AS THE TRANSPORT UNIT PUT TRU’S DNA BACK TOGETHER, HE CAUGHT glimpses of First Executive Officer Amanda Wrigley waiting at the edge of the transport octagon. The transport technicians and engineers would argue that seeing anything before a person finished materializing was impossible, but Tru believed his dad’s theory. He’d told Tru that when his molecules went flying through space, they pulled his soul along, and when it wasn’t attached to the body, the soul could see things more clearly than any pair of eyes.
Amanda was a prim officer. Not a hair was out of place in her upswept bun, not a wrinkle could be seen on her Merchant Raitor uniform. She had a messenger bag slung over her shoulder. On the front flap five colored electric pens stuck out of the slots made for them. He was sure she had every detail docket in that bag.
“Captain Barnet.” She saluted. “Your crew is assembling in Lucas Hall, sir.”
“Thank you, XO.”
Tru stepped off the octagon and headed for the double doors of the transport room. She fell in beside him. They exited the room onto the crowded International Space Station promenade. The two attempted to stay together as they dodged the crowd of humans and other species.
“Is all the crew accounted for?” Tru asked.
“Except for one communications officer. She claims there was a riot at the Mare Tranquillitatis spaceport and it delayed all outgoing transports. Would you like your crew’s detail dockets?”
“Did you read them?”
“Did you memorize them?”
Amanda stopped short. Tru didn’t. She quickly caught up.
“I…” She hesitated.
“Did you or didn’t you, Wrigley?”
Tru nodded. “You can fill me in if I need anything today. I see you assigned the crew bunks.”
“Have you told them their bunk assignments?”
“You assigned the bunks randomly, didn’t you?”
“Yes, sir. That’s the most efficient—”
Tru looked at her. “First xeno crew you’ve been XO of, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. Why?”
Tru heard a hint of irritation in her voice.
“You don’t bunk certain species with other species. In some cases, you don’t even bunk species with any of their own kind, Wrigley. That’s just asking for a fight or worse.”
“And how would you know that? You’ve only been a captain for two weeks!” she bit back.
He stopped and stared at her with raised eyebrows. Her anger dissipated into nervousness and she looked at the floor.
Tru started walking again. “My father’s crews were always xeno.”
Amanda didn’t say anything for a few moments. “And who was your father?”
“Doctor Barnet. The architect.”
Tru glanced at a holographic sign as he passed under it. The commercial on it ended and indicated Lucas Hall was the next right.
“The Doctor Barnet?” she asked.
“The one and only.”
“Sir, I’m… Sorry.”
“That’s okay. You should research your captain better before insulting him.”
She nodded. “Yes, sir.”
The two were silent for a few seconds.
“Sir, about the tardy communications officer, Ensign Jackie Rhoades,” Amanda picked up her pace to stay at his side, “She’s a Silerium, sir.”
“She has a lengthy disciplinary record. I recommend that you request her transferred.”
“Your recommendation is noted. I’d like to give her a chance to prove herself a problem first.”
They turned at the next right and the crowd rapidly thinned. They passed the Merchant Raitor Union office where a Yiquar, an ugly, fleshy alien, was briefing a class of new recruits on filing complaints. The Merchant Raitor Patrol office was the next office on their right. The MRP patrolled Merchant Raitor ship and cargo areas in all spaceports. They were known as the toughest law enforcement in most solar systems and local law enforcement avoided getting in their way.
“Captain, you are going to be disappointed with Jackie’s service,” Amanda insisted.
Tru stopped, holding his hand out. “Show me her record.”
She fished out Ensign Rhoades’s docket and handed it over. Tru tapped the activation corner and information appeared on the document sheet. The image of a young Silerium human in her early 20’s appeared in the upper left and text filled in around it. He skimmed the document, turned it off, and handed it back.
“Sounds to me like her other captain’s just don’t understand Sileriums.”
“Sir, it says she has interrupted important meetings, interfered with negotiations, and reported crewmen committing traitorous acts.”
Tru started walking again. “Are you worried she’ll find out about your traitorous acts, Wrigley?”
“I haven’t committed any traitorous acts, sir!” Amanda sharply retorted.
Tru turned into a hall that sloped steeply down to the briefing hall stage door. The hall reminded Tru of a secluded library corner: cool, adequate light, and the only sound was the soft swoosh of their shoes on the carpet and the fans working somewhere deep within the spaceport.
“Then what’s the problem?”
She didn’t answer so he stopped and looked back at her.
“There is no problem, sir.”
“Good. Then let’s go meet our contestants.”
Tru smiled, walking to the door. He stopped and buttoned the top three buttons of his uniform top. He turned to Amanda and found her holding out a doc-slip.
“I took the liberty of preparing your briefing, sir.”
Tru turned and entered the room. She attached to his shadow, struggling to get her doc-slip back in her bag.
Equ’Wixal was a skinny example of the Drasken race. He entered the briefing hall door and stopped at the head of the stairs, looking over the variety of species below him. The seats were arranged in a half circle around a stage and each row was raised high enough so that every seat had a good view of the stage. Equ’Wixal started down the stairs, looking for a familiar face to sit with.
Normally Draskens were stocky and incredibly strong; however, a childhood racked with illness had left him scrawny and stole his hereditary strength, but instilled in him the desire to cure illnesses. His species was often mistaken for humans because their differences were hidden under their skin. A layer of cartilage had evolved to protect Drasken’s organs from their home planet’s often deadly weather and seismic activity. It made their bodies look and feel well toned, but it made surgery difficult. They had translucent inner eyelids to protect they eyeball from their desert planet’s harsh elements, and thin outer eyelids that blocked the UV light from their system’s quadruple suns and nine moons.
In Drasken years, Equ’Wixal, or Q’al for species unable to pronounce his full name, was a baby at the age of seventy-one, but he had married well to four very rich older Draskens. His wives had married him because he was young and his craft was generating more wealth for them. But his husband, Equ’Arihel, married Q’al because they fell in love.
Q’al yawned, feeling his lack of sleep. All of his immediate family had come to Earth the night before and kept him up all night with a custom passed down from The Prophet Tales. Each had sex with him so that if something happened during his journey, he would leave his family on good terms.
Q’al rolled his lips, so the tip of his tongue touching them. At the transport octagon in Q’al’s apartment, Arihel had kissed him good-bye, surprising Q’al with the intoxicating sweetness of Garis’hmal nectar coating his lips. The sweetness would linger on Q’al’s lips for hours, a constant reminder of his beloved husband. And his whispered departing words would carry Q’al through the entire stint: Give yourself to other species, commit your heart to the Makers and the Drasken race, but your kiss always belongs to me, sweet Q’al.
“Q’al,” a voice called. “I saved you a seat.”
He stopped to search out the owner of the voice. A young Paskian female waved him over to the empty seat next to her. Q’al started across the aisle toward Aris Dariket.
Aris was a cute creature with a puppy dogface, a black button nose, and a body covered mostly with short brown and white silken hair. Q’al knew the body parts hair didn’t cover because every stint they served together she spent a lot of it in his bed. He wasn’t the only male in Merchant Raitor that knew which body parts on Aris Dariket didn’t have hair. She was skilled at enticing men to sleep with her, regardless of whether they had a spouse or mate back home or on board. Q’al considered it her luck in life that she was one of the top five helmsmen and navigators, because with all the spouses and mates she’d angered, there was little else keeping her employed with Merchant Raitor.
“I saw you on the docket,” she told him. She cozied up to him as soon as he was seated. “How’s the elbow? I heard you disgraced your opponent with the score.”
Q’al smiled. “The chess game was a joke, Aris. My opponent couldn’t have beaten a toddler of any species!”
Aris laughed, leaning in. “You know, I put in a request to be here with you.”
Q’al leaned close, murmuring, “Does that mean we get to pick up where we left off?”
She laughed, linking her arm with his. “Of course!”
Q’al smiled, looking over the faces around them. It looked like all of the crew had arrived, so where was their captain?
“I know something that will simply shock you!” Aris told him.
Q’al thought, ‘I doubt it, but…’ He looked into her eyes. “I’m waiting with baited breath, my dear.”
“I… Coerced, we’ll say, a certain board member into telling me who our captain is. Do you want to know who it is?” A soft, alluring giggle escaped her.
Q’al noticed several crewmen around him turn, their chatter dying off. If a crewman found out who the captain was before the briefing began, and had good connections, he or she might be able to request a hasty transfer.
“Enlighten me, my dear.”
“The most sought after xeno-psychiatrist in perhaps the universe, Doctor Truman Barnet. Do you think that if a human has a doctorate, they’re any better in bed than the rest of them?”
Aris hadn’t been toying with him. He was surprised.
“That can’t be right! I know he stopped practicing three years ago, but surely not to join Merchant Raitor!”
She leaned in until her lips lightly touched his.
“When has my information ever been wrong, Q’al?”
Q’al’s stomach trembled with sexual excitement as her lips and tongue flutter against his. She knew exactly how to use every part of her body to entice a male. But then he remembered what she’d just told him, and it had the effectiveness of a cold shower.
“I don’t mean to question your information, dear, but Doctor Barnet cannot possibly be our captain.” Q’al looked back at her. “Why would he leave a lucrative and successful practice to be a cargo captain? There isn’t any logic in it.”
Aris shrugged. “Dunno, but that’s the truth, Q’al.”
The door at the bottom of the briefing hall opened and the room seemed to hold its breath. A man almost two meters tall walked in. He filled out his uniform with a well-toned, healthy body. His light brown hair was trimmed neatly and even from this distance Q’al could see how blue his eyes were. A clean shave showed off the man’s strong chin and defined cheekbones. Q’al guessed he was perhaps in his mid-thirties, and he had attended many of Tru’s lectured to know that this was, indeed, Doctor Truman Barnett.
“He is easy on the eyes, isn’t he Q’al?” Aris asked.
Q’al smiled. Yes. He was very easy on the eyes.
And he recognized Amanda Wrigley following him. She was one of his few human friends and was the only one who knew most of his darker secrets. She was trying to put a doc-slip back in her shoulder bag and almost ran into Tru when he stopped. He didn’t seem to notice, his attention was on the crew before him.
Q’al sat back, politely giving this highly respected doctor, and new captain, his undivided attention. If nothing else, perhaps he would find out what would possessed the good Doctor to abandon his lustrous, lucrative, prestigious career as a xeno-psychiatrist to be a low-pay, disrespected, piteous, Merchant Raitor captain.
The large hall could hold a thousand, but today there were only sixty-seven spread across the lower rows. Tru walked across the stage to the lectern. He had given thousands of speeches and lectures, but never as a captain. It was exhilarating and frightening at the same time. Did any of them know his stomach was tensed with butterflies? He was sure the telepaths or empaths did, but they weren’t reacting to his nervousness.
Tru pulled his hands behind his back and cleared his throat as he looked over the crews’ faces. He didn’t recognize any of them and that was a slight disappointment. He had hoped he would have gotten at least one crewman he’d served or trained with.
“I am Captain Barnet. For this stint, you will be serving aboard my ship, Prosperous. And when I say my ship, I do not mean one assigned to me by Merchant Raitor, I mean my ship. Her central processor is named Gracie. The computer and security droids, along with our security team, will be keeping order, so please stick to the areas you are designated and authorized to be in. Because Prosperous was designed for scientific expeditions, some of you are assigned as long-term science crew and should have been notified of this. Look for a meeting request from me after this briefing. Our first stint is—”
Everyone looked at the door at the top of the hall when it opened. A young woman with blood red hair and mottled skin hurried down the stairs, taking a seat at the very end of the bottom row. She sat a small duffle bag on her lap and when she laid her hands on it, the bag deflated to almost flat. Tru recognized her from the doc-slip as the communications officer Amanda complained about.
“That’s Ensign Rhoades,” Amanda whispered over his shoulder.
Tru returned to his speech. “First we have a cargo run to Righel Prime, and then we’ll be assisting with an archeology dig on Achillian Zeta. The roster says this will be seven months, but it may be longer due to the significance of the Astandi dig. They have five months to recover as many artifacts as they can before the Drasken begin mining their purchase. Once that’s complete, we will dock at the Astandi spaceport Hiskadeni. You will be allowed to request a different ship assignment a week prior to port, or you may remain on Prosperous.”
Tru paused, expecting to hear groans, but apparently that wasn’t bad news to this crew. They didn’t even look impressed. Tru mentally shrugged and continued.
“Before we depart, I have to reassign bunks, so—”
“You mean I won’t have sleep with a particle gun in hand?” someone asked.
Tru smiled. “No. There was a misunderstanding with the arrangements and I don’t want any of you to be uncomfortable with your bunkmates.”
Everyone clapped. Tru nodded, motioning them to quiet down. He continued once it was quiet again.
“I want everyone to begin assembling outside my chambers at oh-five-hundred tomorrow for reassignment. We will depart at thirteen hundred, on the dot. If you’re late, you will be left and reprimanded. Understood?”
Amanda was the only one to utter any objection. “That will put us behind a day, Captain Barnet!”
Tru addressed the crew instead of Amanda. “Crew, I am the only one that has to answer for late cargo, not any of you.”
“Lotta of captains say that, and then we get docked in pay,” an angry voice snarled from the faces before Tru.
Tru decided to ignore the remark. “Any other questions or complaints?”
No one said anything.
“All right. I look forward to meeting all of you tomorrow morning. Dismissed, crew. Ensign Rhoades, may I speak with you?”
The crew quickly cleared out of the hall. Tru turned to Amanda, but watched Jackie skulk up to them.
“You’re late, Jackie!” Amanda snapped. “And—”
“I will meet you outside of my study on Prosperous, Wrigley,” Tru said, stopping her.
Before he could continue, she snapped, “She’s late, Captain Barnet! You are obligated to—”
Tru looked Amanda in the eyes and firmly said, “You are dismissed XO.”
“But, sir, she—”
“Executive Officer Wrigley, I would like to speak with Ensign Rhoades in private. You are dismissed.”
She didn’t move and he didn’t look away.
“Wrigley, at this moment you are being the problem. Do you want reprimanded for insubordination?”
Through gritted teeth she snarled, “No, sir.” She walked off with brisk steps.
Tru turned his attention to the withdrawn Ensign. “Ensign Jackie Rhoades, correct?”
The girl nodded, keeping her eyes on the floor.
“Why were you late?”
“There was a riot at the Mare Tranquillitatis spaceport.”
Tru took a step closer and she looked into his eyes. He stared into her black eyes for a long moment and then nodded.
“Shook you up, didn’t it?”
“Some Sileriums were killed, but no one cares about them.”
“Some of us do. Judging from that duffel, I’m guessing you don’t have enough qubits saved to get a room tonight, do you?”
She looked at him, but didn’t answer.
She shook her head.
“Then let’s get you a bunk assignment so you have some place to stay. Come with me.”
Tru walked around her, heading for the door. Ensign Rhoades followed him like an abused child.