Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
Was he shaking?
He felt like he was shaking.
Enzo subtly wiped his sweaty palms on the legs of his exosuit before slipping on the matching navy blue gloves. His pulse was thundering in his ears, nearly drowning out the sound of the pod’s engines, and he felt like he was about to vibrate right out of his skin.
“Cool it, kid! I can feel my own boots quaking you’re trembling so damn much,” Kade hissed, invalidating his harsh words with a quick, reassuring squeeze of Enzo’s shoulder. “It’ll be fine, squirt. You’re a natural, remember?”
Enzo couldn’t find it in him to speak, but he did give a jerky nod, and if he didn’t stop shaking entirely he at least calmed the worst of the tremors. He heard the ship’s engines slowing, felt the tell-tale shudder as they cut out and the pilot set the transport pod to hover. Anticipation hung about the twenty men in the pod, thick and palpable like humid air.
“You ready?” Kade asked, ruffling Enzo’s floppy black hair in a way that was just-this-side of too hard to be affectionate when he nodded in the affirmative.
The admiral turned to face his buzzing crew, and it was like magic the way the room settled when he leveled his gaze on them. “Alright, guys, you know the drill. We got ourselves another slave cruiser here, some kind of week-long auction. Praxia’s offered us an obscene amount of money, but we don’t see a cent of it unless we get every slave outta there.”
Enzo fidgeted, fighting valiantly against the urge to check his weapons for the umpteenth time, but he was so damn nervous.
“You take what you want, kill who you want, but one hair on one of those slaves’ heads gets harmed and the culprit is in for it, you got me?”
Kade didn’t need to wait for the ripple of affirmatives that spread through the room. His command was absolute, and everyone in the room knew he expected immediate and unquestioning compliance on any mission.
Enzo stiffened as Kade turned his sharp brown eyes on him. “Enzo, you’re with me. Every step of the way, understand? I walk, you walk, I fall, you fall, I stop to take a piss, you stop to take a goddamn piss. I want you within my sight the entire time.”
That was expected, of course, protocol for each mercenary’s first real job. Enzo had been on small missions before; retrievals, minor heists, and plenty of scouting missions. Kade refused to allow any under-aged crew go on the hard jobs like this one, though, and so Enzo had previously been confined to the ship when Kade had taken his crew on the more dangerous missions. It was two weeks and three days past his eighteenth birthday, though, and he was finally getting the chance to show what he could do.
Too bad he felt like he was going to pass out from nerves.
He nodded jerkily, and was inordinately proud of himself when his voice didn’t squeak or tremble on his confirmation. When Kade inclined his head towards him and pressed the red button at the base of his throat to release his rebreather helmet, Enzo and the others followed suit. His display came online with a ping, and his vision was filled with the red backlight of his helmet’s interface. He felt the usual tingle of electricity zing along his body and didn’t have to look to see that the red wires peppered over his sleek navy suit were whirring to life.
Kade jerked his head towards the airlock and Enzo took a steadying breath before he dutifully followed the man into the chamber. When the door clicked shut and the clank of the security locks sliding home had ceased, Kade rapped his knuckles lightly on Enzo’s helmet once.
“Don’t pass out, kid.”
There was no more warning, just the sound of Kade’s fist slamming on the airlock release, and then Enzo and his guardian were launched into the vacuum of space. Enzo loved the feeling of weightlessness when he made jumps like this, relished the sensation of near-flying, relished the all-encompassing silence in the stars. When they’d cleared the pod he clicked on his propulsion unit and corrected his course, keeping as close to Kade as he dared.
The cruiser was looming before them, hulking and luminescent. His holo-display dimmed, compensating for the onslaught of light with a slight shading of his visor. A beep of warning and his helmet started ticking a countdown, red glowing numbers at the corner of his vision letting him know that they had:
10 ... 9 ... 8
He pulled sharply to the left to avoid collision with a piece of space junk.
7 ... 6
A sigh of relief when he managed to correct his course again.
5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1
They cut their propulsion units just in time, using the last of their momentum to softly hit the hull of the ship. A quick triple-tap of his middle finger and his suit released the sticky fibers in his toes and fingertips which allowed him to cling to the metal under him.
Kade was already busy climbing, his hulking form pulling further and further away, and Enzo scurried hastily after him. Luckily he was fast, because his guardian never spared a second to glance back and make sure his charge was following, to make sure he hadn’t floated off into space. He had no idea if that spoke about the confidence Kade had in him, or a lack of caring.
They halted their ascent when they reached one of the ship’s many airlocks, and Enzo planted himself in a crouching position at the other man’s side. He watched as Kade punched in some complicated pattern on his right wrist, as the electric blue wires on his suit blinked twice and ejected a key-like object from the tip of his left pointer finger.
He inserted the key into a hole on the airlock’s control panel and the panel lit up with a display of a keypad. Their security was, frankly, laughable. That wasn’t uncommon with slaver vessels. They operated outside the law, and most of the criminals in the galaxy benefited from them so much that they didn’t really have to bother too awful much with protecting themselves. Live and let live and all that nonsense. Still, as keypad lit up with the right combination and the outer airlock door released, Enzo couldn’t help but scoff at the pitiful one minute and thirty seconds it had taken.
They slipped into the room and allowed their bodies a moment to adjust to the heavy feeling of being back in artificial gravity. It never ceased to freak Enzo out how an objectively silent room could sound so incredibly loud after being out in the black. There wasn’t really any specific sound that he could pinpoint, but there was absolutely nothing like the complete and absolute silence of being out in the stars, and the difference was palpable.
Once they were inside, their job was to override what passed for security at the planned entry-point long enough for the pod full of crew to lock on. Every cruiser, no matter how terrible their protective measures, came with a feature that repelled pods like theirs from latching on. It was standard, and common sense when the stars were littered with pirates and vagabonds. Kade had hacked into enough of them that it was never really a problem, but they had to be physically touching the control panel to do it.
Enzo suppressed an impressed whistle as they crept through the enormous ship. It was ostentatious and ornate, clearly built for luxury rather than practicality. The Hesperia – the mercenary mother ship Kade controlled – was downright dreary in comparison. Plush red carpets lined the floors, gilded crown molding glinted along the walls, and interspersed at precise intervals along the halls were sparkling chandeliers. He couldn’t help thinking as he craned his neck to get a better look at the dangling lights that this was going to be one hell of a payday.
The speakers in Enzo’s helmet crackled and the admiral’s gruff voice echoed through. “Pay attention, kid, we ain’t here to take in the scenery.”
“Sorry,” Enzo whispered, snapping to attention.
They didn’t run in to a single person as they crept through the halls, which was no whim of fate. They’d hacked into the ship’s mainframe and pulled up a schedule, planning their arrival so that it coincided with a ship-wide gala. Unfortunately, their objective rendezvous point happened to be inside the ballroom, which was where Enzo came in.
Kade stopped outside a golden door with one port window, through which Enzo could hear lilting music, tinkling glasses, and muffled laughter. He stood on his toes so he could peer over his guardian’s shoulder.
At first glance, the party looked frankly beautiful, a myriad of colors as people displayed the formalwear from their home planets, sparkling jewelry at every throat and wrist. The image was soured, however, by the smattering of scantily-dressed, half-starved slaves around the room. Some were kneeling on the floor at their owner’s feet, or sitting uncomfortable on laps, or using delicate fingers to feed their owners morsels of food.
Enzo huffed and stepped back, and Kade turned to him. “You know what to do. Think you can handle this?”
“Affirmative,” Enzo said, and his pulse was still racing and his palms were still sweating but underneath all that a steely layer of determination had taken root. He would not fail. He would not let his surrogate father down. He would not let those people in there who were being treated worse than animals down.
“Did you see the panel? It’s at the back of the room, right in the center of the wall. Just override the lock and hurry back here. I can do the rest.”
Enzo nodded and closed his eyes, drawing on the power that was always thrumming at the edge of his consciousness. His control over his Gift always needed to be worked for, but the effort was worth it. He’d spent years honing his control, and while he doubted he’d ever be able to wield his power with the same level of efficiency as Kade wielded his, he was proud of his progress.
The amulet that was pressed against his chest heated up, and though he couldn’t see it through his suit he knew it was emitting a faint glow. He felt the familiar sensation of his body cloaking itself, like there was a cool mist seeping down his skin from the crown of his head to the tips of his toes. When he opened his eyes and looked down, all he could see of himself was an incredibly faint shimmer, undetectable unless you knew what you were looking for.
He slipped into the room without another word, the muffled sounds increasing in volume as the doors closed behind him. Much as he wanted to take in the sights of the room, he knew his Gift was limited and he needed to get his job done before it ran out. No one so much as glanced his way as he crept along the walls, making his way painstakingly around the room until he made it to the control panel at the back. A shaky exhale left his lips as he carefully punched in the same combination on his suit as Kade had, the task all the more difficult because he couldn't see himself. He’d been practicing for weeks, though, and as a bead of sweat rolled slowly down his temple his suit spit out the override key.
No one noticed, either, as the display on the control panel flickered to life and blinked twice in acknowledgment of his inserted code. No one noticed as he hurried back the way he’d come, eager and far less cautious as he’d been on the way in. He barely made it out into the hall before his Gift flickered and he was once again visible, but Kade bumped his shoulder in recognition of a job well done and he grinned shakily behind his helmet.
Everyone noticed when the pod locked into place and the airlock doors swooshed open, spilling out a gaggle of men with mismatched weapons. As chaos erupted in the room Kade darted in, Enzo hot on his heels, and overrode the locks on the door so that no one could escape.
Enzo had never really understood why the crew always came back from missions like this one in such high spirits. They were going to make a metric fuckton of money, sure, but they made just as much doing other jobs, too. As his steel-toed boot connected with the chest of a man holding a golden leash attached to a slave and sent him careening into the wall, however, he began to see their point.
He unhooked the collar from the tiny waif of a girl’s neck, gritting his teeth at the sores it left behind on her scaly orange skin, and jerked his head to indicate she should run back to their ship. She sobbed gratefully and took his hand in hers, leaning down to let the antennae on top of her head graze once over his knuckles in gratitude before scampering off to the relative safety of the pod.
The ire building in Enzo’s chest was all-consuming, chasing out his nervous jitters. He’d known of the slave trade, of course, known that the galactic navy often hired Kade to take on missions like this. He knew that magical beings like him and his guardian were being collected all over the galaxy, rounded up to be sold off to the highest bidder.
Hearing and seeing were, however, two entirely different things. He unholstered his plasma pistol, the one Kade had just given him for his birthday. It felt powerful in his hand as it droned to life, and he aimed it at the back of a woman who was dragging her slave along by his long yellow braided hair. As his first ever kill fell to the ground in a pool of her own blood, he felt zero remorse. Her slave wasted no time dashing to the pod, bowing gratefully at Enzo as he passed.
Enzo wheeled around to take down another target, digging something out of his pack and tossing it at a second target simultaneously. He smirked as the tiny cube stuck to the slaver’s cheek and suffused his body with crackling yellow electricity. He turned and caught sight of Kade, who nodded at him once in approval, and his heart soared.
Of course, that was the exact moment that everything went to shit.
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