I have GOT to stop trusting attractive strangers.
I weakly rolled onto my back and stared up from the deck plating of the Inevitable Betrayal’s bridge. My head was spinning, and I was still pretty weak- but I was breathing, and all four limbs were checking in like normal. Slowly, I sat up and buried my head in my hands.
At least Kyndi gave it a few days before she made her move. This Tanith chick went straight for the jugular.
My eyes focused, and I looked around. It was almost night on the planet, but that shouldn’t have made a difference. The bridge, too, was dark- which meant that-
I reached up to the instrument panel I had fallen by, gripping it for support as I hoisted myself up. Unsteady on my feet, I looked around the bridge. The computer stations were all functional, but displaying emergency alerts, illuminating the darkness in red instead of aqua blue like normal.
With shaking fingers, I activated the terminal in front of me. The basic menu functionality was there, but it wasn’t letting me access anything. Strangely, I was recognized as the owner of the ship, but not a valid user.
I shook my head. She wiped the database and did something to the power, but didn’t have enough time for anything else.
Leaning against the bulkhead wall for support, I made my way to the commander’s quarters. Crouching down beside the bed, I punched in both the numeric and genetic combo to open the concealed safe. It popped open, and stashed among piles of credit chips was a high-density disk with the Zorgon-Peterson logo on it. I reached inside and retrieved it, stuffing it inside my jacket pocket.
My strength was slowly returning, but it was still a struggle just to make it back to the bridge. I collapsed into the pilot’s seat and opened the concealed drive access, inserting the disk and letting the program override. The <reactor critical> message was replaced with <master key detected. Reboot/Restore/Cancel>
I selected <restore> and sat back, inputting my password and letting the system reload from the master disk. The process took awhile but it was worth it. My ship once again recognized me, but that was only one of several problems to fix.
Good. Now let’s get airborne.
<running full diagnostics>
A few minutes passed.
<warning: unknown reactor failure>
<warning: unauthorized file deletion>
<warning: emergency power engaged>
Goddamnit. This is just what I need.
I swung to my right and navigated the menu until I arrived at the <repair/reboot> command. I had only ever had to use it a few times over the course of my career, but it had saved me.
<rebooting… please wait>
The lights temporarily powered off as the ship’s systems shut down. Almost immediately, a warning message flashed:
<warning: reactor fault>
<coolant system failure>
<emergency power activated>
I shook my head. Ok, so it’s not kidding around. Got it.
<contact nearest Zorgon-Peterson service center?>
Routing power to the comm array, I frowned as I hit <Y>. Looks like it’s time to whistle in some help.
“Well, there’s your problem.”
The white and gold-coveralled Zorgon-Peterson technician was crouching in front of the reactor accessway. He hadn’t been down there for longer than thirty seconds, and I was both relieved and disturbed that he had found the problem so quickly. I hunkered down next to him.
“What is it?”
He gestured inside, shrugging. “The master coolant governor.”
I peered inside, curious. “Fried?”
The man pointed inside the compartment, doing his best to hide his annoyance. “See this empty spot in-between these auxiliary regulators? That’s where the module should be. But it’s been removed. Your ship can’t manage the coolant flow without it, and the failsafes put the reactor into lockdown. Ain’t jack shit you can do about it.”
I nodded. That fucking woman. “Right. You got a spare?”
The man nodded. “I do, and it’s a snap to install.”
“Well, that’s all you had to say. Let’s do it.”
The lights shut down, and then then came back on–all the way back on–a minute later. Around me, systems rebooted and the low hum of the reactor resonated throughout the ship. I got up from the pilot’s seat and looked around. Once again, the bridge terminals were a calming blue instead of dire red.
Thank God for roadside assistance. I walked down to the reactor access level just as the man was replacing the panel.
He was packing up his toolbag, giving me a curious look. “Yeah. You’ve got full power, and everything’s in the green. That’s the good news.”
I lifted my chin, leaning against the bulkhead wall and folding my arms. “Yeah? So what’s the bad news?’
The man didn’t answer right away, only crossing his own arms and looking straight at me. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the fix isn’t covered by either Pilot’s Fed or the Zorgon-Peterson warrantee.”
My jaw dropped. “Say what now? I seem to recall reading that remote assistance is fully cov-”
The man interrupted, both worry and annoyance in his face. “You did. Provided that you didn’t violate the terms of the warrantee.”
“The hell are you talking about?”
The man looked around the cramped reactor gantry, his eyes moving from one module to the next. “Listen, pal- I don’t personally care what a pilot does with his own ship. But that reactor is putting out way more juice than factory spec, and there’s some real funny stuff going on with your distributor. I’ve worked on a lot of these ‘Lances, and there’s a plethora of non-Zorgon gear that’s been hooked up. Any idea where all that came from?”
My eyes narrowed. “Fuck you, that’s where.”
The man held up his hands and looked at me cautiously. “Like I said- what a man does with his own rig ain’t my business. But the repair info’s been transmitted, and the claim’s been denied. You can pay me now or you can charge it. But either way, Zorgon’s getting what it’s owed.”
I looked down at my feet, sighed, and then back up to the man. “Fine. What’s the damage?”
A relieved look crossed his face. “For the part? Two thousand credits. For the flight and my time? Another forty-eight.”
Jesus fuck. That’s half the advance already gone.
Grumbling, I pulled out a credit chip and programmed it for the exact amount. Placing it in his outstretched hand, I stood aside to let him out, walking behind him all the way to the Betrayal’s entry ramp. He shook my hand and started back to his company Adder. Pausing, he turned around, an almost mischievous look in his eye.
“By the way- I found a long, black hair in the reactor access. Thought you’d like to know.”
Well, if I can track a shitty wake signal, I can damn well track a fresh one.
The Betrayal’s systems had been fully restored, and I was hunched over the same terminal as before, letting the equipment reconstruct all the wake trails that it could. Fortunately, the one that I had determined to most likely be Vex’s was matched by a new one that led to the same destination.
Then that’s the next step. HM Bootis.
Satisfied, I walked to the commander’s chair and strapped in, plotting the course and trying to make sense of the last day.
Who the hell is this Tanith chick, and what’s Vex to her? Lover? Friend? Relative?
The systems finished activating and I powered up the thrusters, lifting off from the world and watching the horizon drop. I pulled back on the joystick and hit the boost, watching the dull night atmosphere transition into a starfield.
Whoever she is, one thing’s for certain: I’ll bring her ass down for free.
“A week!? You have got to be shitting me!”
The fat man in the grease covered vest shrugged.
“Well ya see, y’all went an’ fried the heat conduction wiring. Ain’t nothin’ to be done ‘cept strip the hull platin’ and re-place it all – else ya’ll cook yourself, second you try an’ charge that FSD”
I knew this – it was the most likely cause of the issues I’d had since I fucked up a simple fuel scoop when I’d entered the system; but I had really been hoping that another set of eyes would find something different. Something that could be more easily repaired.
“Fuck!” I yelled, kicking an empty toolbox across the floor.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
I looked around for something else to kick. The only thing close enough was the mechanic – who wisely took a step back, holding up his oily hands.
“Now look, darlin’ – I ain’t saying you gotta be pleased with this, but if ya’ll start smashing up mah workshop you and I is gonna have a problem – ya hear?”
I took a deep breath. Getting in this guy’s face was not going to help things – not least of which because I needed him to fix my ship; stripping the hull plating not being a thing you can do with a multitool and a smile.
By the way Tannith, a smile could go a long way here to getting this grease bag to fix the Redhead ASAP.
I smiled up at the dude.
“I’m really sorry Jethro. I just…”
How much do you tell a stranger?
Well little honesty couldn’t hurt, could it?
“…I’ve been looking for an old friend of mine for a very long time. I know I’m right behind him – and now you’re telling me there’s a week of work in my ship before I can follow him.”
The man put his hands into his sides and looked glumly at me. “A week if ever’thing else goes smooth. We fix the ships as they come in, and yers is last in line. Now how about you quit worrying that prrdy young head of yours and take a tour planetside? Ain’t nothing to do up here ‘cept drink and whore.”
I let my lip quiver artistically – it wasn’t hard, now the anger was under control there was a very real risk of tears. A woman pulling out a sob or two in front of a man was normally a tactic that I despised – but this was an emergency.
Don’t overdo it, dear. Try to appear brave. But not too brave. Men love being the hero.
I took a deep breath, looking down at my feet and then up to the grubby mechanic. “Please help me. You don’t know what it means for me to get back out there. If something happens to my friend…”
Spinning around, I buried my face in my hands and willed a few tears out of my eyes. And if my shoulders were shaking in rhythm with my sobs, then who was I to help that?
As I had hoped, I felt a rough hand on my shoulder. Behind my hands, my mouth curled into a smile.
That’s right, Jethro. Help the poor young lady out. Be the nice guy.
“Well, uh – I guess I could maybe bump you up a few places. Most of these guys’r just company men anyway, just as happy to sit their asses down on a barstool as in a command’rs chair. I can start on her in a few days. Deal?”
I spun around and threw my arms around the burly man’s neck, giving him the most sincere fake hug of both our lives. Happily, he didn’t smell as bad as I’d imagined.
“Oh, thank you! You don’t know what this means!”
I felt Jethro give me a rough pat on my back, and then pushed me away. He looked embarrassed at the unexpected show of gratitude, looking around and smacking his lips like he didn’t know what to say. Eventually he screwed up his face and gestured towards the repair bay exit.
“Alright, alright, you’re welcome. Just keep it between us, okay? Now g’won! I’ve got ships to fix.”
I kept the grateful smile on my face right up until I left the workshop, then let it slide from my face. I was still going to be stuck here for days; with Vex getting farther away, and – more worryingly, an almost certainly pissed off Matt Lehman closing the gap.
Still, it didn’t mean that I had nothing to do. I casually lifted a safety jacket from pegs at the door to Jethro’s workshop and wandered down towards the main docking bay floor. People make a big deal out of clever disguises – masking their most notable features under hats, behind glasses and in extreme cases, with fake prosthetics. However if you want to move around a major ship dock without being noticed you don’t need any of that, just put on a safety jacket and boom – instant invisibility.
I followed the arrows that led me up to the main transit floor, nodding at the other loaders and techs as they wandered past me. At the top of one of the access hatch I paused and took a moment to enjoy the sight of the kilometer-wide cylinder sloping up and away from me – ships flying above me to their designated landing pads. Fernandez Co-Operative wasn’t a big port by any stretch, which was probably why Vex came here in the first place – no one was going to be asking too many questions. Despite it’s small size though there was a Type-9 coming in to land above me, it’s enormous bulk slowly rotating to line up with the docking pad.
“Ya gonna stand there gawping all day?”
I looked down to find a loader crew standing at the bottom of the ladder, waiting for me to clear the way.
“Sorry – I was just enjoying the view”
One of the loaders – a short fat man with a sour complexion, smirked at me. “So were we luv, but we’ve got places to be – and we can’t stand around staring at your arse all day.”
The other loaders laughed and I scowled at them, which only made them laugh harder. I turned my back on them and pulled myself up through the hatchway – to a chorus of wolf whistles. The first loader started to come up through behind me and was met with the hatchway door closing in his face.
“Ooops! Clumsy me.”
I could hear the guy at the top of the ladder shouting for one of his friends to open the hatch from the controls at the bottom of the ladder – but I was already pulling a nearby cargo container over the top of the hatchway, grunting with the effort.
I took a moment to enjoy the angry thumping from the other side of the now immobile hatch and then – with a self satisfied smile, headed over to the nearest control tower and keyed the intercom on the door.
“Hello, maintainence. Apparently you’ve been having some issues with your terminal?”
“What? No! The terminal here’s working just fine.”
“Bloody miracle too,” the disembodied voice continued. “These things never work right.”
Don’t I know it! In point of fact I was rather counting on it.
“Well I’ve got an open docket to repair your terminal – you mind if I just come up and run a quick diagnostic? That way I can close the docket and be done with it.”
“Sure, whatever makes you happy. Come on up.”
There was a series of clicks as the locking mechanism disengaged and the door swung open.
In the control booth at the top of the stairs there a was a thin man about my age sitting at a terminal, surrounded by dirty coffee mugs and fast food wrappers. He smiled at me apologetically.
“Sorry about the mess – I umm… wasn’t expecting company.”
I grinned back at him.
“Don’t worry. I’ve seen worse.”
He stood up and made a vain effort to clear his desk. Arms bristling with the assorted detritus he bustled off to the other door in the control booth – which I assumed contained the kitchenette.
He paused in the doorway.
“I’ll just make myself a coffee while you do your thing. Can I get you anything?”
Dear god – there are few things worse than dock coffee. Maybe dock coffee in one of those mugs would set a new standard – but I doubted it.
“That would be lovely.” I found myself saying.
He smiled shyly, looking pleased with himself and disappeared through the door.
With him out of the way I plonked myself downing the chair and jacked my dataslate into the terminal on the desk. A few taps and the terminal was searching for every ship that had come through Fernandez in the last four weeks – along with their corresponding owners registration.
A voice from the kitchen reminded me that I wasn’t alone.
“How do you like your coffee?”
In a clean mug?
“Strong and black, please.”
In case he came back in and wondered what I was doing I opened a standard diagnostics tool and set it running a perfunctory scan – hopefully Mr. Tall, Thin and Messy wouldn’t notice the difference.
The man himself pottered back in with 2 steaming mugs, put one on the desk next to me and went and stood by the main window – looking out at the ships coming into land. I took a sip, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the key ingredient was actually honest-to-god coffee.
“This is great, how’d you manage to get real coffee in this shithole?”
Tall and thin turned around and smiled.
“There was a trader came through last week with a haul of it, and he gave me a kick back to get the cargo unloaded fast.”
“Well thanks for sharing your windfall – this is just what I need.”
I took another sip, savouring the flavour. I realised I didn’t even know this angel of mercy’s name. I stood up, wandered over to the window and stuck out my hand.
He took my hand like it might give him and electric shock.
“Daiten.” He said quietly.
Don’t talk to girls much, do you Daiten?
“Nice to meet you. And seriously – thank you for the coffee. You don’t know how much I needed this.”
We stood there chatting for a little while longer while my slate ran the ‘diagnostic’ – watching the traffic come and go. He was actually really sweet. Painfully shy, but quick witted and capable of interesting conversation once he relaxed. I was almost disappointed when the slate beeped to tell me it had finished.
As I downed the last of my coffee and collected my slate I could see Daiten working himself up to say something.
“Umm…Tanith? I was…umm…wondering if maybe you’d like to…ummm…”
I took pity on him.
“Daiten, you are really sweet. And I have enjoyed chatting. And the coffee was a really lovely gesture. But I think I know where this is going, and I can tell you right now that it isn’t going to happen.”
Tanith! That was harsh – look at him. Be nice to him, Now!
Daiten stood there looking crestfallen. I smiled at him and patted him on the cheek.
“Oh sweetie, don’t look like that. It’s nothing personal. It’s just that…well…I think it’s safe to say I like tits as much as you do.”
Daiten burst out laughing, and I gave him a quick hug.
“Don’t worry dude. Besides – trust me when I tell you,” I pointed to myself with my thumb. “You dodged a bullet with this one.”
Daiten shrugged, “Ah well – lucky me I guess. Take care of yourself Tanith. See you around.”
No you won’t Daiten, but never mind.
“Yeah, you too. See you around.”
Even a station like Fernandez gets a lot of traffic in a month- and since I couldn’t sit in the Redhead and sort through my options, I did the next best thing:
I went to sort them in a bar.
This place was only modestly scummy. The floor was clearly cleaned once a week whether the owner thought it needed it or not – and the glasses were at least washed.
I was still on the coffee though, and the quality had declined somewhat since I left the control tower. As had my mood.
Matt had said that Vex was flying a Python, and that he had probably put in here for repairs. It shouldn’t have been that hard to track him down, but everyone seems to fly a Python. I have no idea why, they’re not even that nice a ship. Middle-aged men seem to like them – they’re ‘practical’ and ‘efficient’.
I just think they’re dull.
Finding a quiet corner on the pilot’s bar wasn’t normally something a girl could just do, but local station time was too early for the after-work rush. I set the slate to filter all the results for Faulcon DeLacy Pythons, with a registration starting D-E-X.
Now that’s a more manageable list, isn’t it?
Six names scrolled across the slate’s surface and I started reading.
The fourth ship was called Vindicta and there I hit the jackpot – or so I thought. Not only was this ship registered to Dexter Vex, it was still in dock.
I opened a high priority comms channel with the Vindicta – and too my surprise was answered almost immediately.
In the holoscreen was the face from my childhood. Bald head, sharp features, piercing gaze, the lot – though he was dressed a lot better than I remembered, the simple shirt and waist coat fit him far too well to be anything other than hand tailored. He looked to have been resting in the pilot’s bunk, and had needed a moment to focus at the sight of his unexpected caller.
“Tanith Low? Is that really you?”
Same voice too. Surprisingly deep for such a small man.
I smiled. I’d found him!
“Yes, it’s really me.”
“You don’t recognise me?”
“Well, I don’t really know how I can…”
“How’s your mother? Still the same lovely person I knew all those years ago?”
This conversation was not going how I had envisioned.
Tanith, what exactly were you expecting here? He hasn’t seen you since you were a child. Of course he doesn’t recognise you. You’ll need to show that you know things that only you would know.
“Well, no. My mother’s still a complete cow, to be honest.”
The briefest flicker of what may have been a smile passed across Vex’s face – but it was gone so quickly I couldn’t be sure.
“And here I was hoping that the last six years had mellowed her”
Another test – wow, this guy’s just a touch paranoid, isn’t he?
“Not really, no. She hasn’t really changed in the fifteen since you saw her last either.”
“Uh-huh. And your father’s well?”
This is just getting silly now!
“Oh for crying out loud, Vex! Anyone who’s done enough background on you to dig out your connection to me certainly knows about your relationship with my father – and the fact that he died fifteen years ago, and that you avenged his death, and that you came to see my mother and I to tell us that you’d ‘taken care of things’!”
I took a deep breath to calm myself.
“They may even know that my mother kicked you out of the house when you started trying to tell me what you’d actually done. What the hell are you trying to prove here?”
The image on the slate scowled at me.
“Well, little girl – I’m trying to work out if you are who I think you are. Or if you’re one of a long list of people who suddenly seem to want me dead.”
The ‘little girl’ made me blush to the roots of my dreads. How dare he be so flippant? Did he have any idea how hard it had been to track him down even this far? Bastard!
“I’m not on that list Vex – though I have to say I’m starting to see why it’s such a long one. In fact, the main thing I’m trying to do at the moment is warn you that there is someone who is on that list following you. I met him a few days ago – drugged him, disabled his ship and headed after his last lead. Does that sound like something a ‘little girl’ could do?”
Vex looked at me, irritated.
“Well, he wouldn’t be the first. You didn’t kill him then?”
Vex shook his head contemptuously.
“Then yes: that is exactly what I would expect from a little girl. At most you’ve bought me a couple of days head start – not long enough to cover my trail or change my ship or registration. You’ve just led him straight to me. Do you at least have a name? Or were you too busy being impressed with your own cleverness to get that?”
I bristled. What the fuck was with this guy?
“His name’s Matt Lehman. He’s tall, with a medium build and stubbled face.”
Vex scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Who the hell isn’t?”
Gritting my teeth, I pressed on: “Dark hair, blue eyes, wears a dark leather jacket. He’s flying a black Saud-Kruger FDL with custom fucking everything. The ship’s registration is Inevitable Betrayal. Do you want his fucking shoe size too?”
His eyes narrowed and he leant back, adjusting the cufflinks on his shirt. “Listen, girly: he either finds me or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, I get away. If he does, I vapourise him – just like the last four. Then I get away anyway. I don’t need your help.”
His face hardened and he looked down for a moment, like he was trying to decide what to say. After a moment, he looked back up.
“Now be a good little girl and run home to mummy.”
The image went blank. I swore at it and tried to reconnect but the slate immediately came back with <Recipient is not accepting calls at this time>.
That was not the unbridled success you imagined it would be, was it? We did warn you about chasing down a known sociopath. All things considered, you probably got off lightly.
Past, Present and Future Tanith
I sat there feeling numb, absentmindedly setting down my slate and taking stock of my situation. I had no ship – and even if I did, the man I had wanted to meet clearly didn’t want to meet me. I was stuck at this hole of a station for at least three or four more days. What the fuck was I going to do?
Jethro’s voice interjected itself into my inner monologue.
“Ain’t nothing to do up here ‘cept drink and whore.”
I chuckled bitterly to myself as I looked up, noticing–really noticing–my surrounding for the first time from my booth. Milling around the bar were several pilots, some clustered around tables and others keeping to themselves. There were men and women alike, of various ages and moods. Then, there were the locals mixing it up, too. Some were just here for a drink, but others…
I looked speculatively at the young, curvy woman sitting at the bar in a pair of skin-tight shorts and low cut top who had been saddling up next to every pilot who came in. Looking her up and down, I felt a familiar flash of heat inside me as a new set of priorities took hold.
Maybe Jethro was on to something. What’s that old saying? “When in Rome…?”
I walked over, settling down on the stool next to her. I signalled the barkeep for a pair of shots with one hand, while the other settled on her thigh. Her attention piqued, I was treated to a sultry look that made all the day’s frustrations melt away.
Our drinks appeared, and we wordlessly downed them. The woman set down her glass and took my hand, leading me up and out of the bar. We ascended a rickety metal staircase and started down a bare-metal, dimly-lit hallway. I stumbled forward down the unfamiliar corridor, her hand still leading mine and her eyes shooting naughty glances over her shoulder.
She hit the controls to the furthest door down, revealing a storage unit that had been converted into something resembling a bedroom. With one last smile, she dug her fingers into the front of my trousers and playfully pulled me inside, shutting the door and pressing her lips against mine.
As her hands began to unclasp my belt buckle, the second half of the saying hit me:
Do as the Romans do, Tanith. Do as the Romans do.