Read Galaxy Blues Online

Authors: Allen Steele

Galaxy Blues (9 page)

“If you mean Mike Kennedy, I believe he prefers to be regarded as a valet.” Ted frowned. “Probably our other passenger. Anyone you recognize?”

“Nope. Thought it might be this guy here”—meaning me—“but now that I know better…” She shrugged.

I was still trying to figure out what it was about me that put her off so much, or if she was naturally rude to people whom she'd just met, when the door opened and there was Goldstein. He hesitated just inside the door, looking back for a moment as if to see if someone was following him, then walked into the tavern. I noticed that he left the door open behind him…not by accident, but deliberately, as if to give someone lingering just outside a chance to make up his or her mind whether to come in.

“Gentlemen, ladies…good to see you again.” He stopped just behind my chair, placed his hand on my shoulder. “You found your way here, Jules. Excellent. And I trust you've introduced yourself to everyone?”

“Yes, sir, I have. Thank you, Mr. Goldstein.” From the corner of my eye, I caught a sour look on Ted's face. Perhaps I was coming off as being just a little too deferential to a boss whom no one seemed to respect very much. No one likes a brownnose, especially when he's the new kid in town. “I didn't have any trouble finding my way here,” I added. “All I had to do was follow the cockroaches.”

No one laughed. There was a cold silence as everyone stared at me. “If there are any cockroaches here,” Rain said quietly, “they're probably just the ones you brought with you.”

Emily coughed politely behind her hand, and Ali murmured something in Arabic. Yet Goldstein simply nodded as he pulled back an empty chair. “Perhaps I should have told you about this place before I directed you here,” he said. “The cantina was erected by the original
Alabama
colonists, back in c.y. 01. They built it from materials left over from the construction of their houses, and it's older than even the grange hall. During their first winter on this world, they'd gather around the fireplace, keeping each other company on those long, cold nights when they were unsure of whether they'd survive until spring.”

He glanced over at Carrie, who continued to putter around behind the bar. “Carrie's one of those colonists,” he went on, lowering his voice. “She and her husband kept this establishment going on little more than barter and trade credit until the Union occupation. After the Revolution they came back, repaired the place, and opened it for business again. Lew died a few years ago, but she continues to brew her own ale and fix her own food. So show a little respect, please. You're on hallowed ground.”

There was something in my mouth that tasted like my own foot. “Sorry,” I mumbled. “Didn't know.”

“Don't worry about it,” Ted said. “Thought much the same thing when I first came here. Tip well, and we'll call it even.” Then he turned to Goldstein. “Right. So we've got our shuttle jockey. So where's our ship?”

“Your ship is on the way, Captain Harker. Ganymede-class freighter with only three Jupiter runs logged to her name.” Ted opened his mouth, but Goldstein raised a hand before he could object. “I know you wanted a new vessel, but this is the best I could arrange on short notice. The next boat in its class is still in the shipyard, two Earth-years away from completion.”

“Boat?” Emily scowled at him. “We want a spacecraft, not a tub.”

“Believe me, it's a good ship.” Goldstein leaned back in his chair with the same air of confidence I'd seen when I was in the stockade. The man with all the answers, and the money to buy them. “Besides, you'll have an experienced chief engineer to go with it…someone who knows his ship backward and forward.”

“All right. I'll take your word for it.” Ted picked up his mug, took a sip. “So who are our passengers?”

“Well…” Goldstein took a deep breath. “As you know, one of them is the Prime Emissary, Mahamatasja Jas Sa-Fhadda.”

That caused me to sit up straight. That one of our party would be a
hjadd
was news to me. One more detail about this voyage that Goldstein had neglected to reveal. Or at least to me; no one else seemed to be surprised. “One of the reasons why the ship has been delayed,” Goldstein continued, “is because we've had to retrofit one of its passenger decks as suitable quarters for it…himher, I mean.”

“All right. I can understand that.” Ted folded his arms across his chest. “What about our other passenger?” He nodded toward Ali. “He tells me that you told him that you were bringing someone else, too.”

Goldstein glanced toward the door. He hesitated, and for a moment it seemed as if he was waiting to hear someone say something. “A consultant,” he said at last. “Someone who we'll need for this voyage, strictly in an advisory capacity.”

Again, he gazed toward the door. A few seconds passed, and then a figure slowly appeared. A form draped in a dark cloak, hood pulled up around his face. He lingered for just a moment, then vanished again, without ever setting foot inside the cantina.

“That's Mr. Ash,” Goldstein said. “He's rather shy, and I hope that you'll respect his privacy.”

Rain stared after him. “Weird…”

Yes, he was. Just the same as when I'd first seen him, peering in through the barred window of my jail cell.

PART 2
The
Pride of Cucamonga
( SIX )

Downtime…

the nightlife on Coyote…

the mysterious tenant…

a tense breakfast during which various matters are discussed.

I

We hung around Liberty for another week, local time, more out of necessity than anything else. Our ship had recently undergone refit at Janus's shipyard in Earth orbit, and we were told that it wouldn't be delivered to Coyote until the chief engineer was satisfied that all the new work was up to spec. So we had little to do until then but wait for our ride to arrive.

Before I left Lew's Cantina, Ted handed me a data fiche for a Zeus-class shuttle. It was a different sort of boat than the ones I'd trained to fly—a single-stage-to-orbit heavy lifter—yet I had little doubt that I could handle it. The next day, I wandered around town until I found the comp store I'd spotted while Morgan was driving me to the inn and used a good chunk of the money I'd brought with me to buy a new pad, complete with hologram heads-up. Once I loaded the fiche, I was able to pull up a 3-D simulation of the flight controls, which I used to familiarize myself with what I'd find once I climbed into the cockpit.

I used most of the remaining cash to buy other stuff. Goldstein had given me new clothes, sure, but he hadn't anticipated everything that a well-dressed spacer might need. It took a while, but I finally managed to locate a shop that catered to pros like me. I picked up a pair of stickshoes for zero-g work, a pilot's watch—electronic analogue, with three programmable time zones, a radiation counter, and a bevel—and a pair of sunglasses, along with a utility vest and a miniature tool kit to go with it. The sort of stuff I'd carried when I belonged to the Union Astronautica but which I'd been forced to give back when I was kicked out of the service.

So I shopped, and I studied, and otherwise looked for ways to kill time until my ship came in. That turned out to be harder than I expected. Liberty was the largest colony on Coyote, but that didn't exactly make it a hoppin' party town. Most people there possessed a puritanical work ethic—get up in the morning, have breakfast, go off to work, come home in the evening, have dinner, go to bed—that they had inherited from the original settlers. Once the sun went down, the streets were just about dead. Oh, there was a theatre ensemble—one evening I caught a performance of a play written by a local author, a comedy packed with topical references that might have been side-splitting if I'd known what they were about—and I eventually found a bar on the other side of town that had a half-decent folk trio, if you like music played so slow and soft that you could fall asleep between songs. But even then, everything closed down long before midnight, leaving me to walk home as Bear ascended into the night sky, its silver rings illuminating deserted sidewalks and houses where the lights were going out one by one.

A couple of other things got my interest. One was baseball. Late in the afternoon, once I got through my daily routine of memorizing the layout of the shuttle cockpit and practicing the tutorials, I would mosey over to the Colonial University and watch the Boids practice. For a bunch of kids who'd never set foot on Doubleday Field, they weren't bad. Not great, by any means, but they had their hearts in the right place. I sat in the right-field bleachers and watched the team while they divided into two squads and played off against each other. At first, I winced while these boys and girls committed errors that would have put a Little League team to shame, until I gradually realized that these were third-generation colonists who'd inherited the game from their fathers and grandfathers. Once I came to accept this, I stopped cursing the pitcher every time he walked a batter. Even so, I found myself wishing I could be out there, if only to show these guys how baseball was really played.

My other distraction was Rain.

Most of the crew had other places to live besides the inn. Goldstein flew back to Albion, where I was told he had an estate just outside New Brighton. Ted and Emily had a house in town, and Ali lived in an apartment above a cheesemaker's shop; I'd run into them from time to time, usually while I was out doing errands. Ash had a room at the inn, too, just down the hall from mine, but I rarely saw him, and then only late at night, when he'd lurch back to the Soldier's Joy from Lew's Cantina. He never spoke to me, and from what I could tell, he seemed to be perpetually drunk. On occasion I'd hear a guitar being played in his room, but that was about it. Altogether, everything about him was ominous—there's nothing worse than having a jughead aboard ship—but since he was Morgan's passenger, there was little I could do about it.

Rain had been put up at the inn as well, something I didn't know until the morning of my third day there, when I spotted her in the dining room. She'd arrived before I did, though, and it was clear that she wasn't thrilled to see me. Before I could go over to ask if I could join her for breakfast, she hastily stood up, dropped a few colonials on the table, and scurried out the garden door. When the innkeeper's wife came by to take my order, I asked if the young lady who had just left was another guest. She told me, yes, she was indeed…and pointedly added that Rain's room was on the ground floor, just across the hall from the apartment where she and her husband lived. Just in case, I suppose, I might be a little
too
interested.

Which I wasn't. The last thing I wanted to do was waste my time pursuing a girl who acted as if I had spinach stuck between my teeth. Yet Rain Thompson wasn't just another girl. She was also a shipmate, which meant that we'd have to work together for the duration of our voyage. It wouldn't do either of us any good if she refused to talk to me. One way or another, I'd have to make peace with her.

That turned out to be difficult. Over the course of the next few days, I'd see her every so often, but always from a distance…a distance that she'd seemed determined to keep between us. Several times while walking through town, I saw her coming from the other direction, but when I quickened my pace to catch up with her, she'd either cross the street to avoid me or duck down an alley and disappear. Once while watching the Boids work out, I caught a glimpse of her strolling across the university campus, yet she vanished by the time I came down from the bleachers. On another occasion, I spotted her through a shop window…but that time I held back, not wanting her to feel like she was being cornered.

Yet even as she and I played this little cat and mouse game, I found myself becoming intrigued by her. I'd seen plenty of women who were more beautiful—and to be honest, I'd even slept with a few of them—but there was something about her that fascinated me. I liked the way she moved, the way she dressed, the way she let her hair fall around her shoulders. The only thing I couldn't stand was the coldness in her eyes whenever she looked my way…but even then, that was just one more part of the mystery that was Rain Thompson.

On my eighth day in Liberty, I resolved to solve this enigma once and for all. She got up early in the morning. Well, so would I. That night, I set my watch alarm for 5:00
A.M
., laid out my clothes so that I could get dressed as quickly as possible, and went to bed early. By sunrise, I was seated in the ground-floor parlor, casually reading yesterday's edition of the
Liberty Post
, when I heard a door open and shut just down the hall.

Keeping the newspaper open in front of my face, I waited until I heard her walk into the parlor. The dining room wasn't open yet, though, and her footsteps stopped in front of the door. She hesitated, turned around…and that was when I lowered the newspaper.

“Good morning,” I said.

Rain's eyes went wide, and for a second I thought she'd leap a foot into the air. “Oh my god!” she snapped. “Don't do that!”

“Sorry. Didn't mean to surprise you.” Sure, I did, but there was no point in letting her know that. “Coming in for breakfast? So am I.”

“Well, I…I…”

“Nothing else open at this hour, so far as I know. Unless you'd like to take a walk.”

Her eyes darted toward the front door. “As a matter of fact, I…”

“Good. I'll go with you.” I put aside the paper and stood up. “A little constitutional first thing in the morning is good for the heart, don't you think?” She was still trying to figure out how to answer this when the dining-room door clicked from the inside, and the innkeeper's wife pushed it open. “Or maybe some breakfast first,” I added. “Shouldn't exercise on an empty stomach, you know.”

Rain looked first at the dining room, then at the front door, and finally at me. Unless she wanted to flee back to her room, she was trapped, and she knew it. “Well…all right,” she said, her expression lapsing into sour resignation. “If you insist.”

“Breakfast? Or a walk first?” She shrugged, as if the choice mattered little to her. “Breakfast, then.” I raised two fingers to the landlady. “Table for two, please…and yes, we'd like coffee.”

II

Rain wore a calf-length hemp skirt and a thin wool sweater. When I pulled back the chair for her, I noticed the silver ankle bracelet above her left foot and the turquoise pin with which she'd pulled back her hair that morning. As always, she wore her clothes with elegant simplicity. I'd known women back on Earth who spent hours primping before a mirror to achieve the look she managed to capture with casual ease.

She let me seat her, but said nothing while we glanced at our menus. The Soldier's Joy offered the same breakfast every morning, so the choice wasn't difficult to make: I took two scrambled eggs, a rasher of bacon, toast, and a glass of tomato juice, while she ordered a poached egg, toast, and water. A pot of black coffee was already on the table; once the landlady disappeared into the kitchen, I picked it up and poured a cup for myself.

“You were waiting for me, weren't you?” she asked.

My first thought was to pretend that this was nothing but a coincidence, but she was too sharp for that kind of nonsense. “Uh-huh,” I said. “Got up early. Waited until you showed up.” A yawn rose from my chest as I put down the coffeepot, and I raised my hand to my face. “Pardon…a little early for me.”

“Why?”

“Well…” I picked up my cup, took a sip. “First off, you and I are going to have to work together, and my experience has been that it's best to make friends with your shipmates…or at least get to know them a little better.” The coffee was strong that morning; I added a splash of goat's milk to tone it down. “Second, I'm wondering why you keep trying to avoid me, when…so far as I know, at least…I've done nothing to offend you.”

“Is that a fact?” She sat back in her chair, arms folded across her chest.

“That's a fact.” I took another sip. “Your turn.”

She regarded me for a few moments, as if sizing me up. “Very well, then,” she said at last. “The fact of the matter is that I don't trust you.”

Of all the things she could have said, that was the one that I least expected. At least she could have waited until I didn't have a drink in my hand. Hot coffee sloshed over the rim of the cup and scalded the web of my thumb, causing me to wince. “Damn,” I muttered, hastily putting down the cup and picking up a napkin. “Don't mince words, do you?”

An offhand shrug. “You asked.”

“So what makes you think I can't be…?” A thought occurred to me. “Oh, right. You mean the way I got here. Look, it's a long story, but if you'll let me explain…”

“Don't bother. I know all about that already.” Rain poured coffee for herself; she took it black, ignoring both the milk and sugar on the table. “The fact that you're a stowaway only confirms my suspicions…although, I have to admit, the way you pulled it off was pretty clever.”

“Right up until I got caught, sure.” She said nothing as I folded a corner of the napkin, dipped it into the water glass, and used it to nurse my burned hand. “But why do you say that confirms your suspicions of me?”

Rain absently toyed with a fork, running a finger along its handle. “When Morgan became interested in you, he got someone who works for him to check you out…”

“He told me that. I assume one of his people managed to access my service record.”

“Morgan has his resources.” She picked up her coffee. “There's more to you than meets the eye.”

I had to smile at this. “How kind of you to say so.”

She wasn't amused. “Your brother, Jim, probably thought so, too. Right after you betrayed him.”

Suddenly, this conversation was no longer as charming as it might have been. I stared at her from across the table, trying to decide how much of a gentleman I wanted to be. “That's”—I took a deep breath—“none of your business.”

“It isn't?” Rain stared back at me. “You said it yourself…people should get to know one another if they're going work together on a ship.” She shook her head. “And what I found out about what you did to your brother…”

“You don't know squat about—”

The landlady chose that moment to come through the kitchen door with our plates in each hand. She must have noticed the tension between us, because she hesitated for a moment before she approached our table and, without a word, put the plates in front of us. Neither Rain nor I spoke until she'd vanished once more. I'd lost my appetite by then, but at least the interruption gave me a moment to get my temper back under control.

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