“Why aren’t you moving?” I murmured under my breath, as if the slightest noise would set off the fireworks between the two pirate packs.
Dario tapped on the controls, one after another, and readouts bloomed and faded across the console. My question seemed to take a moment to register before he stopped, finger hovering over a glowing semi-circle that I thought might be our shield power. His eyebrows drew together as he looked at me.
“Ever seen a mad dog in the street? Well, we’re stuck between two of the meanest, and one move might set them off.”
I opened my mouth, but Pushkin’s voice came over the system, and I could hear the mad dog in his tone.
“You trying to ghost us all? Inviting the Stardevils? I know I push a hard deal, but getting them involved is dumb move. Dumber than I thought you were, Dario.”
Dario glanced around the cockpit before answering. “I didn’t invite them, Pushkin.”
“Then what they doing here!”
Dario licked his lips. “Let me take care of it.”
I had the impression that Dario hadn’t told him the Stardevils were on my tail. That explained why he wanted to make a quick deal, except one part confused me.
“They weren’t that close on my tail, were they?”
Dario leaned his head back and forth. “They might have used quantum drives once they realized that you were heading for the jump point. Regardless, they’re here and we’ve got to deal with them.”
A red blinking light bloomed on his controls. Dario frowned. The Stardevils. He tapped the panel.
Synthia’s voice came over the system: “Dario Oberon?”
“That’s me,” said Dario, making a half-shrug.
“You have something that belongs to me,” she said.
Dario smiled at me and made a face like can-you-believe-what-she-just-said? “An invitation? Because I certainly didn’t give you one. This is a private meeting here.”
Synthia made a noise like she was spitting. “Your little witch stole something of mine.”
“All’s fair in love and piracy. I think we —” Dario winked at me, “— just stole it back. I assume ol’ thunder thighs is lurking back there somewhere.”
The comment seemed to thoroughly confuse Synthia, which I guess was Dario’s point. “Thunder thighs?”
“My old friend, Burnett. Or did you jettison him out the air lock as any sensible human being would do?”
“He’s here,” growled Synthia. “And we want the data, and her, back.”
Dario raised an appraising eyebrow and showed me a thumbs-up. My earlier terror at being obliterated wasn’t gone, but I could breathe again.
“And why would I want to do that?” asked Dario.
“Because if you don’t, we’ll open fire on the Silent Sons, and you’ll be space dust within seconds after that.”
The smile faded from Dario’s lips. “And you’ll lose your deal.”
“You win some, you lose some. Like you said, all’s fair in love and piracy. Better that people know we can’t be messed with than take a deal for something we know nothing about. And besides, Burnett says he can do better, that this was a one-off and he has lines on a weapon system that would make me swoon.”
I sprung straight up in my seat and Dario reached over and tapped the screen.
“He’s lying,” I exclaimed, as soon as communications had been silenced.
“How can you know that?” he asked, wrinkling his nose.
“I just know. I can tell,” I said, but truthfully, it was just a hunch from my brief time with him.
My argument was cut short when the panel pinged again. This time, it was Pushkin from the Silent Sons.
“What’s taking so long? Why won’t they leave? I don’t want any triggers pulled. Let’s just do the deal and be done with it. I’m feeling generous at thirty-eight percent of original deal.”
Dario rubbed the back of his neck. I knew what he was thinking. I was thinking it, too. If anyone tried to leave, Synthia and the Stardevils would open fire. Otherwise, he’d probably jump at the deal, just to get out of danger.
“They’re almost gone, Pushkin. Let me just finish,” replied Dario, and the red communications light blinked again. “I’m sure we can work out a deal.”
“You’d better not be two-timing —” Dario tapped the screen.
“He’s lying,” I whispered quickly before Dario answered the Stardevils.
“How about,” began Dario in a wandering sort of way, “I sell you a copy of the weapons plans at half of what I was going to sell them to the Silent Sons.”
I swallowed. I couldn’t believe he was negotiating at a time like this. And if they took it, he’d make more than what the Silent Sons were currently offering.
That’s when Synthia started ranting, spitting out expletives faster than a rotating neutron star. Dario hit the silence and turned to me. “Why do you think he’s lying? Tell me. Give me a reason and I’ll believe you.”
I swallowed a second time. He’ll believe me? “I … uh … I can just tell.”
He bent his neck forward and slowly shook his head. “I need something more than that. I can’t play a dead hand.”
I pressed my fingers against my temples and squeezed my eyes together, trying to get my brain to spit out an answer.
“He’s lying because …,” the answer exploded into my head, “he doesn’t have anything else going on. He said so. And his ship, it was new, not customized. He still called it ‘Ship’ and he hadn’t even bothered to put in voice locks yet. Even when he grabbed my MobiGlas on Oya III, he was riding an electrocycle three sizes too small. It’s as if he caught wind of what you were doing at the last second and dropped everything else. You wouldn’t do that if you had a good deal going, right?”
Dario’s lips parted and he reached over and patted my leg. “That’s all I needed to know. Thank you.”
He stabbed the communication button. “Are you done yet? Look, I’ve changed my mind. I’ll sell it to you at seventy percent, but first you have to back off. Reverse thrusters and put some distance between you and the Sons.”
“Seventy? Are you crazy? I’ll just take the deal with Burnett,” said Synthia.
“I can’t tell whether you or he is lying, but he has no deal. Otherwise, my old friend wouldn’t have bothered messing with mine. He’s out of funds and desperate. Is that really who you want to hook your transport to?”
“Well then, we’ll just open fire and see how you like that,” countered Synthia.
His smile never faltered as he replied, “You won’t do that either. Yes, we might get blown to space dust, but you’ll take losses, and losses aren’t good business. You’re a smart one, Synthia, not like Pushkin and the Silent Sons. You’re playing an empty hand, and playing it well, but you’ve got nothing. Take the deal. Seventy-five percent.”
“Seventy-five? I’ll give you sixty.”
“Fine,” spat Synthia. “Deal. I’ll send you the funds as soon as we get the transmission.”
“Good, good. But for now, just so we don’t start a mini-war here, reverse thrusters please.”
Then Dario called up the Silent Sons, right as the Stardevils began backing away.
“My apologies, Pushkin,” said Dario. “The Stardevils aren’t the smartest pirates in the galaxy. They didn’t understand how easily you’d destroy them until I explained it.”
“They did, eh?” said Pushkin.
“Shall we do the deal then? Fifty-five percent?”
I could almost hear Pushkin nodding. “Only because I want to be rid of this place. This space stinks like Stardevil skag. Forty-five and it’s a deal.”
“You drive a hard bargain,” conceded Dario, as he winked at me.
When communications were down, and the red dots on the screen were moving away, Dario kicked his heels up on the panel and put his hands behind his head.
“Too close, man. Too close.”
My jaw hung open. “You got your original deal and then some.”
He looked ready to give me some witty response when the proximity alarms started blaring again.
“Great. What do we have here, another pirate pack?”
Dario flipped the view screen to visuals the moment the new ships came sliding through the jump point. He leapt into action even before I noticed the silhouette of what was probably a military Hornet.
His stone-eyed glance told me everything I needed to know about how bad it’d just gotten.
And then a similarly tagged bristling Idris frigate blew through the gate and opened fire.
to be continued …
No bugs here, everything works lol.