SPACER'S THIRD LAW
1. Never forget that space will always try to kill you.
2. The captain's always right, even when the captain's wrong.
3. Spacer's tape can fix anything but a broken heart.
4. Never go outside the ship alone. (See rule number one.)
5. In zero gee, everything is twice as hard, takes three times as long, and is four times as dangerous. (See rule number one.)
6. The job isn't done until it's done and you're back inside having a beer.
7. Work smarter, not harder, and don't forget rule number one.
8. Twenty-four hours from bottle to throttle. (Each time we've seen these posted, this one has been heavily scratched through.
This story takes place in the same universe as the Dragon's Bidding stories, but about forty years earlier. Because of the bug's unpleasant breeding habits, all female soldiers had been pulled off the front lines, resulting in a decimation of the male troops. Now, two years after the end of the Bug War, the population is approximately three women to every man--many of whom are suffering from PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The story begins in a rundown, gerbat infested bar.....
Love, like war, is easy to start but hard to end. Eric Colcheck’s war ended long over, but love hadn’t yet released its grappling hooks on his heart. Every time he closed his eyes, he could still see Katherine’s face, her eyes wide, a deep, rich brown and dead. He drained the shot glass, and the whiskey flowed down his throat like super-heated plasma. At least he could feel that if nothing else. He waved his empty glass at the barkeep for a refill, hoping there was enough left on his credit chip to pay for one more.
Technically, he wasn’t broke. His personal account was still flush with his separation bonus, and the quarterly medical stipend continued to flow in with mindless imperial efficiency, just as it always had in the two years since he’d left the Imperial Marines at the end of the Tzraka War. He’d just picked the wrong station to back-talk his captain and get kicked off his ship. The aptly named Dead End Station was so far back in the Hinterlands that they had no live banking connections with the Empire, no way to access his account. For the past two months he’d been living off the balance on his credit chip, and now that had about reached zero. The closest Imperial Bank terminal where he could recharge it was on Beckswold, over a hundred light years away. Might as well be on the other side of the galaxy.
No freighter captain with brains of a gerbat put in here, not unless he was paid to bring in a cargo to be transshipped to the Lander’s Federation. Of the handful that had docked, none were looking to hire an extra hand or even take him on as a paying passenger. Now with his financial resources so low, even that last option was closed to him. So he found himself waiting in this filthy bar feeling sorry for himself and spending the last of his money.
A salvage ship by the name of Yggsdrasil had put up a posting for a crewman with a Class-A pilot’s license on the shipper’s board that morning. He’d been careful to keep his license current—the only thing he had going for him—so he’d set up a meeting with her captain, Bru Thorsson. With a name like that he had to be a Fjordlander.
He accepted his fresh drink and took back his credit chip, wincing at the two digit balance when he palmed the display. Maybe it had the cost of a couple of meals left on it if he was careful. After that, if he couldn’t find a job moving cargo on the docks or cleaning up in one of the station’s dozens of bars, he would be eating out of recycle cans, but that was preferable to signing on with one of the mining outfits. Open space mining rated only one step above a trip out an airlock without a vac suit.
He hoped Captain Thorsson turned out to be as desperate as he was.
A tall woman in nondescript spacer’s coveralls strode into the bar, a large tri-color Kaphier cat trotting at her side. His gaze followed her as she stepped to the bar and spoke to the rat-faced woman behind the counter. The newcomer had that lean rangy look he’d always admired in women—hard muscled, small firm breasts and a killer ass. Like Katherine. He squeezed his eyes shut, retreated into his own darkness and sipped his drink.
“You Erik Colcheck?” The voice, a warm contralto, had the broad vowel accent of a Fjordlander.
He looked up and nodded. Of course, it was the woman. With a three to one ratio of women to men in the Empire since the war had decimated its male population, the majority of commercial spacers out here were women. She slid into the seat across the table from him and put down her cup of coffee. The liquid in the chipped mug appeared as black as hydraulic fluid, with an evil rainbow sheet floating on its surface. No one but a pilot would drink that shit. Few ship drivers out here cared, but she must be one of those few who lived by the ancient adage: Twenty-four hours from bottle to throttle.
“Bru Thorsson? I expected a man.” He was hoping it would be a man, or a non-human, or anything but a beautiful woman with dark chocolate colored eyes
“Yeah, and most people expect a Viking, too. My old man was a traditionalist and had a perverse sense of humor. It’s short for Brunhilda, but don’t even think about calling me Hilda. Call me captain and we’ll get along fine.” She took a drink of the coffee, her face screwed up, and she returned the cup to the tabletop pushing it aside.
The cat sat in the chair next to her, its white paws rested on the table and its sapphire eyes studied him intently. He slammed down all the anti-telepath barriers he’d learned in basic training. Kaphier cats freaked him out. Telepaths, always rooting around in other people’s minds.
“You have experience in outside work?” Thorsson asked. A lock of dark chestnut hair escaped from under her billed spacer’s cap and curled against her cheek. She tucked it behind one ear with a casual flick of her fingers.
Outside work. Extravehicular activity. Zero gee, zero atmosphere. Before he could block them, images flooded his mind. Blackness sprinkled with the cold unwinking stars, the bulk of a hiveship hanging overhead, and motionless bodies drifting in clouds of frozen red droplets.
“Yeah, I’ve worked outside.” He took a gulp of whiskey and welcomed the pain pouring down his throat. He looked away from the dark eyes and found himself locking gazes with the cat. Its whiskers twitched. Privacy laws prohibited a Kaphier cat from reading a human without permission, but out here is was common practice for a ship’s captain to depend on one to vet prospective crew people. The cat’s blue eyes blinked, and it yawned. Thorsson nodded, apparently satisfied with her feline compatriot’s evaluation.
“Great, you’re hired. Give me your logbook.” She held out her hand. “I’ll get you registered with the Yggdrasil and we can get the hell off this Yig-forsaken station.”
Her nails were clean, polished and square cut, short like most pilots who didn’t want to risk catching the wrong button on a control panel by accident. Like Katherine’s had been. She probably had the same calluses on the pads of her fingertips from hours tapping at the controls of a ship too.
A shout cut through the bar’s chatter and laughter, followed by the brittle crash of breaking dishes and bottles. He jerked, the shot glass tumbling from his fingers and spraying liquor in the cat’s face. It squalled.
“Sorry. I don’t want your job.” He barely took the time to register the shock on Thorsson’s face before he grabbed his off-ship case from the chair beside him and bolted, pushing through the crowd to the exit, leaving behind his last chance to escape his personal purgatory.
“What the hell was that about, Lilly?” Bru Thorsson asked the cat as she watched Colcheck disappear out of the bar.
“Bug-burned.” Pity colored the cat’s mind voice.
“That wreck was a veteran of the Tzraka War?”
“When you mentioned outside work I caught a glimpse of something, but he shut down on me pretty quick.”
“Psy-blocking? I thought the Empire only trained their elite troops to do that, not grunts.”
“Could be he just hates telepaths. I picked up on a lot of resentment about my being here. He was afraid I might be reading him.”
“That’s why I bring you along.” Bru started to take a drink of coffee but put the cup down with a grimace.
As a teenager, young and stupid, she’d wanted to sign up with the Imperial Fleet and fly dropships, even after she learned the life expectancy of the pilots was less than six months. Her father had refused to sign off on her enlistment, probably the only reason she was still alive. Instead, he apprenticed her to her uncle on the Yggs and when Lars Thorsson died she took over the captaincy herself.
“Damn, Lilly, we need him. He’s the only unassigned person on the station right now who has a Class A license. And I certainly don’t have the resources to woo someone away from another ship.”
The cat nibbled on a claw. “Actually, all you need is his log book.”
“Are you suggesting I roll him and steal it?”
“It’s been done.”
Bru shook her head. “That would strand him here and I wouldn’t wish this gerbat infested hole on anyone. Even Cam. Why’d Traffic Control on this dump have to be such sticklers? I can fly the Yggs by myself just fine. I don’t need a second crew member.”
Regulations stated that a Lister SA-17 needed a crew of two licensed pilots, minimum, but Bru had been operating the ancient salvage ship on her own for the last three months—ever since she and Cam ended. Cam Sebastian had been her partner, in business and in bed, for more than a standard year, but the best of things come to an end. Even the immense bulk of the Yggs had been uncomfortably small for two ex-lovers to share, particularly when one sulked in his cabin and refused to pull his own weight.
When they put in at Dead End Station, Cam cleaned out their jointly held ship’s operation account and bought a ride on an outbound freighter, leaving her stranded until she could find another crew member. For now, her personal account paid the docking fees, but they wouldn’t cover them for much longer. As soon as she blew through that money, the Dock Master could begin filing the forms to impound her ship—which was probably how the bitch supplemented her income. Her only other option would be to comm Fjordland and ask her father to front her the money, but that could take weeks to get here and those docking fees would be mounting every day. And asking her family for money felt like failure. Finances were stretched equally as thin at home, what with her brother’s medical bills. She’d do everything within her powers to avoid that, even if it meant kidnapping Colcheck.
“Can you follow him, Lilly?”
“He smelled like a distillery, and I don’t think he’s seen the inside of a shower for several weeks. I would think even a deficient human nose like yours would be able to track him. And he’s leaving a psychic trail of self-pity as wide as a small asteroid. So, yeah, no problem. We going to roll him?” The cat jumped down and headed for the door.
“No, but I am going to shanghai Mr. Colcheck.”