Justin awoke from the nightmare of flashing red lights, whooshing air and voiceless screams only to realize it was not some dark fantasy of his subconscious, it was one of his earliest childhood memories. Every year the calendar forced the images from the black depths of his mind. Slowly he sat up and slid his feet from the edge of the bed to the cold metal floor. His head pounded from too much drink, but his mind would not release the memory.
His mother had shaken him awake on that horrid morning long ago. Even at such a young age, the fear on her face was obvious. Red lights flashed in the compartment. She yanked him from his bed as an explosion rocked the ship. They were under attack. The ship shuddered and with each impact, he cried.
Someone placed him and Mara, in an escape pod and told them to stay. Moments later, he heard a hissing sound and his ears popped. He was only five, but he knew what to do. With all his might, he pushed the hatch shut. Seconds later, his mother appeared in the portal. She banged on the glass and yelled. Together with little Mara, they fought to open the door, pushing the lever and pulling the door, but it wouldn’t budge. Tears flowed. The memory of his mother’s lifeless face sliding down the portal still haunted him. She was dead because of him.
Sometimes he dreamed that his father was a wealthy merchant from Earth Empire or, if he was a Dreg, that he was a great pirate or smuggler. In either case, Justin imagined that somehow his father would find him and bring him home. It was all just a dream. Mother was dead and Father never came. He stood and his head throbbed in retribution. Stumbling to a portal, he looked at the arid planet far below. The past is gone. As he thought the words he meant them but, moments later, his broad shoulders sagged with the memory of the mother he had failed.
He rubbed his aching head then stumbled down the hall. Before he reached Mara’s room he knew his sister was gone. Peeking around the half open door, the undisturbed bed confirmed what he already knew. These last few years, when she had the freedom to leave, she had always left him alone on this day. In earlier years, she had tried to console him, but it was a fruitless, wasted effort and she seemed to know it. Clutching his slate in his right hand, he ran fingers across the screen to check his schedule for the day and with a sigh turned to face it.
* * *
Justin watched a vessel inch toward the docking bay one level below, then paused and jotted notes on his slate.
A woman in coveralls approached. Tentatively she asked, “Are you okay?”
“One of the guys said you wanted to talk to me.”
Still facing the observation window, he rubbed his pounding head. “Yeah. Mara, could you have someone find these parts and…” He held out the slate, then rubbed his chin with his other hand. “Baxter’s aft thermal radiator got shot up on his last run. He’ll need a new one.” Justin thought for a moment. “Does he pay regularly?” He glanced in her direction.
“Get someone to pull the newest radiator we have from the back so he can see it when he arrives.
He turned and for the first time really looked at her stained face and greasy overalls. “What have you been up to?”
“Oh.” She grinned under the grime and looked at her clothes and hands. “I helped the night crew install the new decoupler unit in Galt’s yacht.”
“We hire people to do that, sis.”
She pulled a knife from a pocket and began to clean her nails. “Yeah I know.”
They discussed the progress of ship repairs in the main bays then Justin asked, “How is the inventory coming?”
“Ah… It’s progressing.” She wiped her face with a rag, succeeding only in smearing the oil.
Justin wasn’t quite sure if he was more annoyed or amused. “We’ll discuss it later over dinner.” Justin turned and ambled toward his office. “Thanks, Mara.”
“Who’s cooking?” she called after him.
He smiled, but otherwise ignored her comment. Heading back toward the office, he detected movement off to his right. “What do you need Ferren?”
A man of big proportions waddled into view. His face was covered with a scraggily beard and a bulbous nose. He grinned. “I have something for you.”
“You have something for me?” Justin threw his arms to his heart in mock surprise. “Perhaps you have the 20,000 credits you owe me?”
“I didn’t think so,” he said flatly and walked past him.
Ferren followed with effort. His fat torso made him sway when he moved quickly and it was hard for him to talk. With effort, he caught up, then reached out and touched Justin’s arm. “But…I salvaged…a ship…”
Not wanting Ferren to have a heart attack, at least not right then, Justin slowed his pace. “We’re all business people here Ferren. You’re a pirate, not a salvager.”
“Okay. We detected a coasting ship, blew a few holes in their hull, and removed the cargo.”
Justin smiled. “That’s nice. Sell the cargo and pay me.”
“When I got back from the run there was word of a man on Bristol paying well for smuggled cargo leaving Earth Empire.”
“Yes, I’ve heard,” he said with a growing smile. “So,” Justin placed a hand on the pirate’s shoulder, “Go to Bristol, sell the cargo, come back and pay me.”
“I need fuel cells.”
The smile disappeared. “No.”
“But remember, I have something for you.”
Justin stared at Ferren.
“There was a girl on the ship.”
“I don’t buy or sell slaves. You know that.”
“You can free her.”
Justin looked at Ferren with a skeptical eye. “Why would I take her in partial payment and then set her free?”
“Maybe you could ransom her?”
“You ransom her and pay me.” He turned and walked away.
Huffing and puffing, Ferren chased after him. “I’ll make you a very special offer. I’ll give you the girl and after selling the cargo I’ll pay the 20,000 credits I owe. You keep the girl. Just give me the fuel cells.” Every inch of Ferren’s face pleaded his case.
“I’m not a slaver.”
“After I pay you, free her. You’ll have the money and feel good—and maybe you’ll be feeling good before I pay you.” Ferren thumped Justin’s chest.
“I don’t like little girls.” Justin turned and walked away.
In pursuit Ferren said, “She’s not a little girl,” Ferren said shaking his head, “she’s a woman.” Once again he was grinning. “Young, but not too young. About Mara’s age, I would guess.” His grin grew, showing yellow teeth. “Pretty, like Mara, too.”
Justin shuddered at the thought of any woman in the hands of Ferren and his crew. “Leave my sister out of this.” Justin stopped, sighed and stared at floor. “Where is this woman from?”
Ferren shrugged. “How would I know?” He stroked his beard. “She’s not a Dreg, she has a strange accent.
Justin rubbed his still aching head.
“The ship was coasting at high velocity and was cloaked. I think it was a smuggler.”
Justin’s eyes widened. “If it was a smuggler, it was probably someone you knew.”
A broad grin spread across Ferren’s face. “Raiding is what pirates do.”
“Sounds like trouble to me.”
Ferren waved his hand dismissively, “Smugglers don’t complain when they get caught and besides I have friends in high places.”
You have scum for friends.
“If you don’t want her I’ll sell her for what I can, but I’m willing to give her to you, my friend.”
We’re not friends. Memories of his own arrival in this armpit of a system surged into his mind. The smell of the slave market was nauseating, but that was easy to cope with. Mara’s tears had been the hardest to deal with. The images still tore at him. He pushed hard against the memories, forcing them back into the dark depths. “28,000.”
“If I agree,” he wagged his finger for emphasis, “you give me the girl and, immediately after you sell the cargo, I get the 20,000 credits you already owe me and 8,000 for the fuel cells.”
“They’re not worth 8,000!”
“Well, get them from Rumon. Oh…” Justin paused and looked serious, “don’t you owe him even more than you owe me?” He rubbed his chin. “Hmmm, what about Rasnic? No. No, didn’t he threaten to kill you?”
Ferren stared into his eyes. “You’re a hard man.”
Justin shrugged. “I sell junk parts to pirates. What do you expect?”
“I’ll bring in the girl.”