Warning: Spoilers ahead! The following excerpt is the first chapter in Parse Galaxy Book 5: Battle Fringe. If you’re not caught up, you might want to skip it for now.
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The Parse Galaxy’s Fringe Systems traded in three very important commodities, as far as Sloane could tell: workers who were desperate enough to do any job; roaches, of the creepy-crawly variety, which some of the more enterprising inhabitants gathered by the jarful for reasons she’d rather not consider; and hideouts for the ne’er-do-wells of the galaxy. Herself included.
She supposed her opinion was tainted by the fact that she’d been sticking to the shadowiest spots of an already-shadowy sector. In the three weeks since she’d left Moneymaker behind at the Atom, and her crew along with it, she’d started and fled from as many bartending jobs. Not because of the ale roaches, though they were plentiful, but because of the bounty someone had apparently stamped on her head.
She’d already held her current position for four days, and despite the disastrous endings of her last three posts, she was optimistic about her chances of staying long term.
No one who knew anything about her would expect her to hide out on Vable Moon. Ever. It was the result of a terraforming-gone-wrong horror story, in which the original settlers had managed a breathable atmosphere—good job—but accidentally covered the entire surface in a layer of stinking swamps in the process.
The smell was constant, moldy and damp, and it got into everything. Clothes, hair, bedding. Skin. At night, she lay awake in her shoebox of a room and tried not to imagine a coat of mold growing inside her nostrils.
She didn’t miss the Moneymaker. She didn’t.
Smell aside, the job on Vable could’ve been worse. Not by much, but definitely worse.
An ale roach skittered across the floor, heading for the taps, and Sloane squished it with her heel. Those things were small, yet relentless in their quest to live in the kegs. If they found a way in, well… the first job she’d taken out here had ended when she’d pulled a tap and filled a glass with bugs.
The worst part was that she’d been fired. For dropping the glass.
The tap she pulled now was clean, at least comparatively. The handle claimed it contained Elter Eclipse, an Ilya System beer that she’d been surprised to find among the stock at this bar. Until she’d tasted it, at which point it became clear that the taps were engaged in false advertising.
Either the customers didn’t know the difference, or they didn’t care. Maybe they wanted to believe the swill they were drinking was Elter Eclipse.
Sloane delivered the drink, squishing another roach on her way from the tap to the corner of the bar, where three older men hunched over their drinks and tried to outdo each other on the news from the Center Systems.
Three weeks, three locations, and one hot topic: the takeover of Halorin System by the Cosmic Trade Federation.
“I heard it was a thousand ships,” one of the men said. If the first four days of the job were any indication, these three were regulars. This guy sat a little taller than the others, like he was the king of the group. She thought his name was Jaff. “And I heard they came from Ilya.”
Sloane paused. Rumors about the takeover had been ricocheting around like bullets fired into a steel barrel, but she hadn’t heard that one before.
Another of the men, a guy named Harry who always wore his hat pulled down over his eyes, barked a laugh that turned into a full minute of coughing. When he recovered, he said, “No, no, no. They came out of Pike System.”
Closer, Sloane thought.
“You’re both wrong.” The third friend wore a bulky jacket and had a scar on his cheek that was so deep she wondered if the original wound had sliced straight through. She’d never caught his name. “It was the Fleet.”
“Federation,” Harry said. “Stake my beer on it.”
He’d win, too. Sloane had watched the ships leave the Federation’s secret base on Olton Moon; she’d tried to stop them. Much good that’d done.
“So the idents claimed,” the nameless friend said, though how he could know such a detail was a subject for scrutiny. Though this was the Fringe. Who could say? “The Fleet’s tricky like that,” he added. “Bet they’re framing up the CTF.”
An ironic take on the situation.
“What evidence do you have that it was the Fleet?” Sloane asked.
All three men turned to look at her, mouths drooping in synchronous frowns. She’d been trying to filter herself more and keep quiet while she was living out here. In comparison, living with ale roaches—and mud roaches, and tree roaches, and rats—was the easy part.
She couldn’t tell if the friends’ objection here was that she’d interrupted their conversation or that she’d reminded them the anonymous bartender was a human being. Both, if she were to guess.
“Probably the Fleet and the CTF, working together,” Jaff said, turning back to his friends as if Sloane hadn’t spoken. “They both suck. Might as well team up and suck together.”
“There’s no news from Halorin anyway,” Harold said. “So it’s all hot air, isn’t it?”
Sloane’s thoughts exactly.
“There was that one report,” Jaff said. “Out of Ve Station.”
Harry laughed, which again turned to a rasping cough as he banged his fist on the bar, clearly amused. He couldn’t choke out a response, but Nameless said, “The thing that gossip columnist put out? Be serious. Piece of drivel.”
Harry nodded and pointed at Nameless, still unable to speak. Sloane poured him a glass of water, which earned her another confused stare.
She’d read that piece about the occupation of Ve Station. She’d thought it was pretty good, too. Maybe that was partially because it was, as Nameless suggested, the only shred of information that’d leaked out of Halorin.
Otherwise, Halorin’s feeds had gone silent. Gripped in the tight fist of Striker and the CTF. Sloane didn’t know how the columnist had leaked her story out of Ve Station with everything locked down so tight, but the CTF might very well have missed it because the author was a gossip columnist, and no one to take seriously.
Sloane took her seriously. In fact, Sloane was inclined to think she might be something of a genius.
Vague news had trickled in from other, more expected sources in the Center Systems, true enough, but all they could really do was to report on what the long-distance scans told them. There were lots of hostile ships in Halorin. No one wanted to exit the Current and enter the System for real.
No news was news.
Unfortunately, Sloane had been forced to ditch her fliptab after reading the gossip-columnist’s story about the occupation on Ve Station, because she’d been cornered by a pair of bounty hunters who’d tracked her signal. She’d left the fliptab behind and deactivated her eye screen.
“Don’t matter,” Harry said, finally recovering from his laughing fit. “Whoever’s doing the takeover, it won’t reach the Fringe. Who’d care about invading a stinkhole like this one?”
Striker did. Why? She couldn’t say. And she wouldn’t venture a guess, even a small one, because she’d left the situation in capable hands. Much more capable than her own.
She just wished everyone would stop talking about it.
The men left at closing time with minimal complaints, shuffling out of the bar without bothering to make plans to meet again tomorrow. They’d be here at opening, and the place might not see a single other customer the whole day. She was too new to fully understand the rhythms of it, but so far she could count the different clientele she’d met on two hands.
No one had bothered to name this particular town, at least that she’d heard. It’d started as a settlement on a mistake of a moon, a collection of halfhearted structures propped up on stilts to ward against inevitable flooding. Everything seemed vaguely… lopsided. Wooden buildings buckled in the humidity, the boards warping with cracks and waves. Brick quickly took on a thick coating of moss—green if the residents were lucky, black if they weren’t—while any hint of metal was uniformly rust-red.
Thick mud coated her shoes as she headed back to the room she’d rented, not far from the bar. Every building here had scrapers at the door, and you were expected to divest your shoes of caked mud before entering any establishment. Still, the floor of the bar was permanently streaked with a layer of dirt, as were the halls of the boarding house. It was everywhere.
When she’d asked her boss for a mop, he’d laughed.
The short walk was lined with mechanic shops and mining suppliers, so obviously Vable did business beyond that of hosting the galaxy’s most unwanted. She doubted any large company would hire a Vable Moon outfit to buy or fix their machinery. Possibly not the smaller legitimate outfits, either. She certainly wouldn’t trust any of these storefronts with so much as a backpack strap, if she were buying for her own crew.
Former crew. They were her former crew, and she couldn’t spend time thinking about them. She especially couldn’t spend time thinking about the lying, cheating, selfishly selfless hangers-on who stuck to her crew—former crew—like leech roaches to a bloody steak. Or whether the rest of the galaxy agreed with Nameless about the Fleet framing the CTF for the Halorin invasion.
They didn’t really think he was responsible for this, did they? They couldn’t.
Regardless, Gareth wasn’t her problem. She didn’t expect to see him again. Ever.
Sloane made it all the way to the boarding house, wrapped up in definitely not thinking about Moneymaker’s crew, before the bounty hunter stepped out of the shadows.
So far, the bounty hunters who’d come after her in the Fringe stood out like diamonds in a glass full of ale roaches. They had a certain swagger that Fringe citizens lacked, at least in her limited experience. They also looked her directly in the eye, which was downright rude around these parts.
Lastly, the cleanliness of this particular guy’s clothes gave him away. The buckle on his belt was actually shiny. Sloane suppressed a sigh. Three weeks on the run and four moves. It was getting exhausting. She had an escape plan, yeah, but she wasn’t keen to run even deeper into the shadows. Vable Moon was far from the worst spot in the Fringe.
“Nice night,” the bounty hunter said.
Oh, a comedian. Very good. “How’d you find me?” she asked.
He tsked. “Now, now. Trade secrets.”
“I’m a hunter, too.”
“Sure you are, darling.” He stepped forward, arms open, like he expected her to come quietly. Like his appearance alone was enough to frighten her into submission.
Sloane shook her stunner out of her sleeve. But she was a beat too slow, and he was a step too close; he simply raised an arm and batted it away before she could pull the trigger, sending it flying away into the mud.
Sloane dropped to her knees, ignoring the water that seeped immediately through her pants as she dove for the stunner. It’d need to dry out before she could shoot again—ask her how she knew—but it was the only weapon she had. She was going to need it.
Mud squelched into her sleeves as she dove face-first toward the weapon. The street was slippery, and the mud sent her sliding farther than she’d expected. She grabbed the stunner on her way past, nearly fumbling it but managing to hold her grip. She’d pretend that was a gracefully intentional maneuver, rather than an accidental one.
The bounty hunter growled—not smiling now, or so she guessed, since her view was still disturbingly full of mud—and stomped toward her. The swampy road grasped at his boots with every step, slowing him down.
Sloane wasn’t an expert in Vable Moon, but she had been here four days. Almost five.
She dug her hand deep into the mud, clamped her thumb and forefinger around the first solid object they touched, and flipped onto her back, a mud roach wriggling between her fingers. Mud roaches were as big as her palm and nearly as round. Flat, purple, and, most importantly for her purposes, winged.
With a brief whisper of apology to the insect, which deserved better, she tossed it at the bounty hunter.
Mud roaches lived in mud, but for some reason they liked clean surfaces. She didn’t know why. She didn’t want to know why. She only knew that the bounty hunter’s face was clean.
The roach buzzed its wings in midair, a thing of beauty as it arched toward its paradise, aiming directly for the bounty hunter’s nose.
It landed, and the bounty hunter screamed. Which, if Sloane had to guess, would only make things worse for him.
Not that she intended to stick around and find out. She scrambled to her feet, mud coating her from top to toe—no danger of attracting roaches—and ran, wondering how much she’d have to pay for a no-questions-asked ride at this time of night. One that came, preferably, with a change of clothes.