Chain Reaction

8th Wing - 2


Zoe Archer

Chapter One

Lieutenant Celene Jur wanted vengeance. And now she was going to get it.

She strode down the corridors of the 8th Wing Base, adrenaline pumping through her body. As she walked, soldiers and pilots hurried out of her path—they knew when the fire gleamed in her eyes, nothing stood in her way. That’s how she’d gotten through the grueling Black Wraith training in only sixteen solar months. Only Commander Kell Frayne had ever surpassed her record. He’d completed training in ten solar months, but her old friend was as determined as a siyahwolf on the hunt. Just like her.

Three solar months. It had been three solar months since she had been tricked by a false distress signal. When she had flown to investigate, someone had used a device to temporarily disable her Black Wraith ship. She’d been helpless, powerless. Taken captive. If Kell and Mara Skiren hadn’t rescued her from the auction block, she’d be someone’s pleasure slave now, and her ship torn apart, its secrets sold to PRAXIS.

By the Ten Hells, the person responsible would pay.

Striding into the mess hall, she surveyed the rows and rows of crowded tables. Normally she enjoyed the sound of hundreds of 8th Wing servicemen and servicewomen sharing a meal. Laughter and banter was a necessary counterpart to the life-or-death battles they faced every day. Today, the sound was simply noise. A few people saw her standing at the entrance and waved, but she kept scanning faces until she saw the two she wanted. She walked quickly through the mess, her heart pounding.

Kell and Mara sat at a table, and though there were others sitting nearby, they were deep in a private conversation. Usually Celene left them alone when Kell and Mara looked at each other like that, like they were the only two people in the universe. And they looked at each other that way often. But today, nothing could distract her from her purpose. Not even love.

She braced her hands on the edge of their table. It surprised her that the table didn’t shake with the amount of energy she exuded.

“We got the bastard.”

“Yes, I’d love a refill of kahve, thanks.” Kell smiled up at her. Since Mara had joined the 8th Wing, Kell smiled more than Celene had ever seen him smile before. When he saw Celene’s face now, though, his smile faded. “The bastard?”

“The one who made the disabling device.” She tried to sit, but couldn’t relax enough, so she remained standing. “Command says they have a lead, and I’m going to follow it.”

“I’d like to use that fuck’s head for target practice.” Mara might be 8th Wing now, and far along in her training to become a Black Wraith pilot, but she still had the heart—and language—of a scavenger.

“You can’t,” said Celene. “Because when I find him, I’m going to cut off his face and decorate the cockpit of my ship with it.”

“What’s the intel?” Kell demanded.

“Don’t know yet. Got a meeting at 13:00 to talk details.” Celene checked her chronometer. “That’s in ten minutes.”

In unison, Kell and Mara stood, wearing equally determined expressions. “We’ll go with you.” Mara swallowed the last of her kahve and slammed her mug on the table.

“I’d like you to,” Celene answered, “but if you’ve got something else scheduled…”

The fierce look on Kell’s face showed why he was one of the most decorated pilots in the 8th Wing. He fought hard, and with deadly intent. At the controls of his Black Wraith, or even when he trained in hand-to-hand in the combat simulator—there wasn’t a more merciless fighter.

He growled. “Some lowlife makes a device that hamstrings Black Wraith ships, our best weapon against PRAXIS. Endangers all of us, and hurts you.” His jaw tightened. “This fight belongs to all of us.”

His fighter’s spirit had attracted her, once. Years ago, for a few solar months, she and Kell had been lovers. But they soon realized they were better friends than lovers, dedicated more to the war against PRAXIS than each other.

Determination and loyalty gleamed also in Mara’s eyes. “And if there’s anything left over after you’re done with him, I know some parts dealers who’d love to buy his spine and organs. Preferably while he’s still using them.”

It pleased her that Kell and Mara could find happiness together, unlikely as it had seemed at the beginning. A Black Wraith pilot and a black-market scavenger made an unexpected pairing. But it worked, and well.

“Let’s go.” She turned and strode back through the mess, with Kell and Mara right behind her.

Her parents had thought her crazy to leave behind a quiet life of ferrying passengers to and from her homeworld’s moons. But PRAXIS threatened everything. Joining the war against the corporate giant had gained her a cause and a new family.

As they walked through the base toward Command offices, her thoughts were too focused to join the conversation, though she heard Mara and Kell.

“Stop scratching at it, princess,” Kell said.

“It itches.”

Celene understood. Yesterday, Mara finally had her biotech implant grafted just beneath the surface of her right palm, a signal that she was well on her way to becoming a Black Wraith pilot. All Wraith pilots had the implants, since the ships would not run without them. The implants were part of the reason Black Wraiths were so effective—and coveted. They allowed the ship’s pilot to merge with the craft, creating a seamless integration of thought and action. PRAXIS had tried to reproduce the design, but with limited success. Without an actual Black Wraith to copy, they hadn’t gotten far. All that could change, though, with the use of the disabling device. Either PRAXIS would finally get their hands on a Black Wraith and dissect it, or they’d simply knock the paralyzed ships out of the sky.

Neither option was good. She had to make sure neither came to pass.

“Maybe I need to take your mind off of it,” murmured Kell. “Scratch another itch.”

“Later, flyboy. We’ve got an organ donor to hunt down.” But Mara sounded husky, definitely intrigued by Kell’s offer.

Some crewmen whispered to each other as Celene strode by.

“That’s Lieutenant Jur.”

“Stainless Jur?”

She walked on, avoiding the admiration in their gazes and the moniker she had been given. She’d be a fool to let such idolatry affect her. The moment she believed she was the goddess everyone thought she was, she might as well take a plasma blast to the head. An arrogant pilot was a dead pilot. And she couldn’t die. She had too many battles to fight.

A clerical ensign hurried forward when Celene reached Command’s offices and pointed her toward one of the briefing chambers. With Kell and Mara accompanying her, she strode on. If given clearance, she’d leave base today.

Her code at the door of the chamber was accepted, and the door slid open to reveal Admiral Elora Gamlyn standing next to a holo display at the far end of the room. Celene, Kell and Mara all saluted.

“Only your presence was requested, Lieutenant.” The admiral eyed Mara and Kell.

“I’d like them to stay, ma’am, if possible. This intel concerns all of us.”

“What’s said cannot leave this chamber. The mission we’re proposing must be conducted under strictest security protocols.”

“We know the gravity of the situation, ma’am,” Kell said.

“So who’s the sipkaswine we’re after?” asked Mara.

Celene choked down a laugh.

“Mara.” Kell placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Sorry. Who’s the sipkaswine we’re after, ma’am?”

At least the admiral smiled. “Your enthusiasm is heartening, Ensign Skiren. We’re waiting for someone to join us, and then the briefing can commence.” The alert at the chamber door trilled. “And he’s here, now.”

Everyone turned to face the newcomer as the door slid open. He stepped inside, then stopped abruptly when he saw everyone staring at him expectantly.

She had an indistinct impression of having met this man before, but she wasn’t completely certain. 8th Wing was thousands strong, with hundreds on base at any given time. Black Wraith Squad usually kept to themselves. They were an elite group, and more than a little insane. Adrenaline junkies who lived to fly. No wonder everyone gave them a wide berth.

The man walking into the chamber gazed at her. Alarm and fascination combined in his eyes.

Not a surprise. She was given a wider berth than most. Few people made friends with a legend. And as for having a romantic relationship…by becoming one of the best pilots, she’d inadvertently consigned herself to celibacy. She could never be the flawless paragon her lovers wanted. Stainless Jur—that’s who they desired. Tough experience had taught her that it was better to be alone than see the disappointment in her lovers’ eyes when they learned she wasn’t a goddess, only a woman. A very skilled woman who could fly better than most sentient beings in the galaxy, but a woman, nonetheless.

The newcomer stared at her like she was a tigeren that had escaped its cage.

He wasn’t an unpleasant specimen of maleness. He didn’t have Kell’s height or impressive build. Instead he had a lean muscularity that nicely filled out his uniform without being showy. Sandy hair, deep green eyes that gleamed with intellect, a face more rugged than handsome. His mouth surprised her, with its full lips better suited for a fashion vid model than a soldier.

That mouth…seemed so familiar. As if she knew its taste, warm and masculine. No—she’d remember lips like his.

“I believe you all know Lieutenant Nils Calder,” the admiral said.

It took Celene a few moments to place him. “From Engineering.” A vague recollection flitted through her mind of her consulting Lieutenant Calder about the navigational controls of her Black Wraith.

“NerdWorks?” blurted Mara.

Kell groaned, Celene choked and even the admiral reddened.

Calder only smiled. “I’ve also heard Dork Corps, Geek Brigade and Dweeb Patrol.” His voice was deep, with a faint rasp. “But NerdWorks is my favorite.”

Much as Celene appreciated his sense of humor, she wanted intel right now, not jokes. She turned to Admiral Gamlyn. “The briefing?”

“I have the intel here.” Calder held up a digitablet. He walked to the holo display, and everyone shuffled to get out of his way. Their bodies brushed against each other as he moved to the display. His breath caught at the contact, and his cheeks darkened.

Guess NerdWorks doesn’t usually mix with actual humans.

This close to him, she realized he was bigger than she’d first thought, over half a foot taller than her. The only other man in the room was Kell, and he had a tendency to make other men seem smaller by comparison. But Lieutenant Nils Calder was long and lean as a swimmer, impressive in his own way.

He turned to address everyone in the chamber. Yet his gaze caught Celene’s and held.

Astute, those eyes of his. And aware. Of her.

“The intel, Lieutenant.”

Admiral Gamlyn’s directive broke the odd spell that had fallen, and Calder looked away as he moved to the holo display.

Mara sent Celene a glance and mouthed, What the hells was that all about?

All she could do was shrug. I have no damned idea. She focused her attention on the holo display.

Calder tapped a few keys on the display, then studied his digitablet. An image came up of the Black Wraith’s distinctive sleek lines, and the hologram rotated to display every angle of the unique ship. She flew her Black Wraith every day, but even looking at a holo of the ship filled her with pride. A perfect union of pilot and machine. Beautiful and elegant as a moonrise, but deadly in the right hands.

Or disastrous in the wrong hands. Which was why PRAXIS couldn’t obtain a Black Wraith.

Calder cleared his throat. “I’ve gone over Lieutenant Jur’s logs and the debriefing vids, analyzing her description of the effects of the device used on her ship. A total system shutdown that renders the Black Wraith completely inoperative, with only enough emergency capacity to power life support, and even that for only a brief period.”

Memories flooded Celene. Acidic currents of remembered anger as she’d floated in space with no means of protecting herself and no way of calling for help. She grasped at her rage, a useful emotion.

“I was there.” The words felt taut in her throat. “So tell us something helpful.”