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Marauder (Outcasts Book 2) by Cyndi Friberg (1)

Chapter One

“It has been too damn quiet lately,” Kage Razel said. He leaned against the front edge of his desk, arms crossed over his chest. He was dressed in a khaki uniform instead of the outlandish barbarian getup he used to intimidate enemies, but his asymmetrical hair and piercing dark eyes still made him look dangerous.

Rex Dravon didn’t respond to the odd announcement. He wasn’t even sure why Kage had summoned him to the Viper, the ship currently serving as Outcast headquarters. Kage led the diverse group of mercenaries and had been their leader for the past fourteen years. Some of the fiercest, most brutal fighters in the galaxy proudly called him overlord, so Rex tried hard not to piss him off. Rex had been fascinated with the Outcasts for years. They seemed larger than life and endlessly mysterious, especially their notorious overlord. Rex had only been doing business with them for the past few months, but both sides seemed satisfied with the alliance. General

After decades of fighting other people’s wars, the battle-weary Outcasts decided to establish a settlement all their own, a civilization based on freedom and individual achievement. They wrote a simple charter with as few rules as possible, but everyone agreed to abide by those rules. They also agreed on penalties for breaking each rule, consequences that were harsh, often lethal.

The planet they’d chosen for their brash new world was in the middle of nowhere, so Rex’s services went from convenient to crucial overnight. Rex was a smuggler, the best damn smuggler in the universe, according to many of his customers, and Rex himself, of course. And for the time being at least, he worked exclusively for the ambitious Outcasts.

“We could throw a party.” Arton’s perpetual frown made it hard to tell if he was serious or not. Knowing the ever-grim harbinger the way Rex did, he was being a smartass. Rex wasn’t sure if it was Arton’s ability to see the future that made him so damn grumpy, but Kage trusted the harbinger and frequently sought his opinion before making final decisions.

“Only if you agree to wear a dress,” Kage responded with a smirk. Most presumed the overlord was Rodyte, or a Rodyte hybrid like the majority of his men. So why didn’t he have phitons? Even Rodyte hybrids had a reflective ring separating their irises from their pupils. Kage’s eyes were solid black with no hint of any other color. Odd. “Our reluctant guests have fought us at every turn, which isn’t surprising. But the past ten days have been much too quiet. I think they’re plotting something and I want to know what it is.”

Their “reluctant guests” were several thousand human females that the Outcasts had rounded up and dragged to this secluded planet against their will. The all-male Outcasts couldn’t start a settlement without females capable of bearing their young. With one exception, each human female was genetically compatible with at least one of the Outcasts, most had many matches from which to choose. Still, knowing that the Outcasts wanted mates rather than sexual playthings hadn’t gone very far toward earning the trust of the resentful females.

“Sounds like Outcast problems to me.” Rex crossed his legs, balancing his ankle on the opposite knee so his foot could bounce off his excess energy. “Why am I here?”

“I want to set a trap using your shuttle,” Kage told him. “Everyone knows your missions take you off-world on a regular basis. If we leave your shuttle open and ready to depart, I want to see if any of the females are still desperate enough to try to steal it or even stow away.”

“I see. And if it’s stolen, are you offering to replace it, because I’m pretty sure none of those women can fly a Linusian shuttle. It’s taken me weeks to get used to the controls and I’ve been flying since I was old enough to walk.”

“They won’t get that far,” Kage insisted. “If any of them so much as climb aboard, you and Arton will be two steps behind. Most are claiming they’ve accepted being here and are no longer interested in returning to Earth.”

Arton scoffed. “We’ve only been here a month. That’s highly unlikely.”

“I agree,” Kage said. “This way we can know for sure.”

Rex shrugged. He’d already offloaded his cargo and was ready to head back out on another supply run. A small delay wouldn’t really matter. “How long do we wait for one of them to take the bait?”

Rubbing his stubbly jawline, Kage was silent for a moment. He stared into the distance, eyes slightly narrowed. “Two hours,” he decided. “That should be enough time for word to spread and at least one of the troublemakers to make her move.”

“Anyone in particular you’re trying to catch in this strange little trap?” Rex wanted to know.

“My money’s on Thea,” Arton volunteered.

Kage chuckled. “Thea Cline is always a safe bet, but I’ll take Shivon Roxtin over on Cobra.” The Outcasts had landed twelve identical ships, fitting them together nose to nose, forming a multi-level “Wheel”. The networked complex now housed the majority of the settler population, making it easier to manage and defend. Each ship in the Wheel was named after a snake, six found on Earth in honor of the females, five Rodyte snakes for the males, and one snake found on multiple worlds for the fifteen percent of the Outcasts who were from other planets. Rex found all the symbolism rather silly. Why not just name the ships one through twelve and be done with it?

“Shivon likes to run her mouth,” Arton agreed, “but Thea is sneaky and clever. That’s much more dangerous than mouthy.”

“So put your credits where your mouth is,” Kage challenged. “How much do you want to bet on it?”

Rex shook his head. These two placed bets about the most irrational things. They were betting on the setting sun the other day, trying to predict the exact moment the star would sink beneath the horizon.

Arton named an amount and they clasped wrists, formalizing the wager.

“I’ll delay my departure by two hours, but no more,” Rex warned. “I have a schedule to maintain.” Which was a lie. He came and went when the mood struck him, one of the primary benefits of being his own boss.

“Two and a half,” Kage countered. “You need time to ready the shuttle for our little game.”

“Fine. Two and a half.” More than ready to get moving, Rex pushed to his feet. “What shall I do with the female or females if they take the bait?”

“Depends who we snag,” Arton told him as he stood. “I’ll take care of it. All you need to do is make your shuttle an easy target.”

“Understood.” He followed the brooding harbinger from the war room aka Kage Razel’s office and they exited the Viper through the aft airlock on deck four. The Wheel really was a marvel. Connecting walkways, some enclosed, others only railed, stretched between the ships, allowing the inhabitants to move freely from one ship to the others without ever touching the ground.

They walked in companionable silence for a few minutes, skirting several of the ships as they headed for the large clearing that served as a shuttle lot. Rex looked around, enjoying the orderly activity and sense of purpose apparent in each motion. Supplies were being dispersed evenly throughout the ships. Workers were building and repairing all sorts of structures surrounding the Wheel, storage sheds, private domiciles, even small shops. With each passing day the area looked less like a landing field for random aircraft and more like an actual settlement. Everyone worked and everyone was rewarded for their efforts. It felt well-organized and surprisingly peaceful for a bunch of mercenaries and their reluctant brides.

“You’re not technically an Outcast,” Arton’s deep voice drew Rex’s attention back to the harbinger. “But you’re vital to our existence, so I ran your DNA profile through the matching data base.”

Rex whipped his head around and looked at Arton, shocked by the bizarre revelation. “How did you get my DNA?”

“You visited the clinic on Mamba last week,” Arton reminded casually. Sunlight shimmered off his sleek silver-and-black hair and made his eyes appear particularly blue. His phitons were silver, the color unique to harbingers. In fact, harbingers all had similar coloring, pale hair, blue eyes, and those strange silver phitons. It was a side-effect of the genetic manipulation that had originally brought about harbinger abilities.

Rex had cut his shoulder on the scaffolding that workers had been erecting and the wound had been bleeding too heavily for him to return to his own ship, the Marauder. Arton hadn’t invaded his privacy to get his DNA.

Though unsolicited, the harbinger’s snooping made Rex curious. “What’d you find out?”

“You have three matches among the human females, but one has much stronger indications than the other two.”

“How did you manage to find over three thousand genetically compatible females in such a short time? The Outcasts weren’t on Earth that long.” He’d wondered about that detail ever since he heard about the mass kidnapping.

“We hacked into the battle born database. With a few exceptions, these females volunteered for their transformation program, which is basically the same as ours. We just approved their applications before the battle born had the opportunity.”

Actually, the Outcasts had stolen the procedure, and one of the lead geneticists, so they were emulating the battle born, not the other way around. Outcasts had a lot in common with the battle born whether they chose to acknowledge the similarities or not. They were both Rodyte hybrids who had rebelled against the unfair structure of Rodyte society. The battle born chose to reform the system, mostly by force. The Outcasts chose to abandon it entirely and start over.

Battle born was a label given to the offspring of Rodyte warriors and their Bilarrian captives. It had been the hope of every warrior that his offspring would inherit their mother’s abilities, thereby reintroducing magic into the father’s bloodline. The program had been marginally successful with female offspring. Sons, however, were all born latent. They could sense their power, often had spontaneous sparks of ability, but they were unable to access their full potential. Ultimately, the practice had been outlawed, but not before it resulted in an entire generation of barely tolerated hybrids. The battle born were shunned and bullied, abused and subjugated until they had no choice but to rebel.

Rex was the product of a similar union, and like his battle born brethren, he had a well of untapped magic he was unable to access on his own.

“Won’t the battle born miss three thousand genetically compatible females?” Rex asked after a lengthy pause.

Arton just shrugged. “They’d approved four hundred and fifty thousand by the time we left, so they’ll barely notice the three thousand we took.” A completely unrepentant smile suddenly parted his lips. “Of course, I skimmed the cream right off the top. Our females have the highest compatibility indicators possible. Our success is almost assured.”

Somehow Rex doubted it would be that simple. They were dealing with human females, after all. Still, it was intriguing to say the least. “And my matches specifically? If I choose to court this female, will I be taking a mate away from one of the Outcasts?”

“I planned for this sort of complication.”

“What does that mean?” Rex’s tone was a bit sharper than he’d intended, but he’d been opposed to the idea of kidnapping the females in the first place. It was one of the reasons he’d chosen not to officially join their merry band. “You grabbed a few extra while you were shopping for mates?”

Arton looked at him and smirked. “Basically.”

“What happens to the leftovers after everyone has chosen a mate? Are they stuck here without a partner, or will you take them back to Earth? I was under the impression that none of the females were going to be allowed to leave.”

Again Arton shrugged as if none of this was of great importance. “We’re not forbidding them from leaving. We just have no intention of taking them anywhere but to bed.”

And the Outcasts were the only ones on this entire planet, so the females were SOL.

He suddenly wanted to punch the harbinger squarely in the face. Rex sighed. His attitude about kidnapping was really irrelevant. The females were here and there was nothing he could do about it. Well, he could refuse Arton’s offer, but that was counterproductive and pointless. If his potential match didn’t bond with him, she would likely be claimed by someone else, someone less understanding and patient.

He smiled at his own justifications, knowing they were bullshit. He was no different than any other male. He longed for a mate and offspring to carry on his line. He’d just never thought they were real possibilities, but he sure as hells wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity now.

He cleared his throat, trying to sound casual, almost indifferent. “You said one was a stronger match than the others. Do I know her?”

“You know of her.” Arton glanced at him and his smile turned secretive.

“Meaning?”

“You’re almost a perfect match with Thea Cline.”

“Your favorite troublemaker?” Rex laughed. Arton was right. Rex had heard all sorts of stories about Thea’s antics since the Outcasts captured her. She’d tried to escape twice, though there was absolutely nowhere to go. The entire planet was an inhospitable wilderness. She fought with the other females and even took on one of the guards. He’d suspected they were kindred spirits, but who in his right mind would want to mate with such a troublesome female? “Thanks for the warning. I’ll be careful to avoid her from now on.”

“The pull has been known to draw compatible couples together.” Arton shot him another sidelong glance. “For that matter, so has our ruthless overlord.”

He looked at Arton, not sure he understood. “Overlord Razel likes to play matchmaker? Is that what this trap is really about?”

“Not entirely,” Arton stressed as they reached the shuttle lot. “I suspect his motivation is layered. He really does want to know if the females have given up on trying to escape, but he also wants to bind you to us in any way he can. Without your contacts, we’d be in serious trouble and Kage knows it.”

Rex knew it too, but it was always nice to hear he was appreciated. He took a deep breath and looked out over the shuttle lot. The pilots landed wherever there was room, creating a messy collection of shuttles in various shapes and sizes. His was three quarters of the way back and all the way over to one side. Where the Rodyte shuttles were smooth and rounded, his shuttle was sharply angled with jagged edges along the bow. It looked like a wasp among honey bees.

“Is Thea pretty?” The question was out before Rex could stop it. He didn’t want a mate. Females only complicated otherwise simple situations.

“Physical appeal is largely subjective,” Arton said, “but I find her more esthetically pleasing than most human females.”

That was high praise from his stoic companion. “Blonde or brunette?”

“Light hair, but dark brown eyes. The unusual combination is part of her appeal.”

Rex had always been partial to brunettes. Not that it mattered in this situation. Genetic compatibility easily trumped outward appearance. Personality, however, was vitally important. Soul bonds lasted a lifetime. No one wanted to be linked with a hateful, argumentative partner. “Wasn’t she recently widowed? I’d heard that grief is largely responsible for her misbehavior.”

Arton nodded. “She lost two children and her mate in the LA Tragedy.”

Pity and compassion gripped his heart. Her family had been wiped out in one horrendous event. No wonder she rebelled. The LA Tragedy had been completely preventable. That was the worst tragedy of all. A rogue human attacked one of the battle born ships, forcing the battle born commander to return fire. The human then lost control of his ship—a highly sophisticated spacecraft of alien design that the human had no business piloting in the first place—and smashed into the heart of Los Angeles. Rex cringed. The devastation had been unthinkable. He didn’t know the exact number, but many thousands of humans died.

They lapsed into silence as they reached Rex’s shuttle. Arton waited outside while Rex put the ship on standby and deactivated the external security alarms. He left the control matrix active yet idle, curious to see how far the females would take this.

“The trap’s all set,” he said as he rejoined Arton on the ground.

“Let’s head back toward the Wheel. Then we’ll circle around and conceal ourselves in those trees.” Arton pointed toward a dense copse of trees to Rex’s left. “We’ll have a clear view of the hatchway without being too conspicuous.”

“Works for me.”

Knowing it would take time for word of the unguarded shuttle to spread, they strolled along at a leisurely pace. There was much about what the Outcasts were attempting that appealed to Rex. He too was tired of power struggles and political manipulation. His background was similar to most of the Outcasts, so he understood their frustration and their determination to build a society more receptive to individual needs than the Rodyte military.

“You’re unusually quiet all of a sudden,” Arton noted.

“You’ve given me a lot to think about,” Rex admitted. “A mate was never a priority for me, largely because the concept never seemed real. Now that it’s an actual possibility, I’m torn.”

The stoic harbinger surprised Rex with a smile. “I understand all too well. Kage delegated the matching process to me. I spend most of my time sorting through data or notifying males of their potential mates. It’s hard not to wonder what my life would be like with a female by my side.”

“And in your bed every night.” Rex groaned. “Can you imagine how wonderful it would be not to go months without the comfort of a female?”

“Months?” Arton scoffed. “More like years.”

They arrived at their vantage point a short time later and spoke softly, not wanting to give themselves away. They didn’t have long to wait. Two human females emerged from the surrounding forest, not far from where Rex and Arton hid. The females looked around briefly, then headed directly toward his shuttle. Rex didn’t know either, but Arton shook his head, appearing surprised by their visitors.

“You know them?” Rex whispered.

“The blonde is Thea. I would have been shocked if she didn’t show up, but the dark-haired female isn’t Shivon. That’s Lily Fontenot. She never causes trouble. I can’t believe Thea talked her into this.”

Lily? Why did that name sound so familiar? “Isn’t Lily the geneticist that’s holding everything up for you guys?” If she was who Rex thought, Lily was vitally important to the Outcasts’ success. Without her cooperation, their transformation program couldn’t move forward and they might never have access to their latent magic.

“The very same,” Arton told him. “Don’t give them too long on that shuttle. Who knows what Thea will do.”

Rex looked at Arton closely. “Is she really that bad?”

“She can be. You wouldn’t believe some of the things she’s done in the past four weeks.”

Rex didn’t ask for details. He wanted to draw his own conclusions about his potential mate. If she was incorrigible, he’d be damn careful not to trigger the pull. But if he sensed any willingness to recover from her tragedy, he’d help her in any way he could. He knew loss and devastation firsthand, so he was uniquely qualified to assist her—if she wanted to recover.

Accepting Arton’s advice, Rex only gave the females a few minutes alone on the shuttle. Then he cautiously approached and crept up the stairs. He stood in the doorway, waiting for them to notice him, but they were busy rummaging through compartments. So he said, “Can I help you with something, ladies?”

Lily reacted first. She gasped and spun around, eyes wide in her pretty face. “We were just...” Her words trailed away and she shrugged.

Thea ambled closer, shrewd calculation gleaming in her dark eyes. With a toss of her head, she sent her long blonde hair flying and drew his attention away from Lily. “Are you Rex Dravon?” Her voice was deep, intentionally sexy.

“Who wants to know?” He mimicked her silky tone and stalked toward her.

“I’m Wilma. She’s Betty.”

He laughed, unable to suppress the reaction. He found her spirit reassuring. He’d expected someone horribly depressed and sullen. Thea didn’t appear to be either. “Does that make me Fred or Barney?”

Clearly surprised by his response, Thea glanced at Lily then turned back to him. “I didn’t expect you to understand the reference.” Her false seduction fell away and he glimpsed behind her mask. Her eyes were soulful and filled with pain, her features delicate and well-balanced.

“I’m aware,” he muttered.

She looked a bit flustered, but her chin raised and her voice hardened. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“Neither did you,” he countered. “At least, not honestly. Shall we start over? I’m Rex Dravon. And you are?”

“Thea Cline. You are just as attractive as I’d heard.” He wasn’t fooled for a second by her flirting. She was trying to manipulate him. He just wasn’t sure toward what end. “I know you work with the Outcasts, but do you consider yourself one of them?”

“Ahh.” He glanced at Lily, then shifted his gaze back to his potential mate. “You’re looking for a ride off this rock.”

She didn’t bother with denials. “Wouldn’t you?”

“Probably.” He closed the distance between them, unable to stay away. He hadn’t even picked up her scent yet, but already he sensed a connection, an attraction that was unlike anything he’d experienced before. Pressing one of his palms against the fuselage, he leaned down and echoed her seductive tone. “Problem is, even if I don’t consider myself an Outcast, they’re my only customer at the moment. If I piss off the overlord, I shut down a very lucrative revenue stream.”

“Some things are more important than money.” Thea’s dark eyes challenged him while her soft-looking mouth begged to be kissed. Or maybe he just wanted to kiss her so badly he could barely think. “Take us to safety and we’ll pay you whatever you ask.”

He let his gaze drift from her face and explore her curvaceous body. Damn. He wanted to touch her, kiss her, strip her naked and memorize every hollow and swell with his lips and tongue. “Tempting, but I can buy all the pleasure givers I want with what Kage pays me.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she stressed. “Name your price and we’ll meet it. ‘Kage’ doesn’t need to know how we escaped.”

“He’d know,” Rex insisted. “Overlord Razel has a pet harbinger who keeps him informed about anything that affects the Outcasts.”

Thea fell silent for a moment, her gaze dark and calculative. Was she working on her next strategy? “You have no problem with their kidnapping us and dragging us to this godforsaken wilderness?”

He shrugged with an indifference he didn’t feel. He didn’t approve of their actions, but he tried to stay neutral in everything. Neutrality was imperative in his line of work. “I see both sides of most arguments. You don’t like losing control and they just want to survive.”

“And you’re just trying to make a buck?” The disapproval in her tone was obvious.

Rex laughed. “I’m a businessman. There’s nothing shameful in focusing on prosperity.”

“There is if people are being harmed in the process!”

“You look pretty hale and hearty to me.” In fact she looked utterly edible. Desire stirred and it was all Rex could do not to pull her into his arms. Even with Lily watching every move they made. “I’ve seen abused prisoners, sweetheart. Neither of you qualify.”

“So the trap worked.”

Finally! Rex pushed off the fuselage and pivoted so he could see Arton without losing sight of Thea.

The harbinger’s gaze immediately gravitated to Lily, his interest anything but casual. “I would have been surprised if Thea hadn’t taken the bait, but I expected better from you.”

“Bait for what?” Thea moved away from the fuselage, but left plenty of room between her and the harbinger. Why was everyone so afraid of Arton? Rex found him agreeable, most of the time. “What was the purpose for your ‘trap’?”

“It has been ten days since the last escape attempt. We were considering rolling back some of the restrictions. Obviously, that won’t happen now.”

“We weren’t trying to escape,” Lily stressed.

Arton arched his brows. “Really? Then what are you doing on this shuttle?”

“Looking for weapons.” She glared at him, but Rex knew sexual tension when he saw it. These two were attracted to each other. Very much so, in fact. “We’re stuck on this planet whether we like it or not. We didn’t want to be defenseless.”

Without warning Arton unclasped his blaster and handed it to Lily. She nearly dropped the thing, clearly not accustomed to handling weapons.

“Do you feel safer now?” Arton asked, challenge sharpening his tone.

Lily’s gaze narrowed and something surprisingly dangerous flashed in her eyes. “You’re right, I’m unlikely to shoot you, but we both know she won’t hesitate.” Lily passed the blaster to Thea, and Thea aimed it directly at the harbinger’s face.

All right, enough with the pissing contest. “This is not happening on my shuttle.” Rex took the gun from Thea and gave it back to Arton. Trying hard to keep the laughter out of his voice, he looked at Thea. “You blast his brains all over the walls, baby doll, and I’m the one who has to clean it up.” He hadn’t meant to use the endearment, but it seemed to fit. Despite Thea’s outward feistiness, her pain and vulnerability were easily apparent. Her spirit was a defense mechanism meant to drive everyone away. Well, regardless of her efforts, he wasn’t going anywhere.

“Thanks for your help, Rex,” Arton’s deep voice drew Rex’s attention away from Thea. The harbinger grasped Lily’s arm as he said, “Someone will be along to collect her in a few minutes.” He nodded toward Thea, but pulled Lily toward the hatch.

“No thank you.” Lily twisted her arm out of his grasp. “Thea is one of my roommates. The guards can escort us both. Females are not supposed to be alone with any of you.”

“She has a point.” Rex was fascinated by the attraction sparking between the other couple. Would his chemistry with Thea be as combustible? He was dying to find out.

Instead of responding to Rex’s statement, Arton faced Lily. “Thea is going to detention. You’re coming with me.” He said nothing more.

“If this is a punishable offense, I should go to detention too.” Lily did everything in her power to hinder Arton’s progress, but he easily pulled her through the hatchway.

“Maybe later,” was Arton’s only reply as he dragged Lily off the shuttle.

Rex turned back to Thea, arms crossed over his chest. “And then there were two.” He flashed his best pirate smile as his gaze moved over her face.

* * *

KAGE PRESSED BACK INTO his chair and propped his boots on the corner of his desk. Xorran Entor stood facing him, hands locked behind his back. His shoulders were squared, hair neatly trimmed, eyes staring straight ahead. Everything about him screamed military. In or out of uniform, it was obvious Xorran had known no other life.

“I need a favor,” Kage said casually, but he watched Xorran closely. He was new to the Outcasts, and Kage needed to know more about him. Xorran had backed the wrong side of the battle born rebellion. He’d stayed true to the establishment until his commander ordered him to murder a member of the Triad, Rodymia’s new governing council. Rather than following the immoral order, Xorran betrayed his commander, delivering him into the hands of the battle born rebels. Kage still wasn’t sure if the choice was noble or cowardly. That was why he decided to test Xorran’s loyalties to the Outcasts before allowing him to integrate any farther into settlement life.

“If it’s within my power,” Xorran responded.

A conditional yes. That was better than blind obedience in Kage’s opinion. “Rex Dravon has a secret and I’m desperate to find out what it is.”

Xorran’s brows drew together for a millisecond before his expression smoothed again. “Rex  is loyal to the Outcasts, sir. I’ve known him for years and he would never betray—”

“I don’t want you to interrogate him. I need you to follow him. I was under the impression that you’re a tracker, in the Bilarrian sense of the word.”

Xorran tensed. His shoulders came up and his lips pressed together. “My abilities are not widely known. May I ask how you found out?”

Kage chuckled and lowered his feet to the deck. “No one joins the Outcasts without being fully investigated. You wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been intrigued by what I learned. The vast majority of the battle born can’t access their magic. Why can you?”

“I underwent a series of procedures when I was a child.” He sounded as if he was strangling on the words. “The outcome was only marginally successful.”

Many, perhaps most, of the Outcasts had similar stories. Rodytes had been trying to create the perfect soldier for decades. And Rodytes weren’t the only species willing to manipulate nature in pursuit of some lofty goal. Increased intelligence, longer life, the eradication of disease, these concepts and many more had convinced scientists that the end justified the means.

Rather than delve any deeper into Xorran’s past, Kage asked, “Are you able to lock on to a person’s location and follow them regardless of how fast they travel?”

“Can Rex teleport?” Xorran countered.

Kage arched his brows. “You know him better than I do. You tell me.”

“Not to my knowledge.” Xorran grew more uncomfortable with each exchange. “As you’ve indicated, Rex can be secretive.”

“To say the least. Now answer my question. As long as Rex is unable to teleport, can you track him?”

“It would depend on his ship.”

Kage nodded. “I’m assigning you to one of my stingers. They can keep up with anything in the fleet. This one is also equipped with covert shielding and a device capable of detecting the Marauder’s ident code even after Rex starts modulating the transponder.”

“Understood.” Xorran looked as if he’d say more, then sighed and remained silent.

“This isn’t the military, Xorran. If you have concerns, spit it out.”

“Is there something specific you believe Rex has done? He believes you’re pleased with his work.”

“Rex is too damn good,” Kage admitted with a shrug. “I gave him that ship, so I know exactly what it’s capable of. None of his last three runs should have been possible. He’s either lying about his destinations or... Hells, I don’t know how he’s doing it.”

“Did you ask him about the inconsistencies?” Xorran unclasped his hands, finally starting to relax.

“You know Rex. He just laughed and said ‘trade secrets’. He’s scheduled to depart again in a couple of hours. I want you on his tail. Find out exactly where he goes and how in all of hells rings he’s getting there.” Kage sighed, still sensing hesitation in his new recruit. “I know he’s your friend, but this is important. All I’m asking for is information. There has to be a logical explanation for Rex’s speed. I want you to find out what it is. Understood?”

Finally Xorran nodded. “Understood.”

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