Authors: Marie Andreas
To all my family and friends who believed in me.
“Where the hell is my ship, Skrankle?” Captain Vaslisha Tor Dain slammed the salvage dealer against the peeling office wall and pressed hard on his neck. The putrid orange slime he oozed in self-defense crept toward her feet and she stepped sideways. Damn it! If he ruined her second favorite pair of boots, she was going to do more than choke him—providing the smell that came along with the slime didn’t suffocate her first.
Vas was a simple sort of mercenary. All she wanted in life was her ship, her crew, and a good fight. Now this whimpering scumbag had destroyed that. Her gut knotted up as worry and anger fought inside her. Anger was an old friend. Worry was a stranger and she liked it that way. Skrankle was getting to share all of her feelings first hand and wasn’t faring well from it. The dark blue patches covering his red fleshy cheeks couldn’t bode well for his continued survival.
Vas squeezed his neck tighter.
More orange slime dripped down the wall behind Skrankle. His left arm twitched out and tugged futilely at her hand. He got enough air to choke out a few words. “I said to you, Captain,
is in slip five. There she’s been all month.”
Vas increased pressure on his throat until he darkened at least two more shades, and eventually let him collapse. She wiped her hands on her heavy brown duster. While not traditional starship mercenary garb, it suited her just fine. “Slip five is empty, Skrankle. You were supposed to fix her. Not lose her.”
The Ilerian gathered himself and slithered to his desk. He slurped into his chair with a heavy sigh and a nasty sucking sound. The rustle of bureaucratic skill he demonstrated in calling up his vid-screen indicated he’d recover from her stranglehold. Unfortunately.
“Records of mine say the
docked here twenty-nine days ago. Scheduled decommission ten days ago…”
Vas pulled her heavy blaster free of its hip holster the instant “decommissioned” left his thin purple lips. “You ripped my ship apart?” The polished muzzle of her weapon found a home against his temple. The urge to pull the trigger made her mouth go dry, but the need to find her beloved ship forced her finger to stay still. An odd feeling slammed into her, starting in the pit of her stomach and clawing its way up to her throat. It took almost a full minute to recognize it as fear. She forced it back down.
Skrankle whimpered, and frantically pushed a few more buttons. “No, I’m sure there’s mistake—a mistake. Yes, yes. Mistake, I’m sure.”
She kept the blaster to his head and leaned over to look out into the space station shipyard through the slimy window of his office. Vas tried not to think what he’d done to the window to leave that light green ichor on it.
The Lucky Strike space station was just large enough to provide enclosed berthing and repair docks for a handful of questionable salvage and repair dealers who couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. The vast majority were stuck here paying off debts owed to the gambling dens on the shiny planet below. The planet Tarantus IV was a playground for the rich and infamous of the Commonwealth, and its castoffs ended up on this space station.
The view out the window didn’t give her much hope. Rusted and dented airlocks kept the vacuum of space from the battered vessels within. The small dock managed to look roomier than it actually was due to the lack of ships; only two ancient Arelian scout ships and one Gallant-class cruiser languished there. The Gallant-class cruiser appeared to be a few years newer and far flashier than her own beloved ship. The outer skin was so polished that it softly glowed in the dim repair bay—definitely not the type of ship typically found on the Lucky Strike. The damn thing even looked to have some elaborate ship tats decorating the lower and upper decks.
She shook her head. Tats were possibly the most useless thing on a ship; who in space cared if your ship had filigree markings running down its sides? Probably retrofitted for a rich, inner-planet bureaucrat who wanted to show off how well he could waste Commonwealth funds. And who spent his last minutes in some back alley down on the planet below. The cruiser may have started out as a warship like the
but it sure as hell had left that life long ago. There was no way anyone could have mistaken that for her ship.
Not even someone as stupid as Skrankle.
Vas turned slowly back to Skrankle. Tiny beads of sweat clustered down the sides of his neck. He was dead the instant she found her ship.
He erupted into a series of grunts, his five arms furiously typing queries into the battered vid console. He knew he was dead.
“You see, Vas—” He froze when her blaster pressed deeper into his temple. “Captain. Orders confused with the other Gallant-class. That ship
taken in smuggling raid and scheduled to be decommissioned and parts sold.” The words tumbled from his lips so rapidly it took five seconds for the meaning to reach Vas’s brain.
“You’re telling me that you took my ship apart because you got the wrong ship? How in the hell could you have confused a fighting ship like the
a gilded yacht like that thing out there? ” Her grip on the blaster tightened until her palm burned. The need to splatter Skrankle’s brains on the wall was so bad that her back teeth started to ache.
“Get it back.”
His head bobbled back on his neck, shortening it to ridiculous proportions. “Pardon?”
“My ship. I want my ship.
All of it
.” She accented each word with another nudge of her blaster. For added impact she withdrew her dagger and lifted his chins with it. Orange ooze filled his chair.
“But, but, but…I told you. Pieces. It’s in pieces.”
Vas pulled the dagger free of his neck folds. Ilerians had a tendency to shut down completely when scared too much. She wanted him dead, but not until she had her ship.
“You said that. So, now find those pieces. Every. Single. Damn. Part. Put them back together.” She nodded toward the shipyard and the lone Gallant-class sitting in the docking bay. “I’ll take that ship for now.”
“But I can’t…the Council—” Skrankle stopped talking when Vas’s dagger resumed its place against his throat. “Acceptable, she is yours. Keep her and we’re even?”
“Give me the code so I can do a run-through. This is a loaner, Skrankle. I get my ship within two months or I’ll leave your slimy carcass on the nearest desert planet.” Swamp grass was the only export for the Ilerian home world. As a race, they didn’t fare well in dry air.
He quivered and pushed a code pad at her.
With a nod, she grabbed the pad and jogged into the narrow corridor, then down the short stairwell leading toward the dock and the new ship. The ship tats were a full series of elaborate, ornate, and utterly ridiculous markings done in a clean gold line. Tats were unheard of on anything as large as a Gallant-class cruiser, but the designs made it look larger than its class. The Gallants weren’t designed to hold more than two hundred or so crew and this looked ready to take on at least four hundred. The closer she got, the more she realized that it wasn’t just the designs making it look big. The ship was huge. Half again as large as the
. The remodel had been done so subtly that the shape of a regular Gallant-class was still there, just larger.
Now why would someone increase the size of a new Gallant-class ship instead of just upgrading to a Regulator-class?
Her engineers would need to look over the changes carefully. They were stuck with this thing for now, but they might as well take advantage of any upgrades they could.
She aimed the code pad at the ship and flipped through the scans. The bones of the ship scanned solid. Walking inside verified that it was as clean and tight as the outside appeared. The command deck brought out an unintended whistle of admiration from her. The bridge held thousands of credits’ worth of extras. And that was only what she could tell at a glance. The navigation station was enough to make her nav officer chain himself to the command deck. The newest FG-8 nav console that filled the space was so new that the screens still had installation protectorate on them. A glance past that told her she was going to have a problem with her two pilots. Those two hot heads would fight to the death over the prototype of the X-5 pilot web. Those babies weren’t supposed to be on the market for another seven months at least.
However, it was the weapons console that made her feel like she needed to go get a cigarette. She couldn’t help but fondle the Lazerous missile controls. Who in the hell would put these things in a flouncy pleasure cruiser like this? Hell, she’d never heard of them being installed in anything lower than a Regulator-Command cruiser. Yet, here they were, both forward and aft versions, neat as could be. Finally forcing herself away, she leaned against the command chair. White leather conformed to her shape where she leaned in against it. Damn. Reluctantly, she let herself slide into it. The chair cradled and supported her body better than a grandmother holding a newborn infant. A sigh escaped her as she investigated the controls on the arm consoles. Two systems were complete unknowns. They appeared to be high-grade military, but the coding was different. She’d have Gosta investigate them before she thought about using them. She forced herself to leave the white-leather wonder. With one more pat on its arm, she headed off the bridge and toward the crew quarters.
The longest corridor led into the captain’s quarters. She let out another low whistle as she palmed open the doors. It reminded her more of a luxury barge than a Gallant-class cruiser. The room was twice as wide as her old quarters with the overstuffed bed swallowing more than half of the space. The fixtures were delicately carved of Litharian green woods, something she’d only seen in museum vids. Artifacts from twenty worlds she could recognize were embedded into the marbled surface surrounding the bed. The artifacts alone were worth more than the
and included six bladed weapons from the dead planet of Hosset. Vas wondered if she could pry them free when they finally found her own ship.
Satisfied that this extravagant ship would at least get them to their next battle intact and ready to fight, she finally ventured to the one place she hadn’t gone yet: the captain’s ready room.
On a practical level she knew it wasn’t her ready room. There would be no deep dents accenting the walls from some of her more memorable benders. No stains from thrown cups of hot solie. No memories of the ghosts of long-lost crewmates. However, logic played little in the visceral reaction she had upon staring at these pristine powder gray walls. She told herself it was just fatigue that caused her eyes to blur. However, the fact was, more than any other place in the galaxy her ready room had been
. The place she could run to when the deaths of those she cared about got to her. A mercenary captain needed to be strong. Not even her closest friends could know how the deaths ate at her. But her ready room knew.
The sterile and perfect room before her rammed home how far she was from setting foot in that refuge again.
She shook her head to clear away the ghosts and let the door slide shut. She was half-way to the airlock before she thought to check the ident chip for the ship.
The official name and all of a ship’s history was stored in those idents, and even she hadn’t found a way to change them for long. The Commonwealth kept tight controls over ship names for security purposes. The ident should be in the code pad Skrankle gave her, but it wasn’t in the first dozen documents on file. After a judicious bashing of Skrankle’s code pad against the bulkhead when it tried to die on her, Vas managed to find the ship’s identity.
Her swearing at the ship’s name would have peeled the paint off the bulkhead if this ship hadn’t been upgraded with the top of the line sealant. That explained the over-the-top upgrades.
She ran out of the ship and kicked open the door to Skrankle’s office. “What the hell are you trying to pull? That’s the
. I can’t be seen taking my people for mercenary jobs in a brothel cruiser. Get me another ship.”
The corners of his mouth twitched, but he stopped before a full smile appeared. “Sorry. Only ship. Gallant-class cruisers hard to find right now.”
Vas reached for her dagger. Granted the blaster would be more efficient, but she didn’t want efficient. She wanted slow and messy. With no way to change the ident, she’d be hauling her sorry ass around in an interstellar whorehouse. She and her crew would be the objects of ridicule everywhere.
“Yiiiii!” Skrankle burst into a horrific screeching noise that quickly climbed out of her range of hearing. Then he slid under his rusty metal desk. Considering how much bigger he was than the space, he couldn’t be comfortable. Vas didn’t care; she could slice him into smaller bits so he’d fit better.
“You can die under there or out here, but you’re getting me a damn different ship. Mercs can’t use something like that.
can’t use something like that.” No way in hell she would risk her hard-earned rep slinging that gilded tart around the space lanes. Female mercs had to work three times as hard to get the same jobs as males. It didn’t matter what species. Even in the matriarchal races, female mercs had it worse than males. The idea of trying to terrorize her opponents while in such a horrifically ill-named vessel made her want to see how long Skrankle would last in an open airlock.