The Hunters

JA Bard


Under the bright scorching summer sun Santo Rio Cabal was a colorless shanty town, and at first glimpse a traveler would think it was deserted. Fierce winter winds reduced to shambles most upright walls, leaving few buildings with a roof and enclosed shelter. However, once a year the town was overrun by a group of people determined to change it's appearance for the duration of twelve days. It was a celebration for the Week of the Dead. To keep eyes from too close a study of the town’s real face, thebridge, the only structure that weathered well, was painted the brightest and gaudiest of all the newly repaired and painted structures.

Across the bridge a desolate landscape was transformed into a carney town. Structures with fake fronts only meant to hide the tricks, games and illusions, vied with each other for attention. It was the annual celebration that brought a galaxy of visitors, starting with the vendors and carneys, and then the celebrants for the twelve days to honor death in its perverse and natural trappings. Lavish costumes, parades, impromptu flash mob treasure hunts, and nonstop parties were held in makeshift streets and any available space. A scattering of assassinations and suicides were part of the cultish atmosphere. The less reckless thieves held off doing business for fear that a victim may turn into mob justice where their death would fit into the celebration. Though the majority of visitors were there for entertainment with a heavy emphasis on cultish overtones, there were those that came in memory of someone who had died.

The Santo Rio Cabal residents didn’t chose to be the city for the Week of the Dead Celebration but they didn’t reject it either. The strangers left them with temporary shelters until the winter winds dismantled them with loud howling along with the stinging sand that whipped anything that was above the dirt into featureless mounds. There was also the trash and discarded items left behind that were treasures for those that had so little.

How did such a desolate spot in the wastelands become so important to host this yearly event?

There are too many stories to recount in one sitting, but most involved a stranger, a secret, and an unexplained death. Der Jägers (the Hunters) they called themselves, made a yearly pilgrimage to honor a highly regarded member who died mysteriously in Santo Rio Cabal. To mask their gathering the carnival was created. Santo Rio Cabal became their get-together to exchange news, tips, check out the competition and prepare for a new year of hunting. Meetings and deals were made amongst the hunters, their contacts and snitches. It was also when paybacks and IOUs were collected, sometimes with a life.

Treasure hunters came in all shapes and sizes as befit their species, and likewise those interested in the mundane as well as the unseen world. Those new to the game were spellbound with tales from the others, with some so outright daft it was believable.

* * *

It was the third night of revelry and Santo Rio Cabal’s revelers were going strong with their body lights shinning their way and carnie stalls trying to outdo the swaying celebrants’ lights with their neon flashing signs.

One visitor caught in the center of a flash mob looked around with interest as the boisterous milling crowd shouted possible answers to a clue that would take them to the next spot. The heat of the day had finally dissipated with a strong breeze giving some relief for those that didn’t come with air cooled clothing or water bottles. It also gave some relief to the stifling smells from so many different species. Not all bathed and not all were pleasant smelling even in their cleaned state.

The snapping from the flags on the bridge brought the visitor’s eyes back to the edge of the bridge. A small light flashed as a Lucifer was lit. It was just another light among others. A bud of heat expanded exposing an old craggily lined face and then the Lucifer was put out. The tip of a fag brightened for a moment as the smoker sucked on the rolled herb stick. The visitor headed for the smoker, keeping alert for anyone that may interrupt their meeting.

A push from behind by a group hurrying to get a closer view of the dancers as they snaked through the street had the stranger nose to nose with the smoker.

"So sorry," the visitor muttered under breath.

"Yeah, so you are," the smoker drawled in a hoarse sarcastic voice. The breath was heavy with the sickly smell of disease.

On the surface neither appeared to be interested in the other but rather in the colorful dancers. Celebrants pressed on all sides, wanting to get behind the dancers as soon as they passed. The closeness made it easier to pass information, as well as easier for an assassin to complete a contract.

"I’ve been followed. The chip tells it all." With that the smoker joined the celebrants as they fell like a wave behind the dancers who became more animated as they thumped a rhythm on the bridge, shaking it to its very foundations.

After ten minutes of furious pounding of feet they tossed brightly colored scented wreaths into the filthy river. The dancers then led their followers to bars, street vendors and sex shops on the other side of the bridge. The crowd followed example, throwing their purchased wreaths into the water and began the chant their leaders yelled as they joyously entered the carney town. Five times a day they danced across the bridge and tossed flowers. Five times throughout the night. Five times before the sun rose. An ecology minded activist group supplied the flower wreaths which were chemically treated to neutralize most of the contaminants in the river. It helped, though not for long as the offending polluters up the river continued their habits of dumping their waste into a river that affected a neighborhood that had no political clout.

The visitor moved into the flow of people, gradually working away from the main push and then morphing into a brightly dressed reveler with the flick of material.

There was plenty of time to review the chip. What was more important was to make sure the messenger died quietly and without anyone disrupting his choice of dying before the ravages of his illness turned him into a hollow body kept alive by unnatural means, for another's selfish reasons. It was the least one could do for a brave soldier who never received his just due.

Chapter 1

          Five Years Later

"Enough, Ati! Take a vacation. If I need you I’ll call."

"Oh, yeah," he returned sarcastically. "You’ll call me at the last minute and expect me to be there that instant," he returned just as heated.

"Ati, don’t make me regret bringing you," she warned.

"Bring me? It’s my ship."

"You wouldn't have this nice ship if it hadn't been for me, so stop whining."

"You lost my other ship."

Diana snorted in disgust. "Fresh out of the repair yards you said, yet the engine plant was seriously flawed. If you had to suddenly depart from one of your gambling expeditions that went bad, you would have been left drifting. I saved you a lot of trouble."

"You didn't save me from all those people wanting to know where she was docked. Some of them didn't ask nicely, you know."

"Baby," she mocked. "Do you want to be mentored by me or not?" she demanded.

"Now you tell me you're mentoring me. Yesterday it was 'I'm still thinking about it,'" he mimicked.

If she was not annoyed with him she would have been amused at his close approximation in imitating her, but then again, she didn't want to encourage him because he could be insufferable at the most inopportune times, like right now.

"I made my mind up last night," she returned sounding distracted. She did not expect a grateful or even courteous thank you.

"It's been two years, Diana."

She had already tuned him out and was intent on reading the console readouts. "There's our return mole. We're in," she announced. She tapped her monitor to accept the message while pushing in her earpiece for a firmer set.

"I got it, I got it," he muttered.

Ati manipulated his controls, bypassing their target ship's security and tapping into their internal communications.

"Alright," she whispered as if they may overhear her. "Make the offer Ati. Just don't sell my body or soul or you're going to be a very sad person."

Ati rolled his eyes dramatically and sent a hail to their target ship. Diana didn't take chances when she didn't have to, and in this case, taping into another ship's communication system so she could manipulate a hitch on a space ship was easy stuff.

Diana chuckled at the conversation between captain and commander, amused at the frustration the captain must be feeling at having such an incompetent second in command that she had no decision in appointing. Assured of her ride she removed the earpiece and left the bridge. Ati would handle the rest. She stopped in her quarters, went through her kit to be sure it had just the basic necessities, and then made one last careful look at her appearance. Nodding at her image, she proceeded to the exit hatch.

Ati joined her.

"Shouldn't someone be up front steering this thing?" Diana asked.

"I really don't think this is a good idea for you to go alone," he again argued. "It doesn't feel right."

She pursed her lips as she waited to disembark. Why he kept repeating the same argument had her suspicious he thought he could wear her down. It was not going to happen. Grow up,she mentally sent him. Diana pushed past him to stand in front of the hatch that was about to open. "Go up front and make sure we don't cut them in half."

"We're in their energy tow. If we crash into them it's their own fault. Then they would have to repair my ship and I'll…"

"Then wish me a great vacation and I'll see you when I see you," she interrupted, glaring at him to discard that idea.

"Diana, when you say that I know you're going to get into trouble."

"Ati, let's get an understanding here. Number one," she said angrily, "I've been wandering the galaxy longer than you have and I'm still alive and healthy. Number two, you're the rookie and I'm the expert in this business. When I get back if you still don't share that concept you can find another person to mentor you…and wait another two or three years for them to make up their mind," she added.

Without waiting for a response she was out the hatch the moment there was enough room for her to pass through. She jumped onto the extending ramp from the Wesley.

The sensitive hatch slid shut the moment it was cleared, leaving a perturbed Ati staring through the porthole. Ati turned to go back to bridge his lips stretched into a grim line. Maybe it was a bad idea to ask your younger sister to teach you the business when you kept seeing her as someone to protect. When did she become so competent that it scared him to watch her in action?

Aggravated at the complexity of his situation, he plopped down heavily into his seat. He sent a message to the military ship the Loyalist, or the renamed and civilian owned freighter Wesley, letting them know he delivered his package and was ready to depart.

"So, she thinks I need a vacation of my own, huh? Well have no fear, sister dear, two can play this being coy game. Just a friendly chit chat with an old acquaintance, you say."

* * *

"Commander LeMarks to...O'Rourke."

Eyes blinked open promptly. It took milliseconds to determine where she was, if the ship was in danger, and the tone of the caller.

Ship's moving. No alarms. He sounds impertinent. He needs a favor. Gods but he has his signals mixed up, she thought disgustedly. If he wants a favor he should be making nice.

Captain Helen O'Rourke stretched her lanky frame into wakefulness and untangled her arms from her bed covers. As she moved the lights in her cabin came up to second level, showing shadowy outlines of her sleeping room.

"It had better be a good reason to wake me or he's going to find himself inspecting the waste processors with a sewerbot as his babysitter," she muttered to herself. "Go ahead, bridge." Silently she slapped herself on the side of the head for her giving into the game playing and not addressing him by his new rank. But it wasn't her idea to promote an incompetent on her ship and if he's not going to learn protocol in addressing his CO then he's to accept her not acknowledging him.

"We're getting a hail from The Gypsum. They have a PP that needs a hitch going our way."

For a quick second her thoughts stuttered over the announcement. Was he in full possession of his brain? Where does he intend on putting this passenger up?

"GR with DC?" she asked anyway. The clearing of a throat had her translating her request with impatience. "What's the going rate picking up a passenger in this part of space with destination calculated?"she enunciated in a voice still hoarse with sleep. It's been two months and he hasn't got the BL learned, she griped, and he still isn't prepared with the information before she asked. She asked it every time. She had a hard time believing he went through any of the Merchant Marine Officer's Academies.

Her jaw stretched into a joint cracking yawn. Sighing, she sat up to prevent herself from falling back to sleep. Her pillow was too inviting. The lights came up another level, revealing an atypical captain's sleeping compartment. It had space for a reclining chair that could be recessed into the wall, and what couldn't be seen, a private library inaccessible from anywhere else on the ship. Few knew of its existence or location. Rather than doing as Admiral Ri, who had turned an officer's cabin into her private library aboard her battle cruiser, Amari, O'Rourke chose to have hers hidden in her sleeping compartment where everything was retractable, including the bed, so if she wanted to be surrounded by her books while reading, she could. Every captain with enough influence had her or his quarters remodeled and decorated with the latest security gadgets.

At present, the one reading chair was buried under a discarded uniform with boots under it where she would not trip over them. It seemed like she had only a few hours of sleep. Glancing at her clock she noted it was 0-four hundred.

Six hours. That was an improvement. What was taking him so long with the information? He could ask the blasted computer, she groused.

She should not be complaining, since he now was asking before bringing passengers aboard. It must have been the threat to toss him overboard, she sniggered. He should not be so nervous about it. She would have let him wear a spacesuit. Someone would pick up his beacon sooner or later.

Perhaps that was being too severe. She shook her head in amusement. Nope. Some people needed to be dumped into deep space.

She really needed to get out of this mood. From experience she knew it cut the flow of creative ideas. That got a soft grunt from her. The memory of who had told her that and the circumstances they were in put her in a better frame of mind. Those were days when she was fool hearty and took vacations to places on a whim. That was before she assumed command of her first ship.

Dropping her feet to the deck she pushed herself up. Her fingers curled around her soft robe, pulling it off its hook near the bed. Her waking thoughts were leaning to the introspective sort and it was too early for that. Boredom did that to her. Her nose wrinkled with that observation.

"I think I'm going through another midlife crisis," she said softly to herself. "Just how many do we get per life?"

Stepping into her front room she remembered she had left a mess on the deck that could trip her up.

"Lights up four," she directed. Lights came up to a soft glow; six being daylight for her. She avoided stepping on the dismantled cleaning bot parts she had neatly laid out. At the kitchen kiosk she selected warm water with a twist of lemon and turned back to the bot, frowning as her thoughts returned to why she had dismantled it instead of sending it to the repair shop.

"Captain, as of yesterday fifty-five crowns."

The nervous clearing of his throat had her preparing herself for anything; like maybe it would suddenly occur to him that they had no more available spare bunks without a major moving of supplies from a cabin they had morphed into a storage room.

"That'll cut the loss on the damaged freight," he added in a deeper voice, giving a poor try at nonchalance.

Why was she still hopeful that the deadhead is actually going to think beyond himself? She really should rethink this change of heart stuff. It was so much easier to drop deadbeats off at the next stop to let them find their own way home, or for the serious offenders, dumping them out portals without space suits so they did not get another chance at injuring others. Now days it was a lot more complicated and she was giving some three chances to straighten up while with the outlaws, handing them over to local law enforcement. It behooved her to give men and women who were monsters in one space sector a chance to be monsters in another by turning them over to people that just may release them for the right bribe. And that brought her thoughts back to LeMarks.

He was not just a dishonor to anyone that bore the title of officer but a mistake. She gave a silent sigh, wondering how many chances she would give him to stop using outside favors to be promoted to inertia. Well, his duties were nearly that now. He had been with her for two years starting at first lieutenant and her file on him and recordings of his incompetence was larger than anyone that had been in service for twenty years.

"Log it," she finally said, "and verify the PP's ID. Who is it? Another sailor hitching back home?" she thought to ask.

"Hmm, uhh, didn't say," he admitted, and then added in a rush to cover up his lapse, "I'll begin the pickup as soon as the credits are cleared."

He still hadn't told her where he planned to bunk the PP so she decided to take care of two problems with one move. "Good. Since he's paying…"

"She," he interjected quickly. "Diana Rue."

Captain O'Rourke gave a soft snort. Females did not even have to wave a cloth of pheromones under his nose, just being female was enough to get him sniffing. Well, she had a curve ball for him. He was going to pay for the difference on this one too. "Since there are no more bunks in the small cabins, set her up in the owner's stateroom," she said with finality.

Only one other time had she rented out the owner's stateroom and that was to a sheik's family whose ship had become crippled under pirate attack. While her crew repaired as much damage as possible to get the ship moving to the nearest major port O'Rourke had the displeasure of hosting the privileged family.

"She's not paying that much," Commander LeMarks objected, his tone suddenly changing to alarm. "I'm moving…"

She laughed aloud, stopping LeMarks in mid sentence. "You'll move? You'll give up your quarters? That's thoughtful of you. But it'll take too long for you to move out and make your quarters livable."

"My quarters? We have crew…"

"There are no vacancies in the cheap seats, LeMarks," she interrupted.

The scuttlebutt that she heard from below decks was the crew was tired of giving up their quarters for undercut prices. If the fare didn't provide a profit margin then a bonus was not awarded the crewmember displaced by a passenger. What LeMarks game was, was anyone's guess, but the repercussion, low crew morale, was enough that O'Rourke decided to remove his authority to allow passengers aboard. She had steadily been canceling any authority his unwarranted promotions from HQ awarded him on her ship, since HQ was not looking at her reports on his incompetence.

"She gets what we have available and while we're on the subject, in all fairness, she will also get half price of a regular bunk. In case you've forgotten, you took on extra passengers at half-price and gave them each their own cabins at the expense of your fellow crewmates."

"You can't hold me financially responsible for every passenger we take on this trip." He lowered his voice considerably.

"As I told you when you first started this side business of yours, I hold you responsible for all the PPs you bring aboard, especially since you started this half price giveaway and giving each their own cabin. This was your last chance to redeem yourself on making such decisions. Rule of thumb, Mister LeMarks, if you set the price for one PP it goes for all PPs on this tour. Word of mouth is where we get the majority of our business and word does spread fast on the docks on who is cutting prices." She wanted to go on about how the consequences of undercutting the other freighters would bring the cold shoulder between crews and probably a lot of other small sleights but she doubted he could take that much information in. Her method of curtailing his unauthorized bringing on passengers and thinking to stick the ship's purser with the loss was to charge his payroll the difference. However, it only slowed him down. She really hated HQ for sticking him on her ship. Their reasoning was since she leased the ship from them, they had a say in one third of her crew and her second in command.

"You can't put her up in that cabin…it's…it's…just... not fair!"

"Be about your business, Mister LeMarks." O'Rourke disconnected the com link. She could put PPs wherever she wanted, she thought irritated.

O'Rourke accessed her console and reviewed what access rights LeMarks had. She set him up with access equivalent to a child passenger. There was enough information in his personnel file for her to justify her removal of his authority and next port stop, dump him.

Pleased with herself, she signed off her terminal and rose from her seat. Her eyes rested on the dismembered cleaning bot that had gone awry. It was annoying that it barked at her for every scrap of clothing it picked up, and whined when it was asked to do something.

Disgustedly, she tossed her nightwear on her bed and she moved into her workout room. She had a feeling if she wanted a workout today, now would be the only chance she would get. Then she would go see who this Diana Rue was.

"I really don't know what LeMarks is thinking. Where was he planning on putting her? What was I thinking, I should have asked him. What's his payoff in this sudden taking on PPs? Smuggling? Their belongings have been scanned. No contraband."

Standing on the workout mat she stared at herself in the mirror.

"Alright, O'Rourke. Give it a rest."

With the exercise facility locked against any intrusions, she began her session. Focused within, she moved slowly, choosing the soothing T'ai Chi rather than a more vigorous kata. When finished and feeling more alert she headed to the shower where she always began her day under hot water arranging her to do list.

* * *

Commander LeMarks's puffy face was still crimson when the two ships came abreast. The uniform collar pressed tightly around his neck. Automatically he gave an irritated tug to pull the tunic down. The jerk on the fabric gave a small ripping sound. Quickly his hands smoothed the taught fabric not able to see over his rounded belly if there was a noticeable tear. Overall he had the appearance of a dab of meat stuffed in a puffed up pastry shell. His hand moved up to undo the top button of his tunic until he remembered what had happened when the captain found him once on duty and out of uniform. Once caught was enough. He slumped further into the command chair that didn't comfortably adjust to someone his size.

Though it happened when he was still a lieutenant and he thought working alone gave him leeway in his attire, he found officers didn't have permission to remove a tunic or unbutton a collar while on duty. Bother that it was boring and he was to just sit and monitor a scope. As punishment he was detailed to trap duty with a repairbot that would not let him take breaks. For weeks he could not get the stink out of his nostrils. He did not feel the infraction deserved that harsh of mistreatment. No one died or suffered any physical injuries. Well, take that back. He squeezed his hand into a fist and squinted to see the faint scar on his hand so it would reignite fresh feelings of indulgent indignation. When he had complained to HQ he was told the captain made and enforced ship rules. Not even his contact in HQ would intervene in disciplinary actions aboard ship.

He closed his eyes and tried to think of more pleasant things, but the uniform was tighter than usual. He had eaten a large meal before starting his shift, but it was no larger than usual, he mentally whined. His eyes moved to another chair, which was roomier and more comfortable, but because the captain was not on the bridge he was in command and should be able to sit in the chair. His peevish thoughts relentlessly noted that her chair was designed for her figure rather than his. It was rather offensive of her to make it almost impossible for him to fit when he was given night bridge duty and therefore should be sitting in that chair. Lt. Commander Emert of the second shift sat in the chair.

Impatiently he drummed his fingers on his thigh. It was taking too long for the ship to pass security scans. If it were up to him, he would let the ship into the bay to off load the passenger and they would all be on their way. What could a tiny ship do to them? Take a shot at them while in the U? He sniggered at the idea. Suicidal. And it was up to security to make sure the passengers disembarking were not armed. He smirked at the thought of security being responsible for anything that went wrong with any pesky passenger.

"Commander, are you going to do the MnG to the Q?" Ensign Henly asked, intruding into his thoughts.

"I can escort her to her quarters, Commander," Lt. Mack offered, keeping his lips from curling up into a smile at the commander's discomfort with his tight clothing and probably not understanding the abbreviated terms.

Commander LeMarks gave the lieutenant his best glare to prevent him from pointing out that he was restricted to the bridge during his watch unless relieved by the captain's explicit and direct order. The captain made it clear she would dump him, Wesley's second in command, in space for desertion of post should he disobey her orders. Even if he didn't admit that he believed she would carry out her threat, the weakness of his knees and upset stomach attested to how he interpreted the threat. Nervously he glanced at the security bot that would see that he obeyed his orders. Every deck had security bots to protect the ship against takeovers and sudden emergencies, but the fact that this one had specific orders about him was mortifying.

Petulantly, he glowered at the bot and then rested his face in his palm. As second in command he should be making sure there was nothing dangerous about the new passengers. What if Evangeline Meso, the notorious femme fatale pirate was on board disguised as a passenger? he reasoned. She loved to dress as a rich woman and setup the ship for her pirates to board. Commander LeMarks, an ardent fan of hers, kept a wanted poster of her in his room with a fresh flower on the table below the poster. He thought no one knew of his obsession with her.

A flash on his console went unnoticed.

"Sir, they passed security."

Commander LeMarks glowered at his lieutenant for interrupting his thoughts a second time. Then he remembered that he had a passenger to bring aboard, except he couldn't leave the bridge. Who was going to escort her to her quarters? His eyes still on his lieutenant slitted as he realized who it logically would be. A spasm of jealously twisted in his gut. The lieutenant was not handsome by a long shot, LeMarks thought disdainfully. But his eyes didn't allow him to ignore the lieutenant's youthful and slim appearance in his uniform while his own belly showed prominently over his uniform waistband. It was a painful reminder of his other grotesque features, namely a puffy face that matched his belly. Somewhere, buried deep was the memory of a more lithe and fit body that did him proud. These shadowy dreams only created more anxiety to his waking life.

"Sir, holding up a passing taxi is not good for picking up PPs in the future," Lt. Mack reminded him in an undertone.

Crossly, Commander LeMarks opened up another channel. "Lt. Commander Jade." It startled him that that was who he asked for. He would have taken it back if he could.

"Yes, Mister LeMarks?"

His brain shut down as if waiting to recover from who he had called. Why had he called her?

"PP arriving in repair bay seven," Lt. Mack reminded.

"Ehh, PPinseven," he mumbled quickly. He took a deep breath and released it noisily, realizing he may have not made sense. "Escort her to the Q," he said with studied slowness. He was feeling off balance. So many errors in such a short span of time.

"I gather this has been cleared by the captain?"

"Captain's orders," he blurted. She sounded more authoritarian then he, he thought jealously. Realizing his clumsy handling of the interaction he hurriedly cut the channel without the usual protocol. Sulkily he sank lower in the captain's chair, crossing his arms over his prominent belly. He could feel the fabric tighten in sensitive places and cut into others but it gave him a sense of pleasure in punishing his imperfect self.

* * *

With hands on hips Commander Jade watched with an experienced eye the docking of the small messenger ship enclosed in the freighter's energy tow. Her eyes moved to the security tower and then to the energy containment field looking for any evidence of failure. The docking engineer and his assistant had been wakened and had made good time to their posts. They were standing in their protective bubble overlooking the ships arrival. Had this been a ship that was in for maintenance the buffering four level U-structure would have been extended and bots would already be hovering around it running diagnostics and scanning for anything that needed repair.

Commander Jade was head of ship's security, among other things, and had already been on her way to see who the PP was before LeMarks assigned the job to her. He probably had thought she would be sleeping at this time, and normally she would have been.

The arrival time of the PP, so late in shift, could have been just coincidence but her job was not to take things at face value. The bridge, fifty maintenance, sixteen of her security, and her were the only crew members up. She glanced back at the docking engineer and gave a hand signal. A signal wave was returned that verified the capture was clean. The small ship was snug in their energy sling.

Docking lights brightened the messenger ship, throwing interesting shadows on the draped shapes along the bulkhead and behind Commander Jade. Her gaze swept the dark shapes looking for any movement that should not be there then returning her attention back to the ship. Before the locks were confirmed the smaller ships aft portal slid open.

Someone either wanted off the ship fast or the captain was in a hurry to get back on course. Everyone had a schedule to meet and it was all tied to credits, she mused. Unless this person had a bomb, though it was not likely, taking over the ship was more profitable than blowing them up.

Her gaze flickered for a moment at the security turret where security officer CPO Reve was on duty. She looked alert and from the flickering of reflected light on her face, she was running scans on the ship and its occupants.

A thump reminded her of her present job.

Her attention returned to the PP. Their new passenger had jumped onto the partially extended walkway. Not pausing as scans ran over her she moved through the first security bubble with no alarms going off. She was nondescript at first study. She carried a small grip that people who were not in one place for very long traveled with. Her clothing was ordinary and comfortable for long flights. There were no worn spots in any of the pockets indicating favorite items absent, nor were they bulging with packed items, but they were used. Her shoes were common spacer style but were cared for more than most people who seemed to think scuffed work boots were stylish. She was not military or law enforcement, she was sure of that but there was a wariness around her that reminded Jade of someone that spent a lot of time being aware of her surroundings and not easily taken by surprise.

"Welcome aboard the Wesley, Dama Rue." Commander Jade extended her hand to assist her up onto the platform.

The ramp the PP had to climb was there intentionally to entrap a visitor should the first security scan find something that needed deeper investigation. An energy field strong enough to contain a level 2 explosion would surround the visitor and render those in the containment envelope unconscious.

Jade's eyes moved to the hand that returned the clasp. The angle of the grip gave her a flash view of a shadow just inches from the cuff of the long sleeved coat. The PP was not wearing a dark shirt under her coat to justify the shadow.

"Lt. Commander Jade," a soft voice greeted. "No Dama, just Diana Rue."

Jade's grip did not falter. Of course she was going to know her name. She was wearing a name tag. Another passenger that needed to be watched, her cautious nature warned. This tour was taking on the trappings of the scorpion and frog game, she thought.

The unclamping of the locks had both women turning to watch the small vesseldrop back as the freighter continued at cruise speed. Once the smaller ship was out of Wesley's wake the freighter would increase 3gs above cruise speed to make up for the slow down.

"Diana Rue." Jade turned to the PP, breaking the silence, "Will you follow me, please?" She moved toward the lift.

"You have a full load of passengers, hey?" the passenger said.

Jade's mouth tightened in disapproval. The PP must have gotten that information from LeMarks. One day he was going to sell them out to a pretty pirate with a nasty band of cut throats at her disposal if he had not already, Jade thought.

"We have a popular route." Jade's eyes studied the shorter woman a moment, trying to place the accent. "Hitching far with us?"


Jade had hoped the woman would say something in a longer string of words so she could hear the accent again. It served her right for not asking the right questions. Any more she asked and it would be stepping beyond courtesy and into security. No need to alert the passenger that she was suspected of being more than a hitch hiker.

As they stepped into the elevator it beeped it had another call. Normally the crew didn't use this elevator no matter what time because it was the elevator the captain would use, should she call for it. Though the captain was not unduly harsh with the crew, there was the normal aversion of deckhands to be seen riding with the captain.

Annoyed but curious she allowed the elevator to move to its new destination, deck 8. Deck 8 had a scattering of crew quarters and H-pods, but was mainly storage for large items, like shuttles, machine parts, and damaged freight.

The lift stopped and the door slid open. Jade's eyes hardened when six of the twelve teenage vixens stepped into the elevator.

Unconcerned at being caught where they had been informed was off limits the girls stepped into the lift. This proved to Jade that her version of hauling PPs in hibernation pods until they reached their destination was a better idea than letting them wander without supervision. Realistically, for the short hops, it wasn't practicable to hibernate but it gave her some satisfaction thinking it. They obviously were finding a way to bypass the security bots. That was going to be moved up higher on her priority list of things to do.

"This is not a passenger liner, girls. There is no roaming at this hour. Deck four."

Small purple eyes stared at her, showing neither defiance nor interest in what was said. Once she finished speaking tiny bright eyes moved to the new passenger, scrutinizing her with a great deal of interest.

The energy in the lift made the hairs at the back of her neck stand up. She glanced at the teens and then the PP.

The door slid open at deck four. The corridor was vacant and the lights were dimmed to a low level indicating it was dead-time. The security bot was shut down. Rather than key in a security override that they may well be able to record, Jade decided to let the Geek reactivate it from his console.

When the door slid closed behind the teens Lt. Commander Jade mentally cursed LeMarks. "Jade to security," she called softly in her wrist comm.

"Security here, Commander."

"Reactivate deck 4 security bot and find out how it's being deactivated."

There was a moment of silence and then, "Commander, it shows it's activated."

"Not. Scramble up help if you need to but do it now, PO."

"Aye, Commander."

The elevator stopped on deck two and Jade stepped out quickly, nearly forgetting her passenger. Turning slightly toward the PP after she was five strides down the corridor, she noted with approval that Diana Rue was not hanging back. The urge to get this escort duty done as speedily as possible had her impatient as her thoughts moved on to more important things.

"You're on deck two, section B along with the captain. There is also an exercise room between your quarters and the captains. If you have a need to use it see the captain. Section A is forward and around that is C. An assortment of officers and a dozen reserved guest suites are in A and C."

Jade nearly snickered in amusement at calling them guest suites. Due to staff restructuring and redeployments originated from HQ there were considerably less officers per noncoms. What had previously been officers' cabins were converted by name only into quarters for passengers that wanted to pay extra for the slightly larger space. These were the salesmen that sold products that required a technical team to accompany the installation and training of the buyer, and naturally the Wesley was transporting their equipment. The quarters were empty at the moment. The sales group, a dozen of them and from a mix bag of species, remained behind at the last stop since their trainees were not picking up their instructions as easily as their front office thought they would. But the rooms were technically still reserved, and if they caught a ride from a fast taxi they would want them back. When she received the message that LeMarks was taking on another PP she worried he was going to do something unethical and sublet one of the cabins. If that got out in dock scuttlebutt they would have a legal issue on their hands with the company that paid a lot of credits for the cabin space. What was he thinking? He wasn't that stupid. Even a lowly grunge on the Wesley understood the business concept of no overbooking.

"You can roam the corridors on deck 2 but don't be surprised to be challenged by a security bot if you should be too curious and or loiter. On this deck, they're active and armed." Jade was relived that they were visible and that the one above the captain's quarters showed her quarters locked and secured.

The door to the owner's stateroom swished open.

"No one has business in this cabin outside of you so if anyone appears without the captain or me notifying you beforehand, let one of us know by voice comm." Jade waved the PP before her and then followed. "Normally the security bots will take care of intruders, but nothing is guaranteed."

That got a chuckle from the PP, which earned a rueful smile from her.

"The crew often refers to these quarters as Q for the Queen's Suites rather than the owner's suites. If you need a guide about ship there's a schematic of the ship in the computer as well as rules and guidelines for your ride aboard the Wesley with what's off limits. I trust you'll follow the guidelines."

"Aye. Don't want anyone confining me to me quarters, hey?" Diana dropped her kit on a comfortable looking couch while looking around the spacious and luxurious stateroom. "Though, this won't be a harsh penalty." Her eyes moved back to the commander catching her annoyed expression. Her eyes were focused elsewhere as if she were distracted with something not in the room. Diana thought with amusement that the 'girls' must be running the captain and the security officer ragged.

"Let me show you the amenities of your quarters," Jade said, returning her full focus on Diana.

* * *

After the officer left Diana stood in the center of the living area that was a combination of dinning and sitting room. Diana was aware it served a dual function of entertaining present or potential customers onboard. Right now the living room had a couch that formed a crescent shape around a center table, a working desk with computer in one corner and chairs set to the side for reading. The dinning room had a small table that could be expanded, a kitchenette, should someone want to actually cook food, and a kiosk should she chose to order her nourishment already formed in something recognizable.

Altering her sight, she scanned the two rooms for monitoring equipment. Done with her visual inspection, she pulled a small instrument from one of her pockets and made certain each monitor she found already deactivated would not become activated by an outside source. She then searched the room for what she could not spot visually. Finished, a box was removed from another pocket and around the room her devices were placed. Fifty percent of passengers that could afford it bought jamming devices to thwart invasion of their privacy which was protected by Galactic Travelers Laws. Diana figured if someone aboard Wesley should try to activate any devices in the room that were not under her control they would not be too surprised they were unable to.

Hidden entrances were looked for and one was found in the ensuite. Later she would see where it led to; until then, she placed an alarm to warn her when the door opened. Glancing at her timer, she noted it was about the time to expect a visit from the captain. Passengers assigned the owner's stateroom warranted a visit from the captain even if it was to tell her she is not so special; they just had nothing else available.

A chime announced a visitor. Whoever it was, they were punctual to the Royal Rules of Courtesy, one hour after arrival, not Military Standard which was minutes after arrival. She doubted it would be Commander LeMarks. Taking a quick glance around her quarters she moved to the couch and fluffed up one pillow that had the imprint of her leg on it when she was placing one of her monitors behind the couch.


The door swished open.

A tall auburn haired woman dressed in a dark turtleneck sweater with captain epaulettes on her shoulders stood at attention before her. Diana's first impression was that she wore her uniform well. Her hair was swept back, indicating she was not shy about showing her face; makeup was lightly applied. Her hair was damp but not wet and there was perspiration along the hairline. Since her room was only a few steps away Diana wondered what she was doing before she changed into a fresh uniform, not taking the time to allow the hairdryer to finish its job.

Diana gave a mental review of the captain's file but files left out things like why a well decorated rear admiral in the UPT galaxy fleet to be promoted to vice admiral chose to become captain on a civilian freighter…and there laid the tickle. Was it because of family politics? Or, was she on the list for assassination because of her fleet's successful campaign to root out pirates in the Borik Sector? In the few moments of study, Diana was sure it wasn't just one reason.

She speculated on whether the captain was the type to wear patches of lucky charms sewn on her under tunic, then decided not, since there was nothing but the captain under the sweater. Some people tattooed them on their bodies. Diana had enough experience to know not to insult another's charm, though she found them as unreliable as people.

Diana's eyes tracked to the captain's. Silverish brown eyes were studying her as intensely as she was the captain. She decided the captain's eyes were where her strength laid if it were to be a face to face confrontation. One could grow cold from a dark look from her. She had the personal energy to pull off that type of intimidation.

She wondered why the captain was letting the Carrion disguised as teenage Comatians roam. Maybe she believed she had the upper hand. And the biggest question of them all, why should she care?

Curiosity, another part of her answered.

* * *

Captain O'Rourke stood before the owner's cabin wondering what Vicky meant by 'you're going to love this one' which she had interpreted to mean more trouble. Her shoulder twitched under the itchy fabric. For this anticipated quick visit she didn't put on an undergarment and already she was regretting it.

This was going to be a quick visit to lay out the rules and make sure LeMarks didn't bring a pirate on board.

The door swished open.

O'Rourke moved her face into a polite smile. The passenger stood in the middle of the room as if waiting for her.

Diana Rue was 5 feet 5 inches, dressed in common loose fitting travel overalls that off-duty paramilitary types favored. Her eye coloring was not clear in the low lighting. Her pale curly hair was too short to get in her eyes but long enough to cover her ears; not giving away the shape, and a clue to her species, though she was sure it matched her ID file. She had not bothered to read it since fake IDs with altered facial and body marks were easily acquired which made having a good security chief a necessity. She wore no visible jewelry or body adornment; no makeup, nor was her hair in any particular style. In fact, she was quite ordinary looking.

O'Rourke's eyes moved to the couch where the passenger had dropped her grip. It had a small clip on it that the wary would know not to touch unless they had a death wish. It was called the Enforcer by the manufacturer and so far the crime element had not been able to disable it. If she wasn't law enforcement or military than she was someone else that could be trouble. But then again, maybe she was on a vacation or just returning to her home base.

"I'm Captain O'Rourke of the Wesley. May I come in?" O'Rourke had the distinct impression that she had just been categorized and fit into some nice neat peg hole. O'Rourke loved those types because she never fit neatly in peg holes and watching the face of someone that misjudged her was a small pleasure she enjoyed.

"It's your ship."

"And you're paying for this cabin space, Ma'am."

"Not, Ma'am, Diana Rue."

"Diana Rue, then. Is there a particular reason why you hooked up with my ship?"

"You're going to Hebron."

"The prison mining waystation? You have a job or permit for business there?" There it was, that twitch of her lips, though whether it was from amusement or a frown she had no way of knowing. They were the only civilian ship that serviced Hebron.

What stopped at the Hebron waystation were mineral barges that needed minor repair from the prison mines below, prisoners released dead or alive and the mineral freighters that picked up the released prisoners, minerals and dropped off new prison workers. The mines supplied raw material for three corporations that purchased the prison workers from various galactic prisons. Supposedly the operation was monitored closely by a neutral party that made sure safety standards were followed to the galactic law and the prisoners only stayed one year for the sake of their health. Was she an investigator?

The prison workers had volunteered to work in the mines to reduce their sentences considerably since the mines were dangerous work even with all the advancement in robotics and engineering feats. The health insurance for the civilian population was high whereas prisoners had none. On the station a five person crew monitored the planet below, serviced the barges, and gave the few guards below respite on weekly rotations. The Wesley brought parts and repaired what the staff could not. They also did maintenance on the station that the Hebron engineers could not handle and supplied new games for the inhabitants.

"Is there a reason why you need to know all this?"

"Just so after we finish with our deliveries and maintenance we don't leave you behind by accident. Six hours is our slated time but sometimes we finish sooner…"

"I'll remember that," Diana said.

"This is a working ship not a cruise liner so my crew has their daily duties which isn't catering to passengers."

"You'll have more trouble with your other passengers than me."

That was not reassuring to O'Rourke. What did she mean by that? She had only been on board for thirty minutes. Who had she met besides Jade…LeMarks? But he had not left the bridge nor had he spoke to the passenger. The transaction was handled by the captain of the messenger vessel. Maybe Jade was right and this passenger did bare closer scrutiny.

"If you should need anything," she paused slightly, "call for Commander Jade or me. LeMarks will be occupied with other duties."

"Will you shoot me if I take a walk now and then?"

"Shoot you?" O'Rourke gave a short laugh. "Check the cabin console there." She gestured to the computer. "Commander Jade downloaded the rules of passage. Not much different than any other working ship. You will get netted if you step aboard the bridge or any other off limits area without my express permission," she stated firmly and then added, "So, should an unwise officer offer you a tour, keep that in mind."

She waited for Diana Rue to nod she understood and then continued. "This is late shift. Early morning by ship time. If you want to grab some sleep before morning mess you have three hours. Four dings over the PA announces breakfast if you want to eat fresh food with the other passengers…forth deck to the left of elevator B. It's marked 'Chow Hall.' Otherwise," she nodded to the kitchen kiosk's autofood dispenser that produced anything ordered in a healthy chemical compound but shaped into something recognizable that you ordered, "you've got everything you need here. We'll be in Hebron in three weeks."

Captain O'Rourke realized it was time for her to go.

"Would you care to join me for dinner tonight?" O'Rourke asked.

"I don't want to take you from your duties," Diana politely replied, hiding her surprise well. The captain was not shy about finding more out about a curiosity aboard her ship.

A nice get-acquainted dinner with enough drink to loosen the tongue was a simultaneous thought with the two women.

"You'll be a relief in my humdrum schedule, believe me," the captain assured her dryly. Her eyes silvered for a moment.

"Alright. Dinner with captain is on my schedule. Time and place?" Diana asked, trying to translate the glint in the captain's eyes along with the other body signals.

"My quarters, if you don't mind. 1700."

"Aye, then. Place and time is fine by me," Diana agreed.

O'Rourke nodded and turned to leave but not before giving one more glance around. She was rather pleased LeMarks over-booked because now she had a legitimate reason why not to host a party at the next three larger ports. There were some harbormasters that seemed to think every freighter captain owed them lavish parties aboard their ships to continue business, and the smaller ports tried to mimic this privilege by demanding to come aboard. So far O'Rourke had an understanding with most, but it didn't mean polite refusals would always work.

The original buyer, Osmona, purchased the ship from military surplus. She was a very large woman that liked space around her and had grand ideas of doing business. Osmona's nickname Queen Osmona was due to her ability to carry off a regal aura for her size and when she decided who earned a private party and who didn't, there were no arguments. O'Rourke could only image just what type of parties were held on the Wesley before she captained it. Since Osmona's marriage she had moved onto bigger businesses and the owner's cabin became solely used for entertaining port officials, owners, managers of way stations or ship's captains whose vessel they were repairing in space.

next part

Return to the Academy