Jillian stopped at the Captain’s quarters carrying a tray with two plates of covered food. She pressed the doorbell icon on the panel and waited patiently. The door swished opened and Christopher Raleigh stood smiling at her.
He stood six foot three, 190 centimeters, with dirty blond hair and bright blue eyes. Trim and fit and handsome, her heart melted at his smile and his obvious pleasure in seeing her.
“Dinner is served,” she said, presenting the tray for his inspection. He stepped out of the way and let her enter his quarters. The door slid shut behind her.
“You’ve never waited tables or served anyone in your life, have you?”
“No. Is it obvious? Am I doing something wrong?”
He chuckled and said, “You’re doing fine. I doubt it was something you were expecting to do when you signed on, though.”
Jillian sat the tray down at the table and put one plate out for him before taking the other for herself.
She said, “I’m doing lots of things I’ve never done before. Learning how to fight. Shooting a gun. Spying on people while they’re making out . . .”
Jillian told him the story of how she and Skylar observed Roddy and Raquel getting it on at the flight deck.
When she finished, Raleigh shrugged. He said, “As much pain as Roddy has gone through on account of her, and as much money as he’s lost, I can’t say I blame him for wanting a little affection in return. Even if the collar might be enhancing her feelings at the moment.”
“Yeah that’s just it,” Jillian said between bites. “It’s not the fact he’s taking advantage of an indent. I know there are free will protections in place for that. It’s the fact that she has treated him so horribly in the past. I can’t imagine he’d still be interested in her.”
He shrugged again. “Some guys are like that. Like a dog that keeps coming back to the owner who whipped it.”
She frowned at him. “That’s a bad analogy.”
“Is it an analogy or a metaphor?”
“What’s the difference?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Anyway, how can he get away with that, and we can’t kiss or anything?”
He shrugged again and said, “I’m the Captain. He’s crew. She’s technically his property, or at least her bond is. If she is willing, they can do whatever they want during his free time.”
“But did Lootie see this? Does she allow that sort of thing to happen onboard?”
“As long as nobody was harmed, I don’t think Lootie cares. Lootie, did you witness the interaction on the flight deck between Roddy and his indent?”
LuteNet’s rich contralto voice came out of the air above the table.
She said, “I did indeed, Captain. The indent was not coerced or harmed in any way and her consent alarm was not triggered. Such actions fell within the parameters of acceptable onboard activity.”
“Well, there you go,” Raleigh said. “Everything was on the up and up. Let’s talk about something else.”
The days stretched on, and the voyage of the Ultima Mule and the Slender Sylph to Pegasi Station quickly became one of Jillian Thrall’s favorite times in her life so far.
Mornings were spent learning self-defense techniques with Granny. Jillian and Skylar progressed to the point where they could, at least occasionally, flip the older woman for a change. Granny moved on to close quarters combat, teaching them how to disarm opponents and make use of nearby objects as makeshift weapons. As they closed in on Pegasi, Granny told them their training would never really stop. But, after this crash course she felt they were at least better prepared than they had been.
Afternoons were spent competing with Skylar at the makeshift shooting range on the flight deck. The girls observed Roddy and Raquel two more times. On his third visit, Jillian and Skylar were still shooting and made more than enough noise to announce their presence before the couple had a chance to start. Roddy did not show up again. Presumably he found a better place for Raquel to eat her lunch.
Jillian ate suppers in the Captain’s quarters with Chris. After eating they would spend an hour or so in deep conversation. The forced platonic nature of this relationship, with the ship’s strictures against fraternization, meant that Jillian found herself focusing on Raleigh’s intellect and personality.
She was drawn to him like a moth to a flame. He had seen so much of the galaxy, and he had done so much. His life of adventure she found amazing, and he gladly shared stories of space battles and other conflicts in which he had a part.
As the ship’s map icon edged closer to Pegasi, Jillian felt for the first time she really knew a man. She experienced an attraction that increased over time, even with the increased familiarity. In the novels she had read and the movies she had watched, all of which combined to comprise her sum knowledge on the topic of love, she had been taught that familiarity breeds contempt. People grow tired of one another and look for variety. But she did not think she would ever grow tired of Chris. At least, not anytime soon. Maybe when they were much older and had spent years together . . . but even then, she thought, what is the point of love if not to find someone you wanted to grow old with? No, Chris felt like the kind of man she could fall even more in love with over time.
As far as the rest of the crew was concerned, the Captain was known as a famous bachelor and few felt he would ever truly settle down. Granny started a pool behind the lovers’ backs. Crewmembers could bet on time remaining before their first kiss, their first major fight, and their wedding date. Jeter asked why he could not bet on the date they broke up. Granny berated him for being a pessimist.
At long last, the Ultima Mule and the Slender Sylph came to within an hour of Pegasi. Both ships stopped for final preparations. Lee Po hailed Raleigh over the neural net.
He said, “We’ll stop one sec out and have Lootie port over the drones. We’ll hold the Sylph and the Mule back out of harm’s way until the fighting has stopped.”
“Sounds good to me,” Raleigh said.
The two ships resumed their journey, the seconds counting down as they made jump after jump with each tick of the clock.
First Officer Elijah Maxwell opened the armory panels and made sure each crewmember had a gun. Then everybody went to their duty stations with tension filling the air.
At last they stopped teleporting, one astronomical unit away from Pegasi Station.
LuteNet spoke, her voice filling both ships.
“I am porting over the first wave of fighters. I will pipe in a holofeed to observation monitors on both ships.”
Fifty of the Sylph’s fighters popped out of existence, followed by another group. Within seconds they were all gone. Fifty from Ultima Mule’s flight deck followed, then another batch.
The holoscreen on Mule’s bridge showed what the drones could see. Roddy sat in the pilot’s seat. Raleigh, Granny, and Maxwell stood behind him. The front of the bridge seemed to turn transparent, showing the drone feed from space, one AU away.
Before them Pegasi Station floated, a small artificial moon glinting back reflected light. The Excelsior orbited nearby. But the two merchants they were expecting were nowhere to be seen.
Elijah Maxwell spoke up, his voice deeply troubled within his giant six foot six, 198 centimeter frame.
“Uh, Captain. Where did those two come from?”
In place of the freighters, two more Eagle-class destroyers orbited near Excelsior. All three ships spewed out their own fighters, hundreds upon hundreds of them. They all streamed toward the pirates’ drones, filling the video screen with a huge cloud of incoming bogies.
“Aw, man,” Roddy said. “There’s goes all of our drones.”
“Is there any way you can get some of them back here, Lootie?”
“I will try, Captain.”
Granny said, “Uh oh.”
She pointed to the hologram. The two destroyers near Excelsior disappeared.
The ship’s klaxon rang out and the lights flashed red.
LuteNet said, “Enemy ships nearby. Switching to proximity feed.”
The holoscreen changed to show the exterior of the Mule. The Sylph floated nearby. The two new warships from Pegasi faced them.
Blinding white flashed across the screen, and green bolts of energy shot out from the warships.
The first one hit the shields with a solid Thump! reverberating throughout the Mule.