SOL YEAR 2435,
ONE DAY POSTBOARDING GAMES
The hardest part was the smiling.
Commander Rosa Martín Rivas pasted another smile onto her face as she wove through the crowds and headed for her ship at the far end of the hangar. She and the rest of the members of Zuma's Ghost had weathered the post- Games interviews with as much grace as a losing team could, answering question after question about how it felt to come within three points of beating Commander Carmichael's SEAL team without ever breaking expression.
That wasn't entirely true. Jenks had slipped once, muttering a curse and giving the reporter a flat look. Nika had smoothly stepped in and covered for his adopted sister, giving the volatile petty officer a chance to compose herself.
She stopped, letting Commander Stephan Yevchenko—leader of the NeoG headquarters' team Honorable Intent—catch up to her, ignoring the snide smiles from the naval personnel who passed by her. Yevchenko's people had made up the other half of their group for these Games. And though the Neos had all performed admirably, it had been Rosa who'd let everyone down.
The slender, brown-haired Neo stuck out a hand. "Next year, right?"
"We'll see." It was the best response she could come up with, and something of her mask must have slipped because Stephan didn't let go.
"It wasn't your fault," he said in a low voice. "Don't spend a year convincing yourself it was."
"Too late for that." The reply was out before she could stop it. Rosa muffled a curse when he smiled. Stephan was always good at getting people to say too much. "It's all good. See you at the prelims next year."
"Likely sooner," he said. "We've got a case building. I might need your help with it."
Rosa nodded, but didn't press. Stephan's work in Intel meant he'd tell her when he could and not a moment sooner. Instead she once again forced the smile she was really starting to hate and headed for the Interceptor ahead of her. The interior of Zuma's Ghost was dead quiet when she boarded, a far cry from the laughter and conversation that usually dominated the ship. Rosa pulled the hatch shut behind her.
"Take us home, Ma," she called up to the bridge.
"Roger that, Commander."
Rosa headed for the common area, taking in the downcast eyes and tight mouths of her crew. "All right, people." She spoke with a firmness she didn't quite feel, but if there was one thing she was good at, it was putting on a brave face for everyone else. "You've got the ride back to Jupiter to get it out of your systems. It's just the Games."
"We lost, Commander." Jenks's mismatched eyes weren't quite filled with tears, but there was a sheen to them and her jaw was set in a determined pout.
"I know. We don't lose out there, though, right? What are we?"
"The NeoG." The automatic reply echoed back from everyone, and this time Rosa's smile was genuine.
"That's right. Don't forget it."
T-MINUS FOUR MONTHS UNTIL PRELIM BOARDING GAMES
The battered ship drifted in perfect synchronicity with the asteroid as it passed across the face of Sol, for just a moment blotting out the G-type yellow dwarf almost five hundred million kilometers away.
Upon visual inspection, the ship appeared as dead as the asteroid, its gray surface pitted and dulled by years in the black. It was, or at least appeared to be, a shitty early-days system jumper made for long-haul flights from Earth to the Trappist-1 system.
The SJs had been made well before the days of wormhole tech and instantaneous travel. Their names were painfully incorrect, as they didn't jump anywhere but instead took the long, slow path thirty-nine light-years across the galaxy. Their inhabitants trusting that they'd go to sleep before launch and wake up a long way away from Earth on a brand-new planet.