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The crew of the Varagon pursued their prey across a notorious region known as a graveyard to all but the pirates who lived there. Today there would be no escape for the old freighter trying to sneak away with a cargo full of stolen ore.
Blue clan's ore, Valeeya Blue thought and yanked her weapons belt snug around her hips. Trespassers and thieves, they were. This was her people's home, not theirs. With a swell of possessiveness, she took in the sight of a million suns glowing fiercely behind a swath of bleak and rocky worlds. The Channels. It was a breathtaking sight even now, years after she'd first taken to the stars as a teenage apprentice.
The mineral riches on the asteroids were what outsiders found so bloody attractive about the place, zelfen ore most of all, coveted by the galaxy's two warring factions to strengthen battleship hulls and other war machines. For the chance to thieve what they'd normally have to buy at sky-high market prices, these outsiders were willing to risk life and limb…and space pirates like Val.
"Eyes on me, Blues!" Her captain, Grizz, pushed through the crowd and stopped in the center of the bridge. His body armor and everyone else's was etched into an intricate, individual pattern. Tattooing the protective plates was considered good luck. The better the art, the better the luck. Whether the myth bore out over time, nobody wanted to say, but no one ever went out undecorated. As a newer raider, Val's was still a work in progress, only hinting at what she hoped it would someday be: a depiction of the wind—wild and free, like her.
Grizz thrust his hand at a magnified image of the freighter. "Look at that old crate, sailin' through our lands as simple as you please!" he bellowed over the sound of outraged yells. "Well, she miscalculated, thinkin' no one would come after all that zelfen she took without askin'." His eyes glimmered. "Nezerihm's gonna pay well when we hand it back to him."
"Ore stealers!" Val added her yells to those of the other raiders. With zelfen's value soaring, the mine owner had started paying out lucrative bounties for the return of plundered ore. In exchange, the pirates left Nezerihm's assets alone, unlike the old days when his family's riches were at their mercy. The days when the pirate clans were united and mighty, and the Nezer-ihms were not. Val couldn't imagine the clans holding sports tourneys and yearly gatherings, even intermarrying, but once upon a time they did. Clan elders like Grizz and Malta and even her parents recalled those times. These days, pirates didn't even trust each other let alone outsiders. They squabbled, jostled for power and practically stole food off each other's plates. Things had gotten so bad that Val wouldn't be surprised if a rival clan showed up today to crash their raid. Bring it on. The crew of the Varagon was ready. Aye, and she was ready. She gave her armor one last tug.
The raiders began to stomp their heavy boots, calling for the beginning of the raid. Grizz's eyes warmed but held on to a deadly glint as he took in the sight of his crew. "Blues! Are you ready to go a-raidin'?"
Battle cries and boot heels thundered in the confines of the ship. Val's blood thrummed with anticipation, and also a wee bit of fear. "You need some fear," her clan-leader father had always told her. "Some. Too much paralyzes you, and too little makes you reckless. Arrogant." Conn no longer went out on raids, having lost a hand years earlier, an injury through another raider's recklessness. As eager as Val was to leave the Varagon and help collect the booty, she rechecked her gear. Where the breather hose connected to her nitrox cylinder a disc was loose. She tightened it with an O-clamp. She didn't need something like suffocation distracting her from the pleasure of a good raid.
"Cap'n!" a deep, husky female voice cried out over the thunder. The noise ebbed a fraction as Grizz stalked to where Val's skiff commander, Malta, kept watch for other clans' jackals. The woman perched like an ornery, aging forest raptor in a chair on the bridge, her unflinching gaze on an array of screens. Her competence proved Val's belief that not all girls were content being dirt-bound back on Artoom tending the home fires. Like Malta, Val wanted to raid for her clan and have the best bloody time of her life doing it, too. "Looks like we got company," the woman told Grizz. "Calders, maybe. But my money's on them Surebloods."
Matching the woman scowl for scowl, Grizz swore as he drove a hand through his graying dark brown hair. It fell around his shoulders as he leaned over her muscled arm. "That's their way—the greedy bastards—hanging back like that. Using the asteroids as cover. Looking to steal what ain't theirs to take."
Boos and jeers told what the crew thought of that news. The pirates of the Sureblood clan were their chief rivals.
Malta enhanced the faint signatures. Then she nodded grimly. "It's them, all right. Surebloods."
"Raid crashers," the crowd roared.
"We were here first," Val muttered. The Surebloods had no right to the freighter. First come, first raid: it was one of the first laws of piracy. Once skiffs attached to a ship, any other comers were supposed to back off. No matter how contentious the relations between the clans, no one broke the rule.
Except, apparently, the Surebloods.
"First come, first raid is the way we pirates operate," Malta was grumbling. "But here they are, elbowing their way in. And they have the gall to accuse us Blues of doing the same to their raids." Malta shook her head. "You'd think the death of their clan leader would have mellowed them, but the son's set them on a path his sire never did."
Dake Sureblood. Stars above, did the man's arrogance have no limits? For someone not much older than she was, he'd sure gotten far in stirring things up.
Thanks to him, their two clans were ready to come to blows. He was a thug, like the rest of them Surebloods. Built huge like forest giants, they were barely literate and drank boar blood for breakfast! That was what she grew up hearing, transfixed by the stories Nezerihm confided on his visits to Artoom, especially when they plied the mine owner with moonshine.
Furious, Grizz pushed upright and faced his seething raiders. "They want this prize, but we're gonna beat them to it. Those good-for-nothin' Surebloods and their upstart boy captain were too slow this time. We got here first. There won't be anything left worth picking over by the time they show up. Blues! Let's go a-raidin'!"
The cheers were deafening as Grizz called out orders above the bedlam. "Launch the skiffs!"
A thwump-thwump sound signaled the first two boarding craft detaching from the Varagon. The skiffs looked tiny as they soared away across the void. When amongst the asteroids, skiffs were virtually undetect-able. More would follow, a swarm of them. They'd hide until it was time to attack. Sneaking in from the rear, they would use the vessel's own openings to gain entry. They'd be inside before anyone raised the alarm.
Reeve, one of Val's skiff mates, stepped next to her as they waited their turn to launch. "Hope that old crate don't fall apart like a birthday pop-box when we bust through."
"She just might." Val grinned, remembering a long-ago birthday celebration: her with a wooden rod gripped in tiny hands and the thrill of sweet treats showering down from a shattered pop-box. "And if she does, we'll take their booty as easy as candy."
The rest of the raiders were just as vocal in their contempt of the broken-down hulk that dared steal their ore, adding their insults in language that got more and more colorful.
"Shut your traps!" Grizz glared at his rowdy crew. "She ain't a Coalition warbird, and don't look like much, but keep your eyes open and watch your backs—and your fellow raiders'. I'm of no mind to bring any of you fools home in bio-sacks." His scowl deepened. "Not everything that looks easy always is."
The warning sent a coil of unease spinning through Val. It wasn't so much what he saw out there, she realized, but what he felt.
Never argue with your gut. When skill can't carry you and your luck runs out, your gut keeps you alive. Grizz had told her that and so had her father. Whether her instincts were as good as theirs remained to be seen. She liked to think she had something of her sire in her besides his grin and golden eyes.
"Don't listen to the old man, Val. He's worried for nothing."
Val sighed against clenched teeth at the voice belonging to the one raider she tried to avoid: Ayl, the stupid sot. She heard the hushed clank of his armor and the scuff of his boots as he inserted himself between her and Reeve, who threw the man an annoyed glance before making room. "You'd be smart to mind him, Ayl. The captain's been busting hatches since before we were born."
"Maybe that's too long."
"Think you can do it better?" she challenged.
"Oh, I know I can." His sly, dark gaze crept over her armor as if looking for a way in. "The same goes for a lot of other things. You know that, Val."
His smile was brilliant, his posture confident with a bit of swagger. The clansman well knew his many charms and used them, notoriously, to his advantage, fooling even her. He'd cheated on her the eve they first slept together, hopping from her bed to Despa's within hours? The humiliation still stung.
Why out of all the ships did Ayl have to be reassigned to the Va ragon? Before he arrived, she'd easily avoided both him and Despa on Artoom in between raiding sorties and all was well. Here, it was impossible. Yet, she knew the answer: at her father's behest Grizz trained the best and brightest, the future leaders of the clan. As the firstborn son of a high-ranking, respected clan captain, Ayl was on track to be one of them.
"Let's talk," he said at his smoothest. "You and me. Later."
"Like Grizz said, we'll be celebrating later in the bar. You can talk to me there."
"I meant just us."
"There's no 'us.' You made sure of that."
Sighing, Ayl scrubbed his glove over his face. Then he dropped his hand, looking as if he wanted to touch her arm, then seeing the look in her eyes decided wisely against it. "Despa seduced me. I told you. I didn't want to sleep with her."
Val snorted. "Same old story."
Even Reeve smirked at the lame excuse, coughing out a laugh.
Ayl looked as if he wanted to deck the raider but held back, his words to Val low and firm. "You're not just any clan female, Val. It's your duty to make a marriage alliance. Your duty as Conn's daughter."
"You're right about that. I'm not just any female." She shoved her dozer into her holster, securing it, tempting though it was to use it on Ayl to shut him up. "I'm a raider. My duty's here."
"So is ours," Reeve said pointedly. "She's getting ready to raid, Ayl. Leave her be."
"This, especially, isn't your business," Ayl hissed with an edge of contempt, making it obvious he hadn't forgotten that Reeve's parentage wasn't as impressive as his own. The clans had a hierarchy on and off ship. Only some like Ayl openly acted on it. A sign of his insecurity, Val thought.
"Aye, it's my business," Reeve argued. "It's my skiff mate you're distracting. She's supposed to watch my ass and me hers. And since when do I take orders from you, Ayl? You aren't my commander, and you aren't her man. I think she's made that pretty bloody clear. Or do you need me to help explain it?"
Val tapped Reeve's armored bicep and shook her head. Her skiff mate went silent, but with bitter reluctance. Like the Blues and the Surebloods, one of these days he and Ayl were going to come to blows. But it wouldn't be today if Val could help it, and not before a raid. The men needed to burn up their energy on thieving merchants, not each other.
Ayl turned to her. "I'll say one more thing, Val. Eventually you'll have to give up raiding."
"Like hells, I will."
"Even Conn said so."
She froze. "You talked to my father?" A few raiders glanced over at her appalled tone. In the back of her mind was ever the worry her father would disapprove of her being a raider. She wanted to give him no opportunities for second thoughts.
"I made my intentions known to him, aye."
"What—what did he say?"
Ayl cleared his throat. "That's between me and him. All I'm telling you is that it's time—past time, actually—that you thought of your future." He looked her up and down. "You're not getting any younger."
"And aging every second I waste talking to you about this."
"Val! Ayl! Get the bloody hells over here!" Grizz jerked his hand at them, a summons to the bridge, and turned away before Val could read his expression.
Busted. Swearing under her breath, she dropped her conversation with Ayl like a hot stone. How much had Grizz heard? Or Malta? Would they think her flighty and weak or a flirt and tell her father? A thundering heartbeat of acute embarrassment drummed in her ears. It was all her fault for letting Ayl pull her into a silly argument in the middle of prepping for a raid.
"You'll come around," Ayl murmured as she pushed past him.
She felt his smug, sideways gaze on her all the way to the bridge. There, Grizz's broad-shouldered form blocked the view of the departing skiffs. The tenseness in his back told her he was scowling. Val felt as small and unnoticeable as a skiff in the Channels as she waited to be acknowledged by her captain. Where was the protective shadow of one of those crater-pitted asteroids when she needed one? She was about to apologize for dallying with Ayl when instinct told her to just be quiet.
Grizz folded his arms over his chest as he faced them. Val wanted to squirm under the lens of his scrutiny, but didn't. That, too, would be a mistake. His menacing glare landed on Ayl first. "You're stayin' behind, boy."
Ayl started to protest, but seemed to think better of it. "Aye, Cap'n," he mumbled.
"I could use your help on the bridge, coordinating," Grizz said, softening the blow a bit. "Stow your gear and be back in five."
"Aye, Cap'n." Gone was Ayl's swagger; in its place were sagging shoulders.
Grizz then turned to Val. The man's jaw muscles twitched, a sure sign he was gritting his teeth. Dread gripped her. A dozen possible fates came to mind, from latrine cleaning to having to serve bridge duty with Ayl. She wasn't sure which would be worse.