Helenica “Lucky” Goldenstein stared out of the armored glass window and into the eternal night that only the deep dark could offer. A lesser women would have been fuming at her predicaent. She’d been everything from a bounty hunter to a high paid security officer on a deep space exploration vehicle though and and didn’t get as far as she had with a short temper or without a sense of humor. Part of the reason she was sitting her in a little four person space hopper instead of lounging on a beach somewhere was her own fault. Her ship, at least the ship she had been responsible for on the security end had been captured by the Vregonian Security Forces in their territory with an illicit cargo. Illicit that was in Vregonian space. The shipment of five thousand of the bipedal amphibioids’ “tadpoles” was something that you just didn’t haul around without the proper authorizations. Naturally the ”Ghidorah”, the long haul freighter she had been on, didn’t even have them on the manifest much less have the right paper work.
The choice had been put to her. Either she shipped out with one of the Vregonian’s special agents to find out the origin of the shipment, or they cash in on the “Dead or Alive” warrant she had on her head. Naturally they would take her in to the sector that had a beef with her in the former state. She didn’t much care for that option so her she was, sitting within arm’s reach of one Martyn Noire. That wasn’t his real name. Their language sounded roughly like a sink that was backing up on too much oatmeal. Their names weren’t easy on a human’s soft palate. So as a concession most of them adopted human names. They were often a bit odd since most Vregonians didn’t understand human culture any better than humans understood theirs. Trade was making that change very gradually, but there were a number of fundamental differences that kept the process slow going. That was true of all four of the non-human species that humans had encountered in the last hundred and fifty years.
That’s where beings like Martyn came into play. He had been schooled in human culture before he could even breathe air by an organization known to humans at least as the Non-Human Sapient Collective. From their brief time together Lucky could say one thing, it hadn’t helped anything much other than his language. He had as many stereotypical outdated notions about what it meant to be human as she likely did about what it meant to be Vregonian. At least they were both willing to admit that early on. Neither of them had an ego when it came to that at least.
The Collective was a loose organization that served to try and integrate humans in to the wider universe’s already busy culture. They also served to investigate those cases where humans were “interfering” in business that they just didn’t understand. Apparently she and her people were still in some probationary period. The only ones that really held it over their head though were the Vregonians. A lot of humans complained, especially those in the sectors closer to the amphibioids’ territory, about ill treatment at the hands of NHSC agents. Little was ever done about it though, thanks to a history of trade embargoes against perceived whiners.
She changed from looking out the expansive viewport above them and turned to look at what would be her near constant companion. He was about one meter four tall and all of his visible skin was nearly as black as the void. Light seemed to be sucked into its surface, only the moisture ruining the illusion. He wore a khaki one piece suit that covered everything but his hands, feet, and head. It kept moisture in without wicking any of it away. The suit had a variety of pockets and pouches that she had seen produce food, a weapon, and both the spray foam restraint and the dissolving agent that he used to remove it.
Looking one of his species in the face was a challenge thanks to the wide spaced eyes and nearly invisible irises and pupils. She was still trying to learn where exactly to look and not seem to be staring. It seemed she still had much to learn, because he turned his head.
“Yes Lucky?” The lips such as they were didn’t curl and the bony, gum covered ridge didn’t look anything like a smile. The tone seemed light enough.
“Oh I was just thinking about the little gift your people gave me.” She gestured one one long delicate finger at her ankles. The gift in question was a little insurance policy that had been taken out against her running. Implants fed her current coordinates and vitals back to a node on Martyn’s person. If he didn’t like what he saw there he had three options. The push of one button would detonate the small anti-matter charge in either of the two limbs. He could also release a sleeping agent into her bloodstream that would render her unconscious for twenty four hours. The final option, very final indeed, was a neurotoxin that would kill her painfully in less than ten seconds. At least, that was what they told her. She had no reason to disbelieve them, since it wasn’t an uncommon practice or difficult technology to get. At least there was no visible indication that she had been “hobbled”. Tattooing was a common way of letting people know that you were a prisoner. Given the under cover nature of their mission, they saw fit to leave her unmarred.
Martyn nodded. “Yes, I can understand that it would be upsetting.” He twitched his head back, the nearest thing Lucky knew to a shrug that they had. “It’s nothing personal.”
Lucky returned the gesture. “I know. I mean, I’m as upset about this whole situation as you guys are. I know your bosses back there didn’t seem to believe me, but this whole business is a bit of a black mark against me professionally. If you let me go I’d track them down personally and deal with them thoroughly.” Her left hand chopped the arm of her lounge, light brown skin contrasting against the gray synthetic material. Her tone stayed neutral, but even for someone who didn’t know anything about her or humanity, the solid thwack indicated how thorough she would be.
He nodded again, the gesture drilled into him by countless hours of body language classes no doubt. “I don’t think any of my superiors doubted your passion or desire to get to the bottom of this matter.” His stilted, formal speech helped him form the syllable properly in an almost parody of an accent ancient by Lucky’s standards. Martyn had apparently fancied videos from what had once been known as the British Isles for his speech practice. “They just want to ensure that their own financial interests are looked after.”
That truth irritated Lucky more than just a little. The Vregonians really didn’t care that their people were being sold to the highest bidder. Slavery, at least how the humans defined it, wasn’t at all uncommon among them. They were more upset that whoever was doing it hadn’t cut them in on a piece of the action. There were a lot of credits on the line and she couldn’t certainly understand that and they had gotten their embryos back, but the principal of the matter had nothing to do with lives.
She sighed, wanting to try and understand that. “Look Martyn, help me with something. Vregonians buy and sell their own like any other commodity. Slavery was something my people outlawed over a thousand years ago.” She gestured at the ship around them, high tech stuff by her standards. “How can a race as,” she chose her words carefully, not really believing them, “advanced as yours still sell their own people?”
Martyn hit a few keys on the readout in front of him and waved the holographic screen into invisibility. He swung his legs off of the long low couch, identical to the one she occupied , and sat up in one liquid motion.
The quick movement didn’t have the aggressive markings of an opening to combat, so she kept her place, seeming to recline comfortably. In actuality, she could be up and ready to fight in less than an eye blink. Even that wasn’t quick enough against a trained Vregonian warrior, though perhaps Martyn wasn’t quite that well trained and modified. She was in no hurry to find out.
He grunted. “Lucy, we don’t sell our own people. We are only selling,” he seemed to be searching for a word, “non-people.” He grunted again. “Those that we sell have not been imprinted, augmented, or in most cases even hatched.” He came to his feet and moved about the humid cabin’s tight quarters. “It’s not quite the same as slavery you see. These beings have no purpose and no thoughts. Once they are in the care of their new masters…” He shook his head, apparently dissatisfied with the word. “No, it’s not quite like that, but neither is ‘keeper’. Once they are where they belong, it is little different from what would happen if they were hatched on one of our home worlds.”
The caste system, something that wasn’t unheard of even now among some human cultures, was still a thing she didn’t quite understand. Free will was as vital to her as air, water. She shook her own head, dark brown bangs brushing her forehead. “But it is different. You sell these eggs to other species. They come out to live on a world so hostile that they might not even live a decade.” She had seen that herself on a few colonies. She sat up slowly and placed her feet firmly against the deck, shoulder width apart. Pins and needles shot through them, circulation suffering from being hung over the edge of a too short acceleration couch.
Martyn’s head twitched backwards again. “That is true and such decisions lie in the hands of leaders far wiser than I am. Were it up to me?” He swung around to look at her. “Perhaps I would make the same decision, perhaps not. Lucky, you don’t understand everything about me and I don’t understand everything about you, but surely you can see that going against our traditions and our laws without our permission, near our own home sectors is wrong.” There was no hint of a question there.
She nodded. “I can. I just wish you would trust me. I have a good reputation.”
He cut her short. “Among humans.” A great deal of emphasis was put on the last word. “With my people complete trust is something that may take a century or more to earn, if you ever do. You won’t live that long at the speed you are going.”
He didn’t seem to be threatening her, but she wasn’t sure. What he was saying certainly made sense. She didn’t trust quickly either and in her line of work he was right, living a century or more wasn’t likely. A hundred and fifty or two hundred years was common enough among the well to do and most folks got their six score if they just kept their heads down, ate right, and exercised. Not so soldiers, cops, and security for hire. At fifty and with twenty five years of good hard work under her belt, not to mention that which had earned her her nickname, she was a curious mix of young and old. What did catch her by surprise was the realization, or reminder really, that she was dealing with an alien culture.
Most of her life Lucky had only been among her own kind. Even on the fringes of human space, there weren’t a great deal of aliens. Even the word had lost most of its real meaning. Out in the deep dark, they weren’t exactly natives. That word was hard coded into most human’s vocabulary though. The subconscious notion that they were the center of everything, not just known space, still made it hard to get along with others. She chuckled at the thought. Even with five hundred years of relative peace among their own kind they still didn’t get along very well with each other on an individual basis, much less with the other known sentients.
That much needed wake up call received, she tried to change the subject. “So, how much longer ‘til we get to Bifrost?” She wasn’t even entirely sure how long they had been in transit. Her captors had made sure she was good and unconscious before loading her on to Martyn’s ship.
A sweep of his fingers brought the readout up, hovering in midair. After a brief consultation, he looked at her through the nearly transparent grid. “Just about another eighteen standard hours.”
That answer was far short than she expected. The surprise registered clearly on her face. Either she had been out a lot longer than she thought or this vessel was at least twice as fast as anything its size had a right to be. She threw pride out the porthole. “How long have we been traveling?”
The look on his face had to be the Vregonian equivalent of smug. “About four days.” He gestured at the wall. “We only steal the best.”
“Four days?” She paused. “Steal?” Lucky really hated being caught flat footed. The fastest light frigates she knew of couldn’t make this run in less than nine. Even some of the trim military vessels would take at least eight. And what was that about ‘we’ and ‘stealing’?
“Our cover story. Now that you’re awake and alert enough I think it’s time we go over our story.” He sat back on the couch and looked at her. They were almost on eye level even though she was a good three decameters taller than he was. She was mostly leg though.
A cover story, that made sense. If she was to stand any chance of finding out who was behind all of this then she would have to have a good reason why she was returning without cargo, ship, or crew. Right now she didn’t even know exactly where any of those things were. A few crew had died when the “Ghidorah” had been taken, but she had been able to see the Captain and what crew remained before they knocked her out. They all pled ignorance to the cargo and that was the last she spoke to them. Her company and their means of transportation would also be of interest to a number of her associates. It would all mean that her mission had failed and the aforementioned black mark would make finding work on the orbiting space station Bifrost or anywhere else in the nicer parts of human controlled space difficult to say the least.
She nodded. “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to know what to tell folks when they ask where in space my ship is at.”
“Well naturally you won’t be giving them coordinates to either. We have kept it simple for you.”
Lucky bit back a short reply. He’d likely miss the sarcasm, though then again maybe he wouldn’t given his choice of vocal coaching. It wouldn’t help her case either way.
He cocked his head and one of the nictating membranes rewet his left eye. “No offense intended Lucky. It is just that easier stories are by their nature easier to keep track of. You and the ship were captured by the Vregonian government. You managed to escape with my help and we stole this vessel. If anyone checks they will see warrants out on both of us, only applicable in Vregonian space.”
She nodded. So far so good. Whatever crime they were likely to have been charged with extradition, was still a rare thing between the different cultures’ home worlds. Gray space, not really settled by anyone, and the very sort of place occupied by Bifrost was by no means lawless. The human Marshals ‘patrolled’ huge swaths of gray space keeping their ears out for any major doings, but she and Martyn would have needed to commit something just sort of genocide to earn their attention. There was a local ‘peace keeping force’ on every station and settlement depending on the nature of the place, but most of them only had real jurisdiction on the planet or station of origin. That was part of the reason that Lucky kept a home base on Bifrost. There were a couple of places she wasn’t expressly welcome and a few more that would like to take a significant number of years or credits from her. So far she had avoided angering anyone at the mining operation.
“None taken. Go on.”
“We need to find out who was responsible for the shipment that you were guarding. None of the crew or the ship’s records indicated who was behind the ill gotten goods.”
Lucky didn’t know whether to laugh or be shocked at his word choice. Alien culture. She reminded herself.
“So your job will be to find that out and to see if they are going to try and make another shipment in the near future. You must sign on to guard it. This time you will be successful and we will discover who is on each end.”
It took no small amount of self control not to laugh like a mad woman. He made it all sound so easy. Just get a job doing the same thing you got busted for in the first place, working for the same people, and ‘find out who is behind it’. The assurance that this time she was going to be successful also rankled just a little. The only reason she hadn’t been successful the last time had more to do with the unknown cargo and and under manned, under gunned, under powered transport. She had recommended that Aces, her liaison, get a different hauler for the job, but cost was an issue as was timing. The cargo was hot, in more than one way it turned out, and it needed to go out as soon as possible. Warning bells had nearly blown her head off, but she had taken it more as a favor to Aces. They would settle up when she got home. She was certain he knew something.
Though not easy, what he proposed wasn’t impossible. Lucky had plenty of connections and more than a few favors owed to her. It would take calling some of those favors in certainly, but wasn’t that worth her life? It was also a challenge and she was a woman that relished a challenge.
“I reckon that story will hold up. I don’t think that what you suggest is outside the realm of possibility either, but it’s going to take time and money.” She traced her jaw with her right index finger and her eyes rolled up to look into the vast darkness. “How much of either do we have?”
Martyn reclined again and ran short fingers over the left arm of the couch. A nearby panel opened and he picked a mossy green square from a platter inside. He popped it in his mouth and slurped and chewed for a full minute. “Our access to any financial resources will be limited. In fitting with our cover. We may be able to sell this ship, but I see that as a last resort. In any case my superiors have given me one standard month from time of departure to get this resolved. At that point I am to return if it is not.”
She didn’t miss the import of the singular pronoun. One month to get the job done. No, she stopped herself. That would be down to less than twenty-six days by the time they got to Bifrost. That wasn’t a great deal of time. If the people behind this had already found another hauler, or if they pulled out of the system… Any number of ifs or buts could ease a descent into functional immobility. She would have to deal with the facts on the ground. A few things were in her favor.
Money wasn’t a big issue, really. She hated to use her own, but she wasn’t hurting for cash or equipment. Information was the real commodity in this case, as in most, and that took time to get. Accurate intelligence often carried a high price in man hours. Weighed in the balance, that was still better than dying back on that swamp planet. “That should be plenty of time.”
“You are a confident person. That is quite good, quite good. My superiors and my own sources make me think that you will live through this. It will be a true pleasure to work beside you.” He took another mossy square and offered it to her.
She took it without hesitation. Her stomach rumbled eagerly, though her nose told her that she wasn’t going to relish what happened next. She popped it into her mouth and bit down. There were crunchy bits that reminded her of going through fried shrimp shell. Something popped in it and warm thick fluid oozed between her teeth. The flavor was truly awful, reminiscent of rotting garbage mixed with a metallic tang. She got it all down though.
She felt something slither down her left shoulder and nearly twitched away from it. It turned out to be a clear supple tube. She put it in her mouth and sucked, clear, blessedly cool water filled her mouth. She swished and swallowed twice. Her stomach thought about rebelling, but her will was strong. Whatever it was couldn’t be poisonous. They wanted her to live. Maybe it was a test or maybe the cultural divide made him as blind to her taste preference as she was to his facial expressions. Either way, she was hungry and once the water was down, the growling abated.
The temptation to compliment the chef was strong, just to be nice, but Lucky was no liar. “That was awful.” Still the hunger wasn’t gone entirely.
Martyn laughed, a gurgling thing, and gestured. A panel opened near her arm. “I hope you find this nearer your liking.”
The smell was reminiscent of the good fried squash that hear mother made. Her mouth watered. It was still a mossy green square, but the taste and texture were identical to the battered yellow summer vegetable. Looks like she passed the test. With two down the hatch, she nodded. “Very much.”
There were many more questions to be asked and details to be worked out. She needed to make sure that her new partner was up to speed on everything Bifrost had to offer. It was possible that his own ‘sources’ had already clued him in on a few things, but she had lived on the station off and on for eight years. There was no replacement for long experience. A more detailed game plan was in order and with over half a day transit time left, they could get a good start.
She rubbed her palms together. “Well Martyn I can’t tell you how much I hate the way all this has worked out. I don’t like having a ‘keeper’, but so long as you give me a fair amount of rope to do what I need to do and follow my lead, we’ll come out of this just fine. You can tell you bosses that will have this whole thing wrapped in three weeks.” This was a job like any other. So long as she looked at it that way and could ignore the twin bombs in her legs or the potential for being poisoned and the fact that he life in general hung by a thread finer than one of her leg hairs everything would be just fine. She allowed herself a little laugh that might have had just a touch of madness about it, but it was a madness that anyone who knew her was familiar with. The game was on and it was time to lock and load.