When space freighter pilot Calen Macleef accidentally wins Larissa “Bit” Earnest in a lucky hand of poker, his main concern is what his gruff and uncompromising brother Jack will say about it. Jack Macleef is the captain of the ship in a world where space travel has only recently become the norm and space piracy abounds. Painful memories of prior abuse surface for Bit as she finds herself on a freighter full of rowdy, ungentlemanly merchant marines. Jack works to find a safe place for frightened Bit amongst the ungentlemanly crew, but good looks and innocent ways continually charm the men. With tension and danger running high, each begins to wonder: will they survive the pirates… and each other?
Like everyone else not involved in the high-risk game of poker, Bit stood on the sidelines, watching her employer glare down at his cards. Employer wasn’t precisely the correct term. Since she was five, Bit had been an indentured servant, handed off from one employer to the next as her debt was sold.
In truth, it wasn’t her debt. Her father had signed over her and her sister to relieve his debt, and when her sister had died during childbirth, Bit had taken on the duty of working off three-fourths of the bill. The newborn had become responsible for the other one-fourth. If her employer’s sums could be trusted, she would be working it off for the entirety of her life.
Bit glanced down at her dirty hands, her interest in the poker game fading with her growing hunger.
“Your bid, Mr. Asselstine,” said the only other player still in the game.
Her employer glanced at the pot, at his lack of chips, and his hand in quick succession.
“Will you take an indentured?” Asselstine asked, nodding his head toward Bit. “She has a near million to work off, much more than is on the table.”
The other player smiled as Bit jerked her head up to stare at her employer. He couldn’t possibly mean to trade her in a lousy hand of poker, even if it was high stakes. Bit stared at the other poker player. He had a long blade of a nose that bisected his playful brown eyes. His dark brown hair was cut short and haphazardly styled. He winked at Bit, enjoying her discomfort.
The other members of the audience whooped and hollered, encouraging the two opponents towards various options. The other indentures stared at Bit, some of them showing their empathy while others jeered, happy to not be the person on the chopping block.
Like most cantinas in the slums of Johannesburg, the large, dark room was filled with smoke. The stale smell of old liquor and sweat permeated the haze. Bit was too accustomed to the smell to notice. Her whole attention was on the worn, felt-clad table where her fate was being decided.
“Sure. Add her to the pot,” said the younger man with a smirk.
“What’ll your brother say, Calen, when you bring a girl home?” scoffed a blonde man standing behind her employer’s opponent.
“Maybe take a go at her himself,” replied another man standing behind her employer’s opponent. “As far as I can tell, he’s been on a bit of a dry spell.”
An older man positioned between the two scoffers slapped the crude man across the back of the head.
Bit pulled her attention off the men who clearly knew the other poker player, Calen. She didn’t much want to join their group, especially if they joked about taking sexual favors off her. Then again, James Asselstine wasn’t much of an improvement. While he had never shown interest in her in that way—in the way some employers had treated her sister—he was not a kind employer.
She had heard of indentured servants working for people who treated them like family, but had never experience the oddity. Though her debt had been owned by five different people—all varying degrees of cruel—she held out hope to find a kind employer. Something about the way the poker player smirked at her said he was not what she had been looking for.
Mr. Asselstine tossed her paperwork onto the pile of money, gold, and trinkets. Finally, the two men lowered their cards and laid them out across the messy table.
Bit felt her breath catch in her chest.
Mr. Asselstine three kings were easily beaten by Calen’s full house. Bit watched as her employer’s shoulders slumped. Slowly, he rose from his seat, grabbed Bit’s arm, and pushed her toward the other man.
Somehow, Calen managed to come to his feet in time to catch her. The strange man held her shoulders, keeping her standing with her nose mere inches from his flat chest so that she couldn’t see her old employers exit. All the same, she could hear the rage in Mr. Asselstine’s voice as he spoke.
“Take the little slut. What do I care?”
Bit cringed, her face still blocked by Calen’s chest.
“Now what’re you gonna do?” demanded the youngest of Calen’s friends.
Despite the tattoos running up the man’s neck, the studs in his ears, the barbell in his lip, and the Mohawk-cut of his hair, he had a soft baby face. The young-looking man scratched at his painted neck as he stretched to get a better view of Bit.
“We need to be getting back. Captain will be looking for us,” said the oldest of the trio before Calen could respond.
“Help me gather this all up,” he said to the group, motioning to the pile of winnings still on the table.
The other losing players had already climbed to their feet and sauntered off, looking for a new form of entertainment. The audience had also wandered away, leaving the four men and one indentured to sort themselves out.
The four men began gathering up Calen’s winnings. Bit stepped out of their way and watched from a safe distance. She knew better than to touch the money of her new employer. Once the money, gold, and trinkets were dumped into Calen’s satchel, he grabbed her wrist and led her out of the cantina, the other three men in hot pursuit.
Bit trotted behind Calen, her shorter legs pumping hard to keep up with him. Though she was twenty-two, many people mistook her for a teenager. The years of malnutrition had kept her short and unusually thin.
They weaved through the crowd surging between the enormous buildings of the city. Though she knew the sun was out, its light was nothing more than a soft glow seeping past the tall structures. Only at midday would the sun shine directly down into the narrow streets.
Within a few short blocks they were beyond Bit’s known territory. Mr. Asselstine did not allow her much freedom and only sent her to the shops nearest his warehouse where she had worked. Now, though, she was journeying farther and farther away from the small area that had been her life for the last eight years.
Her heart began to race as she realized just what a mess she was in. They hadn’t even allowed her a chance to return to Mr. Asselstine’s warehouse to retrieve her few meager possessions. In truth, the only thing she valued was safely lodged in her memory.
Bit crinkled her nose as the smell of oil, ionization, and something acidic accosted her nose. She began to wonder what Calen did for a living, who this infamous brother might be, and where in the world they were taking her.
It was a long walk before they turned a sharp corner and came to a stop. Before them stood a large glass box connected to a series of chains and gears. Bit’s eyes ran up the chain, which faded out of sight as it rose into the clouds.
Though she had never ridden on one, Bit knew what the glass box was—an elevator to the floating landing pad where transport ships waited. By sling-shooting the ships off of an elevated pad, they used less fuel.
Before she could express her fear—not that she would have—Calen pushed her through the door and into a seat nearest one of the glass walls before sitting beside her. The other men took their own seats and began strapping themselves in. Bit scrambled to copy them, though she had no idea how to make the various straps and buckles work.
Just as another small group of travelers stumbled into the glass box and took the remaining empty seats, Calen became aware of her struggles.
“Never flown before?” he asked before undoing his own buckles with a conservative twist.
Bit gave her head a quick shake.
He turned in his seat and worked on her buckles. Bit tried not to flinch as his hands grazed her chest. He wasn’t trying to be inappropriate, she realized. He was just trying to get her tangled harness ready before the elevator began its long ascent.
With mere seconds to spare, Calen finished with hers and re-hooked his own harness. The large glass box gave a shudder and a jerk before beginning the long ascent up to the platform. Though the elevator didn’t dally, it still took a number of minutes to travel six miles with nothing but a chain pulley system for locomotion.
Bit held her breath as the box creeped upward and the enormous city shrunk beneath her feet.
Why did they make the floor glass too? she wondered as she jerked her gaze back to the hair of the man in front of her.
“You are in so much trouble,” chuckled the man sitting on the other side of Calen.
The man had blonde hair carelessly cut and a crooked nose that suggested he liked the occasional fist fight. Based on the grease under his fingernails and lining the wrinkles in his hands, she thought he worked on engines.
“Shut up, Forrest,” grumbled Calen as he crossed his arms over his chest.
Forrest chuckled to himself but didn’t say anything more.
“Really, what were you thinking?” asked the oldest of the men, despite Calen’s dark glare. “Accepting an indenture’s debt. Jack is going to be furious.”
“I don’t see it being any of your business, Dirk,” said Calen, his eyes still pointing straight ahead.
The oldest man, Dirk, had a grumpy set to his lips and bags under his eyes. His short-cropped hair was black while his thick beard was pure salt-and-pepper gray. The combination made it hard for Bit to guess at his age. Whatever it was, she thought him past his prime.
Finally, when Bit thought she was going to have a panic attack, the glass box shuddered to a stop before rumbling again. Bit assumed the noise meant they were about to plunge to their death. Instead, the box glided forward, connecting with the doors of a building. A strange sucking noise filled the box, going silent just before the two sets of doors slid apart.
As if they had been given an unheard cue, the other passengers began undoing their harnesses. Bit hesitated a second before setting to work on her own straps. She had half-freed herself when Calen came to her rescue.
He caught her eye and threw her a wink. “It’ll be okay. Just ignore them.”
“Y-yes, sir,” she whispered, speaking for the first time.
She followed the others, breathing a sigh of relief as she stepped out of the glass box and into the pressurized building. It was a no-nonsense building, as most transportation structures within the poorer cities tended to be. There were no windows, protecting their eyes from the reflection of the sunlight off the top of the clouds. Most of what Bit could see from the entrance was a wide corridor packed with travelers toting their luggage.
Calen reached back and took her wrist again, keeping her close as they weaved through the loud crowd. The corridor broke off repeatedly. She stayed at Calen’s side, fearful of getting separated. Though she couldn’t see any signs pointing them in the right directions, Calen and the others seemed to know their way.
Finally, they came to a stop at the end of a corridor. Through a break in the wall of bodies, Bit spotted another set of doors, though where they led she could not tell. She wanted to ask where they were going, but dared not speak.
The other men were talking to each other, but from her place on the other side of Calen, she couldn’t hear what they were saying. As they waited, a man bumped against Bit’s back, knocking her against Calen.
Calen wrapped his arm around Bit’s shoulder and dragged her up against his side, meanwhile glaring at the offender. The brief encounter caught the attention of their companions. Forrest and the tattooed man stepped forward, placing their bodies between her and the rest of the crowd. Dirk, the older man, rolled his eyes and gave a grunt of disgust.
Bit clamped her teeth together, thinning her lips as she fought against the pressure behind her eyes.
You’ve no reason to cry, she told herself firmly. The men were being nice, but between their unaccustomed generosity and the sudden changes in her life, Bit felt close to a complete breakdown.
Before anything else exciting could happen, the doors opened and their immediate neighbors began filling in. Calen led her in with the others. Beyond the doors they wound down a strange enclosed ramp, passed through another wide door, and entered what could only be a transport ship.
Nothing but rows upon rows of seats greeted them. Their group found an empty row and filed in. This time, Calen allowed Bit to wrangle her own harness. She finished attaching the various buckles and Calen gave her another smile.
Bit stared at the back of the seat in front of her, determined not to think about anything. She had never been very good at thinking only on the here and now, especially when the here and now was so foreign, but she tried all the same.
It was a long wait before everyone was seated and the doors slid shut. Finally, the transport ship began to rumble. Bit felt it turn. She forced herself to glance at the nearest window. They were taxiing across the enormous platform. She spotted a few workers on the tarmac dressed in thick protective jumpsuits, their faces covered in tinted oxygen masks.
As she was watching the workers, wondering what their lives were like, the ship rumbled and quaked, as though it were an animal, barely able to contain its great power. Bit’s gaze jerked back to the seat in front of her just as the great animal was released. She was pressed back into her seat as the ship jetted down the tarmac.
Despite her best efforts, a little squeak of panic escaped her clamped lips. Calen reached over and took her hand. Though his touch startled her, she squeezed his hand in panic as the ship’s speed increased in another burst. It gave a little dip as they left the elevated tarmac before beginning to climb upward.
Bit squeezed her eyes shut, refusing to look out the windows as they passed beyond earth’s atmosphere.