This is a free sample of the first chapter of Last Ship Off Polaris-G (A Central Galactic Concordance Novella), by Carol Van Natta. Enjoy!
* Frontier Planet “Polaris-Gamma” * GDAT 3233.012
SUPPLY DEPOT MANAGER Anitra Helden counted her lucky stars that she’d stumbled across an abandoned interstellar freighter, and hoped Trader Gavril Danilovich’s evaluation would bring rare good news in a year of bad, worse, and catastrophic events. Funnily enough, she trusted him more than anyone local she’d known and worked with for the last three years. Nothing like a slow-moving apocalypse to bring out the worst in everyone.
In the final months of life on the formerly up-and-coming frontier planet of Polaris-Gamma, the settlers had become reckless, volatile, and mean. The settlement company that had organized the planet’s colonization had gotten greedy. The government’s overworked and understaffed planetary law enforcement barely kept the pot from boiling over. And between broad-daylight thefts, city infrastructure failures, and near-nightly riots, Aetheres city enforcers were at burnout.
Dust made clouds in the chilled air, creating a golden haze in the shafts of autumn sunlight that streamed in from the cavernous airdome’s open skylights. The mottled surface of the massive old freighter looked like a canvas painting. Anitra had traveled in hundreds of interstellar ships, large and small, but never stood on the top of one in a repair dock. Below her boots spanned a hundred and twenty meters by ninety meters of transit space-etched incalloy. Her mind balked at trying to imagine its true size, even if she could see it.
Gavril had every reason to tell Pol-G’s government to suck a hot flux hose. A month ago, Pol-G’s government-run spaceport had impounded his cargo and sealed off his interstellar trader ship—his sole means of livelihood—on a dubious charge of unpaid landing fees from a previous visit. He’d been losing customers every galactic standard day since then. He was only with her now, well outside the city in the defunct ship repair hangar, because they had a history.
Well, more like a chance meeting two years ago that had led to a long weekend together that became a glorious long week. Unfortunately, fantastic sex and dreams of different star lanes were no match for his scheduled trading commitments throughout the galaxy. Or for her ground-based responsibilities as a newly promoted government supply depot manager, a job she’d worked hard to get. Besides, returning to any of the Central Galactic Concordance’s five-hundred-plus member planets wasn’t an option for her. They were both well past the age when a chance for love made anything seem possible. She hadn’t known he’d gotten stuck on Pol-G until she’d run into him again two weeks ago in the same pub where she’d first met him.
He wore his life experience well, she thought. Body shops could make anyone look any age they wanted, from seventeen to one hundred seventy. However, as far as she knew, Gavril only went in for regular checkups and maintenance, so he’d won the genetics lottery. She knew him to be fifty-six, but he looked at least fifteen years younger, and delighted in whimsical hair and eye colors, and artistic skin decoration.
She didn’t look her own age of fifty-five, either, but that was thanks to a full body makeover that made her look early thirties and of deliberately vague Afro-Euro heritage. She didn’t expect to see another body shop for multiple decades, since circumstances had forced her to set fire to her former career in the Central Galactic Concordance and flee to the sanctuary of the frontier. She’d set down roots on Pol-G, hoping to age gracefully there for the next hundred years, far away from the CGC and out of reach of the Citizen Protection Service. And look how well that had turned out.
She sealed the collar of her green half-cloak against the chill of the disused hangar and walked briskly back to the stairway up to the banks of computers and large-format displays where Gavril worked. She wouldn’t even have recognized them as comps, much less that they controlled the repair dock’s cameras, scanners, and probes below, if Gavril hadn’t told her. She’d found a plausible excuse to get the dock’s power turned on and neighborhood batteries recharged without mentioning the existence of the dormant freighter in the underground repair silo. Good thing she’d remembered Gavril trained as a ship engineer and worked in a commercial shipyard for twenty years before taking up the life of an independent trader. Good thing he also liked tinkering with old ships, because the Deset Diamantov was at least ninety years old.
She stood to the side, out of his way, surreptitiously admiring the view. His imposing nose and generous mouth looked European, but the shape of his eyes and cheekbones, and his wiry strength, spoke of Asian heritage. His currently long black-, blue-, and gold-beaded braids hid the pilot’s skulljack behind his bejeweled ear. It made an intriguingly handsome combination, and was one of the qualities that had first attracted her to him. He was sexy as hell. His grumpy, sarcastic surface hid a generous nature and a lively sense of the absurd that made her laugh.
She didn’t need her empath talent to tell that he was enjoying himself now, but she dropped her shield and let herself be soothed by the uncontained flavors of it anyway. Not exactly ethical, but she needed it. They’d be back in the sulking, raging city soon enough.
He slid his hands into his jacket pockets and turned to her. “That’s the final system check.” The corner of his mouth twitched with humor. “Tell me again how the planetary government lost a freighter the size of a gravball stadium.”
She laughed at the acerbity in his tone. “I don’t think they ever knew they had it. After our first visit, I did some digging. When the settlement company’s illegal embargo depressed off-planet trade last year, the shipyard owners emptied their financial accounts and left in a hurry. Their major investor went bankrupt a month later. Pol-G eventually confiscated the property for taxes owed and sent the city an audit request, but it never happened, probably because it was on a list of hundreds. Aetheres lost half its population and businesses in the six months before the blockade. Oh, sorry, the ‘pandemic quarantine for the safety of the Concordance.’” She made air quotes with her fingers. “I only found this place because it’s tagged in my office’s records as a suspended transportation warehouse—probably a translation error—and I was hoping it had a missing government cache of pre-blight mealpacks. When I read the actual business name on the hangar doors, I thought of you.” If she was honest, she’d thought of him a lot since running into him in the pub, and remembered how they’d synced so well. She’d put off contacting him again, because the timing tanked and her job kept her insanely busy, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Her growly stomach wanted the lunch she’d left in the flitter they’d parked just inside the gigantic front doors, but she wanted to hear Gavril’s evaluation more.
“Who owned the ship?” His Standard English held the flavor of a Slavic accent with certain words.
She shook her head. “No record. Best guess, the shipyard was holding it hostage until the owner paid the repair bill.” She tilted her head toward the diagnostic displays. “Maybe the shipcomps know?”
“No, they’re flatlined.” A three-tone chime sounded from the console, loud enough to echo against the high walls. He turned and manipulated the holo interface. Data streamed on one of the displays, then went blank. He shut down the console and made a face as he pressed a control that retracted the displays. “It’s good news, bad news.”
“Bad first.” Better to know what she was up against, rather than living on hope.
“Absolute zero fuel, either system or flux. Two out of four coils in the system drive are fried, along with the gravity compensators, atmosphere wing controls, and thrusters. All the comps are flatlined—engine, nav, enviro, security, comms, everything. No working escape pods. No weapons, not even amped-up debris lasers. The incalloy is too thin where the ship took heavy energy weapon damage. Someone sealed off the largest loading airlock rather than replace it.” He shook his head in disgust. “The cargo holds are a catastrophe waiting to happen—a jumble of mismatched shipping crates bolted onto a random spider web of cross-struts.”
“No wonder they abandoned it.” She sighed. “What’s the good news?”
“It’s a good design, with good bones. The interstellar drive is only ten years old and sized correctly for the ship and a full cargo. That would have been a deal-killer. Everything else is fixable, right here”—he circled a finger to indicate the hangar and everything below it—“if you can line up shipbuilders, engineers, data techs, materials, replacement parts, incalloy, and someone to redesign and refit the cargo holds. And an ocean-sized tanker or two of fuel.”
She had a lot to think about, and as usual, too little time. “Let’s close up here and talk about it in the flitter.” She shivered. “The warm flitter.”
~ ~ ~
She took off, then released control of the flitter’s flight to the city’s traffic control system. She pulled two still-warm meat pies from the insulated bag she’d brought and handed him one.
He gave her a quick smile as he unwrapped it and took a bite. “You made this? It’s good.”
“Thanks.” She took her own first bite. “I like cooking, when I can.”
“So do I.” His mild words didn’t match the uncontained flare of annoyance from him, probably because he’d lost access to his kitchen when the spaceport sealed his ship. She raised her shields so her own mixed emotions wouldn’t add to his stress.
She finished her meat pie quickly, then handed him a pouch of filtered water and took one for herself.
“I wish I had the time to be delicate about this, but I don’t. First, while my title is still supply depot manager, my new unofficial job is supply logistics for a mass lift-off from the planet. I’m not high enough in the food chain to know when, or where any of us are going, but it’s coming. I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors everywhere. Second, the government commandeered all ships, not just yours, and is conscripting anyone with a pilot or navigation certificate, even if it’s thirty years out of date. If you agree to pilot your ship and pass a screening, they’ll clear the lien on it once you get to whatever refuge they’re sending your passengers to.” She shrugged. “That’s the official line, at any rate.”
She took a sip of water to give herself a moment to organize her thoughts. “If we can get the Diamantov operational again, I want to fill it with everything of value I can get my hands on to trade or sell, so our people don’t show up on someone else’s proverbial doorstep empty-handed. I think I can find everything needed to fix the ship, but I need someone I trust to take charge of the refit and do it right.” She looked him straight in the eye. “That’s you.”
As she would have expected from a professional trader, neither his face nor body language gave anything away. She resisted the temptation to drop her shields and activate her empath talent to see what his uncontained emotions could tell her.
“Would this master-level, supervisory buildmaster gig be for the Pol-G government that commandeered my ship, even though I might have agreed to help if they’d asked? Or for you?”
“Both, I guess. The government can’t pay CGC hard credit, because the settlement company would just garnish it, but I can arrange that they pay in interstellar flux fuel and an energy recharge for your ship. Flux is the one thing Pol-G has in abundance—arguably what got us into this mess in the first place. I can offer two things in trade.” She held up one finger. “First, I’ll do my damnedest to get your ship released so you can stay or go as you please, though you’d still have to be screened.” She added another finger. “Second, I’ll train you how to use and contain your minder empath talent, so you can handle being in crowds, or stand being around emotional people who are broadcasting so loud they make your ears bleed.”
He turned away to look out the side window. She’d given him a lot to think about, so she unfolded her tablet and busied herself with her exponentially growing task list, to give him the gift of silence.
When he finally spoke, it wasn’t the question she expected.
“How long have you known about my minder talent?” His flat tone matched his expressionless face.
“Since that last day together. I wasn’t looking for it, and you don’t use it often. I’m a multi-talent minder—empath, shielder…” She pointed to her temple. “I’m trained to always stay shielded, even when I sleep, so I didn’t feel your talent flare until we had that last, ah, disagreement.”
He snorted. “The one where I told you I was leaving with or without you, and you told me to suck flux?”
She really needed to find some new insults. “Yeah, that one. I couldn’t have come with you then, and you knew it, but I could have been more diplomatic.”
He hunched one shoulder and looked away. “I pushed too hard.”
“I think your empath talent is high level. Sifters are better at sensing minder talents than mid-level shielders like me, so I could be wrong, but didn’t CPS testing catch it?” One of the Citizen Protection Service’s more benign missions was to test every child in the Central Galactic Concordance for minder talents at ages twelve and seventeen. Maybe a quarter of those tested positive for talents. Useful high-level talents usually brought scholarships to the prestigious CPS Academy and Institute, plus bonus payments to the family. Not many parents turned down the opportunity. Hers certainly hadn’t.
He looked straight ahead at the approaching city skyline. “My mother didn’t believe in talent testing, because of my father. She faked my records.” He shook his head. “Probably wouldn’t have found anything, anyway. It didn’t come on until I was in my early twenties.”
She wanted to follow that intriguing trail, because she knew very little of his past, but couldn’t afford the distraction. She also couldn’t afford certain questions about her own background. “I’m CPS Institute-trained, and have trained a lot of minders in the field. Even if you turn down the Diamantov deal, I’d be willing to teach you. My empath talent developed first, so I know what it’s like not to be able to shut the world out.” She darted a look at him and took a guess. “Especially if you don’t understand what’s happening.”
He glanced at her, startled, then looked away again. “I thought I was going insane.”
“Oh, yeah. Kids who tell the wrong person get called liars or attention-seekers.” She gave him a wry smile. “Testing is good for telling young minders they aren’t crazy, but being a known minder doesn’t exactly make you welcome in polite society. Then there’s the whole ‘all minders are cheaters’ thing. The registration law finally died twenty years ago, so it’s getting better, but I can’t blame your mother for not wanting the life of a minder for her son.”
They passed over a sprawling tract of a never-completed commercial and residential community. From the air, it looked like it would have been a pleasant place to live.
“What’s the screening you mentioned?”
She gave him an apologetic look. “It’s a telepathic scan. No one trusts RSI—that’s th settlement company—not to use spies against us. All it would take is one torp headed for the military blockade, and they’d make a ring around the planet with the remains of our refugee ships.”
“Let me guess. If I refuse the scan, they keep my ship.” His lips thinned and his eyes narrowed. “That’s just farking fabulous.”
“If it helps to know, the telepath already scanned me, and he’s good at his job. So far, he’s kept everyone’s secrets.” Including a couple of her own that could get her killed if revealed.
She checked the console, to make sure the flitter was still being controlled by the increasingly glitchy traffic control system. TCS maintenance didn’t have as high a priority as keeping the peace long enough to get the hell off a dying planet.
Below them, the bleached skeletons of once lushly green trees made it look like winter, even though it was barely the first days of autumn. A year ago, a virulent fungus had arrived in a seemingly innocent shipment of fuel-crop planting seeds. Funny how the pale, powdery blight affected multiple phyla of plant life and mutated faster than the bioengineers could tailor antifungals to kill it. Even funnier how it had arrived one month to the day after the Pol-G government refused to honor a CGC court order to pay the settlement company a huge penalty for early settlement debt payoff. Settlement companies invested heavily in terraforming suitable planets and marketed them to frontier settlers willing to pay, expecting to reap nearly a century of interest payments, while also selling overpriced services to the settlers. Pol-G’s decades-early debt payoff pissed off the settlement company to no end. Debates raged as to whether the company knew the blight would destroy the whole planet’s terraformed ecology, or if the company had been as unpleasantly surprised as the settlers when the royal ratfucking backfired. Either way, it wasn’t getting its penalty money now.
She shook off her melancholy, because it wasn’t helping get anything done. The countdown clock on the console said the flitter would reach her supply depot’s airpad in twelve minutes. She folded her tablet and turned her seat so it was easier to look at Gavril.
He turned his seat to face her. “Could you use your talent to make me want to say yes?”
“Maybe.” She tilted her head. “Do you want me to? So you can blame me if things go chaotic?” She smiled wryly. “Which they probably will, because that’s just how we glide here on the happiest planet in the galaxy.”
“No, I wanted to know if you were influencing me, because I’m inclined to agree to your insane project, and it’s not like me.” He blew out a noisy breath. “I don’t like people.”
“Thank you.” She couldn’t keep the smile off her face. “You’ll probably be cursing my name hourly for the foreseeable future, but please know I’m grateful.” She hadn’t expected he’d sign on for her half-baked plan, so now she had to follow through. “Do you have time this afternoon to make a prioritized list of what you’ll need, with alternates and options?”
He snorted. “I’ll clear my calendar.”
She thought about giving him one of the empty offices in the supply depot, but the less anyone knew about the freighter and what she was planning to do with it, the better. She liked most of her employees, but didn’t know if they could keep a secret as big as the Diamantov.
“Where are you staying?” She pulled out her tablet again. “Here’s what I’m thinking. I’d like to have you stay at the repair dock, because it’s far away from prying eyes. Maybe on the ship? You’ll need a vehicle, too. The city is overloaded with repossessed and abandoned flitters and haulers. I think I can work a deal to store some of their overflow at my new remote transportation warehouse.”
“I’ll move to the dock this afternoon, if you’ll let me, even if I have to sleep in a tent, eat mealpacks, and urinate in the woods.” A bleak expression crossed his face. “You should know that the city is making me crazy. I’ve had to chem myself nightly to get any sleep.”
She looked up from her list and gave him an assessing look. “Can you quit the chems on your own?”
He nodded. “Yes. I don’t like them, but I can’t handle crowds.” He pointed a thumb toward the back. “A huge, empty ship will be paradise.”
She wouldn’t find a buildmaster she trusted in time, and she wanted to trust Gavril. “It won’t be entirely empty, if I can get you some help.”
He waved a hand in dismissal. “A few people are no problem. I’ll add specialty skills to the list.”
“Good.” She smiled, basking in the all-too-rare sense of hope, before it got crushed again. “You’re a lifesaver.”
~ ~ ~
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