Rhedd Alert got hit two more times over the next several escort missions between Min and Nexus. The first was an overzealous solo pirate who had camped himself just outside the jump gate from Min. The memory of the Hornet attack was still fresh and had Gavin and the team on edge.
The hapless pirate attacked as soon as the first Rhedd Alert ship entered Nexus. There wasn’t a thruster on the market that could turn him fast enough once the gate spat out six angry Rhedd Alert fighters and their transport.
They recovered the unconscious pirate in hopes of a bounty. There wasn’t much left of his ship to salvage.
The next incident occurred inside the Tyrol system near the rendezvous at Haven. As they neared Tyrol V, the trio of ramshackle Hornets struck again. Walt was the first to see them coming.
“Gav, we’ve got incoming from behind the planet.”
Gavin’s team was a cluster of green icons on his HUD. Snuggled protectively within their perimeter was UEECassiopeia carrying a fresh batch of researchers. He zoomed the display out and saw a trio of red marks hurtling around the planet toward their position.
“Is that . . .?”
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“How the hell did they find us?”
Gavin silenced his team with a curt word and considered a headlong race to Tyrol V. Haven was a reasonably large settlement for an otherwise underdeveloped system. Tyrol V didn’t have any planetary defenses, though. The entire system was subject to the inevitable and imminent nova caused by its binary stars. Haven warranted both UEE and private investment in support of the unique research possibilities provided by the impending disaster. However, since the entire system was ultimately waiting to evaporate, there wasn’t much sense in dumping money into defense systems.
Gavin started crossing options off their list. Tyrol offered them no protection. If they fled the system, they could lead the Hornets on a merry chase, but prolonging the risk to Cassiopeia and its staff seemed a poor gamble.
On the other hand, their first head-to-head confrontation hadn’t gone so well. After seeing the marauders’ teamwork in Nexus, Gavin was reluctant to take another tilt at them. Plus, he could already imagine Walt’s reaction to willfully engaging them head on.
Perhaps something a bit more diplomatic than fight or flight would yield better results.
Gavin tripped his comm link to broadcast on all local frequencies. “Hornet privateers above Tyrol V, this is Rhedd Alert One with a team of fighters and UEE transport vessel. We are moving little of value other than civilian lives. Please reconsider your approach.”
“Huh,” Walt made what sounded like an appreciative sniff into his mic, “you think that’ll work?”
“Can’t hurt to try.”
Moments passed with no response and no change to the marauders’ course. “Well maybe something more ominous will get their attention.” Gavin triggered the open broadcast again. “Hornet brigands above Tyrol V, this is Rhedd Alert One with a team of fighters and UEE transport vessel. We have little of value other than our ammunition, which we will happily deliver directly to your ships if you do not reconsider your approach.”
“Well that’s definitely not going to work.” Walt said. Gavin saw his brother’s weapon systems go live.
Gavin left Boomer and Mei to guard Cassiopeia and Rhedd Alert engaged four-on-three with neither side holding the advantage of surprise. This time, Walt and Jazza were both on the front line. The ensuing dogfight was far less one-sided than their first encounter with the Hornets.
Rhedd Alert gave a good accounting of themselves. Contrary to their ramshackle appearance, the marauders’ ships were surprisingly quick, their weapon systems in good repair. Despite the ferocity of the fight, Rhedd Alert kept the marauders’ away from Cassiopeia. Walt seemed content to drive them off. Jazza gave chase.
“Let ’em go, Jazz,” Walt said.
“Like hell,” she said. “I’m gonna swat me a Hornet.”
“No, you’re not,” Walt snapped the order. “They’re going to turn around just long enough to pound you into a fine red mist, and we’re going to have to sweep up whatever parts are left.”
“Guys,” Gavin said, “cool it. Rendezvous at the transport.”
Jazza broke off pursuit and moved to rally with Boomer and Cassiopeia. “I just don’t like him giving me orders.”
“Hmmm,” Walt’s temper was clearly under some strain, “let’s see. I’m part owner of the company. You might wanna start associating my voice with imperative statements.”
“Knock it off, both of you. Jazz, fall in. The Navy is paying us to escort staff, not fight a turf war with a hungry pack.”
“You should have figured that out in Nexus,” Walt said. “You made it a grudge match when we turned to fight.”
“Enough! If either of you have anything else to say, it can wait until we’re back on Vista Landing. Got it?”
Both squads limped away with damaged fighters. Rahul took a hit to his legs and would need to visit the med techs at Haven before leaving the system. The job and the injured were Gavin’s first priorities, but Walt’s deteriorating attitude had to be addressed. Before starting Rhedd Alert, they had always been opportunistic aggressors. This job was all about holding ground, and Walt’s reluctance was becoming a real problem.
Gavin was the first to arrive back at Vista Landing. Rahul was with him and woke when they touched down. Though the techs on Haven had done their work well, Dell insisted on taking him to get checked out at the station’s med center.
The rest of the squad arrived soon after. Gavin left Jazza to secure the ships and asked Walt to help him with the After Action Report in the upstairs office. Judging by the hushed demeanor of the crew, no one was under any illusion that the brothers were going to discuss the report.
Walt stalked into their small, shared office. He brushed past a pair of secondhand chairs and was standing at the window behind the scarred metal desk when Gavin closed the door behind them.
Walt spoke without turning to face him, “If you’re looking to fire off a lecture, I suggest aiming it at Jazza.”
Gavin joined him at the window. The steel was cold where he rested his hands on the frame, the edges sharp. “No lecture. What I need is some answers. What the hell is going on with you, man?”
Walt was cold and quiet.
“You’re fighting against me,” Gavin tried to keep months of frustration from his voice. He was wrung out and tired, but not all of that could be laid at Walt’s increasingly cold feet. “You’re picking fights with the rest of the crew. Hell, you’re fighting everyone but the bastards attacking our transport.”
“I fought just as hard as anyone out there,” Walt snapped.
“Like hell you did,” Gavin voice sounded loud and harsh against the glass. “You’re fighting just hard enough to save your ass.”
“Well you tell me, then. How the hell am I supposed to fight? You want me chasing after trophies like Jazz?”
“If that’s what gets the job done, yeah. We’re not the robbers any more, man. We’re the cops. We’re a deterrent. And when we’re out there, we need to make a statement.”
Walt squinted, the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes creasing as he shook his head in what looked like exasperation or disbelief. “Can you hear yourself? Do you even know what you’re saying?”
“Every time we bump into trouble out there, we need to jump on it with both feet. But I can’t push you to do that. You don’t like to be pushed.” Gavin felt his brother stiffen beside him, but he pressed on. He had to know if Walt was in this for the long haul. “You never did. You’re like Dad in that way. You’d rather cut and run than fight the tough fights.”
Walt turned his head sharply and yelled, “We had a damn good life doing that.”
The vehemence of it took Gavin by surprise, and he stepped away. After a quiet moment, he leaned against the window frame again. The metal was warmer now from where his hands had rested.
Walt and Gavin Rhedd stood shoulder to shoulder at the office window overlooking their small fleet of ships. They watched together for several minutes in silence until the last of the crew left the hangar. The lighting in the bay dimmed to a cool, cobalt blue, and Gavin’s arms felt leaden. His feet hurt and he wanted desperately to sit, kick off his boots and drink himself into a stupor. But he’d be damned if he sat while Walt still stood.
“We could leave.” The way Walt said it almost sounded like a question.
“You can’t possibly mean that,” Gavin pushed away from the window again.
“Seriously.” Walt finally turned to face him. He was hunched forward in earnest appeal. It put them at eye-level and Walt’s were round and imploring. “We could just go. This place is an anchor. Even if we turn a profit on this UEE job, what’s next? Find more work? Hire more pilots and techs?”
“If all goes right, absolutely. We’re creating something that we never had growing up, something bigger than just us. What exactly do you think we’re working toward here?”
“I don’t know, man.” Walt sounded equally drained. “I thought I did when we started, but it’s just been one thing after the next. We’ve got too many mouths to feed, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to stop.”
“It won’t,” Gavin said. “That’s the responsibility we accepted when we started this place.”
“But this isn’t our kind of fight, Gav. We’re not Advocacy agents. Hell, we’re not even starmen.”
“According to the company charter and the contract that you and I both signed, that’s exactly what we are. Soldiers for hire.”
“Come on. We’re thugs, man. We’ve been flying all our lives, but we don’t fight the fair fights. We pick on people who are either too dumb or too unfortunate to have professional protection. Maybe that ain’t noble or exciting, but that’s what we do, and we used to do it well. But this?” Walt turned back toward the darkened bay, waving his hand inclusively at the ships and machinery below.
Gavin saw it then. He realized what had been eating at Walt all along. His brother wasn’t worried about someone getting hurt in a fair fight. They’d been in dogfights for most of their lives. It was being responsible for the rest of the team that scared him.
“I know we can do this.”
“How much risk are you willing to take to prove that?”
“This ain’t about doing the easy thing, Walt. This game is all about trust. So you ask yourself . . . do you trust me?” He hated that his voice had a pleading quality to it. Couldn’t Walt see that they were already succeeding?
Gavin didn’t get an answer. His brother stared instead at the ships in the darkened bay.
“We need every pilot we’ve got,” Gavin said. “And, let’s face it, you’re our best.”
“This is going to blow up in your face, Gav. This will be just like when you tried to smuggle Osoians to the Xi’an.”
“That would have worked, if you’d backed me up.”
“They dumped you on an asteroid,” Walt’s voice rose in pitch and volume. “You lost Dad’s Gladius with that deal. What’s this one going to cost you?”
Gavin’s gut tightened, and he became uncomfortably warm in his flight suit. He realized that Walt had made his decision.
He swallowed once before trusting himself to speak. “So this is it, huh? We’re just starting to get our feet under us. We’re just learning to work together as a legit team.” He knew this was going to happen. It wasn’t a surprise, so there was no reason to be angry about it. “Gods! And to think I actually hoped you’d stick it out with me.”
“Don’t make it sound like that,” Walt said.
“Sound like what? You’re just doing what you always do.”
Walt didn’t say anything for a while.
Gavin stared out at their ships.
“Will you tell the others?” Walt asked.
“Tell them what? Everyone who matters is probably surprised you lasted this long.”
His lips drew tight into a hard line. His eyes burned a bit so he blinked them. He was tired and he needed a shower.
Gavin left Walt standing alone at the office window. When the rest of Rhedd Alert woke up the next morning, Walter Rhedd was gone.
The first few months without Walt went smoothly, without incident. Paychecks started to roll in, and Gavin chipped away at some of their outstanding bills. They scavenged parts where they could. Dell proved to be a wizard reviving damaged tech. What little money remained after the bill collectors were pacified went straight to reloads.
Losing Walt hurt. It showed Gavin just how much he had relied on his brother to keep the rest of the team sharp. The team’s performance was obviously important, but even that paled when compared to the painful fact that Walt had actually abandoned him.
No one forgot their grudge match with the trio of mismatched marauders, and Rhedd Alert was ready when they met again. The Hornets hit them as they passed through the Teclis Band. From a distance, the band appeared to be a rippling wave of slowly pulsing lights. Closer, the wave resolved into a wall of tumbling asteroids.
Veteran members of Gavin’s team were quite accustomed to clinging to the underside of an asteroid. It wasn’t that long ago that they’d used the tactic to ambush transports themselves. So they weren’t surprised to see attackers materialize from within the Teclis Band.
Gavin triggered his mic to address the squad. “All right, guys, we know these bastards fly like they’re joined at the hip. I think we have the advantage in the band, but we can’t let them pin Cassiopeia inside. Boomer, you’re babysitting. Get that transport through and clear. Everyone else, with me.”
The fighting inside Teclis was fierce. Gavin was in his element darting through tight seams, anticipating erratic rolling movements and using terrain to force the Hornets to break their punishing formations. His newer pilots were good, but they hadn’t spent hundreds of cockpit hours in crowded space like he and Jazza had. Still, they managed to keep the Hornets hemmed in while Boomer and Cassiopeia moved through the tumbling asteroids. Uncharacteristically, one pirate broke from the group and powered through the belt toward the fleeing transport.
“We’ve got a runner,” Jazza warned.
Gavin was already moving to pursue. “I see it. Hold the other two here. They’re easier to manage when they’re not grouped up.”
He darted around blind corners of tumbling stone and managed to gain a few clicks on the faster ship. The Hornet rolled right and strafed around a jagged, monolithic spike of rock. Gavin thrust over it, gaining a little more ground.
The two ships shot from the treacherous confines of the Teclis Band, and Gavin landed a couple hits before the Hornet rolled away. Then it was an all-out race for the fleeing transport.
“Cassiopeia,” Gavin called, “this is Red One, we have a hostile inbound to you.”
“Copy, Red One. Shields are up and we are ready for contact.”
“Got it, Gavin.”
“Careful, old man. This one can really fly.”
Gavin saw Boomer’s Avenger rise and turn to face the charging ship. The Hornet rolled again. Boomer matched the oncoming ship, move for move. Both began firing, and their shields lit up like incandescent bulbs. The Hornet yawed starboard and Gavin missed with an out-of-range shot. Boomer’s shield flickered and then fell.
Then a blinding shot from a neutron gun tore through Boomer’s Avenger. Bits of hull flew off at odd angles as the Hornet sped past the wrecked ship and continued to close on Cassiopeia.
The Avenger’s cockpit detonated. Gavin pulled up to avoid hitting Boomer and prayed that the older pilot had managed to eject. Cassiopeia loosed a barrage of missiles, but the Hornet had countermeasures.
The marauder’s first pass took out the missile launcher. Gavin met the Hornet head-to-head as it swept around and fired on the transport again. He struck clean hits as they passed, scarring the mismatched armor plating along one side. He turned hard and his ship shook with strain, pressing him forward in his harness, vision dimming at the edges.
He righted the Cutlass in time to see the fleeing Hornet pause, hesitating over a small drifting shape. Gavin’s targeting system identified the object. Boomer’s PRB flashed red.
“No!” He had one hand pressed against the canopy. With successive blasts from the neutron gun, the pirate deliberately tore apart Boomer’s drifting body. Then the Hornet pulled up and raced back toward the Teclis Band.
“My target just disengaged.”
Gavin barely registered the shouts and cheers from his team.
Pilots call it getting OK’d. He didn’t know for certain where the term was first coined, but OKing a pilot adrift was breaking one of the few unspoken and universal rules of engagement. Lose a fight, and you might lose your ship. Get beat badly, and you might come out of rehab missing a limb or with some sort of permanent scarring or nerve damage. But to fire on a pilot adrift with only the pressurized skin of a survival suit for protection? It was inhuman.
“Everyone,” worry wrenched Gavin’s gut and he couldn’t keep it from his voice, “form up on Cassiopeia. We have a pilot down.”
Something in his voice quieted the line. His ships emerged from the Teclis Band and rallied to the transport.
What was he going to say to Dell? Gavin swallowed hard, blinking fast and trying to think. He should do something. The transport had been hit. He might have other injured pilots. Maybe Walt had been right.
“Hold position until we recover Boomer.” He switched channels to address the transport. “Cassiopeia, this is Red One. We’re scrubbing the mission. Prepare for return to Nexus.”
“Ah . . . Red One, damage is minimal and under control. We are able to proceed.” Gavin couldn’t. He had to get Boomer back to Vista Landing.
Jazza’s voice shook. “Gods. They OK’d him, didn’t they?”
He didn’t answer.
“Take him home, Gav. We’ll tag his ship and tow it on the return trip.”
He nodded, knowing she couldn’t see, but not trusting himself to speak. What was he going to tell Dell?
“Get him there fast,” Jazza said.
Gavin’s mobiGlas buzzed and he activated it. Anyone he actually cared to speak with knew to find him in the office if they needed to talk. Dell was in the med center. She’d made it abundantly clear that she did not want to see him. Jazza had returned with the team after the mission, but they were giving the family a wide berth. Anything getting past his message filters was probably important. And anything important was most likely bad news.
The incoming message was from Barry. Suspicion of bad news, confirmed. He connected the call.
“Gavin. Buddy. Listen, I’ve got some news. This is just a ’heads up’ call, okay? Not a big deal. Is your brother there with you?”
“Walt left,” even to his own ears, Gavin’s voice sounded flat. “You can give your message to me.”
“I got word from a buddy of mine in Contracting. They’re issuing an FTP on the Tyrol contract. It’ll probably go out in the next day or two. Sorry, Gavin.”
“Don’t be,” Gavin wasn’t angry with Barry. He really wasn’t. But his words were coming out sharper than he meant them to. “Just tell me what the hell an FTP is.”
“Sorry. FTP is a Failure To Perform notification.”
He knew it had to be bad. Barry wouldn’t have called if it wasn’t. Damn it! What was next? Vanduul attacks? He’d gone over and over every report from Brock’s files. Never — not in any file — was there evidence of such coordinated and vicious attacks.
Barry read his silence correctly. “Hey, these things get issued all the time, man. I’m just letting you know that it’s coming so you don’t freak out. A couple holes in a transport is nothing when you’re going through a lawless system like Min. They won’t pull your contract for that.”
“What will they pull it for?”
“Well,” Barry drew out the word, speaking slowly and choosing his words carefully. “You’d have to receive back-to-back FTPs. Or if you lost the transport or something, that’d obviously do it. But Major Greely is pulling for you guys. He’s big on the UEE’s plan to enfranchise local civilian contractors.”
Just what he needed. More pressure. “Thanks, Barry.”
“Keep your chin up, buddy. You guys are doing fine, okay? I mean, you should hear what goes on with other contracts. Seriously, this is nothing.”
“Thanks again.” Gavin disconnected the line. It certainly didn’t feel like they were doing fine. The office door slid open, and Jazza stood silhouetted against the corridor lights.
“Jazz?” Gavin’s stomach sank. He tried to swallow but his throat was tight. “What is it? Where’s Dell?”
She took a step inside and the room’s lights reflected in the wet corners of her brimming eyes. She held herself together, but the effort to do so was visible.
“It’s Boomer,” she said, “It was too much damage this time. He’s . . . he’s really gone.”