A crew, scattered across enemy lines
A father, separated from his daughter
A daughter who will not wait for rescue
The bounty for bringing down a major crime syndicate may have removed Captain Evridiki “EB” Bardacki’s immediate financial needs, but no freighter captain wants to fly empty between the stars.
A cargo mission to run a blockade seems within his crew’s unique mix of talents, and he agrees to supply weapons to one side of a stalemated civil war in the Estutmost star system.
The sudden collapse of the stalemate puts EB on the wrong side of the front lines from his adopted daughter.
He took down a crime syndicate to protect her once—what’s a planetary military or two?
Shopping had never been a major part of EB’s life. Then he’d acquired a teenaged daughter, and every trip aboard a space station ended up either going shopping with Trace or for Trace.
Today’s trip aboard Nigahog’s primary orbital station was primarily business. Captain Evridiki “EB” Bardacki, shareholder and commander of the armed merchant ship Evasion, was scheduled to meet with a potential client on the station.
At that moment, however, the solidly built fifty-five-year-old captain was watching his chief engineer and his adoptive daughter poke through the sample holograms for educational artificial stupids—the semi-sentient programs that they would need to help Trace keep up her education aboard ship.
He trusted his engineer, Ginerva “Ginny” Anderson, to make sure that the software they picked up served their needs. Trace would pick it—the student needed to be able to tolerate the teacher, after all—but Ginny would make sure the blonde thirteen-year-old picked one that would work.
EB was spending most of his energy and time watching the crowds around them. It hadn’t been that long since Trace, now Tracy Bardacki according to the paperwork he’d filed, had been sought by every bounty hunter in this civilization-forsaken chunk of space in the Beyond.
The person who’d set that bounty was now rotting in a Nigahog high-security prison, but Nigahog was the center of operations for the local Trackers’ Guild. In a region with limited maps and interstellar communication or cooperation, the only means of law enforcement between star systems was the bounty hunter—a situation with definite flaws, in EB’s now-educated opinion.
His headware pinged with a message from his engineer as he surveyed the mall.
I’ve got this, you know. There’s a jewelry store over there you should check out.
Ginny’s message came with a localized highlight that marked the store in question in EB’s vision. The computer in his brain, his headware, was well integrated with his vision and optic nerves.
It couldn’t, however, explain hints to particularly obtuse starship captains.
And why would I be checking out a jewelry store?
The store looked less gaudy than many he’d seen. It was the kind of sedate-looking place he would go if he was searching for jewelry, but so far as EB knew, he wasn’t.
Are you planning on being a single space dad forever?
EB was quite sure that his engineer was making a specific point, but he sighed and shook his head at her as she looked back over her shoulder at him.
I’m not. His silent message flicked across the space between him as he arched an eyebrow at Ginny. The spiky-haired engineer was closer to his age than to Trace’s—barely—but was of a height with the teenager.
And not because Trace was overly tall for her age, either.
That’s my point, yes. You and Vexer are her dads. Might want to lock him down before someone gets twitchy.
Now EB got her point, and his arched eyebrow turned into a cautionary headshake.
Vena “Vexer” Dolezal was Evasion’s navigator, a not-quite-refugee from a feudal system where even highly trained technical professionals were still mostly serfs, bound to the nobles who’d paid for their training.
He was also EB’s long-standing on-again, off-again, boyfriend, a relationship that had solidified with the involvement of Trace. But boyfriend was enough for everyone involved, so far as EB knew.
They were gay space dads together and that was plenty. Even if Ginny didn’t think so.
He walked over to join his daughter and engineer as his headware produced a soft chime only he could hear.
“Time, ladies,” he told them. “Are you two good to keep poking around while I go to my meeting?”
“Unless you’ve seen any dangerous bounty hunters lurking in the shadows to whisk us away, the only risk is Trace spending all of your money.”
Ginny’s comment drew a sharp glance from the teenager.
“I have some discipline,” she observed.
“When you choose to.”
EB sighed at them both.
“We’re here for a teaching stupid. Nothing else.”
“You’re loosing a teenager on a station mall and expecting her to buy one thing? Brave man.”
Trace ignored the engineer and grinned at her dad.
“I mean, some kind of allowance or budget would be nice,” she told him.
After everything Trace had been through to end up with them, it was good to see her being an ordinary teenager. EB was well aware she was using that against him…but she was doing that because it worked.
The first time EB had met Lear Naumov, they’d been trying to pretend that the older Nigahog man was a normal civil bureaucrat. EB had suspected, even before the “cargo” had turned out to be a smuggling mission, but they’d met in a quiet coffee shop on a private corporate station.
This time…this time, Naumov was making no pretenses. One of the reasons EB was comfortable leaving Ginny and Trace to their own devices was that they were on Nigahog’s main orbital fortress.
While the hollowed-out armed asteroid paled in comparison to the defenses EB would expect in more-civilized space, it stood head and shoulders above many defenses he’d seen out there in the Beyond.
Nigahog was well outside the roughly three-thousand-light-year sphere considered civilized space, the region mapped and cataloged by the interstellar megacorporations. Out there, the only maps were the ones people sold you—and without maps and the nova points they contained, a ship couldn’t jump between the stars.
But these worlds still had resources. The Nigahog System, with some hundred and fifty million souls, was one of the more prosperous in the region—as shown in its orbital defenses, its complex mix of elected government and control by trade guilds, and, EB suspected, an extremely capable intelligence service.
He’d guessed that Lear Naumov was an important member of that service when they’d met before. Now, as EB good-humoredly tolerated the trained glares of Nigahog Orbital Security Command troopers and approached the entrance to one of the battle station’s many secured areas, he was quite certain of it.
“This area is off-limits, ser,” the NOSC sergeant in front of the door told him. The woman had a hand on her stunner, in case he underestimated the sincerity of her message.
“I know that, Sergeant,” EB confirmed. “I have an appointment.”
He flicked her the data card with the information and directions he’d received. The digital file contained multiple layers of verification and authorization he could barely tell were in it, let alone access.
The stony-faced commander of the four armed guards outside the door—overkill, unless NOSC’s automation and artificial stupid security were far worse than EB thought they were—hopefully could access those authorizations.
“Ah. Captain Bardacki,” she greeted him, with absolutely no warmth or enthusiasm in her voice. “Your authorization checks out.”
She considered him like he’d grown approximately ninety extra legs.
“Your weapon, Captain,” she snapped.
EB considered arguing, but from the sergeant’s body language, he was lucky she was letting him through at all. Whatever this section was, it wasn’t the regular no-civilians-allowed section of the station like, say, the plasma-cannon turrets.
He unbelted his stunner and blaster and proffered the weapon to the noncommissioned officer. She briskly slung it over her left shoulder, then gestured for him to follow her.
Whatever commands she’d given her fire team and the door were silently transmitted from her headware, but the three other NOSC troopers remained outside and the door slid open ahead of her.
“I didn’t catch your name, Sergeant.”
Normally, the woman’s headware would have been transmitting a beacon that told him her name, rank, serial number, preferred pronouns and any other pertinent information she wanted. A soldier on duty wouldn’t usually have much in the last category, but all her beacon was currently transmitting was a confirmation that she was a E-5 Sergeant in the Nigahog Orbital Security Command.
“I didn’t give it,” she replied. “Follow. Don’t talk.”
EB obeyed, glancing around him as he did. Despite the excessive security at the door, this section of the station looked like nothing so much as a law firm’s office. The hallway was well lit and lined with evenly spaced doors.
Presumably, if he had the correct authorization, the local beacons he could sense but not access would tell him who was in each of the offices—but there were no visible nameplates, no publicly accessible beacons, and no windows into the offices themselves.
The whole quiet section of the station screamed Intelligence Operations to him, but he suspected that the locals thought they were being subtle.