Devon Barlow cursed as the circuit board sparked in his face. He jerked his hand up in defense but it slammed into the wall instead, jamming one of his fingers. Heat prickled at his jaw and neck and he craned his head away from the mini explosions in front of him. The hard press of metal bit into his scalp and something seared past his uniform jacket, burning a little angry hole right into his shoulder. Devon swore again and tried to push himself even further against the steel ceiling.
Damn tight access panels, he thought.
“Are you all right, Master Devon?” The computer asked.
The board sizzled under him, circuits and transistors popping at a slower rate as power was drained from the board. Opening his eyes again he surveyed the charred CPU board with a scowl. He knew Zephyr’s computer scans could ascertain that he was, in fact, all right, but he answered anyway.
“No,” Devon said and squirmed in the metal cocoon of the loader’s main computer section. “I’m seriously contemplating venting this whole loader.”
“Lieutenant Seach has often suggested the same thing.”
He managed to pull the fried board away from the main console and tried to find something salvageable on it. The transistors had melted, smearing gold across its clear grapheme surface and for a second Devon thought it looked more like a toddler’s painting than a CPU anymore.
“Toast,” he muttered and gazed in dismay at the culmination of five weeks of work. “Maybe I’ll just strangle mother until she agrees to buy a new unit.”
Sighing, he checked the console connections to make certain none of the wires had been zapped. The bulky yellow loading claw was at least thirty years out of date. The console beneath him looked like it had probably been made on Earth, too. It had simple plug connections and cheap wiring, nothing like the state of the art stuff that came from Gliese these days.
“I cannot condone physical violence against the Captain, Master Devon.” Zephyr said.
The computer had a pleasantly calm female voice but no emotional filter. Not that he imagined a computer should have an emotional filter, but it was still offsetting to hear her give threats in the same tone she delivered the announcement for dinner.
Devon rolled his eyes. “It’s a figure of speech, Zeph.”
“Of course, Master Devon.”
All the wires appeared to be fine, just a little singed. He looked toward his feet and began wiggling his way out of the horizontal access panel. Newer loaders had easier access to the CPU, but this one required he be half inside the machine to do any real work. And it was so small in the panel that he couldn’t bring his tools with him.
Devon frowned as he pulled himself free of the loader’s panel. His body floated into Zephyr’s docking bay and Devon paused for a moment, allowing his weightlessness to bob him around. The loader unit was positioned high up on the ceiling, just beside the rotary bars that allowed it to move throughout the bay and collect hauling crates.
That was, of course, if he could ever get the blasted thing to work.
He’d left his mag-boots in the main hold of the ship, preferring to maneuver through zero gravity. This always annoyed his mother but Devon found it easier to negotiate the tight access areas without his boots. Protocol or not, in an emergency he would rather be tossed through the loading bay than caught inside the skinny, claw-like structure that was their front loader.
He snagged hold of the loader’s topmost claw and pushed himself down toward the U-shaped catwalk below, free floating for a moment. The catwalk stood several feet above the bay floor, where the conveyor belt led into the main cargo hold of the ship. Everything about the loading bay was hard metal and broken machinery. Only the conveyor belt and doors actually worked. Even the line of halogen lights rimming the walls flickered, casting sharp metallic surfaces into shadow throughout the bay.
“Did you get it working?” Seach called from the main access door.
Devon caught the catwalk railing and peered down the walkway. His father stood in the doorway between the bay and Zephyr’s upper level. Even at a distance Devon could see the amusement on Seach’s face. Seach always seemed to like it when Devon did something Jorry would grump at.
No doubt she had sent him to force Devon into his boots.
Devon felt a surge of annoyance but fought it down.
“No.” Devon waved the broken board at his father and angled his body down the catwalk. “I think I made it worse, actually.”
“I didn’t think that was possible,” Seach said.
“Oh, it’s possible.” Devon pulled himself toward the door where his father stood. “Do you think she’ll buy a new one now?”
Seach grinned and took his hand when he got close enough. “I hope so. I’m sick of hauling crates in.”
“Yeah, you and me both.”
Seach helped him out of the bay and into Zephyr’s main corridor. The ship’s harmonic gravity buzzed through him, making his skin tingle as it forced him to his feet. Devon fought a wave of nausea as his body adjusted to gravity again, then moved to get his boots. Slipping both feet into the black, soft-shelled mag-boots, Devon reached down to latch them, handing over the broken board as he did so.
He straightened and faced his father, half expecting to be lectured – again – for his disregard for protocol, but Seach was focused on the CPU.
The short passageway between loading bay and the center of Zephyr was lined with computer displays filtering through various ship readouts. The ceiling and floor were both sleek, shiny steel that reflected the lights from the computers, illuminating the space in ghostly blue and white. Here things were far more advanced than in the loading bay and everything worked. It was like the loading bay itself was an afterthought to the ship and Devon felt a familiar unease settle in his chest.
What kind of haulers took better care of the living spaces than the loading equipment? It made no sense.
“Good lord. You’re lucky this didn’t explode in your face,” Seach said.
“It did explode in my face.”
Seach laughed and gave him back the board. “Well, make sure you mention that to her. She’ll replace it for sure if it means keeping you safe.”
Devon grinned. “You think?”
“I know,” Seach said and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “If there’s one thing Jo loves more than this ship, it’s you.”
Devon’s smile wavered as he watched his father start to walk away.
“And you, right?” He asked without thinking.
Seach turned and gave him a puzzled look. Cool brown eyes the color of honey in the sun bore into him and Devon nearly squirmed, but the question was in the open now and he couldn’t take it back. So he held his father’s gaze, willing the man to tell him everything. There were too many secrets on this cursed ship as it was.
“I mean,” Devon said, feeling even more awkward. “She loves you too, right?”
“Of course she does,” Seach said, sounding surprised.
“It’s just that … I mean …” He felt his face flush and took a deep breath. “You guys aren’t really … affectionate. You barely touch and I never see you kiss, you know?”
“Most kids your age wouldn’t want to see stuff like that from their parents.”
“I’m not a kid.”
Seach held up his hands in mock defeat. “Not a kid, sorry.”
Devon eyed his father. Seach stood tall and capable in the middle of the corridor, his grey and black uniform accenting a build meant for battle. Devon might have attributed his father’s muscular form to the fact that they’d spent the last nineteen years having to physically lug crates through the loading bay, but there was something else about him, something about the confident stride and look of barely checked humor that told Devon there was more to his father than he could see.
“Listen,” Seach said with an easy smile, “Jo loves me. In her own way. Really. But why the sudden worry? What’s going on?”
Devon cringed and looked away from his father. He wished he hadn’t opened his mouth. This was only going to get worse. He didn’t know why talking about University was such a hard thing to do, but it was. Some deep part of him was almost ashamed at his desire for higher education, like the very wanting of it was a betrayal to his parents. He wasn’t exactly a crewmember, but they did need him for fixing the ship and hauling crates.
“No reason,” he said.
“Liar. Fess up.”
“Look … I just …” Devon beat the dead circuit board against his thigh and sighed. “In a year I qualify for University. I just wanted to make sure you two weren’t … you know …”
“Gonna split ways the moment you’re off ship?”
“Yeah,” Devon smiled slightly at the deadpan tone. He couldn’t be sure if he heard hurt in his father’s voice or not. Maybe he was making a bigger deal out of this than he needed to. Things were tight on Zephyr but they always managed. He imagined his parents could get along just fine while he was at school.
“Devon,” Seach said, gripping his shoulder until he looked up. “Jo and I were together long before you turned up. And we’ll be together long after you take off. I promise.”
“Yeah, all right,” Devon tried to smile better for his father.
It wasn’t all right. He couldn’t shake the feeling that they needed him here. There was something going on with his parents, something neither of them would talk about, and he was beginning to suspect he knew what it was. But no amount of interrogating would get Seach to talk to him. The man was like a brick wall, Devon could kick at it all he wanted and Seach would still just grin and wink at him.
“Now go take that board to your mother and sweet talk her into a new loader.”
“Right,” Devon said and moved toward the central chamber.
“And Devon …”
He turned again.
“Don’t mention the University to her. She’ll … she won’t handle it well.” Seach made a face and shuddered. “Wait until it’s closer to time.”
Devon saluted him with the broken loader board and started toward the central chamber. The upper level of Zephyr held the main living quarters and the pilot’s nest. Everything connected through one oval-shaped central chamber via rounded corridors comprised of computerized walls and steel flooring. The wall displays shimmered information at him as he passed but he ignored them. Aside from the daily news feed – which took up a position near the middle of the central chamber – all the information was standard ship functions, and those were always level.
One table stood in the center of the oblong room, built into the floor. It doubled as their dining area and their main workbench. Underneath its slick black surface were several computer cores, all of them bridged together to give Zephyr her speed and artificial intelligence.
The heart of the ship, he thought, rapping his knuckles on the corner edge as he passed.
Devon moved around the table and headed for the corridor leading to the pilot’s nest.
He’d never thought about Zephyr’s structure much when he was younger; he’d imagined that all inter-stellar ships were the same. But when he’d started seriously considering attending the University Devon began a course of studies in engineering that took him through every make and model of starship since the invention of jumper travel. None of them, not even the most advanced military vessels, matched the Zephyr.
On the surface it looked like a run-of-the-mill, trucker-class hauling ship. And in fact, hauling and shipping were the jobs that his parents always took. He’d never once seen them smuggle anything, even though there were no less than six hidden storage compartments on board. And they never took passengers.
His mother said it was a safety issue.
Devon frowned as he neared the nest. He couldn’t decide who they were trying to keep safe anymore; him or the would-be passengers.
Underneath all the clunky iron and basic hauling gear, like that cursed loader, Zephyr had a sleek, armored hull. Hidden at various intervals he’d discovered twelve canons – military grade pulse weapons meant for stellar battles – and in one compartment Devon uncovered a cache of weapons and armor.
If that wasn’t enough to pique his curiosity, Devon knew there was a section under the pilot’s nest that was blacked out of all the design plans. It was no more than ten feet by twelve feet and seven feet deep into the hull, but every instinct he had screamed that it was important. He didn’t know how, but it was. And he had a feeling that whatever was in that blacked out section of the ship had something to do with who his parents really were.
As he stepped into the pilot’s nest he tried to push away his concerns. Yes, his parents kept secrets from him. Most parents hid things from their kids. And they’d been up front with him that there were things they could not, and would not, explain to him until he came of age.
At ten years old he’d accepted that. At fifteen he’d argued, but ultimately let it go in favor of learning how to fly the ship. But now he was seventeen.
In ten months he would be of age – legally an adult by I.G.C. standards – and he was suddenly afraid of what they had to tell him. Because he had a sinking, pit-of-the-stomach feeling that his parents were some kind of pirates.
The nest itself was a pocket-sized room that came to a point at the very front. One chair sat prominently in the middle and a curved console made a crescent around it. His mother stood in front of the console. She faced away from him with her arms crossed, her tall, lean form commanding the little room.
Her braid was down, which Devon took as a good sign. Normally she curled the braid up into a bun at the base of her neck but today it stretched between her shoulders, a blond line against her black jacket. By all appearances she could be watching the steady stream of lights as they streaked across the floor-to-ceiling windows, but he knew better.
His mother wasn’t watching the stars, she was remembering something. And whatever it was that had her trapped in the past, it wasn’t good. If he asked her about it she would just laugh it off, but Devon could still see the traces of some buried pain in her face.
He cleared his throat to get her attention.
“You went into the docking bay without your boots again,” she said without turning. “You know I hate that.”
“It’s easier to access the panels.”
“And it’s dangerous. If we’d hit a debris patch or had to stop suddenly you would have been tossed around the ship.”
“Yeah, Mom, I know. But the chances of that happening are a gazillion to one.” Devon walked into the nest and flopped down in the pilot’s chair. “And if we had to stop at this speed we’d probably all be dead anyway.”
She turned to face him and gave him the “I am so annoyed right now” look that she always gave him during this argument. In response, he grinned and waggled his eyebrows at her. Her thin mouth twitched with humor.
Dark blue eyes narrowed at him but Devon still didn’t apologize. Her expression told him that she was more annoyed than angry, which was good because he didn’t really want to fight.
Fighting with Jorry was like fighting a glacier; frigid and pointless.
Jorry would remind him of the rank system, that on a ship regulations and commands were the only way to maintain safety. He would remind her that he had lived on this ship his whole life and knew how it worked. Then she would emphasize the fact that his knowing better did not excuse his blatant disregard for procedure.
To which he would say that he wasn’t a kid anymore and could figure out which procedures were negligible. And if he got really desperate he would remind her that families, normal families, did not run on procedure.
And then she would order him out of the room and they wouldn’t speak for a few days. Seach always ended up playing mediator between them and he knew it bothered his father when they fought, so he was relieved when Jorry sighed and turned away.
“All right,” she said at last. “I take it by the circuit board in your hands that you didn’t fix the loader.”
“We need a new one.”
She walked around the console and began typing on the flat surface. “That’s what you always say.”
“Mom, it’s an antique. That loader is older than I am. It breaks more than it works. We need a new one.”
She made a noncommittal noise and continued working with the console. Devon watched her fingers slide over the blue and black surface of the controls. She wore black fingerless gloves, just like Seach, and a padded suit that covered her from neck to feet. It struck him then that he had never seen either of his parents out of uniform.
They didn’t kiss and they didn’t dress down. What did that mean?
He wanted to shout, to demand to know who she really was and shake her until she came out with the truth, but frowned at the circuit board instead. As much as he hated it, they’d promised to tell him when he came of age. All he had to do was hold on for another few months.
Why did the Consulate have to put the age limit at eighteen years old?
“The cheapest new loader on the market is fourteen grand,” Jorry said. “I only have half that to spare. If we save over the next three hauls we can get it.”
“You have seven grand saved?” Devon sat up in the chair.
Since when did his mother save money?
Jorry looked over her shoulder and smirked at him. “What? You think I didn’t hear you the first dozen times you complained about that loader? I’ve been saving for the past several months.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“It never occurred to me that I needed to.” She straightened and nodded at the console. “We’ll do our own labor, so that saves us another six grand from the costs.”
“Six grand in labor?” Devon whistled. “Maybe you’re in the wrong profession, Mom. If you can make that much just installing ship components you could be rich inside of three years.”
She chuckled and shook her head. “I prefer to be on the move,” she said. “You know that.”
Yeah, he thought, because you’re a freaking pirate, aren’t you?
“Three hauls at seven weeks per jump,” he said instead. “That’s twenty-one weeks. Unless we double up on a haul.”
He didn’t want to go another five months with a broken front loader. His arms hurt just thinking about it, but with seven grand already saved they were at least halfway. If he could wait for his birthday to hear all his family secrets, he could wait for a new loader.
“We’ll see,” Jorry said and smiled at him. “Let’s go get dinner ready. There’s nothing we can do about it until we come to port anyway.”