Fang ceded control to my reasonable self who was better at making long-term decisions. Too bad it also let guilt and scruples surface again.
I’d probably killed somebody back there.
Survival, Fang huffed, blasé. It was either them or us.
The knowledge of that did nothing to quench the guilt. Nor my doubts as to my strange rescuer. I kept the gun leveled at him as he drove deeper into the labyrinth of muddy streets and increasingly decrepit buildings. I hadn’t known the city ran this deep.
“Why are you helping me?” I wanted to know.
“You were right about those crates Moore wanted us to ship. I had my people check them out and they were full of toxic gas.”
“Uh huh.” He didn’t seem upset about almost running into a fatal trap. “So?”
“He slipped away from me before my crew checked back in with confirmation, so I followed. Nobody double-crosses me and gets away with it. But he’s crafty, and his bodyguards found him again. And then I overheard him place an anonymous call to the authorities as to your presence. Told them to look into your case closely. Moore was obviously afraid of you, so I had an inkling it would get interesting.”
“You weren’t going to help a damsel in distress who’d saved your life?”
He snorted. “What damsel? Plus, I don’t hold my neck out for people that aren’t mine.”
“So why follow me in the first place?”
“I wanted to know how you’d handle the situation.”
“And? Satisfied?” I asked sarcastically.
“Very. What are you going to do now?”
The question stumped me. What was I going to do now? I was back at square one on every miserable level of my life. And once again, the same man was responsible.
“I’m going to find that murderous son of a bitch,” I decided through clenched teeth. Fang was right on par with this decision, eager to begin the hunt. “Ain’t no place on this dump he can hide well enough from me.”
He glanced at me with something awfully close to pity in his eyes. I glared at him and his gaze turned into amusement. “I almost believe that, after seeing you in action,” he said. “But he’ll have disappeared by now. This is his city and he’s got his cronies with him.”
“I’ll track him down,” I growled. “Tiny and Shiny are no match for me.”
He laughed at my name for Moore’s two henchmen, but said, “that’s your rage talking.”
I looked at him and let Fang peek at him. All he did was narrow his eyes at me, obviously devoid of any sense of self-preservation. People usually felt like they were meeting their maker when she looked at them. Those clerks at the registration office sure had. Not that the color or shape of our eyes changed - it was more like something savage was switched on or off.
“And what if you succeed?” he asked. “You’ll be stranded on a planet where the Federation is looking for you, in a town where Moore’s underlings will be out to kill you.”
“Why do you figure I’d be stranded?”
“You have no ship.”
“It’s parked in the port,” I lied.
“I’m pretty sure it’s confiscated by now. Anyway, it was only half yours.”
I raised my gun again. “How do you know?”
“I saw you yesterday with John, when you paid him the deposit on that sleek little bird. It's docked only a few berths away from mine.”
Dreck! The deposit. I’d never get that back now. I pushed down the urge to break something and tried to focus on my more imminent problems. “I didn’t see you.”
“I don’t doubt that. You had eyes only for that ship. Which is now out of your grasp. As is Moore. When the time is right, we can go after him.”
His gaze darkened until it was almost savage. If he hadn’t smelled completely human, I might have considered the possibility that he had a beast inside him, too. I’d been wrong about him being cool about Moore’s trickery. Very wrong. “He tried to double-cross me. He put my crew in danger. Someday, somehow, he’ll pay. By my hand or yours, doesn’t matter. But this is not the time. He owns the seedy underbelly of this town and his men are loyal. If you stay here and try some variation of your plan, either the Federates or Moore will get you. You’re dead if you stay here.”
I knew that. “What’s your point?”
The darkness lifted as if it had never been. “I have an alternative,” he said, in the same tone he might use when offering me cookies and tea. This man was nothing if not a perfect compartmentalizer.
"An alternative?" I asked, intrigued.
"I want to offer you a job on my ship," he said.
"What kind of job?"
"The rim kind,” he said without hesitation. “You know, chicanery, smuggling, outsmarting competition and evading the law."
So much for going legit. But I didn't have a choice if I wanted to get off this rock before the Federates or Moore's goons found me.
"How much do you pay?"
"Twelve percent of whatever we earn is yours."
"A share in the profits? Forget it. I prefer regular wages."
"No can do. But we had a good last run, so I'll give you an incentive: you get your first twelve percent today just for being a stand-up citizen and saving our lives."
That was only fair, considering that my warning had also cost me my future. Although I could be getting nothing, depending on the amount we'd be splitting.
"What's a good run for you?"
"Ten thousand creds."
So over a thousand for me. Not even a quarter of the deposit for the ship that would never be mine, but it was a start. Except...
"How often do you get a good run?"
"Enough to keep the ship fueled and our bellies filled," he said, though I got the impression he wanted to add 'most of the time' to that statement.
"I want to see the ship first," I said to him. She'd tell me if she was the place for me to be.
"Fine. But first I’d suggest we get your stuff from wherever you’re staying. If you decide to join us, you won’t have time to go back for your possessions again. Or change clothes.” He glanced pointedly at my naked thighs, the stockings and garter-straps, which were no longer covered by the ruined dress.
“I hope you realize you’re a lucky man,” I said, refusing to squirm beneath his gaze.
“I’m flashing my slip at you and I don’t even know your name. Usually I insist on a little more information beforehand.”
He laughed. "Captain Nathan Grey, at your service," he said with a wink. “And it’s a very fetching slip, I assure you. I must also confess that I don’t always ask for names, but in your case I’m definitely interested.”
“Samira Inverness,” I said, wondering if I could crack a sexual-harassment joke to a man who might soon be my employer. He seemed easy-going enough, but I didn’t want to give him the wrong impression. So maybe not. “People call me Sam."
"Pleased to meet you, Sam. Where are you staying?”
I gave him directions to the hovel I’d been living in and twenty minutes later we were on a straight course back to the port. I wore cargo pants and combat boots and felt more like myself. Captain Grey had turned out to be a proper gentleman by insisting on helping me carry my meager possessions now loaded up into the hover-pod. Luckily, the local authorities hadn’t yet figured out where one Samantha Yale had stayed the night, and nobody tried to stop me from checking out.
A few blocks away from the port, Captain Grey plucked the com off its bracket on the dashboard and clicked it on. "Ted, you copy?"
It took a while before static hissed in return. "Copy, cap'n."
"Everybody back on board?"
"Everybody's accounted for," came the answer. "Just waitin' for you to grace us with your presence."
"Loaded up, minus the two crates from Moore. Though we had to stop Marek from marching them back to the pick-up spot and blowing them up in Moore's face."
"Don't worry, we won't let him get away with this," the captain promised in a voice and expression like space itself; cold, dark and empty. But his face soon cleared and when he spoke into the com again, he was as cheerful as before. "Get your ass in your chair and get us a clearance for take-off. I want to leave as soon as we're back."
There was a slight pause. "We?" Not even the static could hide the sudden grimness in the pilot's voice.
"Fire her up," Captain Grey ordered with authority, ignoring the question. "I want to be off this rock before I change my mind and hunt down Moore after all."
The com clicked off curtly. Grey scowled at it for a heartbeat, then shoved it back in its bracket. I wondered if I dared ask what all that had been about, but then we rounded the corner and arrived at the entrance to the port.
On the way to Grey’s ship, we passed the sleek bullet that would now never be mine, gleaming and beckoning. I had to look away and instead found Grey watching me, with something akin to remorse in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. That he understood my sorrow so well was disturbing, but he would probably feel the same way if he lost his ship.
I acknowledged his apology with a grim little nod. It wasn’t really his fault that I’d busted my own future. I’d done the right thing by warning him, whether I stayed with him and his crew or not. I’d saved lives, dreck it. That counted for something. Even if I’d destroyed my own.
"There she is," Grey said as we hovered up to a landing field on which a ship was docked that looked more like a giant lump of metal than a factory-built vessel. It was hard to tell port from starboard, stern from bow, or even top from bottom. Only a lowered ramp and the smooth surface of the unshapely hull provided evidence that this was indeed a spaceship, not some whacky piece of modern art.
"This thing is sky-worthy?" I couldn't help asking as we hovered over the ramp into the large, high and mostly empty cargo bay. On the inside, the ship was surprisingly normal and conformal in appearance; gleaming steel walls, grated stairs and overhead walkways that lead to doorways to other areas of the ship.
Captain Grey's eyes sparkled with amusement. "Meet the Jolly Folly," he said. He watched me, obviously waiting for my reaction - to the ship or the name, it was hard to tell. Both were equally hideous.
I kept my face neutral. I'd learned long ago not to judge a ship by its appearance. Instead, I hopped out of the pod and went over to one of the steel walls. I closed my eyes and laid a hand on the hull. Contentment radiated from her, interspersed with excitement and a grandmotherly benevolence that mingled with fierce protectiveness. Underlaying all that was an overwhelming sorrow and deep sense of loss that didn't fit the ship's otherwise sunny disposition. Somebody was sorely missed.
Despite that, only one ship I'd ever been on had exuded this caring, homey feel. Even Fang was impressed.
Lor would have liked this, she said wistfully.
I opened my eyes and looked at the captain, who was still watching me, a slight frown bunching his brows.
"I'm in," I told him.
He glanced at where my hand lay against the wall, then back at me. "I thought you wanted to meet the crew before deciding."
"I said I wanted to see the ship," I reminded him. "She can tell me best whether I'll like it with you or not."
He rubbed the back of his neck, obviously nonplussed. He didn't quite seem to know how to handle that emotion.
"Every ship picks up the most prevalent mood and emotions felt by her crew," I explained as best I could. "It's not a science, but it works for me."
He opened his mouth to say something, but his com interrupted with a static crackle.
"Captain, I've got clearance," the pilot said. "I'm taking off. If you don't close her up it's gonna get mighty windy down there."
The captain raised his com. "Copy, Ted. Take her up." He went over to the hatch and pushed a button on the frame. The airlock closed with a hiss just as the ship's engine thrummed to life. She rose steadily, like a cloud on the breeze, without a hint of trundling which might indicate those misfirings in the boosts that many aged ships displayed during take-off and landing.
"Smooth," I said, impressed.
"The smoothest," the captain said proudly. He spread his arms at his sides and looked up, as if contacting the ship's soul. "Welcome to Chamaeleon - like the constellation from the Origin Galaxy, not the animal. That's our real name for her."
"Chamaeleon?" I repeated. "Strange name for a spaceship." Lightyears better than 'Jolly Folly', but still odd.
"It makes sense, you'll see," Captain Grey said, lowering his arms and looking at me with a mysterious smile. "We're all chameleons, in one way or other, are we not?"
Deep inside me, Fang brimmed with mirth. More than you can possibly imagine.
Read on at Chapter 4.