We spent a fairly quiet four hours in jump. For most of the jump Sonja and her young charge kept to themselves. Sonja sat quietly at the table breaking down and cleaning one of her pistols with the careful caress of someone who’d had to rely on those same weapons to keep breathing. Faith sat huddled, knees to chin, arms wrapped around her legs, trying to not be where she was. She spent long minutes staring at her kneecaps. Sonja had changed out of the black leather armor and now wore brown cotton hip huggers and a loose fitting spaghetti strapped halter top. Her skin was alabaster white and was in stark contrast to the black tribal like tattoos that covered both of her upper arms and crossed over her upper back. Her gun rig was sitting close by on the table. As she broke down one of her long barreled pistols she was a site to behold. I drank it in like a fine wine.
She didn’t even look up when she said, “Looking at something Mr. Cole?”
I smiled as I approached the table, “Nope.”
I slid two bowls of stew across the table towards her and Faith. I put another bowl on the deck for Tiberius and sat in a lounge chair where I could keep my eye on both of them. I watched Sonja clean her pistol while Faith slowly spooned the food around the bowl. Sonja ignored us both which was pretty much how spent most of the jump.
With nothing else to do I spent most of my time sitting in the cockpit reading the latest news dump we’d gotten while on Brimstone. I alternated that with staring out at the streaked points of light that was an FTL jump. The initial jump was nothing more than a diversion tactic just in case someone figured out where we were heading and tried to set up an ambush at the drop-jump coordinates. If they knew where we were going they might be able to jump there ahead of us or give warning to the sector we were screaming towards. Standard operations for a drop jump were to exit FTL at the edge of the sector, let the scans clear and then proceed from there. This kept you out of crowded shipping lanes and gave who ever controlled the sector a minute to scan you. It was considered polite. It also allowed the Confederates to narrow the area they patrolled, or mined, when they were hunting someone. I didn’t care if they beat us but I didn’t want to drop into the middle of trouble. The best scenario would be for me to jump one way and they jump another. The second jump would take us to within a day or two of the final destination. I’d fly into the sector under main drive power and be able to actively scan the sector with ease and know exactly what we were getting into.
From the galley I watched the countdown on the FTL drive tick to zero and then cut in the main drive. The Black Domino shuddered slightly with a strong vibration through the deck plating that dissipated quickly to a background hum. The cloud of ice that was an FTL jump dissipated quickly. I watched on a small monitor mounted on a console next to me. I ate a bite of the stew. The drive purred quietly as normal space returned. Scanners showed static for an agonizing several seconds before finally clearing up. Flying on visuals isn’t bad but it limits the big picture of a sector severely.
“Ah hell,” I growled, “Two battleships off our port bow.” I leapt out of the lounge chair, dropped the bowl into the sink and raced to the cock-pit. Behind me, Sonja cursed.
“You bastard!” Sonja hollered as she followed me, “You set us up.”
“Like hell sister. I want the money; if I was going to set you up I’d have waited until after I got paid.”
“Unless they’re paying you more.”
“Confederation’s not really in the business of paying low-life’s like me.”
Sonja lapsed into silence. I suppose I couldn’t really blame her for thinking I’d turned them in. She knew next to nothing about me. I was sure if I dug a bit I’d find there was much more than met the eye in regards to my two passengers.
“Have they seen us?”
“Yep, and they’re angling for an intercept.”
“Will they catch us?” Faith said
“It’ll take a few minutes for the FTL drives to recycle but I have a few tricks up my sleeve.”
Settling into the pilots chair I steered the Domino away from the battleships which had already completed their turn and were bearing down on us. A moment later and they had begun pounding away at us with their cannons. Scans showed three missiles en route. I cursed and dove away from the incoming firepower. The battleships were Hammer class with at least one small wing of fighters a piece. I waited to see them spew from the battleships hangar bays.
“They’re over confident,” Sonja announced from the co-pilots seat, as if reading my mind, “They should’ve launched fighters.”
I rolled the Black Domino and shot straight down relative to the battleships positions. One missile stuck to our tail with stubborn doggedness. I slapped a red button on the console in front of me and two red lights flashed.
“Counter measures?” Sonja asked.
“Will they work?”
“Haven’t let me down yet.”
Silence lapsed in the cock-pit and scans showed the missile disappearing in a cloud of debris resulting in a nice explosion. The Battleships had dived to match my trajectory.
“Another missile’s locked on,” Sonja was studying the tactical display on the console in front of her chair.
“The one we dodged earlier.”
“Probably,” She responded.
The nav-comp beeped at me, “Course laid in, FTL drive’s recycled.”
This was where things could get dicey. In order to survive a dog fight a pilot needed to keep their ship juking and jumping. Tactical schools always taught to never stay on a straight line for obvious reasons. In order to get to a speed that’d allow you to cut in the FTL drive, though, a pilot needed to keep their ship in a straight line and at full power. For most ships it’d take no more than thirty seconds to build up the power in the main drives, for a ship like the Domino it would take slightly less. With two battleships and a torpedo on our tail, however, I wasn’t sure we had that kind of time.
I leveled off and poured on the speed. I dumped the rest of my counter measures and watched as the distance between the Battleships and us countdown. In a straight drag race there was no way the Domino was going to out distance a battleship on full power but I already had close to a thousand kilometers on them. I had a slim chance which was only a tad better than no chance at all.
“We’ll be in tractor range in forty seconds,” Sonja said.
“We can jump in twenty, twenty five seconds at the most.”
“That’s going to be close.”
I watched the time tick down helpless and nervous despite my exterior calm. My hands hovered over the instruments in front of me. The ship rocked as the occasional blast rocked us. The battleships were taking potshots at us but they were far enough away that the gunners were just wasting energy and ammo. Of course a lucky shot could still kill us and since the battleships had energy and ammo to spare it didn’t hurt to try. I wanted to fire back but any energy drain would result in a prolonged chase; something I was desperately trying to avoid.
Three…two…one…the computer beeped, I grabbed a handful of levers, yanked them towards me and we were free just as Sonja took a deep breath to announce tractor range. I sighed loudly and sat back. I wiped at the sweat that had started to drip down my brow.
“That was close.”
Moonshadow was one of the busier ports on the Frontier and while the Confederation had an outpost in orbit they had little true presence in the sector. Fort Wayne was made up of about two thousand troops and home port to the Reliant a corvette designed to scare and chase their enemies away. They weren’t big but a ship like the Reliant could do a fair bit of damage to a freighter like the Domino. I tried to stay away from the sector as the regional government might have actually been worse than anything the Confederation could field. When we drop-jumped into the sector the Reliant was in port along with another Confederate cruiser.
“They here to see you?” I asked.
“Think they could’ve gotten here ahead of us?” Sonja said.
“Not likely, they’re probably here for a quick stop over for supplies.”
I could almost hear Sonja scowl and I laughed a bit, “Where do I drop you Sister?”
I nodded and entered the coordinates into the computer. I sent the information to flight control planet side. There was always a chance Sector Control had been notified by the battleships that had chased us, but news travelled slowly on the rim. Information was sent at regular intervals via FTL packets but it took time to compose and send. I had cut our trip short and taken two more jumps to get us to Moonshadow. I was fairly certain we’d be fine. As time slipped by and we waited I did my best to hide my growing nervousness. I ran my eyes over the information the scans had given us, everything still looked normal.
“There is no way they’re just going to let us waltz into their space without a challenge.”
“Aren’t you the pessimist,” I said.
Sonja was about to make a snide comment but the comm unit beeped, I held up my hand to silence her retort and flipped open the channel.
“Domino here,” I said.
“We’ve received your course and have approved it. We’re sending you the authorization codes now.”
“Thank you very much. Domino out.”
The channel went dead and the computer chimed as it received the authorization codes from Sector Control. I sat back with a little smile as the navcomp took over flight details.
“See what did I tell you?”
The scowl Sonja sent my way was classic and I couldn’t suppress a satisfied smile as the Domino navicomp set us on the course flight control had sent me. With the Domino’s autopilot taking over the approach routines I sat back and rolled a cigar for myself. Faith was still asleep in her cabin.
“Something I don’t get?” I said after a moment.
“I think there are a lot of things you don’t get,” Sonja replied.
I laughed as I placed the finished cigar between my lips and lit it slowly. I nodded at her as the cigar got lit. Tiberius sauntered into the cock-pit and sat next to me. I let out a puff of smoke.
“Probably right about that but this has got me puzzled. Why are you involved in this thing?”
“Pay is good.”
I nodded, “That it is but I get the feeling this isn’t up your alley.”
“And what would my ‘alley’ be?”
“You’re a gunslinger, scoundrel, maybe even a bounty hunter same as me.”
“I have more class.”
“Won’t argue that, but you’re still the same as me. Protection gigs are for the house Constables, local Sheriff’s the personal body guard. You’re none of those.”
She sighed and I watched an internal conflict play out over her face. Her steely gaze was fixed on me. I felt a little like I’d just had a full body scan at the entrance to some royal palace. I idly sat there chewing on my cigar scratching Tiberius behind the ears waiting to see if she was going to let me pass through.
“I’m from Brimstone originally. Spent ‘bout thirteen years there before I left. I was an orphan at an early age and a small family took me in when I was four. Faith is my step-sisters daughter. My step-sister is married to the Mayor and he’s about to be deposed. I’ve known Daemon a long time, thought I loved him once but I put that behind me when he put his political career before me.” She paused for a moment and I realized she had not taken a breath. It had come out in one long nearly monotone sentence, she continued “Politics in Brimstone change almost daily. Daemon has his sites on the mayors seat, Faith’s father is in the way. Her father and my sister’s lives are forfeit but I managed to talk Daemon out of killing Faith.”
“You can’t save them?”
She shrugged. “Probably not, Daemon has a lot of allies. An ‘accidental’ death means no money spent on campaigning.”
I nodded, “You have family here?”
“I don’t but Faith does.”
“So your life on Brimstone is over?”
“I’m not sure. I won’t go back to Daemon.”
“No, I’d suspect not, he’s killing your past even as we speak.”
She nodded, stood and took a step away from her chair. I realized she had said as much as she was going to say, I could feel her cold defensive exterior sliding back into place. I felt for her. I felt a sort of kinship with her, I had been where she was. I had faced the cross roads she was facing and there were no easy decisions, no easy roads that would lead to redemption or consolation. Each fork in the road brought its own pain, its own torment that only she would be able to confront and work through. It stunk, it hurt but she would heal. We all do, at some point.
She turned to me, “I don’t think I can live with what he’s done.”
“I reckon not.”
She looked at me, searched for word but found none. She left.
I chewed on the remains of my cigar and looked at Tiberius who whined lightly as she left. There was nothing anyone could say to comfort her. Her family, as she knew it, was being torn from her. She approached it the only way she knew how, with a cool cold calculation. It was the same strategy that kept her alive, the same strategy people like us needed to approach life with. Anything else would probably have paralyzed her. The problem though was that most people like us don’t forget or forgive easily. We tend to settle scores eventually. I almost felt sorry for Daemon, I had serious doubts he’d survive long enough to enjoy his victory and I got the feeling Sonja might the type of woman who’d take great joy in killing him as slowly as she could manage for what he’d done to her family.
“Now there is a complicated woman,” I said to Tiberius.
He put his head in my lap and barked quietly as if agreeing with me.
We set down on the outskirts of High Ridge thirty minutes later. High Ridge was really nothing more than a small town that time and technology, such as it was on the Rim, had forgotten. It was a day’s travel east of Crescent City, the capital of Moondshadow. I doubted many people from the city ever made their way to High Ridge. The town consisted of about five roads altogether laid out in a pretty straight forward manner, it would be impossible to get lost. The buildings looked to be made of real wood harvested from the surrounding mountains. They looked solid and well built. Most were two stories and one climbed to a third story. It looked to be the saloon, hotel and general store all in one. There were four landing pads on the north side of town where I had set down. It wasn’t much but it seemed homely. I figured it was the type a place a person could grow to like. There was a homey feel to it, a sense of community that my life lacked. It was a shame that I’d have to leave so quickly. I met Sonja and Faith in the cargo hold. They stood in the center of the hold, Sonja scowling at me as I walked up to them. Faith still refused to look at me. Tiberius and I lived a solitary life of constant travel. Oddly enough it had been nice to have someone else aboard for a change. We rarely took on taxi gigs, they didn’t really pay enough. I made an exception in this case because the money was good. Having them hang around for a few more days almost sounded enticing.
“All packed up?”
Sonja nodded, she was wearing her leather armor with guns at her side once more. Any sign of vulnerability from our earlier conversation were gone. She was once again a cold and efficient gunslinger and bounty runner. Tiberius trotted over to Faith who smiled and knelt to pet him. It was the most animation I’d seen from her since she came aboard. I looked at Tiberius; I was pretty sure I’d been cheated on.
“There is a transport approaching,” I said
“That would be our contact.”
I cycled open a hatch on the side of the cargo hold. It slid open letting in the bright light of Moonshadows sun. I felt a warm breeze rushing in. There was dust and sage on the wind. Tiberius, as much as he loved to be scratched, loved planet fall even more and darted out of the ship and into the open. Faith laughed and stood.
“He likes to be outside,” she said.
“We all do. A ship is home but it’s always good to visit a planet once in a while. Fresh air is good for the soul.”
Sonja picked up their bags and walked down the ramp just as the transport arrived. It pulled up about fifty yards from the Domino. The door swung open and a short skinny man appeared. He wore old dirty denim pants and a homespun shirt, his hair slicked back and spectacles framed his face. Sonja approached him. There was an ease to her step that told me she knew and trusted the man.
“Nathaniel, it is good to see you.”
Nathaniel nodded and smiled when he saw Faith. The smile faded as he fought to find something to say to her. Faith shook her head and embraced him.
Sonja turned to me, “This is Nathaniel Gibson, Faith’s uncle. He will be looking after her.” She glanced at Nathaniel, “Nate this is Captain Charlie Cole.”
Nathaniel nodded at me and handed me a case, “This is the rest of what we owe you.”
“It was agreed that Jonah would pay half and the family would pay the other half of your expense.” Sonja explained.
I nodded and accepted the case. We stood there, silence descending on us. It was an odd and uncomfortable moment. I almost wanted to ask if she was interested in crewing with me. I’m not one to get too curious about the cargo I transported but even the limited conversations I’d had my passengers had started questions forming in my head. I wanted to ask a few to satisfy my own curiosity. I knew it would just get me into trouble I’d more than likely be happier avoiding. Tiberius was the one who broke it as he came bounding up to us barking loudly. I smiled.
“We had best be on our way. The Confederates may have tracked me here.”
“The Confederates?” Nathaniel asked.
“I think Daemon set us up.” Sonja said.
“Double-cross is his families’ style.”
I looked at Sonja and met her gaze, “Good luck.” I said and found that I meant it.
I turned on my heel and marched back to the Black Domino, Tiberius on my heels. He bounded into the ship ahead of me and I cycled the hatch closed behind us. A few minutes later and I was airborne, streaking low over the regions mountainous terrain. I didn’t have business on Moonshadow but something was holding me back. I knew I could have shot spaceward and left the little drama behind; my part played to perfection. Instead I pointed the Domino over the horizon and plotted a course to Angel’s Bluff, a smaller port of call that might have a need for some of what I had in the cargo hold. A few days in port might tell me why I had a nagging feeling to stick around.