Decker has already accepted Samantha's payment for a job he has no idea about. All that remains is to convince the crew to come along. He asked for it; one big job. What could go wrong?
The message to return to the Matilda had reached Eliza’s comm an hour earlier, right in the middle of a hot streak playing Zalaxian ten-card poker. Being able to adjust her cybernetic eye to track and count the normally imperceptible blemishes on the cards had almost nothing to do with it. She’d played the first hand legitimately, giving the dealer a chance to prove he was dealing fair, but noticing some fancy sleight-of-hand, she realized no one at that table was going to win much. It was a dirty table, and Eliza had been happy to even the odds; for herself, at least. Her winnings had added up along with sidelong glances from other players and angry stares from the dealer. No one said anything, of course. They never did. Looking the way she did, what could they possibly threaten to do to her that was worse than what she’d obviously already endured?
Eliza stepped off the last of the metal stairs that led up from the docking hatch and strode into the crew lounge. She frowned. No one else was here yet. Well, besides Sellivan, who was seated in his usual spot at the far end of the bolted-to-the-floor dining table. She supposed that he counted, even if his enthusiasm rivaled that of the corpse they had stashed down in the cargo hold. Figured that he would be the one to make it back before anyone else.
Seeing that she had some time, she pulled off the vibrant red jacket—the one with the metal studs across the back, its left sleeve cut off like all the rest of her sleeved attire—and tossed it onto the worn sofa in the middle of the lounge as she crossed into the galley. It had felt like a ‘red’ day. Her chromatically dyed hair had been colored to match the jacket and was currently pulled into a topknot, leaving the side of her face and head exposed.
On the station, she’d wanted people to see the scar tissue that covered her left side, the comm disk in place of an ear, the black and white polymer arm and its smooth, artificial movement. Prosthetic limbs could be made that were virtually indistinguishable from real ones, and the scar tissue could have been surgically smoothed-over. But why bother? No one gave her much trouble this way, and if they did, she knew they really meant business.
She walked behind the galley counter and rummaged through the rack of half-empty bottles of liquor, pulling them up one at a time and inspecting each with an appraiser’s eye. She scrunched up her lips in contemplation. Dellacian whiskey, or something they’d picked up on Mentaryd called ‘Mr. B’s Rocket Fuel.’ The whiskey was brown; the rocket fuel neon green. Choices. She shrugged and grabbed both.
Setting a glass tumbler on the counter, she added the ingredients for what would count as lunch. Or maybe dinner; hard to tell while in orbit. But that was the best part. Down on the surface of whatever planet you were circling, it was happy-hour somewhere, and in orbit, you could choose which time zone you were beholden to.
Into the tumbler went three parts rocket fuel, two parts whiskey, one part carbonated water, and a handful of ice. She gave it a quick stir with one of the cybernetic fingers, watching the brown and green mix into something entirely unappealing. She tasted it and sputtered.
“Hmm. Like licking a battery terminal,” she said, makeup covered eyes squinting in pain as she took another—larger—sip. She set the tumbler down and took a pull straight from the bottle of rocket fuel. Mid-chug, she caught Sellivan watching her in disapproval.
She returned his stare with a look of befuddlement. “What? You don’t expect me to drink that on an empty stomach, do you?” she said, gesturing to the tumbler.
Sellivan frowned, his gaunt features looking particularly skeletal today. She set the bottle down and then raised the glass to him.
“Care for anything yourself, Selli? I’m happy to tend bar for you.”
Sellivan sighed dismissively. “Wisdom cautions against substances that rot the mind.”
Eliza shrugged and took a long drink, making an exaggerated ‘ahhhh’ sound as she finished. “Yeah? Well, I figure I got one replacement kidney already, might as well go for two.”
Sellivan shook his head, then turned his attention back to his datapad. Eliza hummed a jaunty tune as she walked around the galley counter and plopped down into one of the thickly padded chairs arranged in a semicircle next to the sofa, all the seating facing the enormous vidscreen mounted against the bulkhead.
From the corridor that led to the docking hatch, the ‘clunk-clunk-clunk’ of boots reverberated from the metal stairs. Heavy ducked his head to fit through the doorway into the lounge, the man’s gigantic frame barely squeezing through the average-sized opening.
“Eliza! Decker call us up just for drinks?” Heavy said, clapping his hands and rubbing them together eagerly. “Whatever they’re serving in those station bars has got to be more water than anything else.”
Eliza held up her tumbler of brownish-green swill. “We got plenty of stronger stuff, but I think we’ll need a whole lot more if it’s going to have an effect on you.”
Heavy chuckled and sheepishly waved the comment away. Eliza had seen what Heavy could put down. What would have killed an average-sized person didn’t even slur his speech. As efficient as her artificial kidney was, she imagined his had to be the size of her head. Each.
“Well Hev, feel free to join me. The chaplain here turned me down. And you know what they say about drinking alone. Only drink when you’re alone or with somebody.”
Heavy grinned and stomped toward the galley fridge while Eliza took another gulp of her concoction. Sellivan gave no indication that he heard her, but Eliza suspected he absolutely had. Reaching the fridge, Heavy yanked the door open and pulled out—with a single hand—a pair of canned Hirukan ales.
“I think I could go for one or two while we wait,” he said, delicately using an enormous finger to pull back the tab on each can.
“A fine choice. Now we outnumber the teetotaler,” Eliza said, gesturing for Heavy to join her in front of the vidscreen. She heard a sigh from the dining table; so Sellivan was paying attention.
Heavy maneuvered his way around the galley and dropped onto the sofa, his enormous frame taking up a little more than two of the three cushioned spaces. The crew lounge was scattered with remnants of full-time ship-living; dirty dishes, discarded foil wrappers from packaged meals, games both analog and digital, someone’s studded red jacket, a couple of stray bolt-pistols that didn’t look entirely discharged, and more industrial-strength tape holding furniture together than Eliza last remembered. She vaguely recalled Decker grumbling that ‘no one picks up their shit,’ but knowing the state of his quarters since she’d last peeked inside, it was hard to take that complaint too seriously.
She picked up the remote for the vidscreen and turned it on, browsing through the live feeds coming in from the local Clarita broadcasts.
“…Kestrel activity in The Fringe escalated today as reports of…”
Eliza groaned. “Ugh. News. Pass.”
“…on the last episode of space-freighters, we saw…”
“Reality vids. Boring.”
“…I’ll kill you for what you did to my son!…”
“Bleh. Seen it.”
She flipped to another feed, the sound of a cheering crowd filling the lounge.
“…and the Gargarian Asteroids take the lead with that stunning six point conversion…>
Heavy’s head jerked forward. “Oh, smashball!” He gestured to the vidscreen, his smile filling the lounge with warmth. “The Asteroids! I played against them, way back when.”
Eliza toasted to him, turning sideways in the chair and hanging her legs and booted feet over the side. She took another drink and called out over her shoulder. “Hey Selli, come over, take a break. What are you doing, anyway?”
Sellivan did not look up from his datapad. “Studying.”
She snorted. “Yeah? Hopefully combat jump tactics.”
Sellivan’s eyes rolled up to stare across the top of the datapad at her, peeking beneath his thin, lowered eyebrows. “I seem to recall a decidedly un-shot-down torpedo necessitating those tactics.”
Eliza winced and found somewhere else to look. “Oh. Right. Well, you still did great! Better than I did; what a disaster that was.” She took another drink and muttered into her glass. “Not good for business.”
“I’ll say,” Heavy bellowed, smacking a hand across his knee. “And, we still got, you know who, on ice down in the cargo bay.” He pointed at the floor, shaking his head in remorse.
Eliza smiled weakly in solidarity. That moment, her mechanical arm began to beep softly. The smile faded. She quickly placed her drink between her knees and opened a small panel on the underside of the cybernetic forearm, using her flesh-and-bone fingers to make some adjustments.
Heavy leaned toward her, brow lowered in concern. “Battery problem? You know, if you let me take a look…”
Eliza shook her head rapidly, red-painted lips pressed together. She gave the fingers on the detachable hand a quick test flex, then tucked the arm between her body and the chair, away from Heavy’s view. If he knew how often these warnings happened, and how much it hurt, there would be no end to his concerned pestering.
“No. It’s okay. Just some tweaks or whatever,” she said, focusing her attention on the vidscreen. She could see Heavy trying to pretend like he was joining her in watching the sport on the screen, the gigantic man conspicuously watching her out of the corner of his eye; he must have forgotten the extended field of view on her artificial one couldn’t be hidden from that easily.
Eliza pushed the feeling of dead-arm-anxiety away and forced a fresh smile. “So, any bets on what brilliant fix-all plan the co-captains have gathered us together for?”
Heavy shrugged. “Nope. But, they’ve got us this far, I’m sure Deck has come up with something.”
Eliza angled her cybernetic ear toward the corridor; the sound of overly confident steps rang out against the metal stairs.
Decker held up his hand, ready to fend off whatever protest was coming. “This job’s gonna pay enough to fix up the ship and cover all the lost pay from Talius. Everyone will be squared up, we’ll be flying right, even have a little breathing room while we get back in a rhythm,” he said, hoping he was projecting the undiluted confidence he intended.
Eliza’s jaw dropped in exaggerated shock. “Just in our time of need.” She clasped her hands together in gratitude and excitedly brought them to her face. “What are we looking at exactly?”
Manu spoke up, just as he and Decker had rehearsed. Better to spread the responsibility around between the two of them, the crew knew Manu would have already been the voice of tempered reason. “Logistics. We pick up the client, don’t ask any questions, give them some tactical support from a distance, and then head to the nearest chop-shop and get Matilda fixed-up.”
Eliza’s voice rose. “Tactical support, huh? As in, the client can handle themselves and we’re backup?” she said, taking another intentionally long, loud, exaggerated sip of her brown-green concoction. “I don’t suppose we know what this ‘tactical support’ actually entails?”
Heavy joined in, his concern genuine. “Yeah, and what’s the point-A and point-B? We can’t exactly set Matilda down on solid ground. Does, uh, whoever this is, know we’ve got a busted wing?”
Decker fielded this obvious question, just as rehearsed. Time to break the news. “Well, part of the deal is that we get specifics once they’re on board. But right now… our client needs to get out of Kestris.” Decker held up his hand to forestall any questions. “We’ll pick them up on Starview Station. They already sent an arrival time, and it’s tight. No destination yet, all part of the ‘no questions asked.’”
“The heart of the empire? We’re not exactly the cleanest of operations, Decker,” Sellivan said, his attention finally caught.
Decker was ready. “We’re clean enough. We’ve got no Imperium warrants out, and Matilda is ‘legally’ registered. The parts of her that matter, at least. Turns out, keeping our trouble-causing contained to out here in the Fringe has kept us out of the empire’s focus remarkably well.”
Heavy squinted one eye, looking up to the ceiling. “Okay Deck. Give me a few days, I’ll get in the E.V. suit, bandage up that nacelle enough to give us another week or two. It won’t have power, of course, but we could endure atmosphere a few times before needing a dry dock.”
Decker cleared his throat. “About that. We need to be in the jump today to make the pickup.”
“Today?” Eliza yelped, nearly spilling her drink. “Even if this rig was at one-hundred percent, I’d still want to be packing extra firepower if we’re heading to central. But you want to jump to Kestris before we can even stabilize the damage? This must be some job!” she cackled.
Sellivan stood, approaching the group, eyes narrowed at Decker, making his sunken eye sockets even more sunken. “You’re very motivated to get this job. Too motivated.”
“Motivated?” Decker waved his arm at the ship. “If motivation means wanting to keep this operation up and running, then yeah, I’m motivated. The alternative is what? Crawling into the crate with Jerith?”
Heavy leaned forward, face deep in contemplation. “If we’re that short on time, I can keep the whole nacelle powered down and isolated, but we’ll be stuck to vacuum-only until we can fix it right. Any atmosphere at all would just rip it apart until I can plate over it.”
Decker clapped his hands together and grinned. “So we can do it. Perfect, because I’ve already agreed to the job and taken the pay up front.”
“Hah! Already accepted!” Eliza said, downing the remainder of her drink all at once.
Sellivan brought a hand up to his chin, squinting both eyes and walking within arm’s reach of Decker. “If we’re already committed, I think we’re entitled to know what we’ve been bought for.”
Decker met Sellivan’s gaze. “Ten-thousand each, and we’ll also cover what each of you were going to lose on the Talius job. Manu and I will be putting our cuts toward repairs,” he added, hoping this would tip the attitudes in his favor.
“Hey, ten-thousand each! That’s not bad.” Heavy said, looking to the others and nodding. “Nice work, Deck.”
“Fifty thou in cuts, plus you think you can fix that nacelle?” Eliza said, tapping out some math on her metal fingers. Decker knew what was coming. “That’s at least eighty thousand total. You really getting that much?”
“Yeah, something like that,” Decker said, technically true. “The crew and Matilda is Manu’s and my responsibility. We owe it to all of you to make sure we stay afloat.”
Eliza raised an eyebrow and shrugged. Sellivan said nothing, still staring at Decker. Heavy just looked to each person in the room, grinning and nodding his head in agreement. Decker braced for the obvious next question, but none came. Finally, Manu stepped forward, a look of grim confusion on his face.
“Don’t any of you want to know who is hiring us for that kind of money?” he said. The three crew members all paused and looked at each other, not a trace of concern on their faces.
“Uh, sure, yeah,” Heavy said, slowly nodding. “I mean, we sort of figure that you two handle all that. I keep us flying. Eliza keeps us fighting. Sellivan keeps us—”
“Sellivan keeps us smiling and in his Creator’s good graces, right chaplain?” Eliza said, winking at the gaunt man.
Sellivan kept his eyes on Decker, a grimace bending his thin, pallid lips. “Please. Continue.”
“Right.” Decker quickly replayed the defense he’d been preparing. “It’s an old acquaintance of mine from back in my navy days.” He paused. “Someone I’ve worked with from way back. Before we were all together.”
Everyone stared at Decker.
“And?” Eliza said, raising an expectant eyebrow.
“Yes, Decker. And?” Manu added, unhelpfully.
Decker glared at his business partner. “It’s Samantha Mori.”
Sellivan smiled knowingly. Heavy looked from Decker and Manu in confusion.
Eliza’s eyes went wide. “Oh, that’s what the hard-sell approach was all about.” She threw her head back and laughed. “Very convincing.”
“Someone from your navy days?” Heavy asked. “Should we be concerned? I thought you didn’t…”
Decker cut him off. “Only concerned that she’s got the money to bail us out and I know her well enough to say that it’s legit.” Decker willed a casual smile. “Everything will be fine.”
“You’re the captain,” Eliza said. She caught Manu’s eye. “You too, half-captain.”
Manu snorted at the title. Heavy gave a nod of agreement, “Yeah, Deck. If you’re in, we’re in.”
Decker rubbed his hands together, ignoring the strange feeling of anxiety at how easy this had been. “Okay. Well… then we’re set. Heavy, take the credits, do what you can to keep us flying. Selli, plot a course to Kestris, coords are incoming to navigation. Eliza, check our supplies. Anything we need, grab from the station, I’ll cover it.” He turned and gave Manu a pat on the arm. “Me and the half-captain here have a burial at sea to conduct.”
Decker’s neck muscles tensed at the chilled air in the cargo hold as he and Manu lifted the freeze-crate that held Jerith’s body. There was nothing wrong with the Matilda’s environmental control system, the rest of the ship was comfortably heated, and the crew quarters each had independent climate control. The cavernous cargo bay, however, was unheated. Being an enormous cube of empty air, there was no reason to maintain a comfortable temperature other than keeping it just above freezing. Given the task at hand, the morgue-like refrigeration seemed fitting.
“Let’s be clear; you convinced everyone this was a good idea. Everything that happens as a result is on you,” Manu said, making no attempt to hide his disapproval. Decker shook his head at the comment.
“As long as getting credit for securing the payday is on me as well, I can live with that. When we’re all fixed up and back in business, who are you gonna thank?”
Manu grunted, nodding at the crate. “Not this guy, that’s for sure.”
The jump to Kestris was charted, and this was their last matter of business to attend to. Jerith wouldn’t be coming with them. They had no next of kin information for him; they weren’t even sure Jerith was his real name. They certainly couldn’t ask Fioli, and turning him over to any authorities would just bring down unnecessary scrutiny they couldn’t afford to risk. Before sealing the crate, Decker had asked Sellivan to conduct whatever it is believers of his religion did for the dead. He could give Jerith that much, hopefully he would have appreciated it.
The two lowered the crate onto the conveyor belt of one of the Matilda’s ejection ports, a system normally used to eject inorganic matter into the void of space without needing to break the air seal of the cargo bay doors. Right now, the ejector was serving as the pallbearer at the most awkward of burials.
“We really doing this?” Manu said, growling at the makeshift casket.
Decker wiped the cold sweat from his forehead. “Being jettisoned into space isn’t the most dignified place to end up, but it’s a better end than whatever would happen if we turned the body over to Fioli.”
Manu shook his head. “I suppose. If I end up like this, you find some dirt to bury me in. I don’t care how far you have to haul me.”
Decker gestured to the crate. “You want to say something?”
Manu tilted his head as if he hadn’t heard correctly. “‘Say something?’ Decker, I never even saw the guy, and I ain’t opening the crate up to take a look now.”
Decker sighed. “Yeah. Good point.” They both paused and stared at the crate. No, this was not a dignified way to go, not one bit.
“He didn’t seem that bad for a hired corporate criminal,” Decker muttered.
Manu folded his arms. “I think that term might describe us as well, after all this. We did get this guy killed in the course of his kidnapping.”
Decker shook a finger in protest. “No. IoCorp killed Jerith. We just had incidental damage during transport. Fioli should have taken out a life-insurance plan on him first.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me if he did.”
A chuckle escaped Decker’s mouth, one he quickly gulped back down. “Right.” He cleared his throat. “Well, uh, Mr. Jerith, currently from—well, not currently, but recently—somewhere in the Fringe, I don’t know what you believed, but whatever that was, imagine that we’re giving the customary last rites that align with your belief system.” He paused, searching. “Uh, If you believed you might go somewhere bad after you die, I hope the earlier part of your life was not so focused on thievery and killing. Maybe you were making some final amends while we had you gagged.” He paused again, this time longer. “Sorry you were killed. We had hoped to bring you back alive. You know, we weren’t hired to hurt you, but…” Decker’s statement weakly trailed off. They weren’t hired to hurt him, true, but he knew Fioli would have enjoyed taking retribution against Jerith after they delivered him. They never should have taken a bounty job.
Both men stared at the crate. Manu broke the silence. “Some eulogy.”
Another pause, another stare.
“This doesn’t feel right,” Manu muttered.
Decker scowled. “Look, I’ve never given a eulogy before.”
“Not the eulogy. I mean our mystery job. Samantha.”
Decker scoffed. “Oh, Yeah.” He heaved his shoulders and exhaled heavily. “I know. But what does? I can’t think of a single ‘right’ thing to do at this point. We’ll get through this if we stick together and stay focused.” Decker tapped a finger against the crate. “We just need to put this little mishap behind us, forget it ever happened.”
“I don’t think that’s how Fioli and IoCorp will see things.”
“I’ll send Fioli an explanation and apology before we jump. He can sort it out with IoCorp if he really cares that much. I don’t care, and I am sick of being dragged into other people’s conflicts.” Decker snorted. “From here forward, we stay out of things. We get paid, do our job, get out.”
Decker pressed the button on the ejector’s control panel and the conveyor belt unceremoniously pulled the crate into the sizable airlock chute, a pair of thick doors snapping shut behind it. The crate was visible through the small steel-glass window set into one of the doors. The belt carried the crate down the ramp where the gravity generators tapered off, and a meta l gate dropped into place behind it. A light on the control panel lit up, indicating it was safe to open the chute to the void of space beyond.
Decker jabbed his finger against the eject button. The outer door opened and Jerith’s crate was ejected out into space, its trajectory a straight line between the Matilda and whatever celestial body’s gravity would eventually pull the crate to its ultimate demise.
Decker knew the feeling.
“Well. So long.”