I wrote a short story about Jak and Torrin’s first major holiday together after the events in Vortex of Crimson. And of course, me being me, it didn’t stay a short story. I think it’s technically a novelette, as it clocks in around 11,000 words.
But! Since my wife is a genius, she suggested I release the story one chapter at a time over the month of December. You can thank her or curse her for the idea, as you see fit. Chapters 2 through 4 will be out on Friday of each week.
She’d been gone for far too long. Torrin paced as best she could from one end of the Calamity Jane’s small bridge to the other. It wasn’t the first time she’d paced off the six-and-a-half steps today. In fact, since Nat had left the ship to make the rendezvous, Torrin had been pacing almost non-stop.
She glanced at the nearest readout. Station time made it 1930 hours. Nat had been gone all of twenty minutes.
Is that all? “Tien, re-sync the readout with station time, if you please.”
The AI’s hologram flickered to life on the center of the nearest console. As usual, she was clad in traditional Chinese robes. Her semi-transparent face was devoid of expression as she turned to bow slightly to Torrin.
“Torrin, I have re-synced the time as you asked.”
There was no more emotion in her voice than Torrin could see on her face, but still Torrin knew something lurked beneath the placid exterior. Was it exasperation? Maybe amusement. The readout flickered once, but the time refused to change.
With a sigh, Torrin forced herself to sit in the captain’s chair. This trip had been too important to leave to someone else, the cargo too precious for anyone but her, though Nat was the one making the actual pickup. Her sister needed to get more comfortable with this kind of work. It had made perfect sense when she was planning the trip. Torrin’s right knee jiggled in place. It should be her meeting up with the contact, not Nat. Granted, she’d made certain Nat was armed to the teeth. Anyone who tried to get the drop on her would be shocked. In addition to the bristling arsenal of visible weaponry, Nat also had some nasty surprises lurking out of sight. Plus, she’d completed the intensive self-defense course Torrin had developed for her employees with the help of the Banshees. Anyone ambushing her sister would have far more on their hands than they’d bargained for.
None of that would have kept her out of Crimson’s hands. Torrin was back on her feet. That little voice was as right as it was inconvenient. If something happened to Nat again, no one would forgive her, least of all herself.
“I’m going out,” Torrin announced to the empty air of the bridge.
“Torrin, I do not think that is a good idea,” Tien said.
“Nat’s been gone for…” Torrin leaned over to check the readout again, “…twenty-three minutes.” She flopped back down in the chair.
The front viewscreen shimmered, distorting the view of hangars and docking bays around them.
“Frozen hells,” Torrin whispered, leaning forward for a better view.
“Torrin, this was in the data dump we received from Station Central when we docked. I am surprised you missed it.”
“I had other things on my mind.” Things like making sure Nat was set to meet one of her contacts and to take on all comers if something went pear-shaped. “I thought I had a little more time. At least it’s a flattering picture.” She watched glumly as her holopic rotated on the screen. It was an old one. Her hair still hadn’t grown out to its former glorious length. It had only recently gotten long enough to stay in the ponytail when she pulled it back.
Thanks to the vindictive Captain Mori and her overreaction to their communication troubles on Haefen, Torrin’s likeness and a list of her supposed crimes against the League of Solaran Planets had been circulated among all League-affiliated worlds and stations. That was bad enough, but there had been no call to put a warrant out on her. Outing her as a smuggler had made it all but impossible to move unnoticed. That alone was a huge blow to her career. Knowing that she could be arrested simply for daring to enter League space was part of why the pickup had been arranged in this backwater.
Chaurus Station had very little to recommend it. A refueling and resupply station for the transports out of the mining colonies ubiquitous in this corner of the galaxy, it didn’t get much more remote. It was small potatoes, which was perfect for a training run with Nat, and picking up her cargo.
“There’s no mention of Nat, is there?”
That was a relief. There had also been no mention of the warrant. Chaurus was quite emphatically not a League station, not with the haphazard way it had been built and was currently being maintained. When Torrin had piloted their way into the hangar, she had very carefully not looked too closely at the walls of the station. There had been enough station debris floating around it to let her know what she would find.
Still, Torrin hadn’t built up the success she had without gleefully treading on a few toes. She wouldn’t put it past some of the smugglers she’d out-maneuvered to snatch her up and deliver her to the League. They might not get a bounty for her, but she would be out of the way. And who knew, if they were enterprising enough, they might find some League cop looking to make their way up the chain of command. Selling her to an ambitious member of the authorities would sweeten the deal even more. It’s what she would have done, but only for the worst of the dirt-bags who did business on the Fringes.
Okay, so I won’t go into the station except as a last resort. Torrin reached behind her ear and activated her subdermal transmitter.
“Everything as it should be?”
“It’s fine.” If Nat had been in front of her, Torrin would have been hard-pressed not to smack her arm over her tone. She knew her baby sister was rolling her eyes.
“Be sure to keep an eye out.” It took almost inhuman effort to keep her own irritation out of her voice, but somehow Torrin managed it. “My likeness has made it into station files here.”
“I know, it came up when I checked the station dump before I headed out. There’s no need to come over all snippy. I don’t know how you missed that.”
Snippy? She’d been anything but. “I was a little occupied.” Okay, that’s snippy. Torrin gritted her teeth into a smile before asking sweetly: “Any sign of the contact?” This was why she worked alone.
“None yet, but I’m early.” Nat swallowed something.
“Are you having a drink? This is a training run, not some port of call for a cruise.”
“I’m in a bar, Torrin. It would look strange if I didn’t have a drink.” Nat’s voice was overly reasonable.
“Don’t go overboard. Bars are dangerous places if you’re not paying attention, especially in a place like this.”
There was a short pause while Nat took a breath as if she’d been about to say something. She blew it out and started again. “I’ll be fine, Torrin. Really.”
She wasn’t really talking about the meeting. “I know,” Torrin said softly. “I worry.”
“Well, stop it.” Nat’s tone softened the words somewhat, but there was no mistaking the message.
“Got it. Let me know if you need me. Torrin out.” She terminated the connection and tried to relax into the chair. There was nothing to do except wait for Nat’s return or her call.
The distress call never came, but Nat showed up about an hour later.
“What took so long?” Torrin had been waiting by the access hatch since Tien notified her that Nat was cycling the airlock. “Did you get it?”
“Your contact was late so I started a conversation with a lovely woman at the bar. I had to break it off to take care of your business, but it would have been rude to leave without saying goodbye.” Nat smirked. “Goodbye took a while.”
“Mm hmm.” Torrin shook her head. “You could have called.”
“I said I’d let you know if I got in any trouble. I already have two moms, I don’t need another.”
Just like that, Nat flipped from affable to angry. Her moods had stabilized somewhat since her ordeal on Haefen, but she was still prone to sudden shifts. Torrin held up her hands in an attempt to mollify.
“I got it.” She brought her hands down slowly as if in doing so she could also sweeten Nat’s suddenly sour mood. “Did you get it?”
“Yeah.” Nat passed the long metal case over to Torrin. If she shoved it into Torrin’s hands a little harder than necessary, Torrin pretended not to notice.
“Great!” Her face lit up with glee. She propped it on some exposed conduit and opened the case. Everything was in order as best she could tell. To be on the safe side, she’d have Olesya look it over when they got back to Nadierzda.
“That’s the big secret?” Nat peered over her shoulder at the contents of the case.
“Yes.” Torrin snapped it closed before Nat could look too closely. “Not a word to anyone.”
“I mean it, Nat. I know how you get when you know a secret. No hints, no oblique asides. If you blow this, I’m going to be really upset. Besides, secrecy is something you’ll need to get down if you’re going to take over this part of my work.”
“I’ll be good, I promise.” Nat grinned, little trace left of her earlier anger. Tightness still lingered at the corners of her eyes and mouth, but that never completely went away these days. Her eyes were far more relaxed than they’d been six months ago, and Torrin hadn’t given up hope that Nat would eventually get back to her old self. Therapy had been good for her.
“Thank you. Now let’s get out of here.” Torrin stopped to stow the case carefully in her quarters, then joined Nat on the bridge.
Nat had taken her usual spot in the jump chair. It was shoved to one side of the bridge, affording a place someone aside from the pilot could observe what was going on, but with access to none of the ship’s controls.
“Move over,” Torrin said, flipping her hand at Nat.
“What do you mean?” Nat stared at her.
“You can’t very well take the ship out from here, can you?” There were a couple screens nearby and a small console, but they were useful for little else than observation.
“Do you mean it?” Nat’s eyes shone as she processed what Torrin was saying. “You’re going to let me pilot us out?”
“I told you you’re going to take over this arm of the business, didn’t I?” Torrin’s grousing was an act. Mostly. Finding her holopic in that station’s data dump effectively completed her grounding. She could wish she’d had more time, but that wouldn’t change things. It was almost worth it to see Nat’s face light up, and to see the old Nat shining through. “Prove to me you can finish up the job. It’s not over-”
“Until we’re home, docked and the cargo has been stowed.” Nat finished the sentence without the eye roll she usually provided when finishing one of Torrin’s stock phrases. “Aye, aye, ma’am!” She really was excited, if she was willing to call Torrin “ma’am.”
Torrin stood to one side while Nat disengaged her safety harness. She tried not to cringe when Nat plopped herself into the captain’s chair. Instead, Torrin focused on engaging the harness and biting her tongue while Nat worked her way through safety checks and the navigation plan with Tien.
Nat’s plan was good, though not the one Torrin would have used, but she kept her mouth shut. The path wouldn’t expose Nadierzda to discovery which was all that mattered.
There was little to complain about when they uncoupled from the station and Nat took them out. She was an excellent flyer, even if she did lack Torrin’s flair. Her flying style was more aggressive than Torrin’s. Nat had a tendency to rely on the power of the engines and dispensed with much of Torrin’s finesse. The ride was certainly fast, if not as smooth, but that was what inertial dampers were for. And anything that got them back to Nadi faster also got her back into Jak’s arms faster, so Torrin wasn’t about to complain.