Jillian had her first opportunity to vote as a crewmember that night, after Raleigh presented the plan in the large meeting center. The general consensus was that if all went well, and if the three ships were present, the venture might net 20 million on the high end.
Ultima Mule would split that admittedly optimistic amount with the Slender Sylph Company, and bring in 100,000 a share. Even with this grand estimate, everybody hoped the figure would climb much higher. Jillian was curious what the low end might be, but nobody wanted to speculate about that.
Once the decision was made, preparation for departure began immediately. Raleigh accessed the company’s lines of credit from investors on Lute and began purchasing food and other necessities. Pak and Kim ordered replacement drones, new tandem drives, and spare parts. Medical supplies were restocked, fresh uniforms ordered, and cleaning and maintenance bots were ported up to the Mule to prep her for another run.
Jillian returned to her quarters late that evening, filled with anticipation. Even though it would be about 25 days in each direction, she did not mind since she hoped to spend as much of that time as possible with Chris.
He would likely not be kissing her on this trip. She reluctantly took note of the strictures against fraternization on voyages, especially between the officers and crew. She worried that these rules would keep him from seeing her altogether. Skylar had the room next door to her, so she asked the other woman about it before they both retired for the night.
“Fraternization means sex,” Skylar said. “There are no rules against him talking to you and spending time with you. But rules against sex are there to maintain discipline and morale on long voyages like this.”
“Hm. Well, that makes sense. Hypothetically, I’m not saying I want this, but hypothetically the Captain of a pirate ship could do anything he wanted, right?”
“You don’t understand. He made the rules. He’s not going to go against them. And honestly, most ships are like that. Fraternization has historically led to a lot of problems on long voyages before. Therefore most Captains—merchants, military, whatever—officially frown on such behavior.”
“What about just, you know, kissing? There’s no harm in that, right?”
Skylar gave her a long hard look. Finally she said, “Do yourself a favor and don’t talk to anyone else about this. People get bored on long voyages, even with all the entertainment options available. It’s bad enough everybody knows the Captain is crazy about you. You start talking like this and it’ll just make things worse.”
As Jillian lay in bed that night before going to sleep, she played the conversation back in her mind. Was Chris really crazy about her? She could hardly wait to talk things over again with Skylar tomorrow.
The following day preparations were completed. After lunch the Ultima Mule was ready to go, and Raleigh had LuteNet port crewmembers up in pairs.
Jillian was ported with Skylar. They carried their duffel bags to the elevator capsule, and made their way to the quarters they shared. Sure enough, Granny had opted to bunk with them and was already there.
Granny said, “I’m the only female officer, unlike on that other ship, the Slender Slip or whatever they call it. I bet those two share a room. No way Beanpole gets her own bunk. Anyhoo, I don’t mind sleeping with the plebes if y’all don’t.”
“Are we plebes?” Jillian said. “What’s a plebe?”
Granny cackled. She said, “Okay, wrong word. How’s about ‘crew?’ Looky, I’m not so stuck up that I don’t want to bunk with non-officers, alright? I don’t mind being with you girls. Even if one of you is mooning for the Captain and the other one is cold-blooded killer.”
Skylar said, “We don’t mind if you want to take a room by yourself, Granny. Really.”
The older woman guffawed at this statement. “Oh, so you don’t want old Granny sleeping in the same room with you, is that it? You think I snore or something? Well I was thinking about leaving but now I’m going to stay here just to spite you.”
She pulled out a cigar and chomped down on it. With a final, “Hmph!” she turned and left for the bridge.
Skylar smiled at Jillian and said, “She was going to room with us regardless, believe me. There’s not enough room for her to bunk alone, and she doesn’t want to share a cabin with the guys.”
On the bridge Granny found the Captain and Roddy.
“Oh look,” she said, “here’s the least useful crewmember. The pilot.”
Roddy smiled wanly. She noted ever since the gunfight in the mess that he seemed down. He looked like a deep cloud of sadness hung over his head.
“Cheer up, flyboy! Did you bring your girlfriend along?”
Roddy patted his pants pocket, showing the print of the miniature radiation absorber.
Granny cackled and said, “Well at least you won’t be lonely, am I right?”
He nodded in acknowledgment but did not smile at her ribbing.
She said, “You’re killing my fun here, flyboy. I’m just messing with you.”
LuteNet interrupted and said, “Captain, all crewmembers have boarded, and all supplies are in place. Captain Po is likewise prepared. We are ready for departure.”
“Okay, Lootie. Port us away when you’re ready.”
The Ultima Mule and the Slender Sylph disappeared from their orbit around Lute.
Roddy came into the mess late for supper, after most of the others had eaten and retired for the evening.
Lootie had shown him the security footage of Raquel stealing food in a restaurant, so he knew she could not stay in the trap without eating.
He took it out of his pocket and pointed it away from the table before pressing the button, releasing her. A stream of pixels coalesced into the attractive blonde woman.
She smiled at him, demurely. He pointed at the plate next to his.
“Yes, Mas— Yes, Roddy.”
She sat down and began spooning food into her mouth. Roddy watched her and recalled he had been so busy at lunch preparing to go that he had forgotten to let her out. She must be really hungry, he thought.
She filled up, eating the serving of fried poshbird and mashed potatoes. When she was done, she wiped her lips on a napkin and smiled at him.
She said, “We’re on your ship? Where are we going?”
“Pegasi Station. It’s a long trip. Three and a half weeks.”
“Oh. Do you think we’ll have any private time? Is there anything I can do to serve you, Roddy?”
She looked deep in his eyes and sensed the sadness behind them. She had stabbed him and shot him. He would almost certainly never trust her. If there had ever been any hope of using her feminine wiles on him, it was likely gone forever. The man had been hurt too much, and the cuts to his heart were deeper than the physical wounds she had given him.
She said, “Well . . . since we’re to be confined on a ship . . . maybe you could let me stay out more? You can keep an eye on me.”
Ultimately, she thought, Roddy was a big softy.
He nodded, then looked down at his plate, lost in thought.
Raquel watched him carefully. A slow, evil smile spread across her lips.
End of Book I