I stared down at the deck and shook my head. I didn’t have an answer for any of those questions, and that was annoying. If I had been firing on all cylinders I would have figured all that out hours ago, but I had crawled into a bottle instead and damn near pulled the cork in behind me. There’s nothing like failure to make a guy feel incompetent.
I was silent for so long that Eric got impatient. He pulled himself up off of his bunk and pushed past me into the corridor. He picked up his bags and trod off to the hatch. In the distance I could hear the hatch cycle open, and then close again. I didn’t hear him go down the ramp.
I walked down the corridor to the galley and opened the liquor cabinet. An array of whiskey bottles from a number of Federation worlds stared me in the face. There was nothing I wanted more than to crack open a couple of them and lose myself in drunken oblivion, but in the back if my mind I kept thinking that wouldn’t solve anything. I needed to be sober to think this through. So I closed the cabinet and went on a walking tour of my ship.
I ended up in the cockpit. I dropped into the pilot’s chair, lay my head down on the control panel and wept.
I fell asleep in the pilot’s chair.
* * *
I woke up late, showered and changed clothes and then went to The Flight Line.
Michelle was on duty, but it wasn’t sufficiently late as of yet for her to have changed clothes. She was wearing black stretch pants and a purple t shirt. She rushed up to me and hugged me tight. “You look like you’ve had better days,” she told me.
“Better days and better nights,” I agreed as I squeezed her. I reluctantly pulled away from her, held her at arms length. “Is Percy in?” I asked.
Michelle nodded. “He told me to send you through if you showed up,” she explained.
I thanked her, hugged her again, and went behind the bar and around the corner into Percy’s office. Percy was leaning back in his chair reading from a data pad. He looked up as I sat down and placed the pad on his desk. “I heard about Eric,” he told me. “Have you decided what you’re going to do?”
I shook my head. “I expect that I’ll try to find a charter of some kind, get myself outward bound again. But I need a copilot first. It takes two to fly the Moonshadow, especially between jumps.”
“I’ll keep my eye out, see if I can find someone for you,” Percy promised. “Anything else you need?”
I nodded. “Michelle took me home with her the other night and nursed me through a hangover,” I began.
Percy smirked. “Yeah, I know. She called in the next day because she didn’t think it would be good for you to wake up alone.”
“She was right, too,” I admitted. “How much did she lose by not working that shift?”
“Why?” Percy wanted to know.
“Because I intend to try to reimburse her, that’s why,” I explained.
Percy grinned. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Why not?” I demanded.
“Because,” Percy told me, “she didn’t lose a single credit. I paid her as if she was here and all the tips I made that night went into her allotment.”
Now I was confused. “You worked the bar for her?”
“Sure, why not? I do own this place after all, or didn’t you know that?”
Of course I had know that Percy owned The Flight Line. Everybody who dealt with Percy knew that he owned The Flight Line. But everybody also knew that he wasn’t in the habit of doing things for people out of kindness. He was highly mercenary, and wouldn’t give his own mother the time of day unless there was some way for him to turn a profit from it. “That’s uncommonly kind of you, Percy,” I commented.
Percy grunted. “You’ve met her,” he said. “If you were in my shoes could you have refused to take the shift?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think I would be able to refuse her much of anything,” I said honestly.
“Most people can’t,” Percy told me. “She’s a unique one. Being around her makes you want to be a better person, and makes you feel guilty when you can’t.”
I nodded agreement. “Where did you find her, anyway?”
Percy leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “She was married to my partner, back when I was a smuggler like you and Eric. The long separations were tough on them, though, so eventually I signed my old ship, the Dragonheart, over to them and set up The Flight Line.”
“What happened to her husband?” I wondered.
Percy shook his head sadly. “The two of them were running contraband medicines to a colony of involuntary migrants on a quarantined world on the outer rim when they ran afoul of a Federation patrol. The patrol cutter fired on them and disabled them, then left them for dead. Monty took some fragments when a console exploded in his face and died before they could make it back here. Back when I signed the Dragonheart over to them I promised Monty that if anything ever happened to him I would make sure that Michelle was taken care of. So, when she made it back here with Monty’s body I grounded the Dragonheart and gave her a job here at the bar. She’s been with me ever since.”
It wasn’t surprising to find that I was changing my opinion of Percy. I had always trusted him, as much as one smuggler can trust another, but now I was starting to respect him too, in a way that had nothing to do with the profession.
Michelle came into the room then, stopped beside me and draped her arm around my shoulders as she handed Percy a data pad. I curled an arm around her waist, slipped my fingers under her shirt and tickled her side. She grinned and wriggled a little. “Donovan just brought this in,” she said. “There’s a migrant transport in orbit with a load of involuntary migrants bound for Felicity.”
I frowned as Percy started to read from the pad. “I’ve never heard of Felicity,” I said.
“I’m not surprised,” Michelle told me. “It’s been charted but there’s no official record of it under that name. The Federation intended to use it as a penal colony. What happens is, the governments send their criminals to Felicity and then forget them. As soon as they get groundside it’s every man for himself. There’s no formal government, no guards, and no technology. No ship stays in orbit longer than a matter of an hour, and no shuttle stays on the surface for longer than ten minutes. There’s no schedule, either. All the shipments are made at random, so escape is impossible. The average new migrant lasts for about a week before they’re killed.
“The problem,” Michelle continued, “is that some of the Federation members are less than ethical in the treatment of their citizens. Those members with dictatorial governments have a tendency to send all their dissidents to Felicity, whether they’ve done anything wrong or not. And the Slavers use Felicity as a drop-off point for anyone they can’t sell. It’s a cheap and easy way to cut their losses.”
“You think I should send someone after them, don’t you?” Percy asked.
Michelle shrugged. “It’s up to you, but you know what I think about slavery and involuntary migration, and you know what I think of Felicity.”
Percy shook his head. “I don’t have anything that far out,” he said. “All my assets are in the core systems right now.”
Michelle pointed at the pad. “There’s another file on there that you might want to look at,” she said.
Percy called up the other file and paled as he read it.
Michelle looked down at me. She wasn’t smiling any more. Her arm was resting lightly on me but her hand was squeezing my shoulder like a vise. “The same transport is carrying weapons and munitions for the local militia on Coventry. They’ve been having rebel problems of late and they wanted some new equipment. The problem is, they weren’t especially secretive in their acquisition of the new material. The rebels found out about the shipment and told the pirate group that’s been supplying them. The pirates plan to attack the transport and take possession of the weapons and munitions after she leaves Corbantis orbit, before she makes her jump to Coventry.”
Corbantis. Coventry. Felicity? I looked up at Michelle. “Do those reports identify the transport in question?” I asked.
Michelle frowned. “I think they do,” she answered.
“They do,” Percy confirmed. He looked me in the eye. “It’s the Helena.”
My eyes went wide and I felt myself pale. “Oh, hell.”
Michelle’s frown deepened. The expression does not suit her. “What’s so special about the name of the transport?” she wondered.
“My partner signed on as navigator on the Helena yesterday,” I explained. “He told me that she was scheduled to jump out today.”
Michelle paled. “Oh, my god,” she whispered.
Percy was calling up information on his computer. “The Helena boosted out of orbit three hours ago,” he reported. “She’ll be at the outbound jump point in ten hours.”
“Can we get a message to them?” Michelle wanted to know.
“Sure,” Percy answered. “But we would have to broadcast in the open, and what would we say? Pardon me, but pirates are going to attack you at Corbantis and seize that shipment of illegal weapons in your hold. And while we’re on the subject of illegal cargoes, let’s talk for a moment about those involuntary migrants you’ve got in steerage class.”
“Well, we can’t just do nothing,” Michelle insisted.
“Oh, yes, we bloody can,” Percy returned. “If I don’t have the assets then I don’t have the assets. I can’t use what I don’t have.”
“There is a ship available,” I interjected.
Michelle turned her attention to me and cocked her head quizzically. Percy arched one brow as he regarded me speculatively. “You mean the Moonshadow, yes?”
I nodded. “Eric and I were partners for a lot of years,” I explained. “I don’t like the thought of hanging him or anyone else out to dry. Besides, it’s not like I’m doing anything right now anyway.”
Percy leaned forward. “That ship isn’t equipped for this kind of operation.”
“No, she isn’t,” I agreed. “But she’s all we have, and she’s certainly capable of getting to Corbantis before the Helena.”
“What about a copilot?” Percy asked.
I shrugged. “In the end I can handle that ship by myself, but it’s not something I want to do a lot. I think I can handle her for one run.”
Percy stared into my eyes, and I could see that he was looking for a way to talk me out of this. But I could also see that he recognized the fact that there was nothing he could say that would change my mind. You see, Percy had been right about Michelle: when you’re around her you want to be a better person than you are. For a lot of years I had been a selfish mercenary, always looking for the next big score, never doing something for someone else unless there was something in it for me. Michelle had taken one look at me and decided I was worthy of her friendship. She didn’t know me from a hole in the ground, but she decided I was worth her time and attention. That had never happened to me before. Sure, I had lots of friends, but I had to earn their friendship. It was never just given freely to me the way it was with Michelle.
Michelle obviously believed that I had it in me to be a better person than I was, and it surprised me to discover just how much that meant to me. I had her friendship now, and I was bound determined to make myself worthy of it. That meant that I had to justify her faith in me, I had to make myself into the better person that she believed I could be. And the first step on that road was to go after Eric and those involuntary migrants.
It’s amazing the things we men will do for the women in our lives.
Percy and Michelle shared a long look, and then Percy turned back to me. “All right, then. Go to the port and get your ship ready to lift. I’m going to make a few calls and have some supplies sent your way. I’m also going to see if I can find you a copilot. We don’t have a lot of time, though, so get moving.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. I got up out of the chair and left the office.
Michelle followed me to the door and stopped me before I had a chance to leave. She looked me in the eye and took my hands in hers. “Thank you for doing this,” she said.
I squeezed her hands. “It means a lot to you, me going after the Helena.” It wasn’t a question.
Michelle nodded. “Yes, it does. But please be careful. I want you to come back and see me when you’re done.”
Michelle and I smiled at each other, then shared a long, tight hug. For the life of me I didn’t want to let go of her.
Copyright © 2003 by Michael J A Tyzuk