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Stealing Beauty

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“An entry code is required for access.” The female voice emanated from the speaker above the keypad.

“What do you mean? You’re my bloody ship aren’t you?” The slight dark-haired figure pounded on the access panel of the ship in frustration. “Jaryl said you were mine.”

“I am registered to Yalena of the Family Yardeen.” There was a slight pause, before the disembodied voice continued. “Scanning confirms that you are Yalena of the Family Yardeen.”

“Then open the damned door and let me in!”

“Access granted. Welcome Yalena. I am Lucy.”

Yalena stumbled up the ramp as soon as it was low enough for her to climb onto it. She slammed her fist against the panel inside the door. “Close the door. Lock it. NOW.” She was nearly snarling.

“Locking hatch. Confirmed. Do you have any further orders Yalena?”

Never call me that name again.”

“Noted. What should I call you then?”

“I don’t bloody care.”

“Do you have any further orders? Would you like to lay in a course?”

“Just lock the damned door and shut the hell up.”

“Shutting up now.”

* * * * *

Johnny had been watching the ship for hours when he finally decided to make his move. It was an hour or two before dawn, mid-shift of the graveyard shift. If he’d timed it right, the spaceport security forces should be taking their meal break right about now, which lessened the chances of anyone seeing him as he jogged across the empty tarmac towards the ship.

She was beautiful. More beautiful than anything he’d ever seen before. He ran his fingers across her skin, still new and shiny, unmarred by exiting and re-entering the atmosphere. Every other spacer he’d ever been near had been streaked and scorched.   He’d never seen a spacer that hadn’t been off planet before, and it was a little bit heady even just running his hands across the perfect metal of her clean hull. He felt a shiver run down his spine. He was going to be the first person to pilot this ship out of atmosphere.

This was crazy, what was he thinking? Stealing a ship? He wasn’t a thief. But the itch, the desire, the need to get his hands on her was more than he was able to resist. He wanted to be inside her, feel her decking under his feet, run his hands across her consoles, run his fingers deep into her code. He would never again have the chance to experience a virgin ship, straight out of the shipyards, before some other engineer had touched her tech, made their own enhancements, altered her programming.

He’d applied for work at the shipyards, but he didn’t have a degree. And even the grunt jobs required schooling that he didn’t have and couldn’t afford. He sighed, and dug in his tablet out of the pocket in his pack. He was as good as any other tech he’d ever met, maybe even better, because he didn’t think that what he’d learned in school was the only way to do things. He’d had to figure things out for himself. And often, his solutions worked better than the ones that the techs from the fancy schools came up with. He couldn’t always explain how or why he did things, he just knew that they almost always worked. Old Bren just said it was the rare tech who had a natural flair for both mechanics and code, and Bren had done his best to teach him everything he could. Old Bren had passed along used texts and gifted him with articles and access to information usually reserved for students. Whenever there was new tech to install at the plant, Bren had made a point of adding Johnny to the crew in charge of installing it. For three years he’d mentored John, pointing him towards new puzzles to solve and new positions as they’d opened up at the Relay Station. It had been a year since Bren had died, and Johnny still missed him every damned day.

Bren had told him that he could make a better life for himself, if he was only willing to take the risk. Johnny had applied for other jobs after Bren died, but had been turned down for every single one. He was getting tired of being told that he wasn’t qualified to do things that he already knew he could do, and had done. He was starting to think it was time to start over, maybe buy some forged papers, start a new life on some other system, and just start out claiming to have the schooling that he didn’t have. By the time anyone could prove differently, they’d have seen he could do the work.

If he could steal this ship, it would get him off world. And he could make a new life for himself. Like D’avin did. Get away from the Lambda system, go somewhere where nobody knew who he was, and reinvent himself. He might even be able to earn enough money to pay off some of his father’s debts. No, who was he kidding? Da owed way too much money for him to be able to do that. And the chances of his father being able to quit gambling and racking up more debt? Well, he was a better gambler than his father, he refused to take those odds. No, the best he could hope for was to earn enough money to get his mother away from his father and into a decent Jakk addition treatment program. One that could keep her off Jakk for more than a few days at a time. Or at least get her down to a dosage that wasn’t killing her so fast. He knew that getting Ma away from Da would help that, but he couldn’t afford to take her away yet, and when she was high, she refused to leave her husband. Because under the influence of the drug, all the abuse was bearable. John needed to get Ma sober first, before he could get her away from Da.

He stood in front of the ramp of the ship and examined the first roadblock in the way of his new life. The ship had top-of-the-line security. He’d read as many of the specifications as he’d been able to in the news feeds. And he’d spent a few of his precious credits buying additional information from the black market brokers. He had a portion of the factory default security code, and he’d written a bit of his own code that build on the stolen tech.

He took a deep breath, and then punched in the default entry code, and to his amazement, there was a pop as the seal on the ramp broke and it slowly started lowering. He could not believe his luck. The ship was so new the owner hadn’t gotten around to changing the default security codes yet! Johnny did a little victory dance as he waited for the ramp to lower all the way to the tarmac and then strode up the ramp.

He paused before the security grids at the entrance, reached into his pocket, and tossed a pebble into the entryway. Nothing. They hadn’t even turned on the security.   Someone was either very confident, or very careless, or both.   Once he was inside, he punched in the code to lock the hatch. Just in case all the spaceport security had not been at their meal break, and someone had seen him enter the ship.

He pulled the light out of his pocket and shone it around. As expected, he was in the cargo hold. He slowly explored the space. It was mostly open, but there was a four wheeled rambler under a tarp, safely strapped to the floor for takeoff and landing. Around the edges of the hold there were tall stacks of food containers, water carriers, and fuel canisters, also all safely strapped to the walls so they couldn’t shift during flight. Someone had made sure this ship was fully stocked. Johnny wanted to pinch himself, this was almost too good to be true.

After making a quick circuit of the cargo hold, Johnny shouldered his pack, put his torch between his teeth, and climbed the ladder to the upper level. He was in a short hallway. He glanced into the doors as he made his way towards the front of the ship. There were two small, Spartan cabins tucked into the wing that supported the starboard engine. Each was furnished with only a bed and a small chest and a few hooks on the walls. He continued cautiously down the hall towards the cockpit. So far, there were no signs of anyone being on board.

The hallway continued to curve around to the other side of the ship, but he stepped into the galley/lounge area. Again, the décor was Spartan, a table, four chairs, a sofa on one wall, a quartet of upholstered chairs along the other. There was a very modern looking galley unit, flanked by two large storage cupboards. Johnny ignored the possibility of a good meal, he had eyes for only one thing, the four short steps that led up to the open door of the cockpit.

Johnny bounded up the steps and dropped his bag on the floor before settling into the pilot’s chair. It was leather, and felt like someone had taken his measurements before they made it. He wiggled a little and felt his seat bones sink deeper into the padding. He gave a contented sigh. This was sweet, so sweet.

A mellow female voice filled the cockpit. “Hello, I am LUCI.”

John started. He’d thought he’d need to activate the AI before it spoke. Apparently not. “Hello Lucy. Pleased to meet you.” A grin spread across his face. Of course she was female, she was a ship, and all ships were shes.

“It stands for…”

“I know. Linguistic Uncoupled Computer Interface.” He ran his hands across the console, each panel lighting up and showing him the status of the ship’s systems. “Has anyone told you yet that you’re beautiful?” He scrambled to call up his program on his tablet.

“No, I don’t believe that anyone has. But I’m a very new ship.”

“Only just out of the shipyards.” Johnny found the access port he was looking for and made the connection to his tablet.

“Yes, my launch date was only three cycles ago.”

Three cycles! She really was a virgin ship. Johnny watched as his code flashed across the screen, downloading into Lucy’s system. She wasn’t putting up a fight. So the front door wasn’t the only part of her system that was still on the factory settings. He just could not believe his luck.

“You seem to be making modifications to my system. Identify yourself please.”

“Um, I’m Johnny Jaqobis. I’m a certified technician, so it’s OK.” He said, as his fingers flew across the console, changing a default here, modifying a security setting there, clearing the way for his Trojan Horse to work its way deep into Lucy’s systems and give him complete control of the ship.

“Identity, John Andras Jaqobis of the Lambda system, confirmed. But you are a Relay Station Technician Third Class. You are not authorized to work on starships John.” The AI almost sounded confused.

“Not just yet, but I will be.” Johnny murmured under his breath as the last of his code finished downloading. He should have control of the ship now. Only the registered owner had the authority to overwrite the hack that he’d just installed.

“Lucy, who are you talking to? I thought I told you to shut up!”

Johnny whirled around to find a young woman staring at him. Before he could say anything, she turned and fled back the way she had come.

“Lucy, who was that?”

“That was Yalena, late of the House of Yardeen. Recently married into the Royal House of Vohra. She is the registered owner of this vessel.”

“Shit.” Johnny cursed and unplugged his tablet. “Shit, shit, shit, shit.”

He stood up and she was back. But this time she had a blaster. And it was pointed at his crotch. It was all Johnny could do to put his hands up and not instinctively cover his privates.

“Get up.”

“Calm down, in case you didn’t notice, I am up.” She came up the stairs into the cockpit, and Johnny inched away from the control panels. He might have a chance to talk her down or disarm her. But if she started shooting and hit the control panels and damaged Lucy or his tablet, he was sunk.

“Did Khlyen send you?” Her voice rose, she was clearly about as far from calm as someone could get. Her eyes were wide, and under what was left of a diaphanous veil, the intricate braids of her hair were in disarray. Now that he was face to face with her, he realized she was wearing a dress of layers and layers of what looked like very expensive fabric. And it was stained all across the front and down the trailing skirts with… was that blood?

“Who the hell is Khlyen?”

“Did he send you?” the gun shook in her hands, whoever this Khlyen person was, he had her upset. “Did he think you could kill me when he couldn’t?”

Johnny dove for the door, just as she fired the blaster.

“What the hell! You shot me! That was completely unnecessary!”

* * * * *

Jeryl had tied a scarf over her eyes when she’d entered the transport, and had kept his hands over the scarf so she couldn’t peek for the entire ride.   Now, as the driver helped her out of the vehicle, Jaryl was still behind her, making sure she couldn’t peek from under the scarf.

“Are you ready?” there was laughter in her betrothed’s voice.       

She could smell the harsh tang of hot metal, overlaid with the scents of fuel. And sweat. And scorch. Something had burned here, and recently. “Where are we Jaryl?” There weren’t any voices, but she could hear thumping and muffled clanging in the distance. She could tell when they left the shade of a building by the change in the temperature as the sunlight hit her face. They were outdoors, somewhere still near the city, but where?

“You’ll see, just a little bit farther.” The driver still had her hand, and was leading her forward, Jaryl still walking behind her, his hands over her eyes.

The driver stopped walking, and Yelena stood still. “Are you ready?” She could feel Jaryl’s hot breath against her ear as he whispered to her.

“I’ve been ready Jaryl. What’s this all about?” The driver dropped her hand, and she could hear the tap-tap of his footsteps, and then the swish of the hydraulics of the transport’s door opened and then closed again with a slight thunk.  Wherever they were, they were alone now.

Jaryl pulled his hands away and untied the scarf and Yelena blinked in the bright sun as her eyes adjusted. They were at a spaceport, on one of the docking platforms. “Ta da!”

“What’s this?” They’d talked about running away together, but not until after their union had been blessed by a priest. In order for Jaryl’s family to accept her as his wife, their marriage had to observe all the proper formalities and legalities.

“My wedding present to you.” He smiled down at her.

“Where?” She didn’t see anything except the space yacht on the tarmac.

“It’s the ship silly.” And the loving smile he turned on her made her insides flutter just like they had the first time he’d visited the royal harem when he’d turned eighteen. She’d still been too young to be presented to him. She'd been kept towards the back of the room, while the older girls were paraded before him. But he’d smiled at her then, and she’d shyly smiled back. He claimed he remembered her, even though she was still a child, but she never quite believed him. But he’d continued to smile at her over the years, as she’d grown. And when she was of age, he’d started courting her. First it was small presents, found tucked in her room. Beads. Books. Lengths of silk for veils. And now, he was giving her this?

“The ship?” Yelena gawked at him. He’d bought her an entire spaceship? She’d known he was from a wealthy family, but she’d been raised in the royal harem. She had no idea what things cost, but surely a ship of this size, brand new, must have cost a small fortune? Just how much money did her future husband have at his disposal?

“She’s officially registered to your name. So she’s all yours.” He beamed at her. “Even if you should decide to leave me, the ship is yours.”

“I would never leave you.” she swore, and pressed a quick kiss against his lips. “But this…”   Yelena walked around to the side to take in more of this completely unexpected gift. She was a good sized vessel, big enough to be considered a medium sized yacht, or a small cargo vessel.   “This is too much. I can’t pilot a ship Jaryl. What will I do with her?”

“You don’t have to. She has the very latest technology, including a very advanced artificial intelligence that can pilot the ship by itself. The AI tells me that her name is Lucy.”

“The ship or the AI?”

“Both, I think.” He laughed. “I’m not sure, I didn’t think to ask. But she’s fully stocked with food, water, and fuel. I thought we might take our honeymoon off world while my parents recover from the shock of my marriage to someone not of their choosing.”

“I love you.”

“And I love you too. I can’t wait until you’re my wife.” And he pulled her into his arms and kissed her soundly.

“Just a few more days.” She’d been counting the hours until she was finally free of the harem and she and Jaryl could be alone together as man and wife.

“Yes.” He hugged her close. “Come on, I’ll show you around inside.”

* * * * *

“Johnny, what are we doing here again?”

Johnny set his tray down on the table and took the chair facing the window. “We’re eating lunch. Now sit.”

“But why at the spaceport?” Jo asked again, dropping his tray of food opposite Johnny’s. “The food here sucks.”

“Yeah, well I’m sorry. The food sucks everywhere. Quit complaining and eat.” Johnny picked up his drink and took a long pull on it. It was cold. That was about the best thing he could say about it. Jo was right, it was an overpriced lunch, and he was here on a hunch. But he’d checked all his contacts, and he was pretty sure he had the time right. He looked out the huge plate glass window. Nothing yet.

“So why are we here? We could have gone into FunTown and grabbed a brew and maybe some time with a couple of girls. Or boys?” Jo looked up at his friend to see if he’d gotten a reaction. Johnny ignored him.   It was none of his coworker's business who or what he chose to put his cock into, even if they did claim to be friends.

Jo picked up a utensil and poked at the protein floating in brown gravy. “The food in FunTown might not be fancy, but at least it’s cheaper than this crap.”

“Because scuttlebutt down at the Relay Station is that there’s a new ship coming in today. One of the new deep space yachts, first off the line at the new Imperial Shipyards.” Johnny could feel the excitement jangling up and down his spine. He’d heard rumors about the new ships. His fingers itched to touch something more high tech than the machinery he maintained at the Relay Station. Sometimes on his days off he worked as pit crew for one of the illegal racing crews. But the races tended to be out in the boonies, and he couldn’t always afford the time away from home, what with his mother’s health and his father being so damned unreliable about keeping food on the table.

“I just want to see her. She’s supposed to be making landfall at midday today. Delivery for one of the Royals, if what I heard was right.” He glanced out the window again. Still nothing. Just the usual small commuter shuttles. Nothing that looked new, or worthy of royalty.

“You gotta be kidding me, right? You had me haul our arses all the way out here for overpriced bad food, so you could look at a ship?” Jo stared at his friend incredulously.

“Yeah, wanna make something of it?” Johnny shoved a forkful of something into his mouth before he could say anything else. He would have come by himself, but Jo had a transport, and it saved him the fare across Town.

Jo sighed and rolled his eyes. “You are a piece of work Jaqobis. I don’t know why I hang out with you.”

“I do. It’s because I automated half your job and didn’t tell anyone.” Johnny smiled. “But if you want me to tell MacMack that you’ve got some free time?” He let the threat linger in the air.

“Naw, no need to do that.” Jo took a big gulp of his brew. The last thing he needed was any attention from their Supervisor. “But I’m not hanging around here all day. Once we finish eating, I’m out of here.”

“Fine.” Johnny knew better than to argue with Jo when it came to mooching a ride off his friend. He’d used up most of his favors on rides out to the illegal races. It wouldn’t do to push his luck.

They ate in silence for a bit. Jo shoveled his food, but Johnny took his time. Maybe if he could stretch out the meal, there’d be there long enough to see the ship.

“Alright, I’m done with my lunch. Let’s go buddy.” Jo pointed a thumb back towards where he’d left his transport.

“Wait,” Johnny grabbed his wrist. “There she is.” He was staring out the window, towards the horizon.

“Where?”

Johnny just pointed as a ship came into view over the top of the spaceport command module. She was a silver falcon, her wings a half-moon of silver-grey, two engine pods on each end, and a good sized cabin slung in the center of the curve. Large view ports curved across the front of her bow. She was sleek, she was sexy, and she was so new you could almost smell it from where Johnny was sitting. He gave a wistful little sigh as she pivoted and then slowly settled down, her landing gear extending smoothly from each engine strut. There was a small whoosh of dirt devils as her engines cycled down and she settled onto the tarmac.

Jo whistled through his teeth. “Now that is a purdy ship. Almost worth the trip Jaqobis. Almost.”

Johnny ignored the warning in his voice. “You don’t even know.” He swallowed, she was even more beautiful than her schematics. “She’s got chromoreactive skinning, a retractable weapons bank in case she runs into pirates, shield webbing across the entire hull for defense, a pod bay that’s big enough to hold good sized land vehicles, and atmospheric sensors that are so sensitive they can locate humans on the opposite side of a dwarf sized planet.”

“Sounds like someone’s got a hard on for some tech.” Jo leered at him. Everyone knew that Johnny Jaqobis was one of the best techs at the Relay Station. And they also knew that their supervisor, MacMack, used it against him, offering him the chance to work on different tech, but only if he did what MacMack wanted. Like work longer hours, work on his off days, or on secret projects that MacMack then took credit for while throwing Johnny under the bus as just a lowly tech, someone who wasn’t very important and didn’t need a raise or a promotion. In fact, there’d been some rumors that MacMack had actually charged Johnny for the privilege of working on one of his design projects. Claimed it was an apprenticeship, that he’s been charging him for the instruction of a Master Tech. Which everyone knew was bullshit, none of the Master Techs knew half of what Johnny knew. One of these days Johnny was either going to quit or shiv the boss, and Jo wasn’t sure which outcome currently had better odds in the Station betting pool.

“You have no idea Jo, no idea.” Johnny swallowed quickly. “I swear, I’d sell my own brother into slavery for a chance to just look at her engines. That is, if he hadn’t already sold himself into the Galactic Army.” His fingers flexed against his legs. He could feel the ship calling to him. He’d never been on a deep space freighter, but he knew, knew down in his bones, that just like every other piece of tech he’d ever encountered, if he could just get his hands on it, he’d be able to figure it out.   “Hell, I’d sell myself into slavery for the chance to work on a ship like that.” And once he’d served time on a Royal Yacht, maybe he could earn enough money to take care of his mother. Or at least get her away far enough away from his father that she wouldn’t need to take so much Jakk to get through the day.

“Well, too bad, we’re both stuck working for MacMack. Giant flaming arsehole. Speaking of flaming arseholes, I’ve got a doctor’s appointment I can’t afford to miss. Be seeing you Jaqobis.” He stood, slapped Johnny on the shoulder and carried his tray off to the collection station.

Johnny never took his eyes off the sleek ship in the docking bay. “Yeah, later Jo.” He waved in the general direction that his friend had walked. “See you NextDay.”

* * * * *

They had chosen one of the great Festivals for their wedding day. Because with so many people dressed up in strange clothes and fantastical costumes, no one would remark on them leaving the house wearing capes and carrying bundles of clothing. It was not uncommon for those who could afford it to make several costume changes during the course of the multi-day festivals. And capes were common, as they allowed the wearer to determine the optimum time to reveal their festival costume for the best effect.

They met, just before sundown, at a temple on the outskirts of town. The temple was small, but had a wealthy benefactor, so it was not run down like the rest of the neighborhood. No one would expect to find the Crown Prince or his consort from the Royal Harem in such a place, so far from the Royal Palace.

Their wedding party was just the two of them. Yelena couldn’t risk letting any of the other girls in the harem know about her marriage, because they might let it slip to Khlyen. And she knew, without asking, that he would not approve of her marrying and leaving the harem. Jaryl had brought two trusted servants, loyal to him since birth, to witness their vows. Yalena had tried to talk him out of it, but he’d insisted that when he was a child, he had sworn to his nanny that she would see him married. And he’d brought his valet because their marriage would not be legal without at least two people who could swear to have witnessed the ceremony.

“My family does not want me to choose my own wife. But I will have none other than you my love. So it must all be done legally, following all the requisite ceremonies, or my father will try to claim that our marriage is not valid. Once we are legally married, he will have to accept my decision. He will have no way to undo it.”

The ceremony was brief, and before Yelena knew it, the priest way saying,“I pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss your bride, your Highness.”

Jeryl bent his head to kiss her, and Yelena felt a tension that she had not even known was there ease inside her chest. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back, savoring the taste of her husband’s mouth. Husband! She was finally free!

Her joy was short lived. Yelena felt her heart drop as she heard a voice from the shadows. “You are Yelena of the Yardeen. You cannot join with the Vohra. I will not allow it.”

Somehow she found the courage to turn and face him. “It’s too late Khlyen, you cannot stop us. Our marriage is already sealed.”

“Then unseal it.” Her surrogate father frowned at her as he stepped out of the shadows and into the aisle of the temple. “Or I will.”

“You cannot.”

“Oh Yele, you have no idea what I can and cannot do.” He gave a small, sad smile, and then his hands moved so quickly that her eyes almost couldn’t register the movements. Two knives appeared from nowhere and flew across the space between them and Jeryl’s nanny and valet sunk to the floor without a sound. Yelena looked in horror as another knife flew between then and the priest fell. Before she could do anything to prevent it, he flicked his hand again, and a final knife lodged in the throat of her new husband. Jaryl’s eyes went wide, and there was the shock of hot blood across her face, down her dress, as he lurched and fell into her arms.

“Jeryl, Jeryl! No, you can’t…” Her arms were wet, her dress was wet, so wet. So hot. This could not be happening. She lowered him to the floor, cradling his head in her hands. Jeryl looked up at her, she could already see it in his eyes. His life was draining out of him, from the little gushing fountain at his neck, to flow and join the crimson lake spreading across the floor of the temple.

“I… I love you…” he croaked, and then the light left his eyes, and his head lolled over and all his muscles went lax.

“What have you done!” She cried, “What have you DONE?”

“What I have always done. Protected you. Taken care of you when you could not take care of yourself. Your father would not have approved of this marriage, I do not approve of this marriage, your husband’s own family did not approve of this marriage.”

Yelena bent over Jeryl’s body, as if it was not too late to protect him from Khlyen. Under the cover of her veil, her fingers sought the knife lodged in her husband’s throat.

“And now you have no witnesses that it ever happened.” He started slowly up the aisle.

“Not even a priest to swear that he performed the ceremony.” He pulled at his sleeves, adjusting them over his wrists again. “And you have no husband.” He reached where she was sitting on the floor, cradling her husband’s body in her arms. “Come, let’s take you home.” And he reached for her arm to help her up.

“No!” Yelena snarled, wrenching her arm out of his grip. She used the knife from Jaryl’s throat and struck wildly at Khlyen slashing at him before plunging the blade into his thigh. Khlyen staggered back, and slipped in the blood on the stone floor of the temple. Which gave Yelena just enough time to scramble out from under the dead weight of her husband and snatch up the dagger from the priest’s chest.

As Khlyen tried to pull himself up using one of the benches, she drove the dagger into his shoulder, pinning him to the wood.

The last thing she heard as she picked up her skirts and fled out the door was his voice calling after her, “Yelena!”

* * * * *

Johnny slammed his hand against the panel by the door, locking the cockpit from the outside. “Security lockdown protocol Lucy! Authorization three niner niner.”

“Confirmed, complete security lockdown of all systems John.” Johnny breathed a sigh of relief. Those black market default security codes were turning out to be worth every damned credit he’d paid for them.

Johnny examined his arm. There was a long red streak across the outside of his bicep. It wasn’t a bad wound, only a graze, nothing life threatening, he’d done worse in the shop before. But damn did it hurt. “Lucy, where is the MediKit?”

“I have turned on the light over the cabinet where it is stored. What do you require John Jaqobis?”

“She shot me!”

“You will find a cauterizing tool, coagulants, and synthetic skins in the fourth drawer on the right.”

“By all the gods, this hurts like a mother.”

“Analgesics are in the top drawer.”

Johnny pulled open the drawer and was faced with a small pharmacy. He sorted through the boxes until he found a drug whose name he recognized. Who would have thought having a junkie for a mother could come in handy sometimes? He stripped off the wrapper with his teeth, and sunk the hypo into his arm, right above the muscle. “Ah….Thank you Lucy.”

“You’re welcome John.”

John carefully cauterized the wound, then cleaned it and bandaged it. Then he helped himself to a brew from the stores and sat on the sofa to consider his options. He had planned on stealing the ship. But that was going to be hard, what with the registered owner on board. A registered owner who happened to be armed.

But he couldn’t just leave and go back home. He’d dropped his bag with all the worldly possessions he cared about in the cockpit. He couldn’t go home without his clothes. His mother might be too high to notice, but not his father. He’d get a beating no matter what story he tried to tell. And he couldn’t go back to work without his tools and his tech. That wouldn’t have flown even when Old Bren was there. No, he couldn’t leave the ship until he got his gear back. And he couldn’t get his gear back without facing the woman in the cockpit. But he had to get his gear back somehow.

“Lucy, I need your help.”

“What can I do for you John?”

“You said that woman was Yalena, the registered owner?”

“Yes John.”

“How long has she been on board?”

“She boarded approximately eight hours ago.”

“Eight hours? What’s she been doing all that time?” Clearly not changing out of that dress. Had that really been blood all down the front? And whose blood was it? Was she hurt? Did she need medical attention even more than he did?

“I don’t understand the question.”

“You said she’s been on board for the past eight hours. What has she done in that time? Where has she been? What systems has she interfaced with?”

“Yelena has done nothing. She had not interfaced with any of my systems. She has been in her cabin the entire time.”

“She hasn’t called anyone, used the MediKit, eaten anything, explored the ship?”

“No, she has been in her cabin since she came aboard.”

“Hmmm.” Johnny finished his brew while he considered his options. Finally he made up his mind. Charm offensive it was. He said a quick prayer, and then keyed in the code to open the cockpit door.

She was waiting for him. He glanced around the corner, and saw the blaster was trained right at him. He ducked back. “I’m not here to hurt you.” and he walked into the doorway, both hands up. He hoped this worked.

“Khlyen didn’t sent you to kill me?”

“I’m not here to kill anyone, least of all you.”

“Then why are you here if Khlyen didn’t send you?”

“Who is Khlyen, and why does he want you dead?”

“It’s a long story.” She sighed, then pointed the gun in his direction again. “What the hell are you doing here? Answer me!”

“Well, actually,” he said, and gave her his very best bashful grin, “I was planning to steal your ship.” And he shrugged. Might as well go all in with the truth on this one.

“Steal Lucy?” The blaster was trained on his balls. He struggled to keep his hands up and appear non-threatening when all he wanted to do was duck and cover.

“Hey, hey, don’t shoot me again. I can only take being shot once a day, max. And I’m already at my limit today, thanks.” He smiled at her, but kept his hands in the air where she could see him. She was pretty clearly upset about some person named Khlyen trying to kill her. He wondered how close he’d actually gotten to doing the deed.   “Is that blood on your gown? You look like you might need help. Do you need medical attention? Because I gotta say, that’s a lot of blood.”

“It’s not my blood.”

“Whose is it then?” Now he was really curious.

“My husband’s.” As she said the word, her voice broke. Johnny started moving towards her, but she brandished the blaster again.

“Hey look, no judgment from me. Did he beat you? I really don’t care if you killed the bastard, if you’re hurt, I want to help.”

“He wasn’t a bastard.” She sniffed and tried to regain her composure. “We were in love. We were going to run away together. But now he’s dead.”

“And this Khlyen killed him?” She nodded. “Are they after you too?”

“I don’t know.” Her voice cracked again. “Get off my ship.”

“I can’t leave you here like this.”

“Yes, you can. Now get off.”

John backed away from her, and slowly walked down the stairs, hands still in the air. Well, this had been a complete failure. Which meant it was time to try another tactic. Maybe wining and dining?

Yalena scanned the cabin, and noticed the tan backpack on the floor for the first time. Had the intruder dropped it? “Lucy, where is he? Has he left the ship yet?”

“John is in the galley.”

“John? When did you two become such chums? What the hell is he doing?”

“It appears that he is preparing a meal.”

She stood up and slowly moved towards the door of the cockpit. She could hear some quiet banging about, and the beep as the heating unit shut down.

She slowly edged her way down the four steps to the lounge area, pistol still at the ready. He’d pulled two of the upholstered chairs up next to the dining table, and set out two glasses and a large bottle of Hok.

“I’ve made some food, would you care to join me?” He placed one of the plates on the table and stood back. “I can wait over here until you’ve eaten, if it makes you feel safer.” He set down his plate next to the couch, and sat down like he owned the place and started eating. Yalena felt her temper rising, how dare he? This was her ship! But then her nose caught the scent of his food and her stomach growled, reminding her that it had been hours since the last time she’d eaten.

“Go ahead, eat it.” He waved his spoon at her,  “All I did was warm it up, the seal hasn’t even been broken. I swear, it’s safe. And you look like you could use something hot in your belly. Trust me, it will help with the shakes.”

She sat down across from him, and set the blaster next to her, within easy reach. He’d moved the table further away from the sofa. It was like he knew that putting more distance between then would make her feel safer. She eyed him, then removed the cover from the bowl and picked up the spoon. The stew was rich and savory, one of her favorite recipes from the catering house that Jaryl liked to patronize.

She eyed him as she ate. He was a fairly non-descript fellow, average build, short brown hair. His eyes were watching her as she ate, a curious blue-green color. She found herself feeling strangely self-conscious, and she didn’t know why. He didn’t have the coiled power she was used to seeing in dangerous men. He seemed…. Normal. Not that she’d had any real idea of what “normal” meant, living in the royal harem, the only men she’d really interacted with were guards and servants. And he didn’t seem like either one.   He finished his meal, and put his plate and utensils in the cleaner. So, he didn’t expect her to be responsible for cleaning up. That was a point in his favor.

“There’s plenty of food in the galley if you’re still hungry?” She shook her head. “Liquor too. Why don’t I get us both a drink?” She considered that, and nodded permission.

He slowly approached the table, giving her plenty of time to put her hand on her gun. He stopped at the end of the table, broke the seal on the bottle of Hok, and poured two healthy glasses. He pushed one towards her, and took the other with him when he retreated to his couch. He sipped it, and then finally spoke again.

“Are you sure none of that’s your blood?”

“Sure.” She nodded, then tossed back her drink in one gulp. It burned all the way down. But not enough to make her forget just whose blood she was wearing, and everything she’d lost that day. She refilled her drink from the bottle. “Why do you care?”

“It’s just that, if you need medical care, I’ve just found out that your ship,” And he reached up to caress the wall above his head, “is really well equipped. And I’m pretty sure that we could take care of you right here. You wouldn’t need to go to a physician or med ship if you’re injured.”

“I wasn’t harmed. None of this is my blood.”

“Do you want to tell me what happened?” John asked gently and sat forward, his glass cradled between his hands. “Sometimes it helps to talk about it.”

“His throat was slit. Carotid artery. Bleeds quite a lot in a very short amount of time.

“By this Khlyen?”

“Yes.”

“Sounds like a bad dude.”

“He is.”

“Look, you’ve got this ship right? We don’t have to stay here. We can just fly away and never look back. Go where he can’t find you.”

Yelena ignored him in favor of pouring another drink.

* * * * *

John was scrolling through Lucy’s data banks when he felt the cold steel of a weapon against the back of his neck.

He slowly and deliberately lifted his hands off the control panel, moving them so that they were in sight of whoever was behind him.   “OK, no sudden moves. Hands are up where you can see them. Going to turn around now.” He waited until he felt the weapon move from the back of his neck before he slowly swiveled the pilot’s chair to face behind him. Yelena stood there, feet braced shoulder-width apart, her rather large pistol pointed at his head. Again. And from the way she was holding it, there was no doubt in Johnny’s mind that she was still inclined to use it on him.

“You’re not going to shoot me again, are you?”

“Give me one good reason not to.”

He kept his hands in the air where she could see him. “Lucy, engage autopilot.”

“Autopilot engaged John.”

He smiled at her. It was a charming smile, and he knew it. All the sexers down at the Company brothel told him he was irresistible when he smiled like that. “Good morning. And how are you feeling today?”

She scowled at him. “Hungover. But you probably knew that already.” Johnny smiled. She had put away a rather large amount of liquor the night before. “And just who the fuck are you anyway?”

“Oh did I forget to introduce myself last night?” he started to put his hands down, watching for her permission. She nodded, but kept the gun trained on him. “I’m John Jacobis. My friends call me Johnny. Late of the Lambda system. And you’re Yel…”

She cut him off quickly. “You can call me Dutch.”

“I thought you said your name was …”

“You can call me Dutch.” She repeated, more emphatically this time.

“Yes ma’am.” He nodded at her. It was her ship, her gun pointed at his head, he’d call her whatever she wanted him to.

“What…. Exactly happened last night?” She walked slowly around him and seated herself in the co-pilots chair. Johnny got the feeling it was so that if she shot him, she wouldn’t damage the ship’s controls. He approved of her not wanting to shoot Lucy, although he’d prefer it if she wasn’t still looking like she wanted to shoot him.

He smiled again. “Oh, well, you seemed like you’d had a pretty shitty day. So I got you drunk.”

“And then what?” The gun was still leveled at his head.

“Nothing. Right Lucy?” he looked up at the ceiling. “You kept the surveillance tapes like I asked?”

“Yes John, I have a full record of all the surveillance tapes since you boarded me.”

“Good girl.” He smiled and spread his hands, “So, nothing happened last night. Nothing at all.”

“Then why am I wearing these clothes?” She seemed upset by the black pants and long sleeved top he’d chosen for her.

“Well, you were covered in blood for one thing. And that dress didn’t look all too comfortable for sleeping in. So, once you passed out, I threw you in the shower and got you cleaned up. I found those clothes in the cabin, got you dressed again, and then I put you to bed.”

“And nothing happened?”

“Nothing happened. Nova Scout’s honor.” He held up his hand in the Nova Scout salute.

“Were you really a Nova Scout?” She squinted her eyes at him. He didn’t seem the paramilitary type.

“Well, actually no. But my older brother was.” he shrugged at being caught out in the lie, “But I do swear, nothing happened. Lucy has the security footage to prove it. It’s not my first time taking care of a messy drunk. I can be a perfect gentleman when confronted with an unconscious woman covered with blood and vomit.”

Dutch chose to ignore that last bit about the vomit. She hadn’t seen or smelled any in the cabin. If he’d cleaned her up, he’d cleaned up her ship as well. And there wasn’t any reason for him to have scrubbed the decking if she’d spewed last night. She pondered that thought, Johnny on his hands and knees, scrubbing the decks of her ship clean. Why would he take the trouble to do that?

He interrupted her thoughts, “Can you put the gun down now?”

Dutch didn’t say anything, but holstered the gun and stood up to look over his shoulder at the control panels. The view outside the viewports was deep space. “So where are we?”

He waved his hands across the center console, and Lucy projected a holographic map of the sector. Their position was marked by a pale blue dot, and their route by a dotted blue line from the planet’s surface.

“I figured after what you told me last night about your wedding that we should probably get off world before anyone started looking for you. I filed a flight plan for the K sector.” He pointed,  “But that’s not exactly where we’re headed.” He looked up at her. “We can turn around and head back if you want.” He looked at her questioningly. “But after what you said last night, I figured the safest place for you was off world. I’ve had Lucy keeping us out of sight of any Company vessels. We’ve been hiding behind a moon until you woke up.”

“What did I tell you?” Dutch asked, horrified.

“Well, around about the third bottle of Hok, I think you pretty much told me your life story. I know all about your father and the harem and Khlyen and Jaryl.”

“Did I? Damn.” Dutch muttered.

“I told you all my sob stories too. We were both pretty drunk.” Johnny shrugged. “I’m sorry about the wedding though. That sounded rough.” He looked at her with sympathy in his eyes.

Dutch avoided meeting his eyes, ashamed to have gotten so drunk that she’d blacked out. “Fat lot of good that does me, since I don’t remember much of last night.” She muttered, and rubbed at her temples. Her head was pounding.

“Well, Lucy does have tapes.” John suggested helpfully. How he could be so cheerful she didn’t know. Especially after three bottles of Hok. How much liquor had they drunk last night?

“Not now. Maybe later.” Dutch shook her head, “And leaving the surface, that was good thinking. I probably wouldn’t have been allowed off planet once they found Jaryl.” She turned to look at him. “But why are you still here on my ship?”

“Oh, I’m your crew now.” He gave her a sunny smile.

“Whot?”

“I’ve got a signed employment contract. You hired me last night. Lucy witnessed it too. I am officially first mechanic on this gorgeous collection of metal and circuits.” He caressed Lucy’s control panels with reverent fingertips.

“Thank you John. It is nice to be appreciated.” Lucy said.

“Traitor.” Dutch frowned up at the ceiling. She turned towards John, “I was drunk, this can’t be legal.”

Johnny smiled at her, “Too late, the paperwork’s already filed with the Company Employment Bureau, signed and stamped and everything. You’re stuck with me.” She continued to frown at him. “I did agree to work for room and board, if that makes it any better? I just really needed to get off-planet.”

“Then I hope to hell you don’t eat much.”