Authors: Mindee Arnett
To Eri Joe Arnett
THE THRILL OF THE JOB NEVER GOT OLD. JETH SEAGRAVE lived for it. For the way the anticipation sent electricity pulsing through his veins, making his blood burn hotter, his heart beat harder, and sharpening his senses until he felt like something more than human. A superhero from one of the ancient myths of First Earth, perhaps.
You’re no hero
. The automatic thought skidded through his mind, barely registering. No, he wasn’t. He was a thief. One of the best.
And that was all that mattered. Never mind that he was only sixteen. Never mind that most of his crew was even younger. Together they were an unstoppable force, a gang of teenage thieves their adult marks never saw coming. The thrill pulsed harder inside him, and with an effort he focused on the nav monitor in front of him. They would be entering the patrolled zone around the planet Grakkus soon.
To his left, Celeste piloted the
forward, her hands steady on the control column. Jeth would’ve preferred to pilot this job—he would prefer to pilot every job—but he and Celeste took turns. All the members of the Malleus Shades held specific roles that played to their strengths.
Celeste’s forte was counterintelligence, particularly the art of distracting marks. Jeth’s was strategy, and he typically took point on every job. But when it came to piloting, he and Celeste were equally matched.
Jeth drew a breath, still struggling to focus. He couldn’t help it. The upcoming job was the most challenging, complicated one they’d taken on yet. The target was located in a vault at the top of a tower accessible only through the emperor of Grakkus’s personal bedchambers—not some insignificant politician or petty crime lord, but an
. Pulling it off would be like flying a spaceship through a solar storm without getting fried. A grin threatened to break on his face. The job was going to be fun, and had a payout well worth the risk.
At last the nav computer flashed an indicator that they were heading into the patrolled zone.
Celeste glanced at him, her dark eyes narrowing. Straight black hair hung in a blunt cut down to her shoulders. “Are you going to turn on the stealth drive or what?”
“I’m thinking about it.” A part of him didn’t want to. The so-called stealth drive was brand-new and untested, at least by the Shades. If it didn’t work, things were going to get a whole lot more interesting real quick. And if it did work, well, then things
going to get interesting. He couldn’t decide which he preferred.
In the end, Celeste made the decision for him, reaching over to a switch on a sleek new section of the control panel. Jeth sighed. It was the right thing to do, of course, and there
would be plenty of risks to be had once they landed.
Or it might not work properly
, he thought, examining the nav monitor once more. Best not to blindly trust some newfangled technology. Within minutes he spotted a blip on the monitor, a patrol to their starboard. The ship was far off, but within range to scan them.
“What should I do?” A hint of panic colored Celeste’s voice. They had never before flown so boldly through a patrolled area.
“Hold course,” Jeth said, not taking his eyes off the blip. So far the patrol ship hadn’t given any sign that it had spotted them.
“You sure you’re right?”
“Aren’t I always?”
Celeste snorted. “Do you want an honest answer?”
“Nope. I prefer my own version of the truth.”
“Right.” Celeste tightened her grip on the controls. According to the instructions they’d received from their employer, who owned the
, the stealth drive worked best when the ship maintained a constant speed and course. Any sharp turns or drastic acceleration or deceleration could turn up on a system scanning for thruster signatures, stealth drive or no.
Maybe it was for the best that Celeste was piloting, Jeth realized. He would’ve been tempted to test the theory of what constituted “drastic.”
They passed out of range of the patrol a few minutes later, and Jeth sat back in the copilot’s chair, folding his arms across
his chest as he tried to ignore his disappointment. They flew within range of three more patrols but moved past them without incident, finally breaching Grakkus’s atmosphere.
Once through, Celeste headed for their rendezvous point, an isolated forested area a few hundred kilometers outside the capital city. Beyond the bridge’s main windows, the first rays of sunlight were breasting the horizon, heralded by a swath of purple, pink, and vermillion.
At last Celeste set the
down on a large stretch of tall grass the color of seaweed. She powered off the engines but turned on the auxiliary, which would keep the shipboard systems running, including the stealth drive. It wasn’t likely that anyone would spot them out here—the place was well off the main thoroughfares, not to mention how inhospitable the swamp surrounding them was—but Jeth decided not to point that out.
Celeste stood and stretched, the movement languid as if she were part cat. The dark, fitted clothing she wore aided the illusion. “So, what now?”
Jeth checked his watch, which he’d synced to Grakkus time. “I say breakfast or lunch, whichever works, and then a couple hours’ R and R. The setup man’s not due to arrive until fourteen hundred.” They’d had to get here early to avoid being detected during landing. The stealth drive hid them from sight, but it couldn’t disguise the sound of the engines or the wind raised by the thrusters.
“Think I’m going to shower again, before—” Celeste broke off as a voice echoed over the ship’s comm system.
Um, Boss? We sorta have a situation. You might want to get down to the common room
Jeth blinked, all his disappointment from their unadventurous journey vanishing in the space of a single breath. It wasn’t often that Will Shady sounded nervous.
Wondering if maybe the ship was on fire, Jeth turned and headed off the bridge with Celeste quick on his heels. They arrived in the common room on the deck below moments later. Jeth stopped in the doorway, surveying the scene. There wasn’t a fire. There wasn’t anything amiss at all, as far as he could tell. Shady was sitting on one of the sofas, his attention focused on the 3D projection from his portable gaming system, a wave of bloodthirsty robots coming at him, each one falling to his simulated gunfire. The comm unit he’d used to radio the bridge sat discarded on the sofa beside him, in danger of being swallowed by a cushion.
Jeth approached him. “What are you doing?”
“Practicing,” Shady said, not looking up. The scowl on his face as he let off a triple blast, drilling a robot right between its bulbous black eyes, made his features look distinctly leonine, the appearance aided by his shaggy mane of blond hair. Shady’s assigned role in the Malleus Shades was ordnance officer.
Jeth put his hands on his hips. “We’re not going to be shooting anybody on this job. And please tell me this wasn’t the thing I needed to see.”
Shady shook his head. “Nope. It’s in that storage locker.” He pointed to the row of lockers along the wall across from them. “The one in the middle.”
Jeth arched an eyebrow. He considered pressing Shady for more, but knew there wasn’t much point. All the crew dealt with prejob nerves in different ways, and once engrossed in his ritual video game, it was hard to get Shady to concern himself with anything else.
Jeth crossed the floor to the locker in question, wondering where the
had been last. Their employer used the ship for lots of different jobs, and it was possible it had been parked planetside someplace where a wild animal could’ve gotten in. An image of something furry and clawed and with teeth the size of fingers flashed through Jeth’s mind. He wasn’t wearing a gun, and he briefly considered getting one before finding out what had Shady so nervous, but then he shrugged and pulled the door open.
There was something alive in there all right, but it wasn’t a wild animal. Still, it took Jeth several moments to come to grips with what it was.
“Lizzie,” he said, gritting his teeth hard enough that pain shot through his jaw. “What are you doing here?”
His little sister grinned at him, and her response came out more question than statement. “Um, I took a wrong turn and got stuck?” She twirled a finger through her auburn hair as she spoke.
“Hilarious,” Jeth said, fury bubbling up inside him. Lizzie had been begging him to go on a job for weeks now, ever since she’d started training to take over the tech ops position. At twenty, their current tech was getting too old to remain with the Shades. But Lizzie wasn’t ready to take his place yet.
As far as Jeth was concerned, she would never be ready. Not that he had the final say in it, of course. Their employer, the infamous crime lord Hammer Dafoe, had that.
But Jeth was certain Hammer hadn’t approved this.
“It’s true. Shady locked me in.” Lizzie pointed at Shady, who looked up from his game.
“Did not.” He frowned. “Not the first time, anyway.” He glanced at Jeth. “I just found her in there, Boss. Right as we were landing, she tried to let herself out but couldn’t.”
Lizzie’s ears went pink. “I didn’t know I couldn’t open it from the inside.” She fixed a glare at Shady. “And thanks for locking me in again, by the way.”
Shady shrugged and returned his attention to the game. “I didn’t want Jeth blaming me for this.”
“Coward,” Celeste said, her tone more matter-of-fact than accusatory.
Shady shrugged again, a hint of a grin curving the edges of his lips.
“Lizzie.” Jeth made her name sound like a curse. He understood at once what had happened. She had snuck in while they were preparing to leave and decided to stow away in the locker until they were far enough from home that they couldn’t turn back.
Yeah, well, she’s got another thing coming
“It was an accident, I swear.” That grin spread across Lizzie’s face again, the dappling of freckles on her nose and cheeks doing its best to convince Jeth of her innocence but failing.
He glanced at Celeste. “Go spool up the engines. It’s early enough that we should be able to break atmo without drawing attention.”
“What?” three voices said in unison around him.
Jeth swept his gaze over the room. “I’m in charge, and I say we’re aborting this job.”
Celeste jammed her hands onto her hips. “That’s crazy, Jeth.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Hammer will kill us,” said Shady, tossing his gaming unit onto the sofa and standing up. He was taller and bigger than Jeth, but it didn’t matter. Jeth wasn’t backing down on this.
“He’ll get over it. It’s not safe for her to be here. She’s just a kid.”
“I’m almost thirteen,” said Lizzie. “I’ll be fine.”
The argument quickly escalated into a shouting match. But they all fell silent a few seconds later as a new person entered the common room. Trent Danforth was the only adult on board, and not officially a member of the Malleus Shades. He wasn’t supposed to be here, but their usual tech had fallen sick right before they’d left, and Danforth was the only one with the skills necessary to take his place.
Danforth surveyed the scene with his small eyes like glass beads protuberant on his wrinkle-lined face. “What the hell is going on in here?”
Jeth clenched his jaw, automatic resentment prickling his skin. Danforth’s presence on this job had been one
unexpected challenge that he hadn’t welcomed. Once upon a time Danforth had been leader of the Shades, functioning as Jeth’s mentor until he was experienced enough to lead on his own. But Jeth had never liked the man, and he wasn’t about to let him take command of the Shades once again.
“Jeth wants to ditch the job and take me home,” Lizzie said, folding her twiglike arms across her chest.
For a second Danforth looked like he might laugh, but then he fixed his gaze on Jeth, schooling his face into a diplomatic expression. “Why does she need to go back?”
Jeth opened his mouth to respond but then clamped it shut. He had reasons. A ton of them. But deep down he knew he was being irrational. She could remain on tech ops with Danforth and not end up anywhere near danger. His need to protect her was so ingrained that he would’ve locked her inside a plastic bubble if he could. Their parents were dead, and he was all she had looking out for her.
Lizzie huffed. “I don’t need to go back. Jeth’s just being overprotective, as usual.”
“Hmmm,” Danforth said, scratching the patched stubble on his chin. He had a permanently stooped appearance, his shoulders rolled forward at a natural tilt. “The right of an older brother, I think.”
“Yeah, but I’m ready to do this,” said Lizzie. “I’ve
ready. Not to mention I’m brilliant.”
Danforth smiled, revealing yellowed teeth turning to brown. “So I’ve heard.” He shifted his gaze to Jeth. “It’s your
decision, naturally, but we are already here, and there’s no way for us to get home and back again in time for the party.”
“I know that,” said Jeth. He also knew that tonight might be their only chance to infiltrate the palace. The emperor was throwing a massive ball to celebrate his granddaughter’s sixteenth birthday. The place would be full of teenagers, making it easy for Jeth to blend in. The plans for this job had been in the works for months.
“And,” Danforth went on, “Hammer
be sending her out on missions soon. There’s no avoiding that. It seems to me this is an ideal one for her to get her feet wet on. She’ll be safe in the truck with me.”
Jeth chewed on the tip of his tongue, thinking it over. He hated when Danforth was right, but he couldn’t deny the logic. That was the curse of being leader: having to make decisions with your head instead of your feelings. The danger for the tech ops on this job was lower than usual, and despite Jeth’s personal dislike for the man, Danforth was good at tech ops. One of the best.
And the money’s too good to let go
, a cold, hard voice spoke in his mind. That was why he did this, why he pulled jobs, risking his life and the lives of his crew. Every little bit he earned brought him closer to the only thing he truly wanted: to buy back
from Hammer. The spaceship was all he had left of his dead parents. And she was his gateway to freedom.