The first time I heard the captain’s voice was over the ship’s comm: “Hold on, it’s going to be a rough run.”
She wasn’t wrong. The young man across from me, Arjan, grinned as I took a wide stance and braced myself against the g-forces of the good ship Kaitan Heritage hurtling out of orbit.
“I see you’ve flown before,” he said.
He knew I was a stranger to this business, so his acknowledgment was of the condescending sort. I hoped Arjan wouldn’t get in my way. Well, he was already in my way, literally blocking the stairs. He was around my age, nineteen, or maybe twenty-one at most, tall with black hair that fell to shoulders that were broader than even my own. In spite of his size, I would have happily tried to brush by him if I could have succeeded with minimal fuss.
We were alone in the cargo hold, a large space dominated by pallets of canisters and an industrial panel with a maglock that I guessed connected to the containment hold on the other side. High on one wall was a display showing a feed from outside the ship. Clouds streaked by, while the walls themselves were caked with old space scum built up over time from condensation and dirt.
I nodded in response. I was definitely no stranger to space travel, which was how I could tell that we were leaving Alaxak in a hurry. Even if a ship was too utilitarian to be equipped with the best gravitational dampeners, most pilots attempted to escape the pull of a planetary body with a little less violence than what we were currently undergoing. The captain had either a great deal of faith in the Kaitan or a completely different way of assessing risk. The entire ship was shaking with the strain, and the thrusters roared loudly enough that I felt compelled to raise my voice to speak.
“I’ve been around, thanks. Where are we headed?”
“You really haven’t done this before?” Arjan gave me a sympathetic shake of his head.
I did my best to hide my annoyance at the gesture, biting back a retort. Being uppity as the new hire wasn’t likely to endear myself to anybody, and my agenda was worth sacrificing my ego. More than that, Arjan was the captain’s brother. I hadn’t met her yet, but she was the reason I was here.
I had traveled what felt like the length and breadth of the frozen planet of Alaxak to find someone specific: a captain with phenomenal abilities. Rumors, speculation, and a great many purchased drinks had led me to the village of Gamut, and then to here, a ship called the Kaitan Heritage, and to Captain Qole Uvgamut. “Of Gamut,” in their dialect. She and Arjan belonged to one of the old native families that had originally settled the planet. One of the families, perhaps, whose long exposure to the unstable energy source known as Shadow yielded more than just sickness and death.
And yet, even though she’d technically hired me onto her crew, I hadn’t been able to get close enough to even say hello, let alone place a biometric sensor on her.
I wasn’t sure how I would even manage an introduction like that. Hi, my name is Nev, and no, I can’t tell you my last name or quite what I want with you, but would you please come with me?
But rumor also had it that Arjan was nearly the caliber of pilot she was. So when I’d shaken his hand, I’d placed a biometric sensor on his forearm. And based on the miniature readout displayed on my wrist feed at the touch of a button, the data was now uploading to Uncle Rubion through their Quantum Intersystem Network, thanks to the hack I had infiltrating it. Normal comm links didn’t work at such distance, but the QUIN did.
I didn’t know how long it would take my uncle to interpret the data, but whatever his conclusion, my time on the Kaitan was limited. My pickup was coming in two days’ time, and I had to be on it with at least one of the Uvgamuts.
I already hoped it would be Qole, and not just because of the incredible rumors regarding her Shadow affinity.
“I’m afraid I’m new to this particular venture,” I said, “but I’m a quick study. Can you give me a brief overview of my duties?”
Arjan gave me a teasing smirk. “Your duties? Well, my good sir,” he said, mimicking my accent, “here’s the abbreviated explanation: once we start the run, Qole and I net the Shadow and get it into the containment hold”--he pointed at the maglock--“you load it into these canisters as quickly as possible”--he pointed at the stacks and stacks filling the cargo hold around us--“and then you try not to die.”
Shadow. The thought of getting so close to it made me nervous. Speculation that it had caused the Great Collapse aside, I’d only seen it used as fuel in cutting-edge industrial facilities before now. In spite of that, it was the reason most of us were here. Well, everyone else was here to “fish,” as the locals called it, for the volatile substance, while I was here to see what someone with the right biological makeup could do with it. Not that Arjan knew that, and in the meantime, I apparently had a job to do in order to keep up the pretense.
I had to resist grimacing at him. “What happens if I’m less than quick?”
“Shadow will eat through the lining of the containment hold, and then we’ll all die.”
Nice. “Shouldn’t the lining be resistant to such degradation? Unless it’s old, that is.”
Arjan’s face hardened. “Why bother paying an astronomical amount for new lining when you have a fast loader to get the Shadow into these safer, cheaper containers?” He patted a canister, and the noise rang out metallically. “It’s how everyone does it out here.”
I wanted to quote a proverb my mother used to repeat about not standing under a landing ship just because my friends did, but I refrained. I liked to think I wasn’t new to danger, but the longer I spent in these cold fringes, the more I learned that the term acceptable risk meant something quite different from what I was used to.
“And about how long will I be at it?”
Arjan simply laughed in my face this time. “Oh boy, you really haven’t done this. You stop when she stops.” He pointed at the ceiling, presumably toward the bridge and Captain Qole. “If you’re not a dead man walking by then.”
Blasted hell, I thought. But I smiled. “I’m sure I’ll manage.”
He only grinned back at me.
“What about the rest of the crew?” I asked, to give him something better to do. “What are their jobs?”
“Come on.” To my relief, he turned to leave the hold, waving me on with him. “I’ll give you the free-fall tour while you can still move.”
A flight of stairs just about as wide as I was, a hallway flanked by doors, and then more stairs brought us to the crew stations. A walkway bisected four recessed consoles that were ringed with monitors.
The Kaitan wasn’t what I was accustomed to. Unlike the ships of the inner subsystems, it wasn’t all glowing walls and hovering displays. Instead, mechanical parts and pieces were used wherever possible, in what I assumed was an effort to simplify repairs, while some of the displays were decades old. And the crew was just as atypical. Laughter surrounded us as we entered the space, and I caught the last part of a conversation.
“You should have seen his face, Basra, when you told him you’d never planned to sell to him. I thought you’d make someone cry in record time.” The speaker, a young woman, was one of two occupants in the stations. A striking slash of black hair covered part of her face, the strands parting just enough to show an intricate tattoo around the hidden eye. Like Arjan, she had the darker hair and skin tone that still characterized native Alaxans, their population having remained mostly undiluted on their isolated planet. She cut her words short, and we surveyed each other.
After a second of silence, the other crew member stood up easily and reached out a hand. “Basra,” came the introduction, and I shook a beat longer than I should have. He definitely wasn’t from around here, though I couldn’t place where. Nor could I discern whether the pleasantly modulated voice or slender frame belonged to a man or a woman, and the hairstyle--an unabashed crest of brown curls rising from a shaved scalp--combined with simultaneously soft and angular coppery features, was no help at all. I settled on thinking of him as male for the sake of convenience.
“Nev. Nice to meet you,” I replied, stupidly late.
Basra retreated just as smoothly back to his station, shoulders slightly curved, never giving me the once-over I had been expecting. I wasn’t sure if the assessment had happened faster than I could notice, or if he just didn’t care.
The young woman, in contrast, did not get up. She remained in her seat, legs casually propped up on the consoles in front of her. Both eyes, tattooed and not, were busy burning holes in my skull with the intensity of their stare. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey. I’m, uh, still Nev. The new loader. And you are?”
She raised both eyebrows and pursed her lips in a quick motion. “Telu. Hacker.” She jerked a finger at the consoles around her in emphasis, and I noticed that they were the only thing on the ship that was thoroughly up to date. “You look awfully clean for a loader.”
I nodded, shifting my travel bag from one shoulder to another, thinking of the appropriately humble thing to say.
“He’s new on the planet,” Arjan supplied. “Won’t last.”
Any humility of mine turned sour as I threw him a glance.
Telu laughed before the ship lurched, and then she swept her legs underneath her console to examine the feeds. Her fingers deftly swept through a few status screens. “Looks like we’re getting close, since the captain’s going straight through pretty much every flare and gravitational eddy to get us there.”
I perked up, noticing another set of stairs at the other end of the room. “Should I meet her before we get down to it, then?”
“Sure.” Arjan shrugged. “Dead ahead.”
I wasn’t sure if he was trying to discourage me with a double meaning there. Despite that, I was headed for the stairs before he was finished speaking.
“Not right now,” a voice rumbled as I approached, and a heavy set of boots appeared on the steps first, followed by the rest of the speaker. My gaze traveled up . . . and up. A pale face as beaten as the rest of the Kaitan greeted me. A number of scars crisscrossed the craggy features, and bushy eyebrows and graying, close-cropped hair further suggested that he was a human mountain. Unlike his other crewmates, this huge man had no problem eyeing me as though I were an assassin entering the royal chambers.
“Eton, this is Nev, our new loader,” Arjan piped up behind me, and I could hear the grin in his voice as he did. “Nev, Eton is our weapons tech. And muscle.”
I held out my hand to Eton. “Hello, a pleasure.”
I was surprised that he actually reached down and took it, but I understood why when he turned my hand to jelly in his own paw. “Introductions later. Maybe.” He crossed the two tree trunks he had for arms and nodded at me. “We’re about to start the run, so hustle to your station.”
I was pretty sure he wasn’t the one who should be giving me orders, but I plastered a friendly smile on my face instead of shaking out my pulped hand and screaming that I didn’t have time for this. “Of course. I look forward to it.”
Eighteen hours later, I definitely wasn’t smiling.
The Kaitan Heritage was poised at the outskirts of a vast molecular cloud. Thanks to the projected image in the hold, intended to help me keep pace with what Arjan was doing in the skiff--the small secondary shuttle that he used to maneuver the net when it wasn’t docked in the Kaitan--I had a front-row seat. The edges of the cloud seemed frozen in time in spite of the cosmic forces that propelled them outward. These gas streamers spread for light years, streaked with oranges, purples, and greens like the product of a painter gone mad. The fingers reached to where we hovered in the Alaxak Asteroid Sea, a stretching field of celestial rubble.
And yet the enormity of that brilliant sky crammed with stars was nothing to my first glimpse of a Shadow run. Surrounded by undulating fields of blackness, waving pinpricks of light coursed toward us in a bizarre mimicry of planetary fish migrations--a mesmerizing, swirling, diving current that invited uninitiated “fishermen” to gape unabashedly.
Which I was certainly guilty of on our first run. Now, countless runs later, I couldn’t have cared less. I was frozen, depleted beyond measure. The Great Unifier himself could have reached a finger out to create a new cosmos and my response would have been to take a nap, grateful that we weren’t making a run for another catch.
Captain Qole, on the other hand, had no plans for sleep. From the chatter on the comms it seemed we were raking in a catch of epic proportions, and she had brought us about for yet another run.
I had apparently arrived on the job in the midst of some intense Shadow fishing, and I didn’t think asking her to stop, hear me out, and come with me, even though I couldn’t tell her my full name, even if I guaranteed her safety and a lot of money, would go over well. Not without her trust. Which I had no idea how to earn from the cargo hold. I was having a hard enough time surviving.
The Kaitan floated in stillness, contemplating the endless sea of Shadow off its bow. Then it tilted, a hum reverberating through the ship as subspace engines were fueled to life, and we rocketed straight for the ten or so trillion tons of hurtling rock in the asteroid field. Shadow flashed up toward us faster than any of the debris, then parted, a thousand frantic points of light dispersing out from the ship, vanishing back into the asteroid field.
The display showed the edges of mag-couplings flickering to life as the boom on top of the ship extended out to the side. A winch unspooled the two cables--the polarized top and bottom edge of the “net” attached to Arjan’s skiff--which trailed behind him as he took off.