Page 34

Author: Rachel Bach

I was in no mood for his snark. My baby was hurt and I had to fix her. “I need to get to an armor repair bay,” I said, hopping down the stairs to his pilot’s nest. “A good one, by which I mean Paradoxian.”

“Oh, I’m doing fine, thank you for asking,” Basil said, slowly walking down the steps behind me. “So glad you’re feeling better. Where did you learn to be so polite?”

“Basil!” I cried. “This is an emergency.”

Basil flapped once, landing in his nest with a fluff of ruffled feathers. “That’s funny, I didn’t know powered armor died from lack of attention. Maybe we should get it a bed in the infirmary, too?”

“I’ll put you in the infirmary if you don’t get on this,” I snapped. My suit was not a joking matter.

“Temper, temper,” Basil said, but he brought up the star map.

The projected stars swung around him in a dizzying blur as Basil tapped the console in front of him with his long feet. After a few seconds, the rush of stars stilled on a gaseous planet with a large green moon.

“You’re in luck,” Basil said. “After that last fiasco, the captain decided to change course for the Republic. We’re headed for the Jero System, but this is more or less on our way.”

“What is it?” I couldn’t read most planet codes without a dictionary on my best days. Reading them backward through the back of Basil’s display was absolutely impossible.

“Seni Major,” Basil answered, like this was too obvious for words. “According to the index there are a couple of armor repair places here, one of which lists itself as Paradoxian.”

I leaned through his projected display to get a better look at the console screen. Sure enough, the repair shop he’d brought up bore the king’s commerce crest. Even in the Republic, you didn’t show that lightly.

“That’ll do,” I said, leaning back before Basil could bat me away. “How soon can we be there?”

“Four days,” Basil said. “Assuming, of course, the captain approves the change in course.”

“Where’s Caldswell?” I said. “I’ll convince him.”

Basil frowned and punched another screen to his left. “He should be here by, ah…” He lifted his head high into the air with a smug toss of his crest feathers. “Right on time.”

“Morris!” I heard my name before I heard the door open, and I looked over my shoulder to see Caldswell standing in the hall. He caught my eye and beckoned. “This way.”

I stood up and marched after him. As I passed Nova, she gave me a relieved smile. “I’m so glad you’re all right,” she whispered.

“That remains to be seen,” I whispered back with a pointed look at Caldswell.

The captain didn’t say anything as he led me down the hall to the stairs. I swallowed as we started going down toward the lower level. The captain usually had no problem yelling at me in public. If we were going to his cabin, this was going to be bad. I scrambled to think of what I’d done that could have made him this mad, but the list was pretty long. It could be any number of things: the drugs, blowing off Hyrek’s orders, the expense of the bone knitting I’d needed, forcing Rupert to come save me.

By the time we reached his door, I had no better idea what this was about than when he’d first called me down. His face was set in a calm frown, but I could feel the anger radiating off him like heat. He opened his door and waved me through. I went, putting on my best brave soldier face.

As expected for the captain, Caldswell’s rooms were much larger than anyone else’s. He had a sitting area with two small couches and a table, plus two bedrooms and a private bath. Best of all, he had a large window looking out the ship’s prow into the endless space beyond. The metal floor was covered in a worn but nice carpet, and there was a small console in the corner with screens showing feeds from the various cameras all over the ship.

Through the door, I could see his daughter’s room. It was small and plain, but that was to be expected. I’d never heard Ren express an opinion, much less actively buy something. The real surprise was that Caldswell’s bedroom was equally bare, just a tiny room with a neatly made single bed, a nightstand with a lamp, a large blaster similar to Rupert’s hanging on the wall. The only personal touch was a small picture in a glass frame, but from this angle, I couldn’t see who it was.

Mabel and Ren were sitting together at the small table by the window when we entered. Ren was playing chess as always, only this time she was playing on a nice wooden board instead of the plastic set she used in the lounge. She didn’t look up when we came in, but Ren never looked up at anything. Mabel, however, stood the second the door opened, taking Pickers, who’d been in her lap, with her.

The fat old cat jumped down with an accusatory hiss and ran for the hall. Mabel followed, giving me a sympathetic look as she slipped past us. I waited for Caldswell to shuffle Ren out as well, or at least send her to her room, but the captain said nothing, and I got a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach. Getting chewed out was bad enough; getting chewed out in front of a civilian, even one as weirdly vacant as Ren, was ten times worse.

Caldswell cleared his throat behind me, and I turned to face my fate. He’d closed the door and planted himself in front of it, arms crossed over his broad chest. The captain was not a tall man, but he was built like a brick, and now, trapped in the room with his fury, I suddenly felt very small. Even so, I refused to cower. I stood straight, eyes ahead with my arms at my side, military style, and waited to hear which of my numerous infractions he’d chosen to start tearing into me for first.

“I understand you spent the night with Rupert.”

Despite years of training, I blinked. That was not on the list of things I’d expected him to be mad about.

“Did you?” Caldswell said.

“Yes sir,” I said, a little late. “How did you—” I snapped my mouth shut before I could shove my foot any farther in. You didn’t question your superior officer when you were getting chewed out. Fortunately, my insubordination didn’t seem to make Caldswell’s anger any worse, but the next words out of his mouth certainly took mine up a notch.

“Rupert told me.”

My hands squeezed into fists before I could stop them. I might have marched out right then if the captain hadn’t held up his hand.

“Before you take it out on him, you should know he didn’t come bragging to me or anything like that,” Caldswell said. “He only told me because he knew I’d find out, and he was trying to do damage control.” The captain glared at me. “You’re a terrible sneak, Morris. If Hyrek’s report that you’d vanished from the medbay and couldn’t be found wasn’t a big enough tip-off, I keep motion sensor cameras on my door. Rupert’s cabin is right next to mine. Your secret was out the moment the two of you decided to start necking in my hallway like a couple of teenagers.”

I took a deep breath. Caught like an amateur. But though my fury was tingeing the room red, I forced myself to be still. I could be angry later. Right now I had to deal with Caldswell, who was glaring at me like he was trying to decide which piece to chop off first.

“This is my ship,” he said, his voice low and deadly. “There are rules that must be maintained, and one of those is no fraternization. I’m not running a love shack here, Morris.”

“I understand, sir,” I said.

“I don’t think you do,” Caldswell said. “This isn’t a big outfit like the Blackbirds. I can’t just swap you around if things get uncomfortable. I fly a small ship through dangerous territory, and I will not have anyone’s job compromised by personal feelings. I don’t care how this infatuation started, but it stops right now. So long as you are on my payroll, you will not go near Rupert. You will not touch him, talk to him, or look at him unless it is directly related to your job. Do I make myself clear?”

“Very clear, sir,” I said. “But, with all due respect, I don’t see how my relationship with Rupert is harming the ship.” I was treading on dangerous ground, but after last night, the idea of not being able to kiss Rupert again was making me feel pretty dangerous. “I’ve been a good soldier for you since I came onto this ship, and I mean to continue to do so. Rupert is not a distraction.”

“Not for you, maybe,” Caldswell said. “But you’re not the only one who broke the rules, are you?”

His words were sharp and angry, and suddenly I realized that this was bigger than just me.

In hindsight, this was the place where I should have remembered that I was supposed to know nothing. This was the moment where a smart soldier would have lowered her head and kept her mouth shut. But I’ve never been good at playing docile, and my anger had me tight by the throat.

“This isn’t about me sleeping with someone on the ship,” I growled. “You’re mad because I slept with Rupert.”

“You’re damn right I am,” Caldswell said, his voice as angry as mine. “Your involvement didn’t surprise me at all, but Charkov damn well knew better!”

“That’s not fair!” I cried. “You can’t just put all the blame on him like that!”

“I’m happy to blame you both!” the captain shouted back. “I blame you for thinking with your hormones instead of your head, though with your record I should have known not to expect anything else. But Rupert knew better. He knew exactly how bad getting tangled with you was, but he did it anyway, and now he has to pay for it. How’s that for fair?”

“Very well, sir,” I said, looking him straight in the eye. “What’s our punishment?”

“Charkov’s punishment is none of your business,” Caldswell said. “You I’m letting off with a warning.”

“A warning?” He had to be jerking me around. After all that bluster, there was no way this was ending with a warning.

“Yes,” Caldswell said. “Oh, I had something good, but Rupert volunteered to take the heat for you, so you get off easy today.”

His words hit me like a punch in the gut. “He can’t do that!”

“He damn well can if I say so!” Caldswell shouted. “Whose ship do you think you’re on?”

I almost sealed my fate right then. I almost opened my mouth to ask him whose ship was I on, with a trader captain who did no trading, fought invisible monsters, kept his terrifying psychic daughter under guard like a prisoner, and flashed a Royal Warrant as though it were nothing. But I didn’t. My ambition was finally beating its way through the burning fog of my anger, and I was at last starting to remember that this was the man who held my future in his hands. If I blew things now, all my work over the last decade was for nothing. It wasn’t enough to douse my rage completely, but it let me get the control I needed to step back from the abyss.

“Whose ship, Morris?” The captain growled at me.

I clenched my teeth. “Yours, sir.”

Caldswell nodded, a sharp jerk of his head. “Don’t you forget it. Now, while I’m sorely tempted to come down on you anyway given how you’ve acted, I’m a man of my word. You’re getting off today, but it’s never happening again. I catch you doing anything on my ship you wouldn’t do in front of your grandmother, I’m tossing you out at the next port. We understand each other?”

It was physically painful, but I ground the words out somehow. “Yes sir.”

“Good,” Caldswell said. “Now, I’d punish you for disobeying your physician’s orders, but I’m pretty sure Hyrek’s going to do that himself the next time you’re under the knife, so for now you’re back on duty. Any questions?”