...And Back Again
A Sequel to "The Faithful" and "Three for the Money"
Marty made his way through the passenger quarters, pounding on the walls with his fist and shouting at the top of his considerable lungs. It was old-fashioned but it worked.
“Wake up, ladies!”
Ty strode along behind him, side-stepping a makeshift projectile as men staggered out of their rooms, half-dressed and grumbling.
“What the hell?” Wilkins muttered. He held up his pants with one hand and pulled on a red knit cap with the other.
“Galley in five minutes!” bellowed Marty. Yelling hurt his throat but he didn’t care. He was having a good time.
Snowball stuck his head out of a room and growled. “We better be on fucking fire, man.”
Rubbing his eyes furiously, Kelly stumbled into Marty’s path. “You making us breakfast, Cap?”
“Big, hot, steaming plate of foot-in-your-ass,” Marty replied. “Only thing I know how to make.”
He rounded the bend and headed up the second leg of the hall, chuckling to himself as someone behind him asked, “Where in hell’s the galley?”
His own quarters were on the right-hand corridor. Starboard, he reminded himself. Space-faring was just like sea-faring only there was no treading water when your ship went down. He’d left Reggie in the cabin a couple of hours ago. She was probably sound asleep by now. Served her right for wanting to come along.
He beat the wall in a straight line from his own room to that shared by Jack and Riddick.
“Wake the fuck up, people!”
“The fuck’s the one waking us up!” came Riddick’s muffled shout.
Without answering, Marty limped his way back around to the kitchen. He crossed to the table and leaned on the back of the chair at its head, scowling at the empty seats. It had been a long time since his last briefing. He had to deal with civilians and that gnawed his gut a little. Where there were civilians, there were feelings to be considered and that hardly ever went well. He snorted. Reggie had already defied him once.
Maybe defied was too strong a word. Manipulated. Schemed. Pouted. And he’d let her have her way. Marty sighed and wondered exactly when it was that he’d turned into a complete pussy.
It took longer than five minutes but soon everyone on board was packed into the Vagabond Queen’s common area, sitting, standing, rummaging through the refrigerator.
Wilco made a face as he rubbed his temples. “Jesus, Kel, how can you eat?”
Kelly proceeded to demonstrate by cramming an entire chocolate cupcake into his mouth. He smiled and spoke around the mouthful. “You got anything but junk food on this boat, Herry?”
“Are you talking to me?” Herry asked through a yawn. “What?”
“Nice jammies, Snow,” smirked Mercer.
“These are my lucky pajamas,” replied Snow. His chair creaked as he settled into it.
“If they’re lucky then how come they’ve got eight-balls all over them?” asked Wilkins.
“You got a problem with my big, black balls, man?”
Wilkins rolled his eyes. “I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming.”
Jack plopped down on a seat and lay her head on her arms. “Dammit, Marty, what’d you have to wake us up so soon for?”
“Because I’m an asshole and I enjoy it,” he replied.
He flipped the computer case open and glanced around the room. The men had settled and were watching him expectantly. Reggie was in an out-of-the-way spot on the steps down from the forward hall. She flashed him a sleepy smile when he looked her way.
“I’ll do my best to talk louder than the pounding in your heads,” he began. “There are a few things I would like you all to be aware of before they come up and bite you in the ass. First, the boat we’re on is a light fast-track vessel. I know that doesn’t mean a damn thing to some of you, so I’ll explain.
“Most larger ships are equipped with all manner of dampeners to make jumps easy on the passengers. This boat’s primarily a freighter and cargo doesn’t give a good goddamn about a raging case of the pukes. Once we’re underway it might take you some time to find your sea legs and there’s a good chance at least a couple of you won’t find them at all. Now, what that’s likely to do is give you the urge to spend the whole trip in bed. Don’t do it. It’ll reduce the effects in transit but once we stop you’ll feel like a bowl of steamed shit. You’ll need to sleep sooner or later, though. Before you do, see the doc. She’ll give you something to keep the effects to a minimum.
“When you’re awake, do something. Move around. There’s a treadmill in the forward section of the cargo hold. I know this doesn’t exactly make for a pleasure cruise but we’re saving a lot of time by taking this route. It’s not without risks. We’re heading into an area that’s full of unmapped hazards. That’s why we’re paying Herry the big bucks.”
Herry made a small gesture of acknowledgement as he popped a handful of pills into his mouth and chased them with a beer. That was encouraging. "Overlapping asteroid fields,” he said. “Planets in close orbit, random chunks of crap floating around. I could do that blindfolded and drunk.”
“Prefer you didn’t,” Marty replied. “Assuming that Herry doesn’t crash and kill us all, what we’re after is a sneak and peak. We’re there to look around, take pretty pictures and get the fuck out without disturbing the locals.”
He turned the computer screen to face them. On it was a simple rendering of a Teeth-With-Wings.
“This is one of the sweethearts we’re liable to encounter. Carnivorous, angry and sharp from pretty much any angle you come at them. They’re light-sensitive but that doesn’t stop them from wandering into above-ground structures or anywhere else they can avoid direct sunlight. So watch your ass.”
“What happens when it gets dark, Cap?” asked Wilco.
“It doesn’t. U4675HBN is part of a multiple star system. We’ve got sunlight around the clock for another nine or ten years. There won’t be any creeping around under cover of darkness, but we’ll have to go underground sooner or later. Hard to get a look at a mine otherwise.”
“What then?” asked Jack.
“We’ll have to assume that folks there have a way to avoid them. If they can, so can we. And,” he continued, “just because these homely fucks are the only thing we know about doesn’t mean there aren’t any other indigenous threats present. In fact, you can bet that there’s all sorts of shit out there waiting to take a chunk out of you. Just... don’t touch anything.”
Snowball jumped into the brief pause. “What if it touches us first?”
“Something comes after you, do what you need to do. Otherwise, they’re too ugly to mount on the wall, they’d make combustible boots and anything that smells that bad can’t be good eating.”
That drew a few chuckles, even from the terminally hung over. He smirked but left the laughter otherwise unacknowledged. There was a fine line between taking the job seriously and being a humorless asshole and he wanted to stay on it.
He glanced at Riddick. “Anything to add?”
“Yeah,” Riddick nodded. “They’re soft under the neck. Hit them hard enough, even with a bare hand, and something’ll snap. I’m guessing it’s a windpipe but I didn’t stick around long enough to carve them up and see.”
“That’d be a first for you, wouldn’t it?” Mercer threw in.
“Stow it, Mercy,” snapped Marty.
Mercer fell silent but he was clearly pleased with himself. After a pause, Riddick went on.
“Considering what we’re packing, I don’t think it’ll much matter where you hit them. And when the Cap says they’re light-sensitive, he’s not kidding. They blister in a beam as weak as a flashlight’s. Sunlight blows them clean apart.”
Marty raised an eyebrow at him and Riddick shrugged.
“Besides the critters we’ve got an undetermined number of personnel,” Marty continued. “Chances are all we’ll find are a bunch of diggers. But given the circumstances they won’t be down there without some kind of security measures. That could mean anything from dogs to honest-to-God mercs to a bunch of cans lined up in the doorway. In any case, I don’t think I need to tell you to defend yourselves should the need arise. Best solution is to not be seen, but in the unlikely event that violence erupts Ty will be up here on real-time, tattling on the bad guys.”
Those who had once been soldiers grunted their assent. Jack nodded and Reggie looked worried at him from her perch on the stairs. He shot her a look he hoped was reassuring and went on.
“There are a couple of hazards due to planetary makeup,” he said. “A good part of the top layers are made up of gypsum and other evaporite rock. For you folks that failed Geology that means they’re soft and easily washed away. Having visited U4675HBN not too long after a storm, I can tell you that heavy rain leaves soft ground and sinkholes, some of which are big enough to swallow small ships. That means watch where you’re going and step where Wilco tells you.”
Kelly patted Wilkins on the shoulder. “No pressure.”
“Oxygen levels downside are lower than what most of you are used to. It’s like high mountain air, takes some getting used to. We’ve got gear to cover you until you acclimate. Far as the weather conditions, we’ll have a look once we reach orbit. We’ve got three sites to examine. The one mine that’s been confirmed shows a good deal of activity. If there’s any real potential for things to turn ugly I’d say it’s there. So Wilco, Kelly, Snow and myself are going to have a look at that.”
That got Jack’s attention and she lifted her head to scowl at him.
“Sites A and B are small settlements; temporary housing set up for the survey teams. Jack, Riddick, I want you to get what you can from there. Any documentation the surveyors left behind has probably been picked through and destroyed already but look, anyway. They’ve been abandoned for some time. As long as you don’t do anything boneheaded, you shouldn’t run into any problems. ”
“Oh come on! Why are you sticking me with--?”
Riddick gave her a look, though Marty was pretty sure she meant the job and not the company.
“We can talk about specifics afterward,” Marty said firmly.
Her expression said they damn sure would. He wasn’t looking forward to it.
“Mercy, I want you to float. Find the spot you ought to be in and update whenever the need arises.”
Mercer hadn’t moved. As far as Marty could tell the man had simply faded into being from the wall he was leaning against. Now he nodded and uttered a quiet, “Yessir, Cap.”
Marty shook his head. “While we’re on this ship, Herry is the captain and will be referred to as such. Once we’re downside, you can call me whatever the hell you want.”
Herry held up his hands in a warding gesture. “Uh-uh. Don’t bring me into this, man.”
“Yessir, Mad,” said Mercer, ignoring him. “The ladies and I are ready.”
“Ladies?” asked Reggie.
“All Mercy’s guns are named after women,” Wilkins explained.
Snow laughed out loud. “Yeah, and the targets are named after the guys they ran off with.”
Mercer extended one long, slender finger and showed it to him.
“Wilco,” Marty broke in. “Ty has some things for you. Snow, talk with Reggie, she’ll set you up with everything you need. Ty will give out some goodies and explain how they work before the drop. We’re hitting the track in... Herry?”
“Course is already charted,” said Herry. “I can have her ready to go in an hour.”
Marty glanced down at his notes. Had he forgotten anything? He hadn’t for a long time. He had new pills to replace the old pills and they worked. But there it was. The twinge in his head. The dancing light at the corners of his vision. The trip would probably make it worse. He couldn’t postpone or cancel the mission
game called on account of brain
but he wouldn’t feel right sending others to do his work. Screwing things up because he was addled wouldn’t be any better. Fuck.
“Questions?” he asked.
Head shaking and shrugs from the guys. Reggie was watching him with that suspicious squint that told him she’d seen something she didn’t like and Jack was glaring at him hard enough to set his hair on fire. Beside her, Riddick’s mouth twitched into a half-assed smirk that didn’t make Marty particularly sorry he’d stuck the man with a shit job.
“That’s it until we reach orbit, then. If you think of anything, feel free to ask. Unless you’re queasy, then stay the hell away from me until we stop.”
Reggie stood and stretched, then gave a self-conscious glance around the room. The men hadn’t moved. It took a moment for him to realize they were waiting to be dismissed. Jeezus.
“Go on,” said Marty. “Get out. Go.”
Mercer was already gone by the time Marty looked his way. Sneaky son of a bitch, God bless him. The others stood and shuffled out, but as expected, Jack stayed. Reggie hung in the doorway until Marty smiled at her, then she turned to shuffle down the forward hall.
Riddick pushed his chair back from the table and set his hands in his lap. It was both a defensive gesture and one that seemed to indicate that whatever was going on between them, he planned to sit it out. He’d been a soldier once, for what it was worth. He could still follow orders. Jack was obviously going to need some more teaching before she was willing to do as she was told.
“Why didn’t you let me talk?” she asked curtly.
He wanted to sit down. In fact, his leg demanded it. But he wouldn’t. Sitting at a table was no way to conduct a sensitive discussion. Marty supposed that kind of thinking was why he’d been a soldier and not a diplomat. He compromised and leaned his backside against the edge of the table to take some of the weight off.
“I figured if it was important it would wait until the rest was done with,” said Marty. It wasn’t the whole truth but it wasn’t a lie, either.
“In other words you wanted to wait until everybody else was gone before I gave you shit,” she said.
Jack shot him an accusing look. “You’re making fun of me.”
“No, ma’am,” he said. “I’m just trying to stop something unpleasant before it starts.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“We talked about this before we left, Jack.”
“We talked about you handling the talent,” she snapped. “We talked about you arranging the equipment and planning the job. We didn’t talk about you not letting me get a word in.”
“You agreed to let me do this. Having you question me in front of everyone isn’t the best way to start things off.”
“And having you cut me off when I try to talk makes it kind of tough for people to understand that I’m the boss.”
Marty considered asking her if she was trying to look like the boss when she was letting Riddick lick shots off her chest and giving cheap feels to strippers.
“Maybe you shouldn’t worry so much about trying to be the boss, then,” he said.
“Why, so you can?”
“There’s a difference between being the boss and being in charge,” he said. “This is your trip, I understand that. But one person needs to hold the reins of this ugly cart or it’s going to run away with us.”
“Look,” Jack began. “I know that I don’t know anything about Sneaky Ops but I was under the impression that I had some input. That just doesn’t seem to be the case since we picked these guys up. If you’ve got something to prove to them I don’t want to be part of the demonstration.”
“Jack, we picked them up five hours ago,” he said. “You insisted on coming along for the ride and against my better judgment, I said ‘yes’. You insisted on going planetside and despite the fact that I think it’s a horrible goddamned idea I agreed to that, too. Given that , I put you where I thought you would do the most good.”
“I don’t see the big deal.” Jack shrugged and tried to sound casual but he could tell she was starting to fume. “You said there were probably just miners there, anyhow.”
“I also said there might be people waiting around to blow our heads off, Jack.”
“I want to see what’s going on for myself.”
“You will, when we get back.”
“Dammit, Marty! It’s my trip, it’s my dime and I don’t want to leave the important stuff to somebody else!”
He wanted to tell her to stop; that he didn’t want to do this because he would end up looking like an asshole or a pussy-whipped piece of shit and he didn’t much care for either. Something familiar, long-neglected was creeping up on him and he didn’t like the feel of it. Or maybe what he didn’t like was the fact that it felt good.
He couldn’t just get angry with her, let her have it. Didn’t seem fair. Jack didn’t know what was in here. Not the way she thought she did. Marty glanced at Riddick, who he wished to hell had stepped outside with everyone else. Jack didn’t know what was in there, either. The fact that she expected them to cow in the face of her tantrum seemed ridiculous considering what he knew was in both of them.
“It’s because you’re a woman, Jack,” Riddick finally spoke up.
Jack’s face erupted in unveiled fury as she glanced from one man to the other. “Excuse me?”
Marty did Jack the service of looking her in the face instead of turning his attention to Riddick and asking him just what the fuck he thought he was doing.
“Maybe we should save this for when you’ve calmed yourself down a little, Jack.” He’d be fucked if that wasn’t the stupidest thing to say.
“I wouldn’t be pissed off in the first place if it wasn’t for you!” she spat.
He started to respond a couple times and stopped himself. There was no chance that “just think about it for one damn minute” or “be reasonable” were going to do anything to diffuse the situation. Nothing could earn a guy a swift kick in the nuts like telling a woman she wasn’t being reasonable.
“Marty, I’ve been there before, I know what it’s like. It’ll probably be less dangerous than it was the last time and besides, I can take care of myself.”
She was nearly shouting and Marty wondered how long it would be before someone heard and decided to stick their nose in.
“Under most circumstances, yes,” said Marty. “And while it’s possible that this trip will meet those circumstances, I’m not willing to bet anyone’s life on it. If I can keep you out of a dangerous situation, I will. Now part of that’s because I don’t want you to get hurt, and part of it’s because if things get ugly the last thing I want is an unskilled civilian tying us up. So if by keeping you safe I keep everyone else a little safer, too, I’m damn sure going to hold that over making you happy.”
“You’re a civilian, too, you know,” Jack retorted. She stood and kicked Riddick’s feet out of the way as she rounded the table to stand in front of Marty. Riddick scowled at the back of her head and drew his legs back.
See how you like it, asshole.
“That’s different, Jack,” he said evenly. “I think you know that.”
“Oh, sure it is.” Her voice was shaky, like someone on the verge of tears. “I mean, you proved that the last time you got in a fight, right?”
It hit him, he wasn’t going to deny it. Especially coming from Jack. She was trying to get a rise out of him, he reminded himself, that was all.
God knew he’d fucked up in a fight before. Bad enough to get half his innards splattered all over the front of an L-470 Nomad, in fact. And the last time? He’d done alright for a guy with half his brain tied behind his back. All except for the part where he almost got his head ripped off. Point was, Marty had had two chances to learn from the kind of mistakes that most people didn’t get to make once. And what had he learned, exactly?
Hit them before they hit you, and don’t give a fuck who they are.
His hands were on her before she had time to look surprised. Jack squealed as he spun her so she faced away from him and snaked an arm around her neck. One of her arms was pinned between them, the other he snagged with his free hand and pulled it back until he held both wrists together behind her back.
Riddick was on his feet and swinging in one, smooth motion. If Marty hadn’t been waiting for it, he probably would have had his block knocked clean off. He ducked and swung Jack to the side, putting the momentum into a sharp kick that sent one of the kitchen chairs flying at Riddick.
Riddick batted it aside and strode forward as it bounced onto the table. Then he stopped. He made a short, frustrated sound and dropped his eyes to the floor as though he’d stepped in something. Marty let Jack go and stepped away from her before she had any ideas about taking a whack at him. His heart was beating quickly, but not pounding. Riddick was a smart man. He would have figured it out after two or three punches at the most. Being had might have made him angry enough to throw in a few more, though.
Jack stepped further away and favored him with a glare that wavered and fell when he met it with one of his own.
“I want something to be clear,” said Marty. “Because obviously as of this moment, it is not. I don’t give a shit if you can spit bullets and shoot flames out your ass, Jack. You’re going where I tell you to go or you’re not going at all.”
When Jack spoke her voice was wound so tight it was a miracle she could get any sound to come out at all.
“Shoot flames out my ass?” Jack hissed. “Did he stay up all night thinking that one up?”
She slid the cabin door open hard and stalked inside, muttering. Riddick followed and closed the door behind him. He dropped onto his cot and leaned back hard enough to crack his head against the wall. He didn’t wince, she didn’t notice, he considered doing it again. Maybe if he whacked it hard enough he could knock the stupid out of it.
“Why did he have to be such an asshole?” Jack kicked her slippers to the other side of the cabin. She pulled her shirt off, wadded it up and threw it against the wall. He was still dressed and warm, but he could see through the fabric of her bra that it was chilly in the cabin. Removing her clothes just gave her something to throw.
“Is it hormones? All that unchecked manliness running wild? Can he not take a woman telling him what to do? Is that it?”
She untied her pants and let them fall, kicking them into the same corner as the shoes. Her legs were tanned, from the beach before they left and the lamps afterwards. One side of her panties hitched up over her hip and his tongue flicked over his lips. No tan line. It might be hell getting her mind off of this but his was already starting to wander. Marty made his point. Riddick understood it. Couldn’t she understand it too, so they could put the past and their clothes behind them?
“Why aren’t you talking?” she asked.
“Mostly because you’re naked.”
Jack glared. “I’m serious!”
“So am I.”
“Have you got testosterone poisoning, too?” She winced as she put her back to the cold wall. She looked at the ceiling, the door, the panoramic shot of the Bavarian Alps on the wall. “He scared the shit out of me. Why didn’t you do something?”
Riddick thought briefly on what might have happened if he’d pressed it. The chair had been convenient but what would Marty have done if things had gone further? It occurred to him that he might have been able to make Marty look like the dipshit by forcing him to keep Jack out of harm’s way in a fight. Riddick could have pushed it. Ugliness, there, though. Better not to think about it.
“Because all he did was scare you,” said Riddick. “Just wanted to make his point. I didn’t see the need to make anything more out of it.” He smirked and added, “Besides, he had a gun.”
“He brought a gun?” she asked, incredulous. “To the briefing?”
“Just in case I didn’t get the point soon enough for his liking, I suppose.”
“I’d say that Marty would never shoot you,” she said. “But I think maybe he’s fallen off his twig.”
“They don’t call him ‘Mad’ for nothing, Jack.”
“It’s not funny,” she said. A line formed between her brows as she kicked at the floor with her toe. “I tried, I couldn’t get loose.”
“Didn’t hurt you though, did he?”
She shook her head. “No. He wasn’t holding me that hard. That’s what makes it so damn frustrating.”
“If it makes you feel any better, he’s done that to people a whole lot bigger than you.”
Jack’s lips twitched into an almost-smile. “Like you?”
Riddick cleared his throat loudly. “No. Never.”
He knitted his fingers behind his head and leaned back on the pillows, flexing his arms as he did. Jack’s eyes lingered and Riddick felt the prospects for getting something besides an earful tonight beginning to look up. Almost fighting was like almost fucking; he could still feel his veins thrumming with the need. One would do for the other, though.
Jack nudged him and he moved his legs. She sat on the end of his cot and pulled her knees up to her chest. “Now what exactly did you mean when you said it was because I’m a woman?’”
He strained to put a reason to his choice to cough up that little tidbit. Nothing helpful came to mind. It was the truth, but for fuck’s sake why had he told her? Marty had steered her away from it. Short of fleeing, Riddick didn’t have a chance.
“Just trying to help?” he offered lamely.
She lowered her head and shot him a dubious gaze through her lashes. “Uh-uh.”
“Told you before,” he tried. “Cap has issues with putting civilians in danger.”
It wasn’t just Marty. This went far beyond the death of Sophie Bender’s first husband. The smell of burning things still reminded him. There was a devastated marketplace, most of the debris so charred it was impossible to tell what it had once been part of. Riddick had picked his way through, lifted a sheet of corrugated metal to look underneath. It took him a moment staring to figure out what he’d found. A woman, or part of one. She was burned away from the waist down, but her face was almost untouched. She looked surprised. Riddick had staggered away and left his lunch in the alley between two burned-out buildings. He wouldn’t say it out loud, but he didn’t want here there, either.
“So, if I was a man it would be all right.”
Riddick shrugged. “He might have thought about it for a second or two longer before he said ‘no’.”
She snorted. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why doesn’t Marty like girls?”
“He likes girls plenty, he just doesn’t want to fight with them.”
“Could have fooled me.”
“Had a bad experience, is all,” he said. It was the truth. The much abbreviated truth. He tried his best not to make it sound like an apology.
“Do tell,” said Jack. “Girls beat him up in grade school?”
He took a deep breath.“Marty is of the opinion that the same grunting caveman asshole in a man’s head that gives him the power to fight and kill is the same simple fuck who will drop what he is doing and walk through fire to help a woman in trouble.”
“Sounds like you’ve said that before.”
He nodded. “It’s a hard thing for people to wrap their heads around,” he said. “But I believe that in most cases it’s the truth.”
“What about yours?”
Riddick considered his answer carefully. Finally he said, “Now?” He caught her eyes and held them, the growing heat in his groin stoked by the way she returned his gaze without flinching. “I would let any one of those people get fucked if it meant saving you.”
She blinked at him, shook her head. “You don’t mean that.”
He gave her the best look he could muster that said he absolutely did.
The cabin was silent and he suddenly had the feeling that he’d screwed up, that this wasn’t something she wanted to hear. Then she smiled.
“That is so hot.”
Riddick laughed out loud.
“Alright,” said Jack. “Don’t want to screw up the manly dynamic and get somebody hurt.”
“Unless it’s me?” he chuckled.
“We’ve got our own dynamic,” she said. “Besides, if my ass needs watching I want you to be the one watching it.”
His lips stretched into a broad smile and he sat up. He set a hand high on her thigh and smoothed it over her skin.
“I can start right now.”
Jack put an arm around his neck and pulled his face close. She set her cheek against his and took his earlobe between her teeth, biting hard enough to leave a shallow imprint of her teeth. Riddick growled and kneaded the flesh of her thigh, working upward.
“So,” she whispered. “Are you trying to reassure me or are you just trying to make sure you get laid?”
She drew back and flicked her tongue over his lips. Without a word she slipped her hand under his waistband and grabbed a handful. He jumped, because she’d surprised him and because her hand was cold as hell.
“Be honest, or this’ll be the loneliest snake in the jungle.”
He laughed, which was not the smartest thing a man could do when a woman had a hold of his personals.
“I’m gonna have to go with laid,” he said.
Jack made a small, surprised sound and gave him a squeeze. “Shallow as a tide pool,” she giggled.
“Two birds with one stone,” he said. “Best way I know to take you mind off things. Wouldn’t want you doing something mean or crazy just for spite when I could have prevented it.”
“Still might, just to make myself feel better.”
“Save it for the trip home. He’ll probably be through expecting it by then.”
She sighed and rubbed against him.
“Less talking,” she said. “More groping.”
He hooked his fingers under the strap of her panties and tore them away. Jack grinned.
“I lose more underwear that way.”
Reggie stepped from the closeness of the hallway into the wide-open freight bay and pulled her coat tight around her. Few places on the ship were actually warm but this room was too large for the vents to even take the edge off the chill. Tied down in the center was the small craft they’d purchased in Kiangsu. The ship’s belly was painted a pale blue-gray and the top all mottled grays and browns. It wasn’t an attractive ship. The engines bulged out to the sides, set just above a pair of folding wings. The cockpit windows were rounded and dark and the rear end was wider and lower than the front, making the ship look like a giant, squatting bug. Painted on the nose was a shapely brunette in boxing gloves, spike heels and nothing else. Beside her, written in fluid cursive was the name “Belle of the Brawl”.
She walked around the ship, toward the low hum of the treadmill and the steady beat of footfalls on the track. Marty saw her and slowed. The machine reduced its speed to compensate as he started working his way down to a walk.
“You don’t have to stop.”
He nodded, panting. “I really do.”
Marty snatched a towel off the bar at the front and wiped the sweat from his face as he stepped down. He dropped to sit on the edge of the track and shook his head as Reggie moved to sit beside him
“I stink.” He rubbed his hair vigorously with the towel, then ran a hand through to straighten it out.
She smiled and sat. “You stink good.”
Marty leaned his shoulder against hers, then tossed the towel into her lap. “Well, there ya go.”
He lay back on the treadmill and closed his eyes. Reggie set a hand on his stomach, scratching softly at first, then rubbing in lazy circles. She sat quietly for a while, listening to his breathing return to normal. It fell into a slow, even rhythm and for a moment she thought he’d fallen asleep.
“Just making sure you’re awake,” she said.
He yawned loudly and scratched under his jaw. “Not for long.”
“Don’t forget to take your pills before bed.”
Marty grunted in reply.
“I spoke with Aaron,” said Reggie. “He’s a very smart man. Extremely respectful too, which I assume has something to do with you...”
“Snow’s momma brought him up right.”
“Why do you call him that?” she asked. “Or is it another one of those things I don’t want to know?”
Marty slid a hand under the back of her shirt and scratched gently.
“Obviously, he’s a big guy,” he began. “Now, the rest of us, we’re not runts but Snow’s just goddamn huge; has been since I’ve known him. There are advantages to being a big guy, but not too many of them apply to our particular line of work. Most guys his size don’t move too fast; they don’t sneak too well; and they use up more supplies. Nobody thought he’d make it.”
“Snowball’s chance in hell,” Reggie laughed. “We put together a couple of kits for him to bring along on the drop. There’s a big one with a lot of things I hope you won’t need. It should fit in the chest behind the driver’s seat of the truck, and there’s a smaller one for him to carry. I packed enough of your pills to hold you for three days. I know that’s probably more than you need but it couldn’t hurt to have some extra.”
She was dangerously close to babbling and expected him to tell her so, but he stayed quiet. Reggie turned to sit sideways so she could get a better look at his face and found him watching her. She smiled nervously.
“You’re hot when you get all doctory.”
She smiled and nudged him. “So what were you doing in here all by your lonesome?”
“About anything in particular?”
“My dad, oddly enough,” he said.
One thing she could say about their relationship was that it wasn’t complicated by an overabundance of explanation. Marty had only mentioned his father a few times and even then very briefly. It was enough for Reggie to know that Simon had been a tough man to live with. So tough that Marty had chosen exile to Fort Benchley instead of a place on the Nightengale’s crew when he reached his majority. She knew it was best to let him tell things in his own time. But she also knew that doing so could lead to a very long wait.
“What brought that on?” she asked.
“Time,” he shrugged. He looked at her and his mouth quirked into a humorless half-smile. “I was wondering if I’ve become as big a son of a bitch as he was.”
“Reach any conclusions?” she asked.
Reggie hadn’t realized she wanted him to laugh until he didn’t.
“This wouldn’t have anything to do with Jackie, would it?”
He shot her a sideways glance. “You two team up on me and you’re spending the rest of the trip locked in separate rooms.”
“That’s a big yes.”
“Shut it, you,” he chuckled. She relaxed a bit to see him laugh, but it wasn’t long before his humor seemed to fade. “She’s under the impression that I’m treating her unfairly.”
“No,” he said simply.
“Then she’ll see that. Just give her time.”
“Optimist.” It sounded like an accusation and Reggie pursed her lips at him.
“There’s nothing wrong with being an optimist,” she said.
“It encourages unrealistic expectations.”
She glared. He shrugged.
“You’re very serious,” said Marty. He tickled Reggie suddenly and she jumped, then she whipped the towel off of her lap and smacked him with it.
“I thought you were, too,” she laughed.
“You snapped me right out of it, Doc.”
He sat up and settled his arms around her, kissed her softly. He pulled back and smiled, then kissed her harder. His hands warmed her back and pulled her closer and Reggie began to feel guilty. She considered abandoning the purpose that had brought her here in the first place and letting this lead where it may. Instead she turned her head to whisper in his ear.
“I need to tell you something before we get all... involved.”
Marty leaned back and looked at her. “And we’re back to serious again.”
“I told Aaron,” she said. His expression told her he already understood what she meant but she went on anyway. “I told him there’s a slim chance you might get sick and what he needs to keep an eye out for while you’re away from the ship.”
“Nice euphemism,” he sighed. “Did you tell him everything?”
“I told him what the doctor said before we left.”
He dropped his head but not before she caught the look on his face. “You’re killing me here, Reg,” he muttered.
“You’ve managed to group yourself separate from everyone that knows, Martin.” Her voice had been growing steadily louder and now she dropped it back down to a near-whisper. “Are any of these people even aware you’ve had problems at all?”
“Most of them saw me get shot point-blank in the head, Hon,” he said softly. “They’ve probably got an idea.”
“I really don’t think they do,” she replied. “They seem to think you walk on water. In fact, I’m betting that most of them will swear they’ve actually seen you do it.”
Marty leaned his hands on the edge of the treadmill and heaved himself to his feet. He took a few steps away with his back to her.
“They already look at me differently,” he said. “Like they’re trying to figure out what’s changed. Or worse, what’s wrong. I don’t need you putting doubts in their heads.”
“It’s not fair to keep them in the dark about something that could affect them so directly, Martin. What if y--?”
Reggie blinked at him. “I’m what?”
“You want me to say it again because you like the way it sounds?” He turned around and squatted in front of her, set his hands on her knees. She laid her own on top of them. “I should have warned somebody that I might inconveniently drop dead.”
“Martin, dammit.” Reggie made a frustrated sound and tried to push him over. He shuffled a little but managed to catch himself before he fell flat on his ass. Reggie threw the towel at him and stood. She started for the door but he caught her by the shirt and pulled her gently back.
“Come back here,” he said. She let him bring her close again and slip his arms around her. The corners of his mouth twitched with a poorly suppressed smile. “Don’t stay mad. Life’s too short, potentially.”
She threw up her hands, exasperated. “You’re unbelievable,” she said. He grinned at her and she couldn’t hold back a laugh. “That’s it. One more and you’re grounded, mister.”
“Gonna send me to my room?” He winked and dropped his hands to cup her backside.
“How about a spanking?” One hand whapped against the seat of her pants and made her jump and giggle.
“I thought you were tired.”
“Am,” he said. “I’m just waiting for the need for sleep to overwhelm the need to not decorate the deck with the last thing I ate.”
“Yuck.” Reggie snaked her arms around his waist and pressed her face to his chest. She closed her eyes and listened to the muffled thumping of his heart. He kissed the top of her head and hugged her tight. She realized with a start just how hard she was holding him and loosened her grip. Marty put a hand under her chin and lifted her face toward him. She didn’t know she was crying until he wiped warm moisture from her face with his fingers and frowned at her.
She tried to pull back and he let her, releasing her from his arms but keeping hold of one hand.
“Nothing,” she said. She wiped at her eyes and managed a nervous laugh. “This is stupid, I’m sorry.”
“Why--?” Marty tugged at her hand but not enough to move her. “Come here.”
Struck dumb by the confusion on his face, Reggie stayed put and fought to keep the tears from beginning in earnest. Finally she managed to get the words out.
“I’m trying to exit gracefully, here,” she said. Her voice wavered and she pretended to clear her throat. “I probably just need to get some sleep.”
“Will you...” This time he did pull her in. “Don’t run away.”
“I wasn’t going to do this,” she said. “Because I knew you’d think I planned it. Cheap trick, cry in front of the man, talk him into things but that’s not it. It’s just all this stuff that’s kind of built up because I’ve had too much time to think and...”
She paused, sniffling, and when he didn’t interrupt she went on.
“And sometimes I convince myself that I’m being stupid, that I’m making things worse by hounding you even though I know it won’t do any good. If I didn’t know the odds... and I know you don’t care about the odds, but they’re there and I can’t ignore th--”
“Reg,” he said softly.
“I know,” Reggie sniffed. Her face reddened. Bad enough she’d broken down in tears, now she was going to have to wipe her nose on her sleeve. Marty offered her the towel with a look of such simple sweetness that Reggie almost had to blink away a fresh round of tears. She took it gratefully and wiped her nose. It smelled like him and she might have held it to her face just a little longer than she needed to. She glanced at him, saw him watching her and smiled self-consciously.
“Bet you’d rather have people shooting at you,” she said.
“Really not,” he replied. “No.”
She hugged him hard and buried her face in his neck. “I love you,” she said. “I don’t want to lose you.”
He kissed her on the forehead. “Don’t want to be lost.”
“I’ll make you a deal,” said Reggie. She brushed at the spot her tears had made on his shirt. “You stop making casual jokes about dying and I won’t wipe my face on your clothes anymore.”
“Deal,” said Marty. He put one arm around her waist and led her toward the door. “Feel better?”
“Well, so long as that’s settled.”
The room was first-rate. High ceilings, soft lights, thick carpet. The bed was huge, maybe even bigger than a king-sized, and the comforter felt like it was filled with real feathers. This was just part of a much larger suite. Out in the main room there was a television the size of a small movie screen and a huge skylight with a perfect view of the mainland. A place like this could set a person back over a grand a night. The best part was that Virgil didn’t have to blow a dime of his own money on it. The bad part swung the door open and stalked into the room.
“Get off the bed, Virgil,” Marlene snapped.
“You’re not sleeping in here.” When he didn’t move, she stepped toward the bed and cocked her foot back to kick the leg he’d hung over the side. He pulled it away quickly and sat up. “I mean it.”
Virgil put his feet on the floor and stood slowly. His back twinged a little. They hadn’t taken any care when they pulled him off the street and stuffed him in the car. He took a few steps toward Marlene. It made him feel better to tower over her, even if she didn’t seem to give a shit.
“You don’t scare me, Virgil,” she said. She proved it by turning her back on him and walking away. There was a couch under the window on the other side of the room. She crossed to it and sat, then fixed him with a look that seemed to say he was missing something obvious. “Are you going to sit down?”
“No,” he said. He folded his arms over his chest and stared defiantly back at her.
Marlene gave an impatient sigh. “Fine,” she said. He kept his eyes fixed on her, trying to make her squirm. She didn’t. “Do you have to act like such a child? Sit your ass down in the chair, Virgil.”
The way she said his name made him want to pick up one of the small pillows off the couch and smother her with it.
“I want to know what I’m doing here, Marlene.” He emphasized her name, drew it out, nearly whined it in the hope of annoying her. She didn’t notice or didn’t care or just didn’t show it. Bitch.
“Well,” she began, “Daddy brought up the suggestion of having you killed and I thought I might get you off the street before he made good on it.”
Virgil blinked at her. She’d tossed the words out in the same casual tone she used to order dinner. He glanced around for a chair and dropped heavily into it.
“I had things taken care of,” he said. He wondered now if he really had. What he should have done was left the satellite as soon as possible and taken his money on a romantic cruise of the Caribbean. Instead he had stuck around, trying his damnedest to work up the nerve to call Jackie again. He had sent any number of notes, all of which had gotten him exactly nothing. His calls had earned a couple of polite conversations with his daughter’s secretary and nothing more.
“You were doing a terrible job of hiding, Virgil, honestly. There were people following you, did you know that?”
“You had people following me?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes,” she said. “But I wasn’t the only one.”
“The car that chased me through the alley wasn’t yours.”
“No, he wasn’t with me,” said Marlene. “If I didn’t know any better I’d say he was trying to get to you before I did. Now maybe Daddy knew I wouldn’t approve and sent someone of his own, but according to my driver there was only one man in the car and that makes me sure it was something else.”
Because Daddy would never be so unprepared, he groused to himself. Virgil thought about it. He owed people money, but it seemed an unlikely coincidence that someone would choose to collect just as Marlene showed up. Maybe they thought he was being stalked by a rival debt collector. But people he owed and the Evil Castor Empire weren’t the only options. Jackie was here, too. She wouldn’t talk to him, didn’t trust him and it followed that if she somehow knew he was in town she might want to know what he was doing. He took a deep breath and blew it out. If she did know, he might not be much better off in her hands than he would have been in Donald Castor’s.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Marlene regarded him suspiciously. “Are you telling me the truth, Virgil?”
“What if I’m not?” he asked. “What are you going to do? Kidnap me, take me off-satellite and--”
“Hold you hostage in a posh hotel,” Marlene finished. “Yes, that’s my evil plan. Following this harrowing interrogation I’m going to call room service and order six month old wine and a substandard fillet mignon.”
“You tell me your father was planning on having me killed and now you’re making jokes?”
“I didn’t say he was actually planning to, the idea just came up,” she said.
Virgil gaped. “What, at a board meeting?”
He stewed over that for a minute, decided it was bullshit. If anything he had remained unreasonably calm, which wasn’t easy. He wanted to throw furniture, scream and pound on the door. More than that he wanted to twist his hands in Marlene’s hair and smash her face against the wall until the smug look came off.
“What do you want from me?” he asked. “Your money back?”
“I don’t give a damn about the money, Virgil. It’s pocket change. You knew that, otherwise you would have been a lot more careful asking for it.”
“So what is it?” he asked. “You want the rest of the evidence? Forget it. It stays where it is and nobody sees it unless you decide to screw me over.”
She smiled and it sent an irrepressible shiver up his spine.
“I received a note from a friend a little while before you showed your face again,” she said. “She works for Astral Insurance, Virgil. Do you know who they are?”
His heart stuttered. Virgil hoped he’d caught the surprise before it got all the way to his face.
“Let me take a stab,” he replied. “They’re an insurance company?”
Marlene scowled at him. “Yes, Virgil. They’re an enormous insurance company. They provide insurance for some of the companies the Castor Corporation has purchased in the last several years. SolTrack for one. Do you know what they do, Virgil?”
His throat went dry. He could see where this was leading and he wanted out. The only exit was the front door and between here and there were the two neckless bruisers that had dragged him into the car. The windows and the skylight were the only thing between him and the frozen void of space, so breaking them to escape was clearly not an option.
“I haven’t got the slightest fucking clue,” he lied.
He looked at Marlene. They were alone in the room. If he could get his hands on her, hold her in front of him until he made it out of the suite, he could make it to the lobby. Virgil ran his eyes over her, looking for unnatural bulges in the lines of her suit.
“Virgil,” she said.
Her annoyance with him was clear in that single word. She probably thought he was copping a cheap feel with his eyes. Just to make her happy, he did.
“Yes, ma’am?” He smiled cordially, showing his teeth.
“You blabbed,” she said plainly. “You hinted someone in the right direction and then you came here and tried blackmailing my father, too.”
The odds of her having someone on the inside at Astral seemed pretty remote. After all, who would have figured the lying bitch had so many friends? But then it occurred to him that if the Castor Corporation was really responsible for fucking the insurance companies out of billions, it would pay to have an employee on their own payroll. Stupid bastard. But Astral Insurance wasn’t the only place he’d sent a file to. He hoped they weren’t the only ones who hadn’t ignored it.
“April Fools,” he muttered.
“I’m trying to help you,” said Marlene.
“Out of the goodness of your heart, right?” he asked. “What do you want?”
Marlene narrowed her eyes at him. “I want to know exactly how stupid you think I am, Virgil,” she said. “What I want is to know what the hell you were thinking.”
For once he’d been thinking of doing the right thing.
When his daughter had disappeared, Virgil had gone through her things trying to figure out where she’d gone and why. The latter hadn’t taken long to determine. It was in her letters to friends, notes scribbled in the margins of her books, her diary. She blamed him for everything wrong in her life and it was hard to find fault with her reasoning. She thought he was an idiot and worse, she hated him. Virgil was so tightly wound up in his own life that he hadn’t spared much time for her. So he had dealt with his daughter the way he dealt with all women. If there was a problem, he bought her something. The worse he screwed up, the more extravagant the gift.
He’d found more in her diary than the fact that he was unfit to raise farm animals, let alone a child. Inside the back cover was a rectangle of white plastic with a data stripe on one side. No sign of what it was for. When Jackie had returned and asked for it he’d agreed to give it up, to make her happy and to find out just what the hell it was for. But Marlene had taken it, she said to see what it was for, as a gift to him. The moment he’d realized it was important he’d found a way to get it back, and with a good chunk of the money he had left he’d paid the most brilliant lowlife he knew to tell him what it accessed.
Most of it was junk; furniture, a few antiques, things Jackson could easily have stored in the house in Marionburg. But behind those things was an old-fashioned, polished wood filing cabinet with brass pulls. It was filled with theories, suppositions but best of all receipts, or copies of them. It was all on paper, which struck him as odd at first. But paper was safe. No one put important things on paper anymore.
The receipts were for mining equipment, most of it bought used at auction, and several junk freighters. The mining equipment had been paid for out-of-pocket by Donald Castor and had promptly been lost track of. The ships were distributed via sales to various smaller companies owned directly or indirectly by the Castor Corporation. They were then insured for millions and subsequently lost in the deepest, darkest parts of free space. Insurance companies paid up and didn’t bother to look because the cost and the risk of sending investigators far outweighed the payouts for the ships that had been lost or destroyed. Why Jackson hadn’t acted on the information, Virgil couldn’t imagine. Maybe he’d been waiting for the right time. Maybe he had issues of conscience. Maybe Castor hadn’t done anything to really piss him off.
“I was thinking that I wanted my little girl back,” he said finally. The answer seemed to take Marlene by surprise and that made Virgil smile. “I thought that if I did this she would forgive me for being a lousy father and for being the horny pushover that almost got her killed. But I got stupid and broke and greedy and I fucked it up.
“Doesn’t matter. It’s done. I called them, I pointed a few things out and by now they’ve got people going over records and putting things together and sooner or later the trail will lead straight to your old man. And then he’ll be royally fucked, Marlene, because he hasn’t just wrecked old junkers and defrauded insurance companies, he’s killed people.”
She just stared at him wordlessly.
“What, nothing? Going to tell me your pop doesn’t kill people? Or have them killed? He got off before by tossing the blame on someone else and maybe that other old fucker was in on it, too but he’s already got his. Now it’s your old man’s turn and nothing you do to me is going to stop it.”
As he said it, he realized that it sounded too much like a dare. But for once in his life, Virgil Weller felt righteous. He stood, smiling wickedly as his shadow fell over Marlene. She moved to stand as well and he reached out to grab her. It caught him by surprise when she moved into him instead of trying to get away. There was a sharp pain in his side and Virgil suddenly found himself on the floor, twitching uncontrollably.
“You’re an idiot,” said Marlene. She sounded miles away and looked like she was being filtered through gelatin. She leaned closer. “I’m going to figure out whether you’re still good for anything or not, Virgil. Then I’m going to have you shoved in an airlock and flushed like the goddamned waste you are.”
Strong arms jerked him off the floor and dragged him out of the room.
“And for the last time, Virgil, you’re not sleeping in here.”
It all started with apples.
Heironymous Blake had purchased the Vagabond Queen from a career smuggler named Ilka Girdenis. At nearly eighty the woman had decided to retire and settle down, find herself a young stud to wear on her arm for awhile and then leave her fortune to. The Queen was registered and papered like a prize bull, and well taken care of for all of her fifty-odd years. Scattered throughout the ship were hidden compartments, tough to find even if you knew where they were. While that had a lot to do with her appeal, what Herry loved best about her was that she was fast. Not just regular fast, either. Not plebian fast like a police cruiser or a fast-response unit. Someone that loved her had twiddled with the propulsion until she raced like a demon and purred like a kitten. It took careful charting and quick hands to make her go and to get her there all in one piece. Herry had good hands, and while he didn’t think particularly well on land, out here he was a genius. Nay, a golden god. One for being able to fly the way he did and two for thinking up the reason he’d bought her in the first place.
There were a lot of places where fresh fruit was a rarity. Either it wouldn’t grow right, or it wasn’t economical, or it ate up too much in space or resources or both. The why of it didn’t matter to Herry. What mattered was the fact that people who were tired of eating vegetable proteins and stuff that had been frozen for who the hell knew how long would pay just about anything to get a bite of an honest-to-god apple that hadn’t been kept with anything more complicated than a refrigerated cargo space. The trips couldn’t be too long or the fruit would spoil, but he’d done well for himself. Well enough to outfit the VQ with the latest and still avoid scraping to get by. Not well enough to refuse the money he was offered for this gig, though.
Instead of fruit he was now hauling a group of extremely unusual folks. Big, most of them, and more than a little hard to look straight in the eye. So he didn’t, much. He wasn’t being paid to be macho and studly, after all, just to fly his boat in the right direction in a hurry. The crew quarters were full for the first time in a while. It wasn’t often he took on passengers because even folks in a hurry usually aimed for comfort. Hitting the fast tracks hadn’t bothered him for a long while. He was too busy concentrating on his work and besides, the captain rushing to the head would be unsettling, not to mention undignified.
He took the last bite of his apple and tossed the core into the dented metal trashcan under the console. The noise of a cheering crowd filled the cockpit. Herry sighed and leaned back in the chair to look up at the ceiling.
“And the crowd goes mild,” he said. “Priscilla, time to reduced velocity?”
“Chitiryeh minuta, Kapitan.” The voice issuing from the overhead speaker was low but still feminine, with a pronounced Slavic accent. Priscilla was a remnant of the previous captain’s programming. Most guys would have wiped her memory clean but Herry was fond of her company and her sense of humor, and so she’d remained almost entirely intact. She spoke mostly in a dialect that he didn’t recognize, and on the rare occasions when she spoke in front of company, no one else knew what it was either. But she understood English just fine and Herry had figured her out enough to get by. He counted it as part of her charm.
“How’s our course?”
“We are not lost,” he smirked.
“That’s what I thought.”
Herry leaned toward the dash and flipped the green PA switch. “We’ll be slowing down here in a few minutes. Shouldn’t be more than a little quease and a little bump.” He thumbed the switch down and muttered, “Unless we hit a big rock, then there’ll be a lot of bump and a great big bang.”
The door slid open and Martin Bender stepped inside. Herry straightened in his seat.
“That’s not the sort of thing I’d like people to hear,” he said.
“You heard that?”
“Door was cracked. Where are we?”
“A few minutes from slowing down and taking a look around. Then we’ll be hooking up in geosynchronous orbit over the coordinates you gave me.”
Bender reached down between the co-pilot’s seat and the bulkhead and lifted a small, black plastic case.
He slipped into the seat and flipped the case open. The screen warmed up and he began to type, his fingers looking ridiculously huge on the tiny keyboard.
“You can type?” laughed Herry. It occurred to him suddenly that doing anything resembling laughing at this man was bound to be unhealthy, and stopped.
“Trigger finger can’t have all the fun.”
The bottom dropped out of Herry’s stomach as the ship began to slow. The plates covering the cockpit windows slid back and disappeared into their sheaths on the outer hull. He glanced out and took in the local scenery. Rocks tumbled by far off to starboard, too far to be a problem. The approaching planet filled most of the view with shades of orange and pale gold. Every visible bit of it shone with the reflected light of the suns.
“It’s hell for the hungover,” said Herry. A map drew itself out on a screen to his left and a pair of crosshairs began tracking across it. A quick series of beeps signaled that they’d found their target. The crosshairs then wandered off the map as the planet rotated the point away from them.
“Wait for the next go-round?”
“Has anyone pinged us?” asked Bender.
“Not a soul. Nobody within range at all unless they’re hiding straight on the other side. I’ve got no wraparound.”
“It would have to be pretty damn fresh for me to pick it up,” said Herry. He shrugged. “I got nothing.”
“We’ll sit tight and see if anyone comes around. Or we’ll...” He paused, tapping a button twice and glaring at the screen as though his look alone could make it work. “We’ll make this do something.”
“I thought there wasn’t supposed to be anyone out here.”
“Isn’t. Doesn’t mean there won’t be.” Bender stared thoughtfully out the window. “That’s a thunderstorm,” he said, pointing. A smear of white covered a small portion of the surface. “There.”
“Looks like it’s moving toward the landing site.”
“Maybe it’ll get close enough for us to use.”
“So there is someone down there,” said Herry.
“Down on the surface, almost without a doubt. But when they’re down there, they’re my problem. Somebody up here might become yours.”
Herry mulled that over. The idea of being boarded or otherwise taken scared him half to death. It was why he’d made the Vagabond Queen so paranoid that she could never be caught unawares and so quick that she could never be caught at all. But with half his passengers away from the ship he couldn’t be sure of rounding them all up in case of trouble.
“Someone comes your way,” said Bender suddenly, “get out of here and avoid them. The people on the ground will have to take care of themselves for a bit.”
It was enough to make Herry wonder if he’d said something out loud.
“Forget it. If I need to go atmospheric to pick you up, I can.”
Bender nodded and watched his screen silently. It was quiet in the cockpit for so long that Herry jumped when the door opened.
“Good,” said Bender. “You can make this go.”
Of all Herry’s passengers Ty Solomon seemed the closest to a regular Joe despite the company he kept. There were the gadgets, too. New bunches of wire were neatly bundled and taped to the bulkheads, and plastic boxes with readouts and screens sat on the dashboard or under it. It had all been done with Herry’s permission and under his supervision. Each piece of equipment drew power from the VQ but didn’t interfere with her operations. They had explained everything, but damned if he could remember beyond the part where it was all very sensitive, very expensive, and he wasn’t supposed to touch it.
“You’ve got the weather,” said Ty. The two men switched places and Bender moved to stand behind the co-pilot’s seat. “You’re looking for the geographical, then?”
“And a peek at the far side if you don’t mind.”
Ty tapped a few keys. “This will draw quite a bit of power from the secondary systems.” The lights dimmed, from the fixture at the back of the cockput to the readouts on the dash. As they returned to full, Ty frowned at the results. “There is, in fact, someone playing peek-a-boo on the other side of the rock. They should, in fact, be coming around shortly.”
“Shit,” said Marty.
Herry shook his head. “We should be all right. Unless they focus a hard search in our direction, there’s enough crap floating between us and them to keep us from being noticed.”
“Are they in our parking spot?” asked Bender.
“They’re in a lower orbit. If we stick to the plan we’ll be passing each other periodically,” Herry explained. “Now, they could whiz by without noticing, maybe think we’re a rock or some debris. Or they could point out the window on the first go-round and say ‘who in hell are those guys?’.”
The ship came into view and they all leaned forward to watch it pass. They were still and quiet, as though it would help. The computer in Ty’s lap let out a soft beep and the blurred image of the other ship appeared.
“Magnify,” said Ty.
“She’s a clipper,” said Bender. “But not a huge one.”
“Cowler and Fess Seventy-eight Hundred series,” Ty added. “Fast-track capable passenger craft. Holds one hundred and twenty-five plus three crew and eight tons of cargo. Passenger space can be traded for cargo space...”
Bender scowled at the monitor. “She armed?”
“There are sweep mounts on the hull,” Ty pointed out. “But they don’t appear to be in use and even if they were they’re not sufficient to breach this hull. She leaves only a small signature and from the look of her I’d say she’s got a few years on her but is very well maintained. Is it possible they drifted off-course and came up here?”
"No way," said Herry. “Nobody that can afford to fly one of those things would even think about carting people through here. I mean, you oughta know, Mr. Bender. The nearest lane is crap.”
“If the surprise is blown and someone knows we’re coming they would have their sensors turned out,” said Ty. “And if they did, they would have seen us.”
“Whoever they are they’re not trying real hard to be sneaky,” muttered Bender.
Ty nodded. “So they’re comfortable because they’re in league with the fellows downside, oblivious because they’re not, or brazen because they don’t give a damn either way.”
“Thanks for narrowing it down, man.”
The ship reached its closest point to them and sailed on without sending so much as a single ping their way. Herry realized he was holding his breath and let it out slowly. The ship faded into the distance, hurtling toward the other side of the planet.
“Alright, new plan,” Bender began. “How far out can you take your pictures, Ty?”
The picture of the ship disappeared as he brought up another screen. This one showed the surface of the distant planet, criss-crossed with several dark lines that Herry couldn’t see when he glanced out the window.
“A high orbit will do,” Ty replied. “Any further out and I can’t guarantee you’ll get the details you want.”
“Shit.” Bender looked thoughtful for a moment. It seemed almost painful. “But you can snap on the fly.”
That answer appeared to satisfy Bender, if only a little. He straightened from his spot behind the co-pilot’s chair and started pacing the cabin.
“Here’s the deal,” he said. “Herry, you fall into whatever orbit you can manage that will keep us out of sight. We can find ourselves a window and hit the storm before they come around again and have a real chance at spotting us.”
Bender grunted his agreement. He stopped pacing and went back to looking over Ty’s shoulder. “It’ll just take a little careful maneuvering, that’s all. Herry, can you establish an orbit that won’t let them ride up our ass?”
“I can match their velocity, sure.”
“Soon as you get things refigured, do it. Ty, once we’re parked I need pictures. I want a good look before we go anywhere.”
“Yes sir,” said Herry. He tried to do his best to relax in light of the other mens’ calm. But they were soldiers, or they had been. The closest Herry had ever been to a fight was a front row seat at a boxing match.
“Hell breaks loose, call me,” said Bender. He gave a nod to each of them and left.
After a moment, Herry realized that he hadn’t heard the sound of retreating footsteps. He glanced down the hall and found it empty. “Creepy.”
He glanced over at Ty, who followed his gaze and smiled. “Makes you happy we’re all on our side, doesn’t it?”
“Yuh.” Herry turned back to the helm and cracked his knuckles. “Okay. Let’s do something crazy.”
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