Friday, November 2, 2012

Chapter 6: Lockdown


When Marek and I got to the common room, Lilly had already decked out six place settings of dented tin plates and cups, and primped the shabby appearance of the dining table with pretty napkins she'd origamied into swans. A skinny man with a black mane of frayed, ropey hair erupting from his head and a beatific expression on an angular, olive-skinned face was ladling the stew onto the plates. He wore colorful clothes that hung from his thin frame like a tent. He was humming to the song still spilling out of the speakers that seemed to be hung up in every corner of the ship - there were three alone in the common room.
"Food, glorious food."
"Turn it off, Raj,” Marek snapped at the rope-haired man, "or I'll break off every damn speaker you rigged up so painstakingly, as you like to remind us. And this time I mean it!"
"Actually, I asked him to put that song on," Lilly said, turning around from the sink at which she was washing up. "Makes everybody appear much faster at the dinner table." She winked conspiratorially at me before turning back to her task. 
I like her, Fang said, chuffing. I bet she has the men eating out of her hand.
She was right: Marek didn't utter another word of protest, though he frowned with impressive disapproval as he sat down at the table. He motioned for me to sit beside him. Raj dropped onto the chair on his other side and patted his shoulder, unperturbed by Marek's expression. "Peace, brother," he said. "I'm sure Nate and Ted are on their way."
"Actually, Captain Grey wants us to start without them," I said. "They've got something to discuss."
They exchanged somber glances, understanding what it was about.
"Fine," Lilly said sadly. She hit a switch on the kitchen's control panel, her satin gloves a pale flash against the dark metal. The song cut off abruptly. Marek sighed with exaggerated relief.
"Dig in guys," Lilly ordered, sitting down across from me. "And girl - sorry, Sam. I need to come up with something gender-neutral from now on."
"How about 'chums' or 'homies'?" Raj suggested around his first mouthful of stew. "Mix a little old-school BE or AE in with our ME, no?"
"That racket coming out of your speakers is enough old-school for me, thank you," Marek huffed, spooning stew into his mouth. "Time to arrive in the present, Raj - in this galaxy. Stick to Modern English, I beg you."
"Our dear Raj is an 'origins' nerd," Lilly explained to me, "If you ever have questions about humanity's roots on Earth, our original culture or history - ask him."
"Sadly, nobody ever does," Raj said dramatically. "Philistines. I'm Rajesh Bhamra, by the way, the ship's techanic. But you can call me Raj.” 
"Sam Inverness," I introduced myself, "glad to meet you." I really was, especially because he didn't seem in the least bit uneasy about welcoming replacement-Josh-me. 
I tasted the stew - and almost passed out with bliss.
"Thish ish amazing!" I mumbled, eyes closed. Even Fang agreed. 
Tasty veggies, she said, who'd a thunk there existed a recipe to accomplish such a miracle?
"I hear we have you to thank for the fact we won't be floating belly-up through space," Raj said. "That arsine-stuff probably would have gone off right about now."
I shook my head. "Not far out enough, yet. The toxin doesn't kill quietly, if you get my meaning. If we sent a distress signal now, official help would come looking and get in the way of Moore's people. They wait until nobody will interfere anymore."
"How do you know this?" Lilly asked.
My smile was so tight my lips hurt. "Firsthand experience. I'm the only one who has ever survived Moore's Lethal Load."
Lilly covered the shocked 'O' of her mouth with an unsteady hand. Raj’s lips pressed together in sympathy, and Marek's eyes sparked with something that might have been grudging respect.
"How?" he wanted to know, helping himself to his second bowl.
"I was sleeping in my cabin when it started," I lied. I couldn't tell them that I wasn't quite as easily poisoned as an ordinary human. "So I was exposed to the gas last and least. I got lucky."
Pah, luck, Fang huffed. The real hero never gets the credit. 
A true hero doesn't point out her good deeds to every person she meets, either, I said. My credit will have to be enough. You've got it in full, anyway. 
If not for Fang fighting the poison with her iron will, we wouldn't have survived. Although the fact that we had was a mixed blessing to me, and not just because of the nightmares. 
"They didn't kill you when they realized?" Lilly wanted to know.
"They never found me." This part was true. "I hid and snuck off the ship as soon as they landed and started unloading the cargo."
"You didn't try to get... revenge?" Marek asked. 
I smiled wanly at him. "I wanted to, believe me. But I wasn't in any shape. A fruit fly could have knocked me over with its pinky. I tried later, several times, but it's like Moore has nine lives. Someday the opportunity will come."
Marek nodded in dark understanding, Lilly looked at me with pity, and Raj… surprisingly, a little smile was playing around Raj’s lips.
"I guess your misfortune was our luck today," he said.
I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I couldn't tell them I'd rather not have had the opportunity to warn them, because in that scenario Lor and my friends wouldn’t have died and I would still be with them. But I also wouldn’t have met Captain Grey when he was making that deal with Moore. 
So I didn't say anything, but they understood what I was thinking anyway. An awkward silence reigned until I pulled myself together and smiled to show I wasn't angry at them. As Raj had said: my misfortune was their luck - not their fault. "Silver linings, right?"
Lilly returned my smile with a wobbly one of her own and shining eyes, then - thank the Void - changed the subject. 
"Why didn't you report the incident?" she asked. 
"For the same reason you didn't," I said. "No self-respecting smuggler calls the authorities when her illegal activities get her in trouble."
She smiled wryly. "Smart of him to pick people who are running from the authorities themselves."
“That’s his way, although he doesn't pick them lightly," I said realizing something that had been puzzling me. "In fact, he picks the ships, not the crew. He doesn't pick just any old ship to steal, it has to be special in some way. Faster than others, for example, or with special shields, or extra smuggling compartments. So what's Chamaeleon's specialty? It isn't obvious, at least not at first glance. No offense."
"None taken," Raj said with a frown, "that's exactly how we want it. Nobody but her crew knows her secret... at least in theory. Do you think Moore found out somehow?"
"He suspects something, at least," I said, "or he wouldn't have risked making his move on you. He must be either certain or very interested in this secret. Though I can't fathom what it might be." Hint hint. Wink wink. Give me something, people! The suspense was killing me. 
They won't tell us before they don't fully trust us, Fang pointed out with a dash of 'duh' in her voice. 
Don't pretend like you don't want to know, Miss Smartass, I shot back. 
No point in wasting energy on something that will reveal itself on its own eventually, she said with a mental shrug. 
Says the one who would go straight for Moore's jugular as soon as he's close, regardless of the consequences for us.
Waiting for something and wasting perfect opportunities are two very different things, she pointed out. 
It was hardly perfect, I reminded her. It would have ruined our chances of going legit. 
Those were ruined the moment he saw us, you just didn't want to admit it.
Lilly interrupted our internal dialog. “Have you told Nate why Moore is interested in Chamaeleon?" she asked me.
"Um, no," I said, a little embarrassed. It should have been the obvious thing to do, especially after Grey had made me a part of his crew. 
"We should tell him when he and Ted get here," Lilly said. "It might be a good idea if --"
The ship shuddered and groaned like a wounded beast. Stew sloshed around in our bowls, and cutlery jittered across the table. 
Raj jumped to his feet and hurried out of the room with a muttered "what's up, baby?”. Lilly and Marek exchanged surprised glances - apparently, this wasn't normal flight-behavior for Chamaeleon. 
The constant background hum of the engines rose to a thrumming howl. The whole ship trembled like an overstrained muscle, shaking us around on our seats - and died with a final whine of protest. 
"We're caught in a lockdown! Stay here," Marek ordered, and followed Raj out of the room at a run. Lilly glared after him, then stood up and went over to the switchboard by the airlock. She pressed a button with a satin-covered index finger and spoke into the com-grid.
"Nate? What's going on?"
There was no answer except for the deep silence of black space that seemed to resonate all around us.

Read on at Chapter 7.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Chapter 5: Marek The Mimik


I plunked my stuff down in the end of the hallway and was about to go back to the common room, when the bunk door marked 'Marek' slid open. A man with skin the color of pure coffee shimmied out, moving to a tinny tune emanating from the headphones plugged into his ears. He sidestepped and spun to the rhythm, his body in constant fluid yet exquisitely controlled motion. I stared, utterly fascinated, until he laid eyes on me in one of his spins. He stopped short and his stance changed from loose-limbed relaxation to tense readiness in a heartbeat. 
"Who the frak are you?" he asked, ripping the headphones out of his ears. His voice was a deep, resonating bass that fitted well to his powerful form. Although hardly taller than five-nine, he seemed to fill out the entire hallway with menace. A gun appeared in his hand as if conjured from thin air, pointing at my chest.
In my mind, Fang's ears pricked with interest. Watch him, she warned, he's fast
I held up my hands appeasingly. "Whoa there," I said, as if talking to a spooked horse. "I'm Sam. Captain Grey hired me as your new backer."
He narrowed coal-black eyes and prominent full lips at me. "So where is he?" he asked. "He wouldn't let you run around all alone when you'd just arrived."
"He went to sort something out with Ted. Would you mind lowering your gun now, please?" His close scrutiny and unyielding stance made me nervous. With most people I was confident enough in this sort of situation that I could read their intention of pulling the trigger in time enough for me to dive out of the way; body language is hard to hide from a wolf. But this man had just moved at the speed of light. I got the distinct feeling that not a fibre of his body would indicate that he was pulling the trigger before it was done. Even Fang was tense and at the ready, unsure we'd be able to dodge this man's bullet.
He watched me for a few moments but didn't lower the gun. "Yes," he said. "I would mind." He palmed a com from the belt of his cargo pants and clicked it on. "Cap'n, you copy?" 
"Loud and clear," came the buzzing answer. "What's up?"
"You hire a new backer already?" the black man asked. 
"Yes." The response was terse, a little defensive. "Leave her be, Marek. I got the impression earlier that you don't want to get on her bad side."
Our new captain is a great study of character, Fang said, pleased that he saw us as tough and capable. 
Marek was still skeptical, though he lowered the gun. "Does Ted know?" he asked into the com.
"Oh, for the love of atmosphere," Grey growled, "she's a new backer, not a new Josh. Get over it." The com went silent with a ringing finality. Marek stared at it, eyebrows raised in perplexed surprise. Finally he lowered the com and tucked the gun into the back of his pants. 
"Fine," he said. "I'm Marek, your backer-colleague. Welcome to the crew, I guess."
Oh, the enthusiasm. Any moment now, he would try to hug me - to death.
He moved to brush past me, but I stepped in his way and held out my hand defiantly. "I'm Sam," I repeated, because I was sure he hadn't registered my name earlier. "Nice to meet you."
He looked down at my hand with distaste, as if it were covered in contagious hives. 
"It's not my fault he's dead, you know," I said in a low voice, trying to convey  that I understood his hesitation. Marek's eyes snapped up to mine, and for the first time he not only looked at me but saw me. 
His lips compressed again, this time into a sad half-smile. "Touché." He reached for my hand. 
As soon as skin met skin, he gasped. A shudder ran through him. His thick fingers seized my hand in a vise-like grip, crushing my hand from wrist to fingertips. I thought he was playing with me and was ready to punch him in the face to free myself, but Fang stopped me.
Wait! It's not an attack, she said. 
His face boiled and narrowed. Coffee skin turned to cream. Smooth green-gold flashed over his black pupils. For a fleeting moment, I stared at my own face and into a beast's eyes. Then the ebony Hulk was back, and with him his gun, its business-end pressed into my gut. I had hardly seen him move. He was incredibly fast. Inhumanly fast.
"Werewolf," he whispered, dark eyes wide with surprise and a hint of fear. The scent of shock and sweat rolled off his skin in waves, though it wasn't the salty tang of human perspiration. This was sweeter, a tickle in my nose rather than a bite, almost making me sneeze.
"Mimik," I mock-breathed back at him dramatically, trying to hide my own surprise and act as if I'd known from the beginning that he wasn't human. 
I did, Fang supplied helpfully.
Well, thanks for the heads-up, I huffed. A whole lot of help you are.
Yell at me later, she said, right now we've got a more immediate problem to deal with. He won't like us knowing what he is.
How do you figure?
Because if he wanted people to know, his skin would have the violet hue every Mimik off-homeworld is supposed to show.
In all the excitement, that thought hadn't even occurred to me. 
He must not have the chip inserted in his skull, I mused. Every Mimik cruising the galaxy was obligated to display his or her alien-status with a violet hue to their skin. Being a species of hunters that could shift into any shape or form, this was an easy feat for a Mimik. To ensure they could never pose as humans, they had a chip inserted before leaving Allura, their home planet. The chip insured their skin stayed violet. Either Marek had found a way around that, or he'd removed the chip somehow. Either way, Fang was right. He wouldn't want people to know that he was a Mimik. 
Maybe the crew knows, I thought. It would be difficult to hide his inhumanness from a crew in such close-quarters. I of all people know how hard that was.
I doubt it, Fang said. He's too tense for that.
She was right. I could feel it in his hand still squeezing mine, in the barrel of the gun pressing into my vulnerable belly. Doubt and worry blazed in his eyes as he tried to come to a decision about how to react. In the end, it was the same decision I had to make. I couldn't afford to leave him alive if he was going to tell people what I was. They would kick me out into deep space faster than I could say 'woof'. But if I killed Marek now to ensure my secret was kept, they would do the same. Couldn't have the new crew member murdering their own.
"Tell you what," I said to Marek in a low, hopefully soothing voice. Werewolves were tough, but a close shot to the stomach would kill even me. I didn't want him spooked, not with his inhuman speed. Even Fang understood that aggression would only get us killed in this case. "I swear to keep your secret if you swear to keep mine."
A stereo-speaker rigged into a top corner of the hallway thrummed to life. "Dinner's ready, boys," Lily's voice flowed over us in a crystal clarity no com could achieve. "Oh, and girl. Sorry, Sam, will have to get used to that."
Her voice was replaced by the sound of a tinkling dinner bell, followed by music. I'd never heard the song, but Marek rolled his eyes after the first few upbeat chords. "Not Oliver again, Raj," he muttered. But the tension was slowly leaching out of his body, as if Lily's acknowledgement of me had decided him.
Literally saved by the bell, I mused.
Or the belle, Fang quipped. 
Marek lowered the gun, though he was still frowning. "Nobody can ever know," he implored. 
We stared at each other in the dim, steel hallway while the music washed over us. 
"Food, glorious food..." 
The high-pitched chorus broke our ongoing stand-off. It made me smile and had Marek raising his eyes to the ceiling in mock agony. But he refocused on my quickly.
"Are you a danger to us?" he wanted to know.
"You'd better not threaten my life or make me really mad," I said truthfully. "But to make up for that, my crew is my pack, and wolves are completely loyal to pack. Plus, I'm good in a fight. Real good."
Sudden humor sparked in his eyes. "Hardly better than me."
He might be right. He was as fast as a striking cobra. "It will be interesting to find out," I said, half-challenging. That actually made him smile. In a dangerous sort of way.
"Food, glorious food."
The smile disappeared, replaced by a fake look of longtime suffering. "Okay, time to eat, or Raj won't ever turn off that caterwaul."
"So do we have a deal?" I asked as he led the way to the common room. "Our lips are zipped about each other?"
He looked over his shoulder at me. "We have a deal," he agreed, "so long as you don't wolf out and tear one of the crew apart. Then I will kill you."
“You can try,” I said. 
Marek grinned, unperturbed. “This is going to be interesting.”

Read on at Chapter 6.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Chapter 4: Shades Of Sorrow


Meeting the crew I would be a part of from now on proved to be almost as perilous as the events that led to my being hired by their captain. 
“I haven’t told them I was looking to hire someone new,” he told me as he led me out of the cargo bay onto the bridge. “They might seem a little… surprised.”
Remembering Ted, the pilot’s, suspicious reaction over the com to the Captain’s news that he wasn’t alone, I wasn’t sure that ‘surprised’ was the right word. 
We passed through an airlock and stepped into a room that smelled like heaven. 
“This is the common room,” Grey said, stepping aside so I could get a better look. A table dominated the center of the steel-walled room. It was bolted to the floor, as were the twelve swivel-chairs surrounding it on their short rails that allowed you to push them closer to the table without lifting them. In a space ship, everything was bolted or locked down, in case of turbulence. 
To the right, a counter separated the kitchen from the rest of the room. The heavenly smell emanated from there. 
Real vegetables, Fang informed me, both disgusted and pleasantly surprised. She preferred raw meat to anything green, but it was rare, if not unheard of, for a freight ship that was always on the move to load fresh produce. At least I’d never experienced it. I just hoped I wouldn’t have to cook it myself, because then it would land in the garbage due to inedibility. 
“Hey Lilly,” Captain Grey said to the girl stirring the food in the large pot standing on the stove. “Do we have enough for one more?"
The girl turned around with a smile when she heard his voice. The smile died when she saw me, and her blue eyes sparked with apprehension. 
“Lilly, this is Samira Inverness,” Grey introduced me, "our new backer. Elisabeth is my sister,“ he added to me.
That explained the similar blue eyes, although she had to be at least ten years younger than he; a girl on the cusp of womanhood. Other than the eyes, they had little in common. Where he was tall, dark and inscrutable, she was short, blonde and expressive. She couldn’t have hid her feelings to fool a rock. 
“Does Ted know?” she asked her brother, sorrow roughing her voice. She put down the spatula, but didn’t take off the rubber kitchen gloves covering her hands. The kind you usually wore to wash up with, not to cook. Maybe she was afraid of burning her hands.
“He knows we need to fill the position,” Captain Grey said resolutely. “He’ll get over it.”
She opened her mouth, but he interrupted her. „Samira’s the one who tipped us off about Moore’s plans.”
She smiled, though it remained sad. At least she finally looked at me. “I guess we’re in your debt then. Thank you.” Surprisingly, it sounded sincere. 
She pulled the rubber glove off her hand and held it out for me to shake. I noticed she was wearing another glove underneath, the stark white satin disappearing beneath her sleeve. “Nice to meet you. Call me Lilly.”
“Sam,” I said, shaking her gloved hand. The white fabric was warm and slightly damp to the touch. I wondered why she wore it. At least the rubber gloves made sense now; keeping the satin ones clean while cooking would take a miracle. 
She caught on to my curiosity.
“Don’t mind these,” she said, wiggling her white fingers. “I don’t like to touch people skin on skin. For some reason it tends to bring out my epilepsy.”
It’s difficult to outright lie to me. Lying makes everybody uncomfortable on some level and Fang picks up those subtle fidgets, those changes in tone and scent that indicate when someone isn’t being truthful. 
She wishes it were epilepsy, she let me know. 
Is she dangerous? I asked. I, of all people, knew best that monsters came in all shapes and sizes.
Why thank you, Fang said, pleased. She had no qualms about calling herself a monster. And no, she’s harmless. You could take her down half asleep with your hands tied behind your back. Not that I think you’ll ever need to. She’s grateful for the warning about Moore. And she is pleased to meet you.
Good enough for me.
“Smells amazing,” I said, eyeing the pans behind Lilly, trying to break that slightly awkward first-meeting ice. “I haven’t had anything healthy in eons.”
“Neither have we,” she admitted. „I hope I don’t ruin it.“
"Quit fishing for compliments, Lil,“ Grey said with a smile. “Is there enough for one more?”
“If Marek agrees to relinquish one of his usual four helpings there should be plenty,” she said with an affectionate smile. “It’ll be ready in ten.”
“Great. I’ll show Samira her cabin and then she can meet the others at dinner.” 
He led me through another airlock and into the bowels of the ship. 
This is like being in some robot’s intestines. Fang commented after we’d turned a few tight corners and headed up and down several steps that clanged beneath our heavy boots. 
It’s like somebody took it apart and put it back together wrong, I agreed. Very curious, indeed.
And what’s with these red sections? Fang asked. They’ve gone to the trouble of painting walls and floor red - but only in certain areas. Not enough money for paint?
I opened my mouth to ask Captain Grey about the red sections just as we entered a dimly lit corridor with three doors on either side. No red sections here, so I decided to ask later.
Names were handwritten on stickers attached above the panels that opened each door: Marek, Ted and Raj on the left. Lilly, Nate and Josh on the right. Captain Grey stopped in front of the last and tore the sticker off the wall with more force than necessary. 
“This is yours now,” he said with a slight break in his voice. Sorrow and regret poured off him in sour waves, but I’d never have known it just by looking at him. He looked fierce and angry rather than sad.
He cares for this Josh, Fang said. They all do.
I think Josh is dead, I told her. 
Most likely, she agreed.
That would explain the sorrow permeating the ship, the worry in Lilly’s eyes, the suspicion in Ted’s voice, the grimness in Grey’s face. The subtle hostility towards me. As fresh as their loss obviously was, they might not want their noses rubbed in it by replacement-backer me. Just my luck.
We’ve dealt with worse, Fang reminded me. At least these people won’t try to kill us in our sleep.
How can you be so sure?
They need us and we saved them. If Lilly is any indication, these are decent people, and decent people pay their debts.
Grey ended our internal dialogue by pressing the button on the side panel. The door slid open with an electronic whirr, and a light came on in the room on the other side. 
Grey took one look inside and swore. He palmed the com off his belt and growled into it. “Ted, I thought I told you to clear Josh’s cabin?”
There was no reply. 
“Ted?” Grey repeated, voice low and demanding. „Do you copy?“
The com crackled and Ted’s voice boomed over the static. „Do it your-drecking-self!“
I wonder if Grey is alpha enough to put Ted in his place, Fang supplied thoughtfully.
She got her answer when the captain raised the com to his lips again. “Ted, I swear to the Void, I will leave your ass behind at our next destination if this attitude continues. We all miss him, but life goes on.”
“You don’t miss him,” Ted roared through the com, though I picked up his voice from somewhere in the ship, too. “You don’t miss anyone or anything. You’re like the tin man, only you don’t even want a heart. Well if you’re not going to see the wizard, it shouldn’t bother you to clean out your dead best friend’s cabin.”
Grey’s face was carved in stone. I expected him to speak into the com again, but instead he hurled it at the wall, against which it shattered. Our eyes met for one agonized heartbeat before he turned away and raised his face to the ceiling with a ragged sigh.  I didn’t know about tin men or wizards, but I understood the gist of what Ted had said.
It’s not true, Fang whispered, uncharacteristically subdued by all the raw emotions flying around this ship like confetti at a wedding. He does care.
Of course he does, I agreed. Though he hides it well from others. 
As if to prove my suspicion, he exhaled and tipped his face forward again. Whatever he felt was shuttered behind a stony visage and empty eyes, but he couldn’t fool me. He was still plenty charged with emotion; Fang could sense tension in the muscles of a louse’s leg, and Grey’s whole body was practically thrumming.
He came out of the room and brushed past me. “Leave your stuff at the end of the hall,” he said to me. “I’ll go talk some sense into Ted’s thick head.”
“I can clear the cabin,” I offered.
He stopped short, as if he’d walked into a wall. “That isn’t necessary. You’re the last person who should have to deal with this.”
"I’m the only person who won’t be affected by it,“ I said. 
He turned to me, rubbing the back of his neck, looking suddenly exhausted. “Thank you. I just think doing it himself will give Ted some closure. I’ll tell him you offered, but he might not like that option, either. Lets see what he says.” 
"What about your closure?“ I asked.
He smiled. "I got it when he died in my arms.“
And I crap pretty roses, Fang said, not buying a word. 
“Go back to the common room,” Grey said, pointing down the way we’d come. “I’ll talk to Ted. Tell the others not to wait with dinner. This might take a while.”
He disappeared through a door in the opposite direction.

Read on at Chapter 5.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Chapter 3: An Unexpected Offer


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.
“How so?”
 “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."
"The cargo?"
"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."
"Copy that."
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.