(The first speaker is Captain Zoltana, the second is Captain Kristoff.)
“Why do you keep flying this old bucket?”
“Keep your voice down. Martina might hear you. She’s a mite touchy about her age.”
“One of these days, she’s gonna fall out the sky, and then what’s a crew of hardworking pirates to do?”
“Pirates, ma’am? We’re honest freighters. You oughta know that, Zoltana, as many times as you routinely search our cargo.”
“Just doing my job.”
“You keep doing that job so thorough and so often”—Kristoff strode toward the stairs—“a fella might think there was more on your mind than duty.”
In the corridor between the passenger cabins and the infirmary, he met a woman in a white lab coat, blonde hair streaked with white, faint smile lines fanning the corners of her eyes. She stuck her hands in the broad, square pockets and leaned one shoulder against the wall. “So. How’s it feel to be the object of a constable’s crush?”
Mercedes chuckled. “Come on in. Let’s check that cut.”
The doctor pushed a stool toward him across the gleaming white floor. He straddled it while she pulled on a pair of ugly orange gloves and gathered disinfectant, clean gauze, and a pair of small, sharp scissors. Mercedes viuda Oliverio de Lazaro was a better doctor than the Martina Vega deserved. After her husband died of a long illness, she’d had her fill of hospital corridors. “Feels like I’m suffocating,” Mercedes had said the day she came looking for passage. “I need to stretch out and breathe again. I need adventure.”
“You’ll sure find it here,” Corrigan had answered for the captain, grinning at her in his best welcoming smile that would have sent small children screaming for their mothers.
In the past couple of years, she’d grown quieter, more content, as if the greater the danger the greater her calm. And, Kristoff suspected, there was something going on between her and Alerio. A doctor and an engineer. Well, they were the two smartest people on board—except for maybe Finney the pilot.
Finney. Now, there was a woman he could talk to, when she wasn’t being prickly or standoffish. Not overly pretty, so she didn’t make him tongue-tied. Smart, but not stuck-up about it. Finney was just herself. She pushed him. She made him laugh. Pretty much every time they talked, he walked away mad—but he always came back for more. Why was that?
Mercedes pulled the old bandage away from his cheek. He flinched. “Easy, Doc!”
“Looks clean. There’ll be a scar, but I don’t suppose that bothers you much, being a pirate and all.”
“I told you not to start.”
“No respect. Absolutely no respect.”
Mercedes leaned close to apply the fresh bandage and murmured, “Pirates,” as if that explained everything.
Then she looked past him, and her smile disappeared.
Captain Zoltana’s crisp voice sounded behind him, scraping along his ear-bones like claws on metal. “Keeping animals, pets or livestock, is not allowed without the proper license, Captain Kristoff. The fine is steeper for animals kept for slaughter.”
Touching his cheek, wincing at the pressure on the bruise around the cut, he stood to face her. “Can’t think what you mean. All our meat’s in cold storage near the galley—just ask Sahir—and you oughta know by now this crew don’t have time nor patience for pets.”
Her blue eyes were flat ice. “An awful lot of blood in that cage on the cargo deck.”
Mercedes pulled off the ugly orange gloves and tossed them into a hazardous-refuse bin. “If your men had taken the time to use their test kits, they would have found the blood to be human.”
“Illegal fighting for wager or profit means two to five years in the brig—”
“Now listen here, Captain Zoltana—!”
Kristoff laid a hand on Mercedes’ arm. “Don’t waste your breath, Doc. What we need is a visual aid.” He shouldered past Zoltana and strode along the passage toward the catwalk. “Come with me.”
c. 2008, Keanan Brand