Without warning the crate shifted in my hands, its weight heaving to one side. Gritting my teeth, I made my best attempt at counter-balancing, swaying my hips to keep myself on my feet as the jagged, rough edges left splinters in my skin. Standing ankle deep in mud, still meters away from my ship, I cursed the man who'd been my contact for this package.
The job was simple enough and sounded like any other when I took it. But the look of relief on the contact's face when he'd signed the papers combined with the crate itself made me more than a little uneasy. I didn't speak or read a lot of Glantish (I could sign my own name—Nadine Denish— rather elegantly in the local script), but I did know the word DANGEROUS when I came across it. And it was stamped on every surface of the crate that wasn't dotted with the mesh-covered air holes.
It wasn't so much that whomever had crated it didn't want it getting out, it was more that they'd also taken heavy precautions not to let anything in.
Sometimes I hated my job.
But along with the crate, the shady-looking man had at least handed over the first half of my payment, and I tried to take comfort in the feel of it nestled safe against my body.
Besides, I assured myself as I resumed my trek through the thick mud which covered the entire surface of the planet Glant, Anything in a box this small can't be too bad, can it?
As if in answer, a guttural growl came from within the crate. The sound ran up my skin and a trail of gooseflesh followed.
"Shut up," I spat, scowling at myself for talking to it.
By the time I made it to my ship, I was covered in mud and suspected I was bleeding from more than a few places. The muscles between my shoulder blades screamed in agony at having been subjected to so much physical exercise. The fact my job didn't often call for much exertion suited me rather well.
"Finally," I grunted. My voice sounded odd through the helmet protecting me from the gaseous environment of Glant, adding a high pitched twang I was sure I would never get used to. "Let's get off this rock."
My ship was not a large one, shaped like a bullet with wings, and I flew alone. There was a single-pilot cockpit situated in the rounded nose to give me a better view of space while in flight. Between the cockpit and the cargo area was a mashed jumble of mechanical systems and what passed for my quarters.
Entering from the rear door, between the twin engines, I thought about simply dropping the crate on the ground while I secured the cargo doors and expelled the planet's noxious air. But the want of a bigger paycheck won and I set it down with care before I engaged the airlocks.
When the harmonious tone rang, giving the all clear for breathable air, I removed the helmet and secured the crate as best I could in the cargo bay.
Like I said, my ship wasn't large. It also wasn't pretty and had a tendency to be difficult to control in flight. It made it incredibly worthless on the ever-growing black market for cheap ships and parts. Perfect for me since that drastically lessened the chances someone would steal it. Not anyone smart, that is.
Once the crate was stowed, I removed my air suit and took a moment to remove as much of the mud as I could from my jumpsuit. Glant's mud had a habit of becoming acidic and eating away anything organic it might find itself attached to.
Grimacing when I found a large cut on my calf, I washed it out and applied a layer of foam stitches; the can was past its expiration date, but the product inside would still seal the edges of the wound together. It just wouldn't numb the area while it was doing its job any longer.
"I'll have to sew this later." I gave the gash a cursory examination. I hated sewing of any sort. If I had any extra credits when I made it back to Curbana, hiring a seamstress would be among the first of my frivolous expenses.
I maneuvered my way to the cockpit after stowing the air suit, dropping into my chair with a huff. A few switches got flipped and the engines started up. I took the time they needed to heat up to remove a floor panel and the safe hidden there. Carefully counting the credits I'd gotten earlier, I then rechecked everything in the box before returning it.
Ritual complete, I strapped myself in and continued the process of lift off. I wanted to leave Glant and its toxic mud behind as quickly as possible.
The crate had to go to Soreanas Prime, a Factor planet; a fact that had exponentially increased my price. I was banking on the hope that the landing site outside the smaller city of Nerious would keep me out of the Factor's radar net.
I remembered to close the intake vents just in time, so the gasses from the planet wouldn't be sucked into the small cabin as the engines took my ship up and projected me into space, where I truly loved to be passed through the atmo. I settled in for the flight, being one of the few who prefer manual control.
The job had the stench of failure on it from the beginning. I should have known better, and knowing this only made it that much harder to swallow as I stared down at the panel. It was the only light in the small space, illuminating my face with the off cast of light from the various switches, buttons, gauges, and screens covering its surface.
Licking my lips, I leaned forward, nearly pressing my nose to the tiny blips on the radar showing I was being followed. Too closely.
Nadine, you jerk. The scathing voice in my head was followed by the warning beeps of the monitoring systems. I slapped my palm against the indicator, silencing the alert before I brought the ship to a stop.
I hadn't even reentered The Benditian system, so why was I being tagged? The question burned in my mind as I snatched the headset up, placing it over my ears before the hail came through.
"Transport HURDIN, you are requested to supply images of your papers immediately." The tinny voice came through, setting my nerves on edge as I ground my teeth together and contemplated my options.
Craning my neck to see the ship hailing me, I breathed a sigh of relief that it was at least not one of the heavily armed Factor ships.
"Maybe they're just exerting their authority out of boredom," I muttered, reaching for the call button.
"Factor response, Transport HURDIN acknowledges." I spoke the official response before they could repeat the request, knowing that the more they had to ask, the less lenient the Factor tended to be.
Reaching beneath the panel for the papers I had secured before the flight to Glant, I placed them against the scanning glass and sent the image to the ship.
Technically what I was doing wasn't illegal. But there were all sorts of paperwork I was missing. If they started digging into this deal, they'd be sure to start looking into others—wondering where a girl like Nadine Denish gets the money to own her own ship when she's not quite an adult.
That's when the real trouble would start. Only part of the reason I avoided the Factor. The Denish name has a lot of notoriety to it, thanks to my father and my brothers, and the men that came before them.
The fact that I was toeing the line of legality wouldn't matter much if they made the connection—at least two of my brothers were wanted by the Factor. I'd make a nice pawn in bringing them in.
There was a thick silence through the headset and I closed my eyes, fingers hovering over the controls in case I needed to make a quick run for it.
"Transport HURDIN, your last lift off was from Glant?"
Swallowing hard, I nodded in response. I felt my cheeks flush as I realized the voice on the other side of the comm line couldn't see me.
"Factor response, correct." My heart pounded as I waited.
"Transport HURDIN, please be advised that all takeoff and landing sites on Skekth are closed. This includes refueling stops."
Crap. "Factor response, acknowledged." I'd have to reroute to refuel because I'd never make it to Soreanas Prime on what I had now. I figured they must have guessed that would be my first choice for a stop, considering the planet was a festering point for those who rebelled against the Factor.
With a crackle and a hiss, the connection broke and I ripped the headset from my ears, wanting to remove the feeling of violation that came with contact with the Factor. I slowly nudged the ship away, watching the blips that showed the two Factor ships moving off before I hit the accelerator in what I hoped wasn't a guilty-looking speed.
Wondering what had happened on Skekth, I pulled out the system map and began the process of re-selecting a site to stop and refuel.
At near top light speeds, travel time was quick and I found myself nearing Nax sooner than I'd judged. I wouldn't need the air suit this time, at least, and Nax offered a better selection of food than Skekth, even if it was more expensive.
I took some money from the safe before securing the ship and the precious (and apparently dangerous) cargo inside.
I requisitioned full fuel and went to order food, making sure to seat myself where I could watch over my ship.
I had eaten half my meal before realizing the group of men a few tables away was talking about Skekth. My curiosity peaked while listening in on what I could hear of the conversation.
"I heard they got the mam."
"Shot one of the brothers, too. He was trying to protect her."
"Denish ain't nothing if not loyal."
It felt as if everything in the room had gone silent as my spoon fell from my hand and dropped onto the table, bouncing off the surface before landing on the floor. I stood and walked to the group, my movements forced and jerky as I fought not to throw up. "What did you say?"
They looked up at me, faces unfriendly at the interruption from someone unfamiliar. I slapped a credit on the table and leaned forward.
"What happened on Skekth?" I asked again.
"We heard the Denish ship was caught, went in for repairs and the Factor chased 'em down. Took one of the men out and arrested their mam before the rest of them got away." The man who answered reached forward, snatching the credit off the table before any of the others could reach for it. I didn't see the scuffle that ensued; my back was already turned and I was running.
I threw more than enough credits to cover the fuel and food at the counter before sprinting to the ship.
I was in the air in record time, and once I'd gotten through atmo I was pulling up the secured feed that reached my family's ship. We only used it in emergencies so they wouldn't be found, and if what I had heard was true, this more than qualified.
"Nadine?" My body sagged at the sound of my brother's voice. The connection wasn't good, but we were at least in the same system.
"John!" I sobbed out his name and the silence that followed told me everything I needed as far as confirmation went. "It's true?"
"Yes. Where are you?" He asked. There was a soft shuffling behind him, like a movement or a whisper.
"I just lifted off Nax. Are you on Skekth?"
"No, we took off and we're tracking the ship that's got mom. Dad's here, so is Andrew, but Gavin and Tim stayed on Skekth to keep them looking for us on planet."
"And Herbie?" My voice was no more than a tear-whisper as I thought of the youngest of my brothers, the one I was closest to.
"No, Nadine." James's voice was filled with fresh pain and I knew that our father was standing behind him. "I'll send you the location."
"I'll be there." I hesitated before breaking there, anything to reassure them that our family would make it through this. But nothing came to mind. We all knew the risk that came with being a part of the family business, which was the reason why I had my own ship. I was the black sheep in the family of fugitives.
"I know," was all James said before the connection closed. My muscles went loose and I sagged in my seat, waiting for the co-ordinates. The panel beeped when they came through and I gave them a bare glance before confirming the course. I pushed the engines to their limits to reach what might be the only remaining family I had.
Docking in the massive cargo bay on the ship in which I had been born, I stumbled from the cockpit and fell into my father's arms. He hadn't held me like that since I was shorter than his hip and he smoothed his hand across my hair, the familial Denish blonde we all shared with the exception of my mother.
"It's okay Nadine, we'll get her back." He whispered against my hair and I nodded, pulling away and wiping at the trail of tears I'd left on his suit.
"I know, Dad." I nodded and smiled an assurance I didn't feel as James approached.
"We've made a plan if you're up for it."
"We will get her back, James. Whatever I have to do." My jaw was set and I found myself choosing my words with care rather than just snapping at him. James had never respected my choice to leave and forge my own path.
An hour later I was cruising away from them, headed directly for the Factor ship that held my mother. I'd changed the registration numbers on the hull so that when the Factor scanned it, it would set off all sorts of bells and whistles; this itch me in against my will. While they were focused on my ship and boarding, James and Dad would attach on the opposite side of the ship, where the holding cells were.
I would continue to distract them, keep them occupied until they had her and then. Well, it was up to me to get away somehow.
"Transport YSETH, you are requested to supply images of your papers immediately."
Even though the headset was still on the panel, the voice carried through it. I made no move to pick it up or respond, instead priming the engines as if about to run for it.
"Transport YSETH, respond or you will be docked and boarded for search and possible seizure."
Smiling to myself, I pushed harder on the throttle until they remoted into the controls and killed the engines. My ship lurched backwards with a violent jerk and I swallowed hard against the terror rising in my throat, reminding myself of what my mother must be feeling right now.
"James, they're getting ready to dock," I whispered, the comm attached to my suit hidden from sight.
He couldn't respond since the Factor soldiers would see any ear piece the instant they boarded and know I wasn't alone, but I knew what I was supposed to do.
I picked up the plasma rifle. When they forced the back door of my ship open, I pulled off a shot. It bounced off the floor and went relatively harmless toward the ceiling, which should prevent them from killing me.
"Drop your weapon!" Within seconds the interior of my ship was filled with Factor squadron officers.
I dropped the rifle and threw my hands in the air, my eyes widening at the number of people they managed to squeeze into the tiny space.
"Transport YSETH operator, state your name and planet of origin."
"Megan Veek of Soreanas Prime." I answered, knowing the number of registrations that came from that planet would be massive. Technically, since I didn't have a planet of origin, I didn't exist, but the Factor didn't see the reasoning.
The mention of the name was a signal. On the other side of the ship, James should now be searching for our mom.
"Veek." A helmeted officer stepped forward and I retreated on instinct. "Why have you refused to co-operate with the Factor?"
"I. . . I didn't know. I was just testing out this ship to see if I wanted to buy it and. . . Well, there's so many buttons." I glanced with helplessness at the panel behind me and shrugged. "I don't know what most of them do."
"Veek are you fully authorized for deep space flights?"
"Erm, not exactly." I tried to look as uncomfortable as possible and could see a few of the squadron officers exchanging glances. "You see, I am not quite even sure how I got here."
I let my chin wobble a bit and looked down at the floor. One by one those gathered in the room lowered their weapons and I could swear I heard laughter.
"I thought you were going to steal my ship and sell me into slavery." I whispered, my cheeks flushing.
"Did you not hear the request?" The leader asked, his tone that of clear exasperation.
"What request?" He pointed at the headset behind me and I blinked at it, pretending not to understand until he removed his helmet and mocked putting the headset on with one hand.
"Oh. No. I thought that was for the opera."
The man without the helmet waved a hand and most of those standing in my ship disappeared as fast as they had appeared.
"Come with me, we'll have to tow you. We can't let you navigate this back without having been trained."
"Oh. Well, all right then." I started to follow him out, stepping over the rifle that still lay on the floor, forgotten.
Before he'd gotten off my ship a resounding boom echoed through the Factor ship. Dropping to my knees I snatched up the rifle and began blasting shots out the doorway. I hit the man without a helmet in the leg and I swore never to admit to anyone that my brothers had been right, I really was a terrible shot.
Screams filtered through the air and I continued to add to the chaos, shooting blindly into the Factor ship as soon as the plasma rifle was charged.
The signal that they'd gotten mom and were running came at last—a series of beeps over the secure channel. I turned toward the panel to respond.
The hot, searing pain tore through my flesh like a fiery brand through warm meat. I let out a pain-filled scream, looking down to find the massive hole in my side where the officer I'd shot in the leg had returned the favor.
I whirled, shooting wild and stopped only when I heard a gurgling sound between shots. I stared down at him as he died, choking on his cooked blood. My own seeped through my fingers as I clutched my side.
"Nadine Denish." I sneered and his eyes widened, just before the light left them.
I held the rifle in an awkward grip, staggering towards the back of my ship. It was getting hard to breathe and I felt so tired—I knew I wasn't going to make it.
"James, I'm done. Tell them. . . tell them it was worth it."
I heard a cry from behind me, the sound of my mother's voice over the channel and hot tears overflowed at the sound of it. It was a cry filled with joy at having been rescued, it was a cry flooded with pain for the loss of her two youngest children.
I was so grateful I could hear her. At least this one last time.
"Good-bye, Mama. I love you, Daddy," I whispered, then focused myself.
In a painful shuffle I made it to the cargo area, using the end of the rifle to break open the crate I'd picked up and forgotten about in everything that had happened. If I'd thought ahead I would have given my hoard of cash to my family, just in case.
It seemed to take forever, smashing the flat end of the rifle into the side of the crate, before it began to separate at last. Dropping the rifle I picked up the crate and threw it through the open door.
Whatever was in there was now let loose on the Factor ship. That's what they get for killing me.
I dropped to my knees, clutching my hands to my side, both my blood and my tears hot against my rapidly cooling skin. I barely registered the terrified screams that began floating from inside the Factor ship; I was falling forward. I caught myself against the bulkhead and began dragging my wounded and dying body back toward the cockpit.
Smears of blood left a trail of my passage, but if I was going to die on my ship, I was going to die in my chair.
"Nadine. Nadine. Nadine Elizabeth!"
The young blonde girl jerked as the sound of her mother's voice finally penetrated her daydream. She smiled with childish guilt at the tired look on the face that waited for her beside a cart of bagged groceries.
"Nadine, your ride is over and there are other kids waiting. It's time to go, you can ride the rocket again next time we go shopping." Megan smiled at her daughter, unable to stay annoyed for long when the tiny replica of herself grinned back like that.
"Do you promise, mama?" Nadine glanced at the boy waiting and scowled at the sucker in his mouth. He'd just get her ship all sticky.
"Yes, now let's go. Tell me about your adventure in the car. Why do you never go on the race car?" Megan asked her daughter as they left the foyer of the supermarket with the rows of vending machines selling stickers, temporary tattoos, and tiny toys beside the two quarter operated rides.
"There's no real adventure in a racecar. If I want to see real action, I have to go in deep space," Nadine answered with all due seriousness.
Megan shook her head, but didn't argue. She didn't know where the child came up with these sorts of things, yet knew enough to encourage it.
"All right, so another adventure in space for Nadine Denish next time, then?"
"Yes, and just in time. I almost died that time."