Every Hateful Instrument

by

javert

God Keep the Bounty Hunter Who Shows Mercy to His Prey

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God Keep the Bounty Hunter Who Shows Mercy to His Prey

Now that the immediate business of survival was taken care of, Hail and Farewell could decide what they were going to do with themselves. After he had recovered enough to not be ill every time he ate, Hail spent a few more days at Carilla gambling (cheating, really) at cards, and made enough money that he would be set for a while. Every available space in the shuttle was packed with rations, and Hail had bartered his way into getting some equipment meant for larger ships: a starmap navigation computer and a jump tracker. With all of this in hand, Hail and Farewell left Carilla behind, following right on the heels of the next ship that came and went from the station.

It was an unfortunate requirement that they follow behind larger ships, although it made their travels slower and more cumbersome. While Hail had been able to purchase a navigation computer, the locations of black stations tended to be secret things, the knowledge passed from hand to hand. This navigation computer was a blank slate, and only marked out the names of planets and stars.

Still, Hail couldn’t say that he minded this inconvenience, and he would be sad when they had collected the location information of all the stations that they were ever going to visit. Although he and Farewell were perfectly capable of keeping themselves company and wandering through space alone together, it still was uncomfortable to be so far from anyone else in the universe. He liked to know that there were other people around, even if he couldn’t speak to them or interact with them.

Another, much smaller, problem was solved by tagging along behind other ships: that of optics. It would have been very strange for an unaccompanied shuttle too simply arrive at and depart from a station. Even when Hail and Farewell had completed their map, they would probably still want to follow ships in on the last jump or so. Even this probably would have appeared suspicious to anyone paying close attention, but every time Hail made a docking request or stepped nervously onto a station, no one seemed to pay him any attention at all.

Hail and Farewell discussed their next intended destination, but they were of one mind about what they needed to do, so it didn’t require much convincing in either direction.

“The broker is at Red Harbor,” Hail said. “If we can get there, we might be able to get some clues about what happened.”

You ’ll be able to get clues,” Farewell pointed out. “How will you do it?”

Hail frowned and didn’t answer the question. “I’ll be able to know if he’s lying, at least. I can just ask him directly if he sold us out.”

“And if he did?”

“Find out to who.”

“And then?”

“We find those people.” That hadn’t been what Farewell was asking, because that much was obvious, but Hail didn’t want to answer the question that Farewell had been asking.

What was going to happen after that point, Hail hadn’t put much thought into. His unexpected survival left him thinking only about the immediate next thing, which was finding out what had happened to his family, and doing something about it. The ‘something’ was difficult to contemplate without a solid target. He sharpened his knife.

It took about twenty days of travel, following behind other ships, to get to Red Harbor Station. They stopped at two other stations along the way, and at each one Hail listened for signs of what had happened to the Bluebeetle . He didn’t learn anything, mainly because he didn’t know the best places to find gossip. His family had never really liked letting him go onto stations alone after he became the family’s moneymaker, so he had never gotten too familiar with exploring their underbellies, or making connections of his own.

He had sometimes been able to spend some time by himself on stations, but he rarely spent it playing cards or trying exotic drugs like some of his cousins did. Grace would cover for him, and Hail could snatch a few hours at one of the smaller bars on any given station, drinking and taking in the crowd. On stations, with their larger populations, there were enough sensitives (not the kind that used the power, but the other kind) that they could fill a bar of their own. If he hadn’t been able to tell who bore him ill-intentions, Hail might have been too pragmatic to go alone, but he could, and so he did. It was never quite enough to be satisfying, a few frantic hours in a dark room with a stranger, but it was enough to take the edge off of living with his family, and allay some of the sadness that he sometimes felt about his future. But all of that was in the past.

Red Harbor was an appropriate name for the place that they were visiting. Like most stations, it was built from an asteroid or other moderately sized space rock, but this one was a vibrant, rusty red from the iron oxide dust that covered its surface. This was a station that Hail had been to many times, and it was also quite large as stations went: several times the size of Carilla. This was because Red Harbor shared its asteroid belt with an active mining operation, stripping everything of value from nearby rock. Hail had never really liked Red Harbor for that reason: although working in this mining operation was for some people a way to earn a living outside of the Empire’s legal system, the willing made up only a portion of those who worked there.

Still, it was one of the largest of the black stations, and for that reason, Hail’s family used the services of a broker there to set up many of their more delicate dealings, including selling Hail’s stardrives. That also meant that it was bustling inside, and Hail’s dark mood as he stepped aboard was only compounded by the pressure of tens of thousands of people living their lives around him, far too close for comfort.

He would take care of his business here as fast as possible. Depending on how the business went, it might be necessary for him and Farewell to leave the station without waiting for another ship to depart. They could head back towards Carilla, if necessary. As Hail walked through the crowded concourse, feeling the tug of three-quarters standard gravity give his footsteps an unusual, marching solidity, he made note of all of the paths out of the rotating rings and back to the shuttles, as well as any potential hazards, in case he had to run.

He kept his hand on his knife the whole time. This was hardly unusual for pirates on station, but it was unusual for him, and he drummed his fingers on the hilt as he walked. Luckily, the past twentyday or so of eating a replenishment diet and being able to get back to some regular exercise meant that he was not exhausted by just walking through the station. Still, despite keeping his hand on his knife, Hail suspected that if there were real trouble, he would need to rely on the power to solve it.

He tried to summon up some of his family’s strength as he walked. He didn’t think of his parents, who were quiet, sensible people in most instances. He thought instead of God’s-Glory, Grace’s father, the fiercest man on the Bluebeetle by far. Hail remembered the look on his face that time he had come to his and Grace’s rescue, when the police had boarded their ship. The cold look in his eyes was one that Hail tried to wear now, and he tried to hold himself with the same bearing.

The broker’s office was off the main concourse, in a stretch of the station that was far quieter to Hail’s ears, though louder and more pressing in his emotional sense. Just down that hallway was the start of the nicer living quarters, but nearby were suites of offices for the mining administration and the other businesses that operated out of Red Harbor but lacked a true storefront.

The broker’s office had a plain metal door with a sign announcing his name, Alfonse BarLiev, and Hail opened it and stepped inside to the serene reception area. There were plush chairs along one wall and a burbling fishtank along another, where goldfish swam placidly between huge aquatic plants. There was a secretary behind a desk, who looked up at him as he came in, his eyes widening in surprise. Hail ignored the chairs, fish, and secretary, and walked straight up to the door that would let him into the true offices. It was locked, of course, but Hail simply touched it with his power and it fell open in his hand.

“You—” the secretary began. He seemed ready to reach for the phone to call station security.

“I have no quarrel with you,” Hail said. “But if you call for help, I will have one.” He stared the secretary down, feeling the man’s emotions jumble and dive between wanting to do something and the terror he felt when Hail began to pull his knife from his hoster. It really only took a few seconds before he nodded, silently. Hail headed into the office.

Mr. BarLiev’s actual office door was also locked, but that made no difference to Hail either. He pulled it open, and found Mr. BarLiev in a conference with another pirate, someone probably twenty years Hail’s senior. They were both surprised by the door opening, and the pirate was immediately angry, but Mr. BarLiev took one look at Hail and said, in a calm voice that completely hid his shock, “Mr. Vinright, I was not expecting you today.” He smiled at his client, a thin expression. “I’m afraid we’ll have to continue this later, unless it’s you who Mr. Vinright has business with.” He laughed; the joke was not funny.

“No,” Hail said. He stood briefly aside so that the pirate could leave. “I only have business with Mr. BarLiev.”

Hail’s way of holding himself must have convinced this pirate that it was not worth remaining in the middle of this argument. He gave Hail a cold stare as he walked out of the office, and Hail closed the door behind him.

Mr. BarLiev was a diminutive man, not born a pirate, with a lined brown face, and white hair that he wore in long, tied back dreadlocks. To his credit, he kept all his emotions off his face, and held out his hand for Hail to sit in the recently vacated chair across from him. “What brings you here, Mr. Vinright?”

Hail declined to sit, and instead leaned against the door, his hand never leaving the knife at his hip. It was another testament to Mr. BarLiev’s familiarity with pirates, because he kept his eyes trained on Hail’s face, not the knife he was fiddling with. Perhaps this was also because Mr. BarLiev was one of the few people outside his family who knew that Hail could use the power. He had demanded a demonstration of Hail’s capabilities before agreeing to broker any of their stardrive sales.

“I think you are aware,” Hail said.

“Mr. Vinright, I was under the impression that you were dead.”

Hail bared his teeth. “Yes, I thought you might think that.”

Mr. BarLiev steepled his fingers, his elbows on the desk. “If you’re here to make some sort of accusation of me, please do.”

“You sold us out.”

“To whom?” BarLiev asked. His voice was totally calm. He was afraid, but he didn’t seem to be lying. There was none of the slimy gut-feeling that Hail associated with lying, none of the intellectual feeling of deceit, the racing feeling of trying to outsmart someone else. There was only the goosebump nervousness of the threat of violence, and the lingering heart-race of surprise. “Don’t you think that if I had sold your family’s whereabouts, and you remained alive and free, then I would be dead for failing to render true services?”

This brought Hail up short. It rang true enough to stop him in his tracks, and BarLiev smiled to see Hail’s shoulders slump. He gestured again at the chair in front of him. Hail sank into it.

“Thank you,” BarLiev said. “Now we can discuss things like rational human beings, if you’d like.”

Hail managed a nod, then, “Do you know what happened to my family?”

“I know the information that is available to know. When you didn’t show up with your next delivery, I went looking for what had happened myself. It’s part of the business to keep tabs on what my clients are doing,” BarLiev murmured as he turned to his computer, tapped a few words out into a search, and pulled up a file. He looked at it for a long moment before asking, “It wasn’t too hard to find, since the people who did it were looking to brag. Do you want to know?”

“Yes,” Hail said.

BarLiev spun the screen around so that Hail could see what he had found. It was a news article. Some Imperial report, not the unofficial “news” that was often posted on stations’ intranet bulletin boards. This one was formal enough to have the Imperial imprimatur’s mark at the top corner of the article— “This publication has been approved by the IKRB—” and than an illegible scrawl of someone’s signature, digitally stamped there. Hail had seen its like often enough. It wasn’t like he read the news daily, since it was totally irrelevant to his life, and by the time that anything official from data dumps made its way up to stations and into the media library of the Bluebeetle it was often many days or months out of date, but his father had liked to keep abreast of the goings on in the world outside their ship, and so made an effort to search out what news trickled up to them. Hail had read the articles that his father deemed interesting enough to share. That memory only made reading further down the screen than the title of the article even more painful.

“Crackdown on Piracy: Fleet Ship Whitewater Answer’s Guild’s Call”

Beneath the block letters of the title, there was a photograph. There was the Bluebeetle , swarmed by hundreds of shuttles, all with Fleet insignias. Bile rose to his throat, and Hail choked it back down. He couldn’t read the article; his eyes wouldn’t leave the picture.

“None of them were taken for trial,” BarLiev said. His voice was quiet, but factual, without pity in it. It wouldn’t have mattered if any of his family had been brought to trial: they were dead, one way or another.

“Was this because of me?” Hail asked. He knew it was, but he hoped against hope that BarLiev would say it wasn’t.

“The Bluebeetle was not the only ship that was hunted, and the article says nothing about stardrives. They might have just been in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Here.” He pointed at a section of the article, a quote that Hail read.

Apprentice Sandreas provided a written comment. “While the Guild’s charter is sacrosanct, and the Guild has full confidence in their ability to continue to provide for all the needs of Imperial trade and travel, the fact remains that the recent increase in pirate attacks within populated starzones has necessitated swift intervention, which the Imperial government is best equipped to provide. The recent boldness of pirates may signal a future willingness to harry more than ships: someday stations, mining operations, and other inhabited settlements and outposts may come under attack. In order to ensure the security of the entire homeland, We have taken it upon Ourselves to eliminate several of the most aggressive of the pirate ships. I thank Guildmaster Vaneik for providing accurate and timely information on pirate activity and all his assistance in Our efforts.”

When Hail had finished reading, BarLiev said, “The Imperial government is not usually in the business of sending anyone to hunt pirates, let alone their own pet sensitives.”

“Apprentice Sandreas,” Hail read. “Who is he?”

“Aymon Sandreas. He might be next in line to lead the Empire, if he lives that long. He’s a sensitive, like you.” BarLiev shrugged, and turned the computer back around. “He’s the one who hunted down your ship. I assume since he was sent, he expected to encounter you.” There was a questioning tone in BarLiev’s voice, but when Hail remained silent, he asked outright. “How did you survive?”

“I wasn’t on the ship at the time.”

“And where were you?”

Hail simply stared him down.

“Not my business, just idle curiosity,” BarLiev said, raising his hands submissively. He looked Hail over with a scrutinizing expression, and Hail figured he was giving BarLiev plenty of information just by sitting here in the flesh. He didn’t really care.

“Where is that man? The one who hunted the Bluebeetle ,” Hail asked.

“Am I in the business of knowing where the Imperial government keeps their staff? Stonecourt’s probably where he lays his head.” When Hail had a blank expression, BarLiev said, “The capitol building. On Emerri.”

“Oh.”

“What are you planning to do, look for him?”

“Is he still hunting me?”

“I do not have the answer to every question, or even most, Mr. Vinright.” He leaned back in his seat. “I think it would be wise to continue to lay low, if I were in your shoes.”

“No,” Hail said.

“No? Please don’t tell me you’re going to run to Emerri on a quest for revenge.” He tilted his head. “If there’s one thing I’ve seen after many years of working in this business, it’s that revenge rarely goes well.”

“Why does it matter to you what I do?”

“I should think that is obvious,” BarLiev said. “I rather enjoyed the percentage cut I received from selling your stardrives. It pained me to learn that you wouldn’t be making any more to sell, but I’m quite pleased that you’re still alive to do so. There’s no shortage of willing customers.”

Hail stared at him in silence. Although the smile never left BarLiev’s face, and he was professional enough not to say anything, his discomfort grew and grew. Finally, when Hail suspected it was reaching its peak, he said, “And do you think that any of those willing customers are traps set by the Imperial Government?”

“Mr. Vinright, you know well enough that it’s for everyone’s safety that I don’t discuss my customers with you.”

Hail reached for his knife.

“Threats are quite unnecessary, I can assure you.”

Still, Hail pulled the knife out of its holster. As if it was just an idle fidget of his, he balanced it on the tip of his index finger. When the knife began to tip sideways, Hail righted it with his power, and it stayed balanced there on the tip of his finger, preternaturally still.

“Why do you ask about Imperial agents, Mr. Vinright?” BarLiev asked, finally.

“I want you to sell them a stardrive,” Hail said. A plan was forming in his mind. He could make another drive, a trap, laying in wait.

BarLiev’s voice was dry, though his eyes were fixed on Hail’s knife, now. “May I remind you that the reason why I hide my customers’ identities from you is for the same reason that I protect you from them. I, too, have a reputation to uphold.”

“Seventy-five percent,” Hail said. He twisted his hand nimbly to drop the knife into his palm, and then slid it back into his holster.

“Seventy-five percent of what?” BarLiev asked, cautious but intrigued, as Hail had known he would be.

“The next ten drives I make,” Hail said. “You can have a seventy-five percent cut.”

That was an unimaginable fortune. BarLiev’s cut thus far had been five percent, and he was sitting on enough Vena or gold now that he could probably purchase ownership of this station outright.

“And the price for this is to stop screening your potential buyers quite so thoroughly?” BarLiev asked. “That puts me at risk.”

“If the Imperial government cared about you, Mr. BarLiev, it seems that Red Harbor would be gone already.” He looked at him steadily. “At least considering what happened to my family. But I could always find a different broker. I don’t think it would be that difficult.”

BarLiev sucked on his teeth. “And how will you make these drives?”

“Irrelevant to you,” Hail said. “But the same way I always have.”

BarLiev looked him in the eye. “The eleventh drive you make for me,” he said. “That one, I’ll sell to the Imperial spies.”

Hail wanted to demand more, but instead just shrugged. There were other ways he could go about hunting down this man in the meantime, and perhaps it would be better not to rush it. If the first people to receive a new drive were spies, they might rightly suspect trouble.

Hail stood. “Fine,” he said, and held out his hand to BarLiev.

BarLiev stood as well, and they shook. Hail crushed his hand in his grip.

“I always have liked doing business with your family, Mr. Vinright,” BarLiev said. “I’m glad we’ll get to continue.” That was the cruelest thing that BarLiev could have said, but he was a practical man. Hail just nodded. “Will you remain on Red Harbor?” BarLiev asked.

“No,” Hail said. “I think it’s better for me to keep moving.”

“And when can I expect the first drive from you?”

“Four months, or a little longer,” Hail said. “It takes time to make them, and I don’t know when I’ll be back here.”

“Very well. I look forward to it.”

 


 

It wasn’t that Farewell didn’t like the plan. Farewell understood the merits of the plan, and didn’t have a better one, but that didn’t stop him from giving off a sense of unease when Hail explained it, back in the shuttle after leaving Red Harbor.

“You’re going to make more drives?” Farwell asked, confirming what Hail had already said.

Hail shrugged. “If none of this had happened, I would have anyway.”

“I thought you might be done.”

Hail fiddled with the shuttle’s controls, though he had no reason to. “Well, we don’t really have a choice. I won’t sell you .”

Farewell turned away from him. Hail wanted to say that if Farewell disliked the idea of more stardrives getting made that much, he should have just killed him right away. But that was the kind of thing that would make Farwell hit him, so he didn’t.

“The one that’s going to the spies,” Farewell said. “I want that to be me.”

Hail stopped cold. “What?”

“I want my chance.”

Hail knew that his objections were whiny and pathetic. Farewell had as much of a right to revenge as Hail did, and it made sense that Farewell would be well positioned to take it. But Hail didn’t want him to leave. Maybe it didn’t make sense to say that Farewell was the only family he had left, but they had been the only people in the universe for each other, for a time. They still were, really, even if Hail was able to spend some time on stations. Farewell could feel exactly what Hail was thinking, probably better than he could. But still, Hail just said, “I’ll miss you.”

Farewell touched him with the power in acknowledgement, and that was the end of the conversation.

Neither of them said any more about the plan, even as Hail worked to put it into motion during their next stop at a station. He needed to get the equipment to grow another clone of his brain, but this was easier said than done. While he had thought that the vats that were used to grow meat were easy to find (after all, they broke down regularly enough, and his family had needed to buy new ones for the Bluebeetle several times), it turned out that finding the medical grade kind that could support a human brain without damaging it, while still being small enough to fit in Hail’s already very cramped shuttle, was an almost impossible task.

Two station visits later, he still had no luck. His last resort, at least before he decided to either buy a larger shuttle or commission the building of a smaller biovat, was to try Redding Station, the place where he had nearly been treated for his headaches. Their medical complexes were the best that the galaxy had to offer, at least in terms of the black market. If they didn’t have one he could buy there, he would be out of luck.

Getting to Redding Station was a different annoyance. It was practically on the other side of inhabited space, and finding a ship that was planning to make it one of their next destinations was annoying. This left him sitting in Catalpa station for far too long, hanging out in one of the bars and asking the crews of ships if they were headed in the direction of Redding. It took a twentyday for a ship to appear that was headed in that direction, and Hail supposed he was lucky that it happened that quickly.

The ship that they chose to follow was called the Barleywind , not that it particularly mattered, since they were barely even within sensor range of it most of the time. It was just a blip on their shuttle’s passive sensors. Hail and Farewell turned off all their active sensors and exterior lights, making as small of an emissions profile as possible, should the Barleywind be looking around and suspicious of the strange object that tailed them at a great distance.

Hail enjoyed listening to the occasional radio chatter coming off the ship. When they sent a crew in suits out to repair one of the bay doors that had gotten seized up, that was a nice few hours. It almost felt like being part of a crew again, though this family had a thick accent that was very much unlike his own. It was melancholy, but he still liked to hear the teasing commands and barked rebukes when a younger member of the repair team failed to do things properly or quickly enough.

They had been following the Barleywind for almost two days, and Hail was asleep, wrapped tight in his sleeping bag, when Farewell woke him with a jolt of alarm.

“Nnng?” Hail managed to say as he thrashed awake, the sleeping bag trapping him in unexpected ways in his confusion. “Is it time to jump?” But Farewell’s urgency was breaking through his just-woken haze.

“Another ship just jumped in,” Farewell said. “Right on top of the Barleywind .”

Hail scrambled out of his sleeping bag and towards the front of the shuttle, where he looked out the window. He couldn’t make out the Barleywind against the blackness of space— they were too far away— but checking the same instruments that Farewell had been monitoring, it was clear as a star on the gravimeter and the IR camera. And the radio. When Hail flipped it on and the receiver scanned the channels, a barrage of transmissions rained out, some clear, others computer gibberish that his shuttle couldn’t possibly decrypt.

His breath caught in his throat, and without even saying anything to Farewell, strapped himself into the pilot’s seat and slammed the shuttle forward, accelerating at the limit his body could bear. This ship was being attacked, just like the Bluebeetle , because they thought that Hail was on board.

Hail didn’t know the crew of the Barleywind , but he was not going to sit around and watch them be destroyed. Especially if he had a chance to kill the ones who had hunted his own ship. He didn’t need to think; he just flew. Farewell didn’t utter a word of protest, and steeled himself with Hail. Neither of them had expected this opportunity to fall into their hands, but they weren’t going to waste it. They had four hours before they could jump again, just about, but that didn’t matter. They wouldn’t run, even if they could.

As they came closer, Hail could see the two ships visually. The Barleywind was the usual, roughly spherical chunk of rock that most pirate ships were, some discarded mining asteroid. The ship that was attacking, on the other hand, was small and oblong, and perhaps completely hollow. It had sent out a swarm of shuttles and fighters to surround the Barleywind in a cloud, just like what had happened to the Bluebeetle in the picture that Hail had been shown. He stopped accelerating and let their shuttle coast.

Hail had never consciously used the power in a fight, especially not one of this scale. The time he had saved himself from being stabbed didn’t count. That had been instinct. Now, he reached out deliberately. He didn’t think he would be able to do anything to the big ship, but he could certainly destroy the shuttles, the ones cutting into the Barleywind ’s side.

He reached out with the power. There was a strange and cold feeling inside him as he did so, a quiet and deadly anger fueled by the excitement he could taste from the shuttle pilots, and the fear he felt coming from the Barleywind . When he was actively stretching out his awareness like this, he could feel them all too clearly.

Hail picked his first target, a shuttle that was sawing through the bay doors on the side of the Barleywind facing Hail. With the power, here in space, things like mass and distance were almost immaterial. It scared him how little effort it took to pull the greenish, wasp-like shuttle off the side of the ship and simply crush it, squeezing its components together into a dense metal ball, which he kicked away, back towards the mothership.

The tone on the radio immediately changed to something much darker, and the pace of the attack on the Barleywind hastened. Hail picked another shuttle to target, and then another. Farewell was doing the same.

As Hail destroyed another shuttle, having already lost count of how many it had been, Farewell let out a mental wave of pain and terror.

“What’s happening?” Hail asked.

“There’s someone— my body—” Farewell managed to get out. The shuttle jerked sideways, throwing Hail into his seat’s restraints, and Farewell cried out again. “He knows—”

Hail figured out what was happening, as the shuttle rocked again, metal creaking ominously. The sensitive on the Fleet ship had figured out where he and Farewell were, and was trying to do to Hail what he had done to the shuttles attacking the pirate ship. It was only the fact that Farewell was resisting that saved him from immediate, certain death.

Some of the dogfighters attacking the Barleywind changed course and began heading towards Hail and Farewell. Hail had to abandon all thoughts of attack, and just focus on defense.

In the moments before the dogfighters arrived, he reached out his power towards the Fleet ship, searching for the man who was attacking Farewell. He found him, or the man who must be him. There was no one else on board the ship who glowed in Hail’s mental vision, radiating such frightful confidence and precision. It was the feeling of light glinting off the edge of a knife into Hail’s eye.

This sensitive was stronger than Hail was; Hail couldn’t touch him from this distance, but he was bearing down on Farewell with cold intent.

The dogfighters arrived. Hail did his best to swat them away, but each time there seemed to be more and more of them. Farewell’s agony grew, pounding in Hail’s head, and he did his best to keep the dogfighters from touching them. He was running the shuttle’s engines at their limits, dipping and weaving his shuttle away while knocking the dogfighters into each other, or slowing them down, or throwing them away— whatever he could manage— with the power. If they could hold out for four hours, they could jump away.

But that would be abandoning the Barleywind .

And, besides, they weren’t going to make it four hours. Even if Farewell could hold up against the onslaught, Hail couldn’t. There was going to be some moment where he didn’t see a dogfighter coming from the right angle, when he miscalculated, or was distracted, or was a second too late.

Maybe, if he flew the shuttle into the throat of that Fleet ship, Farewell could do something destructive. Explode the engine of their shuttle, or something. But Hail realized he couldn’t ask Farewell to do that, not when he was trying so hard to live. So he focused on doing the same, continuing to destroy the dogfighters that came for him, and throwing himself this way and that with the acceleration of the shuttle.

The radio, which had continued to stream out various signals that Hail wasn’t paying attention to at all, fell dead silent. He spared a brief thought to wonder if their receiver on top of the shuttle had gotten destroyed, if he had let some projectile slip through.

It crackled to life again with a single, haughty voice.

“What’s your name, sensitive?”

Hail didn’t have to be told that this was the sensitive on the other ship. He ignored the message.

“You’re pretty good at this,” the man continued. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. But it’s pretty rare to meet someone without formal training.”

Hail continued to ignore him.

“I would like to know your name. I know you want to kill me. I just like to know who my enemies are.” There was a smile in his voice.

Against his better judgment, Hail flipped the radio to transmit. “You’re Aymon Sandreas.”

Aymon must have been surprised, or pleased, or distracted, because the mental pressure on Farewell eased, just for a moment. If Hail could keep him talking—

“I am,” the man said. “What’s your name?”

“Hail-an—”

“What are you doing?” Farewell gritted out, cutting Hail off. The assault on Farewell resumed— redoubled, even.

Hail had been distracted: the dogfighters had made it closer to him, too close for comfort.

“Halen. That’s a nice name.” There was a long silence over the radio. It stretched into minutes, and there was nothing for a long time except the agony from Farewell, and the dogfighters relentlessly pursuing him. Hail made a turn with the shuttle that was almost enough to send him unconscious, and it only earned him a few seconds of relief from the dogfighters as they were forced to reposition themselves to chase.

Hail was growing exhausted, and so was Farewell. The shuttle groaned under the forces that it was being subjected to. Metal pinged somewhere, a pressure vessel bursting on the back of the shuttle. Farewell shuddered in pain. Hail clenched his jaw so hard that he thought his teeth might break. He could barely breathe from the pressure of acceleration in the shuttle, forced back into his seat under ten or twelve times standard gravity at moments.

“How long do you think you can keep this up, Halen?” Aymon asked. “You still have a few hours until your jump, don’t you?”

Hail said nothing.

“I didn’t expect an answer to that question,” Aymon said. “But I doubt you can keep this up until then. It’s a matter of numbers.” There was a moment of silence. “I’d like to offer you a deal, Halen.” His tone was contemplative, if cool. “It’s a shame to destroy someone so talented. If you surrender, I’ll let you live.” He didn’t seem to be expecting a response right away, because he carried on. “And I don’t mean to stand trial later. No. I want you to work for me.” There were strange depths in his tone, ones that Hail didn’t have the context to understand, but which carried across clearly over the radio, despite the fuzz of static.

Hail grit his teeth and ignored him.

“Think about it,” Aymon said. “You’re not going to be able to hurt me here.” His tone wasn’t mocking, but his words were. “I’m sure you want revenge. If you die today, you’ll never have another chance to take it.”

Hail continued to focus on the battle in front of him. Something else screeched and collapsed in the shuttle, and warning lights flashed all over his console as Farewell’s pain doubled. He was hovering on the edge of consciousness, and if he passed out, they would both die.

“The Barleywind ,” Hail said over the radio. “If I surrender, you leave that ship alone. They have nothing to do with me.”

“May God send me to wander forever among the lost if I break my word: the Barleywind will be allowed to leave untroubled.”

Hail dropped his attention from the dogfighters in front of him for a single instant. He reached his power blindly across the distance between himself and the other sensitive, that knife-blade confidence he had felt. That feeling remained, and was not accompanied by any sense that he was lying. He would keep his word about the Barleywind .

“Hail—” Farewell tried to say something, but he could barely think straight.

“I surrender,” Hail said.

And suddenly, everything went still. The dogfighters that had been chasing his shuttle pulled away, and the psychic pressure on Farewell abated. Hail dropped his hand from the control yoke.

Farewell was beyond forming words, but Hail could tell what he felt clearly enough. His judgement was a solid weight on his shoulders, sending him sliding down, dejected, into his seat. He thought about the moments when Farewell had decided not to kill him, deciding to try to live instead, two times now, and offered those up as explanation. It wasn’t enough to satisfy either of them.

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A note from javert

merry christmas to everybody who celebrates :)

well... fifty something thousand words into my silly little romance novel, the two main characters finally meet each other lol. this brings us to about the 1/3 mark of the story, and is as good a place as any for me to take a mini hiatus. I'm still going to be actively working on this story, but first, i need to write my logh secret santa gift (i procrastinated...) and also i'm planning on writing the first chapter of the next section of Wheel Inside a Wheel to post on NYE/new years, for thematic reasons. after that, i'm probably going to alternate between this story and the next WIAW section in chunks of a couple chapters. i feel a real urgency to get this book done, but i also want to go back to WIAW lol. it's been long enough and people are waiting for that story. so we'll see how i manage to balance it

as far as this chapter goes-- em provided some really helpful pointers towards fixing it (thank you so much as always) and i think that helped a lot, though i'm still not entirely sure if it's the best it can be. i think this is one of those "beat it into shape on the next draft" chapters, but my desire at the moment is just to Post things (perhaps this is to my detriment lol). i also cut a whole aymon chapter from the outline, so that might be contributing to some of the slightly off feeling i have about the action scene. i don't know if i've developed aymon's motivations for mercy here enough. but i guess we'll cover that next chapter? it's a little messier than i would like i think

the title is from the mountain goats song 'to the headless horseman'

thank you again to em for the beta read <3

my socials: javert @ tumblr , natsinator @ twitter , gayspaceopera.carrd.co , https://discord.gg/2fu49B28nu


About the author

javert

Bio: hi I'm noodle, I studied aeronautical engineering in college, then I taught high school math. now I'm [redacted] and [remainder of message lost].

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