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- Adrienne Young

Four years on Jeval and this close to Ceros, I almost drowned on a dive for a single copper. But that was one of Saint’s rules.

Nothing is free.

He wasn’t just talking about food or passage or the clothes on your back. He was talking about respect. Safety. Protection. They were things no one owed you.

And one way or another, you always paid.

When I came back up the steps, West didn’t look at me, standing there in the flashing light. But he could feel me. It was in the way he turned just slightly away, his eyes on the deck where my feet were planted. Maybe he was ashamed of what he’d done. Or ashamed of not being ashamed. Maybe he imagined that I thought him a monster. And he would be right.

That proud, stubborn bastard had carved a map to the Lark into my skin. It was the intricate path through the graveyard where two hundred years of sunken ships were laid to rest.

I wrenched my arm away, my face on fire.

“You have everything you need to build your own life.”

He meant a life away from him. This wasn’t an inheritance. It wasn’t even a gift. It was a bribe to stay away. “Fine,” I choked. “I’ll go my own way. And if you think I’ll owe you anything…”

“You’re my daughter, Fable.”

I looked him in the eye, my voice seething with every drop of hatred that boiled within me. “I’m Isolde’s daughter.”

He’d built his trade from nothing, ship by ship, and even if he’d left me and betrayed me, there was still a small part of me that loved him. And I knew why. It was Isolde.

My mother had loved Saint with a love that could set fire to the sea.

It was a truth that made it hard to wish him dead. But after three glasses of rye, I thought, anything was possible.

Never, under any circumstances, reveal who or what matters to you.

I was taking a risk when I jumped into the water. I was showing my hand. That I didn’t just care about the Lark or joining a crew. I cared about West. And I was becoming less and less afraid of what he might do if he knew it.

“I like you, Fable. It was my idea to bring you on, and I’m glad you’re here.” Her voice dropped low. “I’m not saying I don’t want you to love him. I’m only saying that if you get him killed, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep myself from cutting your throat.”

“And I think I’ve loved you since the first time we anchored in Jeval.” He grinned suddenly, staring at the floor, and a bit of red bloomed on his skin, creeping up out of the collar of his shirt.

“What?” The breath hitched in my chest.

But his smile turned sad. “I have thought about you every single day since that day. Maybe every hour. I’ve counted down the days to go back to the island, and I pushed us into storms I shouldn’t have because I didn’t want to not be there when you woke up. I didn’t want you to wait for me. Ever. Or to think I wasn’t coming back.” He paused. “I struck the deal with Saint because I wanted the ship, but I kept it because of you. When you got off the Marigold in Ceros and I didn’t know if I would ever see you again, I thought … I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”

And when he kissed me again, it was slow. It was pleading. The silence of the sea found us, my heartbeat quieting, and I painted each moment into my mind. The smell of him and the drag of his fingers down my back. The taste of salt when I kissed his shoulder and the slide of his lips down my throat.

Like light cast over the morning water, it became new. Every moment that lay ahead, like an uncharted sea.

This was a new beginning.

Fourth Wing

- Rebecca Yarros

What. The. Hell. My fingernails bite into my palms as I curl my hands into fists. Knowing my chances of survival are minimal is one thing. Having my sister throw my inadequacies in my face is another. "Are you calling me weak?"

"No." Mira squeezes my hand. "Just... fragile."

"That's not any better." Dragons don't bond fragile women. They incinerate them.

"Violet," Professor Kaori calls out, and I pivot to look back. "I taught both your siblings. A signet like mine is too useful here in the classroom to let me deploy with a wing for long. Brennan was a spectacular rider and a good man. Mira is shrewd and gifted in the seat when it comes to riding.

"But you're smarter than both of them."

I blink. It's not often I get compared to my brother and sister and somehow come out on top.

"From what I've seen of you helping your friend study in commons every night, it seems you might be more compassionate, too. Don't forget that."

"Thank you, but being smart and compassionate isn't going to help me when it comes to Threshing." A self-deprecating laugh escapes. "You know more about dragons than anyone else in the quadrant, probably anyone else on the Continent. They choose strength and shrewdness."

"They choose for reasons they don't see fit to share with us." He pushes off his desk. "And not all strength is physical, Violet."

"People die," he says slowly, his jaw ticking before he drags in a deep breath. "It's going to happen over and over again. It's the nature of what happens here. What makes you a rider is what you do after people die. You want to know why you're still alive? Because you're the scale I currently judge myself against every night. Every day I let you live, I get to convince myself that there's still a part of me that's a decent person. So if you want to quit, then please, spare me the temptation and fucking quit. But if you want to do something, then do it."

Dain looks horrified for a second but quickly masks it. "If he's what you choose..." He sighs. "Then I guess that has to be enough for me, doesn't it?"

"Yes." I nod. Thank gods all this nonsense is about to be past us.

He swallows hard and leans in to whisper, "I'Il miss you, Violet" Then he pivots on his heel and heads for Cath.

"Thank you for trusting me," Xaden says as I reach Tairn's foreleg.


"We have to ride."

He pauses, like he's going to say more, but turns away instead. As he heads back to Sgaeyl, I can't help but note both of the important men are walking away from me right now, in opposite directions, and given the one I've chosen to follow, my life is about to change forever.

Fugitive Telemetry

- Martha Wells

Mensah's pointed eyebrow was now aimed at me. She tapped my feed for a private connection. I secured it and she sent, Do you think this is GrayCris?

Ugh, maybe? Right now all we had was an anomalous death with no indication of a connection to Mensah or any of my other humans that GrayCris might want to target. I told her, I don't have enough data to make an assessment yet.

Understood. Then she added, I want you to work on this with Station Security. Even if it isn't anything to do with our corporate problems, it's a good opportunity for you.

Double ugh. I told her, They don't want me. (Hey, I don't want me, either, but I'm stuck with me.) And it would be easier for me to investigate on my own, particularly if my investigations led to me having to do things like disposing of abruptly dead GrayCris agents.

(No, I didn't kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn't dump the body in the station mall, for fuck's sake.)

She said, If you want to stay in the Preservation Alliance, improving your relationship with Station Security will help immeasurably. This might lead to them hiring you as a consultant.

Mensah didn't usually take the "this is for your own good, you idiot" tone, so the fact that she had meant she really thought it was a good idea. Also, I'm not an idiot, I knew she was right.

Mensah cleared her throat in a "you are trying to annoy each other but are mostly annoying me" way. She said, "I assume an employment contract will be forthcoming."

Indah's voice was dry. "It will, no need to send the terrifying solicitor after me."

She meant Pin-Lee because she said "terrifying." Being the top Preservation expert in dealing with contract law in the Corporation Rim apparently made Pin-Lee like the CombatUnit version of a lawyer.

(When we had first discussed the idea of me getting jobs as a way to encourage the Preservation Council to grant me permanent refugee status, I didn't know very much about the kind of contract in which I was actually an active participant. (My previous contracts were rental contracts with the company, where I was just a piece of equipment.) Pin-Lee had promised, "Don't worry, I'll preserve your right to wander off like an asshole anytime you like.")

(I said, "It takes one to know one.")

(Mensah said, "People, please. I'm scheduled to mediate arguments between teenagers on my next commcall home and I need all my patience for that.")

At first, Preservation Station Security had objected to my presence on the station. Correction, at first they were fine with it because they didn't know anything about me except that I was a security consultant who had retrieved Dr. Mensah from TranRollinHyfa Station, was injured, and was getting refugee status. Most humans, unless they get stuck working in an isolated corporate installation, never see SecUnits except in the media where we're always in armor. But Dr. Mensah had told the Preservation Council the truth (no, I don't know why, either) and then she had to brief Station Securtiy.

(Senior Indah had been with the rest of the upper level security staff for the "hey, there's a rogue SecUnit here" meeting. You should have seen their expressions.)

There was a big huge deal about it, and Security was all "but what if it takes over the station's systems and kills everybody" and Pin-Lee told them "if it wanted to do that it would have done it by now," which in hindsight was probably not the best response. And then Mensah, Pin-Lee, and I had a private meeting with Senior Indah.

After some preliminary polite arguing between the humans, it became really obvious that Senior Indah was determined to get rid of me. She was trying to get Mensah to send me away somewhere, like a particularly isolated part of the planet, while the situation was being "evaluated."

I didn't even know how to react to that. For one thing, it was a terrible idea. Threat assessment for potential GrayCris retaliation suggested a steady increase, and I needed to stay with Mensah. I hate planets, but if she went to the planet. I'd go with her. (I really hate planets.) I wasn't going to the fucking planet alone and leave her here to get killed and let GrayCris rampage around the station.

Pin-Lee wasn't reacting, either, except to flick a glance at Mensah and send me a feed message that said, Could you at least try to look pathetic.

Yeah, I'm not going to respond to that.

Mensah didn't even blink. She said, calmly, "No, thats unacceptable."

Senior Indah's mouth went tight. I think she was angry Mensah hadn't told her about me as soon as we arrived from the Corporation Rim. (It had to be that, I hadn't done anything else yet to make her angry.) She said, "Just because you're accustomed to using a dangerous weapon doesn't mean it can't turn on you. Or harm others."

Okay, wow. But it wasn't like it hurt my feelings or anything. Not at all. I was used to this. Completely used to it.

Mensah was not used to it. Her eyes narrowed, her head tilted slightly, and her mouth made a minute movement that turned her polite planetary leader "I am listening and receptive to your ideas" smile into something else. (If she had looked at me like that I would have created a distraction and run out of the room.) (Okay, not really, but I would have at least stopped talking.) In a voice that should have caused an ambient temperature drop, she replied, "We're talking about a person."

Mensah can be so calm under pressure that it's easy to forget she can also get angry. From the minute changes in Indah's expression, she was realizing she had fucked up, big time.

Supposedly it wasn't Senior Indah or anyone else from Station Security who had sent the photo to the newsstream. Right, sure.

After that, Mensah, who was very angry but pretending not to be, gave me two boxes of intel drones, the tiny ones. (Indah had objected and Mensah had told her that it was a medical issue, that I needed them to fully interact with my environment and communicate.)

I think Mensah had already ordered the drones, as a sort-of bribe for me not continuing to point out that she hadn't had any trauma treatment or retrieved client protocol after what had happened to her on TranRollinHyfa. Indah didn't know that, right, so she thought Mensah getting the drones for me (giving intel drones to a rogue SecUnit nobody wanted around anyway) was Mensah's way of telling her to fuck off.

She wasn't wrong. Mensah's really smart, she can sort-of bribe me and tell Indah to fuck off simultaneously.

(Dr Bharadwaj was easy to talk to, for a human. On the first visit, after the photo of me was in the newsstream, we had talked about why humans and augmented humans are afraid of constructs, which I hadn't meant to talk about and somehow ended up talking about anyway. She said she understood the fear because she had felt that way to a certain extent herself before I had stopped her from being eaten to death by a giant alien hostile. And she was trying to think how other humans could come to this understanding without the shared experience of almost being chewed up together in an alien fauna's mouth. (Obviously she didn't use those exact words but that's what she meant.)

The second time we had talked I had somehow just come out and told her that I thought being here on Preservation Station as myself, and not pretending to be an augmented human or a robot, was disturbing and complicated and I didn't know if I could keep doing it. She had said that it would be strange if I didn't find it disturbing and complicated, because my whole situation was objectively disturbing and complicated. For some reason that made me feel better.)

It did seem unlikely that the dead human had been a GrayCris agent, because somebody had killed him. As far as I knew, I was the only one currently on the station looking for GrayCris agents to kill.

I just realized I don't like the phrase "as far as I knew" because it implies how much you actually don't know. I'm not going to stop using it, but. I don't like it as much anymore.

It was sort of humanform, but more functional, with six arms and a flat disk for a "head" that it could rotate and extend for scanning. It had rotated it to "watch" me walk through the lobby, a behavior designed to make humans comfortable (its actual eyes were sensors that were all over its body.) (I don't know why bot behaviors that are useless except to comfort humans annoy me so much.) (Okay, maybe I do. They built us, right? So didn't they know how this type of bot took in visual data? It's not like sensors and scanners just popped up randomly on its body without humans putting them there.)

The weapons scanner (which I was not allowed to hack, and which I wasn't hacking) alerted on me, but it had my body scan ID on the weapons-allowed list so it didn't set off an alarm. (I have energy weapons in my arms and it's not like I can leave them behind in the hotel room.) (I mean, my arms are detachable so theoretically I could leave them behind if I had a little help but as a longterm solution it was pretty inconvenient.)

From my drone sentries I knew Mensah was in a council meeting now. I tapped Pin-Lee's feed to check on her but she was in a different meeting. I knew the others were on planet: Dr. Bharadwaj on a family visit and Arada and Overse at the FirstLanding university working on preparation for the survey they wanted to do, and Volescu was retired.

That left me with the human most likely to want to drop everything and come watch me break into a damaged transport and the human also most likely to come watch me break into a damaged transport but only so he could argue with me about it.

So I called both of them.

"No. They told me they didn't need my help."

"Did they tell you that?" Ratthi said. His expression was doubtful. "What exactly did they say?"

I pulled it from memory. "They said, 'We'll call you if we need you.'"

Gurathin said, "I can't tell if that's you being passive aggressive or you being willfully obtuse."

I would be more pissed off about him saying that except a) he was right about the passive aggressive thing and b) he was standing where I had told him to stand, blocking the nearest port camera view of what I was doing.

Ratthi was on a rest break after finishing his work for the last survey and getting ready for the next. I had been lucky to catch him on the way back after a meal appointment with his human friends. Gurathin didn't have any other human friends from what I could tell but he had been taking a cycle rest period, reading in one of the lounge areas with lots of plant biomes.

"It's definitely not willfully obtuse," Ratthi told him.

"There could be an explanation," I said, because there could be, and I'm used to having to be as accurate as possible or get my neural tissue fried and old habits, etc.

Maybe I'd been waiting too long for GrayCris to show up and try to kill us all. I was thinking like a CombatUnit, or, for fuck's sake, like a CombatBot.

It's usually easy to make friends with low-level bot pilots, but this one had been coded to be adversarial, directed to operate in stealth mode, and was wary of incursion attempts. It tried to alert its onboard SecSystem, but as the old saying (which I just made up) goes, if you can ping the SecUnit, it's way too late.

"I'll authorize the hard currency card payment for you. And I assume you're open to another contract the next time something weird happens."

I paused in the doorway. The expected wave of depression at the idea of ever doing this again had somehow not happened. Huh. I said, "Only if it's really weird."

She said, "Understood."

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