Dead in the water.
Never, in its century of service had the Lenore been dead in the water. But now she was floating adrift, and that was the least of Jack’s worries. The free-roaming kitten, the would-be rapist, and the budding romance were all more alarming to Jack.
When the Lenore finally limps into port, Jack finds a job ready and waiting despite the fact Bit had an active hand in the destruction of an entire space station. Now the crew of the Lenore must reach the far end of the colonized galaxy and save an asteroid mine from foundering.
*This is not the end of the series. Bit will return in Fall of 2018*
Bit stared at the child wrapped in her blanket and nestled in her hammock. They had fed her, but she had refused to take a shower. Even in sleep, she wore an angry frown. Bit wanted to reach out and caress her face, wiping the frown away. Despite the child’s acidic tongue, she wanted to hold her, to share her dreams, and to protect her from all the evil throughout the galaxy.
But she couldn’t do any of that until the child accepted that they were related. Even then, Bit doubted the nameless ten year-old girl would seek comfort from her. Like herself, her niece had been raised in a dog-eat-dog world. Her heart was hardened to those around her, just as Bit’s heart had once been hardened. Or at least it was until she joined the crew of the Lenore.
Sadly, Bit doubted the men of the Lenore would have the same effect on the young child as they had on her. It was up to Bit to break into the ice of her heart, and she had no idea how to do it. She couldn’t even get the kid to take a shower.
She let out a long sigh and glanced down at her own body. She was still in Oden’s shirt, her body bruised and bloody from days of fighting. A shower sounded like heaven. Slowly, she grabbed a clean-ish set of clothing and slipped out of her room.
The kid would keep.
Jack sat in his cabin, rubbing his forehead. He didn’t even know what problem to tackle first. He had a budding relationship forming within his crew, an XO accused of working against the crew, a ship sailing too close to the sun with limited fuel, a kitten wandering his ship, and a bratty child asleep in Bit’s room. Oh, not to mention, a would-be rapist locked in the cabin that should have belonged to his new chief engineer. Jack wanted to scream, but he knew neither tears nor anger would solve his problems.
He sighed and climbed to his feet. The first and most pressing issue was the fuel. He left his cabin and headed for the bridge. To his astonishment, Oden and Calen were both at the controls.
“So, how bad is it?” he asked as he entered.
Oden shook his head, looking uncharacteristically relaxed. That, more than any exclamation or appearance of stress, worried Jack. Calen, on the other hand, looked as though he was ready to sweat blood.
“It’s not good, Cap.”
“How ‘not good’?”
“Delta Site is the nearest human inhabitants,” Calen said.
Jack nodded. “And?”
“Well there are a lot of factors,” began Oden.
“Stop,” snapped Jack when they prepared to continue their list. “How bad is it?”
Both pilots glanced down at their boots. Finally, Oden looked up at him, his eyes bleak.
“I doubt we’ll make it halfway to Delta on the fuel we have.”
Jack felt the air go out of him. He had known it would be bad, that they would be on fumes by the end, but he hadn’t expected this.
“Cap, I strongly suggest we go dead in the water. There aren’t many asteroids in this quadrant to pull us off course. We’ll keep track of our trajectory…”
Jack held up his hand, stopping Oden’s speech. “Go dead.”
In all his years as captain, he had never let the Lenore go dead in space.
Bit felt more than heard the engines go dead just as a voice filled her cabin, waking the sleeping child. “Crew. Prepare for going dead in the water. Gather your basic amenities and convene in the crew quarters.”
“What does that mean?” asked her niece.
“I’m not quite sure, but if my guess is correct, we’re in for a very uncomfortable ride.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Great.”
“C’mon. Help me pack up some basics.”
“It’s your crap. You pack it.”
Bit stared at the girl, her eyes growing wide. She didn’t know what to make of the acidic reply, nor did she know how to respond. Her instinct wanted to fire back, but she took a deep breath and began packing her clothing into her bag. When that was done, she grabbed a few books and crammed them in atop the clothing. They were relatively easy. She hoped to begin teaching her niece to read, not that she had mastered the skill herself. Oden was still helping her with the harder words. Finally, she reached for the blanket, still tucked under the girl. The girl made no sign of moving.
Bit took another deep breath. “May I please have the blanket?”
Slowly, the girl lifted one butt cheek—just enough for Bit to yank it out from under her.
“C’mon.” Bit scooped up the kitten from the desk and opened the door to her make-shift cabin; really it was a closet under the stairs, but she didn’t mind.
The girl crossed her arms. “I’ll stay here.”
“We’ve been ordered to convene in the crew cabin. We obey orders on the Lenore.”
Bit shook her head. “Or you get punished. The Captain doesn’t treat us like indentureds here, he treats us like crew.”
“I don’t see much of a difference.”
“Problem here?” Randal asked as he approached the crew cabin—which was but a few steps from Bit’s.
“Nope. She’s just testing her boundaries. We’ve all done it when our debt is sold. It’ll just take some time.”
Randal gave her an all-business nod. “I’ll leave you to it.”
Bit turned to her niece, trying to prove that she understood. Truth was, despite Bit’s painful past, she had no idea what pains her niece had endured. The girl stared at her, almost as though she saw an inkling of worth in Bit but didn’t want to admit it.
“It’s your choice now, girl,” Bit said in a stern tone. “You can obey the captain or wait and see what he does when you’re found here.”
A second later, the girl rose from the hammock and followed Bit to the crew quarters. The crew slept in a long room that took up nearly half of the main living deck. Bunk beds stood in rows, like soldiers waiting for inspection, with a footlocker at the end. The core crew was already there, sitting on their bunks, their expressions worried and worn. It hadn’t been an easy week. Bit frowned. Truth was, it hadn’t been easy since that first pirate attack, right after she had joined the crew of the Lenore.
Calen was already with the crew, but Bit couldn’t spot Oden in the hubbub. The cabin was crowded when the entire crew filled it, which wasn’t often with their various schedules, but add in the officers and the two indentureds and it was standing room only. In fact, Bit spotted a few men climbing up onto the top bunks to make space for others.
Finally, the captain and Oden, the first pilot, appeared in the doorway with the ship’s few remaining EV suits flung over their shoulders. At the sight of the EV suits, the room fell silent. Bit felt her stomach tighten. They draped them over the nearest footlockers. Behind them, Randal hit the panel to close the door.
Bit’s skin crawled as claustrophobia set in. She had a feeling things were bad with the ship, and she suspected they were going to find out just how bad. Glancing around, Bit suspected everyone had some idea of what was coming next—the entire crew was staying in the crew cabin.
Sure enough, Jack explained the full extent of their crisis—they had a roughly patched breach in the hull, they were nearly out of fuel, and leagues away from the nearest human settlement—now that Miller Station orbiting Venus was blown to smithereens. The entire crew would reside in the single cabin, with life support directed to the one room. Minimal life-support would be kept on in the rest of the living level and the bridge, but the lower two levels would be sealed off and the oxygen shifted to where it was needed.
“So dump your stuff and come help Vance haul up emergency rations,” Jack added as he finished his explanation. “Bit, it’s up to you as to whether or not your niece helps.”
“I ain’t her niece,” the girl snapped, crossing her arms.
Jack rolled his eyes and waved his arm as if to say “you deal with her.”
The crew shuffled out of the cabin. Bit wished Oden was at her side to help her deal with her brat of a niece.
“Look…” Bit paused as she realized they still didn’t have a name for the girl. “What do you want us to call you?”
“Back there they just called me J for my I.D. number.”
“I’m not calling you by your I.D. number, or even just the first letter in it. You need a real name.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “That’s your issue.”
“What about June? Same first letter, but actually a name.”
The girl grimaced. “I’m no month of the year, dumb ass.”
“Great, June it is,” Bit said before she could stop herself. “C’mon, let’s go help haul.”
“I don’t want to.”
Bit turned to look at her, her fists planted on her thin hips. “You say that to your old master?”
“You ain’t my master… you’re family,” she replied, making the word sound like a curse.
“And the captain?”
“Hardly my master. He didn’t buy me. He blown up the space station.”
“That wasn’t Jack.”
“Ooo, Jack is it?”
“Oh my gosh, are you always this annoying?”
To Bit’s surprise, June followed her out of the crew cabin. It took them nearly two hours, even with everyone’s help, to haul food and water up to the crew cabin. They tucked it under beds, made stacks in the corners, and filled every other aisle between the bunk beds. They even filled half the shower stalls with containers of water. While they worked, Calen and Jack took turns checking on Oden who was up on the bridge, rerouting power and life support. Finally, they moved Terrall from his prison cell—or rather Dirk’s old cabin—and handcuffed him to a bed.
By the time they finished, Bit felt like she was back on the transport vessel escaping Venus’ heat. The Lenore wasn’t rated for Venus. With full life support, it had been bearable. Now, though, she thought she might faint, but eventually, the job was done. The crew, each sweating enough to fill a bathtub, filed into the crew cabin, each trying not to touch the bedding. They had barely wedged themselves in when Oden appeared at the door, looking strangely out of breath for sitting at a consul.
As he entered, he slapped the release button and the door slid shut with an ominous thud. They all looked at Jack, and he let out a long sigh.
“So, who wants to shower first?”
Two weeks into the unconventional journey and they were still trying to explain to June why the ship wasn’t slowing down. The entire crew was near the end of their patience with the child, but she refused to believe a lack of atmosphere had any power over the velocity of an object in space. It made it all too clear to Bit that the child lacked education—not just basic facts, but the ability to think intelligently. From the bits and pieces June had revealed, she had been mostly left to her own methods, her only job cleaning spare parts after they had been removed from some failing portion of the space station. Aside from a running tally of what parts she had, they had not expected much from her mind.
Even being crammed into one room for two weeks, June avoided her aunt, refuting any claim to a relationship. In fact, she shunned everyone in the crew except Vance. He seemed the only person who could break through her shell. It made for a unique pairing.
“June,” Oden called to the girl sitting next to the plump cook. “Come help me beat Bit.”
Everyone had given up on call her “aunt” or calling June “niece”. June denied it every time and, as a result, was closed off to whatever they said next.
Bit and Oden were playing a strange game where they tried to blow up each other’s fleet. Half the crew was enjoying the game on a homemade board. Evidently, Oden had seen the game on earth a few years ago, but not bothered to buy the official version. A few pieces of cardboard, a knife to cut holes, a marker, and little pegs made out of rolled-up garbage made one playable board. They both had squares of cardboard, making it impossible to see the other player’s map.
“C’mon, kid,” Vance urged, nudging her out of the little corner they had been sitting in.
He followed her over, forcing her to sit right next to Oden. Bit felt her heart ache at the sight. While she was happy June was open to Oden, she wanted to form her own friendship. Bit blinked before tears could form and looked down at her brown board where her ships were arranged, her hand absently stroking the kitten sprawled across her lap. At least the kitten liked her.
“Where should we send a missile?” Oden asked June as she eyed the board.
“B-7.” June pointed to the spot on Oden’s board.
Bit grimaced. “Hit.”
The game wore on, and June and Oden quickly sank all of Bit’s ships. When the game ended, they handed it over to Calen and to take on the pair. The hours slipped by as various crew members called “next game.”
Bit slowly shifted away from the game, too heartbroken to watch her only family member bond with the others. She found Vance leaning against the doorway leading into the bathroom and watching the Battleship campaign. They had converted another shower stall into a makeshift galley, leaving them with only one shower left for cleansing. Bit smiled at him, wrapping her arms around her chest and pulling her crew jacket tighter. It was a number of degrees below comfortable, the only source of heat being their own bodies and Vance’s tiny hotplate. Thankfully, the crew didn’t seem to mind snuggling up to each other as needed.
Vance smiled at her as she took up a place next to him, pressing her shoulder against his. He adjusted to wrap an arm around her shoulders. Rather than watching her niece, she focused on the steamy breath coming from her nose.
“Leave it to Oden to know of some archaic game that he can make out of an old box,” Vance said, a smile coloring his voice.
“It would be a boring trip without his ingenuity.”
Bit’s eyes ran to Forrest, standing beside some machine she had never noticed before. By the looks of it, he kept it under his bed and had just now dragged it out. The look on his face suggested bad news, and Bit felt herself tense. It had been an easy two weeks—the only issue being battling boredom and the cold. Bit suspected the easy trip was over.
“What’s for dinner?” Bit asked, hoping to keep Vance from noticing the engineer off by himself.
“Canned chicken, fruit cocktail, and a mineral pack.”
Bit smiled. Every meal—including breakfast—had included the nasty tasting mineral pack. It kept their bodies healthy even on limited rations. Bit wondered why they couldn’t make it taste good. If the human race had the technology to pack all the vitamins, minerals, and supplemental calories a body needed into one little blob of goo then why couldn’t they make it taste like something someone might actually want to eat?
“I would kill for some fresh fruit,” Vance said, breaking into her train of thought.
She smiled up at him, unable to think of anything to say in response. Bit yawned, once again contemplating a nap. She wondered if her urge to sleep over the last day or two came solely from boredom or if she was getting sick. Vance yawned, too.
Bit watched Jack break off from the group watching the game and edged up to Forrest. They were looking at a little slip of paper.
“I could go for a lemiki,” Bit replied, still trying to keep Vance’s attention—the lemon-kiwi hybrid was the first fruit to come to her mind, though she didn’t actually care for them much. “Have you taken a turn?”
“Nah. Let the kids play.”
Bit chuckled. “There’s no kid in you?”
Vance shrugged before whispering in her ear, “I like to keep it hidden.”
“I bet you’d whoop their butts.”
“Oh yes. For sure!”
“Then go show them who’s boss.”
Vance chuckled before detaching himself from the doorframe and joining the crew. She made an act of following before slipping up to where Forrest and Jack stood. “Problem?”
Jack adjusted his stance so that his back was to the others still playing the game. “You weren’t supposed to notice.”
“My bad. What’s the issue?”
Forrest jumped in to explain. “We have filters that work to keep the carbon dioxide and other gasses from the air.”
“They’re dotted throughout the life support system wherever there’s an intake vent.”
Bit nodded again, tracking so far and seeing where he was going.
“With all of us in here, all the carbon dioxide…”
“Is going through one vent,” Bit said, finishing for him.
“So we need to change the vent out,” Bit stated.
At that moment, Vance poked his head over Jack’s shoulder. “You’re not as sneaky as you think.”
Jack glanced over his shoulder. Thankfully, Randal seemed to be the only one to notice their grouping, and he was choosing to remain with the others. Bit suspected his choice was in an effort to keep the crew distracted.
“So what do we need to do to replace the filter?” Bit asked, bringing them back on topic.
“Well,” began Forrest. “First we need to get all the supplies… which are down in engineering storage… which doesn’t have atmosphere right now.”
“Then we use the EV suits.”
Forrest and Jack shook their heads. “There’s no airlock. We open the emergency bulkheads over the staircase and all the minimal atmosphere rushes out, then we re-tax the life support to rebuild it in the two levels.”
Bit, and all the others frowned, considering their predicament.
“What about charcoal filters?” Vance asked.
“They’re not strong enough to replace our life support filters,” replied Forrest, “even if we had any that fit the size of our intake vents.”
Forrest yawned, and Bit suddenly realized the true cause of their fatigue.
“We may not be able to replace the filter in the vent, but what about building a supplemental filter with charcoal filters. I have tons of them. They’re used in water filtration, the coffee maker…”
“Which means they’re all down in the galley,” said Forrest, cutting him off.
“Wait a second,” interrupted Bit. “I think we’re making this way too complicated. The only place we’re breathing and therefore causing the problem is here, right?”
“And no one is breathing out there.”
They nodded again.
“So why not just borrow a filter from an intake vent out there?”
The three men stared at her for a second before letting out a long sigh.
Jack spoke first. “We do like to make it complicated.”
Oden sat on his bed with Bit tucked under his arm, both of them watching Forrest and Jeremiah work to replace the air filter after venturing out into the rest of the ship. While Forrest went out, Calen had gone up to the bridge in the other EV suit to check on their trajectory. Thus far, they had only veered a little off course, requiring one correction. Still, between that one correction and the use of the life support system, the tanks were draining and draining fast.
Just a few more days, he lied to himself; truth was, without propulsion, it would likely take them another two weeks. Their speed wasn’t decreasing, but it wasn’t increasing either.
He turned his mind to other things, his eyes running over to June, fast asleep on the next bed. Above June on the top bunk sat Katherine. As far as Oden knew, Jack still hadn’t addressed that issue. She had been caught working against the crew based on what she thought was best rather than obeying the orders of the captain. In a ship, whether space or sea, their lives depended on the choices of the captain. The crew needed complete trust, not just in the captain but in each other to all obey their captain. When one went their own way, everyone suffered.
A soft snore attracted his attention. Bit had drifted off, tucked up against his chest. It wasn’t surprising considering the quality of the air they were currently breathing. Despite the risk to their health from both air and a lack of heat, Oden doubted he had ever been so happy. Over the last two weeks, with a constant audience, Bit had grown more and more comfortable touching him. Though they had no chance for any real physicality, the two weeks had given her a chance to trust him. Oden suspected, once they got any time to themselves, she would be receptive to his love-making. The only question was, would Jack ever allow them such a courtesy.
For some reason Oden couldn’t explain, he doubted it.
Oden’s eyes shifted to the stained bra hung up between the vertical supports of the bunk bed. It was the item their contact at Miller Station had given them to prove they had done their job. Granted, after that the space station had exploded, but that wasn’t their fault. At least not directly. Bit had challenged the contact’s worldview, questioning the woman’s worth on such a sordid, degraded space station where just breathing risked her life. Inexplicably, the space station had erupted into an impressive fireball. Still, they had their proof of contact hanging from his bed.
A bra, he thought, how ridiculous!
As his mind wandered, Oden wondered what the captain would do next, once they dropped off the bra and the kitten—they had been required to sneak the kitten into the space station. Would their contact have a paying job waiting for them? Would Jack give them time to get the Lenore back up to basic-functions condition. There were too many things held together with spit and tape. He knew Forrest wanted a good month in dry dock to renovate the engines now that Dirk had resigned, but both Oden and Forrest knew that was a luxury he would never get. He would have to do his repairs and upgrades as best he could while they worked the next mission.
The next mission. There was always the next mission. Oden frowned, glancing down at Bit.
Suddenly all those offers to fly commercial transport or for the military made sense. Working for Jack, while exciting, wasn’t safe for either him or Bit. Not long ago, excitement was the only thing he cared about in his job. Now, with someone to care for, his perspective changed. He wanted the job that would allow him to pay off her debt and provide them some stability. He wanted the job that would bring him home on a regular basis to see her and—God willing—their children. He squeezed her a little tighter and Bit emitted a tiny murmur of noise. Oden forced himself to ease the pressure on her shoulder.
He keyed in on the conversation taking place by the intake vent.
“How long until we see an improvement?”
Forrest shrugged. “This is kinda new territory for me, Cap, using the life-support system like this. My guess though is about an hour. Maybe two. The best thing for everyone is to sleep. We don’t breath as deeply when we sleep.”
Jack nodded, glancing around the packed and filthy room. Most of the crew were lounging on bunks if not exactly sleeping. Jack moved to sit beside a bunk, and Forrest went to work getting out of his EV suit, having left it on in exchange for getting the new filter inserted as quickly as possible. All the other bunks were full. They didn’t have enough beds to begin with and usually slept in rotations, but with everyone drowsy from the air, every bunk was full with at least one body. Oden smiled. He liked sharing his bunk.
Oden woke with a start. It took him a second to realize he had fallen asleep. As he blinked, he caught sight of Randal, also sitting up in his bunk and struggling to wake up. A quick glance showed most of the crew in similar positions. Then it came again. The ship gave a shimmy, as though a shiver had run up its proverbial spine.
He scrambled from his bunk, almost dropping Bit off the other side. She woke with a start, grabbing the far side of the mattress with lightning-fast reflexes. Randal was up, with Jack a second behind him.
“That was a hit,” Oden said as he rushed toward the door.
Forrest stopped him before he could hit the release button. “Oden, the life support.”
Oden froze, suddenly aware he had been running on autopilot. He glanced at the captain, who was making his way toward the door. The rest of the crew had gone still, their minds turning over the problem.
“Cap, we have to return fire,” Oden said. “We have to…”
“On what fuel?”
“Maybe we could hail them, make a trade,” suggested Vance,
“For what? Our bay is empty.” Jack glared at everyone. “We can’t waste fuel.”
“So what? We let them board?” asked Randal.
Calen jumped from his upper bunk. “We have the emergency masks. Let them board. They’ll get one hell of a surprise when they’re required to fight in minimum life support.”
Jack rubbed his hands over his face. “Then we risk damage to the exterior airlock.”
“And if that happens,” replied Forrest, “either I fix it or we…”
Jack waved him off. “Security team, get your masks. We’ll set up an ambush.”
Oden spotted Bit jumping into action, grabbing her supplemental oxygen mask and strapping her belt to her hips before checking her magazine. The room was in a sudden rush of movement, some people just trying to get out of the way, while others ran to their bunks for their supplies. Oden reached Bit before she could leave their shared footlocker.
He grabbed her arm. “You don’t have to fight, you know.”
Bit gave him a look he could easily read. It said, “what the hell are you on about?” She didn’t say anything out loud, but pulled her arm free and walked away as she fitted her mask to her face, tightening the straps around her head. Oden watched her weave her way through the crew, the pit of his stomach twisting in fear. Bit had been in battles since their first passage together. He knew she could fight with the best of them, and that she had an uncanny knack for lucky survival, but that didn’t erase the fear tightening his chest.
He felt a warmth press against his side and found June huddled up against him. He draped an arm over the kid’s shoulder and pull her against his side.
“Where she going?” June asked, showing the first signs of caring for her aunt. “She gonna fight?”
Oden nodded. “She’s good. She’ll be okay.”
He hoped he wasn’t lying.