,()()()!


clouds and upper stratosphere soon gave way to the black of space. Planetary control did not ping him for identification, and he would not have responded anyway. He did not answer to them. He answered to The Exchange, though hed never met any serious player in the syndicate face-to-face.

Receiving his instructions through a handler he knew only as Oren, he flew blind most of the time. He got his assignments remotely, picked up cargo where he was told, then dropped it off where he was told. He preferred it that way. It made it feel less personal, which made him feel less dirty.

He took care to return the emphasis on privacy, ensuring that The Exchange knew little about him other than his past as a soldier and pilot. As far as they knew, he had no friends and no family. He knew that if they learned of Arra, they would use her as leverage against him. He could not allow that. And were any harm to ever come to her

Once again, he realized that he was holding the stick too tightly. He relaxed, breathed deeply, and composed his thoughts. When he felt ready, he plugged in the code for the secure subspace channel he used to communicate with Oren. He waited until he heard the hollow sound of an open connection.

Oren did not waste time with a greeting. The drop went well, I presume?

From his voice, Zeerid made Oren as a human male, probably in his forties or early fifties, though he could have been using voice-disguising technology.

No, Zeerid said, and exhaled a cloud of smoke. The drop was an ambush.

A moment of silence, then, The purchasers agents ambushed you?

Zeerid shook his head. I dont think so. These were men I hadnt seen before. Pirates, I think. Maybe mercs. I think they killed the purchasers men and commandeered the ship.

Are
 






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