Cover Art by dapatty.
She can always tell, because the world is in black and white, all the colors drained, desaturated. She never dreams in color.
Frank's here, and Jamia doesn't care that it's a dream. She listens to Frank's laugh, feels his hands against her skin. She always loved the way he touched her, fingers strong and sure.
There's a breeze ruffling the curtains, salt-scented, and she can hear the muted crash of waves. It's Freeport, the first place they'd stopped to resupply after they made their partnership official. They'd taken a break, gone down to the planet's surface and frolicked on the pink sands.
It's warm and safe.
"You're so beautiful," Frank murmurs, and Jamia has to close her eyes against the raw ache in her chest.
"I love you, Frank, so fucking much—" Jamia pulls him against her, and the way he presses her into the soft mattress—it's been so long and she's missed it so much. Misses him.
She threads her fingers through his hair and urges him close, pressing their lips together. He teases with his tongue, always too clever by half, and Jamia lets him in with a broken sound.
Jamia remembers clearly the first time they kissed, exhausted and covered in coolant as they'd raced to repair the Glory's sublight engine. She remembers the last time they kissed, an echo of the half-distracted brush of their mouths as they'd approached orbit around Rijl Six, unaware of the danger that laid ahead.
"It's okay, baby," he says against her neck.
It's not, but for a little while, Jamia lets herself forget.
Frank kisses her like she's the only thing in the universe that matters; it's a heady sensation, addictive. He'd always said that he'd known, from the very first time they'd met, on the run from the Republic of Core Worlds, that they belonged together.
Jamia had laughed at him, left him behind on Chitra, contract fulfilled and her account flush with credit.
In the end, he'd been right, though. As their paths crossed again and again, improbable in the wide universe, he'd convinced her, first with his body, then with words whispered against her skin.
Now, in her dream, she clutches at Frank's broad shoulders, sweat-damp and slick under her hands. Her fingers slip on his skin as he moves lower, mouth following the curves of her body, pausing to leave a faint bite mark on the tender underside of her breast.
"Frank—" she gasps, and he laughs, low and wicked, as he shoulders her legs apart, claiming the space for himself.
His mouth is hot, his tongue nimble, and her back arches under the pleasure. He knows her body, in ways no one else ever has. Jamia feels feverish and frantic as he draws out the sensations, lips and fingers and—
"Oh fuck," she moans, as the tension crests like a wave and breaks over her, then recedes, leaving her wrung-out and sweating.
Frank cups his hand over her cunt, almost protective, and moves up the bed. He kisses her, and she can taste herself on his lips, and it sends a thrill racing over her nerves.
"Love you," Frank mutters, pushing his hips forward, pressing his cock against her thigh. He's hard, so damn hard, and Jamia can't wait to feel the stretch of her lips around him—
She's distracted by a sound, something barely audible, but growing louder, and louder, until she can't ignore it anymore. It's an alarm, and as she recognizes it, the dream slips away. She reaches out, tries to hold on, but he's gone and she's alone in her bed.
Her eyes are a little red; she let herself cry a little in the shower. Her hair's still wet and slicked back when she leaves her quarters.
"Good morning, Jamia," the Glory says in Frank's voice. Frank is the ship, these days.
She usually doesn't let it bother her, but now, with the dream so fresh in her mind, her temper flares. She grits her teeth and sinks into the pilot's seat.
Damn Frank for being a stubborn, perverse, stupid asshole. She opens her mouth to start a fight, she's raring for one now, but the com chimes for attention, a one two three tone, the special one.
A lifetime ago Jamia had paid a fortune for a patched-in backdoor monitor on the network, keyed to certain names. Any time their identities pinged in the system, Jamia got a notif. With so many people in her life living outside of the law, it had only made sense to keep an electronic eye on them.
"Incoming message," Frank says.
"Clearly," Jamia snaps. She flashes the alert onto the display, skims it and— "Damn it, Dewees," she breathes. "You stupid motherfucker."
It's an arrest report for one of Dewees' many aliases. It won't be long before the authorities ferret out Dewees' true identity, and the trouble will really start.
"How fast can we get there?"
There's a long pause, an eternity to a ship's AI, before Frank says, "Jamia, we can't. The chance of getting caught is too high."
That's Frank's 'reasonable' tone, the one he only used about twice during their time together. The first time, she'd left him behind for the duration of the run, and the second time— Well, the less said about the second time, the better.
"Also, we need fuel and a replacement flux vane—"
Frank is the ship, he knows everything about the Glory, including the sorry state of their finances. If he were still alive, Jamia would have kept that particular bit of data to herself. What he didn't know wouldn't hurt him.
"We simply don't have the credits."
Jamia closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. "He got popped for petty larceny. If they crack his ident, find out who he really is—"
She ignores him. "How many outstanding arrest warrants does Dewees have?"
Frank sounds resigned. "Between the various corps, the Polity, and the RCW? Approximately 63."
"It's a Polity outpost, y'know the penalties for piracy as well as I do." Jamia blows out a breath. "Are you willing to let them execute him?" Her voice is harsh, because it's Dewees they're talking about. "You know if they find out who he really is, they will. Without hesitation."
There's nothing Frank can say to that, because Jamia's right.
"Dewees is an asshole, and he snores, but he's ours. And I'm done with letting go of what's mine without a fight." The words hang in the air, sharp and pointed.
If Frank was still alive, he would have flinched away from the anger in her voice, steeled himself, and then fought back. Now, he just gives in, and Jamia hates it.
"If we sell Number 4, and assuming we get a quarter of its value, that'll give us enough to replace the flux vane and fuel up. We'll be lighter, too, faster."
Jamia wants to protest, because it's an ugly solution. Selling the heavy mag-rail cannon will get them the credits they need, but leaves the Glory more vulnerable, less able to fight back. "Do it."
While Frank busies himself with placing an advert for Number 4 on the darknet, Jamia sends out a coded message.
While she waits for a reply, Jamia works on calculations for rebalancing the ship once Number 4 is gone. The Glory is a hummer, made to hit and run. She's nothing but fast engines and big guns, cramped quarters and a small cargo hold. Taking out one of the guns makes a difference in the way she moves, and they have to compensate for that.
It always made Frank nervous, the Glory's lack of significant shielding, but they add too much weight, slow her down. It wasn't worth it, and Jamia was an uncanny pilot; what she couldn't outshoot, she could definitely outrun.
Jamia has more outstanding warrants that even Dewees, and most of hers are for piracy. She hasn't checked the bounty the on her head in a while, but it had been pretty high, the last time she looked.
It's a point of pride for her.
The com chimes again, and it's Gerard.
His face, a little fuzzy on her screen, is familiar, known. Dark, messy hair, pale face, the best gunner this side of the DMZ, the uneasy region between the Polity and the RCW. He'd been Jamia's second for years, until he'd met Linds and fallen in love.
Jamia still misses him, his loud, honking laugh and his crooked smile, but it's been clear since the beginning that Linds made him happy. Jamia hadn't been able to find it in her to try to keep him from that, no matter how good of a second he'd been.
She touches the screen lightly, dredging up a smile. "Hey, Gee."
"What do you need?"
She closes her eyes against the sudden sting of tears. Gerard always has her back, unconditional and without question.
"Dewees is being held on Izar, but they're shipping him in two days to the L4 transfer station for processing, and then to the quadrant hq."
"I saw the alert." Gerard's forehead crinkles. "I'm still trying to figure out how the fuck Dewees got busted. He's usually better than that."
Jamia laughs, the sound bitter in her throat. "He's been taking stupid risks lately." There's been half a dozen close calls over the last couple of years; it had only been a matter of time.
"Have you seen him since. . ." The words trail off and Gerard swallows, loud even over the hum of the transmission. He rubs at his face with his hand.
They tiptoe around Frank's ghostly presence, and it's ridiculous. It pisses her off. "No." Jamia fiddles with the ring on her right hand, Frank's ring. Dewees' ring is on the opposite hand. "He's kept himself scarce, the stupid fucker."
Gerard laughs softly. "So, you planning on hitting them while he's being transferred?"
Jamia nods. "I have no desire to break Dewees out of the planetside holding facility. The logistics of it would be a fucking nightmare, and it's too damn risky."
"A distraction, then? Something to keep them occupied while you grab Dewees? Linds has been working on some decoys, transmitters that broadcast a mayday, and scan as a damaged ship." He grins. "She's been dying for a chance to field test it."
Linds is an brilliant tink; her ship is a patchwork of spare parts and welded together bits, and it's solid. There isn't anything mechanical, as far as Jamia can tell, that Linds can't fix or make better. "That's perfect, Gerard."
"She's amazing," he says, and Jamia can almost see the hearts in his eyes. It should be stupid, Gerard's so openly earnest love for Linds, but it's not. It's beautiful, and she'll do what she can to keep Gerard and Linds safe in this dangerous universe.
"We're a couple of sectors away from Izar, it won't take us long to get there."
Jamia feels her eyebrow arch. "Linds been playing with the engines again?"
"Always," Gerard says. "There's not a day when I'm not tripping over some disassembled part of Little Wings."
Jamia laughs, and it feels good. "The exciting life of a pirate."
"Professional freelance wealth redistributor," Gerard corrects with a wink.
She snorts. "We'll meet in—" She checks the chron. "Thirty-six hours? I'll send you the coords."
"Works. We'll iron out the details then."
"All right." She inhales, slow and deep. "Thank you—"
Gerard interrupts her. "Not necessary, Jamia, you know that."
She does, but she's made promises to herself to never take anyone for granted again.
"See you soon," he says, image flickering. "Tell Frank I said hi." The screen goes dark.
It takes her breath away, the wave of lovegriefanger that crashes into her. She clutches at the edge of her console until the anger wins out. It's the only thing that keeps her going these days.
"Idiot." Jamia's not sure if she's referring to herself, to Frank or to Dewees.
The transfer station is basically a giant metal cylinder, placed in L4, a stable orbit that requires no energy to maintain. Most new settlements throw their first stations up at the L4 and L5 points, usually simple rotating habitats for the initial crop of space workers that a new colony attracts.
Jamia's pretty sure Izar Prime's been up here for a while. It's old and it shows in the outdated ventilation tech snaking down the corridors, and the big ugly welds along the walls. One day, this place is going to have a massive failure, air systems breaking down, slowly poisoning the air with cdiox. Or an airlock malfunction, blowing everything out into the colddark of space.
"I don't like this place," she says, and she's not even sure Frank can hear her over the ambient noise of a busy station. It might be on the edge of falling apart, but Izar Prime's still a port of call for dozens of nearby planets.
It's a Polity station, and there are soldiers everywhere, demanding idents from passing locals, traders, workers, tourists. They're heavily armed, because it's the Polity, and they love a show of force.
"It's a fucking deathtrap," Frank says in her earpiece, and Jamia couldn't agree more. "Look at that—that's clearly in violation of safe engineering practices on at least twelve different worlds."
Jamia snorts in amusement. Like the Polity actually gives a fuck about the people on this station, other than as a source of money and labor. "I don't think safety is a big concern here."
"It should be," Frank says. "These plans that Linds found are worthless. They've gotta be at least a couple of hundred years old, and the station's been through a handful of retrofits since then."
"Figured," Jamia replies. "Worth a try, though." She pretends to consult the e-guidebook in her hand, concentrating on looking vacuous and lost. She turns left, down a less-busy corridor, and—
"Citizen, this is a restricted area. Return to the main areas of the station." It is not a request. The jackboot wears a featureless helmet, dark uniform, and concussive gun holstered to their thigh. They're meant to intimidate.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Jamia chirps. "I'm not used to stations, and it's so easy to get turned around in here. . ." She holds up her e-book. "Can you point me toward the shìchăng? I just want to pick up some souvenirs. . ."
"Back the way you came, turn right, then left and you'll be in the central corridor. Follow the signs."
"Thank you so much," Jamia gushes, and retreats. She stays quiet until she hits the next corridor. "Two jacks in front of the door. It doesn't look like it's a big facility, maybe half a dozen individual holding cells?"
"I've found the location on Linds' plans, cross checking with current station maps. . .it's a small area, you're right, can't be more than three or four more jacks inside, plus someone in charge. Let me see if I can dig into the payroll program."
Jamia finds a tiny, unoccupied table in the crowded shìchăng, sits and engages the one-way privacy screen. It shimmers green, and the roar of the shìchăng is silenced. There are so many stalls, filled with goods from hundreds of different places: food and clothes, exotic pets and ship components, cheap electronics, hand-crafted items, and mass-produced junk. A lot of merchandise comes from dark traders, but the station doesn't give a fuck as long it gets a cut of the profits.
A lot of those credits, in turn, are used to line the pockets of Polity officials on the station, to ensure they turn a blind eye to the more. . .questionable activities on Izar Prime.
"Can't get into the payroll program, but the Polity reimburses the station for the jacks' salaries. . . figure six to eight employees getting paid shit, or three to four getting average pay. . ."
"So, eight jacks at most." Jamia taps at her bottom lip.
"Yeah. Hold on," Frank says. "I think I can—"
She waits, watching the crowd surge and recede around the stalls. There's a customer aggressively haggling with a seller, and Jamia spots a pickpocket making the rounds, light-fingered and quick.
The shìchăng feels alive, dynamic and hypnotic, and Jamia is fascinated.
Frank says, "I'm in the repair system, it's older than shit and patchworked all to hell. They certainly don't believe in spending credits on upgrades around here."
She nods, unsurprised.
"Found a backdoor into the airlock monitoring programs." He makes a sound of disgust. "Half the fucking airlocks don't actually work, and the ones that do are triggering false positives, so they've disconnected the alarms."
"Well, that's not at all reassuring." Jamia, like anyone who grew up on stations and ships, has a bone-deep terror of airlock malfunctions. Space is not forgiving, and if the lack of oxy doesn't kill you, the cold certainly will.
It's the cold that had gotten Frank. She shivers.
"I want you outta here," Frank says. "Those things could blow at any moment—"
"Frank," Jamia says, calm and careful, because she can tell Frank's working himself up into a temper tantrum. "We need to grab Dewees and then we can get the fuck outta here."
He's angry, but she won't give ground on this. "Can you trigger the alarms manually?" Airlock klaxons are pretty much the same across the universe, loud with a distinctive wah wah wah, urgent and impossible to ignore. "Frank?"
"Yeah," he finally says, sullenly. When she closes her eyes, she can see him, shoulders hunched, lips thin and unsmiling. "I can do that. Coordinate it with Linds' decoy."
"Perfect." Her gun is holstered to her thigh, and she pulls it out and pops the housing. It looks like a regular concussive weapon, but it's been modified so the dampener can be deactivated.
From the top of her boot, Jamia pulls out a bit of hidden wire, twists it into the proper shape, slides it into place. She snaps the cover back on, and hits the reset button on the grip.
The gun powers up with a quiet whine, vibrating in her hand. There's a solid click and the indicator light flashes green.
"Fucking dangerous," Frank mutters. "That'll hole the station if you miss."
Jamia can't help the way her lips curve up in a sharp-edged smile. "I never miss."
Frank can't argue with that.
Jamia's wandering at the edge of the shìchăng, doing her best impersonation of a tourist. She only gets stopped by jacks twice, but her ident is solid, so they just wave her on.
It's not long before the overhead pings for attention. "All emergency and rescue personnel to the downside docks. All emergency and rescue personnel to the downside docks," a soothing computerized voice announces. "All other citizens, move along."
There's a pause, and the message gets repeated in Man'rin, then Espanish, and finally Arabī. "Now, Frank," Jamia murmurs, and the airlock klaxons blare, and instantly the place degenerates into chaos, people yelling and shoving. The sellers in the shìchăng rush to close up their stalls, and Jamia shakes her head. If this was an actual airlock malfunction. . .
"Citizens, drop what you are doing and go to the nearest emergency airlock shelter. This is not a drill. Hull integrity at 79% and falling. . .proceed to the nearest shelter immediately." The message cycles through a handful of languages, and Jamia moves through the terrified crowd to the detention center.
There's only one jack in front of the door; the other probably fled in a panic. The Polity doesn't pay enough to risk your life guarding petty criminals when there's an emergency. The remaining jack, missing her helmet, looks comically surprised as Jamia takes aim at her. "If you want to live, go now," Jamia says.
The jack's older, and clearly not an idiot. She holds up her hands and carefully edges around Jamia, breaking into a run once she's past. Jamia tries the door, and it beeps defiantly at her. "Fuck you," she mutters. It would be too easy if the damn thing was unlocked.
"Got it," Frank says, and the door slides with a metallic grinding sound, stutters, and gets stuck three-quarters of the way open. It doesn't matter, Jamia peers around the door and there's two jacks in the process of putting on emergency suits.
They look up at the sound, guns raised, and Jamia ducks back behind the door as they fire wildly at her.
Under the blaring of the klaxons, she can hear the jacks arguing as they struggle with their one-size-doesn't-fit-all suits. Jamia closes her eyes for a moment, building a picture in her mind of the room's layout, calculating the angles and—
She doesn't miss.
The holding cells are made of one-way transparent plas, so she can see Dewees in one occupied cell, a stranger in the other. Jamia opens the door to the stranger's cell, gestures at the woman with her gun. "Get out of here while you can."
The woman doesn't need to be told twice; she flips her orange blonde hair over her shoulder, blows Jamia a kiss, and disappears out the door.
Dewees is pacing back and forth in the confines of his cell; and Jamia really looks at him. He looks smaller, somehow, like the last few years have diminished the boisterousness that's the core of Dewees. He's lost weight, too thin now, his normal solidness gone, like he's wasting away.
Dewees' has always been their center of gravity, the star Jamia and Frank had orbited around, and Jamia has missed him fiercely.
Jamia snorts at herself. "Mooning over him like an idiot," she mutters under her breath. "Don't know if I'm gonna hug him or kill him."
"We've gone to a lot of effort to rescue him alive, Jamia, so maybe not with the killing?"
She blows her bangs out of her eyes. "You take all the fun out of being a pirate, Frank, just so you know." She pops the door open, and she will treasure the look of unadulterated bogglement on Dewees' face for the rest of her life."Nĭ hăo, motherfucker," Jamia says.
"Jamia? What the fucking fuck?"
He reaches out, like he can't actually believe she's there, and Jamia slaps his hand away. She's still not sure if she wants to strangle him or hug him, and they need to get moving. "Let's go."
Dewees crosses his arms over his chest and his mouth thins, and fuck, Jamia is too fucking familiar with that mulish look, it's Dewees digging his feet in.
"Not until you tell me what's going on," he says, primly.
Jamia's temper flares. "Listen," she snarls. She flips her gun over in her hand, brandishing the weighted handle at Dewees. "I will fucking knock you out and throw your body on the antigrav pallet I saw in the hallway. I don't need you to be conscious to rescue your dumb ass."
Jamia can see how tempted Dewees is to test her, but for once in his life, he decides to be smart. "Okay."
When Jamia peeks out into the corridor, she's unsurprised to see the jack that ran away earlier rounding the corner. With what looks like a dozen of her closest friends.
"Fuck," she says, ducking back into the detention center just as a series of concussive blasts hits the door, rattling the metal. "Help me with this."
Between the two of them, they manage to get the door mostly closed. It won't hold off a determined attack, but it buys them a few minutes.
And a few minutes is all Jamia really needs.
There's a metal grate under one of the work consoles, part of the ventilation system. She pushes the console out of the way, so she has clear access to it. "C'mon, Dewees," she says, taking careful aim. The blast from her gun melts a hole in the grate, and she uses the heel of her boot to stomp, bending the metal to widen the hole.
It'll be a tight fit, but it's a workable solution. Better than sticking around and waiting for the jacks to come through the door.
"What's down there?"
"I have no idea," she says. "And I don't care."
Dewees moves closer to the hole, peering down. "It's dark."
"Oh, for the love of—" Jamia reaches up, takes hold of Dewees' ear and twists, ignoring his yelp. "Get down there."
Dewees rubs at his ear, looking at her reproachfully before carefully lowering himself into the hole. Jamia watches impatiently, checking the charge on her gun as the pounding on the door takes on a concerted, organized rhythm.
"I can't touch the bottom," Dewees says, and there's more than a hint of panic in his voice. He's got a white-knuckled grip on the grate.
"If the blueprints are anywhere near accurate, the drop should only be about six feet. Painful, but not deadly," Frank says.
"But we both know those blueprints are outdated," Jamia points out.
"What?" Dewees is looking up at her, sweat dotting his face as he struggles to hold on.
Jamia remembers that Dewees doesn't know about Frank, and now is probably not the time for that particular discussion. "Talking to myself," she says. "Just let go, Dewees, it shouldn't be that much of a drop."
"Fuck no," Dewees says. "No no no, no fucking—" It becomes moot when his hands slip on the metal. His face is surprised as he disappears into the darkness.
"Dewees!" Her heart skips a beat and she leans down, trying to see, but it's too dark. "Dewees!"
"Alive," he answers. "Bruised but not broken. I think." He groans, loud and pained, and Jamia's reassured. The more dramatic Dewees is, the more normal the situation.
"Told you." She holsters her gun. "Move out of the way, I'm coming down." She lets herself hang from the grate for a minute, steeling herself and letting go.
It's a shorter drop than the outdated plans indicated. Much shorter. She pulls out her flash and flicks it on. The corridor they're in is narrow with a low ceiling. When she aims the light at Dewees, she has to bite back a laugh at the way he's hunched to avoid overhead pipes and vents.
"Access for the maintenance bots," she mutters. The ceiling may be cluttered with parts of Izar Prime's internal systems, but the floor is pristine except for the colored guide lines that the bots use to find their way around the station. "Orange for upside docks, right?"
"Blue, actually," Frank says.
"Blue it is," Jamia echoes. She gestures with the flash. "Let's go."
"Are you talking to yourself?" Dewees sounds curious. They follow the blue line down the corridor. "I hear that space will do that to you, nothing but the cold and the black—"
There's a hint of laughter in his voice, but Jamia is so fucking done with him. "I'm not talking to myself."
Dewees stumbles and looks back at her, and Jamia can tell the exact moment when he figures it out. He pales and sways a little, and Jamia thinks he's going to pass out on her—
"Why didn't you tell me?" His voice is hard, his face expressionless, and Jamia is going to fucking shove him out an airlock once they're safely back on the Glory. "This whole time, I thought he was dead. Why the fuck would you keep this from me?"
Jamia's jaw drops open. She really can't believe him, he has no right to be mad. "He is dead," she snaps. "But his personality's been integrated with the ship's AI. Which you would have known if you'd stuck around. But you ran away, you dumb son of a bitch. You ran so fucking fast and far, and you left me to pick up the pieces." She shoves him out of her way and stomps toward the exit, because otherwise she is going to strangle him.
The corridor opens up into a dark room, the faint outline of maintenance bots barely visible. The bots are arranged in metal framework, neat and efficient. The indicator lights show that they're plugged into the station's electrical system, recharging themselves.
"The station is still treating Linds' decoy as an actual emergency," Frank says, a little subdued. "They're starting to figure out that the airlock malfunction isn't, though."
"How long do we have?" Dewees tries to say something, but Jamia just waves him quiet.
Frank answers instantly. "I'd say about fifteen minutes before they realize that the hull integrity isn't compromised."
"Plenty of time," Jamia says. She pulls out her gun and contemplates it. If she keeps it holstered, they're less likely to draw attention to themselves, and they can blend into the crowd. But if she keeps it out, people are more likely to get the hell out of her way. She doesn't holster it. "Let's go."
The corridor outside of the bot maintenance closet is filled with panicking people, racing toward the docks. The safest place to be when a station is losing integrity is away.
Jamia grabs Dewees' wrist, holds tight. "C'mon."
Most people are too busy with their own shit to notice Jamia's gun, but the few that do steer clear. A jack moves to stop her. Jamia suspects that under the darkened helmet is a kid, too green to know better, but the jack takes one look at the sneer on her face and scurries away.
The downside dock is still bustling, even with many of the berths recently vacated by ships fleeing the airlock emergency. There's the clang of metal doors being shut, and the hiss of venting gases. It's normal, and reassuring in a strange way.
"Berth Seven," Jamia says, and Dewees nods.
"Stop right there!"
Jamia pushes Dewees into the next corridor just as the concussive blast hits her arm; all the nerves go dead and her gun falls from her useless hand. She doesn't hesitate, turns and scoops the gun up with her off-hand, and returns fire before ducking around the corner. "Run," she shouts, shoving Dewees toward the Glory. "Run!"
It's hard to run and shoot at the people chasing you, but Jamia's had years of practice, and she's damn good at it. She only misses once, and luckily, she doesn't manage to blast a gaping hole in the hull of the station.
She's not as good at dodging, so by the time they tumble into the Glory, out of breath but without any jacks on their tail, Jamia's limping. She still can't feel her arm, either, so she lets Frank handle the Glory.
Jamia drops into the pilot's seat, flicks switches to monitor the chatter on the communication bands. There's a lot of crosstalk, but more than a handful of ships have undocked from Izar Prime.
"How bad is it?" Frank asks.
Out of the corner of her eye, Jamia sees Dewees flinch at the sound of Frank's voice.
Jamia thinks about deliberately misunderstanding Frank, but she knows that won't hold up for long. She shrugs. "Solid hits. Numb, no tingling yet." That's the problem with concussive blasts: either you're good as new in a few hours, or you've got permanent nerve damage. It's impossible to tell which it's going to be. "Could have been worse."
On the other side of the DMZ, where the Core Worlds still held sway, she'd be dead. The Republic didn't believe in non-lethal weapons, and they didn't believe in warning shots, either.
"Glory Hole, this is Izar Prime Control, you are not cleared for departure. Please stand down and await instructions."
"Any word from Gerard and Linds?"
"You dragged Gerard into this?" Dewees hisses at her.
"Shut up," she says, distracted by the comm feed. There's so much traffic in local space that Control is starting to panic. Trying to keep track of too many ships, with too many different trajectories, it's overwhelming.
"They've already jumped," Frank says.
Jamia exhales. "Good. Let's go, then."
"Glory Hole, stand down." It's a different voice on the comm, cold and authoritative; Jamia bets it's a high-level jack. "Stand down, your crew is wanted for questioning. Security is en route. Stand down."
Jamia rolls her eyes and flicks a switch. "Izar Prime Control, this is the Glory Hole. Disengaging in five." She cuts the comm off just as the jack officer starts to yell about the number of Polity laws she's breaking.
". . .two, one," Frank says, and the ship lurches a little bit as the anchors are released. They drift away from Izar Prime, and then the sub-light engines kick in.
"Take the gunner's seat," Jamia tells Dewees, who sits and scrambles to get the safety harness on.
He scans the weapons console, tripping switches. "What's wrong with Number 4, I'm not getting any readings from it."
"Sold it," Jamia says. She activates the display, watching as the lidar pulses reflect off local objects, building a 3D image of what's going on in the space around them. Dots peel off from the larger bulk of the station, moving fast. "Got three on our tail."
Dewees curses under his breath, and it's so familiar, it almost makes Jamia forget how fucked everything is. "We just need to get far enough away to jump." The singularity engines create what amounts to a tiny black hole that connects two distant points in space; any nearby objects tend to throw off the calculations.
That makes arriving at your planned destination a lot less certain. The jump also releases gravitational forces that will tear a ship apart if it is too close.
"Standard jack patrol ships," Frank says, and Jamia feels something loosen in her chest.
The Polity doesn't spend credits unless it's necessary, and they've always been more about a show of force than anything. Their patrol ships tend to be slow, clunky, and armed with a single mag-rail cannon.
"We can outrun them," Jamia says. "Dewees, stay sharp, if by some miracle they get close, you can take 'em out, but otherwise—" She laughs and shakes her arm. It's starting to tingle, sensations slowly returning. "Let's get out of here."
Jamia, like any good pirate, has a succession of hideaways, safe places where she stashes fuel, ship parts, trade goods, anything valuable or important. Places where she can go to ground and hide, rest, recover when she needs to.
She takes great care in keeping the locations to herself; when he was alive, Frank didn't even know where they all were. The coordinates are stored in Jamia's brain, and coded in a little antique paper notebook she keeps in the ship's lockbox.
They take a circuitous route to one of her caches, because she wants to make absolutely sure that no one is following them. It's the oldest one; she inherited it from her mother, who had it from hers.
This one's an abandoned methane refinery, from when independent miners could still eke out something of a living. It's nothing more than a small structure erected over a borehole.
What made it the perfect refuge was the location: on the far side of a rocky moon, wedged deep in a canyon. Jamia's gran had run across the refinery, then spent years patching holes from the occasional micrometeorite and repairing the life support systems.
It's always freezing cold inside the refinery building, but it's worth it to have a sheltered place to rest.
Jamia's never brought anyone here before, and it makes her a little bit uneasy to let Dewees and Frank in. She trusts them completely, but she's spent her whole life keeping this place secret. . .
Dewees whistles, impressed, as the lights flicker on.
The floor is filthy, and what little furnishings the place has are less than utilitarian, but in some corner of Jamia's heart, it feels like home. Always has.
"You never showed me this place." The words are soft in Jamia's ear, but there's a hint of hurt in Frank's voice.
"No, I never did." She won't apologize for it. "It's the only thing I never shared with you."
It's a peace offering of sorts, and Frank recognizes that. "All right."
Now that they're out of danger, exhaustion hits Jamia hard, and she feels every bruise and strained muscle. She sways a little, unbalanced by her still-numb leg, and Dewees is instantly at her side, arm around her waist, supporting her. She tries to shrug his arm away, but Dewees is being weirdly persistent about helping her stay upright.
"Frank—" Dewees says. "She's—"
"I just need to rest," she says.
"Fuck, Jamia, the AI here is primitive," Frank says from the refinery's intercom system. "It's old as dirt, the defenses are stupidly flimsy. . ."
"Make yourself right at home, Frank," Jamia mutters, hobbling over to a couch. Dewees eases her onto the cushions.
"Dewees, there's an autodoc in the next room," Frank says. "It's ancient, but serviceable. A few hours in there will do her some good."
"I'm fine," she says. The shaking's not so noticeable when she clenches her fists. She just needs a little time to relax—
"Yeah, no," Frank says, and before Jamia can open her mouth, Dewees hoists her up into his arms, carrying her to the autodoc. She thinks about struggling, about popping Dewees in the nose with a fist—
Dewees slants a glance at her and lifts his chin. "Fucking try it."
She's so tempted; she wants him to hurt like she hurts, heart shattered like something fragile inside her chest. Jamia shifts her weight a little for more leverage—
"Jamia, behave yourself."
She blows out a breath, frustrated and angry. "Fuck you both." Her voice is quiet, but venomous. She doesn't need either of them to take care of her, but she relaxes in Dewees' arms, lets herself be lowered onto the autodoc platform, closes her eyes.
There's a mechanical clicking as the autodoc calibrates itself, then a brief puff of cold against her wrist, and the world falls away.
It's that fucked-up, disastrous run, the one where Frank died and Dewees left her behind. She struggles to wake, to look away, but all she can do is watch as the scene unfolds.
Frank, suited up, scrambles to weld a patch to the hull of the Glory, fighting against the escaping atmosphere. There's a sizeable crack, probably caused by debris from the explosion, and it's in a really bad place. They're dead in the black until it's repaired, because if they try to maneuver now, there's a good chance the Glory will break apart.
In reality, she'd been sitting in the Glory's pilot's seat, watching the lidar pulses as Dewees tried to draw away the squad of ships that was hunting them. She could hear Frank's labored breathing in her earpiece, and the chatter over the comm from the other ships.
In the dream, though, she watches, helpless, as the Glory takes another hit, a hard one, from a passing hunk of metal. The Glory shifts, and Frank's taken by surprise; his tether keeps him close but he spins, and hits the side of the ship.
"No," Jamia tries to say, because she sees it in this fucking dream, the moment when Frank's suit heater is damaged.
Space is dark, and fucking cold.
There's a faint chiming sound. "Something's wrong with my suit," he says to her. "Readings are all fucked up."
She's back inside the Glory, at her console, and she can hear how he's trying to act unconcerned.
"Get back in here," she replies, flicking her comm open to the coded channel. "Dewees, can you hold them off?"
"I'll try, but they're pretty pissed."
"Yeah." She toggles a couple of switches. "Frank's outside, trying to put the Glory back together, but he's got some sort of suit malfunction."
"Dunno," Jamia says. "Keep the comm line open."
"Frank, get back in here," she says. Her voice is somehow steady.
"Can't," Frank says, and his teeth are chattering. "Gotta finish the weld, or we're done for."
"How much more?" The proximity alert goes off, and on the lidar display, she sees one, two of the ships zip past Dewees. "Shit, incoming!"
"You take care of the incoming, I'll put the Glory back together," Frank pants.
She can't maneuver, but she's got four big guns, unexpected for a ship the size of the Glory. It's not a lot, but Jamia can work with it. "Hold tight, Frank. Gonna pick up some motion when we start firing."
She reroutes fire control to her console, flips up the trigger guard with her thumb, and waits. . .
Jamia hears Frank in her earpiece; he's struggling, breathing hard, cursing. She's never been so scared, and she wants to stop everything, reel him in from the black, but she knows he's right. He's got to finish that patch.
She concentrates on the lidar display, focusing on the dots. She pushes away the fear that's making her hands shake, squashes it into the furthest corner of her mind.
"Done," Frank crows breathlessly, just as she fires the cannons, one-two-three-four. The Glory gives an almost imperceptible shudder, and there's a flash on the lidar.
"One destroyed, the other pretty close," he confirms. "They're abandoning ship." Jamia hears Dewees' relieved sigh. "You did good."
"Frank? Frank?" She doesn't hear anything on the comm. "Frankie, talk to me—"
"So cold," he slurs, so quietly that she can barely hear him. Jamia throws herself out of the pilot's seat, running toward the airlock.
"Frank? Frank, talk to me, stay with me, motherfucker—"
"What's going on? Jamia—"
Dewees' voice fades away as she looks out the small viewport. She can just make Frank out in his suit, floating at the end of the tether. "Frank! Frank, talk to me!"
There's silence, then a slow inhale. "Fucked up."
Jamia backs away from the airlock, and starts putting on the spare suit. "Frank. Frank, I'm coming out there, just hold on." Her hands are trembling, making it hard to deal with the fiddle-y little seals, but she keeps trying until they're securely latched.
There's a click in her ear, and then Dewees is talking on a private channel, and she can't make out what he's saying through the fear that's making her heart pound so loudly.
Frank's voice is so faint, she's afraid that she's imagining it. "I'm here, Frankie."
"Love you," he says, and Jamia bites her lip hard to keep the tears at bay.
"Hold on, Frank. I'm coming—"
Jamia wakes with a gasp, Dewees hands fluttering on her back, helping her to sit up. She feels like shit, and probably looks worse. She rubs her hand over her face, trying to wipe away the memories.
She hates relieving Frank's death, the way he looked when she got him back on the Glory and pulled off his helmet, lips blue. It still hurts so much, a gaping wound in her chest.
"You okay?" Dewees' voice is gruff.
She's not, really, but she pretends that he's talking about just her physical state. Jamia twitches her shoulders, points her toes, stretching muscles. Everything aches, but nothing's numb. "Yeah." She tilts her head up to look at Dewees.
He looks older, the crow's feet next to his eyes more pronounced. There's a half-healed scrape high on his cheekbone, and his jawline is covered in dark stubble.
She remembers what it felt like to have that stubble rasp across the sensitive skin of her belly, the wet warmth of Dewee's mouth exploring her curves, the way his tongue made Frank shiver and gasp.
Dewees makes a soft, hungry sound, and leans down to kiss her, a chaste press of lips.
Jamia can't help herself, it's been too long, she's been too alone. Her hands curl around his broad shoulders, pull him close, closer, and she opens her mouth and coaxes him in.
She leans back on the autodoc, and Dewees follows, settling between her legs, pressing his thigh against her cunt. "Oh," she breathes, and a wave of heat shudders through her. Suddenly she's frantic, tugging at his clothes, hers, wanting to feel his skin under her hands.
It triggers something in Dewees, who growls her name and nips at her neck hard enough to make her cry out. She digs in with her nails in petty retaliation and Dewees hisses in pain. He rears back and grabs her hands, his fingers tight around her wrists.
Jamia struggles a little, she wants to touch him, and Dewees keeps her pinned down with one hand, the other sliding up under her shirt, toward her breasts. There's no room for finesse; he pinches one nipple hard before moving to the other.
"Fuck," Jamia mutters. It hurts, Dewees is rough and careless, but the sensations make her back arch, searching for more pressure and friction. She stretches up and catches his mouth in a kiss, muffling the little sounds he's pulling from her.
His hand moves down, slow and steady, coming to rest at the crux of her thighs, where she's hot and wet. "Yeah?" He presses his palm against her clit, and it sends a sweet ache through her cunt.
Jamia nips at his bottom lip, because he's teasing and it's been so fucking long, she feels desperate. She tries to work her hands free, but she gets distracted when he starts to rub his fingers against her. "Dewees," she says, and it's hard to breathe, he's stealing her air away with lingering kisses and the touch of his fingers.
"Jamia," he whispers, and she bites her lip, because it feels so good, the pleasure that's building like a wave inside of her, warm and electric, making her shiver.
She tries to make it last, because it's been forever since anyone's touched her. Dewees won't let her, though; he takes control of her pleasure and drowns her in it, holds her under until she's sure she's going to die from it.
She dozes a little afterwards, the two of them squished together on the narrow autodoc platform. Her head's resting against Dewee's chest, and she can feel the beat of his heart.
She knows that tone, too serious by half, and she sits up, moves to the other end of the autodoc, putting some distance between them.
"What happened after I left?"
Her lip curls. "After you ran away?"
Dewees gives her a disapproving look, but Jamia doesn't care. She's still pissed at him.
"I put Frank's body into stasis and got the fuck outta there. Took the jīn to Gabe, took my cut, and went to ground. Kept the channels open until I got word that you were still alive, and then—"
And then she'd fallen apart, and there'd been no one to put her back together.
"I'm sorry," he says quietly.
Jamia buries her face in her hands, taking a deep breath. She doesn't want to deal with this right now, the anger and hurt and love she feels is a tangled mess.
In the immediate aftermath, if she'd run into him, she probably would have punched him as hard as she could, right in the face. But she'd still needed him, and he hadn't been there.
"I'm sorry," he says again. "I know it's my fault, if I hadn't fucked up, it wouldn't have turned into such a clusterfuck, things wouldn't have been so bad, and—" He swallows loudly. "And Frank wouldn't have gotten killed."
Jamia tilts her head, because she's not sure she's hearing right. "Is he—?" she asks Frank. "Does he really think—?"
Frank laughs, but there's nothing amused in his voice. "Yeah, he does. Because he's an idiot."
"Hey!" Dewees protests.
"I'm only going to say this once, so listen carefully." She meets Dewees' eyes, which are dark and shadowed. "It wasn't your fault. Not your fault, not mine. It was bad luck, is all."
"Not your fault." She reaches out for his hand, gives it a squeeze. "I'm fucking furious because you ran away, but it was never because I thought it was your fault."
He stares down at her hand, rubbing his thumb against her pulsepoint. Jamia can tell he's thinking, working things out in his head, wanting to believe. "What about Frank?"
"What about me?" Frank asks. "I'm mad at you, too, fucking coward."
Dewees cracks a tiny smile at that. "Do you blame me? If it wasn't for me, you'd still be alive."
There's a pause, like Frank's giving the question serious thought, and Dewees chews nervously on his bottom lip.
"No, I don't blame you," Frank finally says. "Wrong place, wrong time. Could have just as easily been Jamia out there in a damaged suit."
"All right. So what about—" Dewees flaps his hand around, indicating. . .something.
"I don't know what this—" she mimics Dewees' hand motion, "—means."
Dewees flushes. "Frank. What did—why is—I don't understand how he's—"
"I'm right here, asshole," Frank says, clearly annoyed. "Don't treat me like an inanimate object."
"Stop acting like one, then," Dewees snaps back. "Forgive me for being fucking surprised that my dead partner isn't actually dead."
"Well, sorry to disrupt your fucking plans and all that—"
"Boys," Jamia interrupts. "Can we not?"
Frank slips into a sullen silence, while Dewees frowns.
She pushes her hair back, out of her face. "There are people. They can pull the personality and memories out of a body, transfer them to a AI matrix. If you have the credits. If the brain's not too damaged. If you do it soon after death." Her voice cracks a little at the end, and she clears her throat.
"Ta-da, motherfucker," Frank says.
There's a clatter, then, "What the fuck?"
Jamia looks over at Dewees, who's been poking around the building while Jamia does research on a couple of trade routes in the Outer quadrants. She wants to stay out of the Polity's reach for a while.
"Why do you still have Frank's body?" he asks accusingly, standing over the stasis chamber. Through the transparent plas, Frank's face is visible. "Seriously, what the hell, Jamia, that's really fucking creepy—"
"It's not his body," she says quietly.
"It's not his body," she repeats, louder. "Not the original one, anyway."
Dewees' forehead wrinkles in thought. "It's a clone? Fuck, Jamia, that had to cost—"
"A lot," Jamia agrees. Buying Frank's clone had wiped her out, and then some. She would be paying some people back for the rest of her life. She has no regrets.
"So why hasn't Frank—" Dewees waves his hand through the air in a swimming motion. "Moved into his new digs, as it were."
Jamia can't help snorting at the description.
"Not funny, asshole," Frank says. He doesn't say anything more, and Jamia's sure Frank's going to be a stubborn ass, but then— "The success rates for transferring a consciousness to a clone body aren't great. Transfer failure means I die for real, my personality wiped from the AI matrix" he says slowly. "I've already died once, I don't want to do it again. Don't want to leave—don't want to leave you and Jamia alone, permanently."
Dewees raises an eyebrow at her.
"It has to be his decision; I can't make him do it, no matter how much I want it." The words hurt. They'd argued, her and Frank, for days, until Jamia was couldn't argue anymore, defeated. "Maybe you can talk some fucking sense into him."
"Maybe I can," Dewees replies. He winks, and Jamia's laughing helplessly, forever trapped between wanting to kiss him and wanting to smack him.
There's a curl of fear in her stomach, as they look down at the clone. At Frank. The tell-tales are all in the green: heart rate, respiration, brain activity all normal. If Jamia didn't know better, she'd think Frank was simply asleep.
The process had been ridiculously simple, and at this point, it's a waiting game. Neither of them are particularly patient.
"There's no guarantee, of course," the tech had said. "But we're very good at what we do, we have an excellent success rate."
"47%" Dewees had said sourly.
The tech had nodded.
Now, Dewees holds her hand tight, their fingers threaded together, and they watch as Frank takes a series of deeper breaths, eyelids fluttering. She knows that she's gripping Dewees' hand so hard it must hurt, but she can't stop, can't look away from Frank's face.
Frank's eyes open, and for moment, she freezes, terrified and hopeful in equal measure. There's no recognition, just blankness, and Jamia bites her lip, it didn't work didn't work didn't work—
A familiar smirk spreads across Frank's face. "Hey there."
The tension drains from Jamia and she can't help but squeeze Dewees' hand, and smile back.