Writer’s Note: Phantom Bounty: Part Four was published originally in Jump Point 3.4. Read Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.
Mila was a traitor. She’d risked her career as a bounty hunter . . . had betrayed her partner, Rhys, to free Casey. Was it all worth it? Had Casey been telling the truth about her father developing bioweapons?
Mila snuck a glance at Casey as she returned to the co-pilot’s seat. The dark-haired woman offered her a small smile, then harnessed herself into her seat. Mila’s childhood friend. A terrorist.
The emptiness of space loomed before them, nothing but darkness beyond Devana’s forward screen. Mila gripped the controls so tightly her hands ached.
“I’ve managed to mask our signal,” Casey said, “but it’s a temporary fix only. We have a half hour. No more.”
“How . . . ?”
Casey explained the method, and Mila shook her head, partially in awe of the hacking skills required, partially in dismay over the length of the resulting prison sentence if she were caught at it.
“Could have used that trick myself a time or two,” Mila muttered.
“Not if you want to stay on the right side of the law.” Casey cleared her throat. “After this is over. Of course. Just picked up the signal on the scanner. Gotta be my contact. The ship’s waiting a few clicks from the jump point.”
Mila’s hands grew tighter on the controls as she glanced at the scanner screen. Space normally held the dual promises of endless possibility and endless danger . . . but today it held only danger for her.
“Any sign of the Advocacy?” Mila asked tightly.
“Not yet. But . . . they’ll follow. They always do. Get me to my contact, and we’ll execute the plan.”
Mila tried to calm her breathing, but her heart was racing, and she couldn’t make it stop. It was supposed to be simple. Mila would pull up next to the contact ship; Casey would knock her out, then transfer to the other ship. When Rhys and the Advocacy found Mila, she’d tell them Casey took her ship and ran with it. Then everything could go back to normal. Or almost normal. Would Rhys believe the lie? Could she lie to him?
This was stupid. So stupid. She’d acted rashly. There was no way she could lie well enough to convince the Advocacy and Rhys that Casey had somehow escaped the containment pod, overpowered her, and then locked her inside. But Mila didn’t have another solution.
“Straight ahead.” Casey plotted new coordinates, and Mila followed the trajectory.
A long, sleek yacht came into view in front of them. A few thin lights gleamed along the length of the 890’s hull. The owner of this ship had plenty of money; Casey’s contact was the real deal.
“Freelancer,” came a voice over the comm. “State your business.”
Casey replied, “Tell S Whispering Wind approaches.”
“Around which sun does the finest planet orbit?”
Mila’s heart skipped a beat and she slammed a hand over the comm, silencing it. “Ilios,” she hissed. “Like the project?”
Casey’s brows rose for a split second, then her expression smoothed. “Exactly like that.”
“I thought you destroyed all that data.”
“S has cleared you for docking,” the comm interrupted, “but we’ll need to scan you at close range.”
Casey pushed Mila’s hand out of the way and hit the comms. “Roger that.”
“Tell me what’s going on,” Mila hissed. “What is this about Ilios?”
Casey sighed. “I can’t tell you about S. Or Ilios. If I did, I’d have to kill you.”
Mila tensed in her seat. There was no hint of humor in Casey’s voice. None. She was serious.
“I risked everything for you!”
“Look . . . all I can say is that People First has friends in high places. They support the cause. But not all friends are created equal. Many do things . . . for their own reasons. And can be persuaded to help if you offer the right terms.”
Mila pulled the ship up beside the much longer 890. “This contact is connected with People First? And what were her terms for you, to get you out of here and betray PF?”
The 890 commed them before Casey could answer. “We detect two life signs in the Freelancer. S says you were supposed to come alone.”
“I needed help getting here,” Casey replied tersely.
“S says both of you must board. Or we leave.”
Casey glanced at Mila with a veiled expression, “I’m sorry to drag you into this. But we both have to go over there.”
“No.” Panic rushed through Mila, and she tightened her grip on the stick. “No way. That wasn’t the deal. You go over. I stay here. Or I’m leaving.”
“Don’t call me that,” she said through gritted teeth. “My name is Mila now.”
“Mila,” Casey’s voice was low, soothing. “How do you think it’ll look if we fly away now? They’ll shoot us out of existence and jump without a glance back. You have to go over there. I’ll make sure S sends you back here.”
“How will you make sure?”
“I just will. Now suit up. We’re wasting too much time. S definitely won’t be happy if the Advocacy shows up at her door. But I’m pretty sure you understand that.” Casey left her seat and headed back to suit up herself.
Mila stared at the yacht, trying to decide if she could outmaneuver it and escape. But then what? She had to get rid of Casey, not keep her on board. She let out a frustrated sigh, unbuckled, and headed back to her gear. She ignored Casey, not meeting her gaze.
Her injured shoulder, shot by Casey, cried out in pain as she pulled her suit up. She slapped a new numbing patch on it and continued dressing. As she closed the suit up, her hand touched her necklace.
Mila’s heart twisted as she pulled the bronze token over her head. She stared down at it, at the infinity symbol, the special iridescent “good luck” stones dangling from it, and a new wave of regret washed over her.
Rhys had spent some of their last creds on this. To make her happy. Mila took the necklace and tucked it in the space between the bunk and the wall. She didn’t deserve it. And it hadn’t brought her good luck anyway, had it?
When Mila got back to the cargo hold, Casey was suited up, her helmet under one arm.
“Yeah,” Mila mumbled.
They both latched their helmets on, then Mila depressurized the cargo hold and opened the back ramp. She and Casey pushed off the ramp and drifted toward the 890’s rear lift. When they were inside the empty space, the cage lifted under them, and artificial gravity gently resumed. A light turned green above them, and Casey took off her helmet. Mila did the same.
They stared at the double doors before them, waiting in tense silence.
The doors finally slid open, revealing a broad-shouldered man in a dark grey flight suit. “S will see you now.”
The man stepped into the lift, one hand gripping a pistol, and gestured for Mila and Casey to enter the ship.
Mila squared her shoulders and met the man’s hard glare with one of her own. She wouldn’t be afraid of these thugs. She’d faced off against dozens of wanted criminals and come out on top. She could do it again.
Another pair of guards met them in the next corridor where it widened. One of them patted Casey and Mila down and removed their mobiGlas as the other kept his gun trained on them. When they were satisfied, they led them down the corridor and into a well decorated lounge.
Mila’s eyes darted around. The lounge was on two decks, and more guards looked down at them from behind the rail of the upper deck. By the taste displayed here, Casey’s contact was old money. It could have been owned by Mila’s parents or any of their friends on Terra. Silk panels from Rihlah, famous Terran brocade applied to the benches, a delicate glass and metallic table at the center, and a very impractical glass chandelier hanging from the middle of the ceiling. Iridescent stones decorated the chandelier, and Mila’s hand almost went to the spot where her good luck necklace used to be. They looked just like the stones on it.
Two more guards entered, bringing the total to five on the main deck. Mila’s lips parted as a woman, apparently the mysterious ‘S,’ walked in behind them.
It was the woman from the market stall where Rhys had purchased her necklace.
Mila did a double take. No . . . there were differences. This S was petite, with space-black hair and light blue eyes, just like the woman at the stall. But the woman before her wore a well-tailored suit and robe, not loose skirts. And her hair wasn’t done up in braids, and she didn’t have a nose ring. She looked more . . . well-preserved — her skin smooth, a product of youth treatments. This was not the same woman . . . but Mila would be willing to bet they had some relation to each other.
The woman walked up to them with a smile, and exchanged kisses on the cheek with Casey.
“Brought a friend?” she asked, raising a brow at Mila.
“Like I said. I needed a ride.”
“And who is this?”
Mila didn’t answer, just tried to keep her expression blank. She couldn’t let this woman know she knew anything about her.
“She’s just an old friend of mine,” Casey said, her voice light.
The woman’s eyes darkened, her polite demeanor fading a fraction. She gestured to one of the guards.
“Come with me, Elaine. Let us talk over here.”
Casey followed her to an ottoman near the center of the room, while the guard grabbed Mila’s arm and pulled her to the edge of the space and out of earshot of Casey and S’s quiet conversation. Did S know who Casey was originally? She’d called her Elaine, the name she’d used on Tevistal.
The two of them engaged in an intense, quiet talk for a few minutes and then Casey lifted the sleeve of her suit and peeled off a piece of her skin. False skin. Mila went cold at the sight of it. Casey hadn’t mentioned any hidden data . . . or details on the price for her passage. Casey scraped a chip from the skin and passed it to S.
Casey was selling data, probably Phan Pharmaceutical data. Had she lied about everything? Was she just stealing data to sell to competitors? Anger started to bloom in Mila’s chest, and she fought to keep her mouth shut. All that mattered now was that Mila get out of this alive and unscathed.
Casey finished her transaction and returned to Mila.
“What was that?” Mila hissed.
Casey’s expression was tight. “She’ll let you go back to your ship just as soon as she checks my payment.”
A new guard ran through the door. “Madame. The Advocacy was spotted by our scout. We need to jump. Now.”
“Wait — no.” Mila looked toward the door they’d come in. “Send me back. Send me back now.”
S shot them a glare and gestured to the guard behind Mila. “Take them each to a room until after the jumps.”
Jumps. This was starting to get a lot more complicated.
“Let me go back to my ship!” Mila’s voice rose.
Casey dug her nails into Mila’s hand and leaned close, whispering. “They won’t let you now. Keep it together if you want to survive this.”
Mila lurched to the side, trying to make a desperate run back out to her ship.
The guards closed in on her, grabbed both her arms, and dragged her the other way. She went limp, no longer fighting it as the realization of what had happened sunk in.
They took her up a flight of stairs and opened the first door they came to, pushing her inside.
“Harness up. We’ll be jumping soon,” one of the guards said.
The door slid closed and she heard the lock engage. Mila took a panicked look around the small room, and then sank down in the jump seat. Tears brimmed in her eyes as she buckled in. She’d messed up.
She’d always been able to get out of scraps before. Always. But not this time. She just kept sinking deeper into a pit that appeared to have no bottom.
The ship hummed softly as it powered up, and in mere minutes she felt the woozy sensation of the first jump. Another soon followed, and Mila’s hope died as they travelled further and further away from her ship.
When the Advocacy found the empty Devana . . . they’d know. They’d know she’d helped Casey escape. They’d think she was working with her.
And it would be true.