“I’ll put them on your tab,” he said. “You can settle up next time you’re in town.”
I kissed him on the cheek one last time and walked away. The last thing I heard before I squeezed into the crowded elevator was Anthony calling the waiter for another drink. I worried about that as the elevator whipped me down, but twenty seconds and seventy floors later, I had more immediate concerns.
The crowd on the street level was brutal, and I had to throw my weight around to break through the rush to the cab stand, something I enjoyed more than I should have. I’m five six on a good day, and between that, my bird bones, poofy brown hair, and the fact my face looks closer to thirteen than thirty, normal people tend to underestimate me. It used to piss me off to no end, but that was before I cultivated an appreciation for watching the patronizing look fall off a businessman’s face when the little girl he was trying to push aside elbows him in the stomach hard enough to knock his wind out.
After a few minutes of unnecessary roughness, I’d made my way to the front of the taxi line and flagged down a ground cab. Air would have been quicker, but I wasn’t in enough of a hurry to justify the cost. Fortunately, my cabbie was a stereotypical Kingston driver, utterly insane. Despite it being rush hour on a workday morning, we made it to the starport in less than twenty minutes.
He offered to take me into the departures plaza, but one look at the traffic and I told him to drop me on the street. I tipped him well for not getting us both killed and ran up the pedestrian ramp, ducking through the enormous mirrored doors with the rest of the morning crowd before taking a sharp left toward the lockers where I’d bunked my gear when Anthony had picked me up late last night.
I found my locker and opened it with a thumbscan, pulling out my duffel. My handset was on top, right where I’d left it. I flipped it open, working fast. I trusted Anthony, but only an idiot applies for a job without doing her research first. A quick search for Brian Caldswell turned up surprisingly little, but Anthony hadn’t been kidding about the prestige of serving on his ship. After five minutes of searching, I’d found no fewer than seven of his former security grunts who were now enjoying fantastic positions, including one who’d gone on to be a Devastator.
But my digging also showed that Anthony hadn’t been exaggerating how dangerous Caldswell’s ship was, either. The number of crew deaths and disappearances he had on file with the Trans-Galactic Trade Union was staggering for any vessel, but it was especially bad when you considered that Caldswell captained a ten-man freighter on a fairly safe route through the major systems. From his numbers, you’d have thought he was helming a battleship on a bloody front. All of this should have made me think twice, but I’d made my career by beating impossible odds. As soon as I’d verified Anthony’s tip to my satisfaction, I got to work hauling my armor case out of the locker.
In addition to my fast elbow, I’m a lot stronger than most people think, a product of spending all day in armor with my resistance turned way up. Some mercs let their suit do all the work. Why bother with flesh-and-blood muscles if you’re in powered armor all the time? But I don’t like being weak in any way if I can help it, and real muscles come in handy when the most precious thing in your life folds up into a hundred sixty–pound case and all you can get is a top locker.
Bracing my knees, I heaved my armor case down and set it on its wheels. When it was balanced, I slung my duffel over my shoulder and started walking toward the dock number I’d written on my hand.
Considering its black reputation, I expected Caldswell’s ship to look sinister, but the freighter sitting at dock C23503 was disappointingly shabby. Its belly sat directly on the ground, while its hull rose in an old-fashioned, ungraceful beige block six stories into the air. The whole ship was spotty with patches, but thanks to a fresh paint job I couldn’t tell if the repairs were from cannon fire or just the usual wear and tear you saw on older vessels.
Old or not, though, Caldswell’s ship was still an impressive hundred and fifty feet long from nose to thrusters, with the vast majority of that in its cargo hold. The ship’s nose was boxy as the rest of it, a squat thrust of metal with its windows covered by steel shutters coated in high-burn plastic against the heat of entering the atmosphere. The tail of the ship was all engine, a pair of long-haulers and a hyperdrive coil that looked pretty new.
That gave me hope. Hyperdrive coils weren’t cheap. If this Caldswell could afford a new model, he could certainly afford a top line Paradoxian armored mercenary with an exceptional record.
Like all the noncommuter ships, Caldswell’s was docked in the overflow landing. But, despite being in a good spot relatively close to the main port, no other ships were docked around him. That didn’t surprise me. Spacers were a superstitious bunch. Docks would have to be pretty scarce for a captain to risk leaving his ship where Caldswell’s curse could reach it.
I believed the Sacred King could do miracles just like any good Paradoxian, but I didn’t believe in curses. Neither did a lot of people, apparently, or maybe most mercs just didn’t bother to do their research, because as I rounded the nose of the ship, I saw that the ramp in was packed with people hauling armor cases not so different from my own.
Never one to let a little competition scare me off, I walked right up and got in line. There were fifteen people ahead of me, but the crowd was dwarfed by the enormous and strangely empty cargo bay. Other than a few dusty crates lashed down in the back, the only thing inside was a suit of armor.
Unlike my armor, which could be broken down to fit in a case, this was a serious heavy combat suit, Count class, the kind the army used to rip up Terran tanks. Even powered down, it was seven feet tall and obviously someone’s baby, judging from how nicely the bright yellow paint job sparkled. I scowled. Armor like that belonged to a serious professional who’d spent a lot of time in the armored corps. Clearly, someone had already gotten a job today. The ad hadn’t said how many openings were available, but the ship wasn’t that big. It couldn’t take more than two security guards to cover it all, and if one of those spots was already taken, then this wasn’t the sure thing I’d been counting on.
I eyed the line with new rancor. None of them looked like serious competition, but then, standing around in the tight pants and flowy shirt I’d worn to meet Anthony with my hair tangled in a postsex ponytail, I probably didn’t either. Nothing for it but to wait and see. I used the time to fix my appearance, brushing and braiding my hair as discreetly as I could. The line moved quickly, and by the time I was decent, I was next.
There was a stair leading up from the cargo bay to the rest of the ship where the interviews were being held. People had been going up and coming down again with only a few minutes between the whole time I’d been waiting. Some looked dejected, but most looked relieved, and I bet they were the ones who hadn’t actually wanted a job on a ship that had a reputation for being a flying coffin, no matter how scarce armor work had gotten now that the king had wrapped up all our wars.
The man ahead of me was certainly one of these. He was almost grinning as he walked back down the steps and stabbed his thumb over his shoulder, letting me know it was my turn. Grabbing my bag and lifting my armor case so it wouldn’t bang, I started up the stairs to tempt my fate.
The interviews were being held in what looked like a combination lounge and ship’s mess. There was a tiny galley kitchen with a bar, a table for meals, and a small sitting area, all empty. My interviewer sat at a folding table with a small desk fan pointed at his face. He was older, maybe early fifties, and wearing an old-fashioned white button-up shirt and brown flight vest. His short, red-brown hair was frosted with silver, but his stocky body was still fit and solid when he stood to shake my hand and wave me to the chair.
I flinched. He was speaking Universal. I spoke it, of course. Everyone did. It was the standard language of civilized space. But the Blackbirds were solid Paradoxian, and we spoke our own King’s Tongue exclusively in everything we did. I’d been all over the universe, but because I’d always been with my unit, I hadn’t spoken Universal other than to ask where the bathroom was for almost three years.
Looking back, I don’t know why I was surprised. Traders, even Paradoxians, always spoke Universal. It was, after all, the language of trade. But the man at the desk didn’t look Paradoxian, he looked Terran, and that could be a problem. After so long not speaking Universal, my accent was pretty thick, which put most Terrans off. Usually, I wouldn’t care. Paradoxians don’t like Terrans any more than they like us. We might both be from Old Earth, but a century of border wars carries a lot more weight than a shared ancestry from some dead rock a thousand years ago. Still, if the Terran was the one with the job, then that was all water under the bridge so far as I was concerned. I’d just have to trust that he was willing to overlook a few dropped consonants in return for a stellar record.
The man glared at me, still waiting for his answer, and I snapped into business mode. “Deviana Morris,” I said, pronouncing each syllable as crisply as I could. “I go by Devi.”
I set my handset on the table and tapped the button for the projected screen. It flickered to life, throwing my record, commendations, and references into the air right in front of his face. The man flicked through my history with a finger, his expression neutral, though I saw his lip quirk when he got to my last tour with the Blackbirds. A glorious time, even for a glory hog like me.
“That’s quite an impressive record, Miss Morris,” he said at last. He spoke the words grudgingly, like he didn’t like being impressed. “It’s my understanding that most Paradoxian mercenaries spend their careers trying to get into the Blackbirds. Why did you leave?”
“I’d reached the top of the active duty promotions, sir.”
The man smiled. “Your ambitions don’t run to desk jobs, I take it?”
I smiled back. “No sir.”
“Fair enough,” the man said, glancing at my armor case. “What equipment are you bringing?”
My smile turned into a full-on grin. This was my favorite part of any interview. I reached down and turned my case so he could see the insignia on the front. “Custom Verdemont master craft knight’s armor.”
My opinion of the man rose significantly when his eyes widened in an appropriate expression of shock. “And this is your suit?” he said. “Not leased from the Blackbirds?”
“No sir,” I said proudly. “I own all my own gear.” It had taken me two years’ wages plus some pretty extreme hazard pay to buy my armor, and it was worth every cent. “I also have my own guns and ammunition as well, and an automated repair case for my suit.”
“We’ll supply your ammo,” the man said, leaning back in his rickety folding chair. “This is a security position. Your job will be to work with your fellow security officer to protect this ship, its crew, and its cargo at all times. We usually run a wide circuit spanning Paradoxian space, the Terran Republic, and the Aeon Sevalis, but that can change without notice. The contract is for one galactic standard year with fifteen hundred Republic Script paid monthly. Shifts are twelve hours during flight with overtime for planetary landings and time off when we’re in hyperspace, plus one day paid shore leave per month. So long as you are an employee of this ship, we’ll provide food, lodging, and ammunition, as I said earlier, plus a stipend for maintenance and repair of your equipment.”
I considered this for a moment. It was a pretty standard contract, but the pay, while high for ship guards, was pretty low compared to what I’d earned in the Blackbirds. I might not be doing this for the money, but a merc had to protect her worth. “Is there hazard pay?”
“Thousand RS for every incident,” the man said.
I bit back a smug smile. That was where the money was hiding. Considering this ship’s reputation for trouble, that hazard bonus might well end up making me more than I’d earned as a squad leader.