Two hours later and nearly two hundred kilometers from the mind-numbing music of Larsson’s nightclub, Lochlain swore he could still faintly hear ringing in his ears. After dashing through the flooding streets of Capeland City and taking two taxi rides to random destinations, his heart rate had finally slowed to something approaching a normal level. He spent a drenching ten minutes looking for any indication that he had been followed and then took public transportation to the nearest spaceport. Once there, he rented an aircar for one hour, the duration of a quick hop to the city of Streasskogan.
Lochlain’s clothes had mostly dried by the end of the trip although they were now wrinkled from sitting. He landed the aircar in the parking lot of High Tide knowing that the rental company would have little trouble tracking and recovering its property. The fine it would attempt to levy for failing to return the vehicle would be enormous but irrelevant. Lochlain ran his hands over his pants to smooth the fabric and entered the crowded restaurant… and promptly ducked back outside.
“Reece!” The piercing shriek made his ears ring anew even though the call gushed with surprise and delight.
Lochlain cringed and unleashed a curse he normally reserved for CBP patrol craft. He performed a half turn back to the restaurant and waved excitedly before digging out his datapad and pointing it at his rented aircar. The vehicle chirped obediently, informing him that its security alarm was active. With the confirmation, Reece turned back to the restaurant and entered with a huge smile plastered on his face.
“Hi, Melissa!” he greeted her warmly and rushed up to her table, bypassing the restaurant’s hostess. He nodded back toward the entrance and muttered, “Forgot to lock the aircar.”
The tall woman with chestnut hair practically leaped from her chair to take him into a deep embrace. “Reece! I didn’t know you were in town! How did you find me here? You could’ve just flashed me on your datapad.”
Lochlain squeezed her hard and leaned his cheek to hers, avoiding most of her kiss. Finally, he released his hold and answered, “You’re worth hunting for, Mel. How are things?”
“The ASA is still the same,” Melissa replied as she snapped her fingers at a waiter. “Speaking of, you really are falling behind on the continuing education courses for freighter captains.” She looked at him with a faux sternness before continuing. “I can only keep approving your extensions for so long before the sailing association will be forced to report you to Appiation for a lapsed captain’s license.”
A waiter stopped at her table and the still standing woman barked, “We’ll need another chair.” She turned to her seated friends and asked, “Diane, Macey, you don’t mind if Reece joins us, do you?” She did not wait for an answer before gesturing impatiently at the waiter to bring the chair.
Lochlain shook his head with regret. “I can’t stay, Mel. I really wish I could but I have a meeting I can’t avoid.”
“Here?” Melissa asked skeptically before her voice dropped an octave. “Are you meeting her again?” Brown hair tumbled around her as she swung her head from side to side, searching. “Is she here? I want to finally see what she looks like.”
He let his shoulders drop in defeat and hung his head shamefully. “You see right through me, Mel, but I have to see her one last time to end it.”
Melissa stopped her fruitless search, crossed her arms and snorted. “You’ve been breaking it off for the last year! I’ve been waiting all this time! When are you going to be able to be with me? When is she going to take ‘No’ for an answer?” she demanded in rapid-fire succession. The volume of her voice ensured that the surrounding tables knew her displeasure.
“Tonight, Mel. I promise,” Lochlain soothed while taking her hands. He kept his head low. “It’s just so humiliating,” he muttered. “She’s so needy and I know she’s unstable.”
Melissa shot dirty looks to silence the whispered protests at her table. “I’ll never understand how you got yourself mixed up with someone like that,” she declared as she tried to retract her hands from his.
Lochlain raised his head and looked at her with soft eyes. “I never knew what a good woman was until I met you. I’m just worried that she’ll do something rash if I don’t end it the right way.” He nodded with a fatal acceptance. “I have to do the right thing, Mel. You know that.”
The woman’s resistance crumbled and she dropped petulantly back to her chair.
“Thank you, darling,” Lochlain cooed. He hesitated a moment. “Uh, Mel…”
“What.” The woman rolled her eyes up to him.
“Would you mind… leaving?” he asked sheepishly. “I’ve told her about us and she knows who you are. If she sees you here, her power core will overload. She’s already jealous of you.”
“This is the last time, Reece,” she promised as she began to stand. She brusquely waved her hand at her friends to get them moving and ordered, “Ping me tonight when you’re finished with her, Reece. I want to hear that it’s finally over.”
Lochlain smiled and helped her from her chair. “Thank you for understanding and I’ll flash your datapad the second I’m done although it might be a while.” He looked around the restaurant and mumbled, “At least we’re in a public setting. Maybe she won’t melt down as much.”
Lochlain escorted Melissa’s party out of the restaurant. He shared a parting affection next to the woman’s luxury aircar and waved dutifully until the craft had lifted off and jetted from sight. After a quick wipe of his brow, he turned back toward High Tide.
* * *
Mercer Brooke was waiting for him but then she felt like she was always waiting for him. She slowly rotated her shoulder underneath the strap of her simple, dark blue camisole. The garment hugged a lean, athletic body and fit close to the small swell of her chest. A thick, brown leather jacket hung loosely over the snug top. Dark pants with cargo pockets stretched across her hips and tapered down to black mid-calf boots, each bearing a strap and buckle over the instep and a second that wrapped around the shaft.
Her sharp, hazel eyes caught Lochlain’s entry into High Tide for the second time that evening. The smuggler faltered at the entrance and searched the booths and tables before a hypnotic smile erupted on his face at the sight of her. She tried to offer him a dubious look in return but failed. Despite her best efforts, she felt her lips curl pleasingly in response to the man’s irrepressible charisma.
As he walked eagerly toward her, she cursed her lack of impulse control and slipped out of the booth to meet him halfway. She threw her arms around him in an enthusiastic hug, although it was he that initiated their kiss.
Brooke tasted the faintest trace of strawberries on his lips.
“I honestly wasn’t sure you’d show,” Brooke admitted candidly before slipping back into the booth. She took a long pull from her stout, attempting to hide her smile. Finally, she let the mug rest on the beverage strip atop the table and grinned openly at him.
Lochlain reached across the table to take her hand and stated, “You look absolutely beautiful. I’ve been dreaming about this for two months now.”
“It’s felt more like two years.”
“It would’ve been sixty-five years if not for your testimony,” Lochlain replied.
Brooke nodded with a smile and said, “Thank God you had the good sense not to react when I embellished my testimony about you.” She reflected briefly on past events before adding, “Maybe you really have saved my life.”
She felt him squeeze her hand firmly. He peered deeply into her eyes, although he always seemed to do that. It was his voice that was different.
“Mercer, thank you,” Lochlain started earnestly. His simple gratitude made her flush. The honest, vulnerable look on his face made him seem more naked now than any time they shared aboard On Margin. “I understand what you’ve gone through the last six months and I know how much I’ve tarnished your better angels. I don’t deserve you.”
“You’ve got that right,” she agreed with a snort as she pulled her hand free. She took another long drink from her mug. It was only a quarter full now. “Hurry up and order something. We’re supposed to be celebrating.”
“As you wish, my lady.” Lochlain began to peck at his datapad.
Brooke waited a beat before asking without a trace of emotion, “Who was that earlier?” Her smile widened as she saw his fingers trip over the surface of his datapad.
Brooke raised a delicate finger skyward to silence him. “Let me guess. That was your long-lost sister, right? She’s also your half-sister and terribly inappropriate, which is why she doesn’t show up in any of your personal records and likes to play grab-ass with you in public.”
Brown eyebrows knitted together and her voice sobered significantly. “Listen, Reece. I may not have gotten to choose who I fell in love with but that doesn’t mean I’ve jettisoned my brain out an airlock.” She smiled despite her stern tone. “I’m an Appiation infiltration expert for Customs and Borders. I declined a SWEEP team position two years ago.” She leaned across the booth and stared him in the eyes. “I know who you are. I know who and what I’ve fallen in love with and I’ve made these choices on my own. I’m fine with both of us having our secrets but that doesn’t mean we get to lie to each other. Got it?”
“I didn’t know that,” Lochlain confessed.
“That you were invited onto a SWEEP team. I thought that stuff was all classified and you weren’t supposed to talk about it.”
Brooke dipped a narrow shoulder. “Just one of my many crimes now.”
A waiter appeared at the booth to present a mug of amber, frothy ale. Lochlain eagerly accepted the bounty and drained his first beer since his incarceration. “Oh, that hit the spot,” he said breathlessly.
Hazel eyes tracked the mug to the thin, metallic strip running down the center of the table. She watched as Lochlain adjusted the tabletop controls to lower the beverage strip’s temperature nearly ten degrees. She looked at him pointedly and said, “I’m hoping my crime spree is finished now that you’re safe from the wheels of justice.” She gauged his reaction and sighed. “You can always go legit, Reece.”
“Mercer, I’m practically legit now!” he insisted a little too loudly. “All I’ve run is stuff that’s legal in over half the galaxy. I can’t help it that Appiation is so strict that it makes Volkmancht-Kaufmännisch look loose.”
“It’s a strict but fair system,” Brooke offered defensively.
“It’s corporate feudalism,” Lochlain snapped back. He folded his arms and gathered his bearing. “They don’t even pretend otherwise. Hell, I was called a commoner in court this morning.”
Brooke frowned at him. “You’re such a demagogue. Why can’t you see the value of working within the system?”
“To what end?” Lochlain asked with exasperation.
The emotion in the man’s voice was as raw as it was refreshing to Brooke. She leaned back, comfortable that the man she had grown to love months ago still remained even if behind a curtain of indiscretion.
“What’s working within the system gotten you, Mercer?” Lochlain fulminated. “Over ten years of thankless, dangerous work and you’re still what, a vassal?” He tapped his chest as he taunted, “That’s only one step higher on the social ladder than this common criminal.”
“You’re no longer a criminal, Reece. You’ve paid your debt and you’re a free man… if you want to be.”
“Not really,” he said dejectedly. “My ties with Larsson have been severed and not politely. She has some anger issues and is more than a little unhappy about my cooperation with CBP.” Lochlain shook his head and stared glumly at the tabletop. “Neither of us will ever be free inside Appiation. If you aren’t born with it, you can never obtain it.” Fingers tightened around his mug and his voice roughened. “I don’t want to serve the central banks. I’m not a peasant and I never, once in my life, swore fealty to Appiation Unlimited Transactions.”
Brooke stared in fascination as the man’s knuckles whitened around the mug’s handle. In the six, short months she had known Lochlain, he had kept an iron-tight grip over his emotions.
“I just want to live my life without a yoke on my back.” He swallowed several times and breathed out unsteadily. Brooke was captivated by the amount of willpower it took for Lochlain to release the stranglehold on his glass. “Don’t you want to live free, Mercer? Live without the dread of where your next assignment may order you to go and what it might force you to do?”
The question sent a chill down Brooke’s spine.
Her inauguration into the rolls of “blooded” agents had occurred only two years out of the IAS Academy. A confidential informant had attempted to trade her life for his during a late night meeting, ending in a protracted gunfight through most of a shipping warehouse. That long ago night, she had desperately fired thirty-six, terrifying shots. Only the final round had found its mark, less than a meter from her gun barrel. The bullet did not immediately drop her attacker. Instead, he had continued stubbornly toward her, struck out at her, bled over her, collapsed upon her. The brutality had left her shaken and feeling dirty even if the agency hailed her as a hero. The CBP mandatory suspension during the shooting investigation lasted a mere half hour, less time than her stay at Capeland City’s primary care center.
Brooke’s second kill had been far less personal. Pulled onto the bust for no other reason than she was in town, her role had been to provide tertiary overwatch on a rooftop several blocks from a suspected arms front. The bust was “over-successful,” ending in a large-scale firefight that included not only slug throwers but also heavy lasers and sonic weapons. Her kill had been remarkably clinical through her sniper’s scope. One moment, a woman had been running down a street for cover while unleashing automatic fire from her rifle. The next moment, she stopped behind what she believed was suitable cover to withdraw a device from under her body armor. Brooke’s scope, linked to several tasked CBP satellites, provided a virtual view through the quickcrete wall and one trigger press later, the digital scope image of the gunrunner collapsed noiselessly to the ground. The woman’s body was later recovered next to the trigger of a dutronium-36 explosive device that would have evaporated most of the sleepy neighborhood in Storastäder.
Nightmares from both events still plagued Brooke. Worse than those recurring dreams was the fact that only one more kill made her eligible for Appiation’s REACT squad. Rumors about the elite team were legendary, even inside CBP, and having already declined a position in SWEEP, Brooke doubted that she would be allowed to beg off REACT. She knew her kill count as a REACT member would escalate dramatically. More dread washed over her.
“CBP allowed me to take some leave after testifying at the trials,” Brooke answered softly upon realizing Lochlain’s question still hung in the air.
“And then where will they send you? What will they ask you to do?” he pressed knowingly.
Another shiver passed through her. “I don’t know,” she confessed. “I really don’t want to know.”
Lochlain’s hand snatched hers in an instant. “Mercer, come with me,” he pleaded quietly.
Her career passed before her eyes. She had graduated with an advanced degree in starship engineering at Imdali before her unexpected recruitment into CBP. Each successive sidestep in her career felt as if some unstoppable force was pulling her to a preordained destiny. Her citation from Storastäder, heavily redacted, generically labelled her efforts “pivotal to the maintenance of corporate tranquility.” She was slated to receive yet another award for her most recent undercover work aboard On Margin. As the accolades piled up, so did the corporation’s expectations. It all felt as if she was being led by the hand, or by the leash, to an inevitable end. Doors were closing around her, leaving only a long tunnel to a deep darkness.
“We can chart our own course,” Lochlain promised hopefully. “Go where we want and decide for ourselves what we do.”
“No one controlling us,” she heard herself whisper. She shook her head to rouse herself from her reverie. Lochlain was still staring intently, trying to discern any hint of her thoughts with his penetrating gaze. She found immense comfort in his eyes. “That sounds nice, Reece. I want that,” she decided. She wondered if it could really be that simple. Brooke mirrored Lochlain’s devilish smile. “How?”
Twice in one night, Lochlain’s tightly controlled reins went slack. His look of disbelief lingered as he scrutinized his partner’s face. “You’re serious?” he asked incredulously. A tentative, hopeful expression washed over him. ”You’ll really come with me?”
“I love you,” Brooke answered simply but then faltered. “That’s not fair…”
Lochlain flinched slightly. “You don’t love me?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Yes, I do, you rogue, but I’m doing this for me as much for you.” She lowered her eyes to her mug and exhaled slowly. “We can’t stay here. We’re going to need a ship and it’ll have to be something small, at least in the beginning. Then we’ll need a crew…” She glanced at him as her mind raced. “First of all, we’re going to need a lot of credits. How much do you have?”
“You’re… you’re really just diving into this? No second thoughts at all? No ‘we have to be equal partners’ speech?” He made air quotes as he spoke.
Brooke snickered lightly before answering, “It’s cute that you think I’m worried about being an equal partner. How many credits do you have saved up?”
Lochlain winced. “Not much. Most of what I owned was seized when I was arrested on On Margin.”
Her eyes widened and white teeth flashed in a smile. “Are you still the first mate on her?”
He pursed his lips at an unwelcome thought of Judit Larsson before answering, “I should be. Those records got frozen the moment it was seized. Nobody but CBP can change them for now.”
“So,” Brooke continued, “you technically have captain’s permissions now, right? Since Floyd Frazier is now a resident of Vosstäder Correctional, you’re next in the chain of command.”
Lochlain gestured futilely toward the ceiling. “Of a frozen ship, I guess, but On Margin is impounded and in Appiation’s graveyard orbit. Her beacon’s red, the ship’s on lockout and her records all have impound watermarks.”
Brooke raised an eyebrow knowingly as she set to work on her datapad. “Precisely, it’s the one asset we know that’s not going anywhere.” She opened the trade pages of the Svean Commerce Division and began to narrow her search. “Help me find a suitable ship, with as small a crew complement as possible.”
“Something you can single-hand?” Lochlain asked as he began his own enthusiastic search.
She shook her head. “Large enough to turn a profit but a cargo ship where I can handle Engineering by myself while you cover the bridge for an hour or two.”
“A freighter? Mercer,” Lochlain explained gravely, “there are no cargo ships so small that you’re allowed to operate with only two people.”
Brooke’s fingers flicked over her datapad screen rapidly. “I don’t care what the regulations say, I just want the two of us to be able to pull it out of a graveyard orbit and dock to an orbital without crashing. Once we’re attached, then you can bring on our crew.”
“The one you’ll find us, naturally.” She bit her lip briefly. “Only, you won’t be able to pay them. The ship is going to cost us everything we have to take possession of immediately, provision it and sail out of Svea.”
Lochlain cleared his throat to get her attention. “Where do you expect me to find a crew like that?”
“The same place I’m going to have to pull a two hundred million credit cargo ship from.”
“Where? Your ass?”
“Not mine. Yours.”