Jackson exhaled, putting his hands behind his head.

His kadvair kept the worst of the sand from getting in uncomfortable places around his body. The sun shone down warmly from above, and now that the padding on his feet was cinched up, he could feel the gentle waves of the water lap at his feet.


Jackson heard a loud splash, followed by a few stray droplets of salty water on his face. Maddy was swimming awfully close to shore, then, splashing about instead of diving deep into the expansive crystal oceans. Out of curiosity, he sat up, killing the polarization on his sunglasses to get a good look at the scenery.

True to its name, the climate was beautiful today on Paradise. It helped that they had picked a slightly deserted beach further out from the coves and luxury hotels where the tourists congregated. The cliffs were small behind them, open stretches of flat beaches and sparse grassland as far as the eye could see. The only other soul anywhere nearby at the moment was Dog, who was content to sleep casually up in the grass, his head rested on his two front cybernetic legs.

Glancing out to sea, Maddy wasn't immediately visible in the gentle waters. Shrugging, he lay back down, closing his eyes until curiosity got the better of him—it was hard to do nothing for such long stretches.

Fumbling in the nearby sand, he found his earpiece and quickly slipped it his left ear. A moment later, a screen winked to life on his shades, displaying an active comm channel with the Crimson in orbit.

"Report in, Mitch," he muttered lazily.

Mitch's voice crackled to life with a chuckle. "You should be relaxing."

"Just wanted to know if any new reports filtered in."


"Mitch, do we know for sure that no significant military assets survived on either side? What if fighting broke out?"

"Well I'm quite happy to report that both sides are respecting the mutually forced ceasefire. Mostly because no one has a damn thing left to shoot at the other side."

Jackson exhaled, feeling a pressure rise off his chest. He had worried every step of the way out of Draconian space that something somewhere had survived and that shots would start firing before long. But the truth was evident; Draconia was always too far behind on any sort of offensive fleet, and Gibraltar's Fleet was all but decimated for good now.

Axel might have found that part amusing.

"And the facility?" Jackson pressed.

"The one that didn't exist in Gibraltar that processed Helios-One? Oh yeah, it's gone. The chatter I've been eavesdropping on seems to have Fleet Command puzzled about that one. They're deathly afraid Draconia found out about it since it was targeted out of the blue. But yeah, it's gone. Luckily that was where they kept their reserves of the damned stuff."

Jackson nodded, listening to Mitch's voice. Obviously there would be backups; Gibraltar would in time have the capacity to mass produce it. But not for a while. And without a Fleet to deliver it to Draconia, much less a Strategic Grid to defend from reprisal strikes, war between the two states was a long way distant.

"And now if you'll excuse me," Mitch continued, "I shall leave you to some much need rest."

"And why is that?"

But no answer came, the comm shutting down. Jackson shrugged, and was startled when a hand reached out, pulling the piece from his ear.

Blinking, Jackson sat up to see that Maddy had since crawled up onto the sand next to him. She was lying forward on her belly, resting her chin on her palms, elbows dug into the sand.

"Enough of that," she said with a chuckle, putting it aside.

Jackson briefly let his gaze wander over the sight of her aquamarine tail; slithered up from the water and seemingly attached to her above the hips. It never ceased to amaze him; Maddy always seemed to come with new surprises.

Then he noticed that she had found two large, beige seashells and had fashioned a bikini out of them. That made him chuckle out loud.

Maddy cocked her head. "What were you up to?"

"Just making sure two superpower militaries were out of commission for awhile."

That left Maddy with a serious expression. "What do you think will happen now? Without fleets to protect? Who will enforce the peace?"

Jackson waved her off. "I wouldn't be too worried about it. Both sides have more than enough patrol ships for policing their systems. And there will be plenty of Private Contractors, mercenaries, and even bounty hunters out there these days. Both sides will contract them out to do work."

Maddy grinned. "You, Mr. Merk, just became a very valuable person."

Jackson couldn't help but grin back. Maddy was right about that. Now that he had no existing contracts with either side, there would be plenty of bidders looking for experienced bounty hunters.

Now that he was done with Axel, he had a whole career out there calling to him.

It was strange to think about. Jackson would never have seen himself as a career freelancer like this. Even when he first set out after the destruction of the Peacemaker Fleet, his only purpose had been in tracking down the last traitors and Axel. He had never considered this as a fulltime career. For so long, he had only wanted to be the next Fleet Commander. Even according to Axel's flawed future, Jackson had been happily married and with children leading the Fleet ever after.

Axel had taken that away, along with anything that once mattered. All for the simple purpose of making Jackson suffer. Now…

Now, he was still a bounty hunter; with a good set up and perhaps in a position to be happy.

Maddy cocked her head again, laughing in spite of herself. "What are you all smiles about?"

Jackson glanced over at her, admiring the beauty in her face for a moment longer. Then he leaned in, kissing her tenderly. Oh yes, he had a very good position with the Crimson and his little crew.

Breaking away, he brushed away some sand from Maddy's cheek.

"I was just thinking," he began, "I wasn't sure what would matter after Axel took everything away from me. But I found something much better."

Maddy's smile deepened, and she leaned in to kiss him.