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Chapter One

Following spies was a new gig for Vin, but he was pretty sure they didn’t usually take coffee breaks. And even if they did, they definitely didn’t take them at Ve Station.

Nonetheless, Vin found himself tailing a Fleet spy through gem-encrusted corridors, trying his best to ignore the way people’s eyes widened at the sight of his clothing. Which was perfectly clean, even if it wasn’t custom made or embroidered with real gold.

Maybe he had a crease or two in his boots—they weren’t even torn yet—and maybe the cuff of his shirt showed early signs of fraying. But he looked respectable enough to keep the station’s security off his back, which should have been enough to satisfy the upturned noses of the snobs who lived here.

Who could say what motivated the ultra-rich psychology? He’d call his brother and ask for some insights from the other side, but was pretty sure even Zander’s wallet would fail to impress on Ve.

Which begged the question of why a Fleet spy would be meandering through here, of all places. The man took a leisurely pace across the station’s network of flashy lacework bridges, even stopping occasionally to gaze down at one of the green parks that carpeted the floor below. What information could the spy possibly have to ferret out here, at the wealthiest station in Halorin System—which was located in the wealthiest sector of the galaxy?

Vin didn’t know. But he was here to find out. Sort of.

Vin suspected his employer would remind him that he was actually here to swipe the data the Fleet spy had collected: months of intelligence that would prove, once and for all, that the Fleet had been plotting to take over the galaxy. And was well on its way to succeeding.

But Vin also wanted to know what the spy was doing on Ve, and if his presence here meant that his operation was not yet complete. There was no use in stealing intelligence if it was missing key pieces of the puzzle.

The spy sauntered toward the largest of the bridges, lazily swinging his lanky arms and looking for all the world like he belonged here. The bridge itself looked as delicate as spun glass but was as strong as steel. The arc swept high enough for another pair of bridges to crisscross below it. No one passing on those bridges even needed to duck. And thank goodness, too. That would have messed up their hair.

The bridges were all blindingly silver, catching the light every time he took a step, and he couldn’t help wondering if that’s what they’d been plated in.

There was luxury, and then there was waste. Even his brother would agree with him on that.

Vin slipped beneath the bridges and onto the grass—he was almost surprised when it didn’t bite his foot to chase him back to the path—so he could watch the spy’s progress from below.

He only needed to get close enough to jam whatever cybernetic implants the spy was hiding—had to be hiding—so he could get past their security measures and duplicate the data. Without getting caught, of course. That was the key part.

Vin excelled at getting in and out of tough situations; his fees reflected that. Subterfuge, though? That was a bit trickier. That required a certain finesse, and Vin was more the crash-in, crash-out kind of retrieval specialist. He hadn’t been able to refuse this job though. Not with the freedom of the galaxy at stake.

The spy paused to purchase a bunch of flowers—even the blooms were bound with the sparkle of precious metals like gold and jaevin—from a vendor whose clothes were nicer than Vin’s. And then he continued on.

Even standing directly below the spy, Vin wasn’t close enough to jam the man’s mods. How that was possible, he couldn’t say.

Maybe the silver somehow jammed the jammer. It seemed unlikely, though it might explain the spy’s dalliance here.

Vin sidled out from under the bridge, doing his best to stick to the sparse shadows as he followed the spy’s mop of reddish-brown hair down the ramp and onto a path that ran directly beside the park.

The spy passed behind a second flower cart… and didn’t reemerge.
Vin waited, frowning, wondering if there was some sort of hint in the flowers. Was the spy buying a bouquet from each vendor? Or waiting on a contact? Was he—

A hit from behind sent Vin sprawling face-first into the grass. Before he could even twitch, a boot landed on his lower back, pinning him down. He tried to twist, to break the hold, but a burst of electric current bit into his spine, going straight to the nerves and paralyzing his limbs. His teeth snapped together, muscles straining so hard it felt like they wanted to stretch until they snapped. Every muscle, all his muscles, his fingers trying to bend double as his back arched painfully.

He couldn’t stop it. He couldn’t even move.

He could breathe, thankfully, his lungs were still operational, his heart was still beating—at least for the moment. The pain was nearly unbearable.

The spy bent down, his rusty red hair hanging free over his head and almost brushing the grass. He had a wide smile that looked pleasant if you didn’t know any better. “Do you know why Ve Station is a good place to stop, friend?” he asked.

Vin’s jaw was locked too tightly to allow an answer, his neck bent back. Any minute, it might snap right in half.

He hadn’t even landed a hit. The only thing he could think was that he needed to get a message off to his pilot, to tell her to run, but his frantic thoughts wouldn’t pull up his eye screen. Maybe the spy had fried his network access.

The spy winked, then flicked a finger under the almost-fraying cuff of Vin’s sleeve. “If anyone’s trailing me, Ve Station makes it blatantly obvious.”

And with that, he sauntered away, leaving Vin with his face in the grass, his muscles still contorting painfully. He tried to breathe air past his vocal cords, to call for help—hell, to grunt loudly enough for someone to notice him—but he couldn’t force out so much as a whimper.

He would die here, then, struck down in the shadow of a bridge that had probably cost as much to build as his entire home city.

As the thought passed through his mind, the electrical current stopped, ceasing so suddenly that Vin’s muscles went limp. He grunted out of relief as his hands hit the grass. For a good long moment, all he could do was lie there and breathe slowly with his face in the grass. Inhale. Exhale. Interesting that they’d used real soil here, instead of easy-grow pads.

Another breath or two, then he forced himself onto his hands and knees.

He almost wept with relief when his limbs actually responded.
There was no time to question why the spy had chosen to leave him alive. This was a novice-level botch, a screw-up of the first order, and he needed to fix it.

Vin staggered to his feet, the taste of copper hot in his mouth, and lurched out from under the bridge, ignoring the gasps of the richly-clothed passersby. If he paused for even a second, he’d lose his breakfast on a pair of pointy shoes expensive enough to buy a mid-sized moon, and that would delay him for sure.

If he’d originally merited sidelong looks from the people on the station, he’d now graduated to full-on stares. His hair must be standing on end, and the prickles in his eyes—OK, the burning—suggested they were wild at the least, if not alarmingly bloodshot.
He was pretty sure his shirt was smoking, too. The smell suggested as much. But only a little bit.

His muscles recovered as he moved, and he picked up speed, ignoring the squeaks of people who hopped delicately out of his path. His communication screen recovered, too, and he sent off a frantic message to his pilot. Be ready.

When he burst into the bay where his ship waited, something in his chest loosened. The Moneymaker wasn’t fancy—it might turn some heads on Ve Station, though not for any positive reasons—but the star schooner was small enough for quick pursuits, roomy enough to make long trips pleasant, and flexible enough to allow for a good number of custom adjustments. She was long and lithe, with ample cargo space, four lock-on turrets—which included two detachable pods—and a belly that housed a comfortable set of crew quarters.
If the old girl had a little rust around the joints, well, so did Vin.

“I told you, you’re not spy material,” Hilda said as he dropped into the co-pilot’s seat beside her. She wasn’t more than ten years his senior—couldn’t have been older than sixty, at the outside—but he wasn’t sure she knew that. She spoke to him like she was the octogenarian family matriarch and he the misbehaving youngest grandson, rather than the captain of the ship. Her silver hair, which she wore in a long braid down her back, only increased the effect.

She’d lectured him long and hard ahead of this job, trying to talk him out of it. Little good it had done.

“Thank you, Hilda.” The words came out as a huff of breath; perhaps he wasn’t as recovered as he’d thought. “Would you be willing to fly, please, or is it too much to ask of my pilot?”

She rolled her eyes, flicked a switch, and the ship shot out of the bay. She’d been a racer, once upon a time, and she maneuvered the Moneymaker with enviable ease. “Who’re we after?”

Vin scanned their surroundings, trying to pick out a ship that could belong to the spy. The man might’ve stayed behind on Ve, hunkered down to hide, but Vin doubted it. He wouldn’t have called Vin out like that if he’d just intended to disappear. No, he’d have used the head start to lose his tail so he could deliver his data to the next spy in the chain.

Besides, it seemed unlikely that even the Fleet would shell out the necessary funds for one of their spies to stay the night on Ve.

“There.” Vin stabbed his finger at the viewport, ignoring the swan-necked yachts and glittering pleasure cruisers that floated gracefully around the station. In contrast to their curving lines—aesthetically pleasing and entirely nonfunctional—the ship that flitted along between them looked like an ugly cube, all corners and lines. Using the yachts as cover, it drifted away from Ve Station in the direction of the Halorin System’s outskirts.

Which made sense. The Fleet was based in the Middle Systems, and Halorin was a Center System. The spy must be heading home.
Hilda cut away from Ve Station in the same direction as the cube ship, which looked like nothing so much as a dropped box of cargo. If the end hadn’t been lit with engine fire, Vin might have dismissed it entirely.

A good ship for a spy.

But Moneymaker’s parallel trajectory must have tipped off the cube’s pilot because the ship suddenly picked up speed. It rocketed away from Ve, and though Hilda matched its path, it darted out ahead like a mouse skittering away from a pest-bot’s jaws.

“We have to cut him off before he hits the Halorin current,” Vin said.

Trade currents moved the ships inside them along at near lightspeed, making galaxy-wide trade and travel possible. Safe, too, since current technology balanced gravity to protect the human body at otherwise impossible speeds—and negated the effects of relativity. Handy, that. Not as instantaneous as a wormhole would be, but no one had hacked that theory. Yet.

What a payday that would be.

Unfortunately, currents also made it easy to disappear. Once the spy’s ship entered the current, it’d be gone. He could take the next exit and hop to another current; he could ride the wave all the way to one of the Outer Systems, or even the fringes.

Hilda cut a direct path away from Ve Station, following the spy’s cube out toward the nebulous, wormlike cloud that defined the Halorin current. The cube-ship was quick, but Moneymaker was quicker, built and re-built to give her the edge in any race.

Vin opened Moneymaker’s comm system and pinged the spy on an open frequency. “Give it up,” he said. “Prepare for boarding.”

Not that Vin was particularly excited about boarding that ship, as he had no security officer currently on staff. It’d just be him and his patchwork armor against the spy. Still, Vin wouldn’t mind another shot against those paralyzing electrodes, or whatever tech had taken him down back on Ve. It wasn’t that his pride was wounded. It was just… professional curiosity. That was all.

Any pilot worth his oxygen would monitor an open comm channel like this, and Vin had no doubt the spy had heard, but the man didn’t respond.

Hilda banked around the cube-ship, preparing to cut it off. Aemlyn, the planet Ve orbited, sparkled in the distance off to the left, already smaller than a thumbprint against the backdrop of the universe.

The cube dipped, a bobbing pulse of a movement that made Vin think of a switch flick—an impression that was amplified when two red lights appeared out of the top, like little eyes.

“What is that?” Hilda asked.

The eyes spun, the red changing over to blinding white so quickly that Vin didn’t have time to swear. Double zaps of lightning zigzagged through the vacuum, raging out of the cube-ship’s eyes, aiming straight for the Moneymaker.

Hilda dove, spinning into evasive maneuvers, and Vin craned his neck to keep the lightning bolts in sight. They struck the spot where Moneymaker had been, then cast off like they were turning a corner, zipping around to chase after the ship.

This guy was obsessed with electric weapons, obviously. Or the Fleet was.

“I can’t hold the lightning off,” Hilda said, teeth gritted in concentration. “It’s too fast.”

Vin bit the inside of his cheek, hard enough that he tasted blood. He didn’t know what would happen to his ship if the lightning struck it, but after the paralysis he’d endured on Ve, he imagined it would not be good. “Take the current.”

“Are you crazy? We’ll lose him if—”

“Just take the current, Hilda.”

Hilda cursed, then set the Moneymaker back on a straight line away from the cube-ship and plunged toward the current. Vin gripped the arm of his seat, certain that his next breath would bring a disabling charge from the spy’s lightning-bolt weapon. Whatever it was, it looked like it could smoke Moneymaker’s systems in one clean hit, from engines to life support. His shields might stand against it… but then again, they might not.

He drew a second breath, and a third. The lightning chased them, but it never caught up, and Vin had the distinct impression that the spy was herding him straight out of Halorin System.

When the Moneymaker entered the current, the viewport shifted to milky blue, and Hilda released the straps that held her in place. She swiveled to look at him, eyes flashing. “Did we just lose our chance?”

Vin saw his own fear reflected in her eyes, his terror at the idea of a galaxy that lived under the Fleet’s thumb. He forced his fingers to loosen their grip on the arm of the seat so he could drum them instead of hanging on for dear life. “No. They’re going to hand that data physically to the Fleet commander. It’s too sensitive to trust to their networks, or the spy wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble to lose me on Ve.”

“And how will you know where?”

How, indeed. “Surely we can get ahold of Commander Fortune’s schedule. The next big event will be the one. I can smell it.”

Hilda snorted. “How are you going to infiltrate a Fleet party? They just saw your face. And before you open your mouth, I’m not doing it. I can’t speak for Alex, but I’ve a good guess what she’d say.”

Vin suppressed a smile. Alex, his science officer, would blow their cover in about ten seconds. Which, to be honest, wouldn’t be any worse than the way he’d blown the operation on Ve. “You’re right,” he said. “I can’t infiltrate a Fleet gathering. But I might know someone who can.”

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About Kate Sheeran Swed

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