The book opens with betrayal and old-fashioned piracy. The crew is forced to heave-to and their cargo is stolen out from under them. In more than a bit of a financial bind, they head off to find another cargo. The characters are well-rounded and each has their own feel, which is no easy feat with so many of them. The story is tightly plotted and leaves no hanging threads. The reveal is fantastic and worth every bit of foreshadowing that leads up to it. I’m a pretty in-the-moment reader, so maybe it’s no surprise that I had no idea what was up with the cargo, but I was pretty shocked when that one came to light….is a great, nail-biting story. If you like adventures in space and lesbians—and their relationships—in peril, then you should buy it now.The Lesbian Reading Room
Apart from subtle, yet complete, weaving of mythology, Redhawk builds an intricate, believable world within a troubled space cargo ship... Each page unfolded into an incredibly well crafted, unique, science fiction tale that was replete with an astonishing voice of the storytellers of the past...More Praise for D Jordan Redhawk
Orphan Maker — Winner, GCLS Goldie Awards
Els cursed as the proximity alarms went off, their din ratcheting up her adrenaline levels. She slammed her locker closed and took two barefooted steps toward the cabin door. The ship shuddered, and she swore again as she clutched at the doorframe to keep from hitting the metal deck. Thankful that no fire or atmospheric alarms had joined the ruckus, she scrambled out of her cabin. She stubbed her toe on the guardrail of the stairs leading down to the bridge, swearing once more. “What the Hel is going on?” She threw herself at the navigation station, big toe throbbing as she reminded herself for the thousandth time to pick up slippers at their next port of call. The navsat panel squawked in dismay, adding its music to the horrendous commotion. “Can we shut off the noise?”
“Got hit by a dummy round.” The pilot was barefoot and shirtless, his standard uniform on board, his long dark dreadlocks pulled back into a tail, his beard neatly trimmed. The lights from the instruments gleamed against his dark skin. Despite the excitement of being fired upon in deep space, Austin Hafiz appeared calm, his lips curled in the ever-present disdain he displayed to everyone, including Els. “Guess Hyland wanted to be friendly and say hello, Skipper.”
“No pokker. And stop calling me that.” A dummy round meant no serious armament had been fired, just a little something to get her attention. Els accessed the exterior sensor feeds, noting that their visitor had a missile lock on them. Glaring out the forward port, she saw their attacker floating serene in the blackness of space. A quick check of the communications data revealed a familiar transponder signal. Damn Evan! She wasn’t the only one to recognize the ship.
“Has anybody bothered to tell Hyland that we have his cargo on this tub?” Els scowled over her shoulder at the questioner, a tall brunette lounging in the doorway, her long dark hair pulled back into a braid. She wore a T-shirt of maroon with yellow splashed across it, the colors counterbalancing her dusky complexion. Dark brown leather trousers encased her legs, their right thigh worn from years of carrying a pistol. No gun belt was in evidence now. Kasli Holt rarely carried weapons aboard ship, though one always seemed to be within reach.
Els felt a moment of vague admiration at her friend’s ability to appear loose and lanky despite the ship shaking to pieces around her. She shoved it away. “I’m pretty sure they’re aware of that. There’s only one reason to shoot at us.”
“Double-crossers,” Austin growled.
“What is going on? I spilled my coffee.” Another woman shoved past Kasli and onto the bridge. Her glossy black hair hung from a low ponytail at the nape of her neck. A wet stain marred the silk sari of rich burgundy and gold where it strained across one pert breast, and she smelled of lavender perfume and the acrid aroma of coffee. “Is anyone going to shut off those alarms?” She brushed ineffectually at the discoloration. “They’re driving me crazy.”
“Short trip.” Kasli’s voice was clearly audible as Els switched off the noise. The newcomer, Bennie Takahashi, refused to respond to the jibe.
Els counted herself lucky. There was no love lost between her primary gunner and the woman who was both ship’s medic and Els’s lover. Els had enough problems to deal with right now; she didn’t need them getting into a catfight to complicate matters. Bennie would lose any physical confrontation against the stronger and more capable Kasli, and Els’s life would become miserable for the next modular year.
Austin snorted his amusement at Kasli’s dig. “Getting a signal from them now. I’ll patch it to your station, Skipper.”
Els peered at her reflection in the tachcom screen, hastily brushing her fingers through her light brown bangs, trying to look captain-like and unruffled for the recording unit. Considering her short wavy hair was unruly on its best days, it was a losing proposition. Bennie straightened the collar of Els’s dark blue shirt and gave her shoulder a squeeze. Els bestowed a strained smile on Bennie, privately wishing she had the haughty good looks of her lover or at the very least Kasli’s exotic authority. The tachcom blinked to life and she settled her not-quite-pretty features into a serious expression. Beauty didn’t lead cargo ship crews.
A fat man with narrow eyes and a ruff of chin hair grinned at her. His rudimentary beard was dyed a brilliant yellow that clashed with his swarthy complexion. “Captain Ulfarsdottir! Here you are, and right on time! You have the goods?”
Els gave him a regal nod. “Evan. You’re early. What’s with the fireworks?”
Evan Hyland tried to appear sheepish. The expression was ludicrous on his gluttonous face. “You know how it is, Els. Times are hard. A man’s got to do what he can to survive.”
She restrained from rolling her eyes. Barely. Was he actually planning on hijacking the load he’d hired her for? “Last I heard, you were making decent ducats on Fica A10 selling ore to the star port there. What’s changed?”
The smile returned. If he’d been a hundred pounds lighter and thirty years younger, his expression might have been endearing. Now his was nothing more than a sly, greedy face he presented to his vid recorder. “I’ll tell you what, Els. For old times’ sake, I’ll give you a modular hour to dump your cargo into space on this vector before firing again.”
Her suspicions were confirmed as more data flew across another monitor before her, showing the direction he wanted her ship to travel when it dropped its load. “You’re forgetting something.”
“Really?” He paused, thoughtfully pulling at his brilliant beard. “What’s that?”
She gave him her best grimace, her mind automatically going over the never-ending list of bills that were coming due. “Our payment? I’m not sure why you’re early for the drop, but we played Hel retrieving this cargo from Indukala.”
Evan chuckled, glancing over his shoulder at someone off monitor. “What payment? You’re donating your time and services to my business, and I really appreciate it. In return, I’ll let you leave the system in one piece.”
“Asni,” someone on the bridge quietly cursed.
Els looked back to see her brother frowning from the door that led to the second-level catwalk and upper cargo space. He’d inherited their mother’s unruly red curls and their father’s technical expertise. Despite the aggravation of this confrontation with Hyland, she felt a loosening in her chest. Hrothgar had mustered out of the Zeta Lyman Sector Navy last year and had been on board Freya’s Tears ever since. They’d been inseparable as children, and she was glad to have his support now.
A quick sweep of the bridge showed her that most of the crew had gathered, even her secondary gunner, Robb Pasqual, who peered over Kasli’s shoulder. He’d been comrades with Hrothgar in the ZLSN and had tagged along after leaving it. The only one missing was old Kolodka Glebnovich; he was probably sleeping with his engines again.
Kasli hadn’t altered her lazy stance at the door, but she raised an eyebrow at Els. After two years of friendship, it was easy to understand her unspoken thoughts. It was a question, an offer and a summary of the situation all in one. She and Robb could make it to their turrets, and possibly win the day. But at what cost? Els had signed a contract with Hyland, which meant she might have some legal recourse. If she opened fire, however, it would tip the scales of justice against her. Hyland’s ship wasn’t much larger than her own. Only a handful would die if it came to that. Was the loss of life worth the credits? Even if charges were never laid against Freya’s Tears or her, she’d have earned a reputation as a double-crosser. No one else would know Hyland’s side of the story.
Her delay caused Hyland’s eyes to harden. His smile had vanished when she turned back to the monitor. “Don’t try anything stupid, Els. I’d hate to have to fire upon your ship. It’s such a nice one. Too bad it doesn’t have near the firepower as mine.” He chuckled. “I could upgrade it for you if you’d like.”
“We’ll get back to you.” Els reached for the cutoff switch.
“One modular hour, Captain,” Hyland reminded her. “Or the next round will be a missile.”
She switched off the tachcom, and the crew filled the abrupt silence.
“You’ve got to be kidding me! We busted our ass on this run!” Robb shouted. His dark, curly hair hung wet against his brown skin, indicating he’d been in the shower when Hyland had attacked.
Bennie flipped her long hair back with practiced arrogance. “Robb’s right. Who does he think he is?”
“The one with bigger guns,” Austin responded as he laid in the course Hyland had transmitted.
Els scowled at Austin, not interrupting his calculations. Granted, she was captain by circumstance, but it would have been nice for him to at least have waited until she’d actually given the order to make the course change.
Robb growled at Austin. “We can take him. Firepower ain’t everything in a fight.”
“No, it’s just a major factor to consider.” Kasli used her shoulder to push up from the doorjamb. She stepped farther into the room, leaving Robb room to enter. “Evan has three ships in his fleet, and this is his best. I had a look at it a couple of months ago on Lafayette. If he hasn’t upgraded anything, he still has three hard triple turrets with lasers and missiles.”
Els felt a wave of alarm. Kasli had never mentioned touring other cargo ships; they usually discussed everything. “What were you doing on his ship?” Losing her best friend and main gunner to another operation would hurt. Their friendship was irreplaceable, and her loss would hobble their ability to get jobs in the future. Robb was good, but he was an amateur in comparison to Kasli.
Grinning, Kasli dropped her arms, tucking her thumbs into the front pockets of her trousers. “Girl’s got to check out the competition.”
A wave of relief washed over Els. Not leaving then. Thank gods.
Scoffing, Robb gave a derisive wave, marched forward and stared out the main windows. Water stained the back of his shirt where it had dripped down from his hair.
Bennie ran her hand through Els’s hair, caressing her neck and shoulders in a manner that she probably thought was reassuring. “He’s just angry that you turned him down.”
Her touch didn’t ease Els’s mind. She pulled away slightly and lightly clapped a hand on top of Bennie’s to still the movement at her shoulder. That was exactly what this double-cross was about: punishment for refusing Hyland’s initial offer of full-time work as a subcontractor within his burgeoning fleet. The fat merchant schemed to become a major power in this region of space. He hadn’t been pleased when Els preferred to retain her autonomy. As a “professional” gesture, he’d given Freya’s Tears this job. Now she knew why.
Hrothgar stepped fully onto the bridge. He wore a ragged utility jumpsuit that had seen better and cleaner days. “We can’t take him. We don’t have a decent enough fuel level for the necessary course corrections in a battle, and he outguns us.” He shrugged at Robb’s curse. “Sorry, brother. That’s the way it is. Can’t change the natural laws of the universe.” He looked at Els. “Kolodka says our fuel injection manifold is in poor condition. We leak isotopes on a regular run—a fight might cause us to lose more than we can afford.”
He didn’t need to finish the statement. Leaking isotopes ultimately would cause turbine and generator issues, affecting not only thrusters and pulse drives but also gravity and life support. Losing fuel could cause them to be stranded in the back end of nowhere. “So be it.” Els turned to Austin and opened her mouth, but he spoke before her.
“Course laid in, Skipper.”
She growled at him, reaching for the tachcom unit.
* * *
Kasli’s voice crackled over the intercom. “Cargo doors are shut.”
“Copy.” Els switched to the low-level frequency used in standard close-range, ship-to-ship communication. “Evan, your cargo has been released. We’re leaving.”
The video flickered to life. Hyland’s face held an unattractive pout. Els wasn’t sure if he was upset she hadn’t put up more of a fight or if he was attempting to act sympathetic. “I’m sorry it has to be this way, Els. You have a reputation for excellent work.”
Apparently it was the latter. “Yeah, yeah.” She vowed to blacken his piggy little eyes the next time they met face-to-face. He’d be no match for her physically, and they both knew it.
“Are you certain you won’t reconsider my job offer? Freya’s Tears is one of the finest midrange haulers out here...”
Her hand hovered over the tachcom switch as she conferred an amazed stare upon him. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You hired us for this job and stole the cargo without payment. Why would I work for a double-crosser like you on a full-time basis?”
Hyland gave her an exaggerated look of offense. “I most certainly did not steal that cargo! It was mine to begin with. It’s hardly my fault you can’t properly negotiate a contract.” He huffed, his thin lips twisted into a sneer. “You really should take the time to read the fine print.”
The screen went blank. Reflected on its surface, she saw her brow furrow in confusion. I read the fine print, didn’t I? Leaning back in her chair, she recollected the meeting between them. Granted, she’d had a couple of drinks, but she’d signed contracts enough times in the past year. A noise to her right interrupted her thoughts and she saw Austin studying her. She schooled her face into disgruntlement rather than uncertainty. “I read the damned contract.”
Austin raised both hands from his controls in surrender, wisely not saying a word.
“Get us the Hel out of here.” Els pushed to her still-bare feet.
She considered their choices. “Bertuin is nearest. Let’s go there and see if we can find work.”
“Aye, aye, Skipper.”
Els didn’t bother to argue his use of the title. She didn’t have the energy. She left the bridge, her feet shrinking away from the cool metal of the stair treads, reminding her of the need to purchase slippers or sandals to run around the common area. You’d think after two years I’d have already done that. Her big toe still ached, but she didn’t think she’d broken it.
As much as she wanted to get back to her cabin and put on boots, she knew better when she saw most of the crew hanging in the common area at the top of the stairs. Robb had poured himself a cup of coffee in the kitchen and stood behind the counter that doubled as an impromptu eating bar. Bennie had been standing across the counter from him, resting a hip on one of the stools, but now walked over to intercept Els. Hrothgar had thrown himself into one of the armchairs, a glower on his face. She couldn’t fault her little brother; he hated running from a fight just as much as she did. A door across the way opened as Kasli returned from the cargo hold. Behind her, a slender old man with graying hair and watery blue eyes followed, closing it with a solid metal clang.
Hail, hail, the gang’s all here. Bennie slipped into Els’s arms. They were of the same height, which was usually nice. Bennie cooing something to counteract Els’s sour emotions didn’t help her mood, and Els gave her a quick kiss to shut her up. Sometimes Bennie’s behavior annoyed her no end. Had her parents felt that way toward one another? She couldn’t recall. “We’re on our way to Bertuin. Hopefully we can find work there.”
“Providing Evan keeps his mouth shut long enough.” Robb rummaged in a cabinet, pulling out an aluminum bottle. He poured a dollop of Kolodka’s rotgut into his coffee cup. “When word gets out he ’jacked us, we’re screwed.”
Bennie’s frown was a pretty one. “Why?”
“Because we’ll look like easy marks,” Hrothgar explained. “Anyone looking for secure cargo transport won’t consider us if we’re so easily ’jacked.”
Kasli sat on the small couch across from Hrothgar, stretching her long legs out to prop her feet up on the solid coffee table. “It’ll take a while for the news to spread.” She appeared relaxed and assured, her manner bolstering Els’s confidence. “By that time, we should have a couple more jobs under our belt to counteract the rumors.”
Els couldn’t argue any of their statements, not even Kasli’s. She cursed the ever-present insecurity that had plagued her since taking on the captaincy. There used to be a time when she didn’t second-guess herself every waking moment. While she accepted Kasli’s support, she couldn’t help but dislike the impotent relief it had engendered. “Evan doesn’t have as good a toehold in the Bertuin market yet. That’s why he wanted us working for him—to expand his influence. Kasli’s right.”
Bennie hugged Els, distracting her from paying Kasli any more compliments. Els knew Bennie’s actions came from jealousy, but despite months of talk she’d gotten no closer to easing Bennie’s mind over her friendship with Kasli. Frankly it was getting a little old. Els wrestled her mind back to the topic at hand.
“We’ll need fuel soon.” Kolodka sat heavily into a chair at the dining table, reaching for a laechnael fruit from the bowl at the center. He bit into the blue-black rind to start it off and began peeling it with rough fingers, their wrinkles deeply etched with grime. The fruit’s sweet aroma filled the room. “Good thing you didn’t try to fight it out. Evan would have made mincemeat of us, and we’d have been drifting out here on fumes for weeks.”
His words soothed Els’s self-doubt, quieting that tiny voice inside that insisted she’d tucked tail and run like a coward. Kolodka had been aboard Freya’s Tears for a dozen years—he knew this ship and its abilities like no other. If he said they couldn’t have successfully won a battle, then it was carved in stone. She’d made the right choice.
Robb cursed aloud. “Evan has crappy shielding around his hard points. A well-placed pulse would have put his weapons out of commission.” He glared at the back of Kasli’s head as he said it, daring the senior gunner to argue the point.
Kasli craned her neck to look at him, taking up the gauntlet. “I’ve seen your certification scores, Robb.”
He flushed, looking away with a sullen expression.
A grin played across Els’s face. She’d seen his certification scores too. Robb’s ego was based less in reality and more in his prideful opinion of himself. He was damned good, but pulse weapons tended toward bludgeon damage, not pinpoint accuracy. It took an artist to finesse the electrical pressure expelled from a pulse turret. Robb was still playing with finger paints in that regard. Even Kasli couldn’t have done what he suggested, and she had years of experience on him.
“Drive firing in six seconds,” Austin said over the intercom. “Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Engaged.”
The deck shifted beneath Els’s feet, a subtle vibration that indicated Freya’s Tears had entered into abnormal space. All the scientists on all the worlds ever known had said that the shift from normal space into this ethereal pseudo-space resulted in no appreciable sensations. Maybe that was so, but Els had always been able to feel the shift even when she was a wet-behind-the-ears officer in the Zeta Lyman Sector Navy. She glanced around at the crew, noting that Kasli closed her eyes and Hrothgar rubbed his left forearm. Els recognized the gesture, one he always used when chasing away the “willies.” Maybe he feels it too. Kolodka gave no indication of change as he finished his snack. Robb muttered into his cup, and Bennie leaned her head against Els’s temple. The scent of lavender and coffee caused Els to breathe deep.
Austin padded up the stairs from the bridge. “We’ll be at Bertuin in about fifteen modular hours, Skipper.” He made his way into the kitchen and rummaged in a cabinet, ignoring the peeved Robb. Els opened her mouth to take him to task for his use of the title, but Bennie squeezed her waist.
“Can I talk to you for a second?” Bennie’s gaze spanned the room, her lip curling as she looked at Kasli. “Alone?”
Els considered denying the request. She was hungry, wanted a shower and needed to pull Hyland’s contract to see if she really had erred during the negotiations. But despite Bennie’s tendency toward self-absorption, Els cared for her, maybe loved her. Or used to, anyway. Stuffing away her vexation, Els smiled. “Sure. Come on.”
The captain’s cabin was forward of the stairs and port. Els didn’t have much room, but it was more than the rest of the crew enjoyed. She’d taken it over last year when Bercini had died and the crew had voted her into his position. Her bed was unmade, and navigation charts covered her desk. A video tachcom unit still played a recorded feed from a nearby system, a news program she’d been viewing in her near-constant search for work. Half embarrassed at the disarray, she then wondered why. Bennie was the reason it looked disheveled in the first place. Els had been hip deep in the job hunt last night when Bennie had arrived at her door with a bottle of Azha Fire whiskey and a seductive nightie. Els hustled forward to switch off the vid and attempted to straighten the bed.
Bennie closed the door behind her, leaning against it with a smile as she watched Els tidy the room. “Don’t let this get you down.”
“Let what get me down?” Els feigned ignorance as she looked up from tucking the blanket beneath the foam mattress.
“Evan’s double-cross.” Bennie pushed away from the door, approaching Els with a sway in her hips. “It’s a sign you’re ready for bigger things.”
Els raised an eyebrow. She’d never been big on “signs” from on high. Bennie had never expressed any spiritual beliefs in the time they’d been with each other, either. When did getting ’jacked equate to room for advancement? She automatically opened her arms and allowed Bennie to slip inside them, closing her eyes to enjoy the feel of the Sadal Suud silk beneath her hands. “And what ‘bigger things’ do you think I’m ready for?”
Bennie smuggled close, putting her forehead against Els’s. “I know of three bioware companies that work out of Bertuin. We can contract with one of them and start making some real money.” Her last sentence was stated in hardening tones as Els pushed her away and returned to making the bed, irritated to be revisiting an old argument.
“No.” She’d be damned if she’d make money on the backs of unfortunates. Bioware companies were notorious for recruiting—or outright enslaving—the poor and indigent for their live trial experiments. The thought of transporting some hardscrabble family to be poisoned or eviscerated for science revolted her. It didn’t help that they’d had this argument before, its frequency increasing the longer Freya went between jobs.
“Why the hell not?” Bennie’s pleasurable mood had disappeared, smothered by ill temper. She stood, hands on her hips, glaring at the recalcitrant Els. “I’m sick of these piddly jobs! We can make some serious credits, not the coin operations you’ve been landing for us.”
“Gods forbid, I work within the constraints of the law.” Els pushed past her, circling the bed to straighten the other side. “Maybe I don’t want to work for companies that think nothing of trading in slaves and creating biological weapons. Suck it up, soldier.”
Bennie’s finger came up to wag under Els’s nose as she leaned across the bed. “Don’t pull that officer crap on me. I outranked you. Besides, you know as well as I do that the reason we survive as a republic is because we have those biological weapons. We were both in the military; you know this.”
Els scoffed, tucking the blankets beneath the mattress with strong, sharp jabs. Rank hadn’t seemed to matter prior to her taking over as captain. Before Bennie could round the bed to harangue her face-to-face, Els marched to the desk and began gathering up the navigation charts. Behind her, she heard Bennie take a deep breath.
Here it comes. Els frowned at the uncharitable thought. She didn’t have time to pursue the emotion as Bennie’s arms wrapped around her from behind, stilling her movements.
“I know how you feel about bioware R&D, but you can’t argue that they produce so many good things—medical treatments, DNA correction for genetic inaccuracies, eradicating illnesses. It’s not all doom and gloom, and not every company out there is black market. Not all of them transport people, anyway.”
Unbidden, Els remembered the strike force on Ipaya three years ago. Hrothgar still carried scars from that battle. He’d been one of the lucky ones. She’d been a lieutenant commander at the time, not a grunt like her brother, but she had been helpless to assist him when her superiors ordered the biological plague released despite the presence of their forces in the zone. It was the reason she’d abandoned a promising career in the navy after only eight years. “Maybe not, but I won’t work for them.” She felt Bennie’s arms fall away and turned. “You don’t understand. Bioware companies are evil to the core, and I won’t subject my ship or crew to work for them.”
It was Bennie’s turn to scoff. Her hands were back on her hips. “Your ship and crew?” she demanded. “Like you’d be running the show if I hadn’t pushed for it when Bercini died? You’re only captain in name, Els. Don’t think you have the high moral ground here.” She turned and took the three steps to the door. “If the authorities ever find out that Bercini died of a heart attack and didn’t ‘retire,’ you’ll be looking at some serious penal time for impersonating a captain.” With that, she pushed out of the cabin.
The hydraulics wouldn’t allow Bennie to slam the door, and Els felt a stab of vicious glee. She immediately castigated herself. Bennie was her girlfriend; it wasn’t right to delight in her frustration. Still, that jab about impersonating a captain had hurt. Even after a year of effort, Els hadn’t settled comfortably into the job. Her naval training had predominantly involved navigation, not command.
Emotionally drained, she turned back to her desk, staring at the charts clutched in one hand. Hyland had minimal influence on Bertuin. If they could beat the news there, she might be able to scrape up something. She barely had enough money in the accounts to cover the monthly ship payment, let alone the operational costs of this failed venture. And the monthly salaries! She owed everyone two months’ back pay already, and now there was no bonus cut from profits. It was just a matter of time before the others began looking for work elsewhere. She needed to find them a job before they all abandoned ship.
She sank into the desk chair. It didn’t help that Bennie was right: Bioware companies paid top credits for runs all over this subsector. There always seemed to be available work. Sitting in any landside pub of decent repute would net at least six offers from bioware scouts looking for merchant ships with good reputations. Els turned down their offers as a matter of course, but that didn’t stop them from approaching her whenever she was planetside. It just felt wrong to sign contracts with them, like making a deal with Loki himself. She made a sign, a superstitious holdover from her youth, averting disaster brought on by her thoughts of the trickster god of her faith.
Finding the gesture both comforting and funny, she smiled, setting the nav charts on the partially cleaned desk. Regardless of how she’d become captain, she’d agreed to the sham. It was her responsibility. She pulled the computer screen forward from its place in the bulkhead and turned it on. Time to go through her contacts on Bertuin, maybe make some calls. She’d find work for the ship if it killed her.
Els stood in the cargo air lock with most of the crew. Austin and Kasli remained on board—Austin by choice and Kasli by rotation. Freya’s Tears was never left empty; at least two people stayed aboard to secure the ship whenever they made landside. A ship was sovereign in its own right, but only as long as it was occupied. An empty ship was salvage, no matter where it sat.
As soon as the inner doors clunked shut with a metallic thud, Els scanned her companions. “Breathers on?” Only after everyone gave her a thumbs-up did she trigger the smaller air lock door. No need to drop the ramp when there was no cargo to load. At least, not yet. A slight breeze ruffled her hair as the exterior atmosphere blew into the air lock. The air caused her eyes to sting a little, but she couldn’t smell much through the breather strapped across her nose and mouth. Considering the tainted atmosphere on Bertuin, that was a good thing. Sunlight was dimmer here than on other planets, and it made Els’s eyes ache until she adjusted to the fact that the orange ball in the sky wasn’t setting but giving off its full illumination. She swung out onto the ladder rungs embedded in the hull of the ship and climbed the two meters to the ground. Her landing was light, the Bertuin gravity being slightly below Terran norm. Above her, she saw the shapely rear of her lover descending and couldn’t help but admire it a moment.
Els turned. Two men stood a few meters away at the info kiosk by the star port air lock. One carried a portable datapad, and the other the demeanor of a Terran bulldog. “Yeah, that’s me.” She approached them, not making any sudden movements. Port Security everywhere had a tendency to be paranoid, and she didn’t want to set this one off.
The official gave a curt nod and accessed the kiosk panel. “Your ship is Freya’s Tears out of Sadal Suud, 300-ton-hull cargo handler?”
“Yep.” She looked over his shoulder at the readout. “We just transported some goods for Evan Hyland. Would you like to see the manifest?”
“Certainly.” The man stepped back, allowing her access to the control panel.
He shied away to avoid brushing against her brown canvas jacket, and she bit back a smile. The more populated the world, the more pronounced the chasm was between bureaucrats and the general populace. On most days she’d have played with him, done what she could to subtly offend his sense of propriety. She had too many worries, however, and he had a stolid-looking armed goon at his side. Instead she keyed in her security code and accessed the ship’s computer, pulling up the cargo manifest. “Here it is.” She stepped back, biting her tongue against the desire to comment that she ran a legal business. Such a statement smacked of inherent guilt, and she didn’t want the goon to decide a shipboard search was in order. She didn’t think there was anything illegal aboard, but who knew what the members of the crew had squirreled away in their cabins.
The official scanned the data, uploading it to his datapad. “Everything appears to be in order. How long do you plan to stay on beautiful Bertuin?”
Beautiful? Els smothered her snort, unable to help but scan their immediate surroundings. Dirty and grimy, this part of the star port served independent merchants and showed a lack of care and cleanliness. Through the clear plastisteel dome that protected the port from the planetary atmosphere she saw dockworkers lounging as they waited for ships to arrive for loading or unloading. A sign down the way blinked crude neon, proclaiming a pub for incoming crews to rest their bones. The orange-lit sky held hints of what appeared to be smoke which Els knew to be the corrupted air itself. In the distance, scrub trees and crusty ground rose into hillocks, covered with the airtight dwellings necessary for living on this rock. “Three days, maybe less.” Gods, I hope it’s less.
He keyed something into his datapad. “I have you listed at Dock 78 for three modular days. Full hookup?”
She quickly debated her answer, weighing the ship’s dwindling financial situation against the luxury of having all power, communication lines and hydro covered by the star port. With a sigh, she shook her head. “No. No hookup. We’ll boondock it.” She heard a grumble behind her and glared at Robb. He and the others had made it out of the ship and now stood clustered nearby.
The official made another adjustment, looked up at her and stepped back once more. “That will be four hundred seventy-five credits with an additional forty-five credits in port taxes a day. Please upload a method of payment.”
Five hundred twenty a day? Tyr’s gut, there’d better be work here, or I’ll have to sell the ship to make the payment.
A sense of dread washed over her as she inserted a credstick into the appropriate slot of the kiosk. She keyed in her password, and the correct number of credits transferred out of the account. The sooner they found work, the better. She pulled the stick, pocketing it quickly as if doing so would somehow negate the loss of precious funds.
“Welcome to Bertuin, Captain Ulfarsdottir.” The official appeared to think twice about offering a handshake. He gave her a tight smile, visible through his breather, and walked to the port air lock. His burly security goon followed after a single warning glare.
“Boondock it?” Robb’s rich voice sounded tinny through his breathing mask. “Really? I was looking forward to using the holographic game deck while we were here.”
Before Els could respond, Hrothgar gave the gunner a light punch on the arm. “Suck it up, grunt. It’s just ’til we get work; we’ve been through worse.”
Robb grumbled and backed down, Hrothgar’s reminder of their shared service time enough to distract him from his complaint. Els gave her brother a nod of thanks. Robb was becoming more irritating as time went on, and Hrothgar had just saved him from a humiliating beating at the hands of a woman. Els had always been slow to anger, but Robb’s descent from crew asset to querulous nuisance was beginning to try even her strength of will. It had been a long time since she’d exploded and it was taking too many of her emotional resources to remain calm these days. “All right, everybody, you know the drill. Stay safe, don’t be stupid and check in once a day. Don’t go drinking without a partner to see you home. Hrothgar, you have ship watch tomorrow and Robb the next day. Be back on board at your scheduled time. We’ll put the word out on your tachcom units if our timetable changes.” Everyone gave general consent. “What’s everyone up to?”
Kolodka scrubbed a gnarled finger behind one ear. “Hrothgar and I are going to see about refueling. We can use some parts for the generator too—it’s been runnin’ kind of hot lately. I’d rather have spares on hand than be stranded in space.”
Els nodded. There was always some part or other that was needed. Freya’s Tears was almost twenty-five years old and well past the blush of new systems. “Okay, but pay attention to price. We’re not made of money.” She thought she heard Robb mutter something derogatory, but he stared off in the distance when she turned to look at him.
Bennie tugged on her arm. She’d cooled down from their argument the previous day, but her expression remained on the edge of exasperation. “I’m going to check in at the hospital. I know some people there. Maybe I can find a job for us there.”
They both knew how Els felt about the sort of jobs Bennie promoted, but Els couldn’t deny her. She’s only trying to help keep us out of the red. “Thank you.” Els felt a moment’s pleasure as a flicker of uncertainty crossed Bennie’s face before returning to annoyance.
“Yeah, I’ll look for work too.” Robb held his hands up in a full shrug. “If that’s what it takes to get paid in this outfit, so be it.”
Els scowled but didn’t argue. “All right. Take off.” She watched the others cycle through the star port air lock and walk away. Robb and Bennie strolled together down the wide avenue circling the port, and she shook her head. What the Hel happened to him? Back when he’d first come aboard with Hrothgar he’d been fun to have around, always joking, playing pranks. As time had passed, he’d become this sarcastic rabble-rouser. She had vague recollections of him on Ipaya several years ago but hadn’t spent a lot of time with him. She was officer, he and Hrothgar were grunt. Still, something fundamental had changed within him after she and Hrothgar had transferred off world.
Yet again unable to come up with a reason for the change in Robb’s personality, Els turned to look at the landing pad. Freya’s Tears crouched there, her metal hull glowing orange in the dwarf sun’s rays. From this angle, she only saw the nose, but she knew that the ship stretched back a hundred meters with sloping elegance. Unlike most merchant ships, Freya had been initially designed as a midrange scout with berths for a hundred scientists. She appeared less ungainly than those ships designed specifically for the purpose of cargo handling. She’d been decommissioned from the Sadal Suud Exploration Consortium after only three years of service when planetary politics had brought economic disfavor to the organization. Her decks had been stripped and opened for cargo hauling, and Adolpho Bercini had purchased her twenty years ago. Since then, she’d plied the lightless paths between planets and spaceports, carrying goods back and forth.
Els saw the windows of the bridge ten meters above her and Austin puttering around inside. She raised her hand to wave at him, but he didn’t see her. Feeling stupid, she dropped her hand, glancing around to see if anyone else had noticed her brief spate of sentimentality. All appeared the same, and she breathed a sigh of relief. She reached out to access the tachcom unit on the kiosk and found a message already waiting for her.
To: Elsibet Ulfarsdottir, Captain, Freya’s Tears, registry #AG-3512227
From: Nahmed Melakozian, Owner, Franking Machinery Company, Fica Starport
Subject: Payment Due
Capt. Ulfarsdottir, you currently owe Franking Machinery Company a total of c67,450. As agreed upon between us on 16.30.3103, your payment of c600 is due. In fact, it is past due by one modular month. Please contact me or my secretary at your earliest convenience to make payment or make other arrangements.
“Ugh.” Els deleted the notice and shut down the system. Another bill. Damn. She lightly thumped her forehead against the plastic edge of the kiosk box. The temptation to walk away, catch a flight with another ship out into the lightless expanse and forget all her financial woes swept over her.
Looking up at the ship again, she saw Kasli in the cockpit. Their eyes met, Kasli cocking her head with a questioning expression. Something indefinable passed between them, something Els refused to examine too closely for fear it would disappear. I can’t let her…these people down. Els forced a wry smile and waved. Kasli waved back as Els turned away.
“Time to find some work.”
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