There were only two things a grown man could depend on in outer space—his personal possessions and his knowledge. For Big Al Smith, these were his ship and his knitting skills. Everything else was fickle, especially people, and he’d learned to ride the current.
Which was how he’d gotten himself covered hip-deep in yarn and working on another sweater. He liked sweaters. In the cold of space, they served as stress relief as much as for keeping bodies warm. Brownish-red was where he always started, rust-colored yarn being the cheapest in most places. It cost next to nothing to drop sheep’s wool in Mars mud. Leave it there long enough and the rusty color of the Mars surface could turn anything a mud brown.
The name Al heard the most came rattling down the hallway. Al scrambled upward in his seat, grabbing the whole of the knitting off his lap and dropping it into the bag at his feet. Sure, his crew were well informed about his preferred hobby, but he did his best to keep from advertising it. The stigma around women’s work being done by a man still existed in this crazy universe.
“In here, Mangle.”
His first mate poked his head into Al’s office. The office gave way to his quarters through a separate door, one he tossed his bag of knitting through.
“Working on a new one?” Mangle’s question came paired with cynicism.
“Got to keep busy waiting for the next assignment.” They’d been docked in Jupiter’s main city of Helios for the last four days—service work on the damn slip drive. Al had argued against it, but the BCS, Body Collection Service, ultimately got the final say. He was required to have the drive serviced after so many deployments. The number had been hit twice and he’d refused until they’d forced the issue.
“Speaking of assignments, the service finally assigned us some more help.”
Al leaned forward and groaned as he swiped through the holo-screens. “Another one. Didn’t we say we were only taking on seasoned professionals from now on?”
“Doesn’t seem to matter what we want,” Mangle replied, leaning against the doorframe.
Al swiped away the profile. He despised new recruits with a passion. They always had ideas, freethinkers who had no clue what enlistment really meant. He wasn’t even as strict as some of the captains. “Hypocrites, all of them.”
“Yeah, you are. Also, they sent over the new job. Some dead bootleggers, got caught by APUPS hauling contraband.”
Finally, the next job in a list of about twenty Al would need before he could escape. Twenty pickups, less than a row for his sweater. It still seemed like it would take forever at the rate the BCS sent him assignments. “Finally, no more sitting around.”
“Less time for you to knit. What do you want me to do with the fresh meat?”
Al sighed. He’d already forgotten about that one. “Work with Frankie and get take-off squared away. Have Duffy or Bertha bring the recruit to me.”
He ignored Mangle’s comment about his knitting—his second in command had a right to be aggravated. The Acheron should have been Mangle’s command. It wasn’t Al’s fault. He’d no choice unless he wanted to give up the pay scale that came with a captain’s rank, and that would never happen. At least not until I can get the hell out of here.
“Fine, boss. Might I suggest you try to keep this one around? We need a little extra help here. It would stave off suspicions.”
Another problem Al would have to deal with someday. He’d made the mistake of involving Mangle in his side business, the only thing keeping him floating now. He’d be damned if he’d allow Mangle to blackmail him the way he’d already been forced into this illegal mess. A new recruit meant them being secretive about their processes. “We’ll see.”
Let’s hope they like brown.
Loyda Miles stared at her short, ragged nails. They were nothing like how she normally kept them. This entire situation was so far from anything she’d done since becoming an investigator for parliament, but she’d had no choice.
Frankie, a female pilot with a shock of red hair, frowned at her. “You’re from where?”
“Ganymede.” The cover story she’d run with. She prayed it held up.
“Why leave that place?”
“Work dried up. My family worked for Grecia.” It should have been enough. News of the death of the only cartel leader living off Earth had spread far and wide throughout the galaxy. Her only trouble was it had been six months. Take the story.
“Similar things happened to my parents, why they tried to strike it rich in those mines on Mars. But there’s no such thing as getting ahead in this universe. Fairy tales. Why I chose to become a pilot, get the hell off that deadbeat rock.”
Loyda had heard similar stories growing up. The idea people that could change their fate working for the BCS, mining on Mars, getting into drug running and bootlegging… so many possibilities, and yet she’d never met a single person who’d been successful. Each venture ended in heartache, and most of the time with some sort of injustice.
“Yeah, but at least here you get a bed and guaranteed food.”
Frankie chuckled. “They say a lot of things in the recruitment office.”
Yes, but they couldn’t tell her what she really needed to know. Who was responsible for all the missing bodies? She’d tracked movements around Callisto and other planets and moons for the last couple months. Her work on the plot to stop mass killing on Callisto had ended successfully, but she’d never caught the person behind the whole thing. The name she’d received didn’t make sense, as it tied to an ambassador for parliament, which was impossible. ‘Parliament helps the people…’ Her mother’s words, recited a multitude of times. Especially anytime Loyda talked about becoming a government investigator instead of signing up for duty as an ambassador.
Regardless of her past and the failures in the investigation, she couldn’t let this go. There were still too many bodies unaccounted for, still too many people who had died unnecessarily, and someone needed to be brought to justice. Her boss barely agreed but was giving her one more shot.
Proof… She needed physical evidence of some sort or she’d be reassigned, and her time was short. The only direction that made sense was someone in Body Collection, who had partners and was trying to undermine the government.
Her research had led her to the Acheron and the ship’s elusive, hermit-like captain, Alexander Smith.
“What’s the captain like?”
Both of Frankie’s eyebrows rose. “He’s not the sort to get intimate with the help. BCS rules. If you think flirtation will get you extra rations, it won’t. Al hates new recruits too.”
Loyda’s sense never betrayed her and something about Frankie’s crossed arms spoke volumes. Most likely the woman saw Loyda as a threat. And she has no clue how right she is. “I am here to learn the trade. Not be a sponge.”
Frankie laughed. “Wow, they breed ’em naive on Ganymede.”
“Who’s naive?” Mangle, the first mate, stepped out into the cargo bay area. Loyda had met him first when coming on board. Mangle had a thick bushy mustache—in fact, he had a lot of hair in general—and a wiry build. He reminded her of a furry bush animal that lived around the lake at her childhood home on Saturn.
“The new recruit, who else?” Frankie replied.
“My momma said the same about me.” This came from the much larger man who tugged a cloth cap over the top of his head.
Frankie laughed. “Bertha, that’s still true. Any other questions, space bait?”
At the same time, Bertha groaned. “Why do you call me by my full name, Frankie? I got a nickname that works just fine.”
“We prefer to call you by your full name on this boat. Halt on the questions too. Captain wants to meet the fresh space bait and we have a new assignment. Frankie—”
Mangle’s words were cut short as the bay doors clanked and creaked open. The ship was in desperate need of an overhaul. Duffy, the engineer, rolled in on the back of a double-wide hoverbike designed specifically for supply runs but looking as derelict as the ship itself. If this crew was knee-deep in illegal activity and killing of innocents, they weren’t getting paid enough, or they were good actors.
“I got everything,” Duffy hollered as he brought the bike to a stop, the colorful wheels coming to a halt and bringing an end to the multi-spectrum light show that reflected off the ship’s walls.
“Even my pork skins?” Bertha’s voice came out more like a yell, since he started talking as the engine died off.
“Yes, even the pork skins, though I couldn’t get as many with the amount of crinkle you forked over.”
“Those things are nasty.” Frankie’s upper lip curled and she turned away from the group. “Mangle, let’s get this party going—aren’t you always saying time is flash?”
Loyda took it all in—Frankie’s bad attitude, Bertha and Duffy still debating how many pork skins could be bought with gold leaf and Mangle shaking his head. The crew appeared dysfunctional and nothing like a group of masterminds killing people for bodies.
Mangle cleared his throat, then yelled. “That’s enough!”
Frankie came to a halt and the other men froze mid-argument. Loyda did everything she could to keep a straight face. Maybe this whole idea was a crapshoot and she could leave now.
“Duffy, unload. Frankie, you’re with me. Bertha, take the recruit to the captain. He wants to meet her.”
“Let’s go, girlie.” Hulking Bertha came up beside her and motioned with his arm to follow. Loyda did as told without looking back, hefting her faded green duffel bag onto her shoulder—a borrow from her boss, since her luggage was top of the line.
“I have a name. If you call me by mine, I’ll do the same for you, Bert.”
Bertha glanced over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised. “Heard that, huh? You stick around longer than a solar week and I’ll consider it. But good guess on the nickname.”
Well, this could prove more difficult than she’d planned. Maybe her captain had been right, and she should stop chasing dead ends. They entered a stairwell, with stairs leading up and down.
“Is that how you get to the slip drive?”
Bertha gave her a scowl. “I’m not here to give you a ship tour. I am taking you to the captain as asked.”
“You always follow orders?”
A laugh echoed around her as Bertha took the stairs up one floor, Loyda following.
“Girlie, when you’re floating the currents, following orders keeps you alive.”
She sucked in a deep breath and bit back the retort forming on her lips. Following orders was ingrained in her too, but doing the right thing trumped orders every time. Going undercover, she’d failed to think about what would happen if she was asked to break the law. Trailing behind this large man, who appeared to dim the lighting in the corridor they walked down, reminded her that she was completely out of her element. Before, she’d been confident in her choice to infiltrate this ship. Now, not so much.