Gordon noted another entry in her portfolio of regrets. She regretted being reckless early in her career and ending up in med armor so young. She regretted leaving Samela, almost as much as she regretted meeting Samela. Regretted letting Sam steal her ship. And now, she regretted answering that want ad for a shipmate.
Her suit suggested a mild pain reliever for the oncoming headache, which she accepted with a blink of her right eye. A whiff of medicinal vapor escaped her collar.
She’d answered the ad, listed by the parents of Pinxi Wallace, a pre-med magician on track for the Empath Guild, because she would have been stupid not to. Included a ship, paid for. Fuel costs, covered. Living expenses, not even cheap, symbolic. Gordon had snatched it up and considered it the perfect chance to soothe her chronic pain and broken heart before looking for a new crew and diving back into bounty hunting. So what if she had to co-hab with a stranger? A med ley student would be buried in her studies, nonexistent except for maybe a trail of empty snack wrappers.
At least that’s how Gordon imagined it. Instead, Pinxi was the bipedal embodiment of “present,” from her cotton candy fashion and cinnamon strawberry scent to the gunship she’d had custom painted in swirls of pearlescent orange and plastered with decals. She’d done everything in her power, including stringing the corridors with pastel lights, to turn their shared space into a dorm room. If Gordon had wanted the college life, she wouldn’t have dropped out.
“This is going to be amazing.” Pinxi threw her arms behind her head and reclined in her co-pilot’s seat. Perfect dimples framed her grin. “Four years of fast-track studies. I need a break. I need an adventure!”
Sera Gordon clenched her jaw, regretting the contract chip in her arm that now bound her to Pinxi and this ship for six months.
But Pinxi’s earnest gaze pressured her to say something. “Then why the Empath Guild?”
Gordon wasn’t a fan of Empaths, herself. Too much intimate contact. Too expensive.
Pinxi held one arm out and regarded the crystal implants and bioelectric filaments exposed by the end of her drooping sleeve. The mineral protrusions marked her as a leyline medic, but there were other leyline guilds that didn’t insist on anti-harm chips. “I’m really good at healing. Better than my instructors. Plus, my dads are proud. Which is a miracle, because I thought for sure they’d want me in the family business.”
“What, like selling shoes or something?”
“Dark matter shoes, maybe.” She made a face but moved on before Gordon could ask. “Empath Guild makes good sense. But before I start a life of sitting in the Hall, healing other people up from their adventures, I want some of my own.”
Six months. Plenty of time for adventure, that much was true. But the cohabitation contract Gordon signed with Pinxi’s fathers was rather specific that Gordon should keep their daughter safe. If Gordon burned that contract, they’d burn her back. Quite literally; there was a retaliation clause about harm to their daughter. If they were with a crime family, that explained a lot.
So of course, as soon as the dads waved goodbye, Pinxi had started asking Gordon to let her help run jobs.
“You think one road trip with a bounty hunter will offset a life stuck on the ’Path?”
Pinxi was quiet for a moment. “I hope so. Once my empathy chip is installed, I’ll have to watch every move so I don’t even step on a bug.”
That was the truth. Empaths had a career almost as controlled as the devout soldiers of Kal.
Gordon sighed and called up the bounty boards. She skimmed listings for a while, looking for something to satisfy Pinxi without breaching the safety clauses in the contract with her parents.
“I can heal that.”
Gordon looked up, confused. “What?”
“You’ve been rubbing your knuckles this whole time. Chronic arthritis, right? I can take it.”
“No thanks.” She turned back to the listings to forget the suggestion. Bingo. She flicked a job descript over to Pinxi’s screen. “Here, this one.”
Gordon watched Pinxi as she leaned forward, tugging her loose shirt collar back into place. If they were going to play at bounty hunting, they’d need to find Pinxi some armor she could wear over her implants.
“Zel Calypso demands Felix Trilby delivered live . . . bounty, six-hundred thousand credits . . . Is that a lot?”
“All relative to the task.”
Pinxi’s brow wrinkled, then understanding lifted it. “So I should ask if Trilby will be more trouble than six hundred is worth?”
Gordon nodded, sparing a smile. Pinxi caught on fast. “Exactly. Also, consider your client, whether they’re likely to log negatives against you until you’re paying off debt instead of collecting. You wouldn’t believe how loosely these standard contracts are worded. My ex was a master of catastrophic clauses.”
“This . . . Calypso?”
“That’s not the ex, but I’ve worked with them before. Honest, as these things go. As long as you deliver on time, Calypso won’t look to make trouble.”
Pinxi spun around, feet pulled up onto her seat. “And fun?”
“Trilby’s good for a chase. And he’s job security. I’ve brought him in a half dozen times myself.”
Pinxi’s eyes glittered to match the creamsicle glamcoat she’d inflicted on their ship. “Let’s do it.”
She extended a gloved fist for a bump, but Gordon shook her head. “No touching.”
Pinxi dropped her hand as Gordon entered her guild credentials to take the job. Fact was, Gordon knew both Trilby and Calypso. If she could message ahead, she could ensure Pinxi would have a grand time without ever being in any danger.
“Okay, bounty hunter, put your arm in the cuff.”
Pinxi did so, flinching before the anti-breach chip was even imprinted and positioned. But she held steady and grinned again as the cuff sizzled and whirred.
After a moment, the cuff’s lights went dark and she marveled at the thin line marking her implant. When she looked back to Gordon, her smile dazzled like a planet-side sunrise.
• • • •
Trilby owed Gordon a few favors and she traded one in to show Pinxi a good time. They’d jumped light again and again, from trash heap to shit hole. Pinxi had explored taverns and gambling dens that her folks did not need to hear about (and some they probably owned), each time learning they’d missed Trilby by mere hours. Time ticked down on their contract. They were cutting it close.
Just as Gordon had intended. A deadline added heat to the experience. With the countdown looming at them in red from the ship’s readouts, they finally cornered their target against a violent blue nebula.
Gordon tossed helm controls over to Pinxi’s console and focused on targeting Trilby’s secondary systems. “Steady, please.”
Pinxi squealed and grumbled at the controls, dodging volatile gas pockets to follow the smaller ship as it tried to shake them loose.
Gordon had given up hoping Pinxi might have a calm inner center, but she was a good, if exuberant, pilot.
In spite of herself, Gordon joined Pinxi’s laughter as she landed a perfect hit to Trilby’s pulse turbines. Their winch snagged his aft chassis on the first try.
Pinxi was breathless, her face flushed. “That was amazing!”
Gordon’s suit recommended a downer, which she dismissed. She hadn’t had this much fun since . . . well since before the medical armor, at least. “We’re not done yet. Trilby’s ship is venting; hull breach. Bounty says ‘alive,’ you’ll recall.”
“Oh, shit! Okay, umm . . .” Her neon-gloved hands hovered over her console, as if the right button would stand up and wave.
Gordon pointed. “Sealant and reel him in.”
“Right!” Pinxi giggled to cover for her nerves. The sound was more effervescent than it had any right to be.
On screen, a pressurized capsule burst against Trilby’s hull and the foam rippled as it filled the breach and then some. With a satisfied exhale, she triggered the winch rewind.
Gordon had for sure met the minimum requirements of Pinxi’s adventure. All that was left was to deliver Felix to his ex, get Pinxi paid, and Gordon could relax until the lease contract expired.
The cabin around them reverberated as Trilby’s ship met the unapologetic docking bay gravity. Gordon grit her teeth, but Pinxi bounced in her seat and clasped her hands in front of her heart.
“Now what do we do?” The console lights reflected off her extra-pink, glittery lipstick.
“Flood the bay with tranq gas.”
“Don’t we have to go arrest him?”
Gordon shook her head at the sparkling pout. “Avoid risk wherever you can trim it out. Zel wants their quarry alive, so we won’t give him the chance to disappoint them. Or injure us. Med fees cut into the bounty real fast.” She lifted one armored hand for emphasis.
Over the security feed, they watched Trilby exit his ship, yawn a few times, and stumble. He retreated up his ramp again, but the hatch didn’t close. He had been too slow to vent the gas. She imagined him drooling onto the decking. He’d made her life difficult enough times that she couldn’t feel too bad about it. And if he’d managed to hurt himself feeling down, well she did have an empath on hand.
“Then that’s it?” Pinxi’s voice hid none of her disappointment.
Gordon could almost relate. “Still gotta deliver him. Not many hunters, even off-guild, are likely to try and steal this specific bounty out of our hull, but you never know. Wanna punch in the coordinates?”
The distraction worked. The pout vanished as Pinxi spun back to the console and set a course for Pel Calypso’s place. She scanned her chip to log their success and send a message ahead to their client. Nothing happened. Pinxi frowned, then scanned again. Again, nothing happened.
She looked to Gordon. “Am I doing it wrong?”
“No. Server must be down. Give it a few minutes.”
Pinxi slid to her feet and stretched. “I’m gonna go use the ba—the head, I mean, and get a drink. Want anything?”
Pinxi grinned and waved an affirmative hand signal before bouncing off along the aft-bound corridor.
When she returned with a black coffee for Gordon and the system’s “F-for-effort” attempt at a raspberry latte for herself, Pinxi’s chip scan confirmed on the first try. The industrial bulkheads hummed around them and string lights vibrated as the propulsion warmed up again.
“There we go.” Gordon sipped her drink and leaned over the display. “Commencing light jump procedures.”
Pinxi fiddled with the handle of her cup. “Thank you, Gordon. I know I’m not your ideal shipmate . . . Too colorful, too in the way—”
“Too much of a morning person.”
She ducked her head. “That. I just want to say how much fun I’ve had. I’ll never forget it. Or you.”
Suddenly too aware of the blush in Pinxi’s cheeks and down the soft crescent of her jaw, Gordon shifted. The movement triggered pain meds in her suit. For the first time since school, she wished she were better with words. “No problem. Your dads paid for this ship, so I can’t really complain about colorful anyway.”
Pinxi winced at Gordon’s deflection. Words formed on her lips, but then the light jump shifted gravity and she focused on not spilling her latte. She didn’t speak the rest of the trip.
• • • •
Gordon’s coarse words, and what she might have said instead, haunted her the entire jump. As she slowed them back to standard speeds, she cleared her throat.
“Forget it.” Pinxi’s tone was cool, like a wall had gone up and blocked the sun. “We made it with seconds to spare. Mission success.”
Gordon steeled herself to try again, but Pinxi frowned, tapping at her console. “Where’s Calypso’s ship?”
Scans showed nothing but a fading jump signature and a debris field.
“Shit.” Gordon routed more power to long-range scans, but knew what she’d find. That debris should have been Calypso’s yacht.
She swallowed, not sure how to explain to Pinxi. A whiny chirp from comms spoke first. They were being hailed from out-system.
Pinxi reached out a bubblegum-pink glove and accepted the hail before Gordon got a good look at its source. White noise filled their cockpit, interrupted by the other ship’s operational tones. Then the voice. “This transmission is for Pinxi Wallace.”
“Identify yourself, please.” Gordon held out a hand against Pinxi’s automatic reply. That voice . . .
“Not you, Gordon. I need audible confirmation from the contract co-signee.”
Her stomach spun as if she’d been caught in a solar pulse. Her suit offered her anti-nausea meds, which she found exceedingly tempting.
“Samela. You work for Calypso now?” Sam’s former boss, Sonia Goh, had been one of many nails in the coffin of their late relationship.
Scans showed a new ship, approaching fast. Gordon recognized the call number with a muttered curse.
“Calypso is dead. Sonia Goh has purchased their outstanding assets and holdings. Pinxi Wallace, let’s hear it. I need confirmation.”
Pinxi’s eyes widened, eyebrows up. “This is Pinxi Wallace. We have Felix Trilby and have come to complete the contract.”
Gordon clenched her jaw. Trilby deserved better than Sonia Goh. And if she hadn’t talked him into leading Pinxi on that string-along, he wouldn’t be on the line to save their asses.
“You’re late. In breach of contract. We invoke Section 3, Paragraph IV. See you when you’re docked. Call your fathers if you want, we won’t jam you.”
Sam’s tone ended the conversation even before the transmission’s white noise cut out.
“What clause?” Pinxi’s voice trembled. “What’s Sonia Goh want that Zel Calypso wouldn’t have?”
Gordon pulled up the double-signed doc and read the paragraph, hating every word. “In the event the contracted bounty hunter fails to deliver the named target within the set timeframe, the client shall have the right to claim the contracted bounty hunter as substitute for named target.”
“But Trilby’s right here!”
Gordon shut her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. Her suit suggested anti-anxiety meds. She took them. “Technically, we haven’t delivered him.”
“So they want me, now?” It came as a strained whisper.
“Sounds more like they’re interested in your dads. They ever cross with Sonia Goh?”
Pinxi wrapped her arms around herself. Her fluorescent colors seemed to fade. “No idea. I’ve avoided that side of their lives.”
“Well since Zel’s interest in Trilby was . . . say romantically vengeful, your family’s a tastier morsel to the new contract owner.”
The ship lurched as Goh’s grav tether snagged them.
“What do I do?”
The delight Pinxi had shown while they chased down Trilby had evaporated. She was in over her head.
And so was Gordon, it seemed.
“We need a legal loophole or an explosive miracle.” She stood up. “As neither of us are lawyers, I’m going to the weapons locker.”
Pinxi spun out of her seat to follow. She was close at Gordon’s elbow but kept the gap between them. “How did this all happen?”
Gordon almost missed the question, as annoyed as she was with herself for getting caught up in this. For not being careful enough to avoid it. She put an extra step between them, needing space to think.
“This is the life. You wanted to play bounty hunter, this is the game.”
Gordon clipped small guns into the holster attachments in her armor and slung a rifle across her back.
Pinxi’s face, though grim, was resolute.
“Good thing I didn’t take my empathic vows yet,” she said, stepping up and holding out her bubblegum-pink gloved hands, palms up.
Pinxi didn’t belong mixed up in this. But Goh had decided otherwise. Gordon gave Pinxi a full set of weapons, made sure she knew how to work them, and slapped an extra pistol into those garish gloves for good measure, before grabbing an extra rifle for herself.
“You remember your basics?”
“Good. Now, Goh’s always worked with a small crew, but they’re all heavies. You shoot to kill, hear? I promise not to tell your instructors back home.” Her suit reported elevated blood pressure. No shit.
Pinxi swallowed. “What are our chances?”
“This is a career made of long shots and bad odds. You make up the difference by being tenacious, stubborn, and by cheating wherever possible.”
After a considered moment, the twinkle came back into Pinxi’s eyes. “Then let’s wake Trilby.”
“The man we just delivered into this? Even if he were a forgiving sort, we can’t trust him. And don’t forget he’s way under from the tranq.”
An explosion rumbled from somewhere aft. Gordon thumbed a remote camera. Their little gunship was holding, but the feed showed someone working a torch along their access hatch.
“Maybe if we can bottleneck them,” she murmured to herself.
“I can bring him out of it.” Pinxi blocked her path. “He can be mad at us later, but he’ll be more interested in survival at the moment.”
Bottleneck, and three gunners instead of two. Keep Pinxi in back, out of harm’s way. It wasn’t the worst idea, given the circumstances.
“Okay, yeah. As long as we get him shooting before Goh has a chance to hire him out from under us. Wake him up.” Gordon grabbed a sling and loaded more weapons into it. “Meet me in the aft corridor. Going to prepare the hospitality.”
The gunship had built-in blast shields that unfolded from the bulkheads to provide cover, a feature Gordon hadn’t fully appreciated when she came aboard. It was a good ship, paint job notwithstanding.
By the time Pinxi and Trilby arrived, Gordon had the shields positioned and extra weapons charges laid out for faster reloading.
She nodded to Trilby. “Pinxi give you the details?”
He swallowed, drowsy. “Someone’s killed Zel.”
“Right.” She pressed the panel on his rifle, arming it. “So let’s kill them back. All of them.”
Let Trilby do it for vengeance. He’d agreed to Gordon’s easy bounty plan, expecting to be delivered into the arms of his favorite tormentor until such time as he saw fit to roll out of her bunk and off into the stars again. Love was weird.
Pinxi ducked behind the blast shield nearest the armored hatch, which glowed red where the torches were getting through.
Gordon pointed deeper into the corridor. “Back, behind Trilby. Pick your shots carefully, line ’em up, and keep your head down.”
“Not now. Tell me on the ride home.”
Pinxi swallowed and moved back, but removed her holsters. Before Gordon could protest, Pinxi undid the top half of her suit. Tattoos and crystals studded her entire torso, right up to the neon green binder around her chest. “I’ll keep you two operational.”
“Worry about Trilby. I’ve got my suit.” She wore the armor so no medics, magical or otherwise, ever had to lay a hand on her skin.
Trilby wasn’t one for subtlety. “A ley medic, now that’s handy.”
The hatch groaned, falling open under its own weight.
“Right. That’s how she woke you up. Now don’t waste her energy.”
Goh’s lackey still wielded their cutting torch as the hatch gave up. Before they stepped aboard, Gordon shot the tank over their shoulder. Fire bloomed in the entryway, forcing them down as flames licked the edges of their blast shields. When the air cleared, Gordon craned her neck and counted two bodies beside the torch-wielder.
Shots, fired from farther out in the bay, forced her behind cover again fast.
“Two, up top,” said Trilby. The fire seemed to have woken him.
They counted down, darted out, and fired high. Trilby’s target dropped from a catwalk with one shot. Gordon cursed as she wasted three shots on hers.
Cooling metal pinged and popped, but there was no other noise. No more fire.
“Is that it?” Pinxi asked. Gordon glanced back to see her bare skin prickled in goose flesh.
Another shot, this one from near eye level. It caught Trilby in the shoulder, spinning him backward as he growled with pain. His gun skittered across the deck, not that he could have fired back.
Gordon ducked and turned to confirm Pinxi was safe, but she had crawled out from behind her cover.
“Pinxi!” Gordon growled through her teeth.
Wrapping an arm around Trilby, Pinxi pulled him tight behind a shield as shots struck the bulkhead just above them. Her crystal implants luminesced gold and pink as she aligned her arms with the ley paths that coursed across the universe. In her lap, Trilby tossed his head side-to-side as she placed her hands on his shoulder.
Gordon wanted to watch her work, but had to tend to the boots stalking up their access ramp. She fired over her shoulder to spend the last shots in her overheating weapon, then tossed it aside and swung her rifle around. It had a slow warm-up but would kick like a Gorzipen backhoof. She counted two of the three beats for its charge, then stood up and aimed.
For some reason, she hadn’t expected to see Samela there. Gordon hesitated. Sam didn’t.
Mule kick aptly described the sensation in her gut. All impact, too big a feeling to call “pain” but she roared through clenched teeth anyway.
“Sera,” Sam purred. “Sorry babe. You know I’m business first.”
The rifle toned to remind Gordon it was fully charged.
Sam’s smug look burned away with the rest of her head. Gordon waited to feel some way about having killed her ex-girlfriend, but the adrenaline and the pain were too much. And she was more worried about Pinxi.
If Samela had joined the siege, only Sonia Goh remained. But the bay was quiet outside the hatch. All Gordon heard were her suit’s alarms as it struggled to patch what was left of her stomach, the thick fabric creaking as she slipped to the decking, her labored breathing, and Pinxi’s voice calling her name. Sera. Sera.
She blinked back into the world and immediately regretted it. Pinxi hovered over her. Tears washed tracks through the smoke streaked on her face.
“Your suit’s compromised, Sera. I’ve gotta heal you.”
Gordon tried to wave her off. “No . . . touching . . .”
Pinxi let out a short laugh, then sniffled. “I know, I know. Remember? I told you I was better than my instructors.”
She held her hands where Gordon could see them, at her own shoulder height. Her crystals shone with rose flames, her tattoos a golden shimmer. The bubblegum gloves were off, revealing more tattoos across her palms and slender fingers.
“If it’s responding, tell your suit to release painkillers and antibiotics. A muscle relaxer wouldn’t hurt.”
Gordon swallowed, and tried to nod but wasn’t convinced it had worked. She tried to warn Pinxi to watch out for Goh, but a cough stole the words.
“Shh, shhhh . . .” Pinxi cooed, calm and measured, as her hands lit up like newborn stars.
Deep in the charred waste of Gordon’s stomach, she trembled as a sense of knitting and substance filled her belly. It stung like wind on a sunburn, but then her lungs didn’t feel so tight anymore. She registered the dead weight of her damaged suit.
But Pinxi broke out in a sweat, clenched her teeth, and furrowed her brow. Her flawless skin opened, her stomach bleeding, burning as the injury transferred to her. Gordon didn’t know the first thing about empathic healing, but her wounds seemed to be overtaking Pinxi faster than she could heal it.
What good was all this magic if it killed the healer? Gordon tried to get up, to move away. She gulped for air to put force behind protests but they fell from her lips in pained whispers.
“No,” was all she managed, but Pinxi ignored her.
A blurred form moved, backlit by flames and the shower of sparks from the abused hatch. It raised a dark shape Gordon recognized as a rifle, and aimed at Pinxi’s head.
With energy that promised to cost her later, Gordon rolled to her knees and got herself between Goh’s rifle and its target. But Pinxi moved as well. Graceful as water, she circled around Gordon without pushing her back down. Her other hand reached for Goh. Palm flat, jaw set. Her hands blazed.
Weaponsfire hit the bulkhead as Goh fell to the ground and her rifle clattered to the floor. She landed on her knees, arms clutching her stomach, leaning away from Pinxi’s outstretched hand.
But Pinxi was better than her instructors. She unloaded Gordon’s wound into Goh’s body. All of it. What she’d taken, and what she continued to channel. The future empath stood between bounty hunter and mob queen, arms outstretched, her entire body a conduit for the transfer, glowing like ignited gas.
And she didn’t stop with the rifle shot. Gordon’s arthritis and fibromyalgia, her headaches and the tightness in her jaw, Pinxi took it all and buried it deep in the woman who would have gone after her dads next.
Sonia Goh slumped to the floor in a puddle of blood and leather skirts.
Pinxi breathed deep as her crystals dimmed, then she straightened. “Sorry, Gordon. She’s dead. I couldn’t transfer all your ailments in time.”
Gordon sat up, marveling at the sensation. The suit didn’t suggest anti-inflammatories. “Uh, no. That’s fine. I think you got the important bits.”
Had her stomach looked as bad as Goh’s? Like she’d been hit by a comet?
“What would have happened if she hadn’t been there, Pinxi? You were going to die, weren’t you?”
Pinxi had the sense to blush. “I’d have figured it out. Might have shared it with Trilby, enough that we all could have survived it.”
The vertebrae in Sera’s neck didn’t crack even a little as she looked around. “Where’d he go?”
“Ran off while I was handling things.” Pinxi still panted, but the grin on her face was effortless and authentic.
Gordon wrapped her arms over her bare midriff, too aware of her fresh, healed skin and how close Pinxi was, even if Pinxi held an intentional distance. The medic certainly had handled things.
And a touchless medic, that was a rare talent.
“Well,” Gordon said, getting to her knees, “We owe him for the inconvenience. I suppose Goh’s cruiser makes up for it.”
Pinxi looked over her shoulder, out at the large cargo area. “What about our bounty?”
Gordon made it to her feet, grinning. “Still a few months before our lease is up. We can find something fast and simple on the boards. Not like you need the money, is it?”
“Well . . .”
Gordon tilted her head. “Well what? Out with it.”
“My dads are probably going to cut us both off when they find out I’m dropping out of school.”
Pinxi’s grin was catching as ever, and Gordon couldn’t resist returning it. “You sure? Don’t get me wrong, you’d make a fortune as a little badass non-sanctioned healer, but you gotta give it real thought.”
“I have. And . . . I hoped you’d want to keep working together. I know this job got messed up, but I promise I’ll do better on the next . . .” The tumble of words faded into a silence that was clearly begging for Gordon to say there would be a next.
Pinxi had proved herself in a fight. Calm. And that smile was a medicine all its own, that contagious delight reminding Gordon why she got into this business in the first place. She wasn’t sure she could say no if she tried.
“Okay. But on a probationary basis. I reserve the right to turn you loose after the lease ends if you haven’t made me any money.”
Fact was, she already had. The med suit was FUBAR, but if Pinxi stayed around, it was obsolete. The ship was a gain, they just needed to repair the hatch before they left Trilby with his new cruiser.
Gordon tapped the bulkhead controls and the blast shields retracted, leaving just the two of them, a few scattered weapons, and a mess of bodies to check against the bounty boards. It really was a good ship, even if it looked like a sticker book.
Pinxi hopped and clapped her hands, causing small flares of light from the tattoos along her fingers. “Oh, awesome! You won’t regret this!”
She ran out to the bay, dangling sleeves flapping behind her, to find an engineer cart. Sera Gordon watched her until she rounded out of sight. Then she rolled her shoulders and unzipped the med armor. Far as she could tell, there was nothing to regret.