“You know,” Caree said cheerfully as she slathered salve on Rake’s battered chest, “I never got to ask you. Where’d you get the money for the insurance policy?”
Rake grimaced, more from the coolness of the gel than from pain. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m not a fool, Rake,” she said lightly. “You’ve been involved in a lot of jobs in the outer worlds. Including several in the zero security zone, outside civilization. You’ve made a name for yourself as a great pilot and a man who can think on his feet. But none of those jobs have been a big score—nothing that would’ve taken the millions you would’ve needed for an insurance policy.”
“Oh, come on,” Rake complained. “Are you really telling me you’ve seen my finances? You’ve been looking into my books?”
“No,” Caree said with a shake of her head. “I don’t need to do that. I also know what kind of lifestyle you’ve lived. You’re burning cash like anyone living in the outer worlds. Not to mention the upgrades to your ship,” she added. Then she paused. “That reminds me—do you have another insurance policy?”
Rake shook his head. “No, I don’t. There was only enough cash for one.”
“So where’d the money come from?”
The pilot hesitated for long moments, the silence heavy as Caree finished smearing salve and began wrapping his wounds with bandages. Finally, he said, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” she repeated skeptically.
“No. I was given a large lump of cash over a year ago, with express instructions to get a life insurance policy. I didn’t question it—just made a trip to Terra and went through the process. Then, three weeks ago, I got another payment with instructions to ensure my memory was up to date—enough cash to cover the update and the trip to Terra.”
“And you didn’t ask where this was coming from?”
“I did look into it, a year ago, when I got the first payment. The money came from an account on New Persia with a name that went nowhere. I had some friends look into that, and the money for that account came from Earth, and the transfer date was before the Great War.”
Caree grimaced. “So, no way to trace it.”
“No, there’s no way.”
“So, you think your mystery benefactor had something to do with your death?” Caree asked. “I mean, it’s like he knew you might not make it through…whatever you got yourself into.”
Rake nodded. “Good chance.”
“So, that begs the question—what were you involved with a year ago? Someone apparently was making an investment then to ensure you survived.”
“I’m not sure,” Rake confessed.
“Why not?” Caree asked.
Rake considered his options carefully. I really don’t remember, but that might be because of this body. Or maybe it’s because I really don’t remember. Until I can get my ship back, and get to all my ship logs, I really don’t know.
“Most of my memories from…before…are kind of fuzzy. According to the doc on Terra, it’s common after the wake up,” he lied. “He said it might take a few weeks for me to recall everything clearly.” In a few weeks, I’ll either be clear of this, or dead.
“So, what’s your plan?” the woman asked. “Besides get to your ship?”
The pilot slid off the bed, carefully pulling on a fresh shirt over his tender skin. “If I can find my ship, the navigation logs should tell me where I’ve been. Between that and my personal logs, I should be able to reconstruct what I’ve been doing, and hopefully pay off whatever crime boss is sending all these guys after me.”
“A crime boss?” Caree was skeptical. “Those were Lantash authority sloops that shot up our tail, not pirate ships.”
“A skiptracer working for the law wouldn’t risk shooting up an insurance facility,” Rake said firmly. “No, it has to be someone on the outer worlds—maybe even someone in the zero security zone.” He raised an eyebrow. “You want some help with your wounds?”
The dark-haired beauty offered a wink before smoothly doffing her shirt, offering Rake a smile. “Not the first time you’ve seen this, now, is it?”
Rake nearly swallowed his tongue as he picked up the can of salve. As methodically as he could manage, he carefully began rubbing in salve over her wounds. Like his own, they were small and many, tiny cuts that had covered her chest in a sheet of blood. With his off hand, he picked up a towel and carefully began to clean the blood from her skin as well.
“No, not the first time,” he finally managed to say.
Caree offered him a teasing grin. “Pay attention to your work,” she said lightly.
“Of course,” he said, reverting to biting his tongue.
“So,” she said after a few moments of silence, “what comes after you find your ship? You round up your crew and go after…whatever it is?”
“No crew,” Rake said.
“No crew?” she asked in surprise. “How do you man your ship?”
The man hesitated for a moment. How many secrets do I really want to give her? “She’s an advanced ship, designed for a minimal crew. The complement is supposed to be three, actually—a pilot, a weapons officer, and an engineer.”
“And you, of course, do all three.”
“I’m a man of many talents,” Rake boasted.
Caree leaned forward against his hands, still cleaning up her battered chest. “Yes, yes you are.”
He did his best to maintain composure, but she was very good at distracting him. “I do my best.”
“So,” the dark-haired woman said after a few moments of silence, “What’s the name of your ship?”
“Getting personal, are we?”
“Given our mutual lack of clothes, I’d say we’re already personal, aren’t we?” Caree winked.
“So do you really want to talk about my ship?” he asked dubiously.
“Isn’t that the way to sweet-talk you pilots?” she asked in return. “Talk about ships and engines and guns? I thought you’d like that kind of pillow-talk.”
“We’re not on a pillow,” Rake said dryly.
“Let’s fix that,” Caree grinned, taking his hand.
Almost eleven hours later, the intercom in Caree’s cabin beeped for attention. The dark-haired woman lazily rolled off Rake’s chest and stretched out to tap the button. “Go ahead.”
“Cap, we found the canyon,” Wings reported. “Just like Earthstepper described.”
“Put us in stationary orbit over the canyon and wait for us,” the captain ordered. “We’ll be there shortly.”
Wings was silent for a moment. Rake guessed he was processing the meaning of we. “Yes, cap.” The intercom beeped to signal the line closing.
“Guess that means we have to get up,” Rake grumbled.
“Are you complaining, sweetheart?” Caree asked with a wicked grin. “Didn’t get enough rest?”
“Plenty of time in bed, but not much rest,” he answered lazily. “I haven’t had much sleep since I woke up from the insurance facility.”
“Sleep when you’re dead,” she teased.
“Already did that once. Wasn’t restful.”
Caree smacked him playfully in the shoulder. “Quit your complaining and get dressed, dead man.”
It took twenty minutes of haggling over the short-range radio to secure permission to land—eight minutes of arguing over Rake’s out-of-date clearance code, and another twelve minutes to settle on berthing fees that, while still high, weren’t as outrageous as the initial offer. Caree had wanted to continue the negotiation, but the Starfall’s passive sensors had picked up faint sensor pings from one of the Lantash sloops—too weak to reveal the location of the ship, but plenty of warning that the authorities hadn’t given up their search.
The landing zone was concealed at the bottom of the canyon, with no external lights or signals to betray the location. Rake had to admit that, in spite of his professional distaste for riding in a ship he wasn’t flying, Wings was a pretty fair pilot. The big man slipped the freighter under the overhanging rock, putting plenty of cover between them and their pursuers.
It took another minute of careful maneuvering to mate the Starfall’s airlock with a docking tube extended from seemingly sheer stone wall.
As the airlock hissed open, wind blew over Rake, ruffling his too-long hair. His ears popped as the pressures equalized, and the artificial breeze died off.
The gun in his hand felt wrong. Not because Rake had any problem with carrying a handgun—especially into ratholes like the Lantash Six smuggler hole. He had, for that matter, carried a sidearm most of his adult life. No, the problem was that the pistol was all wrong. The weapon was too light, the barrel too long. The balance was entirely off, and he couldn’t feel the natural point of the weapon when he swung on a target.
“No boarders?” Caree asked when the airlock and connecting tube remained empty. “I thought they’d send a welcoming party.”
“No reason to bother,” Rake said grimly. “Everyone inside will be armed, so if we run in guns blazing we’d be dead. They’ve probably got dozens of coilguns embedded in the rocks pointed right at the ship. If we do anything too stupid, they’ll cut the Starfall to shreds.”
“Ah. So why, exactly, are we walking into this place?” Caree asked warily.
“This is hardly the first smuggler hole you’ve walked into,” Rake commented. “Any place like this can’t depend on local security—they’re hardly going to call the Lantash authorities, are they? So they take precautions to ensure nothing too horrid happens.”
Caree glanced back at her crew, gathered behind them. “So, I’d guess we should leave the crew here.”
“That would be ideal. We don’t want to risk starting a fight.”
Caree waved off her crew. None of the four looked happy, but they retreated back into the Starfall as per their captain’s wishes. When they had all vanished, the dark-haired woman looked over at Rake. “After you.”
“Yep.” Rake walked through the airlock and into the connecting tube.
The air was a bit stale and smelled of grease and solvent, and he could hear a faint hiss of escaping air. Must be a leak somewhere, he thought uneasily. Hope the whole place isn’t like that. It sure wasn’t the last time I was here, but that had to be three years ago.
Wasn’t it? The fact that he couldn’t precisely remember bothered him. Is this body going downhill already? Or is it normal to not remember details like that? The uncertainty was nearly as bad as the memory loss in the first place.
“So, what do we do now?” Caree asked quietly.
“Looks like company is coming,” Rake nodded toward an approaching man in a dirty brown uniform, flanked by two armed guards.
The station’s staff made no pretense at friendliness. “Rake Earthstepper. Different ship than the last time through.”
“Not mine,” Rake said as he jerked his thumb toward Caree. “Hers.”
“Who’s paying the fees?”
“Rake volunteered,” Caree said casually.
He grunted a reluctant agreement. “From my account on file,” he said. “We also need to fuel the ship.”
“Fuel’s hard to come by,” the unarmed man said. “Expensive to get out here.”
“Five,” Rake said.
“Ha! Didn’t know you were a comedian, Earthstepper. Twelve.”
“For twelve I could buy a ship with a full take of fuel,” he said with a shake of his head. “Seven, no more.”
“Eight, and I send someone out to scrub the windows,” the staffer said dryly.
“Eight it is. How long?”
“It’ll be slow,” the station’s negotiator said. “The passives we have on the ring shows a couple of Lantash sloops headed this way. They haven’t found us yet, but we’ll have to run the lines manually. No heavy equipment when the authorities are that close. Two hours, maybe?”
“Less would be more,” Rake said.
“I’ll see what we can do. In the meantime, are you going to enjoy our local facilities?”
“Just the pub. Which way?”
The man pointed down one of the shafts hewn from the stone of the rings. “Surprised you even have to ask. And I have to ask, what happened to your ship?” the man asked. “I’ve never seen another like it, and it’d be a shame if some authorities got their hands on it.”
“Just on my way to retrieve her,” Rake said casually. “No one flies my ship but me, and no one will ever catch her, either.”
The negotiator and his two flunkies disappeared toward the docking ring and the Starfall, presumably to start the fueling process, while Rake led Caree down the stone hallway toward the pub. “You handled that well,” the captain commented. “You’ve been here a few times, haven’t you?”
Rake shrugged nonchalantly. “A couple times. It’s a good refueling hole, and not a lot of people know about it. The people that do know keep their mouths shut, which is why there’s a smuggler hole this close to a ‘civilized’ world.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “Your crew will keep their mouths shut, won’t they?”
“I’m insulted,” Caree said, her tone sharp.
“Hey, secrecy keeps a lot of smugglers alive, including me. I don’t want one of my holes compromised.”
“You might have already compromised them by sending us here with those patrol boats chasing us,” she retorted.
“Doubtful,” he said dismissively. “They’ve kept their heads down plenty of times when the local authorities are orbiting overhead. Dozens of meters of solid rock is a good cover, as long as no one goes in or out with a sloop nearby. Now,” he added as they stepped out of the passageway and into a larger, dimly-lit cavern, “let’s just relax with a few drinks while they refuel the Starfall.”
Like the passageways, the cavern had been carved from the solid stone of the rings. The ceilings were rather low—barely two and a half meters high—but the room itself was nearly sixty meters across, roughly circular. A handful of passageways led away from the pub, with dozens of small niches carved into the walls to provide privacy.
Lamps rose from the floor, a scant meter high, providing the sparse illumination. Power cables and cords were strung openly across from the floor, trip hazards that the pub’s proprietor didn’t seem to care about. Tables, sparsely occupied, were scattered through the open space, some near lamps and some shrouded in darkness. There seemed to be little pattern to the lights and the tables, and the lack of order bothered Rake just a bit.
He didn’t let his discomfort show, however, as he led Caree toward the center of the pub.
The pub’s owner and operator, a too-thin woman barely in her twenties but tougher than the stone walls of her business, was busy cleaning a sinkfull of plates, her back toward Rake and Caree. The bar cut a neat, illuminated circle in the middle of the pub, with a small cooking range and stove at the center of that.
“Rake Earthstepper,” she said gravely without turning her head. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Alo, Meg,” he said easily as he slid onto one of the stools ringing the bar. “How’s business?”
“Quiet. I like it that way.” She turned away from her dishes, eyeing Rake warily. “Your poison?”
“Couple of your local brew,” he ordered. “One for me, one for the captain.”
Meg raised both eyebrows as she produced a pair of dark bottles from under the bar. With practiced ease she twisted both tops off simultaneously and set them down before the spacers. “Didn’t know you would work for someone else.”
“Not my preference, but I do what I have to do.” He picked up the nearer brew and gestured for Caree to take the other. The captain gave him a dubious glance but took a drink, which was followed by a surprised look and a longer, slower drink.
Meg smiled at Caree. “Zero-gee brewing, Cap. Can’t make a brew that’ll touch mine if you’re stuck on a planet.”
The captain frowned. “But you have gravity here.”
“Artificial, just like your ship,” Meg explained. “And only in the habitable places. Storerooms are all packed tight with the grav shut off, unless there’s some reason for it.”
Rake took a swallow of the beer and smiled. “Nobody could brew like you, Meg, even if they could figure out your secrets.”
“Such a flatterer, Rake.” She raised a blonde eyebrow at him. “So, what are you doing working for someone else, and showing them this little hidey-hole?”
“On my way to Clarion to get my ship,” Rake clarified. “This is a short-term gig only.”
“I’d heard a rumor you got yourself killed on Clarion,” Meg said dubiously. “You have to make a run for it without your ship?”
“Something like that,” Rake smiled. “So what, exactly, have you heard?”
“Well, popular rumor was you took a job you shouldn’t have—a job from Boss Bruno. Whole thing went south, and you got killed by some of Bruno’s lackies on Clarion.” She laughed as she twisted the top off a brew for herself, taking a long, slow pull. “’Course, that all seems rather foolish with you standing here.”
“Mmmhmm,” Rake said noncommittally as he took another swallow of beer. Fear soured the taste, though. Oscar Bruno. What the hell was I thinking to take a job from him?
“What doesn’t make sense about the whole thing,” Meg continued, “is that there’s still a price on your head. I checked the ComNet when I heard you were trying to land here with your old code. See, you landed here a few weeks ago with that code and picked up a new one. Between that, you being reported dead, and a price still on your head, tells me you had an insurance policy.”
Rake set his beer down on the bar silently. He opened his mouth to respond, but found himself struggling for words when he saw a pistol in Meg’s hand, leveled straight at his forehead.