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Excerpt - Spaceship Thrive

Copyright © 2019 Ginger Booth. All rights reserved.

This is the blurb for Spaceship Thrive, book 2 of the Thrive Space Colony Adventures series.

Pirates, slavers, and deviants!

Captain Sass Collier steers her motley crew across the treacherous planetary rings, seeking solutions to the steady health decline of Mahina. Tantalizing clues point to Sagamore, Mahina’s brother moon colony.

To get there, Sass needs to upgrade her vintage skyship to a spaceship. Her crew’s would-be heroes need space legs. And the ex-cop Sass is probably the wrong person for the job.

But no one else is willing to try.

Only the deranged denizens of the rings can help them reach Sagamore. They’re more dangerous than the asteroids.

But if Sass doesn’t figure out why the moon’s settlers are failing, Mahina Colony is doomed.

Sass won't let that happen.

If you love exciting space adventures with an ensemble cast of well-meaning misfits, you’ll love book 2 in Ginger Booth’s Thrive series. For fans of Firefly and Nathan Lowell’s Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series.


Prologue

Humanity spread to the stars not with a bang, but a whimper.
We gained control of gravity.
The star drive was discovered.
Explorers sought out new solar systems.

The best were colonized. Terraforming began.
But behind them, Earth collapsed.

Launched on a shoestring,
The settlers were humanity’s only hope for survival.
But they’re failing on the moon Mahina.
Captain Sass Collier heads into orbit seeking answers.

Rings of Pono

Chapter 1

Captain Sassafras Collier brought her skyship Thrive slowly toward the space station Mahina Orbital — MO. She held her speed at dead slow, not because the maneuver required this, but to scope out the changes time had wrought.

The trip up from Mahina had been a hell-ride, gunner shooting rocks in their path while the pilot dodged obstacles too big to shoot. Sass spelled both pilot and gunner, the three of them playing musical chairs. Once they reached the clear space maintained by the orbital’s guns, they took a couple hours off to recuperate before final approach and admire the view.
Her nerves still welcomed the break from sheer terror.

How long had it been? She first saw MO 64 years ago, arriving aboard the colony ship from Earth. What a madhouse, with a quarter million refugees to keep quelled. As a cop, quelling was her job. She stole a quick glance at the station out of an airlock. But that day her attention was riveted on the colorful gas giant planet Pono and its sparkling rings. She also caught her first glimpse of the sorry little moon Mahina that day, a dust ball with craters, her dubious destination. She’d lived here ever since.

Yes, she remembered arrival day.

What she struggled to recall was when she last visited the orbital. The colony ship that brought her here, the Vitality, remained in orbit for nearly a decade while they cannibalized it for parts. Gradually the settlers disembarked to live on Mahina. And die. Last time she saw MO, the carcass of the immense transport still dwarfed the station, bare ribs shining like a dead whale. The vivid orange and white and magenta stripes of storms across the face of yellow Pono shone through where her cohort used to bunk.

She hadn’t paid much mind to the space station that time, either.

“Long thoughts?” Abel prompted from the copilot seat. Just the two of them fit in the skyship’s snug bridge for this brief maneuver. Dusky in coloring and sturdy of build, the first mate was only 25. Earth years. No one reckoned time by Pono’s 29-year period around Aloha, the system’s sun.

“Was it your grandparents?” Sass asked. “Who arrived on the Vitality?”

“Yeah,” Abel agreed. “My grandfather was seven when they left Earth. I don’t know much about him. Died young.”

Sass’s brow furrowed. “Your other grandparents?”

“That’s all I know,” Abel replied. “Mom’s first memories were an orphanage. Dad’s mom, he never knew.”

That’s how it went back then. Longevity was slightly better now. Most remembered their parents at least, among the refugee settlers. The urbs — the first wave citizens of Mahina Actual, Mahina’s one city — could usually recite their family tree back to the colony’s founding. They knew the heroic accomplishments of their illustrious ancestors.

Sass arrived with the settlers over 40 years later, subjective. The illustrious founders looked like hell by then, memories of Earth already grown tenuous.

After atmosphere, she suddenly recalled. That’s when she’d last visited the orbital. She’d been living on the surface several years without visiting orbit. But she had no reason to think it would be the last time. Nearly 50 years ago.

Sass looked the same as she had on that day, about the same age as Abel now. The years hadn’t been nearly as kind to Mahina Orbital.

As they drew nearer, its sweeping tutu of solar collectors looked tattered and chewed on. The station’s shape, accreted in microgravity, defied the eye to interpret clearly. The squat box jutted out accessories and annexes like flying buttresses, giving an overall impression of an archaic loom. The automated guns kept the debris from Pono’s rings at bay, mostly.

“It’s part of the ship the urbs arrived in, the Manatee,” Sass murmured for Abel’s benefit. “The Mahina Colony founders. The core of it, anyway.”

“Weird,” Abel acknowledged. “Looks like it’s falling apart.”

Sass nodded. She watched as more of the compound damage of a century grew clear. What the —? Lumpy organic protuberances spotted the orbital hull, as though its surface grew mushrooms.

In her planning for this trip, she assumed she was an old space hand. She was intimately familiar with the orbital and the rings of Pono. She was equipped to lead her people and crew here. With a sudden stab of acid misgiving in her stomach, Sass recognized that wasn’t entirely true. She worried her lower lip.

“Captain? Prepare for arrival?” Abel prompted.

“Right,” Sass agreed. Time to drop the reverie and get serious. She’d never mated her new-used skyship to a dock before. This technical alignment problem absorbed her attention for the next 20 minutes.

“Mahina Orbital?” she hailed them. “Thrive in position to dock. Will you take over?”

“Take over what?” the comms returned.

“Dock mating,” Sass clarified. “Pull us in to dock. We are at the correct dock, yes?”

“Oh. I thought you did that. Hang on, maybe I can ask somebody.”

“Somebody?” Abel murmured.

Sass nodded sourly. “Mahina Orbital, this is Thrive Actual. We are expected. May I speak with your CO?”

No reply. Perhaps the receptionist left her post to search for ‘somebody.’

“How often do they get visitors?” Abel asked.

“They complained their last resupply was fifteen months ago. Supposed to be once a year.”

Sass paused to consider, and double-check. She was at the right dock. She made micro-adjustments until the computer said she was 100% aligned again. That state couldn’t last more than a few seconds. This close to the station hull, she didn’t dare allow drift.

In sudden decision she launched the Thrive's docking magnets. They struck the other hull on plates provided for the purpose. One of the magnets was a touch weak, but within tolerance. She told the computer to start reeling them in.

“Copeland?” she hailed her engineer. “You available? Not getting much help from the station.”

“Captain?” Copeland returned. “I worked a loading dock once. No pressure seals.”

No, his primary experience was maintenance supervisor in a distillery, then a phosphate mine.

Sass herself was an ex-cop and ex-farmer. “I have a similar problem,” she admitted wryly. “But we do the best we can. Correct me if I’m wrong — we don’t have a pressurized umbilical to mate with this orbital, do we?”

“Uh, let me check,” Copeland offered.

The reels finished their job tugging them in against the docking magnets. “Mahina Orbital?” she inquired again. No joy. Sighing, she initiated the docking clamp sequence from her end. It wasn’t safe to drift this close to the orbital without a solid lock.

“Captain,” Copeland got back to her. “We have an umbilical. I’m guessing it hasn’t been pressure tested. Since you didn’t know we had it.”

“That’s affirm. Copeland, report cargo lock clear.”

Sass pictured the engineer hastily hopping out of the doorway in the hold, and kicking a few toys out of the way.

“Clear,” he agreed after a few moments.

“The controls are down there,” Sass told him. “I’ll be down in a sec. Abel, have fun chatting with the station.”

“Right. Uh, Sass? How do we transfer the cargo containers?”

The crates in their hold could simply roll through the umbilical on grav pallets. The first mate referred to the four containers the Thrive carried below like a raptor clutching eggs that masqueraded as rail cars. Sass was tempted to reply, ‘Beats me.’ She held her tongue due a vague wish to instill confidence in her crew.

“One problem at a time, Abel.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Sar. In space, it’s sar, not ma’am.”

“Yes, sar. This isn’t quite what I imagined, sar.”

“Abel, you remember when we first visited Phosphate Mine 3? How amazingly gifted Atlas Pratt was as general manager?”

“Yeah?”

“We can’t expect to be amazed. We’re all just winging it.” Using failing tech maintained by amateurs for over a century. It was a wonder that the ship or the orbital could still keep people alive. Mostly.

Abel snorted amusement.

Sass headed out the steel-grid catwalk above the hold until she was above an empty bit of floor to land on. Several members of her curious crew tried to waylay her from the kitchen. She ignored them, purposefully striding past in captain mode. She hopped down, softening her fall with a quick squirt of antigravity from her personal grav generator.

Her rangy engineer, looking every bit the ex-con he wasn’t quite, stood studying the control panel she’d referred to.

“Did you look at the umbilical?” she asked, joining him.

“I don’t see any way to extend it part-way,” Copeland replied. “One-button operation. Do it, or don’t.” He ceded his spot for her to take a look.

“Sass?” her boarder Clay Rocha called down from the catwalk above. “There’s someone outside waving. And did you see the patches on the orbital? Looks like someone repaired steel with foamcrete.”

“Busy,” she returned shortly, then repented. “Sorry, Clay, you’re right. That was worth interrupting me for. Thank you. Noted.”

Barking at people never saved time, no matter how she wished it. And alone on the Thrive, indeed on all of Mahina, Clay was like her. He too had arrived on the Vitality. If he looked older than Sass, he was simply more assiduous about applying stick-on cosmetic crow’s feet.

“Clay? Could you join Abel on the bridge? Offer experience. Don’t tell him what to do.”

He nodded and turned left for the bridge.

What was she —? Oh, yeah. “Abel? Sass. Guys in pressure suits outside. Do a radio signal sweep and see if you can talk to them. They might be here to fetch the containers. I sent Clay your way to advise.”

“Don’t we wait for official…” Abel’s brain caught up with his mouth. No one in authority on MO was talking to him. “Right, captain.”

Sass studied the console before her. She punched the first button, which rolled down a wall to seal the cargo airlock’s inner face. Copeland read over her shoulder to learn the ropes.

Once that wall was down and reported a good seal, she tested it by depressurizing the shallow lock between it and the extendable cargo ramp. Success again, and a green light over the smaller interior door turned red. She checked the exterior cameras to verify by eye that nothing stood in the way. Then she pressed another button to extend the cargo ramp.

“This isn’t automated?” Copeland complained. “You have a checklist you’re following or something?”

“That would be smart,” she acknowledged. She recited a checklist of the steps she’d already performed for the computer to record. “Computer, was there any previous checklist of this kind?”

“Manufacturer’s instructions found,” the computer reported.

“Have I followed the manufacturer’s instructions?” Sass asked, diverted.

“The manufacturer suggests dock mating be instigated by the larger vessel.”

“And when that isn’t possible?”

“You have followed their instructions for docking with a smaller vessel.”

“Thank you, computer. Previous checklist, add item, extend umbilical, add item, test the pressure seal. Close checklist.” She tapped the button to extend the umbilical.

Copeland stepped over to watch through the freshly washed window in the door in the middle of the airlock inner wall. This part of the Thrive's equipment they’d used before, during the stunt woman Kassidy Yang’s skydives. Sass herself walked the gangplank several times.

“Don’t bother pressure testing, Sass. Want me to suit up? Or wait for the orbital to get their act together?”

Sass joined him to peer out. The umbilical fell short of the matching ring on the other side. The now-horizontal ramp didn’t quite reach, either, but the shortfalls didn’t match. Sass leaned down to peer at the upper stretch of the corridor accordion. The umbilical wall was torn, with a hole bigger than her forearm. She pointed, and Copeland bent to take a look.

“How do we fix something like that?” Sass asked.

Copeland straightened and scratched his head. “Have to think about it.”

One of the things Sass loved about her prize new engineer was the way he took for granted that it could be done. And he’d figure it out somehow.

“Low priority,” she suggested. “But it might be easier here than in atmosphere.”

Copeland rubbed his thumb doubtfully.

Sass retracted the umbilical.

Abel hailed her. “Captain, I have a Master Chief Pollan on the line. He claims to be MO head of engineering.”

“Master chief is a noncommissioned rank,” Sass replied.

“Huh?”

“Put him on. Master chief! Good to hear from you. Our umbilical needs repair. Could you accomplish lock from your side, please?”

“Our umbilical has a hole in it,” Pollan admitted. “And dry rot on the gaskets.”

It was a long afternoon. But eventually, they managed a pressure-tight corridor between ship and orbital. By mutual consent, they retracted the airlock walls only long enough to tow the crates across the gangway from the Thrive's hold. After that, Sass felt safer keeping the pressure doors sealed, no open corridor between vessels.

Besides, MO’s air smelled awful.

Chapter 2

“Welcome to Mahina Orbital!” A woman greeted Sass and her entourage. Her warm smile flashed perfect white teeth. “I’m first officer, Commander Jaymie Alohan. We spoke on the comms on your way in.”

Sass blinked. The one who left her post to find ‘someone to ask’? Her rank put her as second in charge of the station.

The first mate’s shapely brown skull gleamed under 5 o’clock stubble, with scabby bits. She appeared a trim 25 years old, but then so did Sass, and she was nearly 100. Alohan’s loud pink Hawaiian shirt looked threadbare with age around the seams, a button missing, a ratty thermal shirt underneath. The orbital kept its public spaces a bit chilly.

The commander turned to the master chief, who escorted them here to the officer’s mess. “Thank you, Pollan, I’ll take it from here.” Her lips pursed faintly at his back as he left. “I hope he didn’t give you any trouble.”

“Trouble?” Sass inquired.

“Pollan’s been great,” Copeland asserted. “He offered to help patch our hull tomorrow. Took a rock on the way up.”

“And you are?” Alohan’s lips pressed harder.

Sass hastily supplied introductions. “Our engineer John Copeland. Steward Jules Greer. Gunner Benjy Acosta. Our passengers Dr. Eli Rasmussen and Kassidy Yang. My first mate and another passenger are standing watch at the dock. We weren’t sure of your security arrangements.”

“If someone gives us trouble, we toss him out an airlock.” The idea didn’t appear to trouble Alohan. “Don’t worry. Nobody here is motivated enough to steal a skyship. Where would they go?”

Sass smiled, and trusted this was a rhetorical question.

Alohan drew her along for introductions to a half dozen officers she referred to as ‘Directors.’ The urban citadel of Mahina Actual used the same title for the top department heads on the moon below. She skipped over the other fifteen or so people in the room. This evening — MO observed the same single worldwide time zone as the moon — the Thrive was invited to supper on the orbital.

“There are others, but they’re not here,” Alohan wrapped up.

They’re not available, was how that sentence usually ran, Sass reflected. “And Captain Ingersoll?” Your commanding officer?

“He eats in his rooms,” Alohan supplied. “I’m sure he’ll summon you eventually.” She smiled cheerily again.

Sass felt the first officer’s moods seemed to flip-flop in an awful hurry. She accepted the seat of honor at her right hand at the foot of the Directors table. Captain Ingersoll’s chair remained empty. Sass gestured for the rest of her crew to find open seats for themselves at the other tables.

The dreary grey mess hall could accommodate four times as many officers as were present. Alohan’s loud shirt was the lone festive note. Copeland and Kassidy claimed bench spots between rowdy junior officers. Eli proclaimed himself a botanist, then chose a table where people seemed like they might be interested. He kept the younger crew members with him.

The moment the first officer sat, a couple stewards straightened from leaning against the bulkhead. They pushed their carts forward to deal out plates.

“Made with our new supplies from the Thrive?” Alohan asked one hopefully.

“Not yet,” the steward replied, clunking her plate to the table. He delivered Sass’s dinner and utensils with greater care, and a sad little wincing smile. “Welcome to MO. Thank you for bringing fresh supplies. We don’t get —”

“Buzz off, Friedman,” Alohan cut him off. “A steward should serve silently, and not butt into the conversation of his betters. My apologies, Sass, serving the captain’s table is a rotating duty. They’re never any good at it.”

Sass smiled encouragement to Friedman. “Oh? What is your normal work on the orbital, Mr. Friedman?” Her query annoyed the first officer, a welcome bonus. That woman was unfit to lead.

Friedman shot a leery glance at Alohan. “Labor pool rotation, sar. Whatever I’m assigned next.”

Sass frowned slightly, perplexed. “But you work in food service?”

The man shrugged, and delivered the last plate from his trolley. He came around again with a pitcher to top up water glasses.

Alohan clarified, “Variety is the spice of life. Skilled specialists work in a single area of operations. Friedman only has a bachelor’s degree. If he ever showed a talent for something, some supervisor would have snatched him. In the meantime, he rotates to a new assignment after three months. That will be soon now, I trust.”

“Two more weeks. Then I wash bulkheads. It’s only six hours a day,” Friedman added quietly to Sass. “I’m in a VR band in my free time.”

Sass nodded politely. She wondered whether a virtual reality band developed skill as a musician.

“I wasn’t asking, Friedman,” the first officer growled, then raised her water glass. Her tone switched back to warm. “To the Thrive, for bringing us clean food!”

“To clean food!” the directors chorused with feeling.

Sass raised her glass amiably but couldn’t help glancing at the ‘dirty’ food on her plate. The water was awful, with a strong waft of chlorine failing to mask a sewer aroma. Or maybe that smell rose from the brownish starch glop with chunks forming the main course. She tried a dainty forkful, conscious of Alohan watching with furious eyes.

Yep, that was awful. Sass sampled the salad. “Your lettuce is delicious! I’m eager to see your gardens, Director, um — I’m sorry, so many introductions.”

She’d looked to the wrong man. The woman next to him volunteered, “Francowski. I’m sure my chief can show you around.” Brown rot colored the half of her teeth which remained. Director Francowski looked about 70, by which Sass surmised her nanites had expired.

“Chief,” Sass echoed. “It’s been years since the last time I visited the orbital. I’m sure things have changed.” And how. She decided etiquette did not require her to eat a second bite of the entree. “So as director, you handle oversight, while a senior noncom runs hydroponics?”

“Hm?” Francowski frowned vaguely.

“We delegate,” Alohan clarified. “Surely you delegate on your ship, too? Or no, you piloted in yourself, didn’t you?” She’d bristled at the news that Sass had visited the orbital before. She didn’t like surprises.

“My first mate piloted us in. I stood as relief pilot and relief gunner. It’s a stressful couple hours. First trip for my crew. Actually, Commander, I wanted to ask — do you keep backups of skyship piloting data?”

“I don’t understand the question.”

“The skyships have an automated system for piloting and gunnery. But ours says it’s only 30% trained. We can’t trust it to pilot ship and guns through the ring until 100%. But surely there’s been enough experience in the Pono rings by now, if we share data. Over a century, after all.”

Alohan frowned and applied herself to her food for a minute. “That makes sense. I’ll look into it.”

“While we’re on the topic of data, I hope we’ll be allowed free access to your archives. For our research. Is that Director here?” Sass smiled hopefully around the table.

“What research?” a man at the far end asked.

“Several questions,” Sass said. “The unifying theme is progress toward humans thriving on Mahina. Compare notes with Sagamore and Denali as well as the orbital. Medical and plant research, nanites. And early records of the Ganymede techs who brought the settlers here. Is there anyone here left from that time?”

“You’re joking, right?” Alohan asked.

“Why would I be joking?”

“The Ganymedes left 60 years ago.”

“I recall.”

“Captain Collier, this orbital is a death sentence,” the first mate clarified. “No one survives it more than 10 to 15 years.”

“I don’t understand. You have full nanite suites from Mahina Actual, don’t you? Or are those deactivated before,” exile, “transport to the orbital?”

“Not deactivated,” Jakeem, Director of Medical explained. “Just unequal to the challenge. Our radiation exposure is extreme. Surely you understood that, even on Mahina. An urb such as yourself needs to live inside Mahina Actual to limit environmental damage at the cellular level.”

In fact, Sass tended to forget that. Her urb friends Eli and Kassidy appeared to be as bulletproof as herself and Clay. But they weren’t. And her settler crew — Benjy and Copeland, Abel and Jules — had only the most rudimentary nanites to protect their health. They gained those nanites only recently for this trip. In alarm, she pulled out her pocket tablet and jotted a note.

She asked, “Should we be wearing some kind of radiation dosimeter, doctor?”

“We don’t bother,” Jakeem said dryly. He reapplied himself to the awful stew.

Alohan scowled at him. “My understanding, doctor, is that a skyship protects the crew better than the orbital. The same electrostatic whatsit that protects them from micrometeors, shields them from radiation.”

“Can’t the orbital use similar shielding?” Sass inquired.

“The orbital,” Alohan intoned, “is 120 years old and held together with duct tape and spitwads. We live in a cluttered planetary ring that lobs rocks at us. You may have noticed that on the way up.”

Sass elected to chuckle softly, though flicking her middle finger was her first choice. “Yes. I did notice that.” In fact, her nerves still felt raw from running the gauntlet into orbit this morning from Mahina Actual. “My crew is mixed settler and urb.”

The Thrive’s crew was actually pure settler, descended from the unwashed refugee masses who arrived at Mahina with Sass and Clay. The urbs, Eli and Kassidy, paid rent. If the locals assumed Sass was an urb, too, she felt no rush to correct them.

“Settlers!” Alohan spat. “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have permitted you to come. We are urbs here.” She stood abruptly and stormed out.

You’re an urb convict, Sass thought. And you take on airs over me?

She turned slowly back to the Director’s table, intending to follow up with the Director of Data, or whatever his title was. But that worthy also decamped, along with his female neighbor.

Sass turned to Jakeem, who seemed unconcerned. “Only 10 to 15 years? That must be challenging. For morale and continuity.”

“It’s long enough,” Jakeem returned, with a pointed glance around the decor and his fellow diners.

Sass sighed, then smiled hopefully around the remaining three at the table. “Any chance I could get a tour from you?” They looked away. “Or I could just wander around and ask questions.”

Jakeem shrugged.

***

“Really? You’ve never seen my show?” Kassidy Yang asked at her table. The stunt woman was astonished. Her weekly daredevil shows were popular on Mahina, among urbs and settlers alike. Her biggest fans followed her daily livecast as well. Since she started her skydiving series on the Thrive, her audience had mushroomed.

“Captain says it’s bad for morale,” Lieutenant Junior Grade Leary replied. “Make us homesick or something.” His quip rated a few dark chuckles around the table.

“Are you? Homesick?” Copeland asked, seated across from Kassidy.

Humor died in Leary’s eyes. “No. I’m an officer.”

That means yes. Kassidy surreptitiously summoned one of her drone cameras to close in. “What kind of officer were you in Mahina Actual? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“I do mind!” Leary barked at her. “Get that camera away from me! And don’t ask that question again.” He softened his tone. “You need to understand, miss. Everyone aboard got a life sentence on exile from Mahina Actual. But at least we start over with a clean slate on station.”

“I see,” Kassidy said grudgingly. Damned if she would apologize to him for a friendly question.

The ex-con Copeland followed up. “I think what Kassidy was asking, was what makes you guys officers.” And they were mostly guys at this table, plus one woman.

An ensign snickered a couple seats to Kassidy’s left. She shot him an inquiring smile. “Looks,” he replied.

Leary cleared his throat. “The first mate selects officer trainees from new arrivals.”

“Well you are awfully cute,” Kassidy assured them, looking around the table. The woman was homely, so Kassidy favored her with an extra warm wink.

“Any gambling on board?” Copeland asked. “What do you do on MO to blow off steam?”’

“Yes!” Kassidy pounced gratefully. “Tell us about your nightlife!”

***

“My thesis advisor is on the orbital,” Dr. Eli Rasmussen explained at the next table, to Lieutenant Commander Dolby. There being no military on Mahina, let alone a navy, he wasn’t aware of the fine points of naval rank. But he was fairly sure he was a bigger fish than the ones Kassidy and Copeland swam with, and smaller than the ones seated with Sass. “Do you know Dr. Bertram?”

Dolby huffed a laugh. His lips began a smile and aborted halfway. “There are less than 500 people on this orbital. Bertram? I can point you down the right hallway.”

“Must be hard,” Benjy offered. At 20, the well-knit young settler with tousled tawny hair served as gunner and captain’s pet gofer aboard the Thrive. “To maintain this place with only 500 people. You supervise them doing repair and stuff?”

“Oh, less than half work on maintenance,” Dolby explained. “The rest are too sick, too old, refuse to work. Or like Dr. Bertram, busy doing their own thing.”

“Cleaning must be a challenge,” Jules said. “I’m in charge of housekeeping for the Thrive.”

Dolby’s eyes lit at the gangly 15-year-old. “I’m surprised they let you up here.” He added to Eli, “She can’t walk around unchaperoned.”

“I’m here with my husband,” Jules explained, puzzled by the old woman’s comment. “First mate of the Thrive.”

“You’re married?” Dolby caught himself. “Oh, how…cute.”

Eli explained softly, “Jules, urbs generally don’t marry before 25 or so.”

“Never, on the orbital,” Dolby supplied. His eyes drifted to adorable Benjy, and his brow furrowed. “You might want to keep an eye on him, too. There are a few men…”

“Understood,” Eli said.

“I don’t understand,” Benjy differed. Jules also shook her head.

“I’ll explain later,” Eli promised. “Is there security aboard?”

“After a fashion,” Dolby allowed. “But we’re already in prison, right? And the inmates run the asylum.”

***

“Enjoy your dinner?” Clay inquired with a sardonic grin when they returned. Swarthy and toned to perfection, Clay looked male-model handsome in clothes to match. Sass’s sole counterpart as a survivor of Earth sat playing cards with Abel on the orbital dock side of the pressure doors.

“Worst food I ate in my life,” Jules reported.

“I bet their booze is alright,” Copeland suggested.

“They’ve never seen my show,” Kassidy complained. “And my dad and his girlfriend are long gone.” She expected as much, but confirmed it over dinner.

Benjy offered, “Some commander said Jules and I needed babysitting or we’d be ra— Uh, pestered.”

Jules’ husband Abel shot to his feet in alarm. “Propositioned?”

Jules’ jaw dropped. “But she said you, too, Benjy. You’re a boy!”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Oy,” Eli summarized to Clay.

“Rego charmers,” Sass agreed. “Let’s lock up for bed. Clay? Don’t say you told me so.”

The suave ex-FBI agent spread his hands in a Who, me? gesture. “What did you expect in a penal colony?”

“I didn’t deal with MO. Why did you?” She led the way into the umbilical. Clay and Abel followed last, bearing their folding card table and chairs.

Sass and Clay both served the city of Mahina Actual as marshals for decades, policing urb-settler conflicts and inter-settlement squabbles. Anything that fell in the cracks between city security and local sheriffs. Sass favored a wholesome blonde farm-girl-next-door look to Clay’s gigolo finery, but either way — their bailiwick was settlers.

Clay shrugged. “I lived in the city more than you did. They use it as a threat to keep the urbs in line. The orbital is understaffed. Behave, or land up here.”

Kassidy rolled her eyes and nodded.


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  • Apr 2 2019