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.
The stomach-lurching feeling of the third jump let Mila know her old life was over for good. Now she was a criminal . . . on the run. She could try to say Casey had kidnapped her, but why would she have? There was no good way out of this. And Rhys knew the truth; he’d known about their shared past. If the Advocacy pressed him . . .
Would Mila even get off this ship alive?
When the yacht powered down, Mila unharnessed herself and paced the small room.
Hours passed, and a guard brought Mila food and water. The reconstituted food tasted like death, like a last meal before the end, and a terrible one at that. She could barely wrap her mind around what she’d done — how much her life had changed in just a few hours. Then the locks disengaged on her door again, and she turned as it slid open.
Casey slipped through and quickly closed it. “The guards are busy . . . for the moment. This might be our only chance to talk.”
“You lied to me. You knew.”
“No. I didn’t. I’d hoped to get you back to the ship.”
“I can never go back now, Casey. Not ever.”
“Shh. I’m Elaine here.” Casey looked completely calm, unbothered by the fact that Mila’s entire life was hanging in the balance.
Mila rushed Casey and shoved her against the metal wall. “They’re not gonna let me walk out of here, are they? I’m an unknown entity. I was never supposed to be here.”
Casey winced with pain and her forehead creased with worry. “S — Sybil — will make sure she knows who you are before she lets you leave now. And when she finds out you’re a bounty hunter . . .”
“Well, I think I know something about her. There was this woman selling trinkets at the market—”
“A younger sister. You don’t say a word about knowing anything, understand? She’ll kill you if she thinks you know anything about her. She operates under the illusion that we don’t know anything.”
Mila backed away from Casey, feeling dizzy. “You lied to me. You’re selling data—”
“Not bioweapons! When we do jobs, we collect harmless, or even beneficial, research and sell it to fund our cause. But I’m funding my escape with it this time.”
“What is it? What did you just sell?” Mila’s voice rose as she spoke, and she tried to calm herself down, but her mind was racing.
“The formula for a medical treatment that hasn’t been patented yet.”
“How can I believe that?”
“Look, we don’t have time for this.” Casey placed her hands on Mila’s shoulders, forcing her to look her in the eyes. “You know about her family. She’s going to find out about you. There’s no way she’s letting you just go back to your regular life now. You have one choice.”
Mila shrugged off Casey’s hands. “What?”
“You come with me. I’m going to try to convince her to let us disappear together.”
“No!” Mila began to pace the room again. “I can’t just . . . leave the Empire.”
“If you stay — you just freed me and left your ship stranded next to a jump point. They’ll know you helped me. You have no other choice.”
“You think I don’t know what it looks like? You have to help me get off of here. Have them drop me off somewhere so I can . . . somehow make it right.”
“You know too much! About me — about PF — about Sybil.”
Red crowded around the edges of Mila’s vision, and it took everything she had not to wrap her hands around Casey’s neck and squeeze. “I helped you. You’d be dead if it wasn’t for me. You have to help me fix this. Help me get out of here.”
Casey folded her arms across her chest and glanced back toward the door. “I can’t.”
“They’ll catch you—”
“And it won’t matter to you either way. You’ll be long gone, hiding in Xi’an territory.”
Casey met Mila’s eyes and sighed. “Fine. Get yourself killed if that’s what you want.” She reached into her suit pocket and pulled out a translucent swipe card.
“Stole it off a guard.” Casey smiled ruefully. “This should get you into the corridor at the end of this one. They have a little 85X there. I know we’re stopping at a planet soon. Backwater, but plenty of places to hide. I’ll distract the guards for you. When I knock twice on your door, wait five minutes, then it’s time for you to go.”
Mila stared down at the card in her hand.
“Thank you again, for helping me. I owe you my life.” Casey wrapped her in a quick hug that Mila didn’t return. “I really am sorry. Try to be safe.” Casey gave her one last sad smile. “If you change your mind . . .”
“No,” Mila said, her voice breaking. “I’m going to fix this.”
The knocks came after Mila had given up on Casey ever following through.
Mila grabbed her helmet off the floor and hugged it to her chest.
Heart pumping a chaotic rhythm in her chest, Mila waited through five tense minutes, then swiped the card Casey had given her. The door slid open to reveal an empty corridor beyond. She barely breathed as she gingerly stepped into the corridor and looked both ways. She turned right, as Casey had directed her to, and hurried toward the end. It curved right, taking her to a new door.
She said a quick prayer to the Banu god of luck that the room beyond would be empty, then scanned the card.
The door opened into a hangar bay. The 85X sat at the center of it.
An alarm sounded, and red lights began to flash in the bay.
Mila was sweating freely as she latched her helmet on.
Someone tackled her from behind, shoving her down on the floor. She fought back, twisting in the man’s grasp until she saw him face to face. A guard, the one who had warned Sybil about the Advocacy’s arrival.
Mila slammed a gloved fist into his unprotected face, and he stumbled backward. She desperately climbed forward, trying to get into the 85X cockpit, but the guard followed her.
Depressurize Bay. The small words flashed in the corner of the cockpit’s interface. As the guard grabbed her leg, she hit the button on the screen. A whole new set of alarms joined the ongoing din. The man’s eyes widened, and he scrambled away from her, toward the hangar door. He scanned his key card, trying to make it open, but it was sealed shut. He would die if she didn’t do something.
Mila paused the depressurization and lurched out of the ship. She crashed into the man, seeking the pistol he held in his grip. She slammed an elbow into his gut again, and he released the gun. She picked it up and trained it on him.
“Last chance to get out!” she yelled. He stared at her wild eyed and scanned his card again.
This time the door opened. Several guards waited beyond, but he yelled something to them and they didn’t try to enter.
The door slid shut, and Mila climbed back into the ship, tossing the pistol into the seat beside her.
She brought up the Starmap, her hands shaking with adrenaline, praying that it would display more than a void. They were in orbit over a settled world! She chose a landing site to the west of the closest city. She could abandon the ship there, hide in the wooded hills, wait it out until she was sure Sybil and her guards had given up waiting for her to emerge. She chose her destination, and then completed the prep sequence.
The countdown began. She harnessed herself into the seat as the hangar bay opened, revealing black space behind.
She throttled up and took off, leaving the 890 behind.
Mila headed directly planetside, sparing little attention for the ship at her back. If they shot up the runabout, she would have no more worries herself. There was nothing she could do but speed to her landing site.
She pictured Rhys. His handsome face, his reassuring words, the way he’d held her. That smirk she’d probably never see again unless she got caught or found a way to fix this impossible situation.
As she entered the planet’s atmosphere, she spared the time for a few tears.
A few days ago she’d been hunting the Phantom.
Now she needed to become one.
Five Months Later
Mila wove her way through dark alleyways, keeping her head down, a hood concealing her face. A lock of her newly short-cropped blonde hair fell into her eyes, and she blinked as it irritated them. The green colored contacts she wore felt dry, scratchy. But at least from afar she wouldn’t be recognized.
She glanced back at a huddle of transients gathered round a rusty heater, and turned down the next alley. She’d reached the hostel sector.
It was dangerous being back in Tevistal so soon after the Incident, but she’d run out of options and time. A dozen small-time jobs had funded her existence along the way, but now there were even more bounties on her head.
She’d been hunted for months, had been nearly caught, but so far she’d always gotten away. And this was the one place they’d probably never expect her to return.
Mila gritted her teeth and walked down the dark alley between two hostels. A cracked globe flickered, guiding her to a hostel entrance. She pushed open the door, and the scent of piss wafted over her. It barely registered. This place was only half as filthy as most of the places she’d slept the past few months.
Voices rang through the thin metal walls. Arguments. The sound of two people moaning and grunting. An old vid playing at full blast.
Mila found an unoccupied room and went inside. Dim sensor lights lit up the room. The place had a film of filth coating it, but it would do.
She shut the door behind her and activated the second-hand mobiGlas on her wrist. Her hacking program did a quick job of activating the RoomTab. The lights and power came on in response, and she pulled her mobi away. It would stay on until she ran her program again. No creds needed. Which was good, because she didn’t have many left.
A glance around the now well-lit room brought a flood of memories back. The pain came with it, weighing Mila down. She sank to the dirty mattress.
She and Rhys had tracked the Phantom to a room like this once.
Mila did something she hadn’t done for weeks. She brought up the news search she’d saved to her mobiGlas, to see if anything had changed since she’d last checked.
She rewatched the vid of Casey’s father being arrested with the sound turned off. Owen Phan’s face was the same regal countenance she remembered from growing up. When Mila had first heard that the truth about the biological weapons had leaked, it had been a relief to learn that Casey had at least been telling the truth about that. And even more importantly, Mila’s mother had been kept completely clear of the breaking scandal. Knowing that Phan wouldn’t be making weapons anymore was the only glimmer of light in these recent dark days.
Almost without thinking, Mila accessed another archived news story.
An image of herself flashed in the air before her. Or at least what Mila used to look like. It was the photo the Advocacy had been using on her bounty.
The article speculated on the nature of the terrorism, on the relationship between Mila’s parents and Phan Pharmaceuticals, and on Mila’s motives. Even with the revelation of the biological weapons it hadn’t changed the fact that the Phantom had wreaked havoc for months. Casey, and by association Mila, were still considered criminals.
The article had included a small photo of Rhys as well. He had been held for questioning, but with no proof of any wrongdoing on his part he had eventually been released.
Mila reread the final line.
Evony Mila Salinas is still at large, with several bounties on her head for crimes ranging from petty theft to terrorism.
She scanned back up to see Rhys’s face one more time, but it was like a knife through her heart. She turned off the mobi.
She needed to get to Xi’an territory fast, and she only knew of one woman who could get her there. Sybil.
But she’d been unable to dig up anything useful on the woman. All she knew was that she was related to that peddler who had sold trinkets in the Tevistal market square on Pilgrim’s Day. So that’s who Mila needed to find. Sybil might have her guards shoot Mila on sight after what she’d done . . . but Sybil had helped Casey — for a price.
And Mila was desperate enough to pay just about any price Sybil asked. She’d learned a few weeks ago that Rhys was hunting her down, trying to bring her in, that her time was running out.
Maybe . . . maybe if he did find her again in Xi’an territory, free of Advocacy influence, she could explain. She could hope for his forgiveness, if nothing more.
But until then, she’d be a Phantom. Doing what she needed to stay free.