After the delivery from hell, the crew of the Lenore is ready for a well-deserved rest. But just as they reach their ship, they receive an offer they can’t refuse. Desperately needing money to repair the limping Lenore, Jack Macleef takes the job, even though it toes the line of legality.
To his astonishment, the crew agrees to the illegal job.
Just when Bit thinks she has her male crewmates under control, a fresh wave of romantic inclinations wash through them, and Bit is forced to deal with it the only way she knows how—with a swift fist to the eye.
With half the crew tripping over itself to get to Bit, Jack flies the Lenore to Nye space station with the intention of secretly installing a nuclear reactor, freeing the station from the planetary government’s control. If he can succeed, he will have the money to repair the Lenore. If he fails, more than one life will be ruined.
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“Captain,” began Gregory, “this is Brett Morgan, owner of Morgan Reactors, and he’s heard about what you’ve done for me.”
“I have a job offer for you and your crew… but it’s not strictly legal.”
Silence descended on the crew as they all turned to look at their captain. He smiled.
“Screw the government,” said Reese, drawing their attention away from Jack. “What have they done for us?”
The crew erupted into a supportive outcry, each member voicing their own disgust with what the peace officer had done to Reese. Bit watched in surprise as each man called out obscenities, raised clenched fists, and released their anger in a chorus of grumbles, and yet no one dared look at Reese or his many bandages.
While half the crew looked as though they had lost a cage fight, their cuts and bruises covered in a glossy gel that would help them heal, Reese was perhaps the most visibly damaged. True, Calen and Blaine were still unconscious, but it was Reese who had lost his charming looks at the hands of the peace officers. Bit’s eyes ran down to her forearm where the same gel covered a long gash. The wound already looked better than it had the last time she had given it any notice, sitting atop an exam table in the doctor’s exam room.
Unlike the crew, Reese remained silent, allowing the crew’s uproar to speak for him. The poor man was more bandages than skin and, unlike the victims from the surface, he hadn’t seen the fancy doctor from Mars Genetic Consortium. The gashes on his face and upper body were covered in old-fashioned sterile bandages, and both his wrists were ringed in dark bruises. A zip-up sweatshirt hung over his shoulders in lieu of a shirt, revealing the bandaging wrapping his torso. If his limp was anything to judge by, Bit was certain his right foot was injured too.
“What’s the job?” called Kat, the ship’s new XO.
“I need a nuclear reactor delivered and installed in Nye Space Station,” explained Mr. Morgan.
The crew went silent, each one glancing around, avoiding the gaze of the executive.
“And that’s why it is illegal. It’s against the law for unauthorized cargo ships to transport nuclear material,” said Morgan.
Another volley of anti-government sentiment erupted from the crew.
“Let me explain,” called Morgan as he raised his hands. “For decades now the space stations orbiting Earth, Mars, Ceres, and Jupiter have been running on power supplies provided by the planets or companies that mine said planet in Jupiter’s case. Over the years, the contracts binding the space stations to their home planets have grown increasingly one sided, destroying the economics of the space stations.”
“How does where the power come from effect the economics of a space station? I don’t get it,” admitted Forrest.
Bit breathed a sigh of relief. She hadn’t understood either but she didn’t want to voice her confusion.
“As the price of power from the planets increase, the space stations have been forced to increase taxes and fines to their residents to pay for it. That money can’t go back into the market, it just lines the pockets of power companies and the government officials facilitating the power transfer. Remember, each space station is the size of a medium-sized city. They have economic highs and lows—well, more just lows thanks to the power companies.”
“And you just want to be philanthropic to these suffering space stations?” asked Oden, crossing his arms over his chest.
Bit had to admit, with his bruises and cuts, Mohawk and tattoos, Oden looked extremely threatening. She turned back to stare at Mr. Morgan, who gave him a knowing smile.
“Well, not exactly. Morgan Reactors will make a substantial profit and become the leading manufacturer of nuclear reactors in the solar system. That is why I am willing to take the risk for the space stations. Still, whatever my motivations are, this will help those living in the space stations. And it will help you. My compensation package is generous, as well as hazard pay for each member of the crew.”
Morgan passed a folder emblazoned with Morgan Reactors’ logo over to Jack, who quickly flipped it open and eyed the old-fashioned printed paper—one of the few things in the universe that couldn’t be tracked. Standing beside him, Bit couldn’t help but notice the soft catch in Jack’s breathing as he read the compensation package.
“So why not hire an authorized cargo ship to transport the reactors?” asked Bit, feeling naive for not knowing the answer.
“If he went through the proper channels, the planetary governments would catch wind of his plan,” Oden said, once against staring the man down. “And he can’t have that or they’d stop the installation before it began. No one would ever suspect the Lenore of transporting nuclear material.”
Morgan eyed Oden for a moment before nodding. “Exactly. I need the reactors to fly completely under the radar.”
“You say reactors, but you also said we only needed to deliver one to Nye. What about the others?” asked Kat.
“You will just be responsible for Nye. I already have other ships lined up for the other space stations.”
“And you came to us to do Nye… what’s wrong with Ceres?” Oden asked, his arms flexing as he glared at Morgan.
The executive smiled. “You’re a smart man. Nye is not exactly on track with this plan.”
“How are we…?” Jack trailed off, just as confused as everyone else.
“There is an underground movement in favor of the new reactor. They’ll meet you there and work with you to make it happen. Don’t get me wrong, it won’t be easy. That’s why I chose you for this space station.”
Jack glanced back at the slip of paper displaying their pay. “Well, that we can manage,” Jack said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Bit wasn’t exactly sure, but she suspected Macleef Shipping was one of the smallest cargo businesses still functioning in the solar system, and from what she’d seen she guessed they were on the verge of going under.
Jack closed the folder with a snap and eyed his crew. “As Mr. Morgan said, this would be an illegal run. I intend to do it, but no one here is required to participate. If you choose to forgo the run, your job will still be here waiting for you when we return to Mars.”
The packed space on the living level, crowded with bodies, fell silent. Bit could hear each person breathing as they considered their options.
“Hell, I’m in,” Reese said, breaking the tension.
Slowly, all but Dirk and Randal—the two oldest members of the crew—announced their intentions to join Jack on the run.
Randal, the head of the security team, stood on the steps leading up to the bridge. He crossed his arms and eyed each crewmember in turn. Finally he spoke.
“You don’t quit your team.”
Dirk let out a habitual grunt of disgust. “I say you’re all nuts, but if that’s what everyone wants to do, fine. I’ll do it. But I ain’t installin’ no nuclear reactors!”
“No, you wouldn’t need to, sir. I’ve done background checks on each of you, and I noticed one… umm,” Morgan checked the pad tucked up under his arm, “one Forrest Eleni has the proper qualifications. With a few lessons from our engineers, Mr. Eleni will be more than capable of leading a team to assemble and install the reactors.”
Dirk’s habitual glare settled onto Forrest. The assistant engineer ignored Dirk, keeping his attention on Morgan.
“Will that be a problem, Dirk?” Jack asked, easily noticing the tension forming between his three engineers.
Bit often wondered why they had three engineers, especially when they only had two pilots and one cook. Bit suspected he had three engineers because that was how many it took to keep the Lenore—an antiquated hunk of junk—flying.
“Course not, sir,” Dirk said, his dark eyes still focused on Forrest.
“Then it seems you have your ship,” Jack said, turning to shake Morgan’s hand.
“Excellent! There isn’t a moment to lose. I have employees up here in Ward Port. I’ll have them begin the transfer to your cargo bay. Mr. Macleef, can we meet somewhere privately to discuss the details of the contract?”
Jack let out a long sigh, mimicked by most of the crew. They were all tired and battered from their last run, which had put all their lives at risk. Bit knew she wasn’t the only one wanting nothing more than a long nap.
“Bit, show Kat to her quarters, then get Calen and Blaine settled in the infirmary. I’m sorry guys, I know we’re all tired, but if we want this pay,” he lifted the folder, “and trust me, we do, then we need to get moving. Oden, you have the bridge. I need necessary repair and supply lists from department heads in two hours. Mr. Morgan, follow me.”
Jack and Morgan weaved through the crowd and headed up the stairs. As they disappeared into the upper level of the ship, the group erupted into action.
“This way, ma’am,” Bit said, trying her best to sound polite.
“Hey, Bit,” Jack called two hours later, standing in the doorway of the infirmary. “How are they?”
Bit looked up from the outdated monitor. “Still asleep. I don’t really know what I’m doing here, but I’ve followed the instructions manual and hooked them up to the machines. Thankfully it had good diagrams,” she said, waving the thin manual Jack’s grandfather had made for the infirmary back when he bought the ship over a hundred years ago.
Jack walked over to where she stood and examined the monitor, his eyes running down the leads to the little patches attached to Calen’s chest. Blaine was hooked up to his own monitor two beds over.
“Looks good. I’ve got to go to the surface to file some paperwork. Why don’t you come along?”
“Who’s gonna watch them?”
“Vance is upstairs getting things sorted. He said he’ll pop down to check on them from time to time.”
Bit refrained from asking Jack why he wanted her along and reluctantly followed him out of the infirmary. On the main level, where the crews’ rooms were, they found the new XO standing near the airlock with a pad in her hands.
“Oh, Jack, I’ve got the requisition lists and have sent them to your pad. The crew is now in the dock, working with Mr. Morgan’s crews to prepare the load. And I think we…”
“Katrina,” Jack interjected, “I realized you and I have been friends for a long time, but aboard the ship I am your captain. Try and remember that.”
Bit turned her eyes to floor, though she noticed a pink blush working its way up Katrina’s long neck.
“Of course, Captain. I apologize,” she grunted before looking back at her pad and turning away.
Jack motioned for Bit to follow him. It took them another hour to reach the surface, during which time Jack remained focused on his pad, occasionally murmuring to himself.
Bit followed his lead, keeping her mouth shut despite the myriad of questions plaguing her mind. She couldn’t help but wonder what Jack and the reactor man talked about in private. Whatever it was, it had plunged Jack’s mood into nothing short of surly. She glanced at Jack, quickly pulling her eyes away before he could notice. Was he just tired and wishing they had a few days to recover?
Bit sure wanted a day or two of recreation, but she wasn’t about to ask for it, or anything like it. She was an indentured servant, after all. No matter how well they treated her—especially in comparison with her previous owners—she couldn’t forget her actual status among the crew. She wasn’t one of them, even if Jack’s little sister had given Bit her old crew jacket. No one else on the ship belonged to another crewmember.
She had no doubt the situation stressed Jack. He had said time and again that he didn’t know what to do with her or what role to give her on the ship. Bit often found herself cleaning or helping Vance, the ship’s steward.
I don’t mind, she chided herself. I don’t mind. They’re good to me. And at least this way I’m traveling the galaxy. I need to travel. I’ll never find him… or her… if I stayed on Earth my entire life.
Bit forced her mind off the sobering thoughts that would naturally follow, glancing at Jack once again as they worked their way through the Olympic Mons landing platform.
“So what are we doing on the surface?” Bit asked as she boarded the light-rail train that sped throughout the enormous city.
“I have to document our journey and cargo with the Merchant Commissioners office.”
“I thought we didn’t…” Bit began, trailing off as she realized it wasn’t appropriate for public discussion.
Jack sidled up to her, tilting his head down toward her ear. “I have to report some sort of cargo. We’re saying we’re transporting repair parts for the space station.”
“But won’t they realize that’s a lie when they see we are transporting for a reactor company?”
“All our paperwork is coming through a different company Mr. Morgan owns.”
“They’d have to dig deep to figure out our true plans, and that’s not likely considering the size of our company.”
Bit nodded, having come to a similar conclusion.
They climbed off the light-rail train into a part of the city she had never seen before.
“Where are we?” Bit asked, her eyes running up the enormous skyscrapers that blocked the rays of the sun.
Every portion of city had tall buildings. Jack’s mother lived on the forty-second story of her condo building, but even her home paled in comparison to the mammoths reaching up into the sky. The buildings were so tall, in fact, that many of them sported iron grid work linking them to the next building over for the sake of stability. The entire area was one enormous labyrinth of connected buildings. Bit squinted as she stared up at one patch of grid work, eventually spotting a glass-encased walkway bridging the gap between the buildings.
“Central Village. A lot of government agencies have their offices down here, as well as a number of business headquarters.” Jack pointed to their left as they walked down the sidewalk of a shaded street. “That over there is one of Mr. Morgan’s companies.”
Bit nodded as another pedestrian bumped into her, nearly shoving her off the sidewalk. Jack took her hand and wound it through his arm, resting it in the crook of his elbow.
“Stay close. Not a lot of polite people in the Village.”
Bit looked back at Morgan’s building. It was one of the tallest, with large black lines running up it, separating enormous panes of duroglass.
“What in the world do they need that many stories for?” she asked, craning her neck to see the top.
“A lot of these companies house their staff in the top half of the building, while others rent out the upper portions to agricultural companies.”
“What are those?”
“Remember the big towers with food growing inside them?”
“Those are owned by agricultural companies. With a city this big we can’t rely entirely on farms outside our borders. We have to grow food inside the city limits. That skyscraper, for example, probably houses twenty-five thousand people by itself.”
Bit’s eyes widened as she stared at the building, barely remembering to keep her feet moving.
“How many people live within the city limits?”
“I’m not sure what it is now, but about five years ago we topped one billion. It was a pretty big deal here in Tifton. They had a weeklong festival.”
Bit stumbled over her feet, too shocked to keep walking. “One billion? In one city?”
“Yep. But remember, Tifton makes up one tenth of the entire Martian population. So cities like Tifton are not the norm.”
“Oh. What other cities are there?”
Jack smiled down at her. “I’ll let you borrow a book on Mars. This is our stop.”
They climbed a set of enormous stone steps leading up to a grand entrance. Within the foyer, carved glass shone light onto the floor in a stunning array of rainbows. Bit’s eyes ran from the floor to the glass walls and back. She was the only one standing in awe of the sights before her. Crowds of people entered the foyer, rushing to the long row of elevators lining the far wall. Bit gave them a swift glance and guessed the building sported at least twenty high-speed elevators.
“C’mon, Bit,” Jack called from a few yards ahead of her.
She trotted to his side and followed him to a lift. They climbed aboard and spoke the floor number into the microphone, the automated system taking control of the lift. Bit clung to the railing as the elevator shot up, rising at breakneck speeds. All the while, Jack did his best to stifle his laughter. After a long climb, the elevator drifted to a stop and the door slid open.
Bit followed Jack out of the elevator into a wide hallway. They stopped at the directory for a moment, requesting directions from yet another automated system. With the needed directions, they headed off. Two left turns and they found the correct suite, slipping in behind another visitor.
Like the foyer down below, the entrance to the suite was enchanting. Artificial lights shown on the walls, lighting up large pictures of spaceships. Bit glanced from one end of the long row of images to the next, quickly realizing the images were aligned in a chronological order. The first image displayed the first merchant ship to travel a regular route between Earth and the moon. With each image, the ships grew in size and style until they reached the end. The last frame held a computer generated image of a sleek-looking vessel. The little card under it declared the ship to be under construction at the Lunar Shipyard.
“Bit, you coming?”