Rake tried to open his eyes, but light stabbed at him viciously. He immediately squeezed his eyelids shut again for a few moments before he tried again, this time more slowly. The light was vicious, but he persisted against the pain.
Did I die again? he wondered, then immediate dismissed the notion. No, if I had died again, I’d remember getting another insurance policy. Last thing I remember is that skiptracer, and a shootout, and the air venting into space. If I were dead, they’d have used my memories from before to bring me back, and I wouldn’t remember the shootout.
He congratulated himself on his reasoning. So, I’m okay. But where am I?
The light finally seemed to ease its attacks, and Rake slowly soaked in the details as they came into focus. The overhead lights hung from a metal ceiling, gently curving toward the floor. He was lying on a medical table of some sort, with a medical AI standing nearby in a powered-off state. A single viewport looked out into the darkness of space, providing an unparalleled view of brilliant stars.
Cabinets lined the walls, all the workspaces clear of any loose items. Rake lifted his arms and found he was not bound—in fact, there was nothing keeping him on the medical bed. He did some more mental math. Okay, so everything’s neatly stored away and tidy as can be. Between that and the view of the stars, I must be on a ship. Given the firefight outside the insurance facility, it’s probably the ship that shot the place up. And given that I’m not bound, they’re probably not skiptracers, either.
So, someone rescued me.
Rake slowly sat up, giving himself time to adjust. Dizziness swept over him, but he persisted, refusing to relent. When he was fully sitting up, he slowly pulled himself around to let his legs dangle off the bed. Ever-so-slowly, he eased himself off, carefully transferring his weight to his feet, supporting himself with his arms to ensure he didn’t fall.
It wasn’t until he was standing with most of his weight on his legs that he realized he wasn’t feeling any pain from his wounded leg. He looked down in surprise and saw clean white medical wrapping securely in place around his entire calf, from knee to ankle. He experimentally shifted even more of his weight to his wounded leg and felt barely a twinge from it. Definitely not skiptracers, he decided. They wouldn’t have bothered patching me up unless it was a critical wound and they needed me alive for the reward.
As he straightened up, no longer leaning on the bed, he had another sudden revelation: he was dressed only in a thin medical gown. Rake glanced around, but saw no sign of his clothes. “Of course not,” he muttered. “With everything else packed away, they would have packed my clothes up, too. No loose objects on a ship.”
A whistle from the door brought Rake’s head up and around. Leaning against the frame, arms crossed, was a gorgeous dark-haired woman, hair cropped well above her shoulders and hanging loosely around her heart-shaped face. “I think I prefer to keep you like this.”
“Like this?” Rake repeated.
“Mostly naked,” the woman said with a wink.
“Uh, right,” Rake muttered, blushing before he could catch himself. “It seems you have me at a disadvantage,” he answered. “If we’re going to be on equal footing, maybe you should strip down, too.”
She laughed, a wicked sound promising all sorts of delights. “Who said I want to be equal with you?” She finally relented with a brilliant smile. “Check the upper drawer under the bed.”
Rake bent over and pulled the drawer open, finding it empty. He looked up questioningly at the woman.
Her smile was just as wicked as before. “Oops, my mistake. One drawer lower.”
The man glanced down at himself and realized the gown had ridden up when he had bent over. He blushed again, then shrugged and pulled open the lower drawer.
He found his clothes neatly folded inside—the trousers, shirt, and jacket he’d worn in the insurance facility. Gratefully, he pulled the clothes out and started dressing, pulling on the pants before he shed the medical gown.
“You don’t need to do that,” she said lightly. “After all, it’s nothing I haven’t seen already.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Rake said dryly as he pulled his shirt over his head. “Quite the voyeur, are you?”
“Fine way to talk to the woman who pulled your ass out of the fire,” she said, her light tone contrasting her words. “Next time a skiptracer has you, I’m just going to watch.”
Rake raised an eyebrow at her as he pulled his jacket on. “Wait, that was you shooting at Slade?”
The woman raised both eyebrows in return. “That skiptracer was Slade?!”
“You didn’t know?” Rake asked in return.
“Honey, when I got your message to pick you up from the insurance facility, I had no idea you were in that kind of trouble.” She shook her head. “Damn, that was an enemy I could have happily never made.”
“Pick me up?” His head was spinning. “I’m out of it for a few weeks, and nothing makes sense.”
The woman offered him another dazzling smile. “You don’t even recognize me, do you Rake?”
The question set him aback. “I know you?”
She shook her head. “For shame, Rake. If your stored memories are that old, we’re never going to get you clear of this mess you’re in.”
Rake studied her for a moment, and then a moment longer before he finally recognized the crystal blue eyes nearly hidden behind the dark hair. “I’ll be damned,” he breathed. “Caree Staka.”
“Ah, you do remember me. I was prepared to be offended,” she said with a wink.
“How many years has it been since you and I pulled that job off New Recice?” Rake asked with a shake of his head. “We were both still wet-behind-the-ears kids!”
Caree grinned. “That didn’t stop us from doing some stupid things,” she said.
“It’s probably why we did stupid things,” Rake replied with a broad smile of his own.
“Aw, is that the only reason we…?”
“Hell, no,” he interrupted. “If that was the only reason, you think I would’ve called you when I’m in trouble?”
“Always the charmer, Rake. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“You have,” he commented. When she raised an eyebrow, he said, “You’re all the more beautiful for it. Besides, the Caree I worked with off New Recice would never have walked into the middle of a shooting match.”
“I did no such thing,” she sniffed disdainfully. “I started that fight.”
“So, uh,” Rake said awkwardly, “if you have some idea what’s going on, I’d love to know. I kind of woke up from a tank and have no idea what I’ve gotten myself into.”
Caree grimaced. “I was hoping you took a flash of your memories before you died so that you would know.”
“Well, what do you know?” he asked. “How did you know where to find me, or even that I needed help?”
The dark-haired beauty blew out a sigh. “Of course, on to business.”
“No, it’s okay.” She shrugged, a liquid motion that drew Rake’s eyes. “I’ve just…missed you.” She held up a hand to forestall his reply. “Business first.”
“So, first question,” Rake said. “Where are we?”
“Edge of the Terra system,” was Caree’s answer. “We’re mostly powered down, passive sensors only, and our core is cool enough that we should be invisible against background noise unless someone’s running active scans. And if they are, we’ll pick them up with the passives.”
“And if we need to run, how long will it take you to be ready?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.
“We’ve already got an emergency jump plotted,” she said. “We’ve got enough power in the capacitors to hit the point drive, but we’ll have nothing left when we get there.”
“That’s a lot of juice in the caps,” Rake commented. “Bit past spec, isn’t it?”
She smiled. “Since when are you concerned with legality?”
Instead of answering, he changed the subject. “So how did you find me? And why were you out here in the first place?”
Caree paused for a moment before answering. “Just over three days ago, I got a transmission from you out at Clarion. You wouldn’t give me the details, but you said you were in a lot of trouble and didn’t think you’d survive. You told me you had a life insurance policy at one of the Terra insurance companies and you’d need me to pick you up in a few weeks if things went south.” She grimaced. “You told me you needed someone you could trust if you were going to slip the skiptracers chasing you, that you’d need to lay low for a while.”
“Given what we left of that insurance station, I’d say I was right,” Rake grumbled. “So I didn’t tell you anything more? Any hint at what kind of trouble I was in?”
She shook her head. “Not a word, other than to say how bad it was.”
“Well, at least one skip figured out I had a life insurance policy,” he said grimly. “Not only that, but he figured out where they’d be bringing me off ice. And where there’s one, there will be more.” Rake contemplated for a moment before asking, “So where are we headed?”
“I was hoping you would have an answer for that question. I came all the way to Terra to get you—we had no job that would’ve taken us this close to civilization,” she said, adding a slight mocking tone to the final word.
“Let me think on it a bit,” Rake said. “Actually, no need to think about it.” He took a deep breath. “Set a course for Clarion.”
Caree stared at him. “Um, wouldn’t that be where you were killed? Are you sure no one is going to still be looking for you there?”
The pilot shook his head. “I died a few days ago, and word officially made it onto the ComNet if my insurance policy was invoked. Anyone who was looking for me there will know I’m dead and gone.” He offered a cynical smile. “In fact, they’re probably combing Earth, Terra, and the rest of the Home Region, waiting for me to show up at an insurance company.”
The woman paled. “So it would probably be best to get us out of the Home Region,” she said.
Rake nodded. “So, Clarion.”
She frowned at him, but the expression didn’t detract a shred from her beauty, which Rake was trying very hard to ignore. “What are you hoping to find there?”
“Two things,” Rake answered. “First, maybe I can kick up something to tell me why skiptracers were hunting me down with intention to kill. And second, I want my ship back. I’d bet every credit I have left that my ship is parked somewhere in that system.”
“Pilots,” she murmured. “You’re all alike.”
He snorted. “What does that make you?”
Caree offered another dazzling smile. “I’m the captain, not the pilot.”
“Well, then, captain, you’d best give the orders to get us moving,” Rake said with a broad smile and a nod.
“Of course,” she said with just a bit of stiffness. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, once we have this boat under way.”
Rake watched her leave, admiring her backside the whole time. When she had disappeared from sight, he forced himself to sit down and think.
Okay, Rake, he told himself, start from what you know. First, you know you died sometime in the last few days. Your death was reported on the ComNet, and your life insurance policy brought this body off ice with your last memories restored. Sometime between that flash two weeks ago and the day you were killed, you got yourself into some kind of trouble—something deep. You were killed, most likely on Clarion, but that didn’t satisfy whoever was after you, since a skiptracer showed up here at Terra to try to grab you.
Not only that, but he did it inside an insurance facility. That realization worried him. Not only was this something bad enough to get you shot, but it was bad enough for a skiptracer to break all rules of decorum to make sure you didn’t make it out of the facility free. The credit payout on your head must be huge. Large enough to risk breaking dozens of laws to get.
Well, at least I know I’m not wanted by any of the Home Region governments. He smiled to himself. They would’ve had uniformed officers there to arrest me, not some skiptracer.
I must be in trouble on one of the Outlying Worlds, or with one of the kingpins.
Rake frowned. This business doesn’t lead to a lot of friends, but I must not have thought I could trust anyone if I called Caree to pick me up. We haven’t spoken in years, but she was always as good as her word.
The pilot continued to sit with eyes closed as he continued to poke and prod at the few facts he knew, trying to wring out any more information, but they were as dry as stones. Even with the distraction of his own thoughts, and the deep-seated fear underlying them, he couldn’t miss the sensation of a point-to-point jump.
Rake didn’t understand exactly how point drives worked—for that matter, he doubted more people than a handful of astrophysicists in the entire Expanse truly understood it. The usual metaphor for the technology was enough to satisfy his need for knowledge.
Developed several centuries ago, point drives were the solution to the speed-of-light limit. Instead of hurling a craft at transluminal velocities—long discovered impossible—point drives bent space itself to allow immediate transition from one spot to the next. When Rake was a child, he had been taught the concept with a single sheet of paper. If a person lived on that paper, in two dimensions, he’d never experience the third dimension that was being bent. When the paper met, he might be able to pop from one half of the sheet to the other, without actually crossing the open paper between the two points.
Point drives had major drawbacks. Properly calculating a point-to-point jump was nearly impossible, because the calculations required knowing about every single mass object larger than a few specks of dust between a ship’s current position and its intended destination, as those objects affected how space “folded”. Because of the sheer complexity of it, all ships except exploration craft were limited to pre-existing transition points, and point drive exploration had been dead for nearly twenty years—the war between Earth and Terra had seen to that.
And there was always the effect point-to-point travel had on humans.
A quarter of humans weren’t affected at all, but for the rest of humanity, using the point drives was an uncomfortable experience.
Rake always likened the sensation to being ripped away, completely disoriented, and then dropped in a new place. As a pilot, he had a fairly keen sense of direction and could virtually always keep his bearings, but jumps left him dizzy for half a minute or so.
This jump was no better. In fact, it was much worse.
Rake woke up on the deck of the medical bay, staring up at the light overhead. An ache at the back of his head pounded in time with his heartbeat.
“Ow,” he muttered. “Well, that was ugly.”
“Rake?” a voice called on the medical bay’s intercom. “Rake, are you still there?”
He pulled himself to his feet, using both hands to keep himself steady. “I’m here, Caree.”
“I was hoping to hear that,” she said steadily. “We’re being hailed, and they’re looking for you.”