Space can be hard. You have to learn to live with it. I stood watching the three mercenaries leave my hatch talking amongst themselves. They were almost unaware of how I'd got them there, to Rislar six.

They commissioned me to fly them to a planet they could have easily taken a commercial hop to, and cheaper, but had other thoughts they didn't think I knew about. I was suspicious from the gate. I am Falin, from the planet with the same readout. Some of us can feel things, some can fly, some can read simpler, unguarded thoughts and minds. I could do all three and then some.

I took their money because I was having trouble getting freight or passengers and took these guys on for just that, money. I charged them quite a lot, almost double my normal rate to see if they really would go through with their half baked plan, as they wanted my ship, I discerned. They had plans to have their way with me, too, then dump me into space after wards.

Falins are known to have all those characteristics Earth men love on their women and I am no exception. What they had planned was not a fun thing, or decent, moral, or even in the least bit appealing to a woman of any race, and after take off, I almost dumped them into space, but didn't. They were foul individuals, flaunting their weaponry and acting out things they weren't and I even read, in the forgotten areas of their minds, what they had done to other women, mostly during war, but I could have killed them for it, if it hadn't been for my upbringing. I had a code of action and murder, even of scum like this, was not what I was about.

As soon as they boarded the ship, all three of them walking in together from the back hatch, I did a little trick of mine and froze them in their tracks. I have fields in all the entrances I can do this with. Not with cold, but with a nifty little gadget built into the walls that stops a lot of neural activity and muscular movement, though letting the body stay alive with all its essential functions. One of them tipped over onto his nose, his limbs frozen in its motion, and I actually laughed, it was so comical. By the time I'd taken off, they were all tipped over and laying on the deck plates of my ship like tin soldiers out of their plastic packaging, but they were okay. I landed, tossed a few empty liquor bottles around them, put one of them in the hand of the nearest and stood back. I reactivated them and they flopped on the floor like a sea squid out of water.

"Rislar Six, gentlemen," I announced. They got up, thinking they must have really had one heck of a night drinking and left the ship, looking back at me suspiciously. The dumb bone heads didn't know what happened to them, other than they were at their destination. I did a voice protocol to have the ship, speaking to Sanja, the brain of our craft, stun them to unconsciousness if they ever showed up in front of me or it, again. And that's how I got there, through deception and cunning. I tisked, turning away when someone asked, "Captain?" with a voice that sounded refined, and deep. It wasn't one of my former passengers. This voice was different.

I turned and there stood a large man. He too was human but of a higher breed, I gathered. Very well muscled, quite handsome, I could see, and he was wearing those casual things Earth people call, Tee Shirts and Jeans that fit him closely. I don't know why the quadrant is so crazy about these Earth people that are spreading like wildfire, but admittedly, they do have things about them that beg to be emulated and copied. Heck, I've even got caught up with their way of speaking and dressing myself. Even though I try to stay true to my planet in morals, at the very least, if not in dress, even though I couldn't have claimed that today. I had on a pair of tight black hip huger pants, styled after Earth woman's fashions, with my seventeenth century boots that are the latest rage, whatever that meant, but still, I liked them. I was also wearing one of my skimpiest black Earth bras under a very fine, see-through, mesh tunic, but I had my weapon strapped to my right thigh for eventualities. Everyone knows what men of any race are like if they see a woman's breasts on obvious display. I wore this kind of outfit simply because it attracted passengers and sometimes freight.

His eyes, I noticed, didn't paw all over me, strip me naked, like most Earthlings did, the males at least, for the most part. He was pretty decent, I thought, unable to read his mind, so I knew that it was generally a good sign, though not conclusive. Some very cunning minds work like that, too. "Are you taking on passengers just yet?"

"I could but I just got here. I may not find freight for a week," I said, lazily walking towards him. "If you're willing to wait, I can accommodate you, but you'll have to pay half up front." Yes, I was aware of how my body bounces in this kind of an outfit, cheap displyer that I am. But still, his eyes staid rock steady. He wasn't thinking of me as a toy. Not just yet, anyway.

"Your rate?" he asked, and I told him.

"But I don't know where I'm headed, just yet."

"I really don't care. I just want to get away from this place."

"You got troubles that might work their way into being my troubles?"'

"No. I'm just bored," he said, quite casually as he came forward a few steps, actually putting his feet on the ramp of Broken Wing, my ship, digging into his left front pocket and pulled out a healthy wad of bills, in large denominations. He peeled several off real fast and slapped them into my hand. I figured he was used to having money and had very quick reflexes.

I told him he had overpaid, giving me the whole amount and them some. But he said, "It's okay. I like to get things done with. Are there any other fees I need to know about?"

"No. This is it," I said, giving him change and looking him over, up and down now, at close range. He didn't budge, merely cocking his head from one side and then the other, watching me. If he wanted something out of me, a surprise attack, or something to that effect, this was the time he could have taken advantage of it, if he was fast enough. I'm pretty fast, too. We were within arms reach of each other. But he didn't move a centimeter, staring me down. He was certainly no flake and you could see a high intelligence smoldering under those clear green eyes.

"Okay," I said, turning and walking down one of the aisles leading off the small cargo bay. I could hear his light footfalls on the deck plates behind me. For a large muscular man, he had a very quiet walk. To me that meant he was athletic.

"What did you see?" he asked, as we turned to gain the ladder to the next level up. Our eyes stared at each others, briefly, as I led the way upwards, to the middle decks.

I didn't answer him, immediately. It took a little thought. Already the politics of questions and answers had begun, but this guy, I sensed, was quite pleasant, not prone to much game playing and again, he was nice, or seemed to be. Half way up, I said, "You're someone that seems lost."

"I'm not lost," he replied right away. "I'm just looking, current circumstances aside."

I stopped and looked back at him, still on the ladder up. He wasn't looking at my butt but I knew what he meant. We smiled at each other and kind of chuckled, and that was that. At least he had a sense of humor, and that was a good thing, generally speaking.

"This is your quarters," I said, stopping at a round hatch to a single berthing compartment. "It has the usual amenities. The galley is open all the time. The crystal feed station is that way and equipped to give you anything you want, except Traciant food. Their stuff stinks up an entire ship."

"The Octo people, huh?"

"Yeah," I said. "Them."

"Do you have a notifier? I'll probably wander around the markets some, in between now and lift off."

I took one off my belt, where I kept several. It would vibrate and give the time of departure in plenty of time to get back to the ship.

"Your lock number for this cabin is, three three niner one. Got it?"

He did, nodding, then repeated the numbers.

"What do I call you?"

"Hayden Morrison."

"See ya around," I said, leaving him to settle in.



"What do I call you?"

"Captain Veralle."

"No first name?"

"Yes. Captain."

"You want to keep things detached and professional, is that it?" he asked, with a smile.

I pointed my index finger at him and held my thumb up and let it depress onto my hand, like a projectile gun, something I'd picked up from some Earthling. It meant, Yeah, you got it.

We smiled at one another and I walked away.

Having at least one passenger already gave me hope I could get a full cargo and passenger load this hop, wherever I was headed. The freight would determine the route. People had to adjust themselves around it. It has always been that way, especially if you're catching rides on a small freighter like mine.

I secured the ship, and left via a hatchway. I told the ship's brain to allow Hayden in and out access. It was a person in that locked and bolted titanium shelter and they are much easier to work with than computers, plus, they're quicker about everything. They have full access to their minds, unlike most people and other ships that run with computers. Another Earth invention that is transforming space travel out here.

I went to a real restaurant, first thing. Ships food is excellent, but there's something about a freshly cooked meal by a real chef that simply seems better, if you got a good cook, that is. I went to a 'Chinese' eatery, as they call themselves. They were Earth people, too, but they were slightly different looking but oh how they could cook food. It was a feast for one and I felt five pounds heavier when I left, eating all of my favorites.

I wandered around the market place shopping for nothing, really, and ended up in the Field Commissioner's Hall. This is where I usually pick up business sitting for hours in front of a mindless computer system that is always a little bit different wherever you go. I'm good at it, but it is a hassle to figure-out at first.

I found some small, very expensive containers, made out of beryllium that needed a fast and secure ship for exclusive charter. I had that and connected to the agent's handling the cargo. We made a quick deal and it was quite advantageous for me, as it was a rush job. They wanted me to leave right away, and I said I could.

So, I immediately beeped Hayden and he beeped back he was still on board. Good. They were bringing the cargo right then so there was no time to goof off, as the saying goes, and I got right back to the Broken Wing. I had just lowered the big bay doors for loading when they arrived. I showed them where to put it, signed all the papers, secured the load with mag bolts, and resealed the ship. Or the symbiotic did. She's good at anticipating my need. Brilliant girl.

Her name is Sanja, by the way. She comes from a place on Earth called India. Her skin is dark and she has the most beautiful hair and smile. I've seen her a couple of times from camera. We don't often get to see them, our ships brain people, as they're naked, part of their care and function practices. It wouldn't be proper to see her like that all the time. We talk on longer voyages when there isn't much to do. They recruit girls, mostly, like her from damaged individuals that cannot be repaired. Her spine was ruined and that did it for her, but she actually prefers this to her old body and mind. When they go through the process, they are apparently perfected in all other areas, like lost limbs and so forth, and she was beautiful though they cannot seem to repair damaged tissues of the nervous system, not in the spine, anyway, and she just couldn't move below the neck. With all their sensors and cameras, they feel very comfortable with their jobs. They say it's very enlarging with all they can see and feel. They're sealed in a central place aboard the ship and are really sealed in. Only the maintenance crew can get to them, with any kind of efficiency. They're in titanium rooms and sealed, resealed, and sealed again. Very secure.

I asked Sanja to contact Hayden as I rushed around, preparing things for another planet hop, and let him know we'd be taking off immediately, and have him strap in.

I got to the control pit and switched everything on. Sanja had already pre-warmed several of the slower systems that needed to go through their extensive checklists and within several brief moments, we were ready to leave. I beeped the outside and almost as quick, took her up. The Broken Wing is very maneuverable and I hovered my way over to number 13 launch sight. The Earthlings say it's an unlucky number. Hogwash. We soon got clearance, being several kilometers away from the parking zones, and all the vulnerable market places. I was going through my own checklist I'd invented over the years, from various experiences I've had. You can read that as, possible problems and disasters, or PP&D's. But it's paid off several times.

I boosted thrust, released the brake and we began climbing. The glow outside the ship grew with intensity as acceleration mounted and then quickly dissipated as we left the planets atmosphere. I made sure our exit lane was clear and pushed the four buttons in sequence that got us well past light speed to the twenty-second power. I was feeling good. We were on our way, safe and sound, and paid. An hour later I found Hayden in the galley and we had our little chat.

I told him, "We're headed for a mining colony. It's in the Defron System. Do you know where that is?"

"No. Never heard of it."

"It's quite a distance. Take us a week to get there, but we shouldn't have any delays."

"What's it like?"

"Like most mining planets. Dirty and dull, unless you like casinos and low-life's."

"I might be buying another passage to somewhere else."

"We can do that."

"Thanks." He stared off into space then stuck his index finger in the air.

"You're Falin, right?"

"Yes. How'd you guess?"

"The ears," he said without any judgment or sarcasm.

Our ears are up near the tops of our heads. And just little wing-like structures that flare out. I've heard Earth people describe them as looking like bat wings. A small flying mammal on their planet. They stick out through our hair. Otherwise, humans and we are pretty closely matched.

"So when was the last time you were on Falin? I've been there once and liked it a lot. Got any nearby plans to visit your home world in the next few jumps?"

"No. I haven't been home for seventeen of my standards. That's roughly, seven of your years."

"No reason to go back and visit?"

"Not really. I have a brother that's still alive, but doesn't even know what my birthday is, much less care where I am. The rest of my family is dead. They were all killed in the last three wars."

"Pretty tough to take, isn't it? Everyone dying like that?"

"Yeah, I grieved, but we weren't that close. Military brats, you know? Dad was always off on duty somewhere and mom was home worrying and drinking something you call wine. It wasn't a happy upbringing. And then there were the wars. My kid brother died first, and then Dad, and then my mother."

I guess I looked a little down.

"I'm sorry, Janssa. I didn't mean to bring up bad memories. Oh! Your name. I read it off the bulkhead license down on 'E' deck. I'm just curious is all, thinking it was an interesting planet for me to get off. If not, I'll find someplace nice."

"The freight makes the route, you know? We could be hopping for some time before you find a place you like. A lot of freight is for out of the way developing planets, you realize. I don't want to give you any illusions about where we're going. Are you all right with that?"

"Yes. I'm wondering, if you can give me a cut rate on any of that planet hopping. I have money, but if I'll be with you a while, that might deplete some, unless I can have a few days to make more."

"Are you a gambler?"

"No. I'm an investor. I need a few days for the markets to fluctuate so I can make a buck. I mean money." I knew what he meant. "I'm pretty good at predicting trends and movements in currencies and grain shipments, and other things. I make good money."

"Why not stay in one place and make a lot of money."

"I like to move around the galaxy. You must know what I mean?"

"I suppose."

"So, if I do whatever needs doing around here, you think we can cut a deal on my hops with you?"

I knew we could. There were jobs I'd just as soon not do. "Yes, if you don't mind getting dirty. You'd be doing a lot of things you may not find pleasant."

"I grew up on a farm in Iowa, that's a place on Earth. I did a lot of dirty jobs on it, so, I'm not too concerned with dirt," he said, again, with that big beautiful smile of his.

Yes. I thought he was pretty cute.

The next few sleep cycles rolled by without much to be worried about. I assigned Hayden several jobs that kept him busy but not overworked him. Took him about four hours each day to do most of them. He worked well and the only problems were finding the right tools for him. He didn't know where I kept things. I even had to think about it sometimes. The ship isn't terribly large, but its complex, and sometimes tools are left in various cribs you wouldn't normally keep them in, so it was fun looking for the items he needed at the time. Kept us both on our toes.

After several days, we were nearing Coltrac, the delivery point, and only one sleep cycle out. The planet was a high gravity planet and actually had ice rings around it, there, in the life zone, which is a very unusual thing for a small body like it. You almost always had rings around large gas giants, even though that isn't completely understood, but small worlds like Coltrac and Falin, as well as Earth, no. There shouldn't have been any. It looked beautiful from space, on the astro-programs, off the computer, but there were many many hazards. A lot of asteroids orbited the planet itself as well as sizable near body objects. It looked awfully dangerous to me. A slow approach was in demand, with the information I had on hand. In addition, I didn't trust what I had. Often times, these charting systems were not up to date and way out of touch with reality. They could be months old, if not years. I would have to hold back before I got to one of Coltrac's three moons and ask for an update on the astro-geology of the place and its mini system of planetoids.

"What's up," Hayden asked, coming to the control room, freshly showered, brushed, and fed, I could see food on his lower lip. He plopped himself in the copilot's seat, next to me. I didn't brush it off.

"We're going to have a slow approach to our delivery. The place is infested with asteroids and the planet itself has got ice rings, if you can believe that." He understood the significance of that, as it was rare.

"A high mineral planet often catches things in its orbit that would usually pass it by. This must be a heck of a find, high in a lot of good concentrates of minerals and whatnot. No wonder it's a mining planet. Dangerous, too, if you don't have the right charts, right? But ice rings, this close into the sun?"

He was looking at my screens and their numbers, all in metric, of course. Everyone, almost, had adapted it. It just works better. Yeah. Earth again.

"Yes. I'm going to have to hold up until I get updated charts."

"That shouldn't take too long, should it?"

"No. They're usually pretty good about it. Just another hiccup, is all. How'd it go, up above?"

"Oh! I got it done. Those radiant rods can be stubborn, can't they?"

"Why do you think I had you do it?"

"Because you have a cruel streak in that pretty little head of yours?"

"That's it. You got me. You're quite perceptive, aren't you?"

"Only after a hot shower and a good meal. Have you ever tried Germ rice with Salin sauce and Hardliner meat? It's a crustacean that tastes just like our lobsters, on Earth. It was such a good meal."

"Well, you'll have to punch it up for me, sometime. There are over three million possible dishes on that machine. Sorry to say I haven't tried that one yet."

"Want to play a game of Dungeons, later on?"

"Um, no. I better not. I'll be getting up early tomorrow for landing instructions."

"Need any help?"

"No. If they want these beryllium containers as badly as they say, we shouldn't have any problems. You sleep in. It'll be pretty boring waiting for the upload."

"Okay then . . . I'll see you tomorrow, right?"


"Goodnight then, Captain."

"What happened to Janssa?"

"Goodnight, Janssa."

"Night Hayden."

Yes. We smiled like teenagers, again. I got up at four. I hadn't slept well, even though Sanja would have notified me if there were anything questionable or dangerous on the long-range scopes and sensors.

"Stop point in thirteen minutes, Captain. There's a lot of rock and ice out there."

"Yes, I know. I'm going to call as soon as we stop." I took a good look and said, "Brother, is there ever a lot of activity out there."

"Captain, I don't think this is normal activity. I'm sensing a lot of anomalies that shouldn't be taking place. The planets and moons are taking a lot of hits they shouldn't be. Look, on M-star six's screen, there's a big strike on that moon in front of us. That was an asteroid. I think the planet's core is doing something very unusual. It's throwing all these objects out of orbit and disrupting stabilization. Everything's wacky."

"Thank you for that technical terminology."

"Anytime, Cap'."

"We've got an incoming communica' from the planet."

"Open it."

"This is Broken Wing. We're requesting updated charts on incoming flight approach. Your system seems a little out of pattern. I can't safely get through."

The voice was calm but I could hear a lot of voices in the background that weren't so calm.

"We're experiencing a major disruption to our gravity flows. The whole system is in complete flux. You'll have to make your way in on your instruments. Ours are useless. Charts are useless. I recommend you come down through the poles and make your way over land and sea as best you can. There's a lot less material in the sky on the ends."

"It's suicide to try and get through on our own," I said, meaning it.

"We need those beryllium tubes Captain. With the amplifiers installed, it's the only way we can bring this system under control. You've got to get through. It's only a matter of time before one of those big pieces hit us and causes an extinction collision. There's four and a half million people down here. We need you, Captain."

I was thinking. I knew I had to do it but I also had to weigh my chances. Then Sanja announced, "There's a forty-seven percent chance we could get through Janssa."

Okay, it wasn't fifty-fifty, but it was close enough. I had to try for all those peoples sake.

Then the planet came back on; "You get through," another voice yelled, "and I will personally guarantee a ten fold bonus tacked onto your delivery. This is President Billings of Coltrac, speaking, Captain Varalle. We need you immediately."

"I'm on my way Mr. President," I said, and switched off the communications. I didn't want any more distractions.

"Sanja, wake up Hayden and have him report to me immediately."

"Yes Captain."

"I need all sensors on full, camera's, radars, everything we have at the sharpest and quickest maneuverable parameters we can achieve, Sanja," I told her, inverting the ship and pulling the nose up while powering the Broken Wing away from the planet's immediate system. I wanted to be far out before trying to drop the nose and power down into the southern polar region. It looked the safest down as there seemed to be less of a count of objects moving around down there.

I arced away and then when sufficiently outside the influence of Coltrac, I made a beeline to the planet, way over its southern surface. Having achieved it, I maneuvered into a vertical dive to the world, with a controlled approach, not too fast, not lumbering either, for maximum maneuverability.

"What's up, Janssa?" Hayden was there.

"The planets breaking up and we have to get these tubes to the world or it's going to self destruct. There are a lot of people down there depending on us. I need you to suit up. There's asteroids everywhere and some of them just might hit us or vice-versa. You know where the enviro-suits are, don't you?"

"Yeah. Aft bay."

"Okay, get going. You know how to put it on?"

"Sort of. Been a long time since I went through space training."

"I'll have Sanja direct you, make sure you get it right. Carry a pry bar with you. I'll need you to close anything that gets jammed, and needs help closing, if we get hit. And when you're not doing anything, hold on to the passageway handrail. We can't use the inertia dampeners in atmosphere."

"Got it. I'm on my way."

"Good luck," I yelled.

I wasn't even looking at him. My eyes were full of readouts and moving about in the approach. I had already went around some big pieces of rock and ice, some of them streaming frozen ice mist as they heated up in their tumbling and strikes with other objects.

We hit the upper atmosphere with several close-call yelps out of me. Those were more like close shaves. I was breathing sporadically and I had to remind myself to breathe deeply and slowly. Stay as calm as the situation demanded. I was trying but I was still afraid for all of us. A huge boom occurred aft. I went on com', "We're okay. Just a small one. Came up from behind," I spoke, mostly for Hayden's sake. He couldn't see like Sanja and myself. Then I saw a huge thing in the far distance, beginning to smoke and headed right for us. I veered off our current course and thought I would avoid it but its erratic shape caused it to spin and tumble. It was going every which way until it got caught in my vortex and began following at an alarming rate of speed. I maneuvered but it was no good.

"Bring out the cannon, Sanja, and point it at that . . ." and before I could finish, I felt and heard it discharge time and again. The rock broke up into several hundred small, harmless pieces, behind us. Thank the stars Sanja had anticipated. She didn't want to die any more than the rest of us.

"Incoming overhead," she said. I saw it too, now. "We're going to get hit," she told me, and almost immediately a crushing sound staggered the air within the interior of the ship, a sound so loud my ears rang for hours after.

All the integrity doors slammed shut. I hit my face on the console, too, and felt my eye and mouth bleeding but didn't have time to investigate the damage. We had a hull breach. The siren was going off with its irritating undulant whine and I was trying to lock systems off that were bleeding various liquids and gas. I was merely helping, only assisting Sanja a little. She had most of them shut down already.

"Hayden is outside the ship, Janssa," she noted, her voice sounding rather strained. She had feelings like everyone else.

A screen came up and I could see him tumbling aft of us, his suit and body tearing to pieces, and then the flame and trailing smoke. He was long dead before I could even attempt to help.

"No," I cried. "God, noooo . . ." But he was gone. I had to pilot this ship.

"It hit right next to him, Jansa, and he flew out instantly. I'm sure he was unconscious and didn't feel a thing. It happened too fast. Hull integrity good. We're okay."

We went into a long pullout over a frozen waste of ice and snow over their southern pole then flew parallel to the sea's surface. I had to avoid several incoming asteroids but we made it to the planet's capitol. A crew jumped on board as soon as we landed and retrieved their cargo. They advised I get airborne right away to avoid anything coming down. I did as they suggested, something I had intended to do anyway, and two days later, came down to rest, exhausted. The security forces were still busy rushing around up stairs blasting asteroids out of the sky and meteorites were easily seen everywhere, but nothing big was getting through. They even had me doing duty up there, but the planet was safe at last. I got my payment and free repairs and replacement shells for my on-board cannon. They were quite grateful for the effort I had made.

Several weeks later, I left the system and was on my way with a great shipment, a premium shipment. Life went on.

I shed a few tears over the meal Hayden had told me about. It was a great meal, just like he had said.

"Like it?" Sanja asked.

"Love it," I said, taking another fork full.

You have to learn to live with it.

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