I love waking up to surprises, don't you? Shit...
This morning my wife wakes me up to give me a kiss as she heads off to work. It's our routine, I love it, and I expected it. But then, just as I'm getting nestled back in for a couple more hours of sleep she comes in and says, "Honey, I think someone vandalized my car." I was up and out of bed like a shot, threw on some shorts and a shirt, and ran outside to see that somehow a rear window on her Trailblazer was broken. The doors were still locked, and nothing had been taken from inside it, but whatever had broken it wasn't inside the car either, so I can only assume that someone broke it with a blunt object but were then scared off when the alarm went off (an alarm that didn't attract anyones attention in our entire neighborhood). So, immediately, my nice and calm day off was thrown a curve ball.
After taking her to work and getting home I called some auomotive glass repair shops and got a few quotes. The best price I found was $420. My insurance deductable is $100, so I go ahead and call them, and then get the glass repair shop to make an appointment for tomorrow. Luckily, they will come out and fix it here at the house, so at least I don't have to take it anywhere or drop it off, and that's really nice. In the end I'm only out $100 and some time, but it just irks the hell out of me that people can just come along and without any thought or care do something that turns your life upside down. Now I'm concerned about our neighborhood, which I never was before, and I'm sure my wife is rattled. Just pisses me off...
Anyway, venting done. Thanks.
I used to play guitar. Some electric, but mostly acoustic. I took a guitar class when I was in high school, but that was for only one semester in my freshman year, and so I hda forgotten most of it by the time I graduated. Years later my younger brother and his friends started up a garage band (we're talking the mid 90's here - prime Seattle Sound times), and through them my interest in playing guitar picked up again. They taught me how to play a few chords and songs (the first song I learned to play was Extreme's "More Than Words," followed quickly by Queensryche's "Silent Lucidity"). I picked up more on my own after that, and on occasion I even played with them when they had a gig, usually when they covered personal favorites of mine such as Alice In Chain's "Man In The Box" or Pearl Jam's "Black". Those were some good times...
Near the end of '98 or so his band broke up, my brother got married, and everyone kind of scattered. With them went my interest in guitar playing. I would occasionally pick up my Epiphone or Strat to play, but on my own it just wasn't the same. Eventually I stopped altogether and gave both guitars to my brother so he could keep playing where he was living. From that moment until the other day, I hadn't thought about it much.
But, yesterday, my brother (who has moved back into town) asked me if I would go with him to the local Guitar Center. I hadn't been in one of those stores since he had moved away, so it felt strange going back in after so much time away. I immediately headed off to the acoustic guitar room and picked up the nearest Ovation, then sat down to see what I had in me. Sadly, I had... nothing. I couldn't remember a single song, not even ones I'd written myself, and my fingers couldn't even remember how to hold the strings on the fretboard. I thought it would be like riding a bike, you know? Muscle memory or unconscious retention, but it wasn't. Every bit of music I had in me was gone, and the more I tried to recall it the less I cared. I mean, a part of me wanted to play and remember, but another part, a larger part, just didn't have the fire or the spirit or the desire. I have so many other interests in my life that I just don't have the need for another one. I would love to play again, but I don't have the time or the energy, or really even the money, to invest in learning it all over again.
Eh, so be it. You can't go home again, as they say...
[center]Tales Of The Breaking Dawn[/center]
[center]The Ties That Bind[/center]
Hauling in and storing cargo wasn?t normally a difficult job. The logistics could occasionally be a pain in the ass, and dock foremen on a power trip could complicate things if they really had a mind to, but on the whole it was usually only a matter of organization and brute force. That all went out the window, though, when there was no dock to pull the cargo from, and the payload itself was free-floating in a region of space that had moving chunks of rock big enough to crush a freighter as though it was little more than a tin can.
All in a day?s work, Ferron thought to himself.
Clad in a white environmental suit that didn?t quite fit, the Dunadon stood before a computer terminal situated next to the main forward-facing cargo doors. Magnetic boots kept him locked in place, which was a good thing, as the artificial gravity in this section of the ship was turned off and the doors were currently open to the depths of space. Every container and piece of equipment in the bay was strapped down to keep them from bouncing around in the icy emptiness, but an unfortunate side effect was that all of his loader droids were also out of commission. In a proper gravity field they were little bundles of laboring joy, but in the weightless environs of the big empty they were as useful as a flashlight in a black hole. The ship?s cargo chief made a mental note to ask the captain about getting some zero-gee ?bots.
?Skipper,? he said into his helmet mike, ?if we can?t get that pod to stop spinning we?re going to have a hell of a time getting her aboard.?
?I realize that, Chief,? Jessica replied from the bridge. ?If I could, rest assured that I would, but the info-packet Jack sent us didn?t include navigational controls. The most I can do is shut down its collision detection system so that we can get near it without the damn thing skittering off. Other than that, we?re out of luck.?
Ferron grumbled beneath his breath, calling into question Jack?s heritage and the legitimacy thereof, then said, ?Can we at least match its rate of rotation??
?We can get close,? the captain told him, ?but not completely. We?ll be stressing the gravitic compensators as it is.?
Cursing one last time, the stoic Dunadon replied, ?Just get us as close as you can then, Skipper, and I?ll do my best.?
?You always do, Chief. Bridge out.?
Looking down at his terminal, Ferron watched the target freight pod tumble through outer space at a fairly good clip. Its forward momentum was minimal at best, but its spin was considerable. Whatever it had dodged in this asteroid field, Ferron reflected, it must have been really been moving to cause that sort of response.
No sooner had he finished the thought than he could feel the ship shifting mightily under his boots. He didn?t have to look outside or at his screens to know that the Dawn?s thrusters had engaged to set the ship to spinning. Even under the best of circumstances that sort of movement would have been stomach churning, but in zero gravity with nothing holding one down but a magnetic boot sole, it was positively revolting. Luckily, the Dunadon was prepared for it, and his extensive training and experience helped him in his efforts. To block out most of the dizziness he chose one thing to lock his attention on and let that envelope him. At that moment, it was his terminal screen.
Less than a minute later the captain had managed to close the gap and was as close as the she could get to giving the large ship a spin matching that of the freight pod. It wasn?t perfect, but it would have to do. With that done, Ferron pressed a button on his console, and from the ceiling of the cargo bay descended a large cannon-like device. The gun barrel segment of the apparatus was an electro-magnetic catapult system, but instead of rocks or burning pitch, this weapon shot a grappling unit.
He wasn?t as quick with his aim as Cam was, but the Dunadon wasted little time in getting the grappler?s crosshairs centered on its target. As soon as he was satisfied, he locked the gun?s sensors on it, then opened his mike and said, ?I?m ready to fire, Captain.?
?Fire away, Chief,? Jessica replied.
Ferron nodded to himself. ?Affirmative. Firing grappler now.? Less than a second later, a two meter long rod shot from the cannon and flew at a blistering pace toward its target, unraveling behind it a length of nano-carbon fiber that was far stronger than any naturally occurring metal or alloy. At the forward end of the rod was a flattened magnetic head, and as soon as it neared the freight pod its magnetic field intensified so that it could guide itself in without outside assistance or navigational equipment. With a great thud it hit the metal container and latched on with all the strength and tenacity of a greedy child with candy in hand.
?We have a lock, Skipper,? Ferron said. ?I?m reeling her in now.?
The Dunadon pressed a button on his console that began the retraction process, and overhead he could see a wench at the rear of the grappling gun start spinning slowly. It was a large fish he had caught, but the ship was far larger, so he could barely tell when the slack in the nano-carbon fiber was taken up and the pod started to approach. It wasn?t long, though, before a warning light started blinking. Scanning his display, Ferron saw that, even though the ship?s spin was close, the greater rate of rotation of the freight pod was starting to cause the nano-carbon fiber to bunch. That wasn?t a problem for the fiber, as it could stand almost any amount of strain, but the reel mechanism wasn?t so fortunate. If something wasn?t done, and quickly, the entire system would seize up. With a heavy hand he stopped the grappler wench.
?Skipper, we?ve got a bit of a problem.?
?Care to elaborate, Chief?? Jessica asked.
The Dunadon shook his head out of force of habit, then replied aloud, ?Not enough time. Give me a minute. If I?m not back, send my family some flowers and tell them I wasn?t half as stupid as I?m about to be. Ferron out.?
With a half-hearted chuckle, the cargo chief reached down to grab one of his suit?s dangling carabineers, gave it a test yank, and then looked up.
This should be fun, he mused to himself, only half joking.
?Just what do you think he meant by that?? Jessica asked from her pilot?s chair.
?Knowing Ferron,? Cam replied behind and above her, ?it could have meant anything.?
Unsure whether she should be concerned or not, the captain stewed in her chair helplessly. Part of her wanted to get the cargo chief back on the horn to get a better explanation of what the problem was he?d discovered, but a greater part of her trusted his judgment and ability to handle it. She had finally decided to not let herself worry about things she couldn?t control when suddenly she saw, at the bottom of her field of view, a small light-colored figure moving away from her ship down the length of the grappling gun?s nano-carbon line. Aghast, she slapped her hand down on her comm button.
?Ferron Cth, just what in the holy shades of hell do you think you?re doing?!? she shouted into the comm.
Sounding harried through her headset, the cargo chief replied, ?I?m kinda busy right now, Skipper. Sorry.?
The comm channel squelched closed, and all Jessica could do was watch in horrified amazement as her crewman drifted down the fiber line toward the slowly spinning freight pod, tiny white puffs left in his wake as his suit?s small thrusters pushed him along.
?I don?t believe his enviro-suit was designed for that sort of activity,? Cam said, now standing above her. Network cables stretched behind him, keeping him connected to the ship?s computer system.
Slumping into her chair, Jessica replied, ?Tell him that.?
?Ferron is a smart spacer, Captain,? Cam told her. ?I?m sure he knows the tolerances of his equipment, as well as what?s necessary to complete his assignment. So long as his exposure isn?t lengthy, he should be okay.?
Unable to do anything but watch, Jessica pushed herself forward and watched the spectacle unfold before her. Down the line the Dunadon crawled, his large body so small and insignificant in the vastness around him. The freight pod was about a hundred meters away from the ship, which wasn?t all that far, especially by galactic standards, but the air thrusters in Ferron?s suit hadn?t been designed for extended travel, so to conserve his fuel he took the trip in small blasts. Several minutes ticked past as he traversed the line, but eventually he arrived at his destination, and once there he let out some of his safety line and clambered toward one of the outside walls. He was just getting settled when suddenly a bolt of red energy sizzled from the ship and blew straight through a small hurtling asteroid, shattering it and sending its pieces harmlessly into space.
?That was a fast one,? Cam said, barely moving. ?I?m going to increase sensor resolution, Captain. We will lose some distance, but the enhanced imaging will more than compensate.?
Thankful for the android?s abilities, Jessica nodded. ?Whatever you say, Cam. You know best.?
?Yes,? he agreed. ?I do. Thank you.?
The captain waved distractedly over her shoulder, then focused in on her errant crewman. With the danger passed, he crawled into position near the outer edge of one of the walls that faced the spin, and then initiated a sustained burst of air once he had locked himself in place. The jets of air shot out in harsh white streams, crystals of compressed moisture flying out from him like bits of snow. The large crate didn?t decelerate its rotation at first, but gradually she could see it slowing. Outrageous as it was, Ferron?s solution was working.
?At that rate he won?t have much left in reserve for the return journey,? Cam intoned sagely, his cybernetic mind processing the data his sensors gave him.
Nodding in concern, Jessica opened her comm. ?Ferron, that?s good enough. Head back to the barn now.?
?Just? another? couple? of seconds,? the Dunadon replied stubbornly.
Jessica was having none of it. ?That wasn?t a suggestion, Chief. It was an order. Move it. Now.? Ferron didn?t reply immediately, but Jessica was in no mood to wait around. ?Cam, override the cargo bay grappler controls and start reeling it back in now.?
?Aye, Captain,? the android answered.
Smoothly the nano-carbon fiber began reeling in again, and the freight pod (now heavy one Dunadon) retracted at its former pace. She could see Ferron dislodge himself from the pod wall and then pull himself down the line, helping himself along with several sharp air blasts. He made it back inside the cargo bay with enough time to make it ready to receive the new container. Once the doors were closed and the bay was repressurized, the captain opened her comm one last time.
?Chief,? she said, her voice silky smooth and even, ?this is the captain. As soon as you?ve got our luggage stored, please meet me on the bridge. Thank you.?
The temperature outside the ship was absolute zero, and inside the bridge it was heading that way as well. Despite himself, Cam was thankful that he wasn?t in Ferron?s large boots at that moment. They were not good boots to be in.
?I would like to offer you the chance to explain to me, in whatever detail you think is appropriate, why I shouldn?t haul your gray ass down to the cargo hold and lock you in the smallest container I can find, and then leave you on the first available starport docking platform with nothing but a can opener to get yourself out and your possessions in a duffle bag next to you.?
Her question was milder than she had first intended it to be. Had it not taken so long to get the new freight pod stowed, Ferron would have walked into a much more irate captain than the one he currently stood before. For all Jessica knew, the Dunadon might have done that on purpose. But, be that as it may, she had had time to calm herself while waiting on him, and so the conversation was taking a more relaxed tone than it might have otherwise.
?One of the reasons your father hired me,? Ferron stated, his eyes straight ahead and his shoulders back, ?is because I can think quickly on my feet. I see a problem, and I work to resolve it as quickly and as efficiently as I can. That?s what I did here.?
Tapping her chin with her right index finger, Jessica nodded a bit too hastily for it to be a genuine expression of agreement. ?Okay, and exactly what in your experience led you to believe that you could perform an impromptu spacewalk, and not only that, but one done in an environmental suit that wasn?t designed for it, and, to make it even better, do it in the middle of a goddam asteroid field??
Ferron wasn?t sure how to respond. He knew that she was right, knew that she had a point and had every reason to make it, but he also knew that he had done what he had to do, even if it wasn?t the right thing. ?Skipper, I don?t know what it is you want me to say. I saw a problem, I saw a way to fix it, and I acted. Had I felt like I couldn?t get the job done or that there was another immediate fix, then I wouldn?t have done it, and I certainly wouldn?t have put my life in jeopardy.?
?But you did!? Jessica yelled, slamming her hand on a console edge next to her. ?The instant you clamped yourself to that fiber line and exited the ship you put yourself in danger. Should I count the ways??
Ferron started to tell her that she shouldn?t, but the captain didn?t wait for him. The question had been a rhetorical one.
?One,? she said, raising an index finger, ?you could have run out of oxygen. Two,? another finger went up, ?your clamp could have come loose. Three, an asteroid too small to be detected, or too fast to be shot down, could have slipped past and blown you into another dimension. Four, a radiation storm from the Proxius star could have cooked your juices. Five, your suit could have torn on the freight pod.?
Before she could get started on her other hand, the Dunadon stopped her. ?Skipper, you?re right, okay? I guess if I?d thought about it a few more seconds, all those things and more might have occurred to me. But they didn?t, I acted, and everything came out alright. Can?t that be enough??
Jessica lowered her head and gave it a slow shake. ?No, it can?t, and I guess that?s what?s bothering me. This is so unlike you, Ferron. I?ve never known you to put yourself in danger like that. You?ve always been smart in those cargo bays. I could depend on you to respect the hazards they contain.?
?You still can,? he replied. ?The cargo bays really aren?t as dangerous as you?re making ??
Nearly bursting into tears, Jessica balled up her fists and slammed them down. ?Yes, they are! Dammit! They are dangerous??
Instantly Ferron knew what was really going on, what was really bothering her. The captain was upset with him, that much was obvious, but it went deeper than that. As fearful as she was about him and what he?d done, it was nothing compared to her feelings about someone else she?d lost in that same cargo bay. Without a word he stepped forward and put his hands on her shoulders.
?I?m sorry, Skipper,? he said softly. ?I didn?t mean to scare you like that. And I didn?t mean to bring all those bad feelings back up either. I? I should have known better. It won?t happen again.?
Holding back tears by the slimmest of margins, Jessica nodded and patted his hands. ?Make sure that it doesn?t.?
Daring the wrath of the spacefarer gods, Ferron leaned forward and kissed his captain on her forehead, then stepped back to see if she was going to continue dressing him down. Her energies looked spent, so he patted her shoulder once more and asked, ?Are we okay??
?Yeah, we?re good,? she replied. ?Just, next time you decide to risk life and limb or feel the need to throw all caution to the solar winds, let me know ahead of time. I don?t mind surprises, but only if it?s on my birthday.?
Ferron chuckled. ?I understand. If there?s nothing else, though, I better get back and see if anything?s come loose.?
?Go ahead,? Jessica told him. ?I might join you later and see if I can?t take a peek inside that pod. After all this trouble I think we deserve a looky-loo.?
?Good luck. I only looked at it for a moment, but the locking mechanism on that thing was a monster. Give me a week and a plasma torch, and maybe I could open it. Otherwise, don?t even think about it.?
Annoyed, the captain shrugged her shoulders and turned to head back to her piloting chair. ?Eh, it?s probably for the best. No use sticking our noses in where they don?t belong, huh? We?re getting paid to deliver the damn thing, not appraise it.?
Ferron nodded, gave his captain a salute and a smile, and then walked toward the exit.
?Tell Cam it?s safe to come back in,? Jessica said as she settled into the lowered chair.
As the rear doors parted, bodies scattered away from the opening in as nonchalant a fashion as rushing bodies could. Every remaining member of the crew, even though all of them had other duties they could have been attending to, were for some mysterious reason gathered in the galley, and all of them were pointedly not looking at Ferron or in the direction of the bridge. The Dunadon couldn?t help but smirk.
?Everything?s fine,? he told them as the doors closed.
?Then you?re not fired?? Duka asked, his simian face full of concern.
Ferron shook his head. ?No, her feelings had more to do with her father than anything else. I should have thought of that. Patrick died in the cargo bay, and so that complicates things in ways I sometimes forget. But we?re good now, and I plan on keeping it that way.?
Sagely nods came from everyone.
?Cam, she said that you should come back in.?
As the android stood and walked past him, Booshra asked, ?Do you think she needs me as well??
Ferron shook his head. ?No, I don?t think so. Right now I think she needs some breathing space more than anything else.?
?I understand,? Boo replied, his voice gruff.
?Should I get her a muscle relaxant?? Zen asked, trying hard to be helpful.
?She needs a bit of respectful distance, Zen,? Ferron told her, ?not medication.?
The Quish?Tah looked depressed for a moment, then brightened again. ?I know, I?ll make her a glass of warm Silacan milk. That always makes her feel better.?
?I give up,? the Dunadon said, pushing forward good-naturedly. ?If anyone needs me, I?ll be in the forward cargo bay minding our baby. The sooner we get rid of it, the better.?
The sentiment was echoed by all present.
Life was good, Jessica decided to herself. It was hard to look at it any other way, really, when all you had to worry about was ice melting too quickly in your drink and if the SPF factor in your tanning lotion was high enough to protect you but low enough to give you the sheen of a bronze statue. Yes, life was good, and she knew it.
?Can I get you another drink, miss?? someone asked in her right ear. Opening her eyes, she rolled her head over and saw a small creature in a white suit that was formal and yet casual, perfect for keeping one cool while also presenting a professional appearance. Its skin was as black and smooth as a seal, with the same wet polish to it, but whether the creature was male or female was lost on her. Beady black eyes gazed at her in expectation.
?Bring me the same as last time, please,? Jessica replied casually.
The creature, a Tu?auney if she recalled correctly, dipped its head and squealed, which the galactic interpreter device in her ear translated to English as, ?Ah, another Zoodien Twist. Very good, miss.? With another quick bow it backed away.
Bringing her head back around, Jessica looked down past her tanned feet and sighed with complete contentment. Before her, just past a stretch of sand so white and pure it almost hurt to look upon it, was an expanse of ocean that practically called out to be swam in with abandon. The waters were alternating shades of green and blue that ended up making the waters into a turquoise entrance of heaven. Overhead, a bright blue sky radiated down on her, broken only by an occasional cotton puff of cloud and shimmering binary suns that kissed her skin with warm soft lips.
Life was good.
?No matter how beautiful the scenery is,? a smooth voice said behind her, coming around to her left, ?you always end up looking better.?
Enjoying the sentiment of the statement, if not wholly believing it, Jessica sat up with a chuckle. Beside her, a human male pulled a beach lounger over and sat down on it. He was tall and fairly well built, with dark skin and short black hair. His name was Teferi Zawadi, but those who knew him well enough could call him Ty.
?If I had a credit for every time a handsome stranger told me that,? Jessica replied, her smile shining out her affection for the man.
?You?d be able to retire a rich woman,? the newcomer finished. He then leaned forward, pulled her toward him with a finger under her chin, and planted a long kiss on her lips. It was a familiar kiss, and one she never turned away when it was offered.
After they parted and settled back into their respective seats, Jessica caught her breath and asked, ?What brings you out this way, Ty? I?m glad to see you, but I had no idea you were out this way.?
?I hadn?t planned to be,? he told her. ?But you know how business can be. One minute you?re on Venus, the next you?re on the other end of the galaxy. Never a dull moment.?
As she was about to ask another question, the Tu?auney returned with her drink on a tray. After depositing it on a small table to Jessica?s right, the creature took Ty?s order and scurried off again.
?So,? Jessica said, sipping her Twist, ?ever get that one band of yours to take off??
?Which one?? Ty asked back.
Spinning her finger in the air absently, she replied, ?Oh, you know, that one. From Mars Outpost Six I think. Wore orange a lot.?
Ty chuckled. ?You mean Red Sky Blue??
?Yeah, that one.?
?No, they broke up last year. I tried to get them some work out in the Talleus and Haddroix systems, where human music is really becoming quite the fad, don?t ask me why, but their lead singer had a nervous breakdown and the drummer damn near overdosed on Manic. But I?ve got two other acts doing well out there, and some contacts of mine said I should come out this way and test my luck, so here I am.?
?Here you are,? Jessica almost purred. ?What good luck I have.?
?I hope it?ll rub off on me,? Ty said.
Barely suppressing a lecherous grin, the freighter captain took another sip of her drink and replied, ?If you play your cards right, you might get more than that.?
Ty laughed, the sound deep, masculine, and strong. With a familiarity bred from more than a few passionate evenings spent together, he leaned over her and pressed against her. His onyx skin was a sharp contrast to her barely tanned complexion, and it always quickened her pulse to see their bodies so close. As his face approached hers, he said, ?Captain, I think we have a problem.?
She wasn?t expecting that. ?What??
?Captain, please respond,? Ty told her, his voice louder as his mouth neared hers.
Jessica sighed, this time with no contentment whatsoever. ?Dammit,? she muttered. Quickly, before her chance was gone, she rose up and kissed her companion fully and deeply. With the scent of him filling her nose, he dissolved before her, as did the ocean, the Zoodien Twist, her beach lounger, and the eager to please Tu?auney in the white suit. In the span of two breaths, all of it was gone.
Life was not good.
?This had better be good,? Jessica said with a yawn as she entered the bridge of her ship. ?That was a hell of a dream I was having.?
Boo was seated in the pilot?s chair, Cam was plugged in at his usual post in the tactical station, and Duka was standing at the Command Console. If the Engineer, who was also the senior most crewmember of the boat, was out of his area, then it must have been serious. She brushed off the last vestiges of sleep when she saw his sour expression.
?Okay,? she intoned, ?what?s the bad news??
Pressing one of his triple-jointed fingers on the console before him, Duka shook his head and replied, ?This is.? He then stepped aside to allow her a clear view of what was displayed upon it. It only took two seconds of reading to understand just how complicated their life had become.
?Oh, shit,? she muttered.
On the console was a grouping of words and silently moving images. The top of the screen indicated that the information had been provided by the Intergalactic Trade and Transportation Network during an info dump when they?d passed through the Corrynūs Conduit Node an hour ago. Their ultimate destination was the Tol-Yinush star system, Tol Prime to be exact, the fourth moon out to be even more exact, and the journey to it from Proxius had until that moment been rather quick and without incident. Their route had taken three conduit hops thus far, each one with little hassle and expense but long on travel, and they hadn?t even needed to concern themselves with a Coven gate jump until the last leg of their trek, which was coming up. They had hoped that the job for Jack would be, while not entirely effortless, at least relatively free of drama. That hope had held true until now.
Tol-Yinush was a rarity in the galactic community, in that it was a star system that had developed sentient life on two different planets at approximately the same time, and both had lived and prospered enough to gain a fair amount of industrial sophistication, though to be fair the Yinusha had developed their technology slightly ahead of the Tolese. Neither planet had known about the life the other planet held until the first Tol broadcast receiver was turned on and picked up transmissions from Yinush. Their orbits had kept the planets at opposite ends of the solar system for centuries (calculations showed that their orbits wouldn?t align for 437 years, 8 months, 10 days, 3 hours, and 32 seconds, Galactic Standard), but radio and television transmissions had joined them together, and across the hundreds of millions of miles that separated them they worked to learn and grow in a spirit of cosmic community.
That spirit died one year ago, when a Yinushan governmental official was assassinated, and all the evidence pointed toward the killer being a Tolesian. Whether or not that was indeed true, the suggestion itself was enough to spark hostility between the two species, which in turn was inflamed by racially motivated extremist groups on both sides. What had started off as a dream of cooperation had all too quickly devolved into a nightmare of accusation and mistrust. Intermediaries from both the Pax and the Corporate Commonwealth had been working since then to resolve the matter, and indicators had looked good that a resolution could be reached peacefully, but the recently downloaded news brief disproved that notion entirely. The ITTN headline read, ?Tol-Yinush Worlds At War.?
?Shit,? Jessica repeated.
The E?Loean engineer nodded in sympathy. ?What do you think we should do??
Jessica pondered the question, then replied, ?I think we should turn around, head home, tell Jack sorry, and hope the Gorawnies don?t decide to take out a hit on all of us, especially me.?
Duka didn?t give her sarcastic words the dignity of a verbal response, and instead let his scowl do all the talking for him. She got the obvious message that he wasn?t amused. She wasn?t amused either.
?Dammit, Duka,? she said unenthusiastically, ?what do you think? We complete the mission. It?s not like we have much of a choice.?
?There?s always a choice, Jessie,? the E?Loean told her.
The captain smirked. ?Thanks, oh guru of the cosmos, but this time I don?t think so. If the cargo belonged to anyone else, I?d agree with you and hold off until things simmered down, but we can?t. Not with this. Jack made the deal with the Gorawnies, but as soon as we picked up the freight pod we became part of the deal too, and if this doesn?t get delivered, it?ll be our heads on the chopping block right alongside Jack and his crew. Some people I don?t mind pissing off, but not them. No way. I think I?d rather risk a war zone than angering those guys.?
Silence reigned in the bridge for several long seconds, when Boo finally broke it from his lowered chair. ?I think I agree with Jessica.?
?You would,? Duka quipped back. The engineer?s downy face sagged for a moment, then he asked, ?What do you think our chances are??
?Honestly, Duka,? Jessica replied, ?I don?t know, and I won?t know until we get in-system. If the Yinusha have their entire armada blockading Tol and her moons, then it?s dicey. But, if we can get there before an interdiction line gets set up, then I think our odds are good. Luckily, the Coven gate there is on Tol?s end of the region, so that will be a big help. But, like I said, I can?t make any real guesses until we get there and see what we?re dealing with.?
He didn?t like it, but Duka knew she was giving him the best answer that she could. He nodded wearily. ?Okay. Looks like you?re going to need everything this ship has, so I better get down to engineering and stoke the fires. You keep us from getting shot out of the sky, and I?ll keep the engines together. Deal??
?Deal,? Jessica replied, shaking his long hand.
As the E?Loean left the bridge, Boo looked up and said, ?As soon as we get near the Coven gate I?ll hand her over to you.?
?You?re a great pilot, Boo. I trust you to handle whatever we run into.?
The Kleeetan looked at her with a horror-struck expression. ?Are you kidding me? Captain, when it comes to the crazy stuff, I leave that entirely up to you. They say that the gods smile upon infants and lunatics, and I think we?ll need all the blessings we can get.?
Despite the troubles that were brewing, Jessica couldn?t help but laugh.
Suspended in space before the Dawn like the universe?s largest wedding band, Coven Gate 7I9 ? Oroboros Engorged, glittered darkly against the stars. The structure, which was very nearly identical to every other Coven gate Jessica had encountered in her travels, save for identification markings of course, was an in-line three ring system, with the rings having a radial length of almost a kilometer. The hulls of the outer rings were gray and smooth, unblemished by adornment or external edifices, but the inner ring?s surface was broken up with assorted structures that blistered the facade as well as four massive solar panel fins which provided most of the gate?s power.
Coven gates were massive machines of stellar travel, built by a species that had disappeared long before all the other presently spacefaring races had reached the stars to discover their ancient technology floating abandoned but still in working order. Where those builders of old had gone, and why, was a topic of much discussion the galaxy over. But no matter the particulars of their origination, the gates were first studied by the Pren, who had by that time already developed their own means of traveling faster than light by way of wormhole conduits. It took decades to reverse engineer the gates, and even then not all of their workings were fully understood, but enough was learned to make them operational once again.
Simply put, Coven gates create non-natural holes in the fabric of space and time, and these holes can be connected to form a spatial link between two distant points. How they do this is truly understood by only a few, but the general idea is one of centrifugal force and exotic matter. The creation of the hole starts with the rings being put into a spin. The front ring (when viewed from the entrance side) spins in a counter-clockwise direction, and the rearward ring spins in the opposite direction to balance the motion. Once the desired rotational velocities are achieved, an explosion is set off in the center of the rings using a carefully calculated amount of exotic matter and its anti-matter equivalent. The sudden release of quantum energies created when they are brought together generates a microscopic fracture in space/time, which is then dilated further by the centrifugal force of the spinning rings. If this was done using only one gate, the hole would close almost immediately, but gate creation is a binary process. When two gates have the same spin rate and quantum energy signature, then a sympathetic vibration is created between them, which brings the spatial tears together, one reinforcing the other. Afterward all that is needed to keep the apertures from closing is for the gates to continue spinning.
In theory, warp gates (as they were originally known) sound like a wonderful idea, and for those who use them to journey amongst the stars they are, but nothing is free in the universe, and for all their benefits the gates exact a harsh toll on those who live inside and maintain them. Space in and around the gates is highly unstable due to the unnatural fissure in the space/time fabric, and while this is of little danger to those who pass through quickly, the longer exposure endured by the gate?s keepers has been known to cause all manner of mental and physical aberrations, the furthest extent of which is unknown to all but the Coven themselves.
Some say the Coven are mystics, some say they are seers, some say they are sociopaths, and some say they are nothing more than charlatans who capitalize on rumor and speculation to maintain their monopoly on the gates. No matter which if any of those notions are true, what is true is that everyone in space, even the mighty Pren, give the Coven a wide berth and a wary eye. Every ship and government that has tried to force themselves upon the Coven have quickly come to regret it, though the Coven have never once had to use violence to ensure their safety. The exact means of their defense is unknown though, as those who have gone against them rarely speak of the encounter afterward, which in turn only serves to encourage the tales of their mysterious power.
Despite what most think, the Coven are not a race in and of themselves. They are made up of folk from every race in the galaxy, starting with those Pren who first studied the gates and made them operational again. Individuals have been drawn to the ring structures over the years for a variety of reasons to work upon and live within the gates, and over time the spatial distortions have warped and reshaped them. Once you become Coven, however, you can never resume the life you once had, not that many would probably ever want to. No one had ever heard of a Coven leaving the confines of their ring structures.
And so it was that when Jessica and the crew of the Dawn approached Coven Gate 7I9 it was with no small amount of unease, each crewman anxious for their own reasons, though they had little cause for worry outside of the physical ailments that always accompanied a gate transit. Not once had the Coven ever turned the ship away or asked to be paid a toll that was out of the realm of reason, and their few inter-vessel communications had always been incredibly matter-of-fact and impersonal. Only once had a Coven gate-keeper ever spoken with her personally, and that was on her first jump after assuming command of the ship. The figure, which had been enclosed in a dark robe and hood to hide their features from view, had said, ?Your progenitor has moved on, his journey continues, and we wish him well on it. Do not grieve, for someday you will join him. But not today, daughter of Patrick, and not for many years to come. Travel on with our blessings.?
The voice had sent chills up her spine, for it seemed to resonate in her mind milliseconds before it did her ears, and the echo effect had set her teeth on edge. They didn?t charge her for that transit, and subsequent trips had cost less than they had ever paid before. Why they favored her, Jessica didn?t know, and she wasn?t sure how she should feel about it. But, as she had told Duka once upon a time, their line of work necessitated speed, and if they should also save a few credits along the way, all the better.
As they neared the gate, Jessica tapped a button on the arm of her chair that opened a comm channel and said, ?Gate 7I9, this is Captain Jessica Quimbly of the private cargo vessel First Light Of The Breaking Dawn requesting permission to transit, please respond.?
Expecting an automated response, she was surprised when the small viewscreen by her right knee lit up to display a heavily cloaked individual, its surroundings shadowy and unknowable. With the same strange echo effect she remembered from the other gate-keeper she heard the figure say, ?It is a dark and heavy burden you carry, Jessica Quimbly, and we fear that the price you will pay for it is more than you know, more than you would have chosen to pay had you known. Evil deeds can sometimes bring about the light of salvation, but good intentions all too often bear the fruit of doom. Do not let the darkness of others diminish your inner light, and do not carry more weight than you owe. Do you understand??
Jessica had no idea what the Coven gate-keeper was talking about, and the more he spoke the more unnerved she became, but to speed the transaction along she replied, ?Yes, I do.?
?You do not,? the gate-keeper told her, ?but you will. Now go, and do not send us tribute. We do not profit from this enterprise, nor do you.?
Mentally recalling the credit transfer Jack had sent, Jessica could have disputed the gate-keeper had she wanted to. Instead she said, ?Um, alright. Thanks for the free trip, then, Gate 7I9. Have a good day.?
Closing the comm with a hasty finger press, the captain shook her head to clear it of that ghostly inner voice, then took hold of the engine throttle and pushed it forward. With engines surging, the Dawn flew forward, pointed straight for the swirling blue and black vortex that was the gateway. Bile rose higher in her throat the closer they got to it.
?Everyone ready?? she asked those on the bridge behind her.
?Certainly, Captain,? Cam replied without hesitation.
Boo was slower to respond, but his voice was solid when he said, ?The sooner we?re away from this damn thing, the happier I?ll be. I?m ready.?
Nodding, she tightened her grip on the throttle and pushed it hard to the stops. Energy flared from the rear of the ship as the main engines drove the vessel forward in a surge of power. The swirling field grew larger before them like a bruise upon the skin of the universe, and her head became light and unfocused while her stomach flopped inside her. The feelings of sickness threatened to overwhelm her, but within seconds they were through the vortex and pulling away from Coven Gate 9I7 - Unending Undying Unknowing, which was 7I9?s reciprocal gate. In an instant they traveled over ten-thousand light years, and the calm voyage they had enjoyed promptly came to an end.
Unlike most planetary governments, which disliked the Coven and tried to keep them as far from their worlds as possible, the Tolese saw the warp gates as a means of increasing commerce and importation of new technology, so they allowed the Coven to orbit their planet much closer than normal to encourage traffic. As their relationship with the Yinusha deteriorated, they had let the gate come in even closer, until finally it was barely a stone?s throw from their outer most lunar satellite. As soon as the Dawn passed beyond the nauseating boundary of the Coven gate, several large moons loomed before them, and beyond those was the blue and green world of Tol Prime. But, between the ship and their eventual lunar destination were five large starships, and not a one of them looked like a welcome wagon.
?Attention incoming vessel,? a voice said over the bridge?s loudspeakers in flat unaccented Paxian, sounding as though it was coming from a translation system. ?You have entered a restricted area. Please state your business and prepare to be boarded.?
As Jessica was about to reply in the negative to both requests, another voice came through the open communications channel and said, ?First Light Of The Breaking Dawn, this is Pax Diplomatic Vessel A-A17. If you turn about immediately you can disregard that order. You have not yet broached the zone of contention that surrounds Tol Prime, despite whatever that overzealous Yinushan captain might say, but if you continue on your present course you will do so in less than one standard minute. Turn back now and stay under our protection, or carry on and risk the tender mercies of the Yinushan military. Your choice.?
?I appreciate the counsel, A-A17,? Jessica said into her comm mike, ?but I?ve got a package I have to deliver to Tol. I?ve never missed a delivery yet, and I don?t aim to start now. ?
?Don?t say we didn?t warn you, Breaking Dawn,? the distant Pax officer intoned. ?I?d say to have a nice day, but I don?t think that?s a possibility at this point, so I?ll just save my breath. Pax Diplomatic Vessel A-A17, out.?
The small flotilla of ships appeared closer and closer by the second. Pressing her intercom button, Jessica said, ?Duka, I?m about to punch this baby way past the red line. Tell me you?re ready for it.?
?We?re as ready as we?ll ever be!? Duka replied, shouting to be heard over the noise of the engine room
?Good,? the captain said. ?Vacations all around when we?re done.?
Behind her, Boo chuckled. ?Let?s not count our hankles before they slither out of the mud, Captain. Any ideas about that fleet??
Jessica brought her navigation screen up to her elbow and quickly took in the situation. Their destination was a landing port on the dark side of the fourth moon in orbit around Tol Prime. Unfortunately, that particular moon was at that moment on the far side of the planet. But, as luck would have it, three other moons were presently on their side of the Tolesian homeworld, and those could help to even the odds. With her right index finger she traced out a flight path, then sent it over to Boo?s console.
The Kleeetan looked it over for a moment then said, ?Slalom, huh? With that many turns and burns it?s going to be risky, but if we can get past that first moon we should be sitting fairly pretty. No way will those big boys be able to keep up.?
?Do you see any Yinushan ships that look like fighter carriers, Cam?? Jessica asked.
?Not yet, Captain,? the android replied. ?It looks like a destroyer force for the time being. But, these ships are of unfamiliar design, so I could be mistaken due to insufficient data. Take all of that with a grain of salt. I?ll give further advice when I can.?
Nodding, Jessica locked in the flight plan on her nav screen, opened the shipwide intercom, and said, ?Buckle your seatbelts, ladies. This is going to be a bumpy ride.?
As soon as the last word left her lips, she silently counted to five, and then hit the afterburner switch on her throttle. The small freighter leapt forward with so much force that anyone not strapped in would have been slammed into the nearest bulkhead. As it was, her head snapped back into the pad behind her cranium almost hard enough to give her whiplash. She had to strain to look down and read the screens around her. It didn?t take long before red lights started flashing.
?Private vessel, you have now officially crossed into restricted space,? the same translated voice from before said. ?The Pren cannot interfere now. Heave to, or we will destroy you.?
Jessica could feel the wild energies of her engines throbbing through her veins, seeping into her skin, and it gave her an almost uncontrollable feeling of power. ?You have to catch me first,? she told the officious voice with a snarl.
Just under two thousand kilometers ahead of her, five degrees to starboard, was Tol Prime?s second and largest moon. The heavily cratered object was huge on her screens, and she angled her ship toward its outermost edge, which took her away from the Yinushan picket force. The large ships were hustling to intercept her, and if everyone kept to their current rates of acceleration it would be close on all counts. All she could do was hold on and hope for the best.
As they neared the large moon, a new voice came over the loudspeakers.
?Cargo Vessel Breaking Dawn, this is Tol Defense Command,? the voice said in heavily accented Paxian. ?Why have you broken the zone of restriction around our planet? Speak swiftly, or you?ll have more to worry about than those Yinushan blowhards.?
With an effort Jessica stretch a hand out to open her comm. ?Tol Defense Command, we are on a mission to deliver a cargo container. It was supposed to be delivered by a human captain by the name of Jack Connelly, but he had difficulties, and so I?m bringing it in for him.?
?Connelly you say?? Tense seconds ticked past as the Tolesian reviewed his records. Finally he said, ?Oh, that! Excellent! Breaking Dawn, you are cleared for approach.?
Smirking to herself, Jessica replied, ?That?s wonderful, Command. Why don?t you tell those Yinushan ships that? It sure would make my life easier.?
?I doubt they?d listen to us,? the Tolesian voice told her. ?Not that that would be anything new. But, I think we can help you out. I?m sending three of our fast attack gunships out to meet you and keep those buffoons busy.?
?Sounds wonderful, Command. That would be most helpful. While you?re at it, why don?t you get a ship ready out at your fourth moon? I don?t think I?m going to have time to stop by for drinks, and I don?t want to just shove this cargo out on your front lawn, so if you could have someone meet us on the dark side of that moon, preferably someone with cargo handling abilities and fast engines, that would be great.?
?I?ll see what I can do, Breaking Dawn. We?ll be back in touch shortly.?
Glad that all the talking was over with for the moment, Jessica tilted her control stick to the right and increased her angle away from the Yinushan ships, then rotated so that the large moon was at the bottom of her field of view. As all of the spaceships drew close, three small blips suddenly appeared on the top of her radar and quickly blazed a trail in her direction. Immediately the Yinushan ships started to scatter. Three of them attracted the attention of the gunboats, and they all peeled off to engage each other. The fourth Yinushan ship did not join the engagement, and instead changed its course and came straight for the Dawn. The small freighter was already past the larger destroyer, but the military vessel poured every ounce of energy she had into her engines, and so while there was breathing space between them, it wasn?t as wide as Jessica would have liked. Out past all of them sat the solitary Pax Diplomatic ship, probably watching the show with rapt attention.
Leaving a torrential outpouring of energy in her wake, the Dawn slipped into the gravity well of the large Tolesian moon and then sped along the outer edge of it toward the far side. The moon?s gravity boosted the small ship?s already hectic speed far past the point of sanity. Tiny pinpricks of light started to dance in Jessica?s eyes.
?Jessie, I said I would give you everything the damn ship had to offer,? Duka shouted in her ear, ?but this is ridiculous! If you don?t crank it back a notch we?re going to start popping coolant valves like it was an end of the millennium party in here!?
The captain looked down and saw that the space between her and the chasing Yinushan ship had grown to a respectable distance, so she slid her aching thumb off of the afterburner switch and let the slingshot effect of the moon?s gravity do some of the work for her.
?That better?? she asked the engineer.
?Yes, much. Thanks.?
?Just be ready for me to do it again if we can?t shake these assholes.?
?Understood. Duka, out.?
Far more quickly than she could have previously imagined they broke free of the large moon and headed toward a smaller satellite, this one the planet?s inner most moon. The chase continued over more than a few long minutes as the ships hurtled across hundreds of thousands of kilometers, neither one giving up. Finally, as they started to round the moon, Cam said, ?Captain, that Yinushan vessel has launched two smaller ships. I don?t think they?re fighters though. They look more like shuttles. Probably just something to draw us off and make us waste time.?
?Then launch half of our fighter drones. I don?t want to get on their bad side any more than we already are, so keep their weapons offline, but they can at least intercept them for us and get in their way. I don?t expect miracles, Cam. Just keep them busy for as long as you can.?
?I understand, Captain. Launching drone unit Gamma now.?
Multiple blips suddenly appeared on Jessica?s radar screen. The small bits of light drifted back from her ship and started to run crisscrossing patterns with the two shuttles. The Yinushan ships didn?t stop their pursuit, but they had to constantly change course to avoid the drones, and that slowed them up a bit. The captain again had some legroom.
As they shot past the inner moon, the captain hit the afterburner switch and urged the ship onward. The entire vessel shook around her, but she knew what it was capable of. She had faith in it. A consequence of the near constant strain of acceleration and course changing, though, was that her entire body was hurting. But in the blink of an eye they passed the small moon, and she banked toward their only remaining intermediary planetoid before hitting the fourth and final one.
?Breaking Dawn, this is Tol Military Command. Sorry to keep you waiting. We have a cargo ship in standby on the far side of the fourth moon, just as you asked for. What exactly do you have in mind??
?Well,? Jessica quipped, ?can she catch??
?If you can get down to half your current speed, and if you can drop the pod in a stable wake, I believe we can accommodate that.?
?Then get ready, because I?m on my way and I?m not sparing the fuel cells. I do my part, and you do yours.?
?Understood,? the Tolesian replied. ?We?ll be ready. Out.?
From behind her Boo said, ?Aren?t you cutting this a bit on the dangerous side of things, Captain??
Jessica laughed in spite of her aching body. ?Desperate times call for desperate actions, my dearest Booshra. I don?t like it either, but this place is just too damn hot to stop and enjoy the scenery.?
The Kleeetan copilot couldn?t dispute her words, so he nodded halfheartedly and went back to reviewing his screens.
Flying like a comet, the Dawn streaked across the heavens. Behind her, the drone fighters interfered with the progress of her pursuers, and her lead increased, but it was never enough of a comfort for Jessica. Had she had a million kilometers between them she would have wanted another million on top of it. But if all she could get was a moon?s width, then she would work with it. And that was exactly what she got as the Dawn passed the third satellite and had nothing between her and her destination but empty space. At her current breakneck speed, she would make it to the far side of the fourth moon in less than twenty minutes.
Opening her comm, the captain said, ?Ferron, are you about ready to drop our little package off??
?You do know, skipper,? the Dunadon replied, his tone almost chiding, ?that this goes against every fiber of my being, right??
The cargo chief grunted, then said, ?We?re just about set. I?ve got the pod moved to the rear doors, and I?m lowering the grappler now. This won?t be pretty, but so long as you can keep a steady hand on the stick, I should be able to let her slip silky smooth into our wake. She should be as easy to catch as the Therozian flu.?
?Good to hear, Chief. I?ll call you when we?re in place. Bridge out.?
[center](story was too long, so I'll post the next portion of this in another entry)[/center]
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[center]Tales Of The Breaking Dawn[/center]
[center]The Ties That Bind[/center]
?Why do I get the feeling this isn?t a social call?? Jessica asked, scowling as she propped her elbows on the tabletop, cupping her chin in her hands. Around her, beings from a dozen and more star systems walked and talked, all of them indifferent to the troubles that were brewing at her little corner of the Fresh Aire lounge.
?Perhaps because of the harried expression I?m sportin??? Jack Connelly shot back, his salt and pepper hair uncharacteristically mussed and his face unshaven. The man looked worried, almost fearful, and it was an expression the captain wasn?t used to seeing on his seasoned face.
Not in the mood for jokes, Jessica shook her head and gave the distant cargo captain a jaundiced look. ?Cut the crap, Jack. If you?re paying for this call, it means you?re in trouble, and let me tell you right now, if I hear you mention one word about the Gorawnies I?ll hang up, swear to Buddha and Christ both.?
Jack?s face immediately pinched into a pained expression, his dark eyes squeezing closed and his skin reddening into a deep tan. He looked embarrassed and angry, all at once.
?Yep, that?s what I thought,? Jessica muttered. She could feel Boo put one of his hands on her lower back in a gesture of support. She was thankful for it.
?It?s not what you think,? Jack replied, his voice strained. ?At least, not in the way you?re thinking. I?? He stopped speaking, leaned back to look around himself for a moment, and then leaned back in to continue, this time in a near whisper. ?My ship is in a bad way, Jessie.?
Thrown for a slight loop, Jessica frowned at the screen. ?Wandering Star? What?s wrong with her? And, more importantly, what does it have to do with me??
Jack?s ship, the Wandering Star, was one of the only human-built ships that plied the spacelanes. It had started off its life as a Magellan-class interplanetary cargo hauler, built mostly to ferry unrefined metals and other ores, but it had since then been modified by half a dozen bits of alien technology until it was almost unrecognizable, which was probably just as well since the Sol System was still too busy squabbling within itself to become a full and proper member of the galactic community. Until the Terran Alliance and the Sol Republic resolved their differences (a comet had a better chance of a long life in a star?s close embrace), the scattered survivors of Earth would always be an out-of-the-way pit stop on the galactic tour route.
?It?s her damn armor-capillary system,? the grizzled captain told her. ?For some reason the molecular control systems went haywire, and she sprang a leak on the starboard side, so now I?ve got a six ton mass of nano-metal hanging off her like some sort of tumor. We must have vented half of our armor stores before we got it under control, but it has still disabled all starboard sensors and it has completely thrown off our gravity silhouette. If we try to engage our drives more than half-throttle we list around like a broke-leg pony.?
?Sounds like a pretty bad situation you got there, Jack,? Jessica replied. She tried to sound sympathetic, but her heart really wasn?t in it. ?That still doesn?t tell me why we?re talking right now though.?
Jack ran a hand through his cheek stubble and stared out of the screen with as forlorn a look as was humanly possible. ?You aren?t going to make this even remotely easy, are you?? he asked in exasperation.
?I don?t have time for easy, Jack. Neither of us does. So please, stop all this hemming and hawing, and just say what you called to say.?
His jaw muscles visibly clenching, Jack gritted his teeth and glared at her. ?Fine. Until I get the nano-metal carved from my hull, my ship is locked in spacedock, and they tell me it will take at least two weeks to get all of the armor cut off, the hull plating repaired, and the capillary system put back in proper working order. Unfortunately, that also means my cargo for? the people we talked about?is stuck too. Before this mess, I had plenty of time to get that contract fulfilled, but now? not so much, and this delay is going to push me way past my deadline. And by deadline you know I mean that literally.?
?So you?re telling me that your little accident is going to push back your delivery for the Gorawnies, and now you want me to swoop in and deliver it for you. Is that it??
Sighing, Jack nodded. ?Yeah, that?s about the size of it. I?ll pay you of course, everything the Gorawnies were paying me, and a bit more on top of it for your troubles.? Eagerness radiated from him in sickening waves. His desperation was like a slimy sheen on his skin. ?I just have to get their cargo in, Jessie. If I don?t, they?ll kill me. Not just me, but my crew too. I might deserve it? hell, more than might? but they don?t. You have to help me.?
From the corner of her eye she could see Boo give his shaggy face a subtle nod, and his hand patted her back once again, signaling his support of whatever she decided.
?Save the guilt trip, Jack. You knew I would help you before you even called.?
?I didn?t, Jessie, but I hoped.?
Jessica shrugged her shoulders and tilted her head. ?Either way, you know I can?t leave you hanging out to dry like this. As much as my insides are screaming to tell you that I told you so, this isn?t the time for it. Afterwards, when it?s all been said and done and finished, then I?ll spend an entire evening making you eat crap. But, until then, let?s just skip to the particulars. Where are you and what do I need to haul??
?I, my ship, and my crew, are all in the Shush?ckka Shipyards out in Pax Outpost 8A-14,? Jack informed her, some of his anxiety already gone. ?But the Gorawnie cargo isn?t with us. I couldn?t take a chance on dock scanners finding it? whatever it is? so I dumped the cargo pod it was stored in and left it in the asteroid field near the Proxius system?s Conduit node.?
Aghast, Booshra sucked in wind and almost shouted, ?You mean you left their cargo just spinning with the rocks?! Are you insane??
Jack jumped to cover the speaker on his comm terminal, then replied, ?Of course not! The Proxius asteroid belt is about as crowded as the one in old Sol, so the chances that an asteroid will actually get within a hundred klicks of it is remote at best. But, should one stray too close, onboard nav systems are able to move it out of the way with air thrusters. They?re fuel is limited, but more than sufficient for that sparse region. Trust me, it?s safe enough. The cargo pod has a passive homing beacon on it though, so in order for you to find it, you?ll need to ping the belt with an encrypted transmission burst I?ll give you the certificate for. For anyone searching the belt, the pod would appear as nothing more than just another piece of floating debris, but once you hit it with the right code it?ll light up enough for you to home in on it and pick it up.?
?I know the drill,? Jessica told him. ?Don?t forget, it was my dad who came up with that cute little smugglers package in the first place.?
Jack nodded. ?That?s right. I?m sending you the certificate for the encryption broadcast right now. When you get back to the Dawn it should be waiting on you. Once you?re at the Proxius Conduit node, head rimward and down ten degrees for about a hundred thousand klicks, then start broadcasting. It shouldn?t take more than a few minutes for the cargo pod to receive the signal and ping you back. I?m also sending you a file with the name of the person you?re to deliver the cargo to, and where. When you?re done, comm me at this address and let me know. Your money will be delivered along with my undying thanks.?
?The money will be sent over now, Jack,? Jessica informed him, her voice unwavering. ?There?s a lot that can go wrong at just about every turn of this, and I?m not going to risk being left out to dry along with you should that happen. I love you, and my crew respects you, but I?m not going to put them or my ship through all this without cash in hand to make it worth their while, simple as that.?
The elder freighter captain glowered at the screen, but his anger and frustration meant little in the face of her resolve. She had him over the proverbial barrel, and both of them knew it. He also knew that she could?ve made the situation much more hard on him than she was, and while part of him was thankful that she didn?t, another was angry that she was even doing it at all. He?d known her since she was in diapers, often thought of her as the daughter he?d never had, and to now be at her mercy, and with her taking some advantage of it no less, did nothing to calm or ease his sense of frustration. But, when he got down to the real meat of it, he understood her reasons for being angry with him, and her reasons for taking precautions. In the end he had to admit that she was a smarter captain than he sometimes gave her credit for, perhaps even smarter than her old man.
?Alright,? he finally said. ?I?ll transmit payment as soon as I hang up with you. You?ll find it more than reasonable, I assure you.?
Nodding once to the screen and then once to her second in command, Jessica said, ?Sounds good, Jack. Is there anything else??
?No, I think we covered all we need to here. My file transmission will give you all the details you need. Just know that I appreciate you doing this for me. I know you don?t agree with what I?m doing, but you?re sticking by me anyway, and I?ll never forget it.?
Giving him a half smile, Jessica replied, ?Oh, I think you can count on me not letting you forget anything about this. I foresee many retellings of this in the future. Trust me.?
Jack smirked back. ?I guess I deserve that.?
Nodding a final time, Jessica downed the remainder of her drink then said, ?Damn straight. Now, if you?ll excuse me, I believe we have an ass to pull from the fire. I?ll call you when the dust settles, Jack.?
?I?ll be waiting with breathless anticipation, Jessie. Thank you again.?
Jessica and Boo smiled, gave their farewells, and then stood to leave.
?Duka was right,? the Kleeeta said as they walked toward the exit of the lounge. ?He said this wouldn?t end well.?
Avoiding a robotic waiter with a metal arm laden with drinks, Jessica replied, ?It hasn?t ended yet. There?s still time for this to get worse.?
Booshra wasn?t sure whether or not he wanted to tempt the fates by laughing, so he kept his muzzle shut and only grunted. Seconds later they were free of the lounge and were back in the relative peace of the Vimm?skka Station?s outer walkways.
?How do you think the crew will take this?? Jessica asked.
?About as well as we did, I suppose. We?re getting paid, so there?s that. And we?re helping a friend in trouble. All in all, fate?s grinding wheel should be kind to us.?
?I sure hope so, Boo. I think we?ve earned it.?
With that, both crewmembers of the First Light Of The Breaking Dawn hurried down corridors toward their ship and to the journey beyond it.
?And that,? Jessica said with an air of finality, ?is the tall and the skinny of it.?
Everyone around the faux-wood table that served as the primary gathering place for meals aboard Dawn grunted and sat back for a moment to mull over everything their captain had told them. Various claws and nails tapped against the plastic surface and absentmindedly traced the simulated wood grain finish. Finally, one crewmember sighed and stood up.
?I?ll not say that I am entirely pleased with all this,? o?ahlotha Zeniea squawked, her short cream-colored feathers barely bristling, ?but as your people say, no use crying over spilled muff.?
?Milk,? Booshra corrected with a light chuckle.
Zen?s pitch black eyes slide over to the Kleeetan abruptly. ?Pardon??
?Milk,? Boo repeated. ?No use crying over spilled milk.?
Clicking her beakish lips, Zen tossed her head and shrugged. ?Fine. Milk. Thank you, Booshra. But my sentiment stands. We are committed, we have been paid, so I think we might as well get the task done with as soon as possible.?
Jessica wanted to smile, but she was afraid the Quish?Tah would take it the wrong way, so she suppressed it and replied, ?Well said, Zen. Does anyone else have something to add before we set sail?? No one uttered a word. ?Okay then. Everyone, get to your stations. I?m going to be pushing Dawn fairly hard all the way, so I don?t want any surprises, alright? Alright. Let?s get to work then.?
Everyone filed out of the room, heading to those areas of the ship that were under their purview. Jessica and Boo made immediately for the bridge which was just beyond the mess hall. The Kleeetan lowered himself into the pilot?s seat while his captain assumed her place in the command station behind and above him. As Boo strapped himself in and began pre-flight checks, she placed a commset on her right ear and brought her communications display online.
?Vimm?skka Station Command and Control, this is First Light Of The Breaking Dawn requesting immediate clearance to depart.? Her words were crisp, clear, and direct. A reply was not long in coming.
?First Light Of The Breaking Dawn, you are not yet cleared for debarkation,? a prim and proper voice said back to her. ?Stand down while we secure an exit lane for you. One moment please.?
Tapping the screen to her left, Jessica brought up the ship?s status display and saw that all systems were reading green and perfectly within nominal ranges. For a ship as old as she was, Dawn was fitter than most of those half her age. All her crew saw to that.
Next Jessica brought her Navigation displays to life and started charting her route to Proxius. There were two of them to choose from that were the most direct, but neither was an easy one, and ultimately it came down to deciding which was the lesser evil. On one hand she had a route that consisted of eight hops; seven of them were through standard Conduit nodes, and one through a Coven gate, with the entire trip taking an estimated six days. On the other hand she had a route that would only take four days to travel, but would also mean using four hops, all of them Coven gates, the last two of them within hours of each other. She didn?t care to put her crew, or herself, through that sort of stress and discomfort, but two days were two days, and in the world of cargo hauling two days could be the difference between profit and destitution. Throw the Gowranies in the mix, and it might be the difference between life and death. In the end, it really wasn?t a choice at all. She only hoped the crew would understand that as well.
?First Light Of The Breaking Dawn, you are now cleared to leave Vimm?skka Station,? Command and Control barked. ?Exiting vectors have been uploaded to your navigational computers. Please do not deviate from them. Do so and you will be fined accordingly. Also, we would like to thank you for choosing Vimm?skka Station, and we look forward to having you again in the future. Our docks are always open.?
Smirking at the schmaltzy tone, Jessica shook her head and replied, ?Thank you, Command and Control. Vectors have been received. Dawn out.? The captain added the transmitted exit vectors to her nav route, then forwarded it to the piloting station. She figured a grunt of disapproval would meet her map, and Boo didn?t disappoint.
?Four?? Boo asked. ?Was it something I said?? He electronically acknowledged her flight plan and placed it on his nav display with a groan, then hit the intercom button to his right. Three sharp bells pierced the air, then he said, ?All hands, prepare for launch. Repeat, all hands, prepare for launch. Say goodbye to Vimm?skka Station, everybody.?
?Adios, ya bunch of bastards,? Jessica said to herself.
His hands moving with an eerie grace, Boo initiated Dawn?s gravity lift, and the ship lifted itself from the station?s deck with a stomach-churning lurch. Air nozzles turned her about with little effort, and once her nose was pointed toward the dark rectangle of space that was her exit, its chilling grasp held at bay by powerful environmental shields, Dawn?s sublight engines throbbed to low life and gently pushed her forward. Once free of the station, radar screens became filled with over a hundred return signals, each one a ship that was waiting to fill their vacated slot. On the screen in front of him Boo saw a glimmering tunnel layered over the radar images, the pathway out, and he followed it unerringly, as he always did.
?Good job, Boo,? Jessica said. ?I can always count on you.?
?You can count on all of us, even on days like this. Now why don?t you try and catch some sleep. Once we?re through The Shattered Mind, I?m turning it over to you for awhile if you don?t mind.?
Jessie nodded. ?That?s fine. I?ll see you in a few hours.?
The Kleeetan smiled back at her, then brought up a comm screen to start sorting through his new emails as she left the bridge. It was a lengthy list.
?Alright now,? he muttered to himself. ?Let?s see what?s going on back home.?
?One? two? three? four? five?? Jessica whispered to herself, her eyes closed and her skin clammy. ?Six? seven? eight? nine? ten.? By the time she was done counting, the medicine Zen had given her to calm her nerves and settle her stomach kicked in and began their work. Going through one Coven gate was bad, but going through two in as many hours was more than any living being should have to endure. And of her crew, she was the least affected by it. She could only imagine how bad it was for everyone else (and couldn?t even begin to understand how the Coven themselves could stand to live in them).
Checking her navigational screens, Jessie saw that her ship was approximately six million klicks coreward from the conduit node the Pren operated in the Proxius system. At maximum burn that meant about a seven hour trip, and from there another hour or so to reach the in-system boundary of the Proxius asteroid belt. She didn?t like pushing her engines that hard for so long, but trusted Duka to know his job and keep them operating in the green. A few quick button presses locked her route in the ship?s computer, and after that the ship was piloting itself. With that taken care of, she unlatched her seatbelt, sprang from the piloting chair, and exited through the aft hatch to make her way toward the room beyond which held the galley and refreshers.
On the way she passed Cam, who was sitting at the command station in case the captain had needed a backup during the gate jumps. As disconcerting as the spatial distorting effects of the gates were to organics, they posed no problem whatsoever to electronic systems, so it was good to have Cam around for jumps that had a significant chance of being problematic, and multiple jumps over the course of a short period of time certainly qualified.
As she entered the communal room, Zen came through the hatchway leading to the crew?s sleeping pods, followed from a respectful distance by Ferron. The Dunadon was much larger than his Quish?Tah crewmate, and because of that he afforded her every courtesy that he could, despite the fact that she never thanked him or even acknowledged the gestures. Through covert conversations the rest of the crew had decided that Ferron had a small crush on the slight and willowy Zen, though none of them could see what it was that might attract him to her, their respective species being so opposite in so many respects. Had they actually brought the subject up to the Dunadon personally, he would have denied it with every breath he had in him, confirming it in spite of himself. But they didn?t, and he didn?t, and the universe went on as it always had.
?Did the medicine help, Captain?? Zen asked. The crewman looked a bit green around the beak herself, but her concern for her shipmates always came first.
Jessica nodded and opened a refresher door. ?We just jumped, and I can still walk, so that?s a good sign. Thanks for the popper.?
Zen nodded back, then opened the door to the refresher next to the one Jessica entered. As both females tended to their business, Ferron rummaged around in the pantry until he found a large vacuum-sealed bag of dehydrated zedra meat. The meat strips never failed to calm his stomach, so it was with some gusto that he reached his thick fingers into the bag and pulled from it a handful of jerky, and then started eating it in sloppy chomps. His nausea was just starting to evaporate as Zen and Jessica entered the room again.
?How long until we pick up the package, skipper?? the Dunadon asked around mouthfuls of chewed flesh. Zen, whose species was strictly vegetarian, looked at him with barely disguised disgust. Luckily for him, Ferron never saw it, or his poet?s heart might have wilted in the face of it.
Opening a refrigerated cabinet, Jessica replied, ?Eight hours, give or take. After that we hit the node and get rid of it as soon as possible.? As she finished speaking she withdrew a pouch of chilled nutrient-enriched fruit juice, closed the cold cabinet, popped the top off her drink, and started sipping.
?And then we can get back to our normal lives, huh?? Boo asked as he came through the same hatchway Zen and Ferron had just used. Sleep was still evident in his four brown eyes and in the sags of his dog-like face. ?What joy.?
The words hit Jessica in a way that confused her. The Kleeetan hadn?t been his normally gruff and humorous self since just after they?d started their present mission, but it hadn?t really hit her just how different he had been until that moment. Boo was as solid and steady as anyone she knew, always dependable and even-headed, yet his despondent tone toward the normal course of their lives made her wonder how content he really was with the business and their lives around it. Now, though, was not the time to discuss it with him, here amidst the rest of the crew, so she filed it away in her head for a future conversation. In way of a reply she grunted around the pouch that was pressed to her lips. They could make of that whatever they wanted.
?Anyone heading down to the grease pit?? Ferron asked his assembled crewmates. ?Because, if not, I thought I?d take a snack down to Duka, see how he?s doing.?
Jessica had intended to make a quick trip down to engineering for just that purpose, but if the Dunadon was offering to do it instead she certainly wasn?t going to argue with him.
?Take him a few of those galonaan podberries,? she suggested. ?He loves those.?
Nodding in agreement, Ferron plucked two handfuls of the sickeningly sweet fruit from a bin and shoved them into his ever useful pockets, then started walking toward the aft passageway that led toward the ship?s main engine cluster.
?Do you mind watching the helm?? Jessica asked Boo. The Kleeetan pilot answered with a nod of his head as he took hold of a water bottle. ?Thanks. I?m going to take a shower and then snooze for a bit. If I?m not on the bridge in five hours, beep my cabin.?
Boo nodded. ?Understood.?
As he walked toward the bridge, Jessica finished the last of her juice and threw the plastic pouch into a recycling bin. Just aft of the kitchen, on the port wall, was a ladder that led to her cabin, and she sprang up it with practiced ease. Once she was past the hatchway, a metal panel clanked down automatically and sealed the room off from the rest of the ship.
It wasn?t much, her cabin, but it was home. The Dawn only had one full-fledged living compartment, and by privilege of rank and majority ownership it was hers. Everyone else on board slept in sleeping compartments, with their few possessions stored in personal lockers, but as the captain of the ship she had a little room all to herself, and even if the quarters were cramped she did all she could to make them her own. Cleanliness, unfortunately, was not a part of her personal makeup.
Articles of unwashed clothing were draped over her desk chair and the foot rail of her tiny bunk, while under it were three pairs of boots that had been lazily kicked off and forgotten. She didn?t indulge in too many womanly trivialities (as she tended to think of them), but on occasion even she couldn?t resist the urge to spruce herself up, and so one corner of her desk was cluttered with a haphazard collection of makeup containers, half-empty perfume bottles, and even an ancient squeeze tube of hair gel that had almost hardened past the point of usefulness. A slim closet door next to her desk was half open, and poking from it were the barrels of two particle handguns that hung in leather holsters from a coat hook, both of them in need of a good polishing. Generic starscapes in cheap frames that had probably come free with the ship hung on the walls, not a one of them level.
The only remotely cared for item in the room was a portrait of her father that sat on the shelf over her bunk. Next to it was a picture of her mother, a young woman with an angelic face, but because of unforeseeable complications she had died minutes after giving birth to Jessica. The sweetly smiling face, which was echoed strongly in Jessica?s own, held no memories for her, but she still deserved a place next to the man she had died loving. Smaller pictures of her aunt and two cousins sat on both sides of those, but none of them get the tender, almost reverential, treatment that her father?s picture did. It was the last thing she saw when she went to bed, and the first thing she saw when she came up into the cabin.
?Hey dad,? she said to it. ?Hangin? in there? Yeah, me too.?
As the hatch closed and locked, Jessica sat down in her chair and sighed. It wasn?t a long sigh, or a deep one, but it was satisfying all the same. Afterward she reached down, undid the buckles of her boots, and shuffled them off to join their companions beneath the bunk. Next she removed her socks, then stood to shrug off her vest, undershirt, and then her trousers, leaving her clad only in her bra and panties.
A full length mirror was secured to the wall next to her small refresher stall, and in it she quickly looked herself over. At just over five and a half feet tall, Jessica was in no danger of being described as statuesque. She had very little fat on her body, but that had more to do with the nutritional plan Zen had her on than any actual exercise she was able to squeeze into her day to day operations. Climbing in and out of the pilot?s chair made up most of her fitness regimen. Occasionally she did some heavy equipment lifting with Duka in Engineering and assisted Ferron with moving cargo in the holds, so she did have a decent amount of muscle on her, but overall she was merely in average condition.
So far as her beauty went, she had never felt that she was an overly attractive woman. She figured that she was pretty enough, at least by human standards, but modeling was not a viable career option for her, and she knew it. Still, the lovers she had taken throughout her adult life, be they male or female, had never seen fit to complain about her looks. Freely given compliments reached a certain number before you finally had to start believing them. But she wasn?t as pretty as she wished she was, and much of that had to do with her skin tone. Living aboard a starship meant that her skin was incredibly pale, almost pasty, though with the right amount of cheek pinching and makeup she could manage to simulate a healthy glow. Her father had once said that her eyes were as gray and mysterious as the ocean under a stormy sky, and though her experience with such bodies of water was almost nonexistent, she was inclined to trust his assessment. Her hair was naturally deep red, almost crimson, and it hung in thick curls down the sides of her face and just past her shoulders in the back, and it was her one feature that she actually took pride in, though more often than not she had to pull it back into a tight ponytail so that it wouldn?t interfere in her daily work.
Down her arms and her back were tattooed thin swirls of black, red, and blue lines, results of a youthful dare that had almost cost Boo his job. Eight years previously she had been aboard the ship during a break in her college studies, and her father had taken a job that had led them to the Kleeetan homeworld. She had never seen the planet before, but Boo had told her stories of it during her impressionable childhood, so as soon as they landed she had pleaded with her father to let her explore the nearby city while he unloaded his cargo and looked for an outbound contract. She was legally an adult, at least in human space, but he was an overly protective father and wouldn?t hear a word of it until Booshra promised him that he would escort her around personally to make sure she was safe. Later that day they had walked past a storefront with pieces of art hanging in the windows that immediately caught her eye. Her basic understanding of Kleeetanese informed her that it was a tattoo studio specializing in Kleeetan clan designs. Clans were no longer a part of Kleeetan society, and were in fact considered quaint notions from a bygone era, but the colors and patterns were still looked upon with veneration by the people of that world, and it was those same designs that had caught her attention as they hung displayed in the windows.
Never in his wildest imaginings had Boo actually thought that the parlor artists would work on his human companion, as Kleeetans were still a rather xenophobic race despite their long experience with other alien races, and the very idea of placing their sacred designs upon an offworlder was almost laughable, if not bordering on sacrilegious. So, when Jessie had begged him to let her go inside so that she could look for a possible design to have tattooed on her, he figured it was safe to not only encourage her, but to also raise the stakes by actually daring her. He should have known that once the young human female put her mind to something, she invariably got it.
He had watched her go into the tattoo parlor with a smug look on his face, but as the seconds ticked past, and then turned into minutes, the sly grin slipped further and further from his short muzzle. Finally, in exasperation, he went into the store, unsure of what to expect. When he saw her sitting in a chair with her shirt off and a young Kleeetan artist bent over her with tattoo lasers in his four hands, he shouted in disbelief. But by then it was too late. The design was more than halfway etched on her body, and to leave it unfinished would have served nothing. Boo?s head swam with worry and fear of what her father, his employer and friend, would say when he found out.
The bulkheads of the ship almost melted in Patrick?s fury. Jessica hadn?t intended for him to even find out that she had gotten them, but she couldn?t suppress a gasp of pain when he hugged her that night before she went to bed. The tattoo lasers had made the application of the design a fairly bloodless process, but the pain of having her skin color altered so radically and permanently on the cellular level was unavoidable, and so when he grasped her to wish her a good night she couldn?t help but wince and let out a small wheeze of soreness. Soft as the sound was, he was her father, and nothing escaped him. She tried to play it off as nothing when he asked her what was wrong, but his unwavering gaze and stubbornness eventually wore down her defenses until she gave up and told him.
Jessica had immediately tried to take all the responsibility on herself, but Patrick wouldn?t hear any of it. He practically pulled the Kleeetan from his sleeping pod by the scruff of his neck, and then proceeded to verbally dress him down in words that were so harsh and angry that it wouldn?t have surprised anyone on board if everyone in a ten kilometer radius could hear him. And through it all the Kleeetan only hung his shaggy head and took it with nary a word in his defense. Jessica firmly believed that had she not finally stepped in to stop the tirade, her father would have eventually fired the copilot and tossed him from the freighter with both hands and a kick to the pants.
?Stop it, father!? she?d yelled, moving between them. ?Stop trying to blame Boo for what I did. I?m a grown woman, despite what you might think, and what I do or don?t do is strictly my business. It?s not yours, and not Boo?s either.?
Patrick gave her a sour look that would have wilted lesser people. ?I?ll believe you?re a grown woman when you actually start acting like it.?
Her first instinct was to scream in frustration, but luckily her good sense kicked in before she could do so. Instead, she calmed her voice and said, ?Did it occur to you to ask me why I got tattooed? Before you blew your stack and turned into a maniac, did you wonder why I did it?
?No, I suppose I didn?t,? he replied, losing some of his steam.
?I?ve been wanting to get a tattoo for the past few years,? she explained ?They?re all the rage back home. But I didn?t want to get just any design put on my body, especially the silly ones my girlfriends get, so I waited, I looked, I judged, I thought about it, and then I went on looking. But when I saw those designs hanging in that studio window in town today I just had to take a closer look. At first the store owner refused to even let me peek at his work, but when I told him how much I admired the craftsmanship of the tattoos I saw, how much they touched my heart and called out to me, he gave in and showed me the tattoos that were traditionally reserved for Kleeetan females. He told me that my spirit and strength reminded him of his family?s old clan, the Gann?iish I think he called them. He said they were a clan renowned for their warriors and poets, and as soon as I saw the antique designs I felt a? connection with them. I know it?ll probably sound stupid, but they reminded me of you, and of the mother you?ve told me so much about.?
Seeing the tears that began to well up in his daughter?s eyes, Patrick Quimbly instantly forgot all of his anger and embraced her. A collective sigh of relief went out from the rest of the crew at the sight of their loving embrace. They knew the storm had passed.
?Sorry, Boo,? Patrick said as he released his daughter. ?I had no right to come at you like that. Can you forgive me??
The Kleeetan nodded deeply and quickly. ?Of course. If I had a child I might have reacted much the same way.?
?Some day, Boo,? the captain told him, shaking his upper right hand. ?Some day. Now get on back to bed. We?re leaving tomorrow afternoon and will be going hard for a week straight, so get plenty of rest.?
As one the crew returned to whatever it was they had been doing before the ruckus had started, the awkwardness of the event already evaporating. As they left, Patrick shepherded Jessica toward the empty bridge and secured the hatch as it closed behind them.
?Alright,? he said kindly, ?let me see it.?
Turning to face away from him, Jessica unbuttoned her sleeping shirt and pulled it around to cover her front, leaving her back and arms bare. He had been prepared for anything, but he still couldn?t hold back a surprised intake of breath at what he saw. As much as he didn?t want to like it, he found the tattoo to be beautiful in the extreme. The lines of it were gossamer in their elegance, fragile and yet so powerful, making him think of ghostly butterflies in motion, of sweeping solar flares that were achingly thin and graceful. The design began at her lower back and scrolled up toward her shoulders where they spread out to her arms and then twined down in delicate lazy swirls to end at her elbows. The design spoke of power, but power coupled with a dignity and beauty that made it all the stronger.
?You?re right,? he told her in a hushed voice. ?It does remind me of your mother.? He could barely hold tears back at the thought of his departed wife, the only woman in all the galaxy he had ever loved until she had blessed him with the daughter he saw before him.
Quickly Jessie put her shirt back on, and then turned to share in the tears. So long as she was alive he never had to mourn alone. ?You?re in it too, dad,? she told him as she stepped in and hugged him. ?Her grace and your strength. Now they aren?t just in my heart.?
That was the last tender moment the two of them ever shared. Two weeks later she had left to go back to college, and then six months after that he had died in an accident in the forward cargo hold. As a seasoned privateer he knew better than to try moving oversized cargo containers on his own, but familiarity bred contempt so they say, and he had paid the ultimate price for his momentary lapse in judgment. In his will he had given Jessica everything he had, the sum total of which was his stake in the ship and its business. That amounted to just over half of the freighter?s total worth, the other portion of which was owned primarily by Duka, with other smaller percentages held by the rest of the crew. She left college immediately thereafter, much to her aunt?s dismay, and took over her father?s business as best she could, learning as she went. The eight years since then hadn?t been easy, but the love and guidance the rest of the crew gave her had made all the difference.
Has it really been so long? she wondered to herself, not for the first time. Sometimes I feel so young, and then other times I feel so old. With a shake of her head she pulled herself from the memories of years gone past, gave herself a half-hearted smirk, finished disrobing, and then stepped into her personal shower.
Hot water showers on a starship were a luxury, one that had to be heavily rationed under risk of an overtaxed filtration system, but when she took one she did all she could to enjoy it. Lathering up was so delightful it bordered on sin, but it was nothing compared to the long slow process of letting the hot water cascade down her to wash the suds away. A moisture conservation vent overhead drew in all of the steam, so when she turned off the nozzle and opened the shower door the rest of the room was unaffected. On a hook next to her was a towel, which she used and then threw onto the rest of the dirty clothes in her chair. For a moment she toyed with the idea of reading her latest email download, but the warm water had drained the last reserves of her energy away, so instead she collapsed naked onto her bunk and sank into much needed sleep.
?Are we ready to broadcast?? Booshra asked from the Command Console.
Pressing a button on her navigational panel, Jessica noted that the Dawn was just reaching the location Jack had indicated in his transmission. As her ship overlapped the nav marker on the screen, she reached out, grabbed the engine throttle, and pulled it back all the way. In space there was no such thing as a true stop, but as far as the rest of the Proxius system was concerned she was as good as parked.
?Alright, Boo,? she replied. ?We?re in position. Go ahead and start the encrypted transmission bursts.?
Jessica couldn?t see it, but she could feel him nodding in compliance, and then she heard his stubby fingers typing away at the communications console. Overhead, in the antenna cluster that sat above the bridge and outside of the ship, the main dish angled itself forward toward the sparse asteroid belt and then began sending out short bursts of secured data.
?Okay, Captain,? the Kleeetan said after he was finished typing in commands. ?We?re broadcasting. We should hear something back in a few minutes.?
With nothing left to do but wait, Jessica unlocked her safety straps and climbed up to sit on the port-side edge of the lowered piloting well. From it she looked back and saw Boo at the Command Console. They were the only beings on the bridge, so she felt free to speak with her copilot.
?So,? she started. ?Do you want to talk about it now, or should we let it lie there for a while until whatever it is starts to fester??
?What?s that?? Boo asked in reply, not even looking up from his station.
Jessica wasn?t sure how to take that, so she erred on the side of cautious concern. ?Boo, you?ve been in a funk all day. I?m hoping that it doesn?t have anything to do with me, or our work, but I wouldn?t feel right as a friend if I didn?t ask you about it and see if I couldn?t help. So, I?m asking, and if you need it, I?m helping.?
The Kleeetan stopped working at the console before him, closed his four eyes, and heaved a sigh. He didn?t speak or open his eyes for several long seconds, and Jessica was about to ask him again when he finally said, ?Baakla died.? Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes.
Jessica was up in a flash and rushed toward him. Her arms encircled the Kleeetan?s shaggy torso between his two sets of arms, and she could feel small tremors racking through him. He tried hard to hold his emotions in check, but her warm and caring embrace torn down all the walls he had built up around his heart, and so he cried there with her. It wasn?t clear who really held whom, but it was almost a full minute before either felt strong enough to part.
?Why didn?t you say something earlier?? Jessica asked, one hand still on her friend?s arm, the other using her shirt cuff to wipe away her tears. ?Why didn?t you tell me??
?I didn?t find out until a few days ago,? he told her around a few sniffles. ?By then, it was too late to do anything.?
Jessica was incredulous. ?Too late? To do what? Get you back home to your family? Back home to help them? Boo, you know better than that! I would have dropped this mission in a heartbeat if it would have meant helping you.?
Boo nodded at her and patted her shoulder. ?I know that, Jessie. I know. But it wouldn?t have made any difference. He had already been dead a couple of days before the notice had even been sent out to me, and that was two standard weeks ago. By now he?s already been buried. So what was there to get back to, especially if it meant leaving a friend in the lurch? No, I wouldn?t do that. When this is all done, then I can think about getting back home, but not until then.?
Crushing back into his arms, Jessica let a few more tears roll. ?You still should have told me, you big hairy galoot. I never could stand to see my dad mourn alone, and I?ll certainly not see you do it either. I didn?t know Baakla all that well, but of everyone in your family, he was the most supportive of your choice to leave Kleeeta, and the few times I spoke with him he was always friendly. You shouldn?t weep all by yourself, Boo. We?re family too, dammit.?
?I?m sorry I forgot that,? he said to her as he stroked her hair and let himself have one last cry against her head. ?Thanks for reminding me. And thank you for caring enough to ask. For a hairless ape you have a pretty sharp sense of perception.?
Laughing through her tears, Jessica pulled away and wiped her face clean once more. ?Just don?t make me drag something out of you again, okay??
?Okay,? Boo replied. ?Just? don?t tell anyone else. Not right now. We?ve got enough to deal with without complicating it more. Afterwards, fine, but not now.?
?Sure, if that?s what you want,? the captain acquiesced. ?I understand.?
As they both took a moment to compose themselves, a beeping sound came through the bridge speakers, and a light began flashing on the communications console. Booshra turned and looked down to read the display.
?Looks like the package is about where Jack said it would be,? the Kleeetan said, letting go of his grief for the moment so that he could resume his duties as best he could.
Jessica was impressed with his ability to compartmentalize his feelings, and knew that she would never be capable of doing the same. Like her father, she wore her heart on her sleeve. But she also knew they still had a job to do, and so she stowed her own feelings away as best she could and slipped back down to the pilot?s chair. On her nav screen she saw an indicator icon slowly pulsing at the very edge of the display. She whistled through her teeth.
?We?re lucky it?s still in range,? she said. ?The belt isn?t too crowded out that way, but it?s still more congested than I would normally care to fly through. Crap?? Jessica tapped her fingers against the arms of her chair, looking at a radar display that was a bit too full for her liking. ?Eh, it?s not like we have much of a choice. The longer we wait, the deeper the damn thing drifts. Go get Cam and have him man the guns. I want him ready to fire on any stray rocks that get too close. Big ones I can deal with, but the little ones are the real bitch. I don?t anticipate any real problems, though it?s better to be safe.?
Nodding, the Kleeetan copilot stepped from his station. ?Agreed. I?ll have him up here in just a few. And if you don?t mind, I?d like to go get some rest. All this? well, I?m a bit tired.?
?Absolutely,? Jessica said without hesitation. ?Consider yourself off duty the rest of the day. Cam and I can handle it. In fact, go ahead and take my cabin if you want some extra privacy.?
Boo could feel another set of tears threatening to drop, but he sucked them back with a sniff. ?Thank you, Jessie. But if you need me, call immediately.?
?Will do. Now go, Boo. Get Cam, then get some rest. Not another word from you, either.?
Smiling through watery eyes, the Kleeetan nodded and exited the bridge. Once the door closed behind him, Jessica finger tapped her nav screen and set up a series of checkpoints that formed a route through the asteroid belt to their target. The navigational computer checked her course against the known drift of all the asteroids detected and found it to be a sound flight path, but would alert her if new obstacles presented themselves. As she was finalizing her preparations, the bridge door whisked open, and through it stepped their resident android.
?Ready for some target practice?? she asked him over her shoulder.
?I don?t require practice, Captain,? Cam replied in his usual deadpan way. It wasn?t that he lacked a sense of humor, but more that he usually did not see a need to employ it. ?My targeting skills are as sharp now as they were when I was initialized, and will remain as sharp until the day I am deactivated or upgraded.?
Jessica shook her head with a grin, glad for the unintended levity. ?It was just an expression, Cam.?
?I know, ma?am.? As he spoke, the android settled into the tactical station and plugged himself into the ship?s sensors and weapons grid. Within seconds he was fully integrated into the ship. ?Tactical is ready, Captain. Safeties are off, weapons are hot, and we are pinging.?
Knowing they were as ready as they possibly could be, Jessica nodded and hit a button that activated the ship?s intercom system. ?Everyone, this is the captain. We are about to enter the Proxius asteroid field. The lane is pretty clear, but I want everyone to stay frosty just in case. Bridge out.?
With that done, she grabbed the throttle and slowly pushed it forward. All around her she could feel the engines throbbing to life. The trip out to the cargo container would take them approximately two hours, and the unknown asteroid field before them promised that it would not be an uneventful journey. That kind of excitement, Jessica decided, was something she definitely didn?t need.
[center]To be continued?
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[center]Tales Of The Breaking Dawn[/center]
[center]The Ties That Bind[/center]
For several long and agonizing seconds, Jessica Quimbly felt as though her insides were being pulled in multiple directions at once by beings that didn?t care much about being gentle. Her head throbbed in dull pain. Space around her was a swirling mess of darkness interspersed with flashes of kaleidoscopic light. And then, almost as suddenly as it began, it ended. Space reverted to its typical diamond studded velvet tapestry, and her body sagged into peaceful stillness. It didn?t last long.
Like a sailing ship hit by a harsh wave, the[i] First Light Of The Breaking Dawn[/i] shuddered and rocked as explosions bloomed several dozen meters from its hull. Red lights flared inside ever corridor and room, and a sharp ?Bleet!? from overhead speakers made sure everyone knew that all was not right with the universe.
?Cam!? Jessica, the captain of the Dawn, shouted into the mike that hung from her right ear to rest centimeters from her lips. Outside the transparasteele cockpit she sat in, flashes of light lit up the night, followed quickly by flacks of metal debris that racked across her field of vision. ?Things have gotten a bit warm up here, in case you didn?t know!?
Behind her, in a control bay that was a swarm of monitors and input devices, her Weapons Specialist was an island of calm in a sea of chaos. Network cables hung from a panel behind him and terminated at plugs near the base of his hairless skull, and his hands danced quickly yet efficiently at multiple keyboards.
?I am well aware of our current situation, Captain,? he replied, his too-smooth face composed, his lips barely moving. ?I have our drone fighters cycling up now, and they will launch in three-zero seconds. Point defense systems have charged and are deploying now. Hull armor-capillary systems are expanding as well.?
Sweating, but feeling better at his calm words, Jessica tightened her grip on the control sticks and glanced at the radar monitor near her left knee. On it she saw her ship in the center, with five angry symbols buzzing around it like hornets disturbed from their nest. Fading into the distance behind them was Coven Gate 8G1 - Out Of The Shattered Mind Comes Purist Wisdom. It wasn?t the worst radar display she?d ever seen, but it was enough to make her sweat.
At the rear of the bridge a door opened and from it rushed Booshra Vree la?Crick. Jessica?s second in command, and the Dawn?s usual pilot.
?Jessie!? he yelled, two of his four long arms reaching out to grasp handrails so that he wouldn?t fall as the ship bucked from the sudden attack. ?Give it to me short and sweet!?
?Five hostiles, Boo! They came at us right after exiting The Shattered Mind. IFF isn?t picking up any transmissions, so I think it?s safe to assume they aren?t the welcome wagon!?
Never taking his eyes from his monitors, Cam said, ?Looks like they?re Rising Darkness, Captain!?
?What the hell?? Jessica swore none too softly under her breath. ?What is Rising Darkness doing all the way out here? I thought they stuck to the other side of the spin!?
?They do,? Booshra replied.
Jessica snorted then said, ?Well, leave it to pirates to move without sending out a forwarding address.?
?This is most likely an advance force, Captain,? Cam said serenely. ?Perhaps a recon group to size up gate traffic in this area.?
?Are you-?? Jessica started to ask, but before she could finish Cam said, ?Captain, drone units Alpha and Gamma have launched. Point defense systems have so far kept the pirate fighters from getting close enough to score critical hits, and hull integrity is at 98 percent.?
As she pushed the engine throttle forward and spun the ship to angle away from the pursuing fighters at a twenty-degree angle, Jessica looked at her radar and saw ten small blips burn away from the Dawn and race toward their attackers. The drones were small unmanned fighter craft, packing engines and weaponry in an undersized package that didn?t require an onboard pilot or the life-support systems a pilot would necessitate. Drones were normally more than capable fighters in their own right, depending on the complexity of their tactical software, but they could also be controlled remotely if their owners chose to do so, though that usually defeated the purpose of having drones to begin with. What was the point in having fighter craft that didn?t need warm bodies if you were going to use warm bodies to control them anyway? But with Cam, it was a different story. Being an android, Cam?s synthetic neural network was more than enough to not only direct the activities of all the drones they had in flight, but to also coordinate their activity with the Dawn?s hull-based weapons, thereby yielding a much more potent defense. One mind controlled them all, and Cam had a very dangerous mind indeed, artificial though it might have been.
Satisfied with what she saw, Jessica finished her question. ?Are you detecting any capital ships, Cam? A carrier of some type? These fighters probably didn?t get here on their own.?
?Negative, Captain,? the android replied. ?I have stretched our scanners to their limits, but so far I haven?t detected anything other than the Coven gate and our present attackers.?
Bending over a railing, Booshra brought up a display panel that sat on an articulated arm and pressed an on-screen icon to call up Navigation. He already knew where they were ? the Loomis?kka System, which was part of the Dol?mire?s Conglomerate ? but he wanted to know exactly where the Dawn was in relation to the major planetary bodies. Quickly he saw that they were just under eighteen million kilometers, or about one light minute, from Loomis?kka Prime and its nine moons.
The Coven have brought their gate in closer to the capital planet, Booshra thought to himself. I wonder if the Dol?mire?s and the Coven have warmed their relations. Filing the information away for future consideration, the Kleeetan first officer shook his shaggy head and looked down on his captain.
?Jessie,? he said, ?if this is indeed some kind of expeditionary force for Rising Darkness, then most likely these fighters are a rear guard for that force, meant to hold the Coven gate while the rest reconnoiter the system.?
?I would concur, Captain,? Cam said. ?The pirate fighters are not following us and are not engaging our drones. Most likely their sole purpose was to harass any and all craft within close proximity of the gate into leaving posthaste, which we have done.?
Looking at her radar display, Jessica confirmed his report.
?And,? Booshra followed, ?if I?m not mistaken, we?ll probably be passing their carrier any minute now as it bugs out.?
Jessica wanted to question him, but instead said, ?Cam, recall the drones, but don?t bring them inside just yet. I want them to take defensive positioning around the Dawn in case Boo is right.?
?Aye aye, Captain,? Cam replied.
Tense seconds ticked by, everyone ready to spring into sudden action should it be called for. Beads of sweat rolled down Jessica?s face, Booshra panted slowly but deeply, and Cam?s fingers and eyes raced. Seconds, though, turned into minutes, and the stillness of the cosmos outside eventually eased their minds. Jessica was almost ready to issue a Stand-Down order for the ship when a red light appeared on her radar.
?Captain, phased array radar is picking up a vessel inbound from the direction of Loomis?kka Prime,? Cam said. ?Distance is three-hundred-thousand kilometers and closing. Its present course most likely indicates a destination of the Coven gate. Inbound speed, 300 KPS.?
Jessica tugged at her left earlobe. ?Any indication that they?ve spotted us??
?No reason to suggest that they haven?t, Sir,? the android replied. ?Though, unless they actively ping us or transmit a hail, there is no way to know for sure.?
?Alright then, let?s play this safe,? she said. ?I?m going to angle us away from their flight path and power down our defensive grid to show a non-hostile front. The drones will stay where they are, though. No use putting out the welcome mat, right??
Cam and Booshra nodded their agreement.
Jessica?s steady hands guided the freighter into a shallow turn to angle her vector well clear of the approaching vessel, and pushed the engine throttles passed their safety stops and into the red zone, all of which indicated a clear and complete lack of desire for a meeting. The hull around them shuddered as the engines throbbed mightily behind them. In response, the oncoming vessel angled itself away as well, further widening their flight paths. Somewhat reassured, the captain pulled back on the throttle and brought the ship?s speed back to the nominal maximum speed of 250 KPS. Eight anxious minutes later, both ships had their engines to each other and neither were looking back.
With a sigh of relief, Jessica locked her controls down, removed the headset from her right ear, and jumped from the pilot?s seat. When she was clear of the lowered enclosure, she gestured to it with sweeping arms and said, ?Boo, my dear, she is all yours!?
The Kleeetan chuckled, or gave what passed for a laugh with his species, and lowered himself to the seat. It wasn?t the most comfortable fit, as his wide body and lower arm pair weren?t what the designers of the chair originally had in mind, but it had been modified as best they could to suit him. ?Aye, skipper.?
?We?ve got another twenty-three hours or so until we hit Loomis?kka Prime?s orbital perimeter,? Jessica said. ?I?m going to hit the sack. Come get me in about six hours, and I?ll take over again.?
Booshra nodded and unlocked the controls. With a gifted touch, despite his stubby fingers, he brought them back into a straight flight line with the nearby planet, then settled back into the chair and pulled up some text on the screen in front of him, which he set to reading hungrily, his canine-like face bathed in the glow of the display, his short muzzle silently sounding out the words he saw there. Jessica couldn?t read it (she barely spoke Kleeetanese, much less knew the written language), but knowing him as she did, she guessed that it was a letter from his family. Kleeetans were a tight-knit species, and it was rare for one of them to venture into space alone as Booshra had done. To make the long stretches of time away from them easier, they exchanged emails constantly. She estimated that over half of the Dawn?s comm chatter was his, but she didn?t mind. He was a good crewmember, and a very able pilot. He deserved word from home.
Smiling, she turned from the pilot?s seat and started to walk toward Cam, but before she made two steps Booshra said, ?It was the Coven gate.?
?What was that?? she asked in reply.
?The reason I knew we?d be coming across that pirate carrier so fast. The last time we came through here, The Shattered Mind was almost twice as far from Loomis?kka Prime as it is now. I don?t know when or how, but the Coven moved it. Our nav charts, which were updated last week, didn?t have that move noted, and I?m sure that the Rising Darkness were also caught equally unawares. If I?m imagining it right, they probably came in through the gate, saw that they were much closer to civilized space than they had planned on, dropped off some fighters to watch the back door, went out to check things out just in case, and then decided the risk of the being so close to the planet wasn?t worth it. The Dol?mire?s Conglomerate doesn?t care for privateers like us much as it is, and they take an even harsher hand with pirates.?
Thinking his words over, Jessica nodded in agreement. ?Makes sense. Still, I wonder why the Coven moved their gate. It?s not like them to get closer to governed planets, know what I mean??
?The further, the better,? Booshra replied. ?Better for everyone.?
?They might have foreseen something,? Cam offered from his station.
Turning around in shock, Jessica looked at her Weapons Specialist with eyes enlarged with amazement. ?Cam, do my ears deceive me, or did you just finally admit that the Coven might have supernatural powers??
If an android could smirk, Cam appeared to. ?Hardly, Captain. I?m merely suggesting that contacts the Coven have within the pirate community might have alerted them to the possibility of the Rising Darkness setting up a base of operations in this region. And as Commander Booshra has stated, the Dol?mire?s Conglomerate do not take kindly to pirates operating within their occupied regions. The Coven have no problems with pirates so long as their money is good, but they also have no desire to further inflame tense associations with neighboring system governments. So, to stave off a possible conflict of interest, the Coven did the only thing they could, outside of refusing to let the Rising Darkness use their gate ? which would have only made an awkward situation even worse, and moved. Really, Captain, it doesn?t take voodoo or psychic powers to see what could have happened here.?
The captain wanted to laugh at the all-too proper tone her crewman was taking, but decided it would be better to just nod and smile.
?Very good, Cam,? she said. ?Makes perfect sense.?
Cam nodded. ?Of course it does.?
?Go ahead and stable those drones now that the excitement is over,? she ordered as she walked toward his tactical station. ?No need to wear them out unnecessarily.?
?Aye aye, Captain.? Cam went to work quickly and quietly. As she passed him by Jessica could barely hear Cam utter softly, ?Supernatural powers. Really.?
Smirking, Jessica walked up the slight incline toward the rear bridge door, making straight for her cabin.
Behind her she could hear Booshra say, ?I wonder how they moved it.?
?Well,? Cam began, ?I believe a new theory about subspace wave formations from the Academy of Advance Quantum Studies would account for-?
She failed to hear the rest of Cam?s hypothetical musings, which were cut off by the bridge door as it closed behind her. And, she had to admit to herself, she wasn?t sorry about it. Cam was a good crewman, but there were times when he could test even the patience of Job with his chattering. She didn?t envy Boo, though the Kleeetan pilot might actually be interested. She hoped he was; otherwise he was in for an hour of pain.
With a soft laugh, Jessica shook her head and entered her cabin, ready for several hours of needed sleep.
?Goddam Conglomerate snobs.?
The harsh words echoed around the bridge of the Dawn, followed by the clattering sound of a headset thrown in disgust.
?What is it, Jessie?? Booshra asked with a yawn, scratching behind his tufted ears as he entered the bridge lazily, just in time for the outburst. Around his shoulders was a damp towel, and the loose coveralls that graced his lightly furred body were slightly moist as well. He smelled like a freshly bathed dog. Jessica was used to it.
?Have a nice shower, Boo??
?No, but I was on my way to the galley. Just stopped by to see if you wanted anything while I was there.?
Jessie pondered her limited choices. Normally she liked to keep their pantries well stocked and fresh, but due to the tight time frame of their latest job they hadn?t had time to restock many of their food provisions, and so the last few days they had resorted to clearing out the final vestiges of their canned goods and MRE packages. The ship?s doctor and cook, o?ahlotha Zeniea, did the best she could with the meager items they had. They weren?t desperate yet, but it was so close that it made the captain vow to never shave it that close again.
?Just a chocolate bar and a pouch of fruit juice,? she said, reaching into her shirt pocket to fish out a crumpled pack of smokes. ?I don?t care which. Just whatever we?ve got.?
Booshra nodded, then said, ?What?s our ETA on docking with Vimm?skka Station??
Snorting in disgust, Jessie leaned back in her pilot?s chair, pulled a cigarette from her pack (which lit itself as it exited the paper wrapper) with her right hand, and then used the back of her left to wipe some grime from her forehead. Grime was an everyday fact of life on an independent freighter like hers. Clean it all you like, in a couple of days it was grimy again. All you could do was wipe as you went and change the scrubbers as often as was possible.
?Well, we would be pulling into a lane right now,? she said, ?but a damn Guild ship came into orbit just as C&C was getting us ready.? She took a drag on her cigarette, exhaled a thin plume of smoke, and continued. ?And of course, the Guild ship took priority over us, so we now have to wait until another slot comes open, which they said could be an hour, maybe longer if more Guild ships come in.?
?Damn Guilders,? Booshra spat. ?Every year they make it harder and harder for small outfits to operate. Bullies, nothing more or less than that.?
?Oh, they?re a lot more than that,? Jessica replied around a thin grayish cloud. ?Still, maybe Jack has the right idea. Maybe we should think about joining the Guild.?
Booshra?s eye bulged from his shaggy face, and his body temperature rose quickly. ?Are you out of your damn fool monkey mind, Jessie?! Join the Guild? Become what we?ve always hated?!?
Sinking into her chair, Jessica turned to face away from him slightly and tapped on her shrinking smoke. There were no ashes, as most brands were made to disintegrate completely as they burned, but it was a habit as old as smoking itself, and she did it almost unconsciously. Her temperature rose as well, but not from anger. It was mostly from shame mixed with indecision.
?Yeah, I know,? she mumbled. ?Sometimes I just get tired of fighting with them, ya know, Boo? Tired of losing good deals, tired of paying higher taxes and tolls, and tired of losing my place in line whenever they come in-system. They get everything practically handed to them, and all we get are the scraps they don?t want, and the privilege of paying more for it to boot. It just? makes me tired.?
Walking up to stand behind her (though not too close, as the smell of her cigarettes played havoc with his sensitive nose ? he wished she?d stop, though he?d never dream of saying so), he put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
?There would be some benefits, yes,? he told her, his tone smooth and calm, ?but don?t forget what you?d lose in the process. The Dawn, for one. You know you?d have to sign her over. No Guild captain gets to keep ownership of their boat. You?d also lose your freedom to come and go as you please, taking only the jobs that suit you. You?d be a slave to some distant Guild bean counter, and they?d never let you forget it either. You?d be theirs, completely. So, while I understand your desire for a plush chair and a red carpet, don?t forget the chains that come with it.?
Jessica reached up and patted his hand, thankful for his words. ?Just keep reminding me of that, Boo, whenever I start looking weak again. Okay??
?You know I will, Jessie,? he replied. Seeing that there was nothing more he could do that very moment, he patted her shoulder one more time, then turned to leave. ?I?ll be back in a few with that candy and juice,? he said over his retreating shoulder.
?No rush,? she called back, more cheerful than she really felt. As the doors closed, she muttered under her breath, ?No rush at all. At this rate we?ll be here until my hair goes gray and I lose what little is left of my girlish good looks.?
Flicking the butt of her finished smoke into a trash receptacle at her feet, she pulled another and leaned heavily into her chair. Around her, in the darkness of space, she could see the engine glow of other ships, and it was with a great amount of anger and venom that she wondered which belonged to people like her, the independents, and which belonged to Guilders.
Hell, probably none of them are Guild, she thought blackly. Probably all of those assholes are tucked neatly in the station already, while the rest of us freeze out here in the big empty?
Dragging deeply on her fresh smoke, she tapped a staccato beat with her free left hand on the arm of her chair, her face as warm and smoldering as that of the cherry on her cigarette. Two hours later, when Vimm?skka Station C&C finally gave them clearance to dock, her mood wasn?t any better.
?Will you tell that bucket of rust to get the hell out of my way?? Ferron Cth, the Dawn?s chief cargo handler, shouted to a dock robot. The droid had no feelings, and so he wasn?t taken aback by the fierceness of Ferron?s voice, but the Dunadon wouldn?t have cared even if it had. Dunadons were a large species, their ancient ancestors close in appearance to Earth?s rhinoceroses, and they still sported a horn above their nostril ridge, with tusks descending past the sides of their grim mouths. Gray skinned, with little hair to speak of, Dunadons were hot blooded, stronger than most other sentients, and also incredibly focused of mind. Chaos never seemed to touch them, which was a good attribute to have in a cargo handler, who often had to work in a storm of activity that made most others quiver in fear. And Ferron was incredibly good at his job.
?They will be moving in just one moment,? the dock robot said in neutral mechanical tones, one metal hand extended toward a hovering pallet overflowing with freight containers and bags of grain. ?Please wait until I give you permission before you begin unloading your cargo.?
Ferron snorted thickly. ?I?ve got time sensitive stuff here!?
Its hands still moving in precise motions, the droid gave a negative beep in reply. ?Not according to the manifest you have supplied us with. If this manifest is not complete, I will need to have you submit a new one, and it will then have to be personally inspected by an import official.?
?Now, now,? Ferron said, replacing hostility with trademark Dunadonian composure. ?No need for all that. I just meant that our employer requested this cargo be delivered to him as quickly as possible. Our manifest is most certainly complete.?
That wasn?t entirely true, but if it was said with enough conviction few would challenge it. Ferron had been inspected only once in his entire career, luckily during a shipment that actually had been completely above-board (a rarity in the independent business), and so his record was clean enough to eat off of. He intended to keep it that way.
?Then perhaps you should have arrived sooner,? the robot replied flatly. Rolling forward, the droid extended one of its many arms and handed him a slim computer pad. ?Please keep this on you at all times while working in the dockyard. In it is a complete list of rules and regulations that must be followed while you are here, as well as a map of the station and all the amenities therein should you or any other member of your crew wish to partake of them. From our records I see that you have been here once before and have been qualified Double-A rated for dock handling by the Dol?mire?s Conglomerate Board Of Commerce and Transportation. As such I will expect your work here to be efficient and problem free. Should you need my attention, just press the button on the upper right corner of the pad, and I will attend you as quickly as possible. And please make sure to return the pad before you leave, or you will be charged a fee of fifty Glomers. Are we clear??
?Crystal,? Ferron replied.
?Yes or no, please,? the robot said back.
Grumbling, the Dunadon rubbed his lips against his long tusks then said, ?Yes, we are clear.?
The robot rolled back several feet. ?Very well. Your loading area is now clear, so you may begin moving your cargo at this time. We have you marked for a five hour docking period, with a reserve in place for possibly longer should that be required. Please notify Command and Control not less than an hour before your allotted time is over if more is needed. Is there anything else I can assist you with??
Ferron tucked the pad into a pocket on his dungarees, snapped the pocket closed, and turned back toward his ship. ?Nope, I?m good to go, tin head. Off you go.?
Not insulted in the least, the droid spun around and wheeled off toward the next ship on his list.
?Everything okay?? Jessica asked, walking up to her Cargo Chief.
?Aye, skipper,? Ferron answered. ?His oily lordship has just cleared us to start unloading, and barring accidents it shouldn?t take more than a couple of hours to clear everything out.?
?Everything?? the captain asked with a raised eyebrow. Ferron knew what she meant.
?Yes, ma?am. Everything. No problems at all.?
She hadn?t expected anything less, but it always came as a comfort when unlisted cargo wasn?t searched or sniffed. As often as she?d done it, one would think she?d be used to it, but she wasn?t and never would be. Just one of the risks of the trade is how she chose to look at it.
?Very good then,? she told him. ?Sar Donn?hha will be most pleased.?
?I do what I can, skipper.?
Patting his thickly muscled left arm, Jessica smiled. ?And you do it well. If you need me or Boo, we?ll be in the spacer lounge as usual, seeing what new work is available.?
The Dunadon nodded his gray head. ?Will do.?
?Oh, and before I go, make sure to call Zen as soon as our provisions get here. She?s anxious to get the kitchen filled out again, not to mentioned some stuff she ordered for sickbay. Damn Quish?Tah?s been breathing down my neck all week.?
?We all have, skipper,? Ferron told her, patting his belly. ?Pickings are slim.?
?Too slim, I know,? Jessica told him. ?We?ll get that fixed, don?t you worry.?
Around the back of the Dawn appeared Booshra, his shaggy face showing his happiness to be on the station. He had been more than ready for a change in scenery, even if it was only for a few hours. And in the back of his mind was the pleasure of knowing that as he walked around and stretched his legs, mail from home was being downloaded from the station?s Net channels. It always gave him a thrill to see news from home.
?You ready to make some more money?? Jessica shouted to him over the din of the docking bay.
Booshra smiled. ?I?m always ready to make more money!?
Grinning at him, Jessica nodded to her Cargo Chief and then walked off with Boo toward the entrance to the inner sanctums of the station, leaving Ferron to start his work, which he set to with a dogged determination, as he always did. Cargo was his life, and he loved it.
As they disappeared, Ferron saw Sar Donn?hha exit a nearby lift and come waddling toward the Dawn, his fish-faced expression, alien as it may be, still easily seen as excited and expectant. One more happy customer to add to the list, the Dunadon thought with a grin.
The Fresh Aire lounge was busier than Booshra remembered it being from the last time he had visited. The Conglomerate was gaining more power and wealth with each passing season, and that in turn increased trade, so it was no great surprise. Still, had the spacer had a say in things, he would have kept the bar the way they had been before. At least back then he didn?t have to wait in a line to get a drink, and shout to be heard when he ordered it.
Sometimes progress just isn?t worth it, he thought to himself. His own people, the Kleeetans, took their advancement as a species and a society much too seriously to hurry it along, taking centuries to do what others did in decades or even less, and there were moments when he thought they had the right way of things. But, no sooner would he think that than he?d recall all of the things he didn?t agree with, and in the end all he could do was shake his head and realize that no one people had it right. The universe was really just a starship filled to the brim with crazies and crackpots, all of them convinced of their own sanity while anything but convinced of the sanity of others, and in reality none of them knew what was really going on, or where the hell they were going, nor did they seem to care too much about it. The humans had a saying, ?going to hell in a handcart,? and it was one that he instinctively understood.
?Ever get the feeling we?re all a bunch of crazies, and no one is running the nuthouse?? Jessica asked.
Nodding, Booshra grumbled, ?You read my mind, skipper.?
Jessica took a deep breath, straightened her vest and low-slung belt as best she could, and then walked into the Fresh Aire. A few of its occupants turned to look her way, but after little more than a cursory glance they turned back to whatever it was they had been doing before without looking a second time. She was used to it. Humans might think themselves something special where they came from, but to the rest of the galaxy they were just one more mewling species amidst thousands of others, and in the great scheme of things they had little to offer. They weren?t especially strong, or quick, or crafty. They hadn?t invented anything that some other race hadn?t invented first, centuries or millennia before. They weren?t even full members of the Pax, for that matter. The only thing they really had to offer that was uniquely their own was their art, but even that was considered banal and trivial by critics who considered themselves experts on the subject. In the end, all humans had to bring to the galactic table was their own brow sweat and gumption, just the same as the rest of them, and that was fine with Captain Jessica Quimbly. She had plenty of both.
Shuffling through the crowd, the two crewmen of the Dawn made their way to an empty table near the rear of the lounge. The crowd volume was higher than either of them cared for, but there was nothing they could do about it, so they tried their best to ignore it, which was no mean feat.
?Why don?t you go get us some drinks while I look over the job boards?? she fairly shouted at her first officer once they had claimed the table as their own.
?Your usual?? he asked back, meaning a Zoodien Twist.
Jessica nodded in reply and reached out to hand him a credit chip, which he declined with a mock hurt expression before turning to walk toward the crowded bar. Once he was off, she brought up the screen that sat reclined in the table top and started entering her credentials so that she could access the ITTN.
The ITTN, or Intergalactic Trade and Transportation Network as it was known in English, was the main means of communication for people in her line of work. The network could be accessed and interfaced with through just about any language in the galaxy, but most beings used Paxian, the standard language of commerce throughout all of Pax Galaxias space, and a language that Jessica had grown up with because of her father. She used it just as fluently as she did English, and sometimes even thought in it, depending on the situation and the nature of her contemplations.
?Love in English,? her father used to say, ?but barter in Paxian.?
It was sage like advice.
After entering in her ITTN identification, Jessica pulled up the details on her latest job, and saw that Sar Donn?hha, owner and operator of a moderately sized chain of boutiques in most of the space stations in Dol?mire?s Conglomerate space, had already marked her contract as ?Completed,? with several flattering remarks made in the transaction history, and he had given them a final work rating of ?Exemplary?. The captain smiled, and then tapped a key that marked her acceptance of the contract closure.
That bit of business complete, she pulled up her banking files to make sure that automated drafts were being made on time. This wasn?t usually a problem, but it was always safer to check than not to. When she did so she noted a balance that was slightly higher than she?d expected. Calling up all deposits, she noted that Donn?hha had increased his payment by several thousand Glomers, most likely as a way of saying thanks for the delivery of the unlisted items he?d asked to be thrown in if they could manage it. She distributed the extra monies to the rest of her crew, but made sure that Zen got a bonus. It was only fair, as it had been her contacts that had procured the contraband items, and so her efforts were rewarded.
Booshra appeared at the table just as she was closing the banking screens, drinks in two of his large hands. One he sat down in front of her, the bright red beverage fizzing terribly, and the other he sat down before his own chair, which he quickly dropped into, his bulk making the abused seat grown.
?The least they could do is put a gun to my head while they?re robbing me blind,? he grumbled.
Jessica laughed. ?Prices getting that bad??
?Bad?? Booshra replied. ?How does twenty Glomers sound??
?For just two drinks?? she cried out, astonished.
?Two drinks, my right eyes! Twenty Glomers for just yours! Mine was another fifteen!?
Shocked beyond words, Jessica looked from her first officer to the drink before her, and then back again. The Kleeetan smirked, then took a sip from his glass.
?Drink it slowly,? he said, licking every bit of the beverage from his lips. ?There won?t be another one. Not from my meager wages anyway.?
Gently picking up the glass before her, Jessica took a shallow drink, and then carefully put it down to the right of her screen, far from any danger of being accidentally spilled. ?Don?t whine just yet,? she told him, gesturing for him to scoot around so that they could both see the screen. ?Donn?hha threw a bit more in than we contracted for, and you got your share.?
?The Glacian Triffles?? he asked, moving himself and his chair in short hops.
Jessica nodded. ?Zen?s contacts really came through.?
?They always do,? the Kleeetan replied. ?For a doctor she sure knows some unscrupulous people.?
The captain grinned and told him, ?So long as she can sew up my wounds and then slap a nicely roasted hunk of meat in me afterwards, I couldn?t care less who she knows so long as they can come through in the clinch. But let?s get down to some business.?
Taking another sip, Jessica hit several buttons and brought up a screen full of freighter contracts that were currently being bid on. After hitting a button that filtered out all those jobs that were either offering too little, required cargo space they didn?t have, or dealt with regions her ship and crew weren?t licensed for, the list shrank by over half. Both of them sighed.
The process of finding jobs that fit them was a laborious one. There were time frames to be considered, cargo space and environmental requirements that had to be kept in mind, not to mention the political situations that varied from system to system. It was a nightmare, but one that Jessica and her crew were more than able to handle in the cause of adventure and profit, what little there was to be had of either. As they were narrowing down an already lean list of prospects, a light started to flash in the lower right corner of their screen, indicating an incoming call.
Despite what the vids may show, very few people in space actually communicated in real-time. Often they are just too far away from communication relay stations for real-time chatter to be possible, and no species had yet to find a way to delivery comm signals faster than the speed of light. Signals could be sent through stellar conduits and open Coven gates, and so news could still travel across the galaxy rather quickly when it had to, but aside from those shortcuts things were sill limited to light speed, which meant that the odds of the Dawn being near a comm center at the same time someone actually wanted to talk to them were so astronomically slim as to be almost nonexistent. So, it wasn?t without some just cause that both of the table?s occupants were shocked into silence by the flashing light. A call? they both thought in unison. Who could possibly be calling us?
With a tentative finger, Jessica reached out and hit the indicator.
?This is Captain Jessica Quimbly,? she said. ?Can I help you??
On the screen a window popped up, covering the list of prospective contracts. At first everything was dark, but then a red and worried face suddenly filled the frame, and the man it belonged to huffed air in nervous gasps. At the sight of him, Jessica?s stomach filled with ice.
?Oh, Jessica!? Jack Connelly shouted, his head trembling. ?Thank the gods I found you! I need your help, and I really need it fast!?
Sighing, the captain of the First Light Of The Breaking Dawn knew her day had just gotten a lot more complicated
[center]To be continued?[/center]
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[center]Tales Of The Breaking Dawn[/center]
[center]The Ties That Bind[/center]
Looking ahead of her, all Jessica saw were stars. The pinpricks of light were so distant and cold, yet they were as familiar as household scents and well-remembered lovers. Often she would reach out from where she sat, her lean arms crossing the void until her fingertips brushed against the inch of transparent steel that was all that separated her from the empty embrace of the cosmos, and she could imagine that the distant blazing balls of gas could almost feel her touch. She did so now, and sighed.
?Such a long and suffering sound you make,? a voice like rocks being ground over each other said behind her in English, the words alien to his palette, yet also not entire unpleasant to hear. ?One might think you wished to fly free out there, without this harsh ship keeping you from the darkness.?
Pulling her arm back, Jessica chuckled. ?Duka, it isn?t all darkness you know. Parts of it are so bright your eyes would melt just in the glory of looking at it.?
?We don?t see much of that when we?re buried up to our necks in the bowels of this ship, my captain,? Duka-N?an?ish replied. He hunkered down behind her and swung his stubby legs over the ledge that lead down to the pilot?s seat, which was in a lowered section at the front of the bridge of the First Light Of The Breaking Dawn. ?The only blinding lights I see are when the antimatter core has a breach. Luckily, that isn?t often.?
?Only because you?re a marvel of your profession, Duka,? she told him, joking but also sincere. ?I?ve never met a better ship?s engineer than you.?
Patting her on the shoulder with a hand that held too many fingers with too many knuckles, Duka replied, ?Then that only means you have much more to see and learn.? He then lapsed into silence, and Jessica didn?t disturb him. It was a comfort to have the old E?Loean on the bridge with her, a place he didn?t come to often enough. His life was, as he said, spent more often than not in the very heart of the ship, nursing the engines and systems to work better than they were designed to, to last beyond all reasonable expectations. And, to his credit, he succeeded more often than not. The Dawn was a Celestial Majesty class ship, a Class 3 E?Loean Cargo Freighter, and for all aboard her she was home and hearth and family. Jessica spent much of her spare time working on the old girl as well, but she knew she?d never have the same touch as Duka, the same way to divine, almost as though the ship itself had told him, what problems there were and how to fix them. He was, indeed, a marvel.
E?Loeans were marvels of physiology as well. Tripedal, with each lower limb half as long as the average human counterpart, they were able to make surprising speed on their three legs. Their long torsos were round, almost barrel shaped, and the two arms that sprang from them were remarkably strong and quick, with hands at the ends that held a total of eight digits each, with each finger triple jointed, allowing for digital agility that no human hand could match. Their heads were generally short and wide, with a face that was more chimp-like than anything else, with the fur to match. The rest of their bodies were generally hairy as well, though the fur was short and came in an amazing assortment of colors, depending on what region of E?Loa they came from. Most humans found them amusing to look at, but Jessica had grown up with Duka, and knew his species to be incredibly intelligent, as well as stronger than most humans could ever dream of being without the benefit of genetic engineering or cybernetic enhancement. They were a noble people, and she was honored to know them.
Finally, fearing the silence might last forever, Jessica stretched as well as she could in the pilot?s chair she sat in and said with a yawn, ?Can?t sleep??
Duke grumbled low in his throat, the sound like boulders crashing deep underground. ?You know as well as I our next nav marker.?
?Ah, that,? Jessica replied. She didn?t need to look at her navigational display to know what he was talking about. Had she done so she would have seen a blinking yellow circle surrounding a point of light labeled Coven Gate 2C5 ? Hecuba, and a green point of light headed directly toward it labeled EF3 CM56A ? Dawn. ?You?d think that by now you?d be used to it.?
?I?ll never get ?used to it?,? he answered back, not snapping at her yet not wholly pleasant either. ?Taz never used the Coven,? he reminded her. ?And neither did your father.?
Despite herself, Jessica grew hot where she sat. ?Well I?m not Taz, and I?m not my father. They?re dead, so it doesn?t matter much now either way, does it?? The question was a rhetorical one, and Duka knew it, so he sat silently and wondered why he hadn?t chosen his words more carefully.
?Besides which,? Jessica continued, her anger already starting to recede, ?competition is getting more fierce out here by the day, and any edge I can work, I will. I know that the rest of you don?t like the Coven, or trust them, and to tell you the truth I?m not all that comfortable about it either, but luckily they?re willing to let us use their gates, and those can sometimes shave weeks, maybe even months, from our travel times. It?s an advantage, Duka, and those are few and far between.?
?But at what cost?? he replied.
Agitated, Jessica tried to get comfortable in her chair and couldn?t. ?Cost? Yeah, the Covens charge a steep fee, but it all works out.?
?That isn?t what I meant,? the engineer said, moving to stand, ?and you know it.?
?Oh, what, are we going to go into that again?? she asked, turning to look at him. ?Are we really??
Sighing, Duka shook his shaggy head and shoved his large hands into the pockets of his greasy overalls. ?No, Jessie. You know how the others and I feel about the Coven. And I can?t help it that the spatial distortions are more traumatic to my physiology than it is to the rest of you. But you are the captain, you know best, and we follow you.?
Jessica blushed and regretted that the conversation had grown heated between them. She had known him her entire life, thought of him as an uncle of sorts, and the bond between them was stronger than with anyone else who still drew breath in the galaxy. ?I?m not so sure about that, but thanks, Duka. I know the Coven make all of you uneasy, me right along with you, but this business is getting more cutthroat every year, and I have to use every advantage that I can, even if it means dealing with the devil, as you seem to look at it. I?m sorry, really.?
She paused for a moment, clicking her left index finger against her teeth, then said, ?You want me to have Zen give you something for the nausea??
?No,? he answered, fetching a sigh as he did so. ?I?ll be okay. Just a small glass of Refflik Tea, and then I?ll hit the tube. Sleeping makes it better, but I hate the nightmares.?
?You don?t always have them,? Jessica offered weakly.
Reaching out to pat her one more time, Duka replied, ?No, I don?t. As you humans say, knock on wood.?
Jessica giggled loudly. ?Wood? Just how much money do you think we make to actually have wood on this ship??
Raising one of his large hands, Duka rapped his many knuckles against the top of his hairy head. ?This will have to suffice then.?
?That?s more like stone than wood, Duka,? she told him with a smile.
?Ah, so it is. Goodnight, Jessie. Call Boo if you start to get tired.?
Jessica waved and turned to face forward once again. ?I will. Goodnight. Don?t let the bed bugs bite.?
?They should be more afraid of me,? he told her as he walked toward the door that lead to the berthing segment of the freighter, two sections aft of the bridge. ?And for the love of the gods, put on your seat harness. Your father would have a fit if he saw you without it on.?
The last of his words, along with a few ?tsks? to go with them, echoed after him in the cramp metal room. Jessica smiled, sighed softly, and reached around her to pull the seat straps across her body. As the last one clicked closed she looked at her nav screen and saw that Hecuba was about two hours out at normal cruising speed. She dreaded the gate crossing, as it almost always made her vomit (which, incidentally, was also why she never ate for several hours prior to going through one), but it also meant getting her perishable cargo to its destination two weeks faster than through the regular conduit lanes, and that meant ten-thousand extra credits in their account.
It?s worth it, she told herself, like a mantra. It?s all worth it.
And with that thought firmly held in her brain, she said aloud, ?Ship, continue recitation, Jessica-Six.?
?Commencing resumption of recitation now,? small speakers overhead said. ?Othello, by William Shakespeare. Act 5, Scene 2.?
?It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,--
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!--
It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.?
Sinking into her seat, Jessica let the ancient play wrap itself about her, making the journey that much shorter?
?And so I told her, ?Honey, if you want me to do that, I?m going to have to charge you extra!??
Laughter erupted around the smoky table in crashing waves of sound, but no one around them took notice, or would have cared even if they had. In a spacer bar, where those who made their living in the Big Empty came to congregate and share a drink and perhaps a story or two, loud conversations and boisterous claims were the order of the day. It didn?t matter what species they came in, what planet they hailed from, or anything else. So long as you lived and worked in the frosty embrace of the spacelanes, and you had some coin in your pocket, you were welcome. At least, that?s what it said over the entrance anyway.
?Jack, her request gets more outrageous every time I hear it,? Jessica said, slamming back a shot of fiery red liquid and then slapping the empty glass to the table.
Reaching across the table to pour her another tumbler full, Jack Connelly grinned like a wolf that just ate the family pig. ?And yet, my young lady, it still pales next to what really happened! I just don?t want to burn those tender ears of yours off.? The man burst into laughter again and leaned back into his seat.
?Screw you, ya old pirate,? Jessica replied, hammering back the newly poured shot. ?If my bunk could talk it would shame the Devil himself into blushing.?
Jack stopped laughing, looked her straight in the eyes for the space of several heartbeats, and then exploded into snorts and cackles when he saw the glint in her eyes.
?Ah, Jessie,? he told her, the alcohol in his system warming his face, ?it?s so good to see you again. Like a daughter you are to me. A daughter, I tell you true.?
She knew it was just the booze and the cheap cigars talking, but it made her feel good to hear it all the same. Jack Connelly, for all his brash talk and checkered past, was a prince amongst spacers, and one of the few humans who had made it this far past the core from Sol. She had known him for just over ten years, having met him through her father during the last run they?d made together before she left to start her first year of college. Jack had always been good and honest in his dealings with everyone, even those who didn?t necessarily deserve it. For those reasons, and more, she loved the man. Not as a father, or as an uncle, but as a friend, and as a fellow human being who was as adrift as she was in the great black ocean of the stars.
?Oh, Jack, I bet you say that to all the girls,? Jessica replied as she leaned back in her chair and put a cigar to her lips. As one hand kept the brown stub of tobacco in place, the other reached down to her belt for the lighter she kept there, right behind her holstered sidearm. Eyes, or what passed for them with a few, tracked her movement to make sure her hand didn?t draw the weapon, and none left her until the golden lighter came out slowly and ignited the stogie.
Pouring another drink, Jack told her, ?No sirrie, missy. No lady I?d want would frequent a place like this, no offense.?
?None taken. I never said I was a lady.?
Jack smiled softly. ?Well, I?ve seen you all cleaned up, and if I might say, you clean up very well, despite spending too many of your young and impressionable years surrounded by spacers like us. I didn?t know you back then, but I imagine that the boarding school your father had you attend did a world of good for ya.?
?Perhaps,? Jessica replied, exhaling pungent smoke. ?Since my mother died right after I was born, I was glued to my father?s side, and he kept me there until I was about twelve, when finally mom?s sister convinced him that a boarding school would be the best place for me. They taught me how to curtsy, what utensils were for what food, and how to say ?Thank you, kind sir? is six languages. But when you?re out here, where the solar winds blow and the light is older than the dirt beneath Methuselah?s heels, none if makes a lick of difference. Out here, all that matters is what matters. Besides, I spent every single holiday and vacation I could back aboard ship with dad and these roughnecks, hauling as much cargo as they?d let me, so any varnish a proper schooling might have given me was worn off quickly enough.?
?Suppose you?re right,? Jack said into his glass. ?Still, it was the thought that counted. And poor old Patrick, he thought a great deal about you. He never spoke of it much, how hard it was to lose your mother only minutes after you were born, but you didn?t have to be psychic or a psychiatrist to see how it conflicted inside him. The way he talked about her, Samantha was a woman I wish I had been given a chance to know. Then again, I guess I did, through you. He always said you were a seed that hadn?t fallen far from either of them, her especially. But he tried to raise you as best he could, and judging from the woman we see before us now, he did one hell of a job. You were the light in his eyes, Jessie, a light that never went out.?
Feeling a rush of tears that threatened to burst from behind her eyes, Jessica lowered her head and drew on the cigar to hide the slight trembling in her hands and face. On her right she saw from the corner of her eye Duka stand up and grab his glass.
?I never got to know Samantha either, as he joined us a short time after her death, but Patrick was a man I am thankful to have known and to call a friend. To Patrick!? the E?Loean said, his voice slurry and his legs rubbery. ?To the best damn human I?ve ever met! Present company excluded of course.?
The others around the table rose up as well and joined in the toast. Knowing she would never make it to her feet, Jessica looked up and held her glass out.
?To you, dad,? she whispered. ?I miss you.? Her toast did not include her mother, but that was only because she had never been given a chance to know her. Yet, in her heart, she loved the woman all the same, mainly because of the endless stories her father had told about her. To hear him tell it, her mother had been an angel sent straight from heaven to make his life into something better than he could have had without her. Jessica didn?t know how truthful that was, but she loved him dearly, and through him she loved her mother too.
Glasses clanked against hers, and then everyone took their seats again. Respecting her feelings, none of them tried to engage her in conversation, instead letting her tend to her own thoughts and feelings until she felt ready to rejoin them. Small talk sprang up amongst them, a few more tall tales were told, and slowly her tears and sadness drifted away to the back of her mind where she kept all painful things. Not locked away, but not at the ready either. Just? there. A few dabs from her shirt cuff dried the wetness around her eyes, and with that she was ready to face the universe again.
?So, Jack, what?s next on the manifest for you?? she asked, propping her feet on the table.
Jack looked around for a moment as though he wasn?t sure how to answer the question posed to him, but finally he nodded and said, ?I?m thinking of joining the Guild.?
Whistles and wide eyes greeted him from everyone around the table. If he hadn?t had it before, he certainly had their attention now.
?That?s a big step, Jack,? Duka said. ?Is this just talk, or are you serious??
The glint in the man?s eyes made clear how serious he was. ?Deadly, Duka. I?m gettin? too old for this small time independent stuff. A man has to start thinking about his retirement at some point, and I?m sorry, but these milk runs we all make just aren?t going to cut it anymore. At least, not at the level of comfort I?m wanting. So, over the past several years I?ve been socking away the money it costs for admission into the Guild. Sometimes I?ve had to live on nothing but beans and recycled water, and my ship had to go without a few tune-ups, but it?ll all be worth it once I?m in.?
?Takes more than money, Jack,? Jessica told him, her tone flat. ?You have to have a completely clean record with the Pax, the Pren, and the Commonwealth. All of your financial records have to be disclosed. You?re ship-?
?My ship is fine,? he told her, the alcohol-induced redness in his face deepening as he felt himself under sudden interrogation. ?Once I?m ready it will be anyway. And my record is fine too, as are my finances. I?ve worked real hard lately to make sure my nose is clean and all my ducks are in a row. I want this, Jessie. I need this. Besides, I have an in.?
?An in?? Booshra Vree la?Crick said, his lower jawbones clicking together. ?Please, do tell.? The look in Jessie?s first mate?s four eyes was pure burning curiosity. The Kleeetan loved intrigue.
Jack?s face showed that he knew he?d said too much, but he also knew there was no way to take it back or to obfuscate the situation. So, he just said it. ?The Gorawnies.?
?What the fuck?!? Jessica yelled, her feet slamming to the floor and her hands flat on the table edge. ?The Gorawnies? Jack, are you insane??
?Now, you listen here-? he began, but Jessica cut him off without a moment of hesitation.
?No, you listen! The Gorawnies are not people you want to get involved with! You know as well as I do that those guys are as mafia as it gets. Yeah, they might not wear pinstripe suits with black on black ties and fedora hats, but that doesn?t change anything. They are dangerous people, and folks like us have no business dealing with them. I thought you said you were keeping your nose clean! Jesus, Jack!?
The man looked half ashamed and half angry. He settled for a bit of both.
?First of all, I don?t need lessons in life from a girl less than half my age. I was jamming cargo through conduits before you were even an itch in your daddy?s trousers. Secondly, the Gorawnies are charter members of the Guild, and a sponsorship from them would give me a serious leg up.? He stopped for a moment, took a slug from his glass, and whipped his chin. ?Besides, they?ve never been convicted of anything.?
?Now you?re just rationalizing, Jack,? Jessica spat.
?We?ll,? he said with an air of finality, ?we all have to do what we all have to do. For some, it?s to squeak by. For others, it?s to take control of their destiny and make something out of it.?
Cam, Jessica?s weapons expert and ship?s tactician, leaned forward and said, ?Just make sure that while you?re taking that bull by the horns that it doesn?t stomp you flat.?
?I don?t need advice from a fucking robot either, Cam,? Jack shot back. ?Thanks though.?
?Sentient android,? Cam mumbled, withdrawing himself from the conversation. He did not blush, as his model of android hadn?t been programmed with that functionality, but if he could have, he would. He was a being of steel, carbon nanotubes, fiber optic wire, and synthetic flesh, but he still had feelings thanks to the complexity of his programming. Feelings, and an awareness of his own existence. He was not alive, yet he lived. So, in place of a blush, the android lowered his head, the face on it smooth and basically human in appearance (meaning, two eyes, two ears, a nose, and a mouth, though those features were also shared by most of the sentient species in the galaxy, remarkably enough), and looked down at the table. The rest of his human-shaped body tightened up and went rigid in his chair as he processed his embarrassment.
Stubbing her cigar out, Jessica asked, ?Alright, but favors don?t come for free, Jack. What is it that you have to do for the Gorawnies in return for their? sponsorship??
?All they asked was for me to make a delivery run for them.?
?A deliver run. That?s it.?
Jack looked up slowly and nodded. ?Yep, that?s it.?
?And what are you delivering??
?That?s none of your business,? he replied, pushing back from the table a few inches. He looked around the room, looked up and looked down, looked everywhere he could except at Jessica, until finally he had no other alternative. When he did all he saw was a raised eyebrow and a skeptical expression. ?Oh, alright, it?s medical supplies. Happy??
Jessica almost laughed. ?Medical supplies, eh? Have you looked for yourself??
?Can?t right now,? he told her. ?Stuff is being loaded as we speak.?
?So are you going to look later then??
Jack shook his head. ?I don?t see any reason why I should.?
?Oh, I can think of a few,? she replied back. ?I can think of at least twenty to thirty. Years that is. Years you?ll spend in some alien hellhole of a prison if you get boarded and searched. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, Jack, even way out here in the deep. You get caught with these? medical supplies? and it?s your ass. They won?t care much about where you got it, where it was going, or whom it really belonged to. All they will care about is how deep a hole they can throw you in.?
?Oh, like you?re little Miss Polley Anna all of the sudden,? Jack said with no small measure of hostility. ?You and I both know better than that. Maybe you?ve forgotten some of the laws we?ve broken and blockades we?ve ran together, but I haven?t. So don?t preach to me about how nice it is on the moral high ground, because neither of us knows.?
?The big difference between then and now, is that back then if I screwed up it was just my butt on the line for it. But with the Gorawnies, it ain?t like that. You screw up one of their shipments, and not only do you have to worry about the law coming down on you, but you also have to worry about their goon squad paying you a visit once you?re inside the clink. Friends and family, too. The Gorawnies don?t take kindly to failure.?
Lowering his eyes, Jack sat back and sighed. ?Then I won?t fail.?
Jessica could see that nothing she had said or could say would make any difference to him. Like a mule, Jack was stubborn. Once he had his mind set it would take a class-twelve gravity beam to change it. But she had to try, one last time, if only so she could tell herself she?d done all she could.
?Is it really that important, Jack? The Guild??
The man nodded, his tired shoulders hanging from his torso. ?Yes, Jessie, it is. Guild members get the best contracts, the fastest conduit slots, and the best customers. It?s practically a gravy train with biscuit wheels, and one that I intend to get a ticket on.?
?Then Jack, I guess all I can say is good luck,? Jessica told him. She stood up and raised her nearly empty glass. Those that could stand rose with her, while the rest just waved their drinks around in the air. ?Jack, may your skies always be clear, and may your cargo never be heavy.?
?Unless it?s gold,? he finished the toast. ?And then it can be as heavy as it wants to be.?
?Hear hear,? they all said.
Seeing that the party was winding down and that the bar was near to closing, Jack straightened up his shirt, stood, and pulled his pants up high to clear the creases. From his right pocket he pulled out a silver-edged credit chip and flipped it onto the table. ?Drinks are on me, fellas. You just cover the tip.?
Drunken heads nodded around the table. Jessica stood up and walked toward her old friend.
?It?s been good seeing you, Jack.?
?Yeah, me too, Jessie. I look at you and I see your dad. He?d be proud, you know.?
?I hope so.?
?I know so.?
?Well, take care of yourself. If you need anything, just holler.?
?I always do.?
?And hey, if you do happen to get into the Guild, then maybe someday you can sponsor me. You know, repay the cosmic favor and all that.?
?It would be my pleasure,? Jack replied, kissing her on the cheek.
The two parted from one another, hugged once more, and then she waved goodbye as he left the bar. Sighing, Jessica slouched into her chair and flapped her lips in a sputtery exhale of frustration and weariness.
?You know this isn?t going to end well,? Duka said, raising his shaggy head from the table.
?Yeah?? she answered back. ?I know.?
?So what are we going to do about it?? Cam asked, his too smooth face so innocent and yet so mysterious.
?We? Nothing. I?m going to have another drink, and once that is done, I?m going to head back to the ship and pass out for a couple of days. Then, when I wake up, we?ll find another job and get on with our lives. Jack is a big boy. He can handle himself just fine.?
?And if he can?t?? Duka asked.
Sighing, Jessica hit the call button for their waitress and drooped in her chair. ?We?ll just burn that bridge when we get to it, I guess. No use carrying more weight than we owe, right boys??
Those that could nod, did so. Those that couldn?t, grunted. It was as close to a declaration of intent as she was apt to get.
?Now where is that damn waitress?? she asked, looking around one last time before her exhaustion totally claimed her and she passed out on the table. For now, that was fine. Tomorrow would find her still asleep, and the day after she would pay dearly for all the alcohol she?d consumed. And after that? Who knew? All that mattered at the moment was the moment, and it was good.
[center]To be continued?[/center]
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In case anyone missed the OT thread...
Well, for the one or two of you who might have noticed, I've been gone for about two weeks or so. What could tear me away from this place for so long? A Caribbean cruise, that's what. The wife and I celebrated our fifth anniversary this past November 27th, and we spent the week after it on a seven day cruise. It was just divine... We had gone on a similar cruise for our honeymoon, but this time we knew what to expect, and so we were able to better enjoy ourselves.
On Saturday (the 27th) we left our home in Fort Worth and drove down to Houston where we were going to spend the night before the cruise (no use driving four or five hours early in the morning to get aboard when we could get in the day before and make it easier on ourselves). We made really good time since my foot seems to be under harsher gravity than the rest of the world, so we spent our extra time going to the Johnson Space Center. It was fun, but we didn't have time for all the shows and such, so we took a quick tour, snapped off some pictures on my new digital camera (Canon A75 - love it), bought a few token items, and then went back to the hotel.
The next day we drove to the pier and parked in a guarded lot, then were bused to the terminal. Now, before I go on, let me say that we are people of simple means and not given to too many extravagences. When we bought our tickets we purchased a simple stateroom. Nothing fancy. But, as luck would have it, Carnival needed extra staterooms for a large party, so we were given a free upgrade to a suite at the top of the ship. Along with that came a few perks, and one of those was getting whisked through check-in. While everyone else was made to sit and wait, and then line up like cattle to get on the boat, we were taken aside, filled out a couple of forms, and then breezed through everything else, getting to the front of the line so fast I was almost dizzy. The rest of the day was spent getting our luggage stowed, our clothes hung and put in drawers, and then just getting aquainted with the ship. The damn thing was huge too, so that took no small measure of time.
The next day out was strictly spent sailing to our first port of call. We mostly just hung out, explored more of the ship, gambled a bit (my baby loves playing Craps), and read in various locations. Nothing amazing. The formal dinner that night was nice though. It's always so refreshing to see so many people dressed so nicely.
On the third day we stopped at Progresso. Nothing major, really. If you don't take a tour of some surrounding city all you can really do is look through a small shopping area. The rest of the city is so packed and busy that doing the tourist bit is just uncomfortable. I hate feeling like I'm dawdling in other peoples way. So, we took a bus tour to Merida, and that was rather nice. Pretty city, beautiful homes and buildings, and lunch was just wonderful. I have got to try and replicate their salsa.
Day four was Cozumel. I love that place. We stopped there on our first cruise, and this time we had even more fun. After we went shopping and had lunch we took an ATV ride through jungle, stopping once to see some Mayan ruins. Everything was great for awhile. Each of us (there were about twenty of us) had our own 4-wheeler, and it only took some of us a short time to figure out how to powerslide and generally just jam through the jungle. Unfortunately, my wife took a dive trying to jump a hill, and ended up with a major scrape on her left shoulder and bruises just about everywhere else, not to mention being unconscious for about a minute. She still gets headaches from it, and next week is going in for an MRI just to make sure her residual pain isn't just sour muscles and bruised bones. I was terrified when it happened, and I'm still pretty apprehensive. I don't know what I'd do without her...
Anyway, she was able to finish up the ride, and by the time we made it back to the ship we were both muddy from head to toe, sore, and ready for some rest. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and reading.
The next day we stopped at Belize, but both of us were so tired and beat up that we just tendered out to the pier, shopped for an hour, and then tendered back.
The rest of the cruise was spent gambling a bit more (I think we lost a total of about $300), reading like mad (she went through three books, and I made it through about one and a half), taking dips in the pool and whirlpools, and taking pictures. It was so relaxing to get away like that, let me tell you. No cell phones, no internet, no jobs, no TV, nothing. Just the two of us, plenty of quality time, and sun. Coming back was hard to do.
Here is the ship docked at Progresso:
And here is a shot of the beach at Progresso:
And this is my wife sitting in a lounge area while we wait for a formal dinner to start:
This is me, also waiting for the formal dinner:
This is the sunrise I saw while we neared Cozumel:
While sitting on our balcony waiting to leave Cozumel I saw this and had to take a quick picture:
Here is another picture of my baby:
This is a sunrise on the way to Belize:
This is a seafront section of Belize:
And here is the sky as we returned and neared Galveston:
I hope everyone enjoys those. I took over a hundred pictures, but those tell the story of our travels well enough. If you want a larger rez version of any of those, let me know. I have them up to 1600x1200 on my digital camera.
Spoilers ahead so watch out...
Well, least night I was able to finally finish out the Buffy series. Missing this show while it was on television is an almost unforgivable sin now that I know how truly great the show was, but thank the gods for DVD. I picked up Season Seven last week, and so I've watched about a disk a day since, sometimes more than that. And, after seeing all of it, I can safely say that that was one of the best seasons ever. Not the best (I reserve that honor for Season Four), but it is right up there. Earlier I'd heard some grumblings that the show ended on a flat note, that the final season was a letdown, and while that might be the case for some, for me it wasn't at all. I loved it.
The best aspect to the season were the characters and how they finally got to grow into their own. These aren't the kids we know oh so long ago, not even Dawn. These are people who have been to hell and back (some literally), people who have experienced great pain and loss, who have known fear and doubt and terror. These are people who have sometimes done some terrible things, things that can never be undone. But, in the end, all of them were made stronger by all those things, made more resolute, and in the end they all stood tall, even when they fell. Finally, a season of Buffy that was about adults, and not adults in waiting. Great job.
The Big Bad was also great. While for a supposed First Evil this one came off as a bit weak-sauce, I'm glad that It also wasn't as much in your face as past baddies like Glory and The Master. The First stayed more in the shadows, only coming to light in the rarest of situations, and only to do the greatest harm. And the fact that It had no face of its own, that it could use the faces of the dead was wonderful, in that it allowed for a lot of great past characters to make an appearance, even if it was only brief. Joyce, the Mayor, Adam, and others, all getting one last look out at us. The Pastor was also good. Cheesy, but not too cheesy, incredibly strong and motivated, but also a bit of a latecomer, so we didn't get to get too tired of him before his end came. Nice job.
I also enjoyed the music, especially that last episode. It felt like the music from Fellowship Of The Rings. Very epic and vast. When Angel popped up I figured we would hear their love theme come in, but it didn't, and I was glad for that. I think hearing that older music would have been out of place, especially since neither of them are the same people for whom that music was created. She is no longer his lovesick puppy, and he isn't all moony over her. They still love each other, but they've also moved on in their lives, and while they would try it again if the opportunity presented itself, the love they've found in other people has also left its mark, and they each feel that.
Lastly I would say that there were two stand out character developments that really made me smile and cheer. One, Buffy and Spike. Dammit, they belong together much more than Buffy and Angel do. He is an imperfect champion, someone who is just as confused and angry as the rest of us, but he also knows what is right, and he knows that he is a fighter for the good, and he does it with all his strength and passion. He loves Buffy, but now he also respects her, he admires her, and that makes all the difference. His arc was great, though, how he makes it to Angel after getting what appeared to be burned alive is something I look forward to seeing. Second, Andrew. One of the Trio, he has completely redeemed himself, and also proven himself to be a wonderful comedic character. He brought so much levity and laughter to the show, and it was sorely needed. Early on I kept thinking that he would go all baddie at the slightest provocation, but he didn't (at least, not after being tricked into killing his best friend). He had temptation put in his way, but he never gave into it, and he stayed on the side of good. He confronted his fears, and he took a stand. I really wish I could have gotten to know him more.
Anyway, that's about it from me for now. I'm glad that so many loose ends were tidied up, I'm glad that Sunnydale and the Hellmouth are now resolved, and I'm glad that now these characters get to live their lives. All of them have been so consumed with the great fight for so long, their lives getting screwed up by it at every turn, but now I'd imagine that most of that is over. With a world full of Slayers, I think they all can finally get some rest.
Buffy, I cried, I laughed, and I cheered. I'll miss you...
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Well, here ya go. Few have asked for it, even fewer really need to see it, but here I am nonetheless. Enjoy it, get sick because of it, react however you want. I take horrible pictures, but I think this photo illustrates that better than any warning I might give you.