Authors: Morgan Hawke
Aubrey smacked the closest surface with his palm. He should have stayed in the chair! He rolled off the captain’s belly and climbed to his feet. He had a few small cuts and bunches of assorted bruises, but other than that, he was intact.
. He eyed the litter lying about. There had to be something sharp enough to open his wrists or shove into his heart. He got down on his knees and started hunting.
Close to where the pilot’s chair used to be, Aubrey found a fairly interesting and serrated shard of metal about as long as his forearm. Sitting back on his heels, he checked the edge. It felt sharp. He nodded. That ought to do the job pretty quick.
He turned the point to just below his breastbone and tilted it upward toward his heart.
An arm reached over his shoulder, and a hand closed around Aubrey’s wrists.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” The captain’s voice was right in his ear.
Aubrey ground his teeth and fought to hold on to the blade of metal. “I should think it’s pretty damned obvious.”
“You are not committing suicide.” The captain lifted the blade.
Aubrey came with it, hanging on with every drop of stubborn strength he had.
“Yes, I am!”
The captain grabbed his shoulder with crushing force. “Let go!”
“You let go!” Aubrey jammed a foot between them, his boot heel catching on the larger man’s upper thigh.
The captain gasped and suddenly toppled backward.
Aubrey fell on top of him. Somehow in the fall, the point of the metal shard ended up in the side of the captain’s neck. Blood welled, and the scent of copper flooded Aubrey’s nose. Rage bloomed out of nowhere. Aubrey pulled the blade from the captain’s nerveless fingers, raised it, and plunged it down into meat and bone. Liquid rubies sprayed the air. He lifted the blade and plunged it down again, and again…
* * * * *
He dropped to the ground and leaned back against a large rock, staring at the dirty blade of metal that felt fused to his hand. The captain was dead. Very, very dead.
Two-hours’-walk-away dead. And it had felt so damned good to do it that he’d taken a nice little walk up the brush-covered mountain, reveling in the feeling of finally defeating an enemy. He drew in another breath and coughed, and coughed, then spat a mouthful of blood.
His walk was finally over. It was his turn to die. He lifted the edged metal to his throat.
It clanged against the collar.
He winced. He needed to get that thing off or they would find him. He tilted his head to the side and pushed the metal sliver between his throat and the collar. He Interstellar Service & Discipline: Lost Star
pulled. He pushed. He twisted. Warmth tricked down his throat. The sky turned an alarming shade of puke orange and rancid pink.
The collar stayed firmly around his throat.
Masculine voices spoke softly very nearby.
Aubrey pulled the metal blade from his throat and climbed to his feet. He backed away from the voices.
Three grizzled men in ratty black and gold Moribund Company uniforms came around the edge of the rock, carrying bolt rifles.
One of them frowned. “That him?”
Another looked at his hand. “That’s what the beeper says.”
The third held out his hand. “Come on, kid, time to go home.”
Aubrey backed away and raised his hunk of metal. “Fuck you. I’m not going anywhere.”
The third man took a step closer. “Kid, you’re going to be dead in two days.”
Aubrey grinned. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
The second lifted his head. “What? Do you want to die?”
Aubrey bared his teeth. “Ask me if I want to live in a tank, asshole! Ask me if I like killing whole shiploads of people with the codes being raped out of my head!” He fisted his hands and screamed. “Yes! I want to die, you stupid son of a bitch!” He drew in a breath and choked. He grabbed his throat and started coughing…and couldn’t stop.
“Stupid kid! This air is killing you!”
Aubrey caught a small breath and backed away, raising the blade. “Go away!”
“We should let him die.”
“Moribund will kill us if we come back without him!”
The three men came toward him.
Aubrey turned and skidded down a small slope. There was no place he could hide. No matter where he went, they would find him. But maybe he could stay out of range long enough to die.
“Don’t let him get away!”
“He has a collar. He’s not going far.”
“Yeah, but we need to get him back in one piece and still breathing!”
Aubrey crashed through the low brush and collapsed to his hands in a small clearing. His chest felt like someone was driving a knife into it, and he couldn’t catch his breath.
A youth in an iridescent black suit stepped out of the brush, carrying a bolt rifle over his shoulder. His long, ghost-pale hair was bound back in a tight braid that fell to his hips. The youth stopped and stared down at Aubrey.
Aubrey sat back on his heels and stared right back.
The youth was obviously Skeldhi. He had the sharply pointed ears and a sculpted face commanded by enormous blue eyes. He looked about half a head taller than Aubrey, with broad shoulders on a sleek build. There was no way in hell Aubrey stood a chance against him, even without the bolt rifle in his hands.
The youth tilted his head to the side and frowned.
Aubrey scowled at him. “Well, what are you waiting for? Shoot me!”
The youth’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open. His gaze darted past Aubrey’s shoulder.
“There he is!”
“I’ll get the brat.”
Aubrey turned sharply to look behind him. “Shit!” He lost his balance and fell onto his back.
The Moribund goon came straight for him.
Aubrey raised the hunk of metal with both hands. “Go away! Stay back!”
The man held out his hand. “Kid, come on, you’ll be dead if you don’t.”
Aubrey lifted his blade and aimed for his own heart. “I know, leave me alone!”
The man took a step closer. “I can’t do that. You’re worth too much money.”
“Oh, but you can.” The voice was young, and gorgeously, inhumanly, accented. A bolt shot echoed.
The Moribund goon gasped and fell back, as though kicked in the head.
Aubrey looked behind him.
The white-haired youth lifted the nose of his smoking rifle and arched a brow.
“You wanted him to go away, did you not?”
Aubrey felt a smile lift his mouth. “Yeah, I did. Thanks.”
The youth grinned, showing long white predator’s teeth. “It was my pleasure, truly.”
The other two Moribund men shouted and came running.
The youth pointed his rifle and took them both out without even flinching. He walked over to Aubrey and held out a hand.
Aubrey stared at the bone-pale hand. “
The enemy of my enemy is my friend
.” He reached up and grasped his hand.
The youth lifted him onto his feet with hardly any effort. “I am Seht. And you?”
Aubrey took a small, shallow breath to keep from coughing. “Aubrey.”
Interstellar Service & Discipline: Lost Star
Seht nodded and smiled. “Well then, Aubrey, shall we find somewhere else to be?”
Aubrey wrapped a finger around his collar. “They’re tracking me with this. I can’t get it off!”
Seht frowned. “I believe I can help.” His gaze darted about. “But let us leave this exposed area first.” He turned and started walking into the rocky scrub.
Aubrey stared after him, bemused.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Dad had it
right on the money.
Seht turned back. “Coming?”
Aubrey nodded and strode after him.
Seht led Aubrey uphill into the mountainous terrain. He looked back at Aubrey and pushed under some branches revealing the opening into a narrow path leading downward. “Your collar will lead them in this direction, but getting into this ravine is not all that easily accomplished.”
Aubrey followed him through the brush and into the ravine’s maze of narrow pathways. Feeling decidedly light-headed, he focused on Seht’s gleaming white braid and the small pack on his back, his brain noting the rocky outcroppings and the twisted, needle-leafed scrub enough to keep him upright, but not by much.
A rock rolled under his heel.
Aubrey dropped hard on his side and simply couldn’t find the energy to get back up. He rolled onto his back and labored for breath.
Seht turned and frowned. “Aubrey?” He came and knelt at his side, setting the rifle down. “Are you wounded? I didn’t think to check!” His fingers skimmed down Aubrey’s legs and arms, then across his chest. “No obvious broken bones. What’s wrong?”
Aubrey smiled. “I’m dying.”
Seht scowled, caught his arm, and pulled Aubrey upright into a sitting position.
Aubrey crossed his legs, exhaled, and coughed. And coughed; and kept coughing, until blood spattered the ground beside him. “My lungs are bad.”
Seht sat back on his heels. “So? Why did they not clone another set and graft them in? Or give you nanite injections to repair them?”
Aubrey frowned at the puddle of blood next to him. He looked up at Seht and frowned. “I don’t know. I’ve been in a liquid tank.”
Seht’s brows shot up. “For how long?”
Interstellar Service & Discipline: Lost Star
Aubrey looked away and scowled. “Over nine cycles, as far as I can tell.”
“What?” Seht jerked back and fell on his butt. “But that is stupid!” He pushed back onto his knees. “A body cannot exist in a tank for more than three cycles before the body begins to adapt to the new environment.”
Aubrey looked up at him. “What?”
Seht scowled. “Your lungs are not bad. They’re incapable of breathing air that isn’t liquefied! What did they put you in a tank for?”
Aubrey clenched his teeth. “They destroyed my lungs in an airlock.”
“An airlock?” Seht’s brows dipped. “I can see lung damage from such, but still, a liquid tank?”
Aubrey held Seht’s blue gaze. “Try three trips in a row.”
Seht blinked. “Three? In an airlock? Mother Night.” A smile curved his mouth.
“They must not like you very much.”
Aubrey rolled his eyes. “What they didn’t like was the word no.”
Seht’s silver brows lifted. “No?”
Aubrey stared up at the roiling gray clouds. “No, I won’t kill people, to be specific.” He swallowed. “Not that it did any good. They hacked into me.” He closed his eyes. “They used the contents of my head like a…” He took in a small breath, and it hurt. “I was slave-drived to their ship’s sentience. I was a fucking subroutine the nav-pilot turned on when they wanted to take control of a ship, and then shut off when they were done.” He leaned forward and hunched over his knees. “They used me to take out a ship’s life support, to kill the crews so the ship’s sentience didn’t suicide out of guilt.”
Seht frowned. “
are the Moribund’s ship plague?”
Aubrey chuckled softly and set his cheek on his upraised knees. “I guess you could call me that.”
Seht raised a silver brow, and a slight smile appeared. “You fought them, I assume?”
“Constantly. Not that it did any good.” He scowled and smacked the ground with the flat of his hand. “Once they got into my head, I couldn’t get them back out.”
Seht looked away, rubbing his jaw with his hand. “Aubrey, it seems to me that they deliberately made you a water-breathing creature because a tank is the only way to maintain a hardwired body fairly indefinitely. You were being preserved, like a…”
“Like a what? Food?”
“I was going to say a secret. Think. Existing in a tank, you cannot speak to anyone but those that have direct access. Who is to know why you are there? Lock your tank in a dark room, and no one even knows you exist.”
Aubrey’s eyes opened wide. “Only the ship and the nav-pilot had access to my head. The ship’s sentience was my only contact. The nav-pilot was too freaking insane for any kind of direct mental communication. I spent a lot of time sleeping.” When he 30
wasn’t being raped by the ship’s sentience. “I don’t even know how long I’ve been…doing this, for them.”
“Aubrey, what is the last date you remember?”
Aubrey told him.
Seht frowned in thought; then his eyes opened wide. He scowled.
Aubrey frowned. “What?”
The pale youth looked away. “Grafting you a new set of lungs is not going to save you.” He hunched his shoulders. “You are going to need genetic engineering.”
“What?” Aubrey sat up. “Why?”
Seht looked up at the sky and sighed. “After a set amount of time, a human body in a water-breathing environment adapts to the point that it cannot return to breathing air, because every organ in the entire body adapts. You have been in the tank long enough to fully adapt.” He winced. “And then some.”
Aubrey focused on Seht’s face. “How long?”
Seht turned away.
Aubrey grabbed for his hand. “Seht, how long was I in the tank?”
Seht looked down. “It takes one cycle to adapt to breathing water. It takes six for the entire body to adapt with it. It becomes irreversible after nine cycles.”
“Seht, just spit it out.” Aubrey tugged on the youth’s hand.
Aubrey fell back onto his hands. “Sixteen? I reached majority ten cycles ago?”
Seht frowned. “Imperial legal majority? But you don’t look anywhere close to that age!”
Aubrey snorted. “I was always a little scrawny.”
Seht flashed a grin. “Scrawny is an apt description. You weigh no more than a child and appear to be at least four years younger than I. I am having great difficulty believing that you are actually older.”