It had been a long time since Rudy woke from his sleep in a fearful sweat. The nightmares had almost completely vanished in recent years, but this past week had seen them return for five nights in a row. He stumbled into the ‘fresher and splashed a little cool water on his face, and slowed his breathing as he listened to the familiar sounds of his ship around him. His antique watch told him it was still the wee hours, but he knew he wouldn't be sleeping any more this shift. He dressed in his usual casual grays, donned his favourite ball cap, the one that had the word "Boss" embroidered in fancy gold thread on the front, and exited his cabin. The short stroll down the narrow corridor to the bridge helped him to feel better. The lights were still dimmed for ship night shift, but he could have found his way to the captain's chair in pure darkness, and had done exactly that on more than one occasion in the past.
He stepped onto the bridge and nodded silently to Marney, sitting her watch alone in near darkness at the far end of the rear row of work stations, her dark-skinned face lit by the flickering glow of a monitor screen. The strange light cast from the monitor made the elegant features of her face, and the multiple dread-like braids standing out from her scalp appear as some mythical medusa-like creature. He smiled inwardly at paradox of this amusing impression, as he'd been caught staring at her more than once in the past, struck by her beauty. He walked to the large forward-facing windows of the bridge and took in the impressive panorama of space he always enjoyed. This was one of the reasons why they'd chosen a Venice-class freighter in the first place. The view was breathtaking. From this vantage his ship extended below him and forward, ten cargo pod attachment slots visible on the dorsal port and starboard sloping sides of the frame, ten more on the ventral side could not be seen from here.
Unfortunately, not all of those slots worked properly yet.
Even worse was the obvious fact that all of them were empty. Those cargo slots were his livelihood. Keeping them full was how he paid his bills, his crew, and his mounting debts. Things just hadn't been going very well on the business front. He considered this, and the possibility that the recent return of the nightmares was somehow related.
"Can't sleep, either, Rudy?" Marney broke the silence first. He glanced at her again, and smiled a little as he shook his head. Marney Firth was of Caribbean ancestry, more recently descended from a family in the Mwari system. She'd signed on as pilot to the MYLENE B. almost six months before. Though their personalities clashed frequently in the first few weeks of her service as his pilot, he had come to respect her skills, and was definitely warming up to her. It seemed that they liked each other but were only getting around to admitting it to themselves in the last month or so.
She continued, "I can never sleep the night before we head out for a job. I guess I still get excited when we leave port and head out there." She nodded toward the same star-filled blackness he was studying. He didn't reply so she tried changing topics. "I've been watching some of the vid that passes for entertainment here at Mohawk….I can't believe the shite they'll show on these station bands. I sincerely hope my boys aren't watching that trash back home". The hint of a Mwari/Jamaican accent made itself apparent when she said ‘sincerely'. She continued, "And I sure as hell hope Jukka and Arne found something better to do on the station for their leave than watch vid for entertainment".
"I'm sure those two will be entertained by anything new, as long as alcohol is served." Rudy replied. This dead end response was followed by another silence, which seemed to drag on. Marney keyed off her screen, leaned back in her chair and studied the captain's back. After hearing him heave a particularly long sigh, she tried again.
"You know, I don't know who Monika was, but I figure she was someone important to you. Is it anything you want to talk about?"
Rudy turned to look at her directly, but the shadows on his face prevented her from reading his expression. She continued, "Look, just about everyone has heard you shouting her name in your sleep at some point or another, this past week. The bulkheads are solid, but they aren't that soundproof you know. I've asked Terry if he knows anything, but he won't say. It might help if you talked…"
"That's because Terry knows what is and what is NOT his business." Rudy snapped back. He could feel the heat of his anger rising at this personal intrusion. He wasn't up for this right now, so he closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.
Marney was never one to back down from a confrontation, and didn't seem inclined to this time either. "You're right, it's none of my business. I just work for you, right?! I'm just the damned pilot; just another hired hand. ‘Take us here, take us there' for six months now. We don't know much about each other, and I don't really need to. But when a captain starts looking sleep deprived; when he's so damn haunted by the ghosts of his past that he's putting his whole ship at risk, I ASK. If I think that you're going to make a bad call that might get us all whacked, I start getting nervous. One thing you don't want mister, is a nervous pilot. I was just offering to help, dammit!" Her eyes were bright, and very wide at this point, her expression a combination of hurt and defiance.
Her tirade caught him off guard, and defused his anger. "I'm sorry Marney." He paused for another moment to consider the effect of those dreams.
"You're right. You have a right to ask, I suppose. I just…. Look, I'll tell you about it sometime, but not right now. I'll tell you this much: Yes, she was very important to me, and yes, I sometimes have bad dreams…very bad dreams about her". He seemed to have difficulty speaking her name aloud. "M…Monika and I bought this ship when it was considered a pile of scrap, and rebuilt it together from junk. It was our dream to run an independent freighter together. We ran out of money during the refit, and I needed to keep working on the ship, so she was hired to work on another ship for some extra cash. It was only supposed to be for a few weeks. That ship disappeared on its first run. That's the end of it. Everyone figured it was pirates. It probably was a pirate hit. It happened a lot. It still does. We've all lost someone important to us, or know someone who has, haven't we? We all manage to move on. So don't worry about me putting this ship at risk. Nothing is more important to me, except maybe her crew."
Marney's expression softened considerably. She looked down at her hands on the console for a moment before looking back up at Rudy. "The dreams must be pretty bad."
"I think the worst part of it was not knowing anything about what really happened. I haven't dreamed of her in a long time, but when I do, I sometimes see them all die in an explosion, sometimes by fire, sometimes by decompression, sometimes murdered by boarding pirates…." He looked down. "The worst one is when I witness her jumping off the hull of the ship in a vac suit and just drifting away. Its always pretty horrible."
Marney sighed, and looked pensive for a moment before responding. "Sorry, Rudy. Thanks for letting me know. I guess we all have a story or two. I just need to know that you're OK to run this show. Remember that my offer stands: I'm a better listener than you probably think I am."
"Of that, I have no doubt." They both seemed relieved and calmed just then. The forward view was spectacular, indeed, and required no narrative to appreciate. Then it was Rudy's turn to change topics. "Anything else worth reporting?"
"Not much. They announced that the regional council has voted on, and approved that anti-piracy legislation. It gives the local law enforcement and corporations all kinds of new powers in the name of security. I don't like it a bit. Individual rights are a joke out here in the Badlands as it is. I'm not sure what good it's going to do except make life harder for honest folks like us."
"Bah. I doubt we'll really notice much of a difference." He dismissed it and asked her another question. "What kind of port traffic have we got here?"
"Not much." She touched a key and pulled up a list. "There's a Spider-class tug out at the edge of the LDSi field. I can't get a registry, but it's just sitting there. It looks like it's supervising the loading of cargo pods by an Anderson-class utility ship that keeps coming and going." She moved on down the contact list. "Some freighter traffic has departed. Sounded like they were headed to Kompira. There's an outgoing patrol of Cop Patcoms, but if they were saying anything to each other, I sure as hell couldn't pick it up. Oh, and there's a group of League ships inbound. Some look to be pretty beat up. Tugs mostly, plus a corvette, and one cutter."
"Call up those League ships, and see if you can get some names. I'd like to know if Einarson is with them." Rudy asked, slipping instantly back into command mode.
"We've got the BELGRANO and the STINGRAY just coming into range now…." She replied.
"Get the BELGRANO on the horn. I know Mendoza."
In a moment, they both heard a voice over the bridge speakers. "Hey, Rudy. Good to see you're here. It's good to see anyone at all! We got bushwhacked at the Mohawk L-point."
Rudy replied directly into the command workstation pickup. "Mendoza, when are you going to realize that a lot of unpleasant people carry a grudge against you. You folks in the League are pissing off a lot of well-armed nasties. Anyway, I'm glad you're OK. We'll be happy to lend a hand with any repair parts we've got, or bandages, if you need it."
"What we need, Rudy, is someone like you flying with us." Mendoza said, "You've got experience and smarts, and we need more captains like that with the League. You say the word and we could get you in the big chair of a decent ship with guns and stuff. We keep asking and you keep playing coy with us. Did we piss you off, too?"
"No. Einarson talked to me at length about it a few months ago, and I've given it some thought." Rudy replied. "But I'm a dedicated independent. It's what I've been struggling toward all this time. I don't want to fly under anyone's colors, or anyone's orders. I just want to haul cargo, and get paid a decent living for honest work."
"You mean 'mostly' honest work, lets not kid ourselves here." Mendoza said, with more than a hint of sarcasm. "Yeah, I know the song. Used to sing it myself. 'The independent life is for me' and all that. Then I got hit by Marauders and woke up. I know things have been going pretty well for the League lately, but we aren't in the clear. The Marauders are mostly gone and the Cluster is improving, but that doesn't mean things are safe, especially for independents like you who can't even afford to hire escorts. Look at what just happened to us."
Mendoza had made his point and didn't want to push too hard, so he backed off a little as he continued. "Listen, Rudy. We appreciate the offer for help, and I may come by tomorrow for a glass of something from that secret stash I know you've got on board. But the time is going to come soon when you have to choose. Your independence won't mean much if your ship is trashed, or you're dead. The League offer stands, OK? Keep us in mind."
"Yeah, I'll give it some more thought." Rudy offered somewhat vacantly. "Anyway, tomorrow's no good, we're heading out of here in about eight hours for a run to Firefrost. Is there anything more you can tell me about these folks who hit you? Were they pirates?"
The anger in Mendoza's voice was clear over the comm speaker. "Definitely pirates. But these guys were equipped, armed and organized. They were downright cocky, too. They taunted us, and joked before taking out half of our ships. They called themselves 'The Weeds' or something. I'd never heard of them before. I get the feeling they let the rest of us go, just so we'd tell others about them. Anyway, we couldn't continue on to our destination, so we're putting in here for re-arming, and repairs."
"Where were you heading?" Rudy asked.
Mendoza's tone became guarded, as he replied. "Hey, you gotta join the club if you want to know the secret handshake!"
"Come on, Mendoza, I'm going out there on a Job. Are you going to start resorting to extortion, too? What do you want for information?"
"Did anything I just said sink in, Rudy?" Mendoza answered, his voice very serious this time. "Never mind, I know you know the score. We were heading to the Onondaga Mercenary Base to drum up some more support. Since we were attacked, we'll regroup here, then maybe try again. In the meantime, listen carefully to what I'm saying. There's a gang of pirates working the Far Arm of the Badlands, and they're no joke. You hear me?! My Second tells me they're actually not new, but their recent expansion and organization is new. They used to be a family of very bad people named Wiede based somewhere in Eureka. They got a rep as particularly nasty pirates in that system, and I mean cruel nasty. But they were small-timers, back then. Hit-and-runners picking on loners like you. They dropped off the map a few years ago, only to be seen now in four different systems, equipped with some solid hardware and hitting just about every shipping company known. We're working on a few leads, but don't know enough about what's going on, so keep your ears open."
"Will do, Mendoza. Thanks for the heads-up." Rudy answered. "Greetings to the crew of the BELGRANO, and the rest of our friends in the League."
"Be careful out there, Rudy. Mendoza Out."
Rudy turned to look at Marney, who had become less relaxed after listening to that conversation. He gave her that everything-is-going-to-be-fine smile. She didn't look convinced.
"I'm heading back to my office to go over a few things until shift change, Marney." Rudy said. "I'll keep watch from there, so why don't you try to get some sleep for a few hours."
"Thanks, Captain, but I won't be gettin' any sleep in the next few hours so I may as well be here." Marney replied with certainty.
"Suit yourself." Rudy paused to consider something for a moment before continuing. "In that case, you can contact our wayward crew on station and tell them to be certain they're back here three hours before scheduled departure. They'd better be ready to work, too. We've got a few more things to fix before we start our run. I don't want Arne and Jukka still plastered when they show up, like they did the last time. Make sure that Janeane shows up by herself. We don't want anymore of her lovesick sleepover lads trying to join up as we're undocking, just because they don't think they can live without her. And I'm not bailing her out anymore either, so she better not get into any fights in any bars. Oh and please remind all three of them to pay their own taxi fare back here. There's no way I'm adding their expenses to my mounting tab here." He looked at his watch. "Terry should be on deck in about an hour to start the warmup. Tell him I'm in my office, and I'll be back by six."
"Aye, Captain." She executed an exaggerated mock salute with flourish and a smile.
"Thank the stars I'm not Navy, pilot." Rudy smiled as he turned to exit the bridge. "At least you're eager, I'll give you that."
"Oh, Captain, one last thing." Marney said, a little more seriously. Rudy turned to look at her and simply waited with an eyebrow raised. "What does your gut tell you about this job we're about to do?"
Rudy's famous gut feelings had become a standard joke amongst the crew. He was developing a reputation as the man whose gut feelings were more reliable than anything else in predicting the success of their various ventures. He paused for dramatic effect, and conjured a faraway look before giving his reply.
"I must be too sleep-deprived. There's no feeling either way on this one. But I can say that the contract looks OK, and the pay will be very good. And a nice big payoff always makes my gut feel good, so take that for what it's worth."
He walked off the bridge and headed to his office, trying to ignore the bad feeling that was developing in his gut. Maybe it was just the lack of sleep and bad dreams.
Several hours later, with the bridge busy with activity, that feeling hadn't changed. Everything seemed perfectly normal, but that uneasy feeling just wouldn't go away. Actually, there was nothing 'perfect' about what passed as normal on this old freighter, but there was still that feeling that something wasn't right. They'd gathered in their crew, gotten the ship stocked and ready, and had been under way for awhile, headed for the nearest L-point to make the jump out-system.
"MYLENE B., five-three-four-oh-four, this is traffic control. We've got you slotted for fifth in line to jump. Good to see you again Rudy, we haven't seen you for…..just a moment." There was an uncomfortable pause that felt like it was about to justify Rudy's uneasy feeling. "Rudy, we're picking up a pretty big fluctuation on our screens. It looks like its coming from your reactor. We're going to have to bump and hold if you can't get it straightened out."
The bad feeling began to fade just as quickly. Was that all they were worried about? Rudy, pushed the ball cap he wore back on his recently buzzed scalp. The cap had been a gift from a freight handler he'd hired about two years ago, and lost to a recruiter from a better ship six months later. It was one of the few quirks to his otherwise utilitarian attire he permitted himself.
"STC, this is MYLENE B. " He made a point of using the French 'mee-len' pronunciation. He wondered to himself if they'd ever get it right. "That's an affirmative on the reactor readout. This isn't a new one to us, and it certainly isn't a problem. We're on it, and will have it within nominal range within minutes. I'd appreciate it if we could keep our place in line." He then turned to his console and touched the intercom key.
"Arne, the reactor's doing its thing again. I just finished showing you guys how to keep it happy. Get Jukka and get on it. Now. If you need Janeane's help, I think she's working up front"
Jukka and Arne Saarinen were also relatively new hires to his crew, from a family-run ore processing plant. They were half brothers, or cousins or something. He wasn't sure if they just wanted to get out and see the galaxy, or were truly tired of the mining life, and had bigger dreams. He didn't really care: they knew power systems, and he needed someone he could train to manage the idiosyncratic engineering systems on this ship. To their credit, they were fast learners, and had almost mastered the MYLENE B.'s systems already in three months. That was no small praise given the complexity of the systems he'd devised when he rebuilt this vessel. Anyway, they were mostly Terry's problem, as it was the first officer's job to deal with them.
Janeane was their newest crewmember. She'd preferred to use her first name only. She was petite, somewhere in her mid-twenties and full of attitude. She was also as tough as nails. About the only thing delicate about her seemed to be her facial features. He caught a glimpse of a tat on her arm once that looked a lot like a Marine unit's tag. There was something about her demeanor, language, and self-discipline that made him think she was ex-military, but he'd agreed to her 'no questions asked' stipulation when she hired on two months ago. It seems she had some difficulties with the law in a few systems, so she asked to be kept off the books in return for some very hard work. He didn't ask questions, and so far she'd kept to her word about working hard.
Rudy turned to face his first mate, and smiled as he shared the now familiar old joke between them. "It's just so hard to find good help these days." Terry returned the smile, but said nothing
Marney was sitting in the pilot's seat to his right. She shook her head, rolled her eyes, and muttered something that sounded like "Give me a break."
This only added to their delight, as the captain smirked and said, "That goes for you, too, rookie. You've been with us for about five minutes longer than they have. You keep that up and I'll send you packing back to your cubs." They all knew perfectly well he had no such intention.
She twirled to face him with a smile in her eyes, and an exaggerated expression of feigned indignation. "Rookie?! ROOKIE?! We are the same age, child, and I had my First-Class before you even owned this bucket. Just because I took some time to raise my boys does NOT mean I'm green. It just means I've got to start at the bottom of the pile again for work. And believe me, this is the BOTTOM. Six months and I haven't even been paid yet! That pittance you called a signing bonus is long gone."
"Ouch! And that's Captain child to you!" Rudy replied playfully. "I know I'm a bit behind on the paychecks, but I feed you guys really well, don't I?" By now they were all chuckling aloud, as he turned back to his first mate, "You see what I have to put up with, Terry? What did I say about good help?" Terry continued to smile as he gently shook his head.
Just then, Arne's voice came over the intercom announcing the stabilization of the reactor. Rudy glanced at the readout to confirm it, nodded to Terry, who acknowledged the engineer's report and started quietly providing them with new instructions over the comm. Rudy, opened a comm channel to traffic control to assure them of their reactor's status.
"OK, Captain Rudy. Looks good from our side, too. You'll be in the number one slot in about a minute. See you next time. Traffic Control out."
Rudy turned to face his pilot again to pick up the thread of their banter on a more serious note. "Marney, you have my word as Captain and owner of the MYLENE B. that you'll get all your back wages, as well as a healthy bonus for those boys of yours as soon as we complete this run. We'll clear enough on this contract to pay off all our repair debts, wages, insurance, registration and licensing fees. Won't it be nice to be bonded and finally go legit? I also made a down payment on some serious defensive equipment that'll make us less tasty for pirates. I'm talking military grade plates, shields, and a couple of turrets." He watched her eyes widen at that last announcement. "Most importantly, we'll have our foot in the door at Angelion Shipping Company. Hopefully we'll get the protection of the ASC name, and a steady flow of work.
He finished with a very convincing sounding: "This one's the payoff."
It sounded good and he almost believed it himself, except for that hint of a bad feeling that nagged at him.
Marney looked up from her board. "We're cleared, Captain."
"Very well, pilot." He gestured toward the L-point beyond their forward windows, "If you please."