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The warlord's flotilla drifted perilously close to the Borderlands, a no-man's land between two mighty civilizations that wanted nothing more than to stamp out the other's existence and take the spoils. Tonight one of them would. Battlelord Aral Mawndarr fully intended to be on the side of victory. Whether he remained alive long enough to savor the feat was another matter entirely.
His orders as a battlelord in the Imperial Fleet were clear: no ships must penetrate the perimeter around the warlord's flotilla. Today he'd disobey those orders and allow one particular ship to get through. An enemy ship. Today he'd commit the ultimate betrayal of his leader, setting in motion the downfall of the Drakken Empire. Today, yes, today, he'd bring peace to a galaxy that remembered nothing but war.
As a firstborn son of a battlelord, Aral had always been ambitious. It was ingrained in him. It wasn't until his father had beaten him nearly to death, almost beyond the reach of life-saving nanomeds, that he'd realized the direction his ambition would take him.
Every crack of agony of his father's knuckles across his face brought Aral closer to this moment. Every bolt of pain from the shock-whip forged his vow to destroy what Karbon loved and respected most: his status, his power, his empire.
Once his loyalties had shifted from the madman who'd sired him to the Coalition, treason had been surprisingly simple. At first, the Coalition didn't realize that a single spy was behind the apparent lucky breaks that seemed to fall into their hands at the perfect moment. As a young Imperial officer, Aral allowed the Coalition victories that no one suspected he'd been behind. He made the ImperialFleet bleed.
The warlord blamed blindly for the inexplicable, inconceivable defeats. Pretending empathy and offering tactical advice, Aral became a favorite. He ingratiated himself to the man, was a frequent guest in the palace, and eventually the warlord came to trust him as one of his closest advisors. Ultimately, he was offered the sweetest prize of allthe warlord's daughter.
He never stopped preparing for this day. By tomorrow, trillions would applaud his actions as heroic. Those loyal to the warlord would denounce him as a traitor. He was neither a betrayer nor a hero, but a man driven by reasons that were as selfish as they were private. Believers would say his deeds guaranteed him a place in the heavens regardless. Aral turned a deaf ear to such talk. His sorry soul hadn't the barest chance at salvation. He was a battlelord and all that came with it. He'd had to kill and order killings. He'd had to send men into danger for the greater good. Sometimes he'd even sent loved ones.
It had been five years since his brother had disappeared. Bolivarr had worked as a wraith, a member of the covert arm of the Imperial Army, passing him intelligence. And then, nothing. He simply vanished without a trace. Aral never knew what happened, or why, and there was no one to ask.
In his final communication, Bolivarr transmitted that he knew of ancient religious writings that told of a key to a secret "with the potential to destroy us all."
Except that it destroyed only Bolivarr.
Aral tightened his gut, recalling the data Bolivarr had sent. The self-destruct coding had delayed just long enough for Aral to memorize a drawing of five glowing marks, a pair on each side and one at the top. It was centered on a page with many lines of unfamiliar runes he'd glimpsed too quickly to puzzle out. He hadn't stopped trying; too much depended on figuring it out.
By the blasted fates, he would. His brother had died because of that knowledge; he was certain. The boy he'd protected from his father's cruel hand had grown up only to be struck down in violence by another's.
I will win today in your name, brother. In some small way, seeing his grand plan to its conclusion would justify Bolivarr's death, for Aral surely had not made peace with it.
"I have confirmation, Lord Mawndarr." Battle-commander Kazara Kaan, his second-in-command, took her customary spot next to him on the bridge. Kaz was one of only a few female officers in the fleet, and the only Drakken female in a leadership position. "The ship is through the perimeter," she said.
Aral's pulse jumped a notch at her words. He of course didn't let it show. No one would be able to say he'd gleaned the smallest bit of pleasure from what he was about to do. It was a grim task, but one long in the making.
He squared his shoulders. The leather and metal accoutrements on his uniform crackled and creaked with the motion. "Our business here is done, War-major. Give the order to egress."
Kaz called to the pilot. "On Lord Mawndarr's orderset course for departure. Max speed."
Calmly, Aral placed his hands behind his back. There. It was done. He'd allowed the enemy to breach the perimeter. He hoped the warlord's affairs were in order. And his daughter's.
Especially his daughter's. Aral had waited ten long years to make her his. If wreaking vengeance on Karbon was the reason for his actions, then sweet Awrenkka was his reward.
Vartekeir Vantos was lucky to be alive. Running supplies through the Drakken blockade in the Borderlands wasn't the safest of jobshells, even the military didn't want to risk their ships or their hides to do it, but coming nose-to-nose with an Imperial battle-cruiser, a gargantuan vessel a hundred times larger than his ship, wasn't something he'd planned on. Instead, here he was, docking his ship at the outpost as if it were just another day.
It wasn't the first time he'd run into unexpected company in the Borderlands. Usually, he could shoot or talk his way out of it, or simply disappearaka run.
"Vantos, you're living on borrowed time." Keir heard the comment so often that he gave the name to his ship. He'd remind them it was his skill not luck that got him through, of course, but, hells, this time they were right. His abilities, his instincts, his hands had nothing to do with it. It was luck, damn good luck. Crossing paths with that battle-cruiser, he shouldn't have made it back at all, let alone in one piece.
Irritably, he scrubbed his knuckles across a rough chin. Blast it all. He needed sleep, and he needed a shave. But above all, he needed a drink. This particular outpost's watering hole would be open and ready for business, even at this hour, filled with Coalition fighter pilots and other blockade-runners, traders like him who specialized in getting critical supplies in an out of the Borderlands, the no-man's land between two mighty civilizations that wanted nothing more than to stamp the other's existence and take the spoils. The survival rate of the average "runner" was less than a year. Eight months, to be exact, from getting lured in by the prospect of sky-high profits to do a job the military wanted no part of to crossing paths with an Imperial ship where every captain was either a sadistic killer or a trigger-happy psycho, and usually both. Eight months from that first border run to the last. Keir had been at it for four and a half years.
He focused his bleary eyes on the docking bay looming in his forward window. A double beep-beep in his ear piece told him that outpost security interrogated his craft one last time. All military bases double- and triple-checked craft coming in on final approach. The Drakken had blown facilities into micro-chunks using bait-and-switch tactics before.
Today security deemed him one of the "good guys," a stretch in anyone's imagination (in Keir's opinion), opening the clamshell doors to allow him through. With a shudder and a solid click of the locking mechanism, Borrowed Time slid into place.
How badly did those blasted Drakken ding up his ship?
Keir shut down the drive core and shoved out of his seat, pulling a nanopick from his pocket and slipping it between his lips. A fresh burst of mint woke up his mouth as he pushed up and out the hatch and jumped down to the platform. Luranium had a distinctive odor when burned to a crisp. The air around the hull stank of it. He stalked to the aft engine pod and appraised the damage. "Blast my ass."
"They did." The crew chief on duty whistled as she took in the condition of his ship. "Talk's all over the station that you ran into an Imperial battle-cruiser." The chief's eyes shone with misplaced awe as she waited for Keir to confirm. "And instead of blasting you into so many atoms, it fired a warning shot and let you go. How'd you manage to do that, Vantos?"
"I didn't do anything. They barely stopped to say hello. By the time I realized what happened, they were running away as fast as their little plasma core could carry them."
"You'd better tell the commander."
"Your commander." Keir was civilian, not military, and he made damn sure the people he worked for kept that straight. The star-major and his officers were always trying to shake down Keir and the other runners for intelligence information. Keir revealed what he thought he shouldfor the good of the Coalition and all thatbut he was always careful to hold on to his, ah, trade secrets, as he liked to call them, the little things that kept him alive. People assumed he didn't care if he lived or died. He had news for themhe did. Taking on risk kept him from thinking too hard on his past, or even the future. But one thing was pretty clear in his mindhe intended to be around awhile to enjoy life. "Yeah, I made the required encounter report. There wasn't much to tell."
"Still, Vantos, a runner facing down an Imperial battle-cruiser and they blinked first? The news is already spreading. You're gonna be a hero around here."
"Look, they ran, and I ran. Hero stuff is for you boys and girls to do, not me." He wanted no part of it. Something about seeing both parents show up in body bags sucked the glamour out of "duty, honor, galaxy." He'd stick with "No commitments, no promises," and maybe "Stay under the radar," too.
Pleasure and freedom made life go around, anyway. At sixteen, he'd dedicated his life to the pursuit of both. At twenty-eight, he saw no reason to change.
The chief inspected the ship as she spoke. "What happened with you and that battle-cruiser seems to confirm all those rumors coming in. They're saying there's been a revolt. Drakken believers have overthrown the warlord."
Keir cracked up. "If you believe that, sweetheart, then I'm a virgin. Better yet, you are." Unlike in the Coalition, which was ruled by queens believed to be descended in an unbroken line from real gods and goddesses, in the Empire, religion was a dirty word, and had been ever since the goddesses fled the Drakken worlds eons ago to escape religious persecution. It split the settled galaxy in two, provoking a war that had raged ever since. Billions of believers still worshipped in secret. If they were caught, they were murdered on the spot. Now, after all this time, they'd finally decided to fight back? "Look, chief, I'm not religious, but I sure hope those believers enjoy their few minutes of fame. The warlord's going to crush them and love every blasted minute."
"I dunno, Vantos. There might be something to it based on what happened to you out there. Battle-cruisers don't run away. The Drakken are desperate, scared. Maybe you should stay out of the Borderlands for a while. Take some time off."
"Aw, chief. It almost sounds as if you're worried about me."
She rolled her eyes, telling him he was right, as she bent over to peer at the underside of the damaged engine. Probably calculating how much she was going to charge him for the repairs. True to form, she pulled a data-pad from the pocket of her flightsuit and started punching in data. "Nearly severed the pod. Do you have any idea how close you came to not making it back?"
"Some," he said dryly.
"You'd never know it, seeing how you're standing here giving me dirty looks about how much you're going to have to pay to repair the ass you almost got blown off. Every week you get closer to buying the farm. Go over to my kit and grab a paint stick. Go on. I'll help you repaint your ship's name from Borrowed Time to Out of Time."
She transferred data from her pad to the outpost's main computer. "I would, but you never let me."
"I never said no. You just didn't want it on my terms."
"You mean a quickie and goodbye? You're right. I like my men to stick around for a while."
"I'm not the sticking kind."
She stopped to look him over. "If the war ends, it's going to change everything. Most of us will go back to being civilian. There'll be no more blockades to run. Don't you ever want to settle down?"
"Give me one good reason why."
"A family. A place to call home."
He stroked a hand over Borrowed Time's fuselage. "This pretty little ship is all the home and family I need."
"That's no life, Keir."
Women. They were always trying to domesticate him. He let the chief get away with it because she was one of the best damn mechanics around. "I'll be in the bar. Just send the bill to my datapad. And stop listening to those crazy rumors. There isn't an atom of truth to them."
The war over, my ass, Keir thought, scouring fingers through his hair as he sauntered into the bar. The place was filled to capacity with military pilots and a few runners. He caught the bartender's eye. The man nodded, pouring him a double shot of house whiskey as a cheer went up. Then someone started singing the Coalition anthem and the whole group joined in.
Keir cringed at the show of patriotism. He wanted a drink, not a reminder he was on a military base. It was a simple arrangement: he used them, and they used him. That's as far as it went.
Keir sniffed his whiskey in anticipation of the first of a good many drinks when it hit him that the singing was due to the scene playing on the entertainment screen on the opposite wall. Every blasted gun-junkie in the bar had their eyes on the screen.
"Did you hear?" the bartender said from behind him. "They've confirmed it. The war's over. The Drakken issued a full and unconditional surrender."
"Don't believe it. We've heard fairy tales like this beforenew battleships guaranteed to pave the way to victory. Did they? And what about outposts fool-proofed against terror attacks? Tell the families of the people who promised they'd be home for dinner that day and ended up skulled instead."