Is this how it ends?
Jack Gamble swiped away the dark stray hairs clinging to his forehead. This defeat by Galilei—unimaginable. His people—dead, wounded, gone underground. The only thing worse? Fleeing with a small band of resistance fighters when he should have stayed behind to pick up the pieces.
His stomach tightened with guilt. He stared out the viewport from the jump seat as Encompass veered toward clouds tinged red by Torredo’s rising sun. Far below, a column of armored vehicles smoldered on the roadside, twisted, blackened scraps of metal. Fires in the capital created an eerie show of shadows and light across the early morning skies. The ship jinked through black, acrid smoke, which splattered the reddish canvas of clouds like brushstrokes, a death mark for Jack and his comrades.
Ship’s captain Matthew Chase cursed beneath his breath from the pilot’s seat. His modified transport was a cut above most ships in Riga’s fleet, covertly outfitted with supercharged engines and ultraebon composite shields.
Chase might get them out of this jam.
The ship shuddered, a blast from a Galilei crusader singeing its shields. Jack’s head smashed into the leather seatback. Behind him, circuitry along the corridor sparked and sizzled. He gripped the armrest, stomach churning, his mind on Ari Norse’s betrayal.
My fault. I did this…
Ari—his cell leader in the resistance. His lover.
The thought sickened Jack. What had he revealed to Ari?
The transport dodged another blast.
“Just take me to the firing squad,” Jack mumbled.
Cloe Detreson swatted at him from across the narrow aisle. “I didn’t hear that.” She stood five feet tall in combat boots. Her hair was dirty blond, shorter than Jack’s. That, and her round, angelic face always got her stares. Or maybe it was the boots. She wore them even when she wasn’t in gray-brown camo fatigues. That face belonged in the colony choir, but sniping beat out singing any day, especially if it meant overthrowing the Galilei. “Risked my butt dragging your vid-star pretty ass up the ramp of this boat,” she said. “Don’t think I’ll let you off that easy. Besides, we can’t help our friends if we’re dead.”
Blasts from a crusader clipped the hull and rocked the transport, but Cloe’s words were the kick Jack needed, the jolt sharp as a slap.
Jack bolted from the jump seat, wrangling into the co-pilot’s chair with a nod to Chase. The transport was bigger than anything he’d flown, but the controls weren’t much different. Sensors showed enemy ships at their six. Weapons? Mother of Colonists! This was a transport. A fast one with extra shielding, but not one laser torpedo or cannon to be had.
Another crusader appeared off the starboard bow at ninety degrees. Gauges on the control panel blinked like a holiday display. “We’re in his cone,” Jack said, tapping keys to create a barrage of anti-missile sigs from the ship’s comm array.
“Hold tight!” Chase veered sharply, taking the ship into a wild spin. Lights from a dozen indicators swathed his face in harsh colors.
Jack’s gut lurched into his ribs. He felt every vibration, and wished that was enough to numb his brain. His gaze dropped to his knuckles whitening on the controls. He said he loved me.
Ari hadn’t just betrayed him. He had betrayed everything they’d been fighting for. Bastard.
His eyes were drawn back to the sensors and blinking green lights confirming their tail was Galilei-free. “Clear,” he reported.
Cloe was almost the same shade of green as the indicators. Shooting out of atmosphere was not her thing. Her forte was ground-based and stealth ops like Jack’s, but with a heavy dose of bomb squad mixed in.
Jack hadn’t flown missions against the enemy, but his association with Torredo’s elite had its perks. He trained with the best, including aces from air command. Jack could move about society undetected as a member of the resistance, the spoiled, but well-liked heir of the most powerful family on the planet. It took little effort to take his public façade a step further with his carefree playboy lifestyle—fast ships, fast friends. He could leave politics to the politicians and turn a blind eye to Galilei’s galactic transgressions.
But Jack detested every bit of Galilei’s history. One world after another had been ravaged. Galilei stripped resources, and ignored, even encouraged, rampant corruption. The Grand Emperor dissolved the legitimate Ruling Council of Torredo. Thousands were arrested and executed without trial.
When Ari contacted him to work with the resistance, Jack didn’t think twice. He was in.
And Ari used him. Worse, he let Ari…Norse… He let Norse use him.
How many times had he looked into the man’s steel-gray eyes without ever suspecting the snake behind them?
“Why’d he turn on us?” He’d saved Norse’s life on two different raids…hadn’t he? Or was that all a set up? Were any of the resistance’s successes real?
“I’m sure Tic knows Norse is behind this nightmare,” Cloe said.
“Does he?” Jack twisted in his seat to look at her. Tic Ford wore Galilei’s uniform, a spy in their ranks. “Who besides the two of us knows Tic works undercover in the Ops Center? If Norse got to him…”
Fist clenched, Jack smacked his head into the back of his seat. “Bastard.”
Cloe grunted. “You ask Norse about his betrayal when he’s facing our firing squad.” She aimed her finger like a blaster and fired. “Payback is sweet.”
A sensor beside the nav console flashed red. Two blasts ripped past the hull, pouring from a fighter on their tail. Encompass scissored wildly into the bluish-brown planet’s upper atmosphere. The maneuver came a split second too late. A half dozen blasts raked the ship.
“That was close,” Jack said.
“No way am I letting our names appear on any casualty list today,” Chase muttered through gritted teeth. “Hang on.” He wrenched the controls, sending the ship into another spin that brought bile gurgling up Jack’s throat.
Bulkheads across the cabin lit up with orange and yellow indicators. Alarms wailed briefly before Jack stabbed at the control panel to silence them. Muscles in his neck knotted. What he wouldn’t give to be in a gunner’s pit and able to return fire.
Jack scanned the sensors. “Shields holding at ninety percent.”
“You’re a damn good pilot for a spec forces op,” Cloe told Chase.
“My brother taught me that trick,” Chase said.
Laser fire skipped across their port side and the ship shuddered again, weaving and rocking like a boat on a violent sea. The bulkheads rattled and a puff of smoke wafted from a conduit in the corridor.
“Got it,” Jack called, strafing his fingers across the panel to muzzle the new alarm. The cockpit wasn’t fogging up, but the smell of fried wiring couldn’t be good.
Worse yet, Jack caught sight of distant pricks of silver gunning toward them. He crosschecked visuals with his sensors. Two fighters. Then gauges went wild. Five more ships broke the atmosphere above them. Encompass was surrounded, unless… His eyes narrowed, his heart beating wildly. He checked the scopes again.
Cloe gripped Jack’s seat and leaned forward. “Those are ours!”
Laser blasts streaked within meters of the transport. Explosions lit the space in front of them, and huge fireballs enveloped the two enemy ships.
“Keep it up, folks!” Grinning, Chase tipped the transport in a thank you, and then turned Encompass toward space.
Stars came into view, a welcome sight. But the Riga cruiser Independence listed off course precariously, another reminder of everything the resistance had lost. The enemy battlecruiser Conqueror appeared beyond her, just coming in-system. Galilei was putting the resistance on notice—attempts to defy her rule would be met with deadly force.
Jack felt himself being swept away. Helpless. Cloe knew him, inside and out, and rested her palm atop his clenched fist as the transport leapt into hyperspace.
Jack sank back into his seat. He took a long slow breath, watching the blurred lines of stars whip past. They were on their way, leaving Torredo and their friends behind. The guilt rushed back with unbearable force.
But he had little time to dwell on it. The ship decelerated abruptly, throwing Jack roughly against the straps. Cloe groaned, her nails digging into his hand.
Stars settled into distant pinpoints of light. Sensors were off-line.
“Chase, what’s happening?” Jack asked, toggling switches to prod systems back to life.
Long seconds passed before the ship’s data feeds woke and Chase’s reply came. “It’s not our engines.” He muttered something unintelligible, then whistled. “Company.”
“I see it,” Jack said. “One thousand kilometers off our starboard bow.” He keyed the onboard computer. A schematic of a mid-sized craft covered with odd-looking protrusions appeared on the display. An SNC-44. He knew the design, but had never seen a modified C-Class freighter up close and personal.
“They’re broadcasting some unknown ID,” Chase said. “Definitely not a Riga ship.”
A blast whipped across the bow of the transport. Lights in the ship dimmed.
“What the hell?” Cloe said. “Are they Galilei?”
Something about the schematic tripped Jack’s memory. A freighter with unknown ID wouldn’t be Galilei military. An indie-hauler? With weaponry? No—
Targeting scanners swept Encompass.
“Pirates?” The hair on Jack’s neck bristled as if those scanners could pinpoint his head and pick him off. “It’s got to be pirates.”
“Bloody pirates,” Chase said. “But why not? Everyone else is out to kill us today.”