Aboard the Grim Repo, starship repossession specialist Grimm and his crew don’t often fail to repo their targets.
But when his latest repo goes terribly wrong, Grimm finds himself caught between the bank that hired him, the delinquent who tried to kill him, and an ex-lover who may want to help him . . . or may want him dead.
: : 1 : :
Pain. I had known pain for as long as I could remember. I’m sure I knew it even before I could remember, all the way back to the day I was born, when I shot out from my mother’s womb with my arm broken.
My father once told me I was already screaming. That they didn’t need to spank my ass to get me going.
“Grimm, are you alive in there?”
The voice came from outside my head, outside the memories, outside the pitch black cocoon I had sealed myself inside.
I didn’t respond. I couldn’t.
“Grimm? Make a noise if you’re alive.”
I even recognized Alice’s voice, the subtle timbre that spoke of love and kindness and things I didn’t understand. But no. Those weren’t there. She was a Synth.
I tried to kick for her, but I couldn’t move. The cocoon had collapsed on me in the crash. They weren’t supposed to do that. Centat Systems claimed they could survive a three hundred gravity collision and keep the occupant alive.
Maybe it had done that. After all, I still lived.
But I couldn’t move enough to make a sound Alice could hear with her ears. If she had been using a listening device, she should have heard my breather, my heartbeat.
That she wasn’t using a device only meant that things were bad outside my cocoon.
I tried, anyway. I attempted to strike out with my right arm, the one limb that didn’t feel broken or crushed, but I couldn’t move it more than a centimeter. The protective gel held me too tight.
I heard two thumps against the exterior of the cocoon.
“Open it up,” Alice said.
I don’t know why I could hear her at all. The protective gel should have kept the noise from reaching me. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t complaining.
“I don’t care if you think it’s a waste of time. Grimm might still be alive in there, and I want it open.”
Thank you, Alice.
One of the problems with the cocoons is that they’re difficult to open. They’re made that way to protect the occupant. Once the cocoon is sealed, the cocoon won’t open for anything except its own electronics or some seriously heavy duty cutting tools. The electronics had to be smashed, or the unlock mechanism damaged. Most likely, both, or they wouldn’t have had to resort to yelling through the cocoon wall.
I just hoped that when they cut me open they didn’t cut my leg off. I didn’t want to spend three months growing yet another leg, or worse. I could tell the damage was already bad enough.
The only thing keeping me alive was the breathing tube that had jammed itself just a little too far down my throat. I wanted to cough, but even that was impossible.
The whine came through tiny and tinny at first when they started up the saw. It must have been Mickey. I hoped it was Mickey.
And then the real sound and light show began as the saw cut into the outer shell. I knew, outside, sparks would be flying everywhere. Inside, the gel stopped them, but I could still see the light, a bright blue flame. The first light I had seen in three days.
Three days since I bailed out of the cruiser I had been trying to repossess. Three days since the owner shot it out of orbit.
The light moved down the length of the cocoon leaving a trail of molten metal-plastic ooze behind it. I had no idea what the cocoons were made of, but it had done its job. A fall from orbit without a parachute, and I was still alive.
As the seam of light grew longer and longer, the pressure on me began to ease, and I felt more and more of my injuries. I’m amazed, honestly, that I even stayed awake that long.
The saw stopped.
The cocoon cracked open.
I looked into Alice’s bright gold eyes.
“Welcome home,” she said.
The pain throughout my broken body erupted and overwhelmed me.
I don’t remember any part of the next three weeks.
: : 2 : :
The first breath I took when I woke was free and easy. The second, even easier. But with the third, a globule of phlegm dislodged and I broke into a hacking cough.
“Whoa, whoa, he’s awake,” said Alice. “Help me sit him up.”
It felt good to hear her voice.
It didn’t feel quite as good to have two pairs of hands reach behind my shoulders and push me to sitting. It hurt like hell.
It did help the cough, though.
“That hurt,” I growled. More growl than normal. They must have only recently pulled the breathing tube.
“Sorry, Grimm,” said Alice.
I liked hearing her apologize. It didn’t happen very often.
“How long?” I asked.
Damn. The bastard was probably three systems away by now.
“Why aren’t you after him?” I asked.
“Who says we aren’t?”
I opened my eyes, slowly. I had been putting that off, knowing that the bright lights of the hospital would hurt, and I wasn’t ready to deal with that, too.
We weren’t in a hospital, and someone had done me a favor and kept the lights low. Probably Alice.
It took me a moment, but when my eyes adjusted, I recognized the medic bay of the Grimm Repo.
“Thanks for getting me out of the cocoon. I don’t know how much longer I would have lasted in there.”
“By the amount of air left in the tanks, I think you had about thirteen minutes, give or take,” she said.
I didn’t bother to say thanks again. It wouldn’t matter to her.
I looked behind me. Mickey and his over-muscled physique stood, bulging arms crossed, almost.
“You cut me out?” I asked.
“No, Renaldo did. Alice had me searching for that asshole.”
“You find him?”
“Yeah. We’re about a day behind.”
“Where are we going?”
Holy shit. We’d been through eight systems already.
“He’s really running, isn’t he?”
“He’s not even stopping to refuel. He’s got to be running out soon.”
“Good,” I said, turning to look at her. Very good. I don’t know why he shot me out of the sky, but I don’t like it when people do that. “We get a kill order?”
She’d probably applied for it before coming to look for me. Synths were always ‘job first’.
I made a note to ask her about it later.
“Can we get me out of here, then? I’d like to see what’s up.”
“Tests first,” Alice said.
: : 3 : :
About three hours later, Alice declared me fit enough. Fit for duty really doesn’t count much on this ship. All I had to be able to do was sit in my chair, lift my arm high enough to tap screens if I wanted, and survive moderate g.
It hurt like hell to walk up there, though.
“I thought you said I was fit,” I said to Alice as we walked the one corridor that ran nearly the length of the ship.
“You are. The only fractures you have left are hairline and should be sealed in the next eight hours. I had to rebuild some of your musculature, which could lead to some tenderness. A few days, and you’ll be working like normal.”
A few days would probably keep me out of any of the fun stuff when we found this guy.
As I entered the bridge, Renaldo and Eddy turned to see who was entering. When they saw it was me, I got a short round of applause. I couldn’t tell if it was sarcastic or not.
Renaldo grinned, his lips exposing his teeth. His black hair barely escaped the gravity of his scalp, he kept it so short. Green eyes blazed like fire emeralds.
“Good to see you, Captain,” he said. “Next time, you oughta take a course before you pilot one of those things.”
“There wasn’t time,” I said as I settled into my chair. My muscles ached from just the small exertion of walking to the bridge. I secretly wondered if they’d had to reconstruct them all. “What I should have done was have you pick up that ship.”
“You’d never let me.”
He marked me with that one. I enjoy the pickup. I won’t let anyone else do it.
“That was one pretty explosion, though,” said Eddy.
Eddy was smiling, too. Unlike Renaldo, her smile wasn’t full of mirth. She had a thing for me. I knew it. I didn’t exactly know how to handle it.
She was pretty enough. Straight brown hair framing a delicate face with huge, dark eyes that saw everything around her. Smart as hell, too, and the best marksman on the crew.
But for some reason, I couldn’t return her interest, and trust me, it wasn’t because I held to some sort of professional code when it came to relationships. I didn’t.
Alice has never been shy in suggesting that I might have lower turnover on this boat if I refrained from fraternization, but I live on the Grim Repo. I don’t trust most women on station, and I don’t trust any woman planet-side. I tell potential crew members about my policy and suggest that if they don’t like it, they probably shouldn’t fly with me.
And I had told Eddy.
I had thought that there might be a possibility, which is one of the reasons I hired her, but when the opportunity came, I didn’t take it. In two years, I haven’t taken it.
“What do you think was on board that made it so pretty?” I asked her.
Some disgruntled former owners try to take out their ships through sabotage or other means, but they usually fail. They’re not terribly insistent once they get return fire from the Grim.
But this guy had wanted that ship gone.
“I don’t know. I’ve got an analysis running on it, have had it running since we got you back aboard, but I haven’t been able to identify it, yet. It wasn’t any of the more common explosives.”
I tapped my desk, and it blinked on. The Grim Repo logo came up while it prepped my screen. I guess no one had taken my chair while I’d been out.
“How far, now, Renaldo?”
“We’re five hours to the Stantion portal.”
“He go through already?”
“About sixteen hours ago.”
“Does that mean we’re catching up to him?”
“Slowly,” said Alice.
I looked up and she was standing next to me.
“We’re gaining about an hour every twenty-four.”
And we’d lose a couple hours on the other side of the portal while we worked to pick up his trace. The worst kind of chase.
But it would be worth it.
“What’s the bonus on the kill order?” I asked.
“The bank doesn’t like Mister Ehfrain, do they.”
“I wouldn’t want to speculate,” said Alice. She never wanted to speculate. I assumed it was her nature as a Synth.
“You don’t have to. I can speculate just fine. The bastard didn’t break that part of me.”
Ten mil was more than the normal kill order bonus. Significantly more. Enough to make me suspect Mister Ehfrain owed them for more than just the ship we’d been hired to repo.
They’d want him back alive, of course, if it was possible, but since he had proven unreliable at making his payments already, the bank would take it out of his hide, and probably safeguard any other assets he might have that the bank could obtain from his estate.
I decided to do a quick check into Mister Ehfrain’s background, see if there was anything we had missed, if he had any other publicly acknowledged assets, or even assets that weren’t so publicly acknowledged.
I entered a dozen queries asking for every public record about the delinquent, batched them up, and sent them off. Then I started another batch of queries, which I sent off to some friendly resources that could help find less than public information, along with enough untraceable credit vouchers to pay for their help.
“You’re using Elliot again?” Alice asked.
“He helped us last time,” I said.
“He almost got you killed, last time.”
“His information was accurate. We wouldn’t have found the guy without it.”
“His information was incomplete and put you in the precarious position of trying to repo the ship in the middle of a local turf war that involved the delinquent.”
My stomach rumbled.
“How was he to know? Those things flare up all the time.” Of course, Elliot should have known. It was his job.
I pushed myself up out of my seat.
“Where are you going?” Alice asked.
“To feed my empty stomach, and then to take a nap. Wake me after we’re through the portal.”
I shambled past her and off the bridge.
She really had done a number on me.
That wasn’t right.
It was Ehfrain that did the number.
And I was going to make sure that next time, I’d have a number for him.
But first, I needed to eat.
: : 4 : :
I felt the transition to Stantion in my sleep. I always do. And it always wakes me up. This time, the slight wrenching feeling felt a lot stronger and made my bones ache. I put it down to my recent exploits with free-fall.
I waited to see if Renaldo or Eddy would call down to wake me up. That’s what I told myself. In truth, I had no desire to get out of bed until I was needed. Working my reconstructed muscles would probably help them heal, but lying in bed was much easier.
“Captain,” the call came through from Mickey, not Renaldo. “You’re needed on the bridge.”
Dammit. They called, and it wasn’t a wake-up call. What the hell had gone wrong, now?
I limped to the bridge as quick as I could. Three minutes wasn’t bad, considering the complete lack of exercise I’d had with my new muscles. I was out of energy by the time the hatch opened.
“Why the call?” I asked as I made my way to my chair.
In answer, several screens popped up on my desk. Two, at first glance, looked like empty space, but a closer look showed a debris field. Each screen had a different view. The remaining screens showed trace analysis, particle analysis, and whatever else Mickey thought I should see.
“What am I looking at, other than a debris field?”
“We think it’s Ehfrain’s ship. There are ID markers throughout. It’s still hot.”
“No contact yet.”
“Where’s Alice?” She would know what to make of this disaster.
“She’s running a drone through the field.”
I looked away from the debris filled screens and tried making sense of the other data Mickey had sent to my screen.
The particle analysis didn’t show any sort of explosive residue or weapons fire, but there were some strange readings I hadn’t seen before.
“Eddy, I’m looking at the particle trace. What am I looking at?”
“I don’t know, Captain.” Everywhere else on my ship, I insisted on Grimm. But on the bridge, I insisted on Captain. “It looks very similar to the pretty explosion you survived.”
“And you don’t know what that is, yet?”
“It’s not in any of our databases, and the computer hasn’t come up with a composite match, either.”
I went back to studying the screens, and checked out the ship trace. There were several ship traces, which wasn’t surprising this close to a gate. But Mickey had highlighted two in particular.
One he’d marked as Ehfrain’s ship. It showed the path out of the gate, and the trace led straight into the debris field.
The second, he’d marked with a big question mark.
The trace originated near the debris field, and then led away. The origin had a time marker that coincided within twenty minutes of the arrival of Ehfrain.
But it didn’t have an entry trace, not from the gate, not from in-system. It just seemed to have appeared. Traces are visible for days.
“You’re quiet, Captain,” Mickey said. “You lookin’ at the ship trace?”
“Yeah.” I explained what I saw. “Did I miss anything?”
“Nope. What do you think, Captain?”
I think I wanted Alice up here with me, because what I thought scared me a lot more than I wanted to admit. I wanted her to tell me I was full of shit, but I didn’t think she would.
Still, I banged on the com. “Alice, to the bridge.”
“You can’t figure it out, Captain?”
I looked up from my desk, out across the bridge. Mickey had spun in his chair and was looking at me.
“No. I think I’ve got it figured out. I want her to tell me I’m wrong.”