Jack Macleef and his small crew of interstellar merchant marines—including “Bit,” an unexpected indentured servant—think they’re on a simple cargo drop when things suddenly go awry. Dodging paint-hurling protestors and mercenaries bent on terrorizing the crew’s families, Jack and Bit have their hands full as they try to keep the crew from falling apart while still delivering the cargo on time.
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Bit stood on the bridge of the Lenore staring out at the small planet, certain her jaw was grazing the floor. She closed her mouth and swallowed to moisten her dry throat. All her fears and uncertainties came rushing back. Despite all the bad stuff that had happened, the few weeks she had spent on the cargo ship traveling from Earth to Mars had done much to build her confidence. Now though, as she looked down on the foreign planet, she couldn’t remember what it felt like to be brave.
“Quite a sight,” murmured Oden, the ship’s second pilot, from his seat behind the console.
To her disgust, Bit jumped at Oden’s quiet statement.
She glanced at him, taking in his relaxed posture and the intensity of his gaze. Oden was a rather odd man to look at. He had cultural tattoos running up his neck and round studs in his ears, as well as a piercing in his lower lip. He wore his short hair in a mohawk, but without all the trappings, his face was soft, almost baby-ish.
Bit gave the pilot a silent nod and went back to staring at their destination. They were still hours away from the planet. From their distance, Bit could see the space station orbiting the planet and the enormous port used by bulky freighters and sleek, new military ships alike—to her amazement, her initial thought upon looking down on the first planet to be settled by humans was how small it appeared.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Oden asked after a few minutes of silence.
“Not sure they’re worth that much,” Bit mumbled, more to herself, before turning to Oden. “I guess I just thought it would be bigger.”
Oden chuckled. “We’re still a long way out. Probably won’t dock ‘till morning. But it is quite a bit smaller than Earth. Really only about half the size.”
Bit shrugged, unsure how she felt about the planet and many other topics, none of which she wanted to discuss with the pilot. He was just one of the many men on-board the freighter who had shown interest in her since she came to the ship after being won in a lucky hand of poker by Calen, the ship’s first pilot.
That was how life went for an indentured servant. If the owner of your debt decided they were done with you, they could sell your debt on to someone else, or they could lose it in a hand of poker to a complete stranger. That was how Bit ended up on the Lenore working for a freighter captain named Jack—Calen’s older brother.
“ETA?” Jack asked in his no-nonsense voice as he entered the bridge.
Bit glanced up at him and scuttled to the corner, even though she knew he wouldn’t mind her presence. Bit couldn’t explain why she was suddenly so nervous again, but she was. Perhaps it was the prospect of leaving the ship in the next day or two, or maybe it was the haggard expressions on all the crew’s faces.
The journey from Earth hadn’t been an easy one.
Word of their precious cargo—a small case of animal embryos destined to be introduced into the Mars ecosystem by being sold to the extremely wealthy—had reached the ears of fortune hunters better known as pirates. Half the long journey had been spent fending off the attacks of enemy vessels or preparing for the next attack. They had even lost two of the new security team, hired for just such an eventuality, and most of those still alive were hurt. Even Bit was covered in dark bruises from when the gravity plating had acted up during the last attack.
All this, combined with her unknown future, left Bit in a state of constant panic.
“I expect to dock with the Ward Port in about thirteen hours,” Oden said after a quick glance at his many screens.
Jack nodded. “Excellent. I’ll brief the crew when Calen relieves you.”
Oden nodded. “He should be here any minute now.”
The two pilots took turns at the helm, one working during the day, the other at night. Oden had been the lucky one to get the day shift.
Jack turned and smiled at Bit. Bit tried to smile back, but her eyes glanced down to the white bandage peeking out from under Jack’s gray t-shirt. Jack had been shot, the bullet grazing his shoulder, by his own uncle—the crew member who had disabled their defenses, allowing the enemy to dock and board the Lenore.
“You okay, Bit?” Jack asked.
She nodded, not trusting her voice.
Jack eyed her, seeing the lie for what it was. Thankfully, he chose not to press the subject. When he turned away, she let out a long sigh.
Truth was, she didn’t have a damn clue what was wrong with her, and she wasn’t about to spill it all out to her new captain. Up until a week ago, she would have gone to Oden with her issues, but that was before Blaine, one of the security team members, had kissed her right in front of half the crew. Oden wasn’t thrilled with this sudden development, along with half the other men on the ship not to mention Bit; she wasn’t exactly jumping for joy herself. And Blaine knew it.
What a disaster, she thought to herself as she watched Jack and Oden discuss the docking procedures that wouldn’t be needed until the next morning.
The fact was she liked Blaine, a lot more than she was willing to admit, but she had a plan and it didn’t include romance. Now all she had to do was remember the plan the next time Blaine got in a kissing mood. Bit rolled her eyes, the sarcastic expression fully directed at her own weakness.
Her sister had been lured into a romantic relationship with one of their owners. The result was a deadly pregnancy. Now the child was off god-knows-where working off half its mother’s debt, while Bit carried the other half, along with her own debt. Bit knew she would never be able to work off the entirety of her debt, or more accurately her father’s debt, but someday, somehow, she would find a way to escape this life and find her sister’s child.
She just had to stay focused, and that meant not falling into the same trap as her sister.
“What’d I miss?” Calen asked from the doorway as he sauntered in, winking at Bit.
Bit forced a smile to her lips and tried to inch her way toward the door.
“Nothing much,” Jack replied. “We’ll dock in the morning. I’m going to brief the crew on the holiday layover now that you’re here to relieve Oden. I doubt you need to hear my lecture on being wise during the holiday.”
“Not with you and Ma watching my every step,” said Calen with a knowing smirk.
“Exactly. C’mon, Oden. You too, Bit,” Jack added just as Bit reached the threshold of the bridge. “Call the crew down to the mess for me, Calen.”
Calen nodded and snatched up the communicator. “All crew to the mess hall.”
Bit cursed silently in her mind as she waited for the captain in the doorway. She didn’t want to join the eleven men who would be crowding into the mess hall to hear the captain’s speech. Though she had slowly grown accustomed to their presence over the past month on the ship, the final week of their voyage had been stressful thanks to Blaine. Bit felt the muscles in the back of her neck tighten with a fresh wave of tension.
I’ll never forgive him for this, she told herself resolutely.
Jack clapped a firm hand on her shoulder, as though he read in her eyes her desire to run, and led her down the metal stairs. Oden followed closely on their heels. Bit could practically feel his gaze on her back, causing a tingle to run up her spine.
They descended another set of stairs and entered the mess hall; most of the crew were already seated and waiting. Bit slipped into the last spot on a bench next to Forrest, the first assistant engineer for the ship. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted Blaine sitting nearly as far away from her as he could get. She let out a long sigh, half in relief and half in a new form of tension coursing up her back.
Why does life have to be so damn complicated? It had been much simpler when she worked for a jerk who didn’t let her outside except to run his errands. Then she didn’t have any friends or anyone vying for her affections. Then again, she had also been completely alone.
“All right, you lot,” Jack said affectionately, waving for silence with his uninjured arm. “I know we’re excited to be getting to Mars, especially after this rough journey, but settle down. We will be docking with Ward Port in just over twelve hours. All crew members will be needed as we unload the main cargo. Officially, we are slated to taxi down to the Olympus Mons Landing Platform at 1700 Thursday evening.”
The captain was interrupted by a whoop of hollers from the crew, all except for Bit and Dirk, the chief engineer and the crankiest man Bit had ever met. Bit glanced around, wondering why the crew was so excited. Was it simply that they were excited to have survived the pirate attacks? Or were they always this happy to reach their destination after a long haul?
“All right, all right,” called Jack, his own smile growing as a few of the crew members threw high-fives around as though they had just won a football game. “I know you all are excited for Colony Day weekend, but you know the rules. Work first, play second.
“When we dock, we will still have the cargo to unload and sign over to the port authorities. Every crew member will have their part to play in this.”
Bit began to fumble with her fingers, looking down at her broken, dirty nails. What will my job be? she wondered, having never been a part of an unloading.
“As you know, leave will be extended for the holiday weekend. We will reconvene at the landing platform Tuesday 0600.”
The crew met the captain’s statement with a chorus of boos, which he graciously smiled at. After a moment, he waved them silent again.
“Our wonderful engineering team has agreed to work over the holiday weekend to get the ship back up to one-hundred percent after the attacks, that way we can pick up with our next delivery after the holiday as if none of this happened. After much consideration, Randal and I have agreed the embryos will be staying on board the ship until Mars Genetics Consortium resumes regular business hours on Tuesday. As to the delivery of the embryos, you lot don’t need to concern yourself with it. Now, any questions?”
To Bit’s surprise, multiple hands shot up.
“Yes, Forrest?” Jack asked, pointing to the blond man sitting next to Bit.
“Where’s Bit going for the weekend? She ain’t got an apartment on Mars or family like the rest of us,” he said, glancing around at the other members of the crew.
Suddenly all heads turned to the corner where Blaine sat, as though they expected the security officer to offer her a place with him. He resolutely looked to their captain and the many heads swiveled around to glance at Jack, almost in perfect unison. Bit stifled a groan as she felt her cheeks burn with a deep blush.
To her amazement, the crew began to offer their various residences before Jack could respond.
“She can stay with me and my brother,” offered Vance, the ship’s gentle giant of a steward who stood in the doorway to the galley, his great arms crossed over his wide chest.
“Not likely,” grumbled Blaine from his corner.
“Wanna stay on the ship with us, Little Bit?” asked Forrest.
“Yeah!” exclaimed Jeremiah, the youngest of the ship’s crew and the second engineering assistant.
“Excuse me? ” growled Dirk.
“She ain’t coming with me,” said Nolan, the under steward who had tried to force himself on her a few weeks after she joined the crew.
Half the men rose from their seats and glared at him.
“You’re not part of this discussion,” announced Blaine into the silence.
“Bit is coming home with me and Calen,” Jack announced, ending the discussion. “I wouldn’t dream of sending the poor girl home with any of you scoundrels.”
Bit glanced up at her captain. He had been trying to ease the tension caused by Nolan, but the jibe had done little to help. In an effort to come to his aid, she forced a chuckle past her lips.
“Always looking out for me,” she said to Jack, and to her relief, the other crew members followed her example with their own laughter.
“That I am, Little Bit. All right crew, go get some rest before we dock and the real work begins.”
“Right, ‘cause fighting off pirates ain’t real work,” mumbled Reese, one of the remaining security team members as he climbed out of his spot at the next table over.
The others laughed and rose from their seats. Bit got out of the way, tucking herself into the corner, half hidden by the high-tech dummy used for target practice by the security team.
“Do you want the security team to return to the ship with you on Tuesday and escort you to MGC?” asked Randal, the head of the security team.
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Jack said with a smile on his face as he nodded to the few men still loitering in the mess hall in small clumps. “After all, we will be on Mars, not in the un-policed voids of space.”
“True,” admitted Randal as he adjusted the sling which supported his injured arm; he had been shot in the shoulder during the fray, “but we also know there is someone specifically after those embryos.”
Jack clapped him on his good side. “Tell you what, we see anything even remotely suspicious during the weekend, I’ll call you immediately, okay? I promise,” Jack added when the head of his security team continued to stare at him.
“Fine,” grumbled Randal before stomping out of the mess hall.
Jack rolled his eyes at the older man and left. Bit slipped out of her hiding place, for some reason feeling more relaxed now that the captain was nowhere in sight, and headed for the door.
“Bit,” called a voice from the only remaining group.
Bit kept walking, hoping she could pretend she hadn’t heard the call of her name. A firm hand wrapped around her arm, pulling her to a stop as she reached the bottom of the staircase.
“That how it is?” Blaine asked as he turned her to face him. “You just ignoring me now?”
“I didn’t hear you,” she lied.
“Right. Real mature.”
“What is it you want?”
“We need to talk.”
“About?” Bit asked, knowing perfectly well what he wanted to talk about.
“You know what we need to talk about,” replied Blaine with a long sigh. “We kissed, dammit.”
“No. You kissed me… in front of half the crew. You want to talk about it, why don’t you go talk about it with half the crew.”
Blaine rolled his eyes at her, annoyance clearly visible on his features. “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t wait until we were alone. That doesn’t change how we feel.”
“We?” she asked, pouring shock and consternation into her voice. She had to convince him that he had made a mistake in kissing her. “There is no ‘we’ here. There is just you in this.”
Bit jerked her sore arm out of his grasp and raced up the stairs, her bare feet pattering painfully against the grating of the steps. She reached the living-quarters level and dashed into the small closet under the next flight of stairs that had been turned into her room. It was rather barren, with a small table, a footlocker, and a hammock. Even her sparse supply of clothing was the result of the crew giving her this and that from their own wardrobes. She ran around the ship in oversized t-shirts and shorts that reached halfway down her shins. They didn’t even try giving her shoes or socks.
Bit collapsed on her hammock and threw the blanket over her head.
Forget the vow I made to my dead sister! Why would anyone be interested in her? She was a charity case—the lost puppy they had found in the gutter and brought home to give scraps off the dinner table. Whatever interest Blaine had in her, it wasn’t romantic. It was philanthropic at best.
She pulled her knees up to her chest, feeling thoroughly sorry for herself and stared at the blank wall until she finally drifted off to sleep.