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Staked: Chapter Eighteen

I messaged Pietra on the way down, still furious. By the time I made it down to our home level, we were already hashing out the basics of a plan, and Sardra was arguing aloud with Pietra as she pulled the door to the safe house open for me.

“You’ve said yourself that you’re not suited to direct combat work anymore,” she said sharply, and interrupted herself to nod at me in greeting. “Hi.”

“Hi,” I echoed, but Pietra spoke over me.

“We don’t usually have this little time,” Pietra said. “And I have a personal stake in this. Me and mine have already been targeted more than once. I’ve already sent Ani out for this––you think I’m not willing to risk myself? This could be big, and we’re going to need everyone we can get.”

“I’ve already got our hacking team started on trying to intercept intel––”

“Yes, and that has nothing to do with this,” Pietra said, insistent. “With something this last-minute, this important? We want to throw out everything we have immediately available. Anything else could be too little, too late.”

“Is this the plan we were talking about on the way over?” I double checked.

“More or less,” Pietra said. “Storm the Star, see whether we can intercept their route before they can get anything or anyone through it. The sooner the better.”

“If we can catch their shipment instead, it’d be better,” Sardra said, clipped and impatient. “We don’t know what that Imperial agent’s going to try, either––if we run into him around the Spindle, we won’t have as much room to avoid him.”

“We can work together on the fly if we need to,” Pietra said. “We sent Ani out there with Kieran, and he’s working for the agent. As far as we know, he’d have no reason to turn against us on the field.”

Sardra paused, and then sighed. “Okay. Do you honestly think that we can trust him with that much?”

“Well, I met him,” I said. “I’m not sure what he’s planning, though. And I didn’t say anything about the Lady.”

I held out the bundle I’d carried back with me. “For what it’s worth, here’s the dress back.”

She took it, laughing. “Not exactly the top of my list of concerns, but thanks. Was it Kieran who threw you out?” Pietra asked. “Not the agent?”

“No,” I said. “He asked me some questions and then left me alone.”

“I think, under the circumstances, that’s good enough for me.” Pietra said.

Her voice went soft as she turned to Sardra. “Look. You’re good at tactics, I’m good in the field. We don’t have to pick one or the other; we can work together. You can network with people all over the station, but I’m only going to be able to get a limited number of bodies together in time.”

“If you don’t go out in enough force, there’s the threat that you could be overrun,” Sardra said. “You know that. And you’re not as combat ready as you used to be. Your prosthetics don’t have good specs for sprinting––or climbing. In the spindle, that could mean trouble.”

“You’re right,” Pietra said, “but I know those things already. I still think we should do this.”

They stared each other down for a long moment. I held my breath, hoping to avoid catching either of their attention.

“Fine,” Sardra said. “We’ll try it both ways. But you’d better be ready to pull out if it looks like you can’t win.”

“I’ll do my best,” Pietra said dryly.

“I want to come,” I said immediately.

They both looked over at me, eyebrows raised.

“The Star’s mine,” I said. “I can help keep an eye on Pietra, and I can keep in touch with Sardra’s group, or something.”

“You just got back from a firefight and a pod ride, and you want to jump right back in?” Pietra chuckled. “You know what? Fair enough. We’ll find some use for you.” Her smile belied her brusque words, and I grinned back at her.

Sardra threw up her hands. “You know what? Sure, why not. Just do whatever you want.”

“She’s hardly uninvolved at this point,” Pietra said. “Go change into something that actually fits you, sweetie. When you’re back, I’ll show you where we keep our little toys.”

This wasn’t what I thought of as toys, as I discovered when I’d changed.

There were plenty of weapons that I couldn’t even name––varieties of guns and knives and garrotes and so on.

They kept it simple for my sake, though, and I ended up with a small particle gun in a holster that lay flush against the lower part of my hip, a collapsible shield that expanded to cover my torso, and some quick instructions about how they expected me to use them.

“We’re not going to be on the front lines,” Pietra said to me, in between the messages she was sending out to the people she and Sardra were hoping could be raised on short notice. “We’ll be keeping an eye out and staying out of harm’s way. Got it?”

“Sure,” I said. I was glad that they were going to let me come along, but I knew I would probably be badly out of my depth. “How many people are coming with us?”

“Not as many as I’d like, to be honest,” Pietra said. “But you’ve got some training of your own. I know your dad taught you more than a few tricks for self-defense, and I wouldn’t let you carry a gun if you didn’t at least know the basics.”

“That’s true, he did,” I said. I thought back to the handful of times my father had taken me to the shooting range one of his odder friends had set up on a lower level.

I’d been pretty nervous there, surrounded by adults and frightening noises, but he’d kept me calm with a hand on my shoulder and a steady stream of reassuring words.

Don’t let the doubt in, he’d told me, showing me how to brace my wrists before a shot. And if it shows up, show it the door. Confidence is a valuable weapon; don’t hand it off to an enemy if you can avoid it.

I let the words repeat themselves in the back of my mind as I hugged Sardra goodbye and followed Pietra down back alleys to our designated meeting place. If you’re going to do this, Ani, I told myself, let’s make a point of doing it right.

***

Eight people ended up meeting us at several streets away from the Star––six women and two men. As far as I could tell, all of them were fitted out in gear that had been cobbled together from old armor and scraps. The guns they carried were well cared for, though, and they carried them like they knew how to use them.

I stayed near the back of the group as we made our slow and careful way to the Star, on the lookout for any pre-emptive attacks by cartel guards. There was a pause of several tense minutes before it was agreed that none of us could see anyone in or around the Star from the outside––just tarpaulins and caution tape.

Pietra put her head together with a few of the others and sketched out a formation, and then we headed out. Pietra stayed next to me, near the rear of the group, her eyes darting everywhere as we moved forward.

The inside of the Star was deserted. Tarps concealed the gaping hole of the front, but inside things didn’t look too different than they had the last time I’d been here––except for the floor, which I didn’t notice until Pietra caught my eye and gestured at it.

The fine layer of debris had been kicked aside in more places than before, as if many feet had come through since the last time I’d been there.

The group fanned out, and I watched them inspect every corner of the ground floor then split up to go up the stairs. Pietra and I kept watch in the hallway as the people ahead of us swept each room. There was no one to be found.

Aside from us, the whole place looked deserted.

Prickles of doubt crept down my spine as Pietra and her friends scoured the back wall, looking for a latch.

What if I was wrong?

What if they’d snuck up on me some other way? What if there was some reason other than a route through the spindle that they wanted the Star?

But then there was a hollow thud. One of the women punched the air, and one of the wall panels depressed and slid away, perfectly silent.

I hurried over, staring. I’d never imagined my wall could do something like that––and then paused when I saw that behind the door was a space only a few feet deep. I blinked.

“That…doesn’t look like the inside of the Spindle to me,” I said.

“Shh,” Pietra said quickly, drawing close to my ear. “Look.”

I looked, squinting and leaning forward then gasped as I realized that the back wall, nondescript as it looked, was moving. “Is that––“

“The core of the spindle? Looks like it.” Pietra shook her head, looking surprised herself. “We’ll probably have to wait a bit for the opening. The station doesn’t rotate that fast.”

I gulped. “You mean––”

“Yes. But we don’t know how close we might be to the opening––or how long it might last us. So we wait, quietly, and then we rush in.” She gestured, and the rest of the group started to squeeze themselves into the space by the doorway. When we all had packed ourselves in as far as we could go, there was enough room for six of us to stand by the opening with the rest waiting just outside it. We left as much distance between us and the rotating wall of the core and waited.

I was just starting to get bored when a dark, red-lit crack opened in the side of the wall, and in moments, there was no wall anymore. “Go!” Pietra hissed.

The first two people stepped into the opening and were quickly out of sight. I heard one call, “Thirty seconds!”

“Everyone else,” Pietra said, and we all stepped gingerly onto the floor. I almost stumbled as I was suddenly yanked sideways, but Pietra held on to me as the secret passageway in the Star’s back wall vanished behind us.

I’d already almost forgotten about it, staring instead at the sight before us.

We were on a platform that had definitely not been designed to hold ten people at once; I could feel it creaking faintly under my feet.

There was a constant grinding noise everywhere, echoing and amplifying itself between the walls. Red lights spaced every six yards or so were the only illumination, tracing a circle that faded away into the distance, with only the faintest pricks of light suggesting that there was another side, very, very far away.

Between this side and the void was the platform we stood on, stairs along the wall to our left, and a guard rail that didn’t even come to my waist. There was nothing else––only blackness. I couldn’t see the bottom.

We’re inside the spindle, all right, I thought. I’d never had the opportunity to find out if I was subject to vertigo before. With the stress of the coming fight before us, I decided it wouldn’t help to worry about the height.

The stairs went on for a long way––probably several levels, at least, further into the Lowers––before they ended with a large, nondescript platform. It was similar to the one we’d started on…except for the large gap in the railing along the long end. Beside it was another opening in the wall, similar to the one that we’d come through.

So there were at least two access points into this hidden space. I wondered what they syndicate planned to do.

Which door would they enter?

Pietra ordered two people to scour the length of the platform before allowing the rest of us onto it, but it was pretty obvious that this was the end of the road. Guards set up on either side of both openings, and the rest of us settled down outside what would be the line of fire if someone were to come through. I settled down with my back against the wall, at a careful distance from the wall opening and the gap in the railing.

“Nothing to do now but wait,” Pietra told me in a low voice, settling beside me with a groan and patting her prosthetics. “Let me tell you, these things can do stairs, but they don’t appreciate them.”

I smiled sympathetically. “I bet,” I said.

“Try to relax while you can,” she assured me. “We might have a while to wait. Take a nap.”

“I’m not sure I could sleep in here if I wanted to,” I admitted. “What do we do if they come through?”

“Depends how many of them there are.” Pietra shook her head. “This isn’t the most defensible position we could have, and I wish we had more time to prepare. We got here quick enough that I’m pretty sure we didn’t miss them, but there’s a lot more we can do if we’re going to have more time. It won’t be ideal regardless––if they’re trafficking, they’re going to have hostages––but I’ll check in with Sarda, now that we’re in position, and see what she’s learned.”

I nodded, leaned back against the wall, and allowed myself to drift off.

Kieran was probably some other mission by now. I hoped that he was all right. He’d been determined to leave me behind, so he’d probably thought it was dangerous…but then, what we were doing right now was just as dangerous.

Once this was all over, I’d check in, maybe yell at him a bit for trying to cut off ties with me again.

It would serve him right.

Despite my worries, the faint vibration against my back from the wall of the spindle was comforting. I could feel the familiar sound of the station turning, even if it was strange to be on the other side. Pressed up against the wall, though, it almost sounded the same.

Except…

“Do you hear that?” I asked.

Pietra looked up from her comm and cocked her head. ”What?”

I’d grown up hearing the sound of the spindle resounding through the Star, and there was a sound now that I didn’t remember hearing before––but that was somehow familiar. But it seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, and it was so faint that I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t imagining it.

“A sort of…buzzing noise?” I tried. “Pulsing, maybe.”

“No, wait, I think I hear it too,” someone else said. There was a sound of shuffling further down the platform. “I think it’s coming from below,” they called, voice low. “And I think I can see something below us.”

“Maintenance, maybe?” came another voice. “We’ll be in trouble if we’re spotted––we’re not supposed to be here.”

A third man crawled to the edge of the platform, sticking his head out just far enough to see beyond it. “There’s something, all right,” he said. “The pattern of lights looks familiar, and that sounds like an engine…”

“They didn’t,” Pietra breathed over him, from beside me. “They can’t, that’s insane––” But a second later she’d recovered and was shouting. “Everyone, get ready! They’ve got a shuttle in here. Shields up. As soon as you get a clear line of sight, open fire!”

I fumbled with my shield, getting it up and huddling against the wall to hide as much of myself as possible. Beside me, Pietra did the same one-handed, comming Sardra with the other, talking low and too fast for me to catch over the thudding of boots and clicking of weapons being readied.

The shuttle came into sight within seconds, and I couldn’t help peeking. I could feel the engines, gunned down as far as they would go, pushing hot air into my face. The spindle had seemed big before, but now it seemed dangerously small and cramped.

What will even happen if we take this thing down? I wondered wildly as Pietra and the others opened fire. Wouldn’t a crash damage the spindle? Or do we have no chance of damaging the shuttle that badly in the first place?

Ponderously, the shuttle began to turn, boarding platform coming slowly into view. Something arced through the air out of it, headed straight for us.

“Down!” Pietra yelled. I huddled against the wall behind my shield, putting my arms over my head.

There was a surprisingly small bang, and the world exploded into white. My heart leapt into my throat as I felt the platform shake, but it held without any problems. I uncovered my head and tried to look around, but after images from the light made it impossible to see.

I thought there were more people on the platform than there had been before, I shrank further against the wall, pulling out my gun, but without vision I would have no idea who I was shooting at. I blinked furiously, trying to will my eyes to start working.

Then a large, heavy hand landed on my shoulder, pinning me to the wall.

I turned, swinging up my gun to shoot, even if I’d never shot at close range before––but my hand was knocked down with a stinging blow, and it was knocked from my hand. I was gearing up to swing at my attacker when I felt a sharp pain on the side of my neck, and then everything was gone.

 Again, dammit.


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