hull. Charger stepped inside, and Nilah's stomach flipped as she adjusted to weightlessness.

The superstructure was a mesh of translucent tunnels with running lights, punctuated every now and again by a viewport. Between racing seasons, Nilah had enjoyed using the tunnels for fitness training, working her legs by leaping between the various observation decks dotting Morrison's expansive hull. She could do a hundred kilometers of low-grav kicks easily.

The bright corridor extended before them, splitting into three branches. They launched to the end of the corridor, and Charger sampled the air as they flew. His neck snapped to the right, polychroic lenses flashing green with excitement.

"Good boy," Orna murmured through his speakers, and they sailed down the right side of the split.

They raced through the superstructure, Charger scenting out their prey with little trouble. Each of the bot's powerful pushes left an unfortunate red stain on the pristine walls, and Nilah wondered what they'd tell the police. When they reached the first observation deck, they found Aaron Forscythe trembling and red-faced, his slinger placed against his temple. He hovered before a wide cupola window, Taitu glinting in planetrise behind him.

Charger's high-cal slingers swung out from their hip holsters before Nilah could even blink, but Orna stayed her hand.

"This isn't how it was supposed to happen," said Aaron, his voice cracking. "I had a destiny."

Nilah pushed off of Charger's back, grabbing onto one of the floor's many handrails. If he decided to fire at her, it'd be tricky to get out of the way. She couldn't maneuver as unpredictably in zero gravity--it'd just be a straight line. "We traced your message. We know you work for Henrick Witts. Tell us who you're here to meet, and we can protect you."

"No one can protect me," he said, gritting his teeth. "Now that I've failed, I'm dead."

"If you don't drop your weapon," said Orna, locking back the hammers on Charger's massive slingers, "I don't think they'll get the chance."

"That's open space behind that window," Nilah warned, placing a hand atop one of Charger's weapons.

"Yeah, well I'm sick of going after these middle-management dorks," said Orna. "Bunch of rich idiots with almost no intel."

Aaron sneered. "The Children of the Singularity will end you, too!"

Nilah drew up short. "The what now, mate?"

"We're going to expose all of your lies," said Aaron.

Orna's laugh came out tinny through Charger's speakers. "The only thing you're doing is boring me to death."

"Stop, darling." Nilah tensed her legs, preparing to leap away in case he took a shot at her. "I'm sure he thinks he's very important."

"You ruined this for me!" screamed Aaron. "I was chosen by the gods!"

Nilah and Charger exchanged glances.

"I mean," Nilah began, "not really. I've met the chosen ones. They're stonking powerful, and you can't even shoot straight. Just give up."

A shaft of sunlight warmed the window as their star crested Taitu's horizon. Nilah prayed no civilians would come around for a morning constitutional.

"Look, let's work something out," said Nilah. "I want to get back to my comfy clothes."

"'Work something out'?" he laughed, a tear rolling down his cheek. "You've robbed me of my place among the gods."

"We already killed two of them," said Orna. "Mother and Dwight Mandell. A place among the gods is six feet under, as far as I'm concerned."

"You got lucky once," said Aaron. "Surprised them. It won't happen again."

"Can I shoot him yet?" growled Orna through Charger's speakers. "He's getting annoying."

"Let us save your life," said Nilah, motioning for Orna to lower her weapons. "We might be able to arrange protection. Who were you here to meet?"

She raised a hand and tentatively floated closer. Maybe she could talk him down and compel him to help her.

"No. I ... I'd be killing everyone I ever loved if I came with you," said Aaron, shaking his head. His face twisted with something like shame. "I was a Child of the Singularity. Now I'm a liability ... so I have to die."

His face darkened and he pointed his slinger at Nilah. "Just like you."

"Down!" Orna shouted, and Charger knocked her flat against the floor, pinning her underfoot with its prehensile toes. The bot placed a single devastating shot through Aaron's chest--and melted the window behind him.

The world went red. Charger held Nilah in place despite the sudden decompression. Klaxons screeched in her ears. Her wig was sucked away, tearing to purple strands as it caught a jagged outcropping. Through the crack into the stars beyond, Aaron Forscythe clutched his chest and struggled against the inevitable. Then, glowing nanotubes healed over the station's wound, and the crying wind grew higher in pitch before winking out. The air pressure returned to normal.

Emergency responders would be inbound. They had to leave.

"Capricious, this is Hunter Two," huffed Nilah. "Mission failed. He's dead, blown out into space."

"We're headed for your coordinates. Get to the rendezvous," said Cordell in her earpiece. "We'll grab Forscythe's body before the cops get here."

Charger hoisted Nilah to her feet and looked her over. "Thought we were finally going to take one of them alive."

"Yeah, well"--Nilah coughed, staring out the window at the body--"better we get the scraps than nothing."

"Okay, let me see if I've got this straight."

Elizabeth "Boots" Elsworth looked over her old companions, nursing her glass of clear, unaged whiskey. The crew of the Capricious had landed in her backyard on Hopper's Hope, uninvited. Now, Cordell, Armin, Nilah, Orna, Aisha, Malik, and the strange pair of gingers were gathered in the uncomfortably large kitchen of Boots's obnoxiously huge house; for the first time since Boots had moved into her mansion by the distillery, the place felt full.

She raised her tumbler to the crew, pointing at them with her metal index finger. She'd worked with doctors to upgrade it in the months since they'd seen her, converting it to full regraded steel. It looked a little more human--but not enough. It was nothing like a magical prosthesis. "Two weeks ago, your big plan was to extract this Forscythe character and ... force him to talk? From Morrison Station, no less." She took a long pull of her white dog whiskey and coughed. It was well and truly awful stuff.

Cordell looked just like Boots remembered him--dense black hair in spongy curls, dark skin, and a perpetual sly smile. The old Arca Defense Force captain hadn't aged a day since the Harrow. "We've been catching bagmen for bad guys all across the galaxy, and you know what we find? Million-argent bank accounts. Sometimes two million. Whatever they're doing, it's some serious scratch."

"You keep any of it?" Boots asked into her glass.

"They keep draining the bank accounts as fast as we can kill their foot soldiers," said Cordell. "Three missions have ended in suicides."

First mate Armin Vandevere hadn't changed much either--his dour expression could still wilt a flower. "We have reason to believe Henrick Witts has a massive financial engine at his disposal--some sort of self-replicating system."

Boots gulped her whiskey a little too hard at the mention of Henrick Witts and coughed. The madman behind the Winnower Fleet and its flagship, the Harrow, had drained all life away from her homeworld, casting it into perpetual civil war.

"And the Children of the ... uh?" asked Boots.

"Singularity. We're looking into Forscythe's comment with all available intelligence sources," said Armin. "It looks like a cult, but we're not sure."

She cleared her throat and shrugged. "If these Children of the Whatever are cultists, you were never going to get this guy to talk."

"We absolutely were," said Cordell, leaning forward with his unlit cigarette dangling from his lip, "because we had something you didn't figure into your calculations." He wore the same gold captain's jacket as usual, and he adjusted the cuffs with a flourish. He might've dressed like the veteran of a dead world, but he still swaggered like a cadet.

"That's where we come in," said the male ginger, subdued confidence on his face. "We're here to change the game."

The pale, freckled pair had to be in their twenties, and Cordell had scarcely introduced them when he'd arrived, just calling them "the Ferrier twins." They cut their hair in the same short fashion, and Boots had to do double takes to remember which one was the woman and which one was the man.

Boots gave them a bemused glance. "I don't mean to be rude, but 'change the game'? Unless you can conjure an armada and unlimited resources from thin air, you're not changing much."

The young man froze, silenced by her rebuke. His sister pursed her lips.

Cordell raised an eyebrow. "Really, Bootsie? Be nice. These two still have a twinkle in their eyes. No need to undo all the kind things we been saying about you."

"She can be a bit spiky," said Nilah to the twins. She sported the sort of formfitting athletic clothing she always wore, but her muscles filled it out more than they once had. "Don't worry about it, loves."

Boots narrowed her eyes and surveyed the crowd. "Never known you to be gentle with tenderfoots, Cordell. What's the angle?"

"Another time," said the captain.

"What my brother was trying to say," said the female twin--Boots was pretty sure that one was "Jeannie"--"is that we both have the reader's mark."

"So you're not siblings?" asked Boots. "Because you can't be if you have the same spell, right?" She wasn't an expert in arcane physiology, but she knew that siblings never shared a mark.

The twins exchanged glances.

"We are," said Jeannie.

Boots narrowed her eyes. "Then ... how?"

"That's not your concern right now," said the male twin, clearly annoyed with her for shooting holes in his "change the game" bravado.

"Listen, Alan--" said Boots.

"Alister," he corrected. "And what's important right now is that we're both mind readers."

Boots eyed them warily--these legendary telepaths. A reader never had to resort to torture or bribery. All they had to do was ask simple questions, and the target's answers would come to the top of their mind--or so the rumors went. The closest Boots had ever come to one was the hack mnemonimancer who'd helped her make Kinnard, her old AI. A true reader was supposed to operate at another level. "You've got to be kidding me."

Cordell raised his eyebrows, his signature grin widening. "That's right, Bootsie. We've got the tools now."

She leaned back in her chair. "Okay, but how did you straight-up murder someone and then get off Morrison Station? That's Nilah's old stomping ground, and I know how security must be."

Armin steepled his fingers, leaning back in one of Boots's overpriced chairs. "That's where it gets interesting. The Taitutian Special Branch has become ... amenable to our extrajudicial operations. After we took down Dwight Mandell, Prime Minister Bianchi cleaned house. Current leadership loves asking us for favors, and they're willing to turn a blind eye to our activities."

"Yeah, but they might still be compromised, sir--" Boots said, halting as she accidentally addressed Armin as an officer. She wasn't a crew member anymore. Judging from Cordell's chuckle, he was thinking the same thing.

"Look," said Boots. "We don't know how deep Henrick Witts's network goes, or who's a part of it. You're trusting intel agencies with your plans."

She hadn't said Witts's name in months, and it was like ash in her mouth.

"We ... may have told them after the fact this time. We didn't want interference," said Armin. "But the Taitutians came and covered for us in the two weeks since then. The public thinks it's a suicide, and Forscythe's body was never found."

"And the splattered goons in the park?" asked Boots.

"Taken care of," said Cordell. "That's all you've got to worry about."

"That's some dubious reckoning, at best," said Boots. "They might just squirrel away these murders and have a case against you when they need it. I don't get much news out here, but I know they could spin a fall from grace story about heroes like us."

The rest of the crew quieted down, but Cordell pressed on. "I know that, but honestly, we need all the friends we can get."

"Yeah, you do," said Boots.

"And we need air support," added Orna. She was clad in a casual yet fashionable suit, all soft fabrics free of grease stains. Boots almost didn't recognize her, but her face was still hard as ever, covered in scars. And she still wore a silver circlet for her new battle armor, which she'd dubbed "Charger." "No one's taken the Midnight Runner for a walk since you left."

"Come with us," said Cordell, just laying it out there. "There's more cash in it, if that's your thing. Those bastards are rolling in dough, and we can keep what we find."

Boots had to admit that she missed the feel of a flight stick in her hand and the thrusters at her back. "I've got money, and I barely know what to do with it. You know this is a fool's errand, right? We nearly wound up dead last time."

"The job ain't done, Bootsie," said Cordell. "Witts and his pals destroyed our planet, and a man who'd do that doesn't just walk away because we screwed him up once. No one is safe until he's dead. We're already prepped to go after the next bagman." He pulled out his lighter and gave her an expectant look. "If we can catch one of these bastards alive, we can take apart Witts's funding."

Boots wanted to tell Cordell to go smoke outside, but the truth was that she didn't want him to leave. She missed all of them so badly, but she'd be damned if she said so. "They're going to kill every last one of us," she said, watching him with disgust as he lit up his smoke.

He exhaled a huge cloud, looking away. "You know ... I didn't even ask how you've been doing. Everything okay out here in paradise?"

"Of course you didn't ask!" said Boots. "You just busted up in my place and destroyed my staging area."

The captain made with his innocent eyes. "Well, I'm asking now."

Boots gave him a scowl. "You can't just change the subject from planet-killing to distilling!"

"The hell I can't." He drained his glass and put it in front of her. "Damn, that's good," he sighed, obviously lying. "Any chance I can get another?"

She filled his tumbler and, in her quest to calm her nerves, poured herself another, too. She added some sugar and a crushed basil leaf in an effort to wipe away the mouth-incinerating taste, but it did little.

"Come on, Boots," he said. "We can talk business soon enough."

Copyright © 2018 by Alex White


A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy

- Arifel


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