If I thought it would do any good, I'd have figured out where my computer's ass was and kicked it a long time ago. We'd dropped off a load of iron on Ventos 3 and our argument started before we even left orbit. Three days into the flight, I was ready to punch Cicero's display.
"Just a quick side-trip?" Pleading with a machine. My life had taken an unexpected turn.
"I can't, Barin." Cicero almost sounded apologetic; the efforts of a smart programmer trying to save the dents I was ready to put in the console. "I assumed you'd be looking forward to getting back to the station to see—“
"Well, you were wrong," I interrupted. "You've never been good at critical thinking.” That relationship was supposed to be a secret, and as long as I didn’t hear the words, I could keep acting like it was. Besides, Jarod would be busy getting ready for the race.
"Of course." Could an AI's voice sound smug? "Whatever you say."
Before the latest computer upgrade, Cicero had to do what I said, within boundaries, of course. That was still the case, but the boundaries had gotten a lot smaller. It had been nothing to swing through a star system that was only a day or two out of the way and pick up a load of weapons or black-market merchandise and drop it off somewhere else on the way home.
Cicero had signaled The Company's Sector 4 base in the Cardea System as soon as we started back and would report any deviation. He also monitored, controlled, and most of the time, even repaired the ship himself. I was just along as a figurehead because pilots still had a little bit of status. My entire crew had been grounded and it wouldn't be long before I joined them. Cicero could make a delivery completely unmanned as long as there was no diplomacy or negotiation involved. Hell, maybe that would be in the next upgrade.
"I've already transmitted our coordinates and the station knows, within a ten-minute window, when we’ll arrive."
My jaw hurt from clenching. There was a docking bay only a three hour jump away, full of stolen Sector One ammunition begging to be smuggled into Sector Four—and, more importantly, a Thalian willing to pay a king's ransom to get them there.
When I’d stopped being a raider and gone legit, I hadn't planned on it being all the way. I got paid a decent salary, but without a side business, it’d be impossible to save enough money to buy my own ship. I'd spent the last month living off dehydrated rations because The Company provided them on flights—for a nominal fee, of course.
I missed my crews, the one from the raider ship and the one from my Company transport. Well, not everyone from the raider ship.
I leaned back in my seat. The stars streaked past. Home again, home again. At least there were ways to break the monotony on The Station; the liquor and hookers were top-notch. After two weeks sitting impotently in a ship, I didn't mind splurging for a night out. Especially since Lynn would probably send me right back out again. It was almost like she knew I was dating her son.
"Cic?" I asked, resigned to my dull fate.
Lights on the console blinked. "I still can't, Barin."
"Not what I was going to ask. How long 'til we're home?"
"Three hours. Would you like to fly a simulation while you wait?"
The little bastard was trying to placate me—and it worked. "Sure."
My chair turned to face the back of the bridge and the controls on the armrest glowed. The pressure plates that used to let me control anything on the ship without lifting my hands now only controlled a game.
Holographic stars and nebulas blocked out my unmade bed and the dull, gray doors to the head and the engine room. Soon they rushed toward me as I maneuvered my non-existent ship through fake drills. The game had been fun when it was diversion and not my only validation.
"We're dropping out of light-speed," Cicero said, interrupting a harrowing flight through the atmosphere of the main moon of the Fogle home world.
I put my ship in a nose-dive and crashed it onto the nearest peak. Flames erupted. The inferno surrounded me and then disappeared.
"Maybe that's why I am in charge of navigation," Cicero said.
I rolled my eyes as my chair turned back toward the view screen.
We’d just entered the Cardea system. The star was a small point of light in the distance. There was still forty-five minutes left until we reached the Station. Light speed travel had been outlawed inside star systems a few hundred years before, after some unfortunate accidents. That had been the early days of the drives, when they could only go the speed of light and ships had shot straight through inhabited planets. Comparing the tech then with the drive in my ship was like comparing grav-cycles to, well, spaceships. But, the law stayed in place.
So, we crawled in through the outer edge of the system, painfully making our way to the orbit of the fourth planet.
"Rat-catchers are out," Cicero said. "You always enjoy watching them.”
“On the screen," I said.
The long view of the Cardea system disappeared and the screen switched to a close-up of five white, metal balls, each no larger than the bridge of my ship, darting through a band of asteroids. Nets of focused energy one and a half kilometers long and almost as wide extended from the side of each ship. The Station usually deployed all six, but I figured someone was sick.
Their job was to demolish rogue space debris before it endangered Cardea 4 or anything orbiting it.
Cardea was an old star with aging planets in decaying orbits. The age of the system was good because the inner planets had eons to compact into heavy metals and still held their orbits, but some of the outer planets had slipped far enough to collide. The resulting debris was always an issue.
The Station was built well enough to handle impacts from smaller rocks. Larger ones could drill through the bulkheads. Those had to be hit with the energy nets. If they were smaller than a couple of kilometers, they'd be disintegrated into harmless pieces no bigger than a person by one energy net, but larger ones took a team of rat-catchers working in tandem.
I loved watching them because, even though flying a rat-catcher was one of the lowliest piloting jobs in The Company, it looked like the most fun. The men and women who flew those ships controlled them, a freedom I'd give my left nut for.
"Cicero, tune me into their comm channel. Listen only."
Laughter and whooping sprang from the speakers. Loud congratulations when they hit one dead on, and jeering when someone just grazed a rock. I could only take their happiness for a few minutes.
"Audio off, Cic."
I watched their ballet in silence until Cicero told me we were approaching The Station.
The screen switched back to a live view, and the behemoth I'd called home for two years appeared.
The three-kilometer-long cylinder with a dozen rotating habitat rings trailed in a moon’s wake in high orbit around the fourth planet. Only a few spots on the surface reflected Cardea's light, the rest was dull metal.
A dozen ships hung off the Station like parasites on a Thalian whale; connecting, drawing as much sustenance as possible, then detaching and flying off.
Cicero aimed for the lowest of the rings. Being one of The Company's ships, I didn't attach to a port on the outside, I had my own bay. So, at least that was something.
One of the cargo doors opened as we approached. Inside the door was bright and I actually had a twinge of being glad to be back, even if I had come back with far fewer credits in my account than I'd planned.
Somebody had to know how to reprogram Cic.
I made my way to the back of the ship as the Station resealed the force-field and pumped air back into the bay. As soon as the bay and ship's air pressure equalized, the ramp lowered with a whir. My footsteps echoed as I stepped onto the dull, metal floor.
The bay was empty. Usually Fogles, the stocky race of aliens The Company used for cargo work, or androids swarmed the ship to take care of my cargo. Even though the ship didn’t have any cargo, somebody should have been there to greet me.
The commotion out in the passageway was unusual too. Men and women ran past the huge, transparent barrier that separated my bay from the hall. That piqued my interest.
I rushed into the hall. People milled around the next bay’s window, pointing and clucking their tongues. I stood on my toes and looked over their heads.
The sixth rat-catcher sat, battered and charred, in the middle of the bay. Androids armed with extinguishers sprayed it in intervals. Smoldering metal and sparking wires took advantage of the increasing oxygen as the air pressure was raised to standard.
That explained why only five were swirling around the asteroid belt. The shaggy haired man leaning against the wall explained the condition of the ship.
Dirk had longish dark-brown hair that he didn't cut anywhere near enough, a light scar across his cheek, and blue eyes. He was a good-looking kid, and the blue eyes make him even more interesting. They’d been almost bred out of humans, but still popped up now and then with the right combination of dormant genes.
"This your doing?" I asked, gesturing to the bay.
He grinned but kept his eyes down. "Yeah, sideswiped a hell of a boulder."
He wore the usual gray, Sector Two jumpsuit, but was holding a thin spacesuit.
"At least you got out."
He looked up beaming. "All thanks to my lucky charm." He tugged at the small chain around his neck, pulling the attached shiny disk into the open. He lifted it to his lips and kissed it.
I'd never seen him without the stupid thing; so, maybe there was something to it. It just looked like a polished piece of trash to me. But, I learned the first day he was here that it was a touchy subject.
"Good thing you had it then." It never hurts to be polite, I guess. "So, what's the verdict on the ship?"
Dirk grinned. “It’s getting pulled down to the planet for repairs—as soon as the fires are out. That's going to give me a few days off."
I was about to ask if he had any plans, just to be polite. The hopeful look in his eyes made me stop. I was afraid he'd have a suggestion that involved me... and my dance card was full. Besides, I didn’t mess with people as green as him. Nothing but trouble.
A tingling behind my right ear let me know I was being paged. I tapped my ear. "Barin."
"Lynn needs you in the office."
There was no mistaking the voice. "Yeah, Tu. It is good to be back. Thanks."
"I'm your boss, kid. I don't have to be nice. Lynn's office now."
The link disconnected. At least it gave me an out. "Sorry, Dirk. I'm needed elsewhere." I turned down the hall, ready to be away from the rubberneckers hanging out in the hall. Coming from weeks of solitary confinement to the middle of a crowd doesn't do much for a person's sanity.
"Enjoy your days off," I called over my shoulder. I hated dealing with Lynn, but getting caught up with Dirk might have been even worse.
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