Lydia Bowri grimaced as she finished off the dregs of her coffee. They’d be back on Ares in a few days and she resolved to find some of her favourite premium brand and stow it in her footlocker. She washed the cup under the kitchen sink and left it to dry on the sideboard before making her way into the corridor holding the crew quarters and up the steps to the Zenith’s cockpit.
She found Sunny and Garrett watching the small holo screen perched on top of the flight controls. Neither looked up from the monitor as she entered. On the screen a number of fancy suited people were arguing over…something. Politicians. Who else has the ability to talk so loudly without apparently saying anything at all?
“What’s this about?” she asked after a few seconds, none the wiser as to what the discussion was.
“It’s on Selene,” Sunny answered. “Their government is arguin’ about joining the Coalition.” The pilot’s tone suggested she was unsure herself.
Garrett gave a quick nod. “Turned their coat quick enough,” he murmured, keeping his attention on the screen.
Lydia shifted uncomfortably; Garrett was from Athena. His people had led half the cluster into taking up arms against each other. The Zenith’s engineer had been a non-combatant, his job in a shipyard deemed too important for him to be pressed into service.
Lydia had been on Athena toward the end of the war. Garrett’s home planet had suffered greatly for its aggressive and unsanctioned expansion. Most of its major cities had been bombed to rubble, its economy was crushed into the dirt and now its populace had to put up with an occupying force determined not to allow them to repeat past transgressions while surviving loyalists of the last regime stoked the flames of a civil war. No wonder the engineer has gotten out when he could.
“…a plastic monarchy ruling over a weak willed parliament who led us to near annihilation!”A fat and very red faced man pointed his finger angrily across the room. He was momentarily drowned out by angry yelling but continued on unabated. “…Now we have the chance to fix the mistakes of the past and take our place among the United Coalition of Planets, where we should have been years ago!”
Turncoats, Lydia mused as she turned her attention back to the screen. Not even five years after General Jaeke’s surrender to the Coalition and Athena’s staunchest ally is debating the merits of joining the UCP. She looked to Garrett knowing how it must rankle him. Athena was re-building, slowly. But the planet had become a pariah state and most people throughout the galaxy seemed happy to accept the narrative of Athena being the big bad, stringing other colonies along for the ride.
“It’s a good thing though. Right?” Sunny asked. Pale skinned and slender, she was the baby of the crew, barely into her mid-twenties. Her dark brown hair was worn in a long pixie style and a tattoo was partially visible on her upper right arm; a full circle intersected by a partially complete second one. Lydia had once asked her what it meant. “Lost love,” Sunny had replied and Lydia quickly decided not to press the matter. Their pilot was bright, loyal and had an uncanny talent for flying but she cared little for the world outside her cockpit.
Lydia shrugged at the question. Like Sunny, the doings of politicians held little interest for her these days. “Any word from the Captain?” she asked, changing the subject.
Garrett swivelled his chair around to face her. “Nothing yet.” The Zenith’s engineer was clothed in his work attire, a dark green jumpsuit covered in grease and oil stains. His face had a thin layer of dirt from whatever odd job he had been doing on the engines and his lank, dark hair was stuck to his brow. He rested both hands across a generous gut.
Their engineer hadn’t been a particularly slim man when he joined the crew a year and a half before but his time on the Zenith had only made him larger. Lydia had caught him one too many times sneaking food back to his cabin. He ate like someone trying to cover up some sort of hurt but Lydia couldn’t say what that hurt was; Garrett never talked about the war, or Athena.
Having heard enough of the debate, Garrett flicked through the channels. He paused on a program discussing the effect of the terraforming process and subsequent human settlement on native species. “It’s a unique challenge every time,” a pretty blonde haired presenter explained directly to the camera. Over her shoulder a skircel scuttled past, its eight spindly legs supporting a cylindrical, hard-shelled body. “When humanity arrived in the Pegasus Cluster, the challenge for the biologists and ethologists on the arks was the integration of old Earth species into new and unknown ecosystems. Today, as we push out into Phase Three space, the challenge is much the same as it was for the first wave of colonists five hundred years before....”
Lydia scuffed the toe of her boot on the floor, watching but not watching the screen. She hated times like these, waiting for the crew to come and feeling utterly useless. She had never been a fighter. She had been a medic in the war and never fired her weapon after basic. These days her main job was to fret about everyone else and then try to patch them up when they came back with exciting new bruises and holes. Assuming they’re not too punctured already, she thought as she felt her mood darken.
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Sunny said brightly, seeming to sense Lydia’s worry. “You know the Cap’n.”
“We all know the Captain,” Garrett replied. “I think that’s what’s troubling her.” Sunny’s smile faded slightly. “Probably just haggling out a price,” he suggested.
“Or exchanging bullets.” Lydia murmured, crossing her arms. “Bullets seem more likely.” Neither of her two crewmates replied as Lydia scolded herself. There was no point making the rest of the crew uneasy just because she was in bad form.
“I’ll be glad to get back to Providence,” Sunny announced, choosing to ignore Lydia’s attempt to put everyone else in bad form. “Hit the market, get some proper food in my belly.” It was a clumsy attempt to move Lydia away from her fretting but she appreciated the effort.
“Could do with picking up a new buffer for the secondary core as well,” Garrett added.
“Jury-rigged it back on Landinum to last us for one trip but that was weeks ago. It’s a little piece but if it goes you could lose that core.”
“I’ll make a note,” Lydia replied before turning to Sunny, “And I wouldn’t get too excited about Providence. Captain’s planning on making it a quick turnaround. Get what’s owed, grab some supplies, hopefully get a couple of fares and back into the void.”
“We’re taking on passengers?” Sunny asked.
Lydia nodded. “That’s the plan.”
“Doubt we’ll be lucky enough to get anyone like those two sisters we took to Sark on our last run,” Garrett said with a wry smile. “Raimo wouldn’t have minded giving the older one a go.”
Lydia gave a derisive snort. “Maybe in his lonely dreams.” Garrett gave a rare laugh and Lydia felt her mood beginning to rise again, as it usually did when she made fun of Raimo. Ribbing was a fact of life on the Zenith and Raimo made himself an easier target than most. Not to say he didn’t return the ball-busting with equal gusto.
“So…” Sunny said, “No free time on the dock?”
“Captain might give some time for people to pick up a few wants,” said Lydia. “Depending on how fast we get the cargo unloaded and deal with Hoddell.”
“Couldn’t hurt to stop in to Pretty Jane’s for a few,” Sunny suggested, not quite ready to give up on whatever plans she had already made for Providence. Despite her diminutive size, their pilot had a fearsome talent for alcohol consumption even amongst a crew of veteran drinkers. “Cap’n could do with a night out too. Been wound awful tight lately,” said Sunny.
“Everyone has,” Lydia replied. “Last month and a half we’ve been zooming about half the cluster without stopping.” As suggestions went, Sunny’s wasn’t the worst.
“So...you’ll ask her, right?”
Before Lydia could open her mouth to ask why it always seemed to be her nominated to ask the Captain anything, the console in front of them beeped with an incoming message.
“Zenith,” Sunny said as she opened the channel.
“Ander here. Could do with a pick-up if you’d be so kind. Same coordinates as originally planned.”
“Roger that,” Sunny replied. “Be with you in two.”
“Everybody ok over there?” Lydia cut in.
“Yeah, everyone’s good,” Ander said.
“What about Hagen? The deal went down ok?” Lydia asked, ignoring an eye roll from Sunny.
Ander paused. “Yeah…We got what we came for. It was touch and go for a bit but Captain Hagen decided to do the decent thing in the end.”
“Good.” Lydia said, feeling the tight knot in the pit of her stomach loosen. That’s good.”
“Yeah. Any chance of that pick-up?”
“On our way,” Sunny interrupted, closing the channel before Lydia could ask anything else. She began to work at the controls, flicking a number of buttons upward. The Zenith responded with a low rumble as the main engine and side thrusters began to power up. “Ever think you worry too much?”
“You have met our four shipmates before?” Lydia asked sardonically.
Sunny snorted as the Zenith lifted from the ground. The pilot let the ship ascend to only a few hundred feet before gently angling it toward the rendezvous point.
“C’mon,” Lydia nudged Garrett as she walked over to the flight of stairs behind the flight controls. The engineer sighed but dutifully followed. The steps led down to a long corridor which had once housed a number of offices, when the Zenith had been operated by a legitimate company and was ruled by administration. That was about fifty years before Taryn had found her in a boneyard on Eos. Nowaday the rooms were mainly used for storage or workstations.
One room at the end of the corridor stood out from the rest. With a heavy metal door, a thin strip of spyglass and a keypad lock, Lydia supposed this room could also be considered storage. It was one of the many contradictions of life out in the void. A crew who skirted the fringes of legality more often than not, would be employed to hunt down fugitives by the law enforcement agencies of the frontier worlds. Considering how well bounty hunting could pay, the irony was happily ignored.
By the time Lydia and Garrett descended the two flights to the bay floor, Sunny was already bringing the Zenith in to land. The cargo bay door opened outward to make a ramp for people or vehicles coming aboard or disembarking. Lydia was surprised to see they had somehow inherited a second four-wheel hauler. She looked quizzically at Raimo as Ander manoeuvred the machine up the ramp.
“Courtesy of Captain Hagen,” Raimo said with a grin, casually shouldering his rifle.
“Tried to cheat us. Taryn took it kinda thick.” He tapped the butt of the rifle to make it clear how thick.
Lydia shot a look at Ander as he hopped off the newly acquired hauler. “I thought you said Hagen did the decent thing.”
“I meant he did the decent thing and died.”
Lydia shook her head slowly. “It was probably only ever going to end one way,” Raimo said, almost apologetically. “Taryn was right, he was always going to try and shaft us.”
“Worked out well for him,” Donovan said with a harsh laugh as he helped Ander unbuckle the large container on the back of the hauler. “Hey Garrett, get the door for us, would ya?” The engineer obliged, walking over to the far wall to remove the panel to one of the Zenith’s numerous hides.
“He always was a shit,” Lydia admitted quietly. She managed a smile for Taryn as she walked by. The Captain clasped her shoulder briefly.
“Everyone’s ok,” said Raimo. “That’s what’s important, right?”
Lydia nodded. “Right.”
She watched Taryn walk over to the small intercom at the rear of the bay. “Sunny, everyone’s onboard. Get us into atmo and lay in a course for Ares.”
Taryn took a step from the console before turning back to it. “Oh, and Sunny? Send a line out to Hagen’s ship. Let them know they got a wounded crewmate needs medical attention at the rendezvous.”
“You think they’ll come back on us?” Raimo asked Taryn as she flicked the comms off.
She shrugged, “Possible, I suppose. He has-“
“-Had,” Ander interrupted.
“-Had a decent sized crew. Might be a few looking to even the score.”
Lydia suppressed a shudder. More than three years on the Zenith and the harsh reality of their life out in the void could still slap her across the face. No matter what way someone tried to dress it up, four people who she considered family had left the ship and gunned down other human beings. She had no doubt Taryn had been in the right, that she would have tried to make the deal go through but the result was the same.
“Na,” Donovan said as he and Garrett re-joined the group. “Figure those five were the best Hagen had and they weren’t up to much. I’d say they take it as a lesson and move on.”
“Maybe,” Ander said, “But they lost five crewmates and a decent payday. Might be naïve not to expect to get some blowback.”
“Maybe,” Taryn said as she looked to Lydia, sensing her unease. “But we won’t let it worry us. Could be they count themselves lucky they don’t have to work under Hagen any more.” To Lydia it looked like at least some of the weight had been lifted from Taryn’s shoulders. The prospect of a confrontation eased by the fact everyone on her side had made it through.
“Nothing to do now but sit back and enjoy the burn to Ares,” Raimo grinned.
“Sounds like a plan,” said Taryn as she made for the rear door of the cargo bay.
Lydia followed her. “Sorry you couldn’t talk him around,” she said once they were out of earshot of the others.
Taryn gave her a tired smile, slowing her pace to allow Lydia to keep up. Lydia wasn’t as quick on her feet since a mortar had taken her left leg off below the knee. “I tried. All you can do, right?”
“Right,” Lydia agreed. She found that she tended to agree a lot. They climbed the stairs to the den in silence. “Been thinkin’,” she ventured.
“You mean, someone else has been thinking and pushed you forward to speak for them.” Taryn’s smile remained as she made the accusation.
“Crew could use a break. You could use a break.”
“Probably,” Taryn shrugged. “But it’s not like we’re hard pushed between here and Ares. We’ve got exactly one crate of cargo and zero passengers.”
“Not what I was talking about. I meant some time off ship. Actual time off the ship, not just to collect cargo and supplies.”
Taryn regarded her with those cool blue eyes for a couple of seconds. “Who put you up to this?” she asked. It wasn’t an angry question, her tone was curious. Aside from Ander, Lydia had known the Captain the longest out of any of the crew. The three of them had served together through most of the war. As the platoon’s medic she had enjoyed a certain fudging of respective ranks between herself and her Lieutenant. That particular aspect of their relationship had continued to the present day. When an unpopular opinion amongst the crew surfaced, it was usually Lydia that got put up to bring it to Taryn’s attention. The Captain had raised her voice in anger plenty of times since she had bought the Zenith but never at her.
“No one,” Lydia answered. “But people talk. We’ve been cooped up together for the past couple of months. The Zenith isn’t that big. I’m just proposing one night on the town in Providence. Get a good meal, a few drinks, a chance to unwind like regular people.”
“We’ve got things to do on Providence; meet with Hoddell, take on supplies and passengers. We got a new crewmember to pick-up and we’ll have to look for work if Hoddell doesn’t have anything for us.”
Lydia nodded. As usual, Taryn wanted a quick turnaround. To add to the work that would be waiting for them on Ares, they were also taking on a new shipmate, Pol Singh. Taryn had been looking to strengthen the crew for a while, in situations where a fist or gun were needed. Such situations were alarmingly common for the Zenith despite prior preparations or planning. It had taken time but the Captain had finally found someone matching up to her lofty estimations the last time they were on Providence. Singh had agreed to ship out with the Zenith when they returned from the current job.
“You’re right though,” Taryn conceded. “It would be good to get everyone off the ship, even for a night. We get everything we need to do on Providence out of the way first and then we’ll kick back.”
“Great. I’ll let the crew know.”
“You do that,” Taryn said as she walked toward the stairs leading to the Captain’s cabin. “And tell Sunny it was a nice idea,” she called over her shoulder.