The Captain dredged himself up from the remarkably comfortable bed that the Omen’s previous owner had installed in the Captain’s quarters. To say his quarters were spacious would be both an understatement and unnecessary. Almost as unnecessary as having a master bathroom and walk-in closet on a spaceship, let alone on a cargo hauler converted to a smuggling ship. That being said, he definitely enjoyed the privacy of the small apartment that served as his quarters, and being captain afforded him some privileges. One of those was a full length mirror which he hauled himself in front of. He raked his hands over the thin layer of stubble that coated his self-proclaimed square jaw. It was a little more angular than he liked, giving him a more hawkish look than he preferred, but close enough to his ideal square-jawed-savior-of-women-the-galaxy-over-smuggler look he had been steadily cultivating. He grabbed the comb he always tucked in the loose corner of the mirror and pulled it through his dirty blonde hair a few times before tucking it back where it belonged.
He pushed his head to the left, then the right, looking at the image he struck, then muttered something about needing a shave. He sighed deeply and proceeded to the master bathroom, which contained a well-tiled floor and marble countertops. He strolled over to the silver faucet, with a pair of mother-of-pearl handles on it, and turned one to start the steady stream of hot water. Could you imagine that? Mother-of-pearl? And real stuff, not the fake stuff they were hawking over in Nova Dwebay? Had to have cost the man a fortune, but hey, suppose that’s what happen to you if you lose your head in Asabarian Widowmaker. It paid to be lucky, or a gunmage. He smiled to himself at the memory.
As the mirror started to steam, he looked down over his stomach, laced with scars of the days that hadn’t been nearly that much fun. The cheap aluminum mirror showed eagerly the scars of knife fighting that crossed underneath his ribs. It showed the bullet holes he’d taken when he’d gotten on the wrong side of a crog run mob out of Loucesthire. They’d dumped him in a shallow grave and not bothered to fill it in after two bullets to the gut. Luckily, he’d had some backup. Otherwise that’d have been the end of him.
As he went through his shaving routine, he pondered about how the galaxy would view the passage of infamous Captain Nikolas Brighton. He was certain he was a smuggler of some renown, though he preferred that the cops didn’t know him from someone on the street. He had one person he knew with the Stellar Legal Enforcement, but they’d parted on less than stellar terms. Pun entirely intended. He chuckled to himself at that one.
He threw on a little aftershave after he cleaned up, then a fresh set of pants and an armpit wash got him set for the day. One ratty old t-shirt and his custom leather duster later and he was out the door and back to work.
The Volatile Omen was a wonderous little cutter of a ship, but dear god she stank something fierce. Every inch of her outside of the master bedroom stank like grease and body odour. He’d never managed to get it out of the walls. It probably had something to do with the previous owner being a slave trading scum bag, not that he liked to think about that. He passed through the hallways of the upper structure and down onto the catwalks overseeing the cargo hold. It was scant hours until they were set to depart, and the hold was already filling with people. Some were the kind you knew just wanted a new start, a couple here and there, looking lost and confused amongst the seedier characters who’d come looking for a ride. Speaking of, he spotted a few that had wanted posters going locally. He kept tabs on it wherever they went, never hurt to have a heads up if one of his got thrown on one of those lists whether before or after they’d signed up with him.
The rest were the rabid dregs of humanity, same as he and his. That’s what happened when you let a mob boss post the ride outsystem in his internal net. They were all minor players headed elsewhere for jobs or under orders from Zakhar. It was hard to tell, cause he only told us who was interested and could pay, not who belonged to him. We’d pulled in others of course, from the local port authority. We’d posted our leaving date and destination last week, at least he had, the rest had spent the week buried in the ship or a bottle. The others he had pulled in had rounded out the figures for this job, but he was going to be taking a hit if anything happened to delay them.
“How goes the battle?” He’d long since learned that jumping at the first surprise was an easy way to lose the respect of those he commanded, so he had quickly learned to suppress it. He replied to Victor in his usual steely tone.
“That depends entirely on the news you’re about to tell me.”
“Well, the forward ion manifold is hanging on by duct tape and a prayer, but unless we’re going to hard burn the impulse thrusters, it’ll hold. They didn’t have replacement parts here, and I figured you wanted the warp drive fixed first, so I put the ship’s money towards fixing those up. The good thing is Puerta Genese is a hop skip and a jump to the ISYH.”
The ISYH, or Izzie, if you were born within half a sector was the Imperial Shipyard and Housing. Legally, you could get any part for any type of engine smaller than a sublight destroyer mainframe. That included every piece of equipment on the Omen. So, we could finally do a proper resupply. Illegally, it also boasted the biggest black market this side of Sol. Don’t let the Imperial designation fool you. The Empire had long ago decided to leave its thriving black market to its own devices. They cracked down on the big names and the ones that made a mess, but if you didn’t make too much noise and you kept your head down, there was a good chance they’d leave you alone. You could get just about anything there, including destroyer parts, or weapons systems. ISYH had been built on top of the site of some ancient battle or whatever and was one of the biggest salvage yards they could find. Occasionally trading in salvage, I was well familiar with it, not to mention being born there. He gave voice to his thoughts.
“That’s not the worst then. We can hit the Izzie after this job and get a decent resupply. How are our passengers doing?”
“Everyone has settled in just fine; we have 10 bunks filled for those who chose to pay for them, I can ask around though if anyone wants any kind of privacy.”
“Sure, always happy to take on a bit more coin. Everyone paid up?”
“Yeah. Unfortunately, it’s just enough to cover costs, not making much of anything from this job.”
“It’s mostly just to get out from under Zakhar, need us a new place to do some work. Happy enough to do the smuggling jobs, but these ones keep us looking legitimate.”
“Fair enough.” He seemed to stew a little, looking at the clipboard he was carrying with the list of names.
“No.” He said, though his eyes never left the clipboard, “Not yet, but I can’t put my finger on it. There’s something off here.”
Whenever Victor had these hunches, things rarely went right. I hoped it was nothing, but it almost never was. He had a kind of intuition around people, which I would have said was some kind of magic if he hadn’t showed me his testing report himself. Man was an X, no magical ability whatsoever, and while tons of people tried to fake their reports to show higher magic, no one wanted to be an X, especially him. He’d bitched about it often enough while drunk. Could always tell the soul of a man when he was drunk, least that was what the wise guys said, or was that wise men.
“Let me know when you do.” He said, before walking out onto the catwalk overseeing the cargo hold proper. The place quieted down quickly as he did.
“Evening folks.” The Captain started off, giving them a smile. “Now, y’all know where we’re headed and when take off is, so I suggest you move quickly and get your kit stowed. I’ll be along after takeoff to come chat with those that want a chat. Right now, we’ll lay some ground rules. First off, your fee is non-refundable, yes, even if you threaten me. Me and my crew have been in more than a few scraps with customers and I’ve put enough blood on these walls I don’t care about a little more.”
“Second rule, anyone found in a restricted area will be escorted off ship. This is your first and last warning. As a point of reference, we are making very few stops at habitable planets before Puerta Genese. You will be escorted off whether we are somewhere with an atmosphere or not and you will not be given a suit.”
“Third rule, we will be enroute for most of a month, most of that with little to nothing to do. The ship has enough space you don’t have to talk to someone that entire month, don’t take it out with your fists or I might just space the both of you to save me the hassle of figuring out who is in the wrong.”
“Lastly, leave the crew alone.” He said, filling his voice with as much steel and grit as he could. “They all have jobs to do, and while they are doing them they are not to be disturbed. For the most part this will be in restricted sections of the ship and the punishment holds for that, but if you encounter them outside of those areas do not pester them or I will lock you in the cargo hold for the duration of the trip.”
“If anyone does not want to comply with these rules, you have time to get the hell of my ship and find another ride to Puerta Genese. Thank you, and I wish you a safe flight with us.” He underscored the word with a hiss of breath. He walked off the catwalk with an air of arrogance and finality. Returning to where Victor stood with his clipboard, he passed behind him in the direction of the bridge. Victor turned and followed.
The moment they’d cleared line of sight from the bridge, the Captain let out a deep sigh and put a hand to his temple.
“Hopefully that should stop people from prying.” He grumbled.
“You gonna space someone captain? Cause there’s cruel, and then there’s watching a man wriggle on the wrong side of an airlock.” Victor asked merrily.
“not unless I have to, but if you got a weird impression of this lot, I don’t want any kinds of trouble.” He said, sighing dramatically. “I’d just like a smooth, easy job and a decent paycheque at the end of it.”
“Shoulda been a CORPse. Could’ve had an easy life.”
“If I wanted to be stuck in a grey room with nothing but a computer and a cup of slop closely approximating coffee for the rest of my life, I’d have stayed on the Izzie and turned wrenches until my brain rotted out of my skull and my hair had gone grey. No thanks.” He scoffed.
“Yeah yeah. Anyway, I know you tend to have your finger on the pulse everywhere we go, do the same here. Keep me updated in case things are looking tense and maybe we can make it a peaceful journey to Puerta Genese.”
“I will have my fingers and hands on everything I can.” The captain looked at him semi-irritably and sighed.
“Don’t get yourself in any more trouble than you have to.” He commented at the bemused grin on Victor’s face. “There’s couples on the boat and I don’t need an angry husband coming hunting for your head.”
“That’s what the airlock is for, isn’t it?” He asked wryly, before waving his clipboard and heading back the other way.
The captain sighed and grumbled out a few cursed words at his long time friend.
The bridge was a brightly lit room, with a viewport currently facing across the waters of the city. By some old rules, most ports had to be situated along water routes. Even as the city swallowed lakes and eventually oceans, you always had a water view. Some folks said it was so that trade could pass along the water and into the spaceport with no restrictions, but there were enough wrecks in the deep waters that you could tell what the real reasoning was. Sink a ship deep enough and it’s not coming back up to haunt you.
The captain waved away his more morbid thoughts to the sound of music that filtered out from the nav station. Inside, the large open space of the bridge was a blur of green and red and purple. Something fast paced and with a heavy bass line thumped out and echoed back off the steel of the of the inner hull.
Leg flashed as Sitara pulled Asma’s leg up close to her, then again they were off and into a whirl of motion. Si dropped Asma into a deep pseudo fall and caught her barely six inches off the ground. The whole time, it looked like they could barely keep their hands off each other, shifting and catching and moving like one creature. When the music tapered off after a few minutes, the duo stood there with their heads touching and hands clasped, breathing heavily. Asma towered over Sitara, especially in three inch heels, but it seemed as though Sitara had controlled the dance. They broke off, looking up and noticing the captain for the first time. Sitara pulled away first, to the dismay of Asma, and began smoothing out her robe.
“Good day Captain.” She said properly. “Have you seen Asma’s new dress?”
The captain grimaced a little. When it had turned out the dress was irreparable, Asma had all but thrown a fit and it had taken all three of the rest of them to convince her it was her own damn fault that she’d burnt her dress up. In the end, they’d all chipped in and bought her a new one, given how much she’d been pouting. It was something Sitara had picked out for her, a bright red flowing thing that Si had called a princess dress. Whether that was about the occupant, or the style Nikolas didn’t really care. A happy gunner might be a scary thing, but a pouting gunner was almost suicidal to be nearby.
“It looks lovely.” He replied, grimacing a little, “But why is my bridge a dancefloor right now?”
“Normally we’d be in the cargo hold, but it’s rather occupied right now. Also, it smells the least.”
“Are we ready for take off?” he asked, after a quick grumph of acknowledgement, he’d had Si purge the bridge off all the grossness to the best of his ability.
“Been ready for several hours, Sir.” Sitara said coolly, “Myar Corp has cleared a line for transit off planet, then a five hour transit to the jump beacon. First jump is prepared in the computer, as is most of our course, I’ll refine subsequent jumps during our downtime.”
“How’s the rest of the trip looking?”
“38 jumps in total, with a total transit time of 40 days. Downtime ranges between 6 and 28 hours depending on the length of the jump and the upcycle for the next one. First upcycle will start one hour out. I’ve scheduled the jumps to occur during sleeping hours to reduce symptoms, but there are a few unavoidable daytime jumps.”
“Hopefully not too many, we need to pick up a doctor sooner rather than later.”
“We expecting trouble this time Nik?” Asma asked.
“I want to say no, but Vic’s got a hunch. So, something’s up, and any dealing with Zakhar bears checking out more carefully.” Asma’s face fell.
“Guess I should hang this up and go make sure everything’s working.”
“We’ll be leaving shortly so probably.” He said with a pang of guilt. Asma turned back to Sitara and bowed a little.
“Thanks for dancing with me.” She said smiling. Sitara pulled her closer, placing a chaste kiss right where her hair met her forehead.
“We’ll make some time during the flight.” She said gently. The captain stayed deathly quiet, hoping not to disrupt them. Asma nodded and stepped out of the hatch into the rest of the ship, Sitara glanced at the captain, for a moment death in her eyes.
“What?” he asked, looking to make sure Asma was out of ear shot.
“I was hoping to have more time with her, it’s rare to see her honestly happy.” She said as she took her seat. As the navigator Sitara tended to serve as his co-pilot, and this job would involve her heavily. She and Asma both knew it, or their parting wouldn’t have been as melancholy. The few bits of downtime they would have between jumps would mostly consist of Sitara doing the calculations and divinations necessary to traverse space effectively. Sitara leaned back and sighed.
“I did everything I could as pre-workup, but as things change, I’ll still need to make adjustments.” She said, her voice weary and sweat still beading on her forehead. Nikolas took his seat and started to check over the console while she collected herself. Her breathing was almost thundering in the otherwise quiet bridge. He’d almost given up waiting for her when she spoke up again.
“Everything’s programmed in, would it be acceptable for me to take a shower before we are underway?”
“Yeah,” He replied, seemingly absent-mindedly, “Maybe change out of the robe before you go get grease on it though.”
He smiled as she shot him a withering glare and left in a huff. So, a pouting navigator was also a bad thing, but anything he did would put him on Si’s bad side, so might as well just roll with the punches.
The bridge was almost silent with her sudden departure, the faint hum of the electronics the only company. He stared out over the water, to hear tell it was an ocean, but considering he could see a water city floating on the waves not far off, it seemed much smaller. He sighed and continued preparing the ship to leave.
It was solemn and silent work, and large parts of it consisted of pacing around the bridge trying not to be frustrated at the slow upcycle of the impulse drives. He preferred the silence of the bridge in these final hours of departure. Even if it was one of the restricted areas, someone was always here during the flight, and that made people think they could come in and ask questions. If Sitara was here, they typically left her alone. As he well knew, she had a gaze that could probably kill small rodents at ten paces, and Asma was usually with her. But a human starship captain was apparently fair game to come have a chat with. Peace was a luxury on a small cargo craft and the hours where everyone was settling in were the quietest ones.
The only disruption came two hours later when Asma poked her head in. She was back into a pair of knock off fatigues and a wife beater that she always wore around the ship, with her hair back up in a bun.
“Hey boss. Vicky told me to tell you everyone’s here.”
“Good.” I said, pausing in my pacing with my back lit by the setting sun. “Any takers on the upgraded rooms?”
“Yeah, a couple of the religious wackos wanted a private berth, but I think they’re packing like five of them in there.”
“That’s their business, at least there’ll be some profit to be made.”
“Oh yeah, and a whole bunch more showed up from their congregation asking to come aboard.”
“Did they pay?” he said, worry consuming him at the prospect of extra mouths aboard.
“Yeah, and Vic said not to worry because Sitara told him it was coming a two days ago and he bought extra supplies just in case.”
“Of course she did.” He sighed.
“Good.” As Asma turned to leave, he asked after her. “How’s the dress?”
“Nice, thank you.” She said, smiling wildly. “Did Si tell you she had them custom make throwing knife holsters in the back of it? And a concealable holster?”
The captain blinked for a second, staring at her dumbstruck.
“where the hell did she hide the holster?”
“Nowhere you need to know about.” She replied, grinning.
“Also, I don’t think I’ve seen you use anything smaller than a 40mm. What the hell do you think you’re going to hide up there?”
“Si bought me a an Illidian with a custom engraving.”
She left a wake of grease smell and burnt ozone as she quit the bridge. She must have been playing around with it, and the captain got the distinct sense Sitara was wary of the upcoming flight. If she knew about others but didn’t say anything it was because she didn’t want to worry the others or maybe just him. If she bought a laser pistol for the girl who tended towards weapons that made the biggest boom possible and then turned everything around them to slag, it was because she had the idea that something was going to go wrong. The job was suddenly looking like more than a simple bus ride across the galaxy.
He sighed and prepared the final protocols for takeoff, when that was done there was just the call to make to control.
“Volatile Omen to Myar Control.”
“Go for Myar Control.”
“All loaded. Beginning transit through atmosphere.”
“Acknowledged Volatile Omen. We’ll be with you till the other side.” That was weird. The captain frowned at the radio icon.
“Please say again Myar Control.” He said tersely. If Zakhar was pulling something, he wanted to know what was going on.
“Atmospheric Transit acknowledged Volatile Omen. Thank you for your patronage and we hope to see you again.”
“That was definitely not what you just said.” The captain muttered as he flicked off the radio controls.
Engaging the engines was a simple enough task, the internal computer was designed to handle most of the heavy lifting and it mostly fell to the pilot to ensure they were on a reasonable course and prepare for the unforeseen. The engines rumbled as the ship began shifting, they’d kicked into a higher gear and were compensating for the 1.2 Terran Grav Units. A little bit heavier than she was used to, and the grav system would be running at the same throughout the flight so no one was too uncomfortable, but it burned more fuel keeping that going and extracting from atmosphere. As sparks began to fly, He shut the viewscreen. Beautiful as it was, the hardened glass was not intended to undergo multiple entrances and exits without any shielding.
Soon enough they were into the upper atmosphere, where they were no longer bound by the gravity well. Artificial gravity ramped up slowly as they ascended, so there were no startling transitions, but the ding of the computer wasn’t the only way the captain knew they’d left the planet. He could feel it in his bones, something different. He flicked the controls for the viewscreens, and his eyes leapt out over the blackness of space, the last sparks dying in the corners of his view.
There was something peaceful about it, the infinite void in front of him. It was a gaping maw of stars he could never recognize, jumping from point to point across the galaxy, but he was told they were all the same. Even as the years passed, they were something permanent, changing to his eyes, but hanging over everything as ever.
“A perfect silence.” He muttered to himself.
“I always found it disconcerting, planets always seemed to be the light in the darkness.” Sitara’s voice drifted to meet him.
“Maybe it’s cause of growing up on the Izzie, you just get used to it. Planets always feel noisy to me.”
“And the ISYH isn’t?” She said as she took her place at the controls. She was much more modestly dressed now, having swapped the beautiful green dress she’d been wearing for a pale and faded blue one that she used for work hours.
“Eh, you drone it out after a while.” He looked over her shoulder as she typed into the console, adeptly entering the final calculations.
“The minds are noisy.” She said absent-mindedly. “You’re all running around thinking and making so much telepathic noise it’s impossible to track anyone, planets are just regular noisy.”
“But their minds are empty?”
“The noise drowns everything out, most of them are only thinking of the noise.”
“Huh, never thought of it that way.”
“Few do, fewer still understand the pain of telepaths and diviners.”
“Pain? You get to predict the future, where’s the pain in that?”
“I can see everything, if I try hard enough, but no one will ever listen. I assume you’ve heard of Cassandra’s Curse?”
“Break down of your abilities?”
“To put it crudely, yes.”
“Imagine the madness as my mind breaks and splinters, a thousand futures taken in and processed in an instant. Imagine knowing that that end will come at a time when I can no longer see past.”
“I can’t see past this trip.”