Dominic Dulley (dominicdulley.com)
Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)
Consciousness returned slowly. At first the familiar throb of a ship’s mass-inversion drive made Orry think she was in her cabin, but the smell wasn’t right. There was an antiseptic odour that brought to mind a hospital, but it was fighting with something earthier, a musty scent that reminded her of unwashed clothes. Then the memories came flooding back and her eyes flew open. She was in a medical bay, cocooned in diagnostic equipment. Scratched and chipped surfaces betrayed the age of the sensors. Both her spacesuit and flight suit were gone, leaving her in only the white T-shirt and underwear she had put on that morning.
‘You’re one lucky lady.’
She jerked up and banged her head on a monitor. A heavyset old man was sitting on the other side of the triangular compartment, a scowl on his craggy face. He was wearing a shabby jacket and crudely patched trousers. His thinning grey hair badly needed cutting, and dirty white bristles sprouted fromdeep folds in his chin. One of his eyes had the dull glint of an implant.
Orry choked on her dry throat when she tried to speak. The old man leaned forward, groaning with the effort, and passed her a bulb of water. She sipped gratefully at it, then tried again.
‘Where am I?’
‘On my ship.’
‘But the airlock?’ She shuddered at the memory. ‘How did I get here?’
‘I picked you up.’
‘How? I was floating in deep space—’ A thought occurred to her. ‘Where’s Bonaventure?’
‘Your ship is gone.’
‘Gone?’ Orry’s heart was pounding so fast an alarm started beeping somewhere in the equipment surrounding her. Ethan . . . !
The old man stood and leaned over her. He checked something, then flicked a switch. The beeping stopped.
‘Don’t get distressed, girl,’ he growled. His face softened a little. ‘My name is Mender, Jurgen Mender. This is my ship, Dainty Jane. Her sensors detected you and I caught you with a hawser – reeled you in like a Genovian bloodtrout.’
When he wasn’t glaring, Mender’s face was quite agreeable, almost grandfatherly. ‘Thank you,’ she said, her mind whirling. ‘I’m Orry. How did you come to be there at exactly the right moment?’
He ignored her question. ‘I don’t care what your name is, girl. And don’t get too comfortable. As soon as we get to Novo Castria I’m throwing you back, my little bloodtrout.’
‘I can’t go to Novo Castria! I have to find my ship – my little brother’s still on board—’ The thought of what Dyas might be doing to Ethan was too much. She swallowed, fighting back tears.
His face contorted. ‘Piotr’s withered balls,’ he spat, ‘save me from wailing bloody women.’
She flushed with sudden anger. Shoving the machines aside, she swung her legs off the bed and jabbed an accusing finger at him. ‘My father’s been murdered, my ship’s been stolen and my brother is missing,’ she said. ‘That bastard Dyas took everything. What do you expect me to do?’
Mender snorted. ‘I should be the one crying,’ he muttered. ‘What does that mean?’
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, looking at the medical readouts rather than at her. ‘That bastard Dyas owes me – I was tracking him out of Tyr when Jane detected you, so I had a choice, didn’t I? You or him. That’s how I happened to be in exactly the right place – and he’s long gone now. Who knows when I’ll find him again – it’s a big bloody galaxy out there . . .’
‘I’m sorry to inconvenience you,’ Orry said coldly.
‘It’s more than an inconvenience, girl.’ He stood, ignoring her icy tone. ‘We’re an
our from the egress point. Stay here until we collapse.’
‘Stay here. We’ll talk later.’ He limped away. Orry glared after him until the door closed, then lay back. She gritted her teeth as she tried to hang on to her anger, but
it was no use. Her eyes brimmed over. Her face felt tight, like she had a bad case of sunburn, but at least it didn’t hurt. In fact, none of her hurt, she suddenly realised, not even where the maser had caught her. Mender’s equipment might not look like much but it was clearly still working.
She had to talk to him and find out what he knew about Dyas. Mender was the only lead she had. Maybe she’d been a little hard on him – after all, he had saved her life. Dad always told her she had a tongue like a whip. Mender hadn’t just rescued her but he’d patched her up too – and lost his lead on the raider because of it. She found herself mouthing one of her father’s favourite maxims: my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Any way
she cut it, Mender was all she had in the galaxy right now and yelling at him wasn’t any way to get him on side.
She forced her fear for her brother deep down inside and locked it away with her grief at her father’s death. If she was to get her brother back, she had to think clearly. She’d deal with Dad’s murder later; right now she had to concentrate. This was
going to be the most difficult game of her life.
The deck was cold on her bare feet when she tried to stand. Her legs wobbled, but supported her weight. She stood for a moment, waiting for the headrush to pass, scanning the room, and spotted her flight suit in one corner, along with her boots. Once she was dressed, she felt a little less vulnerable.
She crossed to the door.
It was locked.
Any goodwill she felt towards Mender evaporated. ‘You old bastard!’ Her fist thudded against the unyielding composite. ‘Mender,’ she yelled, ‘let me out of here right now!’
She stepped back, rubbing her hand, and looked for the intercom. It was next to the door, an ancient-looking model she’d never seen before. Like the rest of the medbay, it had the same feel of age. The medical equipment was well maintained, but beneath the dull gleam Orry sensed rather than saw a fine layer of accumulated grime that no amount of scrubbing could entirely remove. The deck and bulkheads were the same, worn smooth by countless hands and feet.
The intercom lit up at her touch.
‘What?’ Mender asked.
‘You locked me in.’
‘For your own protection.’
He sighed. ‘All right, for my protection. From your whining.’
She took a long breath. ‘Could you let me out, please?’
She balled her fists and shouted, ‘Let me out!’
The intercom shut off.
She reactivated it. ‘Goddammit, Mender, you let me out right n—’
The intercom shut off again.
She shrieked and slapped the bulkhead, imagining it was his wrinkled face. Her palm throbbed as she reached for the intercom again, then thought better of it and instead, crossing to one of the cabinets, she began wrenching open drawers until she found what she was looking for. Brandishing the scalpel and a pair of surgical scissors, she returned to the door.
‘Lock me up, will you?’ she muttered. The controls were flush to the bulkhead but
the scalpel blade slipped easily into the narrow gap beside them. She wiggled the blade gently, careful not to snap it as she prised the control panel out.
Her hand froze as her integuary tingled. She shivered; it felt like someone was running their fingers lightly through her hair. She straightened, leaving the panel dangling. Closing her eyes she focused on her integuary, worried it had been damaged by the airlock’s explosive decompression.
The tingle came again, moving through her mind. She tried to capture it, to discern its source: was it coming from outside, or from somewhere inside her? The feeling left as abruptly as it had come.
Her eyes snapped open at the sound of the door folding up into the overhead.
She frowned. Had she done that? Poking her head out, she saw the medbay was situated at the end of a passageway with more doorways opening off it. Ignoring them, she headed for
the door at the far end, which opened at her approach to reveal a cargo bay. It was tiny by comparison with Bonaventure’s sprawling holds, too small for real cargo. Metal tool cabinets surrounded a workbench fixed to one bulkhead, beside which was a long, low shape shrouded in an oil-stained tarpaulin and lashed to the deck. She had seen bays like this before, on ex-military ships used for smuggling, designed to accommodate a couple of ground vehicles or a small flyer; space wasn’t usually a factor when running illicit cargoes. Her lips twitched into a ghost of a smile. Mender was far from the archetype of a dashing smuggler.
She pulled back the corner of the tarp to reveal the front of a vintage Horten-Yakimov ground-effect bike hovering half a metre above the deck. ‘Oh baby,’ she murmured, running her fingers over its curves. The once bright paint of the open cowling was faded, but the engine beneath gleamed like it was right out of the showroom.
‘How did you get out?’ Mender growled from behind her.
She spun round. ‘Sorry, I was just—’
‘Just snooping,’ he snapped, his bushy eyebrows lowered.
She stared at her feet. ‘Sorry,’ she repeated, then raised her eyes slowly, keeping them wide.
Mender cleared his throat awkwardly. ‘Cockpit’s up here,’ he said, jabbing a thumb at a series of rungs fixed to a bulkhead. ‘You’d best stay where I can keep an eye on you.’
They passed through a small galley area over the cargo bay and up a ladder into the cockpit, where four mesomorphic acceleration shells hung suspended within a free-floating transparent sphere, a design which confirmed what Orry already suspected: the ship had once been a military vessel, the bowlshaped shells used during high-g manoeuvres to seal themselves around the occupant, the gel lining instantly transitioning into an oxygenated smart fluid designed to prevent lung collapse. Each shell seat was surrounded by a network of glowing screens and worn instrument panels. Orry liked the old-school feel, but she wasn’t so keen on the clear canopy arching overhead. She held back, warily eyeing the distant stars beyond.
‘What are you waiting for?’ Mender asked, indicating the seat to his right. He extracted a slim cheroot from a battered packet and flicked off the tip to light it. The end glowed as he sucked on the filter.
She wrinkled her nose as he blew out a plume of acrid smoke. Keeping her eyes focused on the cockpit, she forced herself up into the sphere. Sliding into the soft interior of the deep shell she focused on the instruments while Mender clambered awkwardly into the commander’s position beside her. He held his right leg stiffly and let out a grunt of relief when he was in position.
‘Are you alone on board?’ she asked.
‘I was.’ The cheroot bobbed up and down between his lips as he spoke. His gnarled hands made some adjustments to the instruments.
‘Doesn’t it get to you? Don’t you get lonely?’
‘Nope,’ he replied, tapping at a flickering display with one blunt finger. He cycled it off and on again.
‘I would.’ She stared out at the stars, waiting for the panic. Instead, she just felt numb.
He looked at her. ‘I’m sorry about your father.’
‘Thank you. But you didn’t kill him.’
‘No, but . . .’ He turned away. ‘Fucking Dyas.’
She shifted in her seat to stare at him. ‘Tell me about him – how do you know him?’
‘It doesn’t matter how I know him. He’s a nasty little bastard, and I wish to Rama I’d never met him.’
‘Are you going to keep looking for him?’
‘Take me with you.’
‘Now why would I do a thing like that?’
She leaned forward. ‘I can help you.’
He laughed. ‘By the time I catch up with him again your brother will be floating in the black somewhere and your ship’ll be sold. The best thing you can do is accept that and get on with your life. Revenge ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.’
She glared at him. ‘You’re not a very nice person, Mender, you know that?’
‘So I’m told.’
‘Is that why you live alone?’
‘Don’t you ever stop asking questions, girl?’
‘I have a name, you know.’
‘Good for you. Now shut up and let me plot this collapse.’
She cast her eyes over the instrument panel. There were a lot of physical displays, even considering the need for redundancy. ‘Does this thing have an integuary node?’ she asked.
‘This “thing” is called Jane. And yes, she has an integuary.’
‘Sorry, it’s just I’ve never been in a ship this old.’
‘It’s not age, it’s experience. They don’t make them like Dainty Jane any more.’
‘Where was she laid down? I don’t recognise the class. Is she military?’
Mender looked at her, eyes sparking with interest for the first time. He stubbed out his cheroot and exhaled the last of its smoke. ‘What makes you say that?’
‘The size of the cargo bay. And this.’ She indicated the sphere around them.
‘Yeah, she was military,’ he confirmed.
She met his appraising gaze head on.
‘You have an integuary?’
‘Had it long?’
‘Since I was nine.’
She shrugged. ‘Mum wasn’t keen, but Dad talked her into it.’
‘It’s illegal to graft implants to anyone under thirteen. What did your old man do, hire some quack with a surgical bot?’
‘It wasn’t like that,’ she snapped. ‘I wanted one. I wanted the connection.’
‘When I was nine I wanted to be a dog. My daddy didn’t sew a tail to my butt.’
Orry stared at him for several seconds. ‘You wanted to be a dog?’
He held up his hands in surrender. ‘What can I tell you? I was nine.’
‘Why’d you want to know if I have an integuary, anyway?’
‘Just curious. Use it much?’
‘All the time.’
‘Your daddy kept you busy, did he?’
‘Something like that.’
He thought for a moment. ‘You want to plot the collapse?’
She blinked. ‘Uh, sure.’
Mender extracted a dented silver hipflask from an inside pocket, unscrewed the cap and took a slug. The smell of whisky made Orry’s nose itch. He smacked his lips, replaced the hipflask and waved a hand at her. ‘Go on ahead, then.’
She felt with her mind for Dainty Jane’s contact field. There was a slight hesitation as Mender authorised her implant, then the ship’s systems pressed in on the edges of her consciousness. Jane felt alien, very different to Bonaventure – older, certainly, but more than that. There was a depth Orry had never experienced before; rich layers of substrate just beyond the reach of her integuary.
It took her a few seconds to realise what was needling at the edge of her mind: an element of familiarity. It was Dainty Jane who’d touched her integuary in the medbay.
Putting her curiosity aside for the moment, she hooked the navigation core and ran the numbers for a direct collapse to Novo Castria. Readouts appeared in her peripheral
vision, floating in the air around her, the data repeated on the hardware screens in the cockpit. Redundancy was a core principle of survival in space: backup displays had saved many a pilot’s life.
It took her longer than normal, but she figured it out. She looked expectantly at Mender when she was done. His good eye glazed as he used his integuary to check her calculations.
He gave a grunt of approval. ‘You know anyone on Novo Castria?’ he asked.
‘No,’ she said.
‘Ah, you’ll be fine. Pretty girl like you, soon find yourself a rich husband.’
She rounded on him. ‘I don’t want a husband. I want to save my brother! I want my ship back. I want Dyas’ balls on a plate. Why won’t you help me?’
‘Listen, girl, I like my life the way it is, just me and Jane. Why would I want a mouth almighty like you getting under my feet?’
‘I can help with running Jane.’
‘Don’t need any help.’
‘But how am I supposed to find Dyas without a ship?’
‘Not my problem. You ain’t coming with us.’
She slumped and stared out of the canopy. There was more traffic now they were approaching the egress point: bulk-haulers, inter-system liners, even a vast galleon in the livery of the Empyrean Development Company, surrounded by a shield of close escort ships. Eighty thousand kilometres away, an Alacrity class frigate altered course.
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Dump me on Novo Castria. I’m sure I won’t get raped or killed or anything.’
‘Don’t pull that sob-story crap on me, girl. You’ll be fine.’
‘Like you give a shit.’ She watched the distant ships.
He broke the silence. ‘What will you do?’
‘What do you care? I’ll have to find a ship, won’t I.’
‘Just like that.’
‘Just like that.’
His fingernail picked at a crusty stain on his thigh. ‘Listen, maybe when I find Dyas I could—’
‘What? Ask him where Ethan’s body is?’
‘Oh, I won’t be asking for anything.’ He snorted. ‘Forget it.’
She turned to him. He was focused on the instruments, his face tight. Get a grip, Orry. Be nice.
‘I—’ she began.
The comm stack burst into life. ‘Mercantile vessel Dainty Jane, this is Ascendancy frigate Speedwell. Maintain your current attitude and thrust. Stand by to be boarded.’
Mender’s wrinkled skin looked pale as he crammed on a headset. ‘This is Dainty Jane. What seems to be the problem, Speedwell?’
‘I say again: Dainty Jane, maintain your current attitude and thrust. Stand by to be boarded.’
Mender muted the channel and cursed.
‘What are you going to do?’ Orry asked. She watched the frigate’s approach with growing panic, all thoughts of Ethan pushed from her mind. What did they do to people who tortured viscounts to death?
‘There’s nothing I can do,’ he replied bitterly. ‘You’re clearly no bloodtrout, girl. You’re a dead bloody albatross around my neck.’