But when his latest job ends up being a double-cross that leaves him and his team with no easy answers, he realizes just how unlikely that really is.
Now he has to find a way to do the right thing without getting killed.
One of those he's pretty good at.
Vengeance! is fast-paced space opera at its best, perfect for fans of golden age pulp stories full of action, drama, and fun!
Release date: May 21, 2020
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Eli unleashed laser fire at the vessel pursuing the Boomerang. At the same instant, River slammed the helm hard to port and the Boomerang tilted over on her side. The fast-running speed scout veered at a wild angle, but not fast enough.
A blistering barrage of splinter cannon fire belched from the Kitiuk Outpost far below. It vaulted out of the planet’s atmosphere too fast to evade. The blast glanced off the starboard tender. and the ship swiveled. River bared her teeth, and her massive arms trembled to stop the Boomerang from spinning out of control.
Eli caught a fleeting glimpse of the Outpost rotating in wide sweeps beyond the cockpit window. More splinter cannons unloaded from the surface, heading straight for the Boomerang. Just a little further, and the Boomerang would have been safe, but that would never happen now.
At that moment, the Dmitri zoomed across Eli’s view. He crammed his finger onto his firing mechanism, but the Dmitri had already skimmed out of sight again. His rockets disappeared into empty space.
Jood looked up from the engineering controls. “Five vessels are detaching from the Outpost. They are fighter wings attached to the Deputies Squad. They are following an intercept course.”
Yasha barely spoke above a whisper. “Eli...”
“Get us out of here,” he said. “Outrun them.”
“The Dmitri—” River called back.
She never finished. Another concussion pounded the Boomerang’s hull. She swerved to avoid colliding with the Dmitri swinging into her path, and wound up running straight into the Deputies.
They didn’t change course. The Boomerang teetered at a horrendous angle, skimming through their tight formation. One of the ailerons crunched across a fighter’s underbelly. The Boomerang glanced off and crashed into another vessel. River barely wrenched the ship around to avoid punching the craft’s nose through the enemy’s hull.
With a tremendous bellow, River wrestled the Boomerang into open territory behind the fighter wing, only to come face-to-face with the splinter cannon. She jammed the helm to starboard, and the Outpost jerked sideways in Eli’s view.
She manhandled the craft in a complete circle, but the damaged aileron slowed the Boomerang from adjusting her attitude to her speed. River hit the throttle one more time, and the Boomerang launched into the Deputies Squad from behind.
Eli saw one chance to get out of here, and punched his cannon with everything he had. He hit three fighters, and they ruptured before his eyes. In the next instant, River locked her arms over the helm. The Boomerang launched through the explosion and hurtled to the distant stars.
The momentum catapulted Eli back in his seat. He lost hold of his firing mechanism, and his heart leaped into his mouth when he spotted the Dmitri in the Boomerang’s path.
The Dmitri fired, but the Boomerang skated around her and took off. Eli’s skull hit the back of his command chair, and he relaxed his hold on the controls. The console released him, and he removed his wrists from the ports.
The Boomerang plummeted into deep space. Jood dropped his arms and leaned back, but River didn’t stop fighting the helm. Her shoulders shook every time she pivoted one way and then the other.
Eli passed his hand across his eyes. “That was close. We still need to work out which of the...”
A shivering impact cut him off. River slammed back to starboard, roaring through clenched jaws.
Jood attacked his station, sitting bolt upright in his seat. “The fighter wings are returning to the Outpost, but the Dmitri is still keeping pace with us. She has all our speed, and ten times the firepower. At this rate, she will overtake us in…”
“Head for the Primus Belt,” Eli fired back.
River almost turned around. “The Primus Belt! That’s—”
“Do it,” Eli said. “She won’t dare venture there.”
“We’ll have no more than two hours before the radiation begins to break down our...” Jood began.
“I know that! You don’t have to tell me. Just get us there. It’s our only chance to shake her off.” Eli vaulted out of his chair and spun away. “Yasha, you’re with me.”
He rushed out of the cockpit and left Jood staring after him. He shouldered past the bulkhead, and Yasha fell in behind him. He turned his steps toward the aft storage bay. “Where’s Waylon?”
The huge, scarred enforcer poked his head out of the galley as Eli and Yasha passed the door. He chewed a wad of food tucked into his grizzled cheek. “Who’s asking for Waylon?”
“I am. Come with me.”
Waylon stuffed the remains of some unidentified rations into his mouth and dropped in with Yasha. Eli caught the two of them exchanging glances, but they didn’t say anything.
Eli marched to a row of compartments against the hull and yanked one open. He seized a sturdy metal crate and towed it out. It slammed onto the gangway with a loud crash. “There are ten more of these in that compartment over there. Break ‘em open and start fitting the insulation to the hull.”
Waylon frowned. “What the hell do you want to do that for?”
Eli didn’t look up. “Will you quit shooting off your mouth and get to work? We don’t have much time, and it takes at least ten minutes to fix each section. Help me with this, Yasha.”
She crossed to where he bent over the crate. She waited while he heaved a massive Rexon-fiber shield out of the case. It weighed a ton, and demanded all his strength to get it a foot out of the container.
Yasha took hold of the other end, and they began the laborious process of unfolding it. Waylon frowned at the two of them sweating and puffing. “It won’t work, you know. Didn’t you read that study that showed Rexon doesn’t...”
Eli rolled his eyes and blinked sweat droplets off his eyelashes. “Will you shut it already? I’m not asking for a goddamned doctoral dissertation. Just unfold the thing and fit it to the hull.” He spotted Jood coming down the gangway. “Help him, Jood.”
They slaved for an hour, in between shivering cannon blows from aft. Eli did his best to block them out, but after a while, they stopped. The Dmitri must have broken off. He could guess why.
They’d arrived at the edge of the Belt.
A short time later, River appeared behind the bulkhead. She made no move to join in the fun. “We’re at the radiation demarcation point. Do you want me to cross into the Belt?”
Eli didn’t look up from the drill in his hand. “Is there any sign of the Dmitri?”
“She’s hanging seven REMs off and not coming any closer. Whoever’s piloting her doesn’t want to get too near the Belt, I guess. I can’t say I blame him, either.”
“Then hold this position until we get the fiber into place.” Eli concentrated on the drill.
No one said anything for a long time, apart from Waylon’s occasional curses and Jood’s steady instructions, telling him what to do. River slouched against the bulkhead, watching the other four struggle with the cumbersome sheets.
When they finished, Eli stood up and wiped his sweat on his shoulder. “That’ll have to do. Cross into the Belt, River. Take up a position ten REMs from the Michio Band, then cut the engines and seal off the cockpit.” He dusted his hands off on the seat of his pants. “I’m hungry.”
He took a step toward the galley when Jood spoke up for the first time. “I really must protest this course of action, Eli. Need I remind you that the radiation will be strongest near the Michio Band, and we will not be able to—?”
Eli turned. “Do me a favor, okay, man? Don’t remind me of anything. Just save it.”
He started to walk away again when Waylon added, “What about the rest of us? Don’t we at least get a say in whether we sacrifice our lives on this pointless maneuver?”
Eli took a deep breath and shook out his aching shoulders. “We’re not going to stay here, okay? We’re going to hide here for maybe an hour. The Rexon will shield us that long. We’ll leave the Belt long before the radiation gets to dangerous levels. Okay? Everybody on board with that?”
He cast around the group. Yasha actually smiled and nodded up at him. The others seemed far less enthused but none spoke up.
He spun on his heel and headed for the galley. He got busy making himself something to eat. Through the hull, he heard the tenders kick in. They purred for a few minutes and then died to nothing.
Silence enveloped the ship—all but murmured conversation outside the galley. Eli ignored it. They were frustrated and he understood that. Nobody liked to be put at risk.
He could understand a Squadrons ship coming after the Boomerang. He could even understand the Kitiuk Outpost firing on her and sending out fighter wings to intercept her. He wouldn’t expect anything else from an Outpost notoriously loyal to the Squadrons, and one with an outstanding warrant for the arrest of Eli Bryce and his band of outlaws.
That transmission from the surface, though—that bothered him. So Admiral James Quincy Wescott had come all the way out here to destroy the Boomerang. He’d ordered the Dmitri to pursue her. Eli could think of any one of a number of reasons why.
Admiral Wescott wouldn’t be all too pleased about Eli and his crew attacking and averting his underhanded attempt to wipe out the Squadrons. He must have been planning an invasion of Earth for decades to amass such a force of drones.
Then there was Yasha herself. Wescott was the one who’d implanted experimental technology in her brain to turn her into a superweapon. He’d done all that years ago, when he was commander of Special Forces training at Camp Utopia. He’d gone to a lot of trouble to leave Yasha for dead in a remote corner of the galaxy.
Eli might be tempted to think Wescott had gotten a bee under his bonnet about his using Yasha to destroy the drone fleet, but Eli knew better. Wescott wasn’t coming after him and Yasha for revenge.
Only one motive made sense: Wescott wanted to clean up the mess he’d made and cut off all the loose ends. He wanted to erase the evidence of his actions, and that meant Yasha and the crew of the Boomerang. He’d dodged a bullet by driving the Boomerang and her crew away from Earth—again. He wouldn’t make the same mistake by giving them the chance to tell anybody what they knew.
River sauntered into the galley. She went to the kitchen counter and started banging the pans around, but she didn’t fool Eli, especially not when Jood and Waylon entered after her.
Jood sat at the table, and Waylon rummaged in the lockers. He kept his back to Eli. After so many years flying with them, Eli could see straight through them.
“It’s been half an hour, Sarge,” River ventured. “You want me to move her yet?”
Eli wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and stood up. “Sure. Let’s go.”
Jood and Waylon nearly jumped out of their skins. Waylon spun around and his ruined visage burst to life. “So where are we going?”
“As far away from Squadrons-controlled space as possible.” Eli headed back to the cockpit and unsealed the bulkhead. The thick plate steel hissed into the wall.
The instant it moved out of the way, a piercing alarm blared from the cockpit. A bright red warning triangle flashed at every station, and a shrill voice announced to everyone, “Warning! Radiation nearing levels critical to human life. Ten seconds until helm override initiated. Warning! Radiation levels nearing critical to human life. Nine seconds until...”
River lunged for the pilot’s station. “Holy hell! Bring the tenders online, Jood, quick!”
Eli headed to the command chair and settled into it. “There’s no rush. Turn off that stupid alarm. It’s giving me a headache.”
River stabbed her fingers into her console. “The starting relay’s fried! We can’t get her started! We’ll be stranded here, and we’ll have ten minutes, max, before massive organ failure kicks in! This is the worst—”
The tenders fired to life. A tense silence descended over the cockpit—all but the steady hum of the engines. Eli adjusted his shirt collar around his neck. “Everybody take a stiff drink and lay in a course for Oswald Pascal 87.”
Jood stiffened in his chair. “Oswald Pascal...”
Eli glanced over his shoulder. “Yes?”
Jood bent over his controls. “Nothing.”
Yasha and Waylon observed from the doorway as River guided the Boomerang away from the Michio Band. The vibrant orange throbs of light faded, until only a steady glow shone beyond the forward window.
“Oswald Pascal 87, fourteen REMs out,” Jood informed everybody.
Eli took a deep breath and willed his pulse to slow down. He put on a brave face to his crew. He’d never let them know what this situation was doing to him on the inside. “Put us into orbit, River.” He swiveled his chair. “Now listen up, all of you. Here’s what we’re gonna do.”
Eli pointed to a star chart displayed on Jood’s console. “We’re here. We can expect our friend on board the Dmitri to continue patrolling his side of the Primus Belt. He’ll stay there, thinking we have no choice but to come out or crumble to death from the radiation.”
“He isn’t wrong, you know,” Waylon offered. “We dodged a bullet hanging out so close to the Michio Band, but we can’t stay in orbit around Oswald Pascal 87 forever, and the Rexon is already saturated with radioactive particles. We have to leave soon.”
“We’re going to.” Eli slid the chart sideways. “Our next job is here, at Tianwangxing 5. We need to get there without tipping off our friend that we’re crossing back into Squadrons-controlled space.”
“How the hell are we going to do that when it’s in Squadrons-controlled space?” River asked. “The quickest way to Tianwangxing 5 is straight past the Dmitri.”
“Here.” Eli moved the chart again, farther this time. “We’re going to piggyback on the Hippolyta Comet. The tail will conceal us from the Dmitri’s sensors.”
Everyone stared at him without blinking—all but Yasha. She kept observing and listening with that easy, casual expression on her face.
“How are we going to do that?” River repeated. “The gases of the comet’s tail are combusting at ten thousand degrees Kelvin. We’ll be incinerated.”
“We aren’t going into the tail itself. We’re going to fly on the other side of the comet. We’ll keep the comet between us and the Dmitri. The burning gases will hide us.”
Jood studied the chart. “We’ll have to fly at full throttle the whole way to keep pace with the comet.”
Eli sat back in the command chair. “That’s nothing. We’ve done the same thing a dozen times.”
Jood sat down, and River moved to the pilot’s station. Jood turned off the chart and started adjusting the fuel line pressure. Waylon didn’t move. “I’m not questioning your plan, chief. I’m just thinking out loud here, but….”
“I know what you’re thinking,” Eli said. “The Rexon will slow us down, so we won’t be able to maintain speed for long enough. You and Yasha can start removing it, and get ready to jettison it as soon as we leave the Belt.”
He didn’t have to look over his shoulder to see Waylon exchanging looks with Jood. Waylon looked at Yasha, too, but she was already leaving the cockpit and heading aft. At least one person around here still thought Eli was sane.
River took the Boomerang out of orbit and assumed a position near the outer rim of the Primus Belt. “Here comes the comet,” Jood told Eli.
He hit the intercom. “Prepare to dump the Rexon.”
At that moment, something smashed into the Boomerang from the side. The blow almost dislodged Eli from his seat. “What the hell?”
“It’s the Dmitri!” River shrieked. “She’s attacking us inside the Belt! She’ll ignite every particle in here if we don’t….”
“Punch it!” Eli thundered. “Make a run for the comet.”
A quivering impact shook the ship, and the stars smeared to one side. The Boomerang jumped with a vicious sting and the subtle glow blinked out in a second. The next instant, she was burning through space at a blistering speed. A speck in the distance swelled with light rushing up fast.
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