Tyce Bernon checked the address on his handheld, then knocked on the door of the dingy hab unit. He got no answer. Apartments in the lower levels of the station had no doornote, so Ty knocked harder in case Hal was asleep. The scents of frying food and musty ventilation clung to the walls and floor of the block reminding Ty of the hab units he’d lived in for the first few months on his own before he’d joined the Armed Forces of the Coalition of Allied Systems (ACAS). Back then, he’d just been a kid working a shit job, trying to make a living. Eventually, he’d given it up to join the military, figuring it was at least something to do.
When no one answered the door, he concluded Hal was probably out for the night. It was the end of the work week. Upon reaching the station, he’d found out that his friend’s comm number had been deleted, which probably meant the big lug had forgotten to pay the bill and it had been shut off. Ty only had the address he’d been given a few months back, the last time he’d been in contact with Hal. If this wasn’t Hal’s place, and he had moved, Ty knew he might have quite the search in front of him. Rubbing the back of his neck and adjusting his duffle, he turned to see one of the neighbors: a skinny blond woman with a tiny girl child peeking around her legs. The toddler was sucking on her fist, watching him with large blue eyes.
“Lookin’ for Hal?” The woman asked, examining him with interest.
“Yeah.” Ty turned more fully toward her. “I’m a friend of his from the service.”
The thin woman looked him up and down as if weighing the truthfulness of his words. Finally, she decided he was worth telling. “Tonight, he’s either at the fights or at Arlena’s.”
“Yeah. They have vat fights on the weekend at some of the bars on level 98. Hal works at Arlena’s sometimes when he’s not fighting.”
Ty’s brow furrowed. Hal had done some fighting in the ACAS; it was one way for vats to burn off the incredible energy they’d been engineered for, but vat club fighting was another thing altogether. In most club fights, the two combatants fought until one was unconscious. But sometimes, it was to the death. Omicron, with a large ACAS presence, would most likely not allow fights to the death as they did on some planets like Dela Prime. There were two reasons Hal would be club fighting. One: he needed the scrill, or two: the rush had driven him to seek out danger and excitement the only way he could. Knowing Hal, it was probably a combination of both.
“What’s Arlena’s?” Ty asked.
“You know, a knock shop. He’s a bouncer there. Makes sure the girls get treated civilly.”
A brothel, Ty thought. He was familiar with the term knock-shop from being in the ACAS so long. It was the first place new recruits or vats visited upon their first liberty. “How do you know Hal?” he asked.
She shrugged with a knowing smile. “Everybody knows Hal.”
“Yeah. Do you know what time he usually gets back?”
“It’ll be late, I’m sure. Want me to tell him you stopped by?”
“Yeah. Tell him Ty’s looking for him.”
“Thank you for your help.” He shouldered his bag again and headed out onto the avenue.
Halvor Cullen had been pegged an elite vat in the service, and really come into his own once he’d posted to Ty’s company. Before that, Hal’s record had been rough. High-strung, with the usual chip on his shoulder, most of his infractions had been for fighting with other vats or mouthing off to superiors. When Hal felt he had a better idea than a CO, he wasn’t quiet about it, so he often came off impertinent when he was trying to help. In combat, however, Hal had been a loyal solider. If you had his respect, he would obey any command. He had an intuitive understanding of tactics and was able to predict what his opponents would do, even better than nat officers who had been through officer training school. And Hal had an ability to get a job done no matter what – he just had this force of will that couldn’t be stopped. Once Hal had settled in, Ty had been able to leverage his personal rapport with him into helping him improve his attitude and choices to allow his skills to really shine. With Tyce directing his focus, Hal had become a leader who could be depended upon and someone Ty trusted with his life.
Maybe being out on his own hadn’t changed Hal. Vats worked well under the discipline of the ACAS, but once released to a life of freedom on the Edge, they often lost focus by chasing the rush that they were bred to crave. Falling victim to the drugs and violence of life at the furthest reaches of the galaxy had been the death of many a released vat. He hoped that he could save Hal from such a fate.
During their service together, he and Hal had become more than just CO and sergeant; he considered Hal family, although he was well aware that Hal might not be able to understand that. Vats didn’t have family – they were taught that they were just tools of the ACAS until the ACAS was done with them.
As the lift doors opened, Ty picked his bag back up and made his way to the nearest place to rent a cube for the night. He paid the grimy looking clerk and followed the hallway back to the tiny room, tossing his bag on the bed. Pulling his handheld out, he began to scan through for the bars on level 98. After a few more searches, he saw Arlena’s was on level 93. He’d check there first, then continue his search.
Ty left the cube and about thirty minutes, two lift rides and a short subtrans ride later, he found himself on level 93.
Omicron never slept. There was a large amount of foot traffic on the station, even this late. Ty wove his way through the people until he reached the large establishment called Arlena’s, which was making a half-hearted attempt to camouflage itself as a strip club. Ty stepped inside, paid the cover charge, and found out from a bouncer that Hal was not working; he was probably fighting down at a club called Bay Triple 0.
Bay Triple 0 was a cesspool that gave new meaning to the word dive. Ty paid the cover charge and entered the front room/dance floor. A bar ran along one side of the room, and the dance floor covered the other side. Not that vats normally did much in the way of dancing besides slamming into each other as hard as possible. He had to yell over the blaring hypnohaze music to order a whiskey at the bar.
“You got fights here?” He called as the cute little blue-haired bartender brought back his glass.
“What?” she asked, leaning in.
“In the back,” she screamed back, pointing.
“Thanks.” He lifted the glass in acknowledgment and sipped at the liquid passing itself off as whiskey. It wasn’t. Grimacing, he polished it off before setting the glass down and heading in the direction she’d pointed him.
He pushed his way through the crowd into the fight area. There was a ring, enclosed by carbon fiber chain link, and people crowded around as close as they could get, watching the fight in the elevated area.
A female vat was fighting a nat twice her size. Ty watched them go at it a moment, then shifted his eyes to the crowd. There was another bar along the back wall, where drinkers were turned watching what they could see of the fight. While making his way over, he saw a doorway and a familiar face watching the fight.
“Hal!” he called.
Hal didn’t see him for a moment. Ty worked his way nearer and called again – this time his former sergeant looked toward him immediately and grinned. “What the hell? Ty?”
They met a few steps from the door. Hal hesitated, obviously unsure as to what he was supposed to do. Ty could tell he wanted to salute, but held back, realizing that neither of them were in uniform. Ty settled Hal’s indecision by shaking his hand and pulling him in for a one-armed hug.
It wasn’t until he pulled back that he saw Hal was on a strong rush. His friend’s eyes were black due to his enlarged pupils and his body was unable to keep still. Had he fought already tonight? Ty didn’t see any wounds or bruising on him.
“When did you get here, sir?” Hal asked.
“Hey, you can cut the sir. I’m out of the ACAS. For good. I just got here a couple of hours ago. What the hell happened to your comm?”
“Uh… I had to let it go for a while.” Hal said. “I’ll pick it back up when I get the scrill. I can’t believe you came to Omicron.”
“I told you what my plans were last time I talked to you.” Ty said as he looked around again. The vat in the ring had apparently defeated her big opponent while they’d talked, and they were readying the cage for the next fight.
“Come on back here. It’s quieter,” Hal gestured, leading Ty into the locker room. “I’m next up, but we’ve got about ten minutes before.”
Ty sat on one of the benches and Hal sat across from him. He was jittery, leg bouncing up and down. A vague stirring of unease tiptoed down Ty’s spine as he watched it. “How long have you been club fighting?” he asked.
“Couple months.” Hal said, turning his head toward the door at a sudden increase of noise from the crowd.
“Hal, look at me.” Hal’s eyes focused on Ty immediately at the note of command in his voice, and Ty had to remind himself not to use Hal’s trained responses against him. “You all good?”
“Yeah, Cap. It’s just the amp.”
Amp was a combat drug used in the ACAS to focus a vat and increase their stamina and abilities past a regular rush. They would give the soldiers amp when the combat was particularly dangerous or hard. With amp an injured vat could keep going past the limits of normal human endurance, which was probably why they were using it for the fight. He’d never seen it make Hal jumpy like this, however.
“I think it’s a bit more than just amp.” Ty said. “Look. I can loan you some scrill. You don’t have to do this tonight.”
“Yeah. I do. Signed a contract to help this guy Tarshan out of a bind.”
“Vat from the 14th. He got in trouble with a couple of legbreakers and to get him out of it, I sort of agreed to do a couple of fights for him. His girlfriend lives in a hab unit near mine. It’s no big deal. I was fighting before I got the job at Arlena’s.”
Ty raised an eyebrow, wanting to order Hal not to fight. He had to remember though, that they weren’t in the ACAS anymore, and he had no right to force Hal to do anything. “Why doesn’t the guy do his own fighting?”
“He lost his leg, and he’s messed up pretty bad on null sometimes. I had to help him or these dudes will do something to the girlfriend and her kids.” Hal shrugged, raking a trembling hand through his hair. It was obvious the adrenaline was fully taking effect. The more Ty found out about this whole set up, the less he liked it. It said a lot about Hal that he wanted to help someone who sounded like they were in pretty bad shape, but this whole thing left a bad taste in Ty’s mouth. “I gotta do this one and another next week, then the guy’s square.”
“Cullen!” There was a call from the door. “Get your ass out here.”
Hal stood up. “Gotta go. You’ll be here?”
“Of course. You sure you’re good to fight?”
“Good to go.” Hal tugged off his shirt. He’d already removed his boots but wore a pair of loose cargos instead of fight shorts. It was what he’d always fought in when he’d been in the ACAS. He headed to the door but stopped when he reached it. “Glad you came, Cap. You sure you’re not gonna take off?”
“I’m not leaving.” Ty promised. “I’ll be here when you’re finished.”
Hal gave him a nod, then exited to some yelling from the crowd. Ty followed him, watched him enter the ring and tried not to worry.
“I’m fine. I can’t even feel it.”
“Stop twitching.” Ty frowned as he removed the towel from Hal’s lip and watched the blood begin to ooze out once more. “You need wound glue…maybe even a couple of stitches.” Besides the injury to his lip and the blows to the ribs, Hal had taken a headshot that had sent him to the mat for the better part of a ten count. He was still on a rush, though, and feeling no pain.
“Hey, Cullen. Neutralizer.” The same man who had called Hal out before threw an autoinjector at him. Hal caught it easily with his amped up reflexes. “See you in a few days.”
Ty took the injector and examined it. It was unmarked and therefore suspect. If a vat on amp didn’t get the neutralizer, they would suffer horrible muscle spasms, but Hal had a while before all that began to happen. “You’re not taking this until I know what’s in it,” Ty muttered, shoving it in his pocket and reaching for Hal’s shirt. “We’re going to a medcenter.”
“I feel fine,” Hal said, tugging the tee over his head.
“Yeah. That’s what worries me.” Ty pulled Hal’s boots from the locker and handed them to him. “Get these on and let’s go.”
The nearest place open at this time of night was a vat clinic near Ty’s cube. The information forms were minimal and after watching several go in ahead of them, Ty and Hal were led to a medbed.
The medic who came over was an older woman, with short reddish-brown hair. She eyed Ty, her gaze dropping to his wrist to check for a vat tattoo, before making her way to the patient. “Hi. I’m Medic McCabe,” she introduced herself. Hal was still holding pressure on the cut on his lip. “You must be…Halvor Cullen?” she asked as she checked the datapad.
“Hal,” he replied against the bar towel.
“Good to meet you. Can you or your friend tell me what’s wrong?” she asked as she applied a few sensors and retrieved a medscanner.
“He fought in one of the bars down on 98. They dosed him with amp, but I think someone slipped something else in there.” Ty said.
“We’ll take a blood sample and see,” the medic said. “Let me get a look under that towel, kid,” she asked as she leaned in.
Hal let it drop, and she hummed to herself as she examined him. “Okay. Let’s get this bleeding stopped first, then we’ll deal with everything else.” She cleaned the wound and applied a coagulant. “Try to keep still for me, sweetheart,” she urged. “I’m going to use a wound glue to seal the cut instead of stitching it.”
“I’ll try.” Hal said, “I just feel kinda jumpy.”
She nodded and worked on his lip for a moment. “Okay, you need to let this alone for one or two days. No fighting, solider.”
“Were you ACAS?” Ty asked.
She smiled at his question but kept her eyes on her work. “Yeah. Did my full time and got out. I need a blood sample.” She pressed the medscanner to Hal’s arm, then set it to analyze. “Did they give you the neutralizer too?”
“Yeah.” Hal glanced to Ty, his pupils still wide.
Ty dug in his pocket for it. “It’s not marked, so I told him not to take it,” he handed her the medjet. “You can give him the neutralizer here right? I’ve got the scrilla to pay.”
“Oh yeah. No problem.” McCabe narrowed her eyes as she examined the medjet. “I’ll test this too. Be right back.” She carried the medscanner and medjet out of the curtained bay.
“She reminds me of that medic that took care of you on Bel-Prime,” Hal said.
There was a sudden scream outside the bay, the sound of clattering and running feet.
“You motherfuckers—let me go!”
“Grab him…Shit! Watch out!”
Hal was on his feet in a moment, his senses hyped as he stepped outside the bay. If not for Ty’s restraining hand, he might have gotten involved in the disturbance outside, but there was no need. Three orderlies were restraining the irate vat, and McCabe came running with a medjet. She injected the vat three times and slowly, he sank to his knees and passed out. “Strap him, in case he wakes up again,” she instructed the orderlies.
“C’mon. Lie back down.” Ty could feel Hal shuddering with adrenaline. “They got it under control. Some guy with a bad reaction to something, I’m sure.”
“Yeah.” Hal let himself be led back to the medbed. He had begun to look pale. “Ty, I…I’m not feeling all that great. My heart’s pounding like a plasma cannon and my head’s about to burst.”
Ty sat beside the bed, providing a steady hand on Hal’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. She’ll be back in a moment.” If she’s not, I’ll find her, he thought.
But McCabe returned a few moments later, looking unruffled from the earlier disturbance. “Okay. Got the results back. Hal, they gave you amp and boost-a street drug. Bet that combination had you feeling invincible, huh?”
“Yeah,” Hal said.
She checked each pupil, then read his heartrate on the medscanner. “You’re coming down a little, but that disturbance out there didn’t help, did it?”
He shook his head.
“Let me give you something to allow you to be more comfortable while the drugs in your system wear off.” She readied a couple of medjets. “You’ll have to sleep here a little, for observation, okay?”
“That’s fine,” Ty answered for him.
She smiled at Ty, then gave Hal two injections. Immediately the vat’s eyes became heavy.
“Gonna be here when I wake up, Cap?”
“When have I not, Hal?” Ty smiled. “Go ahead and take a nap.”
“You two serve together?” McCabe asked.
“Yeah,” Ty said. “He was my sergeant. Did you give him the amp neutralizer?”
“Yes. That medjet you gave me had enough trank to take down a bihorn. Might not want him to work for those guys again. Seems a little skeezy to me.”
Ty sat back down. “I wouldn’t let him, but he’s doing it to get a friend from the 14th out of some hot water. He’s got one more bout in a week.”
McCabe leaned back against the counter, crossing her arms over her chest. “We’re seeing a lot more vats from the fights coming in on overdoses. Whoever’s cooking that stuff up doesn’t know what the hells he’s doing. That guy out there had enough jack in him to pull a CD-8 gunship down a landing platform.” She shook her head.
“Look, can you provide us with our own amp and neutralizer for his next fight? There’s no way to get him not to fight…but I can’t let them pump him up with gods knows what.”
She thought a moment. “How about if I come along? I can bring the amp and call-in station security once the fight is over – that’ll get this thing shut down without connecting it to you or your friend.”
Ty was relieved at her offer. “Sure. Look, I’m willing to pay you for your time.”
McCabe shrugged. “I’m not worried about that. You just tell me the day, time and place and I’ll be there. If it’ll save some lives, I’m happy to do it.”
Ty was jolted from his light sleep at Hal’s sudden movements. Raising his head and looking over in the dim night lighting, he saw Hal had rolled out of the bed in the cube and was in a crouch, his hand on the wall to steady himself as he looked around.
“Hal. I’m here.” Ty said from the lounger on the other side of the room. Hopefully, it would help Hal reorient himself. “Everything alright?”
“Shit.” Hal sat down heavily on the bed, head dropping into his hands. “Where is this?”
Ty got up and came over with a bottle of Clear that had been stowed in the room’s rechiller. The bottle would probably cost twenty scrills or more due to the outrageous mark up, but he didn’t care. “I brought you to my cube. You were tired after that medic helped us out, and I didn’t think I’d be able to get you all the way back to your place. Here. She said you’d be thirsty.”
Hal took the bottle and drank the electrolyte enhanced water greedily. “A medic?”
“You were drugged at that fight. We got you fixed up at the medcenter.”
“Oh, yeah.” He finally nodded, obviously putting the pieces back together. “Hey, I’m starved.”
Ty mentally cursed himself. Hal’s metabolism was probably in overdrive, trying to heal the injuries he’d suffered. He would be hungry. “Let me pull on my boots and we can grab breakfast. Then we can talk about the plan.”
“We have a plan, Cap?” Hal asked.
“Yeah, I think we do, buddy.”
The waitress placed a fourth plate of flatcakes in front of Hal and shook her head as he drowned them in syrup. She smiled kindly at them, then headed off for another table. Ty eyed Hal’s bruised face and the healing cut on his lip. It would take him two, maybe three days for a cut that deep to be completely healed.
“So,” Hal said, gesturing with his fork. “What’s the plan, Ty?”
Tyce took a sip of his coffee. “Well, I have enough scrill to put a down payment on a ship. My idea is we head out to the Border and do some private corp tech salvage. They’ve opened it up out there to independent crews, and I judge we could live pretty well on what we could earn. I need someone I can depend on to have my back, and there’s nobody I trust like you.”
Hal stopped eating and sat his fork down, regarding Ty earnestly. “Cap, you serious?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Yeah. We might need to add a tecker and supply officer eventually, but just us two to start. What do you think?”
“Hells, yeah,” Hal said. “I gotta do that fight next Friday, and I’ll have to quit Arlena’s, but then I’m in.”
“That’s great. And I got your back on the fight. How’d you feel about that medic last night?”
“She was five by five.”
“Yeah, well we’re both gonna be there for the next one. They gave you a mix of street drugs, Hal. We’re not letting that happen again.”
Hal paused, seeming to think about that a moment. Then he spoke. “I’m glad you came back, Cap. You know I’ll do a good job for you, just like I always have.”
“I never doubted you, Hal.”
After breakfast they returned to Hal’s hab unit. He opened the door and brought up the lights. “It’s not much, but you know, it’s ok for me,” Hal said. “I’m gonna get a shower. You’ll be good out here?”
“Sure,” Ty said. He brought the feed on, and its drone covered the sound of Hal’s shower. He walked into the tiny kitchen area, about the size of the head in his quarters on the Galantra, his last ship. He opened the cabinets and found them empty. There were some ration bars, and three bottles of Clear in the rechiller, but that was it. He frowned, but reminded himself that Hal knew nothing about cooking, and would have no idea how to stock a kitchen. The only reason Ty knew anything himself about cooking was that he’d had to make do a lot as a kid after his mother died.
He made his way back to the living area, which consisted of some cheap hab-unit furniture, and a scratched display for the feeds. The dirty air filter smell he’d noticed outside was worse in here. He was glad Hal was coming with him. This was not a good place for anyone.
He checked his handheld, scanning the texts. There were his copies of the obligatory discharge paperwork from the ACAS, and a message from a used ship dealer on Dalamar. There were three ships that fell into his price range. The first two were simple pleasure yachts, without the features that would make them a working ship that could transport cargo. The third one, however, was a beauty. A J-class cargo hauler with crew quarters for four or six, a galley, and a spacious cargo bay. J-class ships were older models, but this one looked completely serviceable for its age. Maybe he could get Hal to come with him and check it out.
Hal entered the living area from his room, scrubbing a towel over his hair. “I sent a text to Arlena’s and quit. They’re putting my pay in my account this afternoon.”
“You quit already?” Ty raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, sir…I mean yeah. I wanna be ready when you need me. I still have the fight on Friday, but I’m good until then.”
It was at that moment that Ty realized Hal was all in. He’d taken the information that Ty needed him and completely cut ties with everything on Omicron. Ty realized he’d have to be careful; Hal would take everything he said as an order – he was just wired like that. Still, he felt better that Hal would be under his watchful eye. “That’s great. Actually, I might have a lead on a ship. It’d take us a few days to go check it out, but you’d be back by Friday.”
Hal turned, immediately heading back into the bedroom, “I’ll just grab my go bag.”
When they reached Dalamar, Ty and Hal rented a cube not far from the spaceport. They’d caught the early shuttle out from Omicron and having Hal with him had made the day-and-a-half flight to Dalamar a lot more interesting. They were walking to find this beachside place for dinner that Ty had called up on his handheld.
“We’ll meet with the dealer first thing tomorrow morning…” Ty said, trailing off when he noticed that Hal had stopped and was no longer keeping up. “Hal?” Ty glanced at the vat. They’d come around the corner of a street to see the ocean spread out in front of them and Hal had stopped dead.
He shook his head. “It’s…it’s big,” he managed.
“Yeah.” Ty glanced in the same direction as Hal. As he carefully observed, he began to understand. “You never got stationed anywhere to see the ocean before, huh?”
“We flew over one once, but I never got to see it like this.” Hal shook his head, glancing at Ty as if asking for leave to cross the street to the water. Ty knew from his own training that the permission-seeking was a holdover from Hal’s conditioning at the hands of the ACAS. He would have to keep reminding Hal that he could do whatever he liked. “You don’t have to ask me. Go ahead. I’ll be right behind you.” Hal’s programming wasn’t being reinforced through his interface anymore, so Ty hoped the compulsion might fade a bit with time.
They crossed the street to the sand dunes beyond, Hal leading the way.
When they were at the shoreline, Hal stood silently, watching the large waves turn to smaller ones that rolled in gently to brush the sand. “Do they always do that?” he asked Ty.
“Do…do what?” Ty looked up and down the beach, unsure of what Hal was referring to.
“Come in like that. The waves. Do they always roll in like that?”
“Yeah.” Ty said with surprise. “They do.” It occurred to him that even though Hal was an amazing fighter, with a keen mind for strategy, he was in many ways so inexperienced as to be almost childlike. When Hal had been his sergeant, there had not been time for noticing these types of details. There had been a gulf between them, the separation that always existed between commander and commanded, nat and vat. It would be up to Ty to bridge the divide. He was glad to do so and would be damned sure Hal adjusted well to being out of the ACAS. Helping Hal navigate the real-world challenges he was sure to face was going to be job number one.
“I’ve seen the ocean on the vids, but…it’s different to see it for real.” Hal said, taking it in. They both watched the water for long moments. “I’m really glad you came to Omicron, Ty,” Hal said, his eyes still fixed on the horizon where the light blue sea met the sky.
“I told you I would.” Ty said, remembering the conversation they’d had on the day Hal had been released from service. “You didn’t believe me, huh?”
“I just didn’t know.” Hal shrugged, finally glancing at him. “I mean, I’m just a vat, and a pain in the ass one at that. I thought you might change your mind about us working together.”
“Hal, one thing I don’t do is change my mind about my friends or my family. You’re not my sergeant anymore. You’re more than that now.”
Hal blinked in confusion a second. “What do you mean?”
Ty smiled at him. “We’re family, Hal.”
“Vats don’t have family,” Hal said, looking thoroughly baffled, just like Ty had imagined he would.
“You do now.” He could tell Hal didn’t quite grasp what he was saying because it went counter to everything he’d been taught in the ACAS. He would just have to show Hal what he meant. “Hey, what do you say we go find this restaurant, then figure out where we’ve gotta go tomorrow to take a look at this ship?”
“Yes, si-, I mean sure.” Hal said, catching his mistake. “What’s the ship’s name?”
“The Loshad,” Ty replied.
The ship was exactly what Ty expected. The two of them toured it, saw the possibilities, and they took it for a test flight. It was practically made for them: silver hallways, spacious crew quarters, a large cargo bay and a standard easy-to-use bridge. There was even a computerized assistant.
When they returned, Ty had put down the initial payment. He’d banked most of his pay while in the ACAS and had quite a bit of scrill saved. Hal’s eyes widened when Ty transferred the money. “Cap?” he asked when the sales associate stepped outside. “That was a lot of scrill.”
“It’s fine,” Ty said. “I’ve had this planned for a long time.”
By the afternoon, they had both stowed their belongings aboard the Loshad, which had been brought to the spaceport to fuel up. “It’s late,” Ty said. “Let’s purchase some supplies, then buy dinner. We can sleep the night here, then head out in the morning.”
“You want to be awake to monitor the ship out for our first flight.”
“Yeah. Then I might feel comfortable leaving that kind of thing to the ship’s assistant.”
“You decided on which quarters you want?” Ty asked.
“How about the ones near the engine room?”
Hal shrugged. “I don’t know. I sleep better with some background noise, you know, like the ship’s engines.”
Ty wondered if it had something to do with the programming sessions Hal had undergone. “How is it? Not having the nightly programming?”
“It’s strange. I dream a lot about being in the field.”
Ty nodded. “Me too.”
Hal rubbed his head beside the small vertical scar on his temple. It was where the vats were implanted with interfaces as children. “Its…weird…not being in service anymore. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.”
There was more, but Hal was hesitant. Ty waited patiently, but he didn’t go on. Finally Tyce said, “Give it some time. It might take a while to figure out what you want to do… it’s that way for nats too. And listen to me. If you realize later that where you want to be is not on the Loshad, that’s not a problem. I want you to decide for yourself how the rest of your life is gonna go. You don’t have to do anything to please anyone.”
“I like having a job to do, Ty. It feels good to finally be needed for something.”
Ty weighed Hal’s response, eyeing him so thoroughly that the vat slid his eyes to Ty’s left shoulder. It was a holdover from programming; in the ACAS it was considered insolent for vats to eye superior officers. Ty kicked himself – he hadn’t meant to trigger the response. “Okay. If that feeling changes, you just let me know. How about let’s go get dinner? I’m starved.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Hal said.
One thing about vats, they were always hungry, Ty thought. “Good, ‘cause I’m broke. You’re paying this time.”
They made it back to Omicron by Friday and were prepping for the fight. Hal looked up at Beryl as she injected him with her own amp, not the one he’d been given when he came in the door. Ty could tell when the rush hit, and this time Hal seemed focused and ready to fight. “Thanks, Beryl,” he said.
“You bet, soldier,” she glanced up at Ty after checking that no one else was near. “I’ll put in the call to station security after his fight.”
Ty nodded, stepping back as Hal got to his feet. “Okay, be careful out there. You know what to do, obviously.”
“Yeah. Don’t get hit.” Hal grinned, putting in a mouthguard. It was the only safety equipment allowed in the match.
“Janev. It’s you and Cullen up next,” the fight coordinator called.
Hal approached the door, then glanced around looking for his opponent. Janev came from the back of the room, a huge red-haired slab of muscle. If he wasn’t a vat, he’d been jacking himself up with some sort of growth hormone, Ty thought. He was huge, and he was glaring in Hal’s direction.
Hal stepped up, not intimidated. They locked eyes and began to draw close before the locker room manager pushed them apart. “Save it.”
“I’m gonna fuck you up.” Janev said.
“Let’s go, motherfucker,” Hal retorted.
“Hal. Halvor!” Ty grabbed Hal and pulled him back. The locker room manager sent Janev outside to prevent them fighting beforehand, and in a few moments, he called for Hal.
He stalked outside, ready to fight.
Hal was holding his own, despite the fact that Janev was an overgrown monster. Ty watched with dismay as Hal took another punch to the head, staggering back. He’d taken a hit in the first three minutes that had sent him to the mat. At least the thug he was fighting had some sense of honor and waited for Hal to get to his feet before starting to whale on him again.
“He’s gonna be fine.” Beryl said, sounding more like she was convincing herself.
“That guy’s juiced on gods know what,” Ty growled. “I shouldn’t have let Hal up there.”
They both cringed as Hal took a body blow that probably cracked a rib. When they looked back up, though, they saw that Hal had responded with a rapid series of jabs and finished off with a blow to the temple that scrambled Janev’s interface. He stumbled back, but Hal didn’t let up; he followed with more body blows that sent Janev falling.
The vat twitched a bit on the mat, then lay still. The crowd screamed. As soon as the ref counted Janev out, Hal left the ring. “Come on, Hal. We’re getting out of here.” Ty said, walking with him back to the locker room to get his shirt and shoes.
Beryl waited outside, sending a message as Hal and Ty entered the locker room. “Hey, Cullen. Here’s your neutralizer,” the locker room manager said. “You interested in fighting next week?”
Ty took the medjet. “No, he’s done.”
“Who the hells are you?” the man sneered, leaning in to look Ty up and down.
“His manager,” Ty replied, standing his ground. Then Hal was there, pushing between them.
“Back the fuck up,” Hal growled to the locker room manager, shoving him back with both hands. Ty knew Hal was still hyped up on the amp and the rush, and so did the employee, who wisely stood down.
“Okay. Let’s go.” Ty said, pulling Hal back toward the lockers.
In just moments, Hal was dressed and they met Beryl outside. “You make the call?” Ty asked.
“Yeah.” She said, shouldering the medical bag she’d brought. “Security’s on the way now. Let’s get the hells out of here.”
They made their way back to the Loshad, where Beryl did a scan of Hal in the medbay. He had a broken rib, a sprained ankle and busted knuckles – none of which he could feel due to the rush and the amp. Beryl administered the neutralizer and it was away to bed so Hal could sleep off the rush and heal up.
“Thanks for helping us,” Ty said as he walked Beryl back to the ramp. “You sure I can’t pay you?”
“Nah,” she shook her head. “If I can cause trouble for a place like that, it makes my job at the clinic easier and might save some lives. We have enough problems with the vats that just can’t handle life on a normal level, much less the ones that get dosed while chasing the rush.” She eyed him for a beat. “Where are you two headed?”
“Salvaging metalhead tech out past the border,” Ty said. “I’ve applied for some permits with a corp called LanTech.”
“Then you’ll be back around sometime. Check in with me, Ty.” She patted him on the shoulder. “Let me know how the big guy’s doing, ok?”
“I will.” Ty nodded, watching her walk down the ramp and away.
After she left, Ty locked up the ship, then glanced around the Loshad’s bay. The ship was theirs, they had a job and the Edge was at their feet. Their prospects were good, and Ty hadn’t felt this positive in a long time. He wondered where the future would take them.