Despite Captain Carolyn Kestral’s best efforts, her medical past and hazardous reputation means she must accept sketchy freight jobs just to make ends meet… including jobs from shadowy and barely-legal organizations like the Concorde.
And when one of those sketchy jobs at the remote Rho station takes a bad turn—and a group of innocents are marked for death—Kestral and the crew of the Mary realize that, to help them escape the Concorde’s wrath, they need the aid of an unlikely new ally: The wily and mercenary Captain of the Jovian Skies…
Preview: Salvaged Run
“Captain Kestral! It gives me every bit of pleasure to report that our entire cargo is ON FIRE!”
“Thank you, Tirri!” Carolyn Kestral shouted back at the com over the noise of the Mary’s re-entry, all the while keeping her eyes on the readings from the ops console. Next to her at the pilot’s station, Mark O’Bannon manipulated the helm with deft fingers. His mouth, set in a grim line, was barely visible against his carbon-black skin; his eyes were hidden behind bulky goggles that gave him enhanced flight information. Kestral looked at him to see if he had anything to say about Tirri’s report.
“On fire… got it.”
“We’re nineteen-K to destination,” Kestral reported.
“I know,” Mark replied. “I’m mostly thinking about the last one.”
Kestral, not bothering to hide her irritation, turned back to the com. “Tirri, monitor fire control from the corridor… get out of the bay and seal it! Where’s Angel?”
“In the farm!” came Angel’s voice over the com.
“Stay there!” Kestral shouted. “You have fire control up there!”
The Mary was a medium-sized freighter, and better-looking than most: It had smooth, graceful lines, with few outer modules to break up the cleanliness of the alabaster-white hull, and two outboard thrusters that looked beefy enough to power the ship through any atmosphere without pause. But at that moment, as it punched through the upper cloud layer in a steep dive, still moving at supersonic speed, it looked more like a fat bomb plummeting towards a shattering end.
“Freighter Mary, this is Sequist Storage Facility.” They’d been quiet since Kestral had called ahead and declared a flight emergency. Now that they were within visual range, she imagined the control offices were starting to get nervous. “We have your incoming track, but it’s way too fast and steep! What’s your situation?”
“Mary to Sequist,” Kestral replied. “We have a fire emergency on-board. I’d advise you to put the facility on alert!”
“Already done. We have a clear pad on grid nine-Jay-nine. Sending you a new landing track.”
“Thank you, Sequist.” Kestral glanced at her pilot. Mark gave her a quick nod indicating he had the information. It told her little about what he’d do with it.
“Fire control isn’t putting out the cargo!” Tirri’s voice called out. “I’m going to lose the harnesses soon!”
“Good to know,” Mark commented.
“Oh, really?” Kestral shot him an angry glance. “First Tirri—”
“I’m just saying,” Mark interrupted her, “that we’re going to need to get that stuff out of the bay ASAP. The harnesses will just get in the way.”
“The harnesses are the least of our trouble! We can’t move that cargo while it’s on fire! None of the mechanicals back there are designed to handle the heat!”
“Then we won’t use ‘em,” Mark replied. He glanced at Kestral, and although she couldn’t see his eyes behind the flight goggles, there was no mistaking the grin that tugged at one corner of his mouth.
“Gods, what are you thinking?”
“We lucked out,” Mark replied. “Look: The facility is outside of the city. There’s open land right next to our landing pad.”
Kestral checked her screens and got a look at the area around their ultimate destination, the storage facility just ahead. “So?”
“So tell everyone to strap in. Right now.”
Kestral paused only a moment before slapping at the com. “Everyone get to a secured seat and strap down. We’re coming in—” she shook her head at her own pun “—hot!”
Mark continued their steep descent, which unnerved the control offices below them. “Mary, you’re still too fast and steep! Pull out!”
“Back seat drivers,” Mark muttered, and despite herself, Kestral grinned. Suddenly Mark shouted, “Okay, here we go! Opening starboard cargo bay doors!”
“What!” Kestral yelped. “Mark—” She wasn’t able to finish, because at that moment, Mark forced the Mary into a thruster-heavy stall, putting at least three extra G’s of force on them. Mary pulled up mere meters off the ground, sliding over and past the designated landing pad at high speed. Kestral’s left hand lost its grip on the edge of the ops console, forcing her upper body to fall onto that side of the console. She let out a grunt as she struck the console, and tried to get her left hand back up for support. But before she could manage it, Mark’s hands danced across the pilot’s console, and Mary turned into a tight spin. “Oomph!” Kestral coughed as she was forced back down onto the ops panel, caught by centrifugal force as Mary whirled like a dervish over the open fields beyond the pad.
The freighter spun about so fast that it seemed about to tear its own tail section off. Then Mark promptly arrested the spin. In the bay, the flaming cargo shifted quickly, breaking through the remnants of the floor harnesses, sliding in piles across the floor and tumbling out the open bay doors. Scores of flaming crates arched downward and crashed onto the field below. Many of the crates shattered upon landing, causing new flames to jump into the sky.
“It’s all out!” Tirri promptly reported. “Well… outside, anyway!”
The Mary, now serene and under control, continued to slide gently away from the conflagration, around it and toward the designated landing pad. Mark brought the massive freighter down easily in the middle of the pad. Then he turned to Kestral and pushed the goggles up into his bushy snow-white hair, a satisfied smile on his face.
Kestral sighed. “Gonna be no tolerating you for a month.” She stifled a full-out laugh as she reached for the com. “Status reports, everyone.”
The first voice heard was the deep timbre of Sarander: “We’re good in engineering, Carolyn.”
Next was Angel: “The fire never got to the upper bays. Just a bunch of stuff thrown around. I’ll check downstairs.”
“The main bay is a mess,” Tirri responded. “And it stinks of—”
“Don’t say it,” Kestral cut her off. “The coms are archived. I’ll be right there. Good work, everyone.” She switched off the com and turned to Mark. “All right: Let’s see how much of a mess we made.”
They shut down the bridge systems and headed aft, passing through the galley and common along the way. Angel Shakra was already there, picking up tossed cooking utensils and miscellaneous items that had been scattered by Mark’s maneuvers. Angel stood up when he saw Kestral approaching, his reedy frame, struggling beard and dirt-stained coveralls making him look like an old-time farmer who’d snuck onto the ship at some point and tried to look like he belonged there; but in fact, he did, being the cook, mate and tender of the live plants growing in the upper bays of the ship. He looked apologetically around the galley. “Lunch might be a bit late, Captain.”
“Whenever you can manage it, Angel,” Kestral replied, smiling and patting him on the arm. Then she hooked a thumb over her shoulder. “Don’t feel bad… it’s Mark’s fault.”
Mark followed her, grinning amiably.
As they reached the hatch to the cargo bays, they were joined by Sarander, who had come down from the engineering sections. Sarander was such a giant of a man that many who met him had doubts that he was a baseline-human. He fell in step with Kestral and, in his characteristically basso voice, said, “Whose idea was it to spin this ship like a top to clear our cargo?”
“Not me,” Kestral smiled. “Talk to the Martian.”
Sarander gave a backward glance to Mark. “I had a feeling. Do you two ever talk these hare-brained ideas out, y’know, just to make sure they’re actually feasible? ‘Cause obviously no one’s asking the ship’s boss about it.”
“Oh, relax,” Mark spoke up. “Between you and me, we can make this ship dance on the head of a pin!”
“Well, next time I’d appreciate a bit more warning before the next dance—”
Sarander was interrupted when they reached the cargo bay hatch, and they were assaulted by an odor that carried on the smoke still present in the bay.
“—Oh, sweet seasons!” Sarander slapped a massive hand over his nose. In front of him, Kestral also had a hand over her nose and mouth as she surveyed the cargo bay. A few meters in front of them was the last member of the crew, Tirri Riza, Sarander’s wife. Her thin frame and feathered head were common of her Avian heritage; as she turned to face them, they realized her larger-than-human eyes were pinched shut, feathery lashes hiding her pupils, as she held a rag to her face.
“Carolyn—cough! Cough!—The crates and contents are all gone, but… Gods, this is awful!”
The bay wasn’t much better: Burn stains from the crates covered large areas of the bay floor, parts of the ceiling and the cargo manipulating arms in the upper framework. Smoke continued to curl around the space, even with the bay doors still open. And the smoke carried the burnt smell of the cargo, a stench that threatened to empty Kestral’s stomach. She immediately waved at Tirri to get her out of the bay.
“Get in here and close the door—cough!” As soon as Tirri was through, Kestral slapped the door controls to close the cargo bay hatch. No one uncovered their mouths and noses until the door closed and sealed; then they all uncovered their mouths and took a deep breath. “Okay,” Kestral said when she’d recovered, “that’s gonna take a real effort to clean up, before we can carry anything else in there!”
“Carolyn,” Tirri struggled to get out, “I swear there wasn’t anything I could do. You saw those crates…”
Kestral nodded. “I did. You’re right, there wasn’t anything you could have done. Those crates were defective when we got them… or they wouldn’t have cracked their seals like that. It’s Oyo’s fault: He never should have given us those crates.”
“I knew there was something twitchy about him,” Sarander commented. “He probably knew those crates were no good.”
“Or he thought they’d make one more trip,” Mark pointed out. “Either way—”
“We’re the ones who are going to hear about it. Probably soon,” Kestral said. She looked up at the bulkhead ceiling. “Mary, is anyone from Sequist approaching?”
A new voice emanated from the bulkheads; the voice of the Mary. “Four men from Kei Traxler are approaching from the warehouse now.”
“Four?” Kestral’s eyes narrowed. “Good. I’m in that kind of a mood.”
The man in the lead was baseline-human, if a bit on the burly side; the other three were Taurans, even beefier and a head taller than their leader. Kestral’s delivery instructions had included a man named Bacler, so she assumed he was the one in the lead. Kestral saw them approaching as the crew hatch opened, striding toward the landing pad with menace in their body language. Interestingly, no one was coming out to put out the fire. Kestral just snorted her derision, and stepped down the gangplank. Mark and Sarander followed her. Sarander was almost as big as the Taurans. Mark was the shortest of all of them, but his features, hard to make out even in full daylight, showed no sign of concern.
Before the men had even reached them, the leader started gesticulating at the flaming pile of debris out on the field, and yelling at Kestral. “Gods damn and plagues, what the hell kind of crap is this? That was valuable cargo, and you just—”
“Just saved my ship and the lives of my crew,” Kestral growled at him with an ever-increasing voice, “from improperly-packed and damaged crates!”
She strode up to the leader with such intention that he started to falter as she approached. Kestral took full advantage by shooting out an arm. The leader flinched, but not in time to avoid Kestral’s grabbing him by the back of his jacket collar. She hitched it up, almost bringing the leader off his feet; then she turned and started dragging him towards the Mary. The Taurans seemed to be surprised by Kestral’s ferocity, and stopped in confusion when Mark and Sarander took up positions in front of them.
“Come here! You’re Bacler, aren’t you? I want you to see what Oyo’s crap did to the inside of my ship!” The leader half-stumbled after Kestral like a child being led to detention by his teacher, and didn’t correct her guess as to his name. Once, he tried to tug himself free, but Kestral returned his tug with a yank that caused him to stumble and almost fall. The cargo bay doors were down, and smoke still poured out of the bay; when they reached the freighter, Kestral gave another yank that propelled Bacler into the smoke and onto the bay door. He sprawled there, caught his first breath… then started coughing violently and trying to scramble off the door.
“What? You don’t like the smell of burned tropene?” Kestral shoved Bacler back onto the bay door, forcing more coughing from him. “Well neither do I… and now my ship is ripe with it! Do you know how much work we’ll have to do to get that smell out?” He rolled away, finally tumbling onto the landing pad. He couldn’t speak, but his arms worked, one of them warding Kestral off, the other indicating she keep her voice down.
“What’s wrong? You don’t want the entire planet to know we’re smuggling an illegal substance?” Kestral leaned at Bacler, forcing him to scramble backwards on the landing pad. “Then maybe you should have made sure your supplier knew what he was doing, so his damned crates wouldn’t crack, and his cargo wouldn’t have overheated and caught fire in my bay!” She shouted the last at the leader, causing him to scramble even harder until he regained his feet, then continue backpedaling from Kestral.
She stalked him, fists clenched, crouched as if she was going to pounce on him. Strangely, Bacler’s Tauran goons seemed satisfied with watching from a distance, allowing Mark and Sarander to block them. In the meantime, Kestral had turned and angled Bacler against Mary’s hull. Bacler backed into the hull, and shrank as Kestral crowded him.
“Look, Bacler, we did our job… we brought your cargo here. Salvage what you can. It’s not our fault that your supplier botched his end of the job.” She angled her head at the still-flaming pile of crates in the field. “So you’re going to authorize payment for this job… understand?” She whipped a small card out of her pocket and held it up to Bacler’s face, the oval authorization pad facing him.
Bacler’s panicked eyes barely glanced at the card, before jumping back up to Kestral. “Donovan—”
“Ed Donovan will have to talk to me if he doesn’t like it,” Kestral interrupted him. “I’m not gonna take this from his trained monkeys. You’re gonna pay me, right now!”
Her final thrust prompted Bacler to pull his hand up, thumb forward, and press it against the card. Kestral turned the card to her face to confirm his authorization. When she had it, she nodded and stepped away from Bacler.
“Pleasure doing business with you. Tell Donovan he knows where to find me.” Bacler nodded nervously, and slowly started to slide against the hull and away from her. “Get,” Kestral prompted, and Bacler finally pushed off and started moving, walking just short of trotting, in the direction of the facility offices. The Taurans silently fell in step behind Bacler, taking long strides to keep up with his retreat.
Mark and Sarander joined Kestral by the still-open bay. Her demeanor was outwardly much calmer, but she rested her hands on her hips in exasperation as she surveyed the cargo bay. “After lunch, we’re going to have to get our hands on the toughest cleaners available. The bots may be able to handle most of the cleaning, but we’re all going to have to pitch in to get into the tight corners.”
“And all over the cargo arms,” Sarander added. “We’ll need specialty cleaners for those.”
“Damn,” Kestral whispered. “Thought we’d cover a lot more space before we’d have to scrub this ship down. Not to mention: Now I have to face Ed Donovan.”
“Don’t envy you that,” Mark stated. He glanced into the bay. “Actually, I don’t envy either part of this job.”
“How soon do you think he’ll get here?” Sarander asked.
“Well, he’s probably pretty busy bribing the facility officials to deal with this under-the-lidar,” Kestral told him. “I’m betting we won’t see him until it gets dark.”
As Kestral guessed, Ed Donovan strode out to the Mary well after dark. Unlike Bacler’s earlier visit, he didn’t bring strong men with him. He simply approached the Mary and stood in front of its gangplank. The hatch opened almost immediately, and Kestral stood in the threshold looking down at him. “Mister Donovan.”
“Please, come aboard.”
Donovan glanced beyond the Mary, out into the field beyond. A small group of workers toiled in the dark around the now-extinguished crates, sifting through them and trying to find anything of value to load into the single ground truck they’d brought with them. After a moment, he turned back to Kestral, then started climbing the gangplank.
Once he was in the foyer, he stopped and slowly took in everything. Edward Donovan was a big man, with a blocky face and equally-blocky scowl, a full head of dark hair and a body that looked like it had been capable of bruising men in his younger days. He sized up Kestral as well, who was equal his height and standing confidently before him. He inclined an eyebrow in her direction, waiting. In response, Kestral inclined her head aft.
“Why don’t we visit the cargo bay?”
Kestral opened the hatch to the bay, and every member of the crew stopped their cleaning and scrubbing and stood up. The bay’s large cargo doors were open on the port and starboard side, but the acrid smell of their burning cargo was still strong. Donovan got a good whiff of the bay, only a slight tick of one nostril giving away his displeasure.
“This,” Kestral stated, “is the state of my freighter. Your supplier gave us worn-out, substandard cargo crates to carry that tropene, and gave me a signed statement that those crates had been inspected and cleared.” She indicated with a look for the rest of the crew to give her the bay.
“You seem to have fire control equipment,” Donovan pointed out, ignoring the rest of the crew as they filed out of the bay.
“And you know as well as I do that tropene is a class-five flammable substance when flash-dried and tight-packed,” Kestral replied. “Freighters like mine are designed for class-four and down fire control, and you all had my specs… which is why your supplier was supposed to give us inspected and cleared crates, like his specs said.”
“Mm.” Donovan absently took an embroidered handkerchief out of his pocket and lightly dabbed at the corners of his eyes; despite his poker face, the smell was starting to get to him. “It’s not my business to care what state your ship is in.”
“It should be,” Kestral retorted. “I’ve hauled some big loads for your people. And you know, like I do, that there’s nothing wrong with this ship or its crew.”
“Or its Captain?” Donovan looked at her sardonically. “The fact remains that you didn’t deliver our cargo as specified.”
“And I didn’t get it as specified. I got your crates from supplier Oyo Pren on Beta Llegia to Sequist Facility on Capic III. And if he’d given it to me as properly specified and documented, you’d’ve gotten it as properly specified.” Donovan looked about to argue the point further, but Kestral leaned in closer and blocked him. “Mr. Donovan, we have shipped your cargo in good faith, the fourth such job we’ve done for you, and all the while, turning a blind eye to the Fraternity regulations that we’ve had to—bend?—to satisfy your unique needs.”
She indicated the inside of the bay, where various crab-like cleaning bots still labored on the floors, walls and ceiling. “Now, the improperly-packed state of your cargo is going to cost us extra to clean up after it. So we’ve both lost out on this deal. It’s not optimum. But it’s better than if I’d lost a single life on this trip, or been forced to drop this cargo somewhere else—like, I don’t know, over the capital—and the Fraternity, or heavens-forbid, the Guard, had to get involved. Especially considering how many Guard officers I know personally.”
Donovan turned and looked sidelong at Kestral. “I don’t think I like what you’re suggesting, young lady.”
“I’m a Captain, thank you. So listen to what I’m telling you: This job didn’t work out for either of us, and that isn’t on us. But we made sure you didn’t have to explain yourselves to the Guard. That is on us. And as long as you do a better job setting up your suppliers, I’m still willing to do further cargo runs for you.”
Then Kestral looked around the bay as if making sure they would not be overheard, and leaned closer to Donovan.
“As long as you don’t screw me over.”
Donovan’s eyes widened slightly, and locked with Kestral’s. They regarded each other silently for a few seconds. Then slowly, Donovan’s mouth twisted into a tight smile, and he gave a tiny nod in Kestral’s direction.
“Understood, Captain Kestral,” he said carefully. He looked around the bay. “I’ll have some better cleaning products brought by in the morning. We’ve had… experience with damage of this sort. They may help.” He started for the bay hatch, then stopped and looked over his shoulder at Kestral. “We’re good here.”