Okay, I know what you’re going to ask. You’re going to ask me if I’ve lost my mind.
Truth be told, that’s not a bad question.
I mean, think about what I had just signed on for. I had agreed to take my dilapidated old freighter out and go up against a group of pirates to keep them from attacking and looting a migrant transport. Then I had agreed to go after the transport myself because she was carrying a load of involuntary migrants in her steerage class, and they were bound for a planet where they would be serving a death sentence.
Now let’s look at just how high the odds were stacked against me. First of all I knew absolutely nothing about these pirates. I didn’t know which group I would be facing, I didn’t know how well they were equipped, and I didn’t know how many ships they would be fielding. I also didn’t know whether or not they actually knew how to fight. Secondly, I was going up against them with nothing but a pair of pulse cannons and a couple of torpedo launchers. This is the space equivalent of going into a knife fight wearing a blindfold and having your hands tied behind your back.
So why was I doing it?
Well, that should be obvious, shouldn’t it? I was doing it because it was important to Michelle.
Just because it was important to Michelle didn’t necessarily make it important to me. Besides which I didn’t even know why it was important to her.
But it really didn’t matter why, did it?
Well, it should matter, shouldn’t it?
I suppose that one would think that it should matter why it was important. The fact that it didn’t matter to me was revelation number one.
The next revelation was a little more subtle, but no less profound. I’ve said before that Michelle has a way of making the people around her want to be better than they are. It’s not because she thinks any less of you, but because you want to be worthy of what she has given you unconditionally: her friendship. I wanted to be worthy of her; I wanted to earn her respect. It didn’t matter that I already had it. It didn’t matter that I already had her friendship. What did matter was the fact that I didn’t feel like I deserved to have her.
How could I deserve her? I was nothing more than a petty, small time smuggler. I wasn’t even very good at that, and when I turned my attention to outright theft I found out I was less skilled at that than I ever was at smuggling. I was a living, breathing, walking, talking demonstration of what your children should never become. I was a failure, plain and simple. I had never actually succeeded at anything I had ever tried to do and I probably didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding at this self-imposed mission, but I was going to try anyway because deep down I wanted this woman who had befriended a complete and total stranger to be proud of me.
That’s really all there was to it. I didn’t deserve to have her and I felt like I had to earn what she was giving me. And I wanted her to be proud of me.
No one had ever been proud of me before. My parents had never expressed pride in my few childhood accomplishments. They had never expressed pride when I had enlisted in the Federation Armed Forces. They had never expressed pride when I had graduated from officer’s training and been commissioned as a lieutenant. Nothing that I had ever done had caused my parents, or anyone else for that matter, to express any measure of pride in me, or any other positive emotion for that matter.
Do you have any idea what kind of powerful narcotic it can be, wanting someone to be proud of you? Do you have any idea what it’s like to have wanted that one little thing every day of your life and to know that you aren’t ever going to have it? Do you have any idea what it’s like to know that the people around you, your so-called friends, really could care less who you are and what you’ve done, to know that from their point of view you are nothing more than a body filling a space?
Think about that for a moment and then think about how you would feel if all of a sudden your life was turned upside down, and this person magically appeared beside you. Think about how it would feel if she offered you her hand in friendship, freely and unconditionally, for no other reason than because she can.
It was right about then that I started to understand what a sickly little creature I really was. At the same time, though, I also understood that I had the means right there to turn my life around for the better. Now I was motivated, and now I would do it. And all it had taken for me to understand this was the friendship of a woman.
Us men will do anything for the women in our lives. I used to wonder why that was until I met Michelle. Now I think I understand.
* * *
The first thing I did when I got to the docking bay was disconnect the umbilicals that had been feeding the reactor systems. When I finished that performed a walking inspection of the outside of the ship. My eyes swept the entire length of her hull, looking for anything out of the ordinary. I didn’t find anything that hadn’t been there when Eric and I had grounded the ship, so I went up the ramp and through the hatch.
I sat down in the pilot’s chair and entered the commands that would bring the ship’s reactor out of standby mode and cause it to start generating power for the ship’s systems. Then I brought the ship’s computer to life and started running a series of diagnostic programs.
A few moments later a care package arrived from Percy, complete with a crew of yard hands. The package consisted of a series of cargo carriers that contained various and sundry lethal items. One carrier had a load of rifles, one had a load of sidearms. There were torpedoes and other munitions as well. I told the yard hands where I wanted everything stowed and went forward to answer a signal. There was a message from Percy waiting for me. It said that he was sending me a care package, and that he had been able to find me a copilot. He had arranged for immediate clearance for me to lift, but asked me not to do so until my copilot arrived.
Given the possibility that the supplies Percy had sent me could possibly make the difference between success and failure in this little endeavor I was willing to grant Percy any little favor he cared to ask. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to wait a few extra minutes.
The yard hands pronounced their efforts completed so I went aft to inspect their work. They had done a good job of it. All the containers were stacked against the bulkheads and lashed down properly. Everything was readily accessible too, so I wouldn’t have to do too much digging if I found that I needed something. I looked over on the other side of the hold and did a quick count of the pallets of stolen Elven gold. All of them were still there. They had certainly been alone in the hold long enough to help themselves if they had really wanted to, and they hadn’t. Now that’s integrity.
I escorted the yard hands off the ship and watched them leave the bay. The last of them passed through the door when something lithe, female, and totally unexpected walked into the bay. She was dressed all in black and carried a canvas carryall over her shoulder.
Michelle smiled tentatively and waved with her free arm. I walked over to her and met her halfway to the ship. Her stretch pants and t-shirt had been replaced by a black pilot’s jumpsuit that was fit to her form and black knee high spacers boots. A gun belt was slung around her waist with a pistol strapped to her right thigh. A collection of fighting knives was strapped to her left thigh. Her shoulder length blonde hair was tied back into a tight braid. It occurred to me as I walked up to her that she was the most lethal angel I had ever seen in my life.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded.
Michelle dropped the carryall to the ground at her feet and shrugged. “I’m your copilot,” she explained.
I felt my brow arch. “You know how to handle one of these ships?”
Michelle nodded. “I know that Percy told you I was married to a smuggler,” she said. When we were together he taught me how to handle the Dragonheart. Moonshadow is a different ship, but she shouldn’t be that different. Besides, I was told you need all the help that you can get.”
I have never felt so conflicted in my life. On the one hand I desperately wanted her along for the ride, for it would give me an excuse to spend some time with her, get to know her. On the other hand I didn’t want her anywhere near this run. This was going to be dangerous, and there wasn’t any way that I could guarantee her safety. The last thing that I wanted was for something to happen to her. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to live with myself if I let something happen to her. I wasn’t willing to take the chance.
I shook my head. “No. Absolutely not. It’s too dangerous.”
Michelle propped her fists on her hips and her eyes flashed. “For God’s sake, I don’t need you to protect me,” she snapped. “I was married to a smuggler for twelve years, and for eight of those I was his copilot and partner. I’ve been in a fight before and I know how to take care of myself.” Her expression softened for a moment and she reached into one of her thigh pockets, pulled out a data pad and handed it to me. “Besides, I come bearing gifts. This contains all the information Percy and I could put together on the pirates we’ll be facing.”
I blew out a long breath. It was obvious to me that she was bound and determined to go with me, whether I thought it was a good idea or not. Best just to surrender gracefully. I walked around her over to the side that hadn’t been carrying the carryall and offered her my arm. “What the hell?” I shrugged. “I think that the Moonshadow could benefit from having a bartender aboard.”
Michelle picked up the carry all and took my arm. She was smiling when we walked up the ramp arm in arm and boarded the ship.
She insisted on inspecting the care package that Percy had sent, just to make sure that nothing had been forgotten she said. She opened each of the containers and verified their contents, then turned to the pallets stacked against the opposite bulkhead. Her eyes went wide when she saw the gold. She turned on me and gestured to the stacks. “Where did all that come from?”
I plunged my hands into my trouser pockets and tried to affect a casual air, even though I found myself suddenly embarrassed. “Did you hear anything about a recent theft at the Elven Central Treasury?” I asked.
Michelle nodded, and then her eyes widened even more. “That was you?”
I nodded. “Well, it seemed like the thing to do at the time,” I explained. “Now I can’t get rid of it, so I guess it wasn’t such a good idea after all.”
Michelle grabbed hold of me and pulled me into a bear hug. “Oh, My God,” she said. “That’s why you went on such a bender the other night.”
I pushed her away, held her at arms length. “You mean you didn’t know?”
Michelle shook her head. “No, I didn’t. I imagine that Percy knew and that he was the one that gave you the bad news, but I didn’t know that you were the one responsible for that.”
Now I was confused. In the back of my mind I had been contemplating the notion that she had known all about the Treasury Theft and had been kind to me because she felt sorry for me. But now I knew that wasn’t the case, and I was just beginning to realize just how lucky I had gotten.
“You mean that you took such careful care of me without ever knowing why I was in such a lousy state of mind?”
Michelle nodded. “Sure. I would have done it for anyone else at The Flight Line, why not do it for you, too?”
Well, now that explained it all.
I pulled her closer and kissed her forehead. “Can I ask you something?”
Michelle cuddled up to me, nodded against my shoulder. “Go for it.”
“You told me that I had tried to help you out of your dress a few times while I was getting soused,” I said.
Michelle giggled. “Yes, you did.”
“Well, if you had known about the Treasury Theft at the time would I have succeeded?”
Michelle snorts when she laughs.
* * *
The trip from Xanadu to Corbantis was four days, and they were among the busiest four days of my life. I don’t recall having worked that hard since I was in the military.
Launch clearance was granted as soon as we called for it, causing me to suspect that Percy may have applied a few carefully chosen bribes here and there. Usually what happens, the controllers make you wait for a while on the excuse that they’re checking the port authority records to make sure you actually exist and you lawfully entered the port. Personally I always thought they were checking out their chances of drawing to an inside straight, but maybe that’s just me.
As soon as we made orbit I put Moonshadow on autopilot while I helped Michelle plot our hyperspace jump. Leastwise, I intended to help her plot the jump. As it turned out she didn’t need my help at all. She had been plotting it from the moment I called for clearance and had continued to plot it during our ascent. I checked her numbers anyway, because I’m a careful pilot at heart and the last thing I want is to get lost in hyperspace.
Once we were safely in hyperspace we went back into the hold and started rifling through Percy’s care package. The torpedoes he had sent us were designed for my launchers, but they were an entire generation more advanced than what I usually carried. The sensor suite in the warhead was far more advanced, as were the maneuvering capabilities of the torpedo itself. Now the only way that you could evade one of these things was to accelerate faster and keep accelerating until the torpedo ran out of propellant. Otherwise you were toast.
As soon as I found out about the torpedoes I made the decision to replace the contents of the entire magazine. So Michelle and I had to haul out all the existing torpedoes and cart them back to the hold for storage, then cart the new torpedoes forward to the torpedo room and install them into the magazine. This occupied a good few hours of our time, and by the time we were done we were both grimy and sweat soaked. We still weren’t done with that chore, though, as we had to secure the old torpedoes somewhere in the hold where they wouldn’t be in our way. This occupied another two hours or so, and by this time we were wearing dirt on top of our dirt.
The new rifles and sidearms we carted forward and scattered in weapons lockers that I keep in various places on the ship. The old inferior weapons were crated up and stored in the hold. An idea was beginning to form in my head that maybe I could make us a little bit of money by selling off the old gear, but it occurred to me that Percy might be expecting some of this stuff back so I had better not get used to having it around. Strange, that thought would never have occurred to me until Michelle came into my life.
That night Michelle proved to me again that she knew her way around the galley. This time she let me provide a little bit of help around the edges, but I had to admit that what she made for us was better than my best effort, and for that I was truly thankful. It had been a long hard day, and the meal was welcome.
The fatigue that came with a full belly was welcome as well, and we considered it a reward for a job well done. We both decided to turn in for the night so that we would be bright eyed and bushy tailed when we were discussing tactics and strategy tomorrow.
I took Michelle aft and introduced her to the Mate’s stateroom, the one that Eric had occupied until recently. She stowed her gear, gave me a good night hug, and promptly closed the door in my face. I had expected it so I wasn’t all that surprised, nor was I particularly hurt, but for some reason I couldn’t quite fathom I was more than a little disappointed.
I retired to my own stateroom, showered and dressed for bed, set an alarm to wake me up in nine hours. Then I switched off the light, climbed into bed, and passed out.
Michelle cooked breakfast for us, and as I helped her I noticed that she had bags under her eyes. I asked her how she had slept and she told me that she had had some trouble on that score, but not to worry because she’d get through the day. I told her that I wasn’t worried about that, but if she wanted to catch a catnap I would start without her and she could catch up later. She just grinned and patted my cheek and told me I was sweet.
After breakfast we retired to the forward lounge and started sifting through the intelligence data that Percy had given us.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2003 by Michael J A Tyzuk