Jack Starlander crept silently over the rocky outcrop to see what was happening on the other side. The newcomers hadn't been quiet at all. Of course, sounds tended to magnify and distort under the bubble. It sounded like an army of flyers descending, but it was really only four.
Now what is that? A woman and a child, both dressed in the latest frilly fashion seen dirtside, surrounded by a bunch of armed men. Not saloon-style clothes on the woman, either. Her shirtwaist buttoned clear up to her neck, with no bare flesh at all except her face and hands. The child wore a pink ruffled pinafore over her blue dress, her hair was well kept, curled into ringlets, held back from her face by a floppy pink bow. You didn't see well cared-for kids among the saloon whores. They tended to be wild little beasts in rags, looking to pick pockets or beg for cryst chips.
The woman sat the child down on a large flat-topped rock and watched the men.
These all looked like city dwellers from Hogtie or Abercrombie; well fed, well dressed and well armed, except for two young men. Worker bees. Jack ducked behind a rock. Why was a group of armed men on that empty claim? Were they after him? Records would give his name as being the claim holder of the adjoining property. Why bring a woman and child out to this deserted place?
They didn't need to know he was overhearing their business. He pulled on his protector hood, not because the bubble had a breach, but because the hood had vision-enhancing goggles with audio amplification.
He crawled back up the rock, keeping his head low, and found a better spot to observe the group. He could see more details now. The woman was young, with golden blonde hair. Her gown had layers of ruffles over the rear, the latest puffed-out style, which he didn't care for at all. He liked to get a sense of a woman's actual shape down below. She looked nervous and held the little girl's hand tightly. Why the heck would anyone bring a woman and child out to a mining claim?
Jack recognized Galto, a mining official who'd approved his claim here on Yonder Beltway 7, the asteroid that the Collingwood Mining Company had bubbled for mining. They'd got lucky here. There'd been enough ice to form wells and pools once they'd heated things up so they didn't have to import water. Collingwood was making good profits here, but then so was he. He had a nose for cryst. But Galto was not a man to be trusted. Not that any mining officials were. That was why he had half of his haul stuck to a rock in space too small to be noticed by the mining company.
A finely dressed man with a thick gold chain suspended across his protuberant belly, covered in a bright green waistcoat, hobnobbed with Galto. Jewels flashed on his fingers, tie tack and cufflinks, and he sported a thick white handlebar mustache. Whiskers were all the style but Jack kept his face military smooth with a shave every morning. Army ways were hard to shake. Even Galto now sported a thin mustache, which looked out of place on his well fed face.
The two simply dressed men rode cheap flyers, the kind that had to enhance their power cell lift with pedal action. Quite tiring on a long journey and this claim was pretty far from the spaceport. They were both big fellows, heavily muscled. Goons. Well armed goons, he amended when he saw their sidearms. The woman and child were the only ones in this little group who were unarmed. Interesting.
"Well, I enjoy working with an educated client, such as yourself, Mr. Galto," the finely dressed man said in a hearty voice. "You are so right, sirrah! Traditionally the gryphon hunted gold. But I have trained this young woman myself to find cryst. Let me demonstrate. Please allow Yurgy here to hide these bags of cryst." He handed Galto cloth bags. "If you search the bags you will see that some are high grade ore, some are very poor grade."
"Come here, Mrs. Farrel."
The woman got the child down from the rock and the little girl clung to her skirt. The mustached man pulled out a scarf and blindfolded the woman.
"Here, friend Galto, please check this cloth yourself to verify that it will blind Mrs. Farrel adequately."
Galto checked the blindfold and appeared to be satisfied.
"You, sir." Mr. Mustache waggled his jaw at one of the young armed men who accompanied them. "Take these bags of cryst and take off and drop the ore one by one in those rock hills in the distance. Then we'll see my girl do what she's trained to do." He turned to the young man on the flyer. "Oh, and, young man? Bury those samples. We all know cryst is rarely found on the ground just waiting to be picked up, don't we?"
The man flew off with the bags and was soon out of sight.
Jack decided the child must be the woman's daughter. Though their coloring was different, their facial features were alike. The little girl pressed closer to her mother. What was their role in all this? Perhaps she was the wife of the mustache? Odd that a man of business would bring a woman and child to a place like this. They seemed nervous or afraid, too.
"Now, this is an exceptionally secret procedure, Mr. Galto. Assure me again that we are in a secluded area. I don't want to have to shoot some miner who stumbles on our little exhibition."
"Nothing to worry about, Mr. Snurr. The claim over that ridge is Jack Starlander's but he's got a nice vein of cryst on the far side of his land that'll keep him busy for some time. We are unobserved."
Jack didn't appreciate Galto knowing so much about his operation but he was a mite pleased Galto was wrong about his whereabouts.
"Starlander? One of the infamous Starlanders?"
"Oh, a cousin or relative, I think. Not the main family. No doubt using the name for clout."
Jack grinned, Galto was wrong on all points. Yeah, his vein of cryst was making him rich. That's why he'd bought the robots. They could work without supervision, giving him time to sniff out another vein.
The young flyer returned after a bit and Galto retrieved a cloth out of his bag. "Here, gentlemen. Stretch this out between you and turn your backs on Mrs. Farrel, please. She has to disrobe for the transformation."
"You know what to do, Mrs. Farrel."
Not married to the fat man.
The young woman walked behind the sheet, though from Jack's angle he could see her from the side. She proceeded to disrobe all the way to what nature had given her. Whoa, not expecting a sight like this. Jack felt heat in his face and other places, too. She was perfectly formed and the corset barely made any difference in her high-breasted lithe figure. She took her bright gold hair down from its low bun and it fell to her waist in a gleaming ripple.
The golden hair seemed to grow. He stared in fascination as her skin turned from pale tan to gold, then wings appeared with golden feathers. Strong legs with claws. A hot damn gryphon shifter! He'd heard about them, they were legends in mining camps, but never thought they actually existed.
"Fetch the cryst, Mrs. Farrel," Snurr said. He picked the little girl up. The little girl held herself rigidly away from the man and looked on the verge of tears but made no sound.
With a swish of powerful wings the gryphon launched into the air. For such a large creature its flight was graceful. Jack suspected the gryphon was incredibly strong.
The child was the insurance that she would comply, he guessed.
A few minutes later, the gryphon returned with the cryst bags in its beak and claws. It dropped them at Mr. Snurr's feet.
"Please verify if these are the chunks I had Yurgy hide."
Galto inspected the bags inside and out. "The very ones."
"Very good, sir!"
Mr. Snurr sounded delighted. His rich voice was beginning to grate on Jack's ears.
"Is she not just as valuable as I told you?"
"Indeed," Galto said. "I'll take her at the price we agreed upon."
Slavers. God he hated those!
The men shook hands. "She'll do what you want to keep the child safe," Snurr said. "I've only used her to hunt cryst, but she's an attractive woman. Wouldn't you agree? I'm sure you can find some good use of her. The child might be of profit too. Resembles her mother and might have that rare gryphon heredity."
Oh, now for sure they just need to die.
Jack heard the growl, as did the men, who chuckled. With an almost elegant strike, Galto was bleeding from the neck. Then the gryphon was airborne with the little girl clutched in her claws. The men drew their weapons and proceeded to fire.
She flew directly over the ridge toward Jack, while Yurgy and the other gunman fired at her bolt on bolt.
Only single bolts, he noticed. They had seriously underestimated Mrs. Farrel.
The two men revved their flyers and roared off in pursuit.
Looked to him like the lady needed assistance. And he was a Starlander, after all. His mama had raised him to be a gentleman.
He shot the flyers out, and they crashed on the jagged rocks. While he was at it he blew up the large flitter the businessmen and woman and child had ridden in.
He grinned. They were stuck in the bubble. It was a long walk back to the mining offices and spaceport. Sooner or later someone would miss Galto. But he had some time. He leaped on his flitter and hauled like hell after the golden beast. He saw a flash of gold near a crevice.
"Hey, Mrs. Farrel, gryphon girl. I won't hurt you. Galto's men are down."
"She won't talk to you, Mister." A child's voice piped up from a rock not far away. "She won't change cuz she doesn't got no clothes."
"Right. I'll be back. I'll check on the men and fetch your clothes."
He flew back to the scene. Galto was dead, bled out from the neck wound. The buyer was alive but blind, bleeding profusely from the skull. Jack collected the weapons and ammo. You could never have enough weapons--he learned that in the War--and tossed the woman's clothing into his flitter.
Yurgy and the other guard were dead, crashed a hundred feet up into the rocks, both bloody messes.
"I'm a wealthy man. Rescue me. I am the nephew of the Chancellor." Mr. Snurr's pleading voice was weak. "He'll do right by you if you help me."
Jack paused and looked at the man. "Chancellor Givens?" The dying man gasped an affirmative. "I fought for the other side," Jack said. "My brother and two cousins died at Glenhain. Givens the Butcher ignored the surrender flag and slaughtered them all. I would never take his money. Or help you." He turned on a boot heel, leapt onto his flitter, tossing the clothes and weapons into the saddlebag. He lifted up, hovering, sick with anger, his hands actually trembling. Glenhain had been a bloodbath under the white flag. "Givens had no honor then and I can see you have no honor now." Jack hated how his voice shook with rage--or maybe grief.
He flew back to the rocks where the woman and child hid. The short flight helped him regain his composure. "Here's your clothes, ma'am. You're safe with me. I won't harm you or threaten the child to get my way. Galto and the boys are dead, and your seller is almost."
"Why would you help us? You saw what I am." The woman came out from behind the rock, dressed but with her hair falling in long curls past her waist. He couldn't help but study the lovely curves of her breasts and waist.
A fine looking woman.
"I'm Jack Starlander. This is the far side of my claim. I was doing a little prospecting when you all arrived in that gulley."
"I'm Mrs. Sophie Farrel. This is my daughter, Flora Anne."
A widow. "Pleased to meet you. And now that the introductions are taken care of, I think we should get back to my camp and see about getting off this rock before Galto's lieutenants come looking for trouble."
"We're both chipped, Mr. Starlander. They'll be able to track us."
"Sure, but we can get rid of those." They all crowded onto his flitter, the child sandwiched between them, which was a certain disappointment. He hit the program for home site and then voiced to his robots.
"Quick evac status. I repeat, quick evac status. Pack up and meet me at home site."
After that he voiced his neighbors who were the only miners nearby.
"Listen up, good ladies. I'm on quick evac. I repeat, quick evac. I'm unmelding in twenty. You want to haul with me? I'm loading eight tons, can hold twenty. Happy to drag you onto the next good site."
"We'll lose our claim."
"Ya, I know that. Me too. But Galto's dead at my hand. Long story. His lieutenants will come a-lookin'. Best go the distance with me."
"Oh my, what happened?"
"He was threatening a little kid. Like I said, long story. Unmeld, I'll talk at you in twenty."
"You want to blend the ships?"
"Yes. I'll determine coordinates. We can push through the valve separately then meet and meld. Sound good? All fine with Jellica Rose?"
"I'm onboard," Jellica Rose's lighter voice sounded.
"Good. Go, go, go. Let's match our grids and meet off this rock."
"I m so glad we worked on the serial number changes, weeks ago, just in case."
"Me, too. Always good to think ahead. Take care of business before you have a crisis."
"Sounds like we have a crisis now."
"Yep, I'd say we do. Most definitely."
Sophie held her daughter tight as the small flitter zipped through the thin air of the bubble. Her heart was still racing. She wanted to tear off her clothes, grab Flora and fly to safety. But there was no safety. And this wasn't a real wilderness where she and Flora could hunt while in form and survive. This was a dead asteroid with air pumped in under a bubble for the miners. A temporary place.
Mr. Starlander's home site consisted of a metal pop-up and Mr. Starlander's ship. The ship was larger than she expected: a brass monstrosity formed of two parallel tubes and a sphere shape on one end. She couldn't see windows or portholes like the passenger ships sported. Two large robots, brass and steel with humanlike arms but treads on their lower extremities were wheeling equipment up a ramp to an open doorway on the ship.
"Most of my ore is already loaded," Mr. Starlander said. "My robots will have the rest of my equipment loaded forthwith."
He landed the flitter then helped Flora down and offered her a gentlemanly hand; an unconscious gesture that told her a lot about Mr. Starlander.
"You ladies come inside the pop-up. We'll do those chips."
They were both chipped on the back, in a place difficult to reach by oneself. He showed her a small canvas washroom area and handed her a baggy shirt. She put on the shirt, glad her chip location didn't require her to remove her corset and undergarments. Mr. Starlander matter-of-factly smoothed on the anesthetic. He was surprisingly good with the knife. She felt nothing.
Little Flora clung to her, but the procedure was so fast there was no trauma involved. "Will you leave them here?"
"I'll tuck them under the ship, near the blast. Ought to melt them." He laughed like he was enjoying this huge imposition.
He wasn't a classically handsome man like Mr. Farrel had been, but when he smiled he became striking, showing fine straight white teeth. Mr. Starlander's features were strong--firm jaw and a long nose that might have met a fist once or twice. He had deep set, pale gray-blue eyes under straight rust-colored brows and a ruddy complexion. His hair was a deep red, very thick, clipped close around the ears but a mass of thick springy curls otherwise. He needed a shave but it seemed he shaved regularly because his whiskers were barely more than a rust-colored shadow. Tall and broad-shouldered, he seemed hard and fit, a man who worked a long day at physical labor.
"You two have a snack, relax for a few. I'm going to work at my helm."
Sophie looked through the food bins and found a few small meat pies and a jug of water. She wished there was time for tea. Maybe later. "How are you feeling, honey? I'm sorry we had to do that, but this way we are safer."
"The bad men can't find us?"
"No, we are taking a ship into space."
"Good. Poppy didn't like Mr. Snurr. Neither did Liza." Flora had a buttoned pocket on the underside of her pinafore and two small rag dolls made their home there. They accompanied her everywhere, even to bed, making a small bit of familiarity and comfort in their frightening world.
"Well, they have good sense. But keep them tucked away, we will be moving around here in a few minutes."
Mr. Starlander arrived with the two burly steel and brass robots and they proceeded to carry away the interior of the pop tent. "These are the boys, Jim and Bob. Watch out for their treads, they are not at all dainty. Weigh a ton. Come, we will get you ladies situated aboard the Junie Calypso."
The ship was thick walled, all heavy metals and fittings, steel and brass with an occasional brighter metal, perhaps tin or aluminum. Sophie wondered if the interior had to be polished. That was a chore she could do. There was nothing terribly graceful about the ship, but it did convey strength, and she found that reassuring. Mr. Starlander did not seem the type to enter deadly space in a claptrap ship, and she saw no signs of neglect at all, not even dust. To her surprise the interior seemed much smaller than she expected. It was somewhat dark inside unlike the cruise-type ships she'd traveled on before landing in Mr. Snurr's clutches. Even Snurr's ship was fitted to resemble a drawing room, like on a luxury cruiser.
"You two will want to harness yourselves here."
The chairs were worn stuffed leather, in a small tube-like hallway off the bridge that held six chairs.
"There's a necessary through that door. Suggest you use it before we hit air. We'll be taking off in ten. I'll clang a bell for strap down. I'd be pleased if you ladies would stay seated until we rendezvous with the Glenngary Rose."
"The weights are off, boss."
The robot's voice had a buzzing quality but was understandable. Flora laughed and buzzed like a bee. Sophie smiled. It was good to see Flora laugh after the events of the day.
"Interesting sound quality," Sophie observed.
"Indeed. They communicate best in binary but I've worked on their program to make them a little more...convenient. Probably former military units."
Mr. Starlander went to the bridge and began flipping switches and pulling levers. The ship shuddered and banged.
Sophie got Flora into the loo, then harnessed her into her seat and helped her anchor her dollies for spaceflight using hair ribbons tied around their middles and to Flora's wrists. She wanted to see them fly. The bell gonged and she adjusted Flora's harness, then her own.
Takeoff was easier than she expected, but then there was no real atmosphere, just the bubble. She felt a slight bit of pressure as they went through the valve into the vacuum of space.
The ship creaked and groaned as massive gears turned, whirring faster and faster. There was a rhythmic clunk every few rotations and soon Flora's eyes drooped and she napped, lulled by the whirr and clunk of the massive engines. Every once in a while the hopper would dump more cryst, bringing a rush of metallic pings as the pieces moved into the burner. Sophie had never been on a ship so small or probably so old. But it was clean and seemed to be in good repair.
It was embarrassing that this hard-working miner would have to use up his cryst to transport her to safety. How would she ever repay him? She wondered where they would go. How many of Galto's colleagues knew what she was?
Mr. Starlander came into the small hallway. "Now you can unbuckle. We'll travel a far piece before we meet up with the ladies. We'll connect our ships. They are made to meld, same freighter class. That way we'll have an unrecognizable mass--no one knows the load we're carrying. We uploaded new serial numbers some time ago. With the state of criminality in the mining offices it does a body good to have Plan B. The ladies and I made plans long ago for a sudden flight. Once we slip through a jumpstream, we will be real hard to find."
"I am so sorry I got you dragged into this, Mr. Starlander. I don't know how I can ever repay you." She had nothing. She was a fair cook, and of course there was her cryst finding ability but that could only be used in secret.
He shrugged. "No harm, ma'am. And call me Jack. Jonathan Joel Starlander is my given. No reason to stand on ceremony. I had about played out that mine and didn't care for Galto's business practices enough to remain under his auspices. There are cryst mining opportunities all over the galaxy."
"Thank you, Jack. You may call me Sophie. Perhaps there are things I can do around the ship. To help out."
"Jim and Bob generally keep things together, but perhaps there is something. I've been trying to figure out how to teach them to bluff at poker. Would bring a whole new dimension to their game, if you know what I mean. We'll have time to figure that out. It'll be several weeks before we can reach a jumpstream station."
"Where will we go?"
He shrugged. "Somewhere beyond the Collingwood Company's reach. We'll discuss that this evening with the ladies." He glanced down at Flora, who looked more angelic than usual with her soft brown curls and dark eyelash crescents against her pink cheeks. Sophie's precious child had lived in danger for so long. How she hoped brighter days were ahead.
"You relax and get some rest like your little one here." With a polite nod Jack Starlander left the area.
Sophie felt tired herself. There had been no time to relax for so long, and her sleep had been rife with nightmares and sudden starts to a full waking state ever since Jasper Snurr had captured her and Flora. Maybe this was a brighter day. It seemed as though they had been rescued. Hopefully Jack was the decent man he said he was. Though she'd met many who spoke one thing and did quite the opposite.
Where would they end up now? He was a cryst miner. Maybe she could offer her services for a percentage of the profits. A business deal. Of course it would only work if he really was a decent man. And she had another worry: what if the information got out that she was a gryphon shifter who could detect cryst? Would they ever be safe again? Her mind raced for some time until the whirr of the ship's engines lulled her to sleep.
Quiet woke her.
Had something gone wrong? They were stopped in dead space. It was an old ship. "Mr. Starlander?" Her voice was husky with sleep and panic.
"Jack, remember?" Jack walked into the hallway, holding a steaming mug. "We are at the rendezvous point and the ladies are just a couple leagues behind us. I made tea and there are a few simple meal items in the galley."
"Oh. Good. I was afraid something had gone wrong. It was so quiet." She unbuckled her harness and looked at Flora. Her chair reclined like a bed and she was still deep asleep. Someone had covered them both with wool blankets. "I think she will sleep a long while. Our hours have been quite confused for days."
He nodded and she followed him across the bridge to another hallway that opened onto a large room. "Help yourself. I'm going to help Jim and Bob guide the Glengarry Rose in for our meld." Jack disappeared back toward the bridge.
Supplies were crated and rigged around the perimeter of the large room. A loft type level with a mesh metal floor and narrow ladderlike stairs rose above a tiny galley, also full of all manner of equipment and crates. In the center of the room a large metal table was bolted to the floor, it had built-in seats. A small cookstove burned with a bright cryst fire. Coffee--real coffee, tin mugs and plates, miner's hard bread and a variety of canned goods and cheeses sat on a small counter. Sophie made a cup of coffee and ripped open a can of stewed fruit with the opener hanging on a cord from the counter. A tiny can of heavy cream was already open and she found a honey jar and spoon. She doctored her coffee with a sigh of satisfaction. Sitting at the table, she ate with more appetite than she'd had for weeks. It was the best meal she'd had in a long time. Mr. Snurr had not provided well for them, though he had eaten well himself. Flora would be happy to see cheese and fruit after weeks of dried biscuits.
Clearing up her small meal, she walked back toward the bridge. Jack was giving orders while watching a small screen. Jim and Bob, tethered, were out in dead space directing a huge screwlike appendage from a ship very similar to Jack's. There was a loud crash of metal as correct pieces met and the connection was screwed tight. Sophie slipped by to peek at Flora, but even that huge sound had not woken her. Sophie returned to the rear of the bridge. On screen the robots were now welding the connection.
There was more clattering and banging as the robots reentered the ship somewhere overhead. "Jim and Bob will open the vents and the passage will be usable shortly," Jack said.
Flora remained asleep so Sophie tried to tidy her hair in the small water closet. Her clothes were not all that clean but she had nothing else. She would have to try and wash their combinations and stockings.
"Come. Let us go meet the ladies."
She checked Flora one more time but the child was deeply asleep. Curious and a little apprehensive, Sophie followed Jack up a narrow stair to a second level that had a covered hold probably full of cryst. The robots were on a catwalk near a circular hatch. There was a banging of metal and the robots--she couldn't tell which was Jim and which was Bob--opened the door by spinning a round wheel.
Two women came through. "Ladies, this is Mrs. Sophie Farrel. She has a small daughter who is asleep at the moment."
"Hello! I'm Jellica Rose Jessup, and this is Maudette Jessup."
Jellica Rose had dark brown hair rolled in a tidy braided bun at her nape. She was tiny and extremely thin, birdlike. Ruffles on the bodice of her checked blue apron tried in vain to give her straight figure some shape. Even in a workaday dress, there were small touches of embellishment: crocheted edging along the top of her apron, and a blue ribbon tied around the high neck of her dress.
Maudette looked nothing like Jellica Rose. She was a heavyset woman, younger than Jellica Rose, whose delicate beauty showed a few small lines around her eyes. Maudette's reddish brown wavy hair had been snipped short around her face, perhaps to disguise the scar that ran from her cheekbone back toward her ear. Both were dressed in gowns but Maudette's plain apron was dark brown. Under her skirt poked heavy pant legs like those Jack wore, and heavy laced men's boots.
"We've been Jack's neighbors and friends for the past two cycles." Jellica Rose waved a thin hand toward their ship. "Why don't we all sit down in our parlor to talk? Maudette made tarts."
"Oh. My little girl--"
"--I could carry her over there. You probably would be more comfortable sleeping on the lady side of the ship, anyway." Jack went back to his ship for Flora.
"A little girl! How perfect! We have little Lila."
Jack returned with Flora in his arms, still sound asleep. They followed the two women into their ship. It was the mirror image of Jack's but had all manner of feminine touches. Doilies draped the metal tables and chairs, a twisted silk cord with silk flowers decorated the doorway of the common room the ladies called the parlor.
"Why don't I show Miss Sophie where she and her daughter can sleep and then we'll visit?" Jellica Rose went up the stairs.
Taking Flora from Jack, she followed the women up the mesh staircase to the upper level. An area held bunks covered with swaths of cloth for privacy. Jellica Rose pulled aside a curtain. "We have a babette. Maudie won her in a poker game. Poor little thing, isn't she absolutely precious?"
"A babette? Aren't they illegal?"
"Well, yes, but we couldn't turn her over to some crusty old law man. She's just too sweet."
Sophie peeked at the sleeping babette. It was small, the size of a two-year-old, with a cloud of lavender hair. Her facial features were completely human, as were the arms and hands, legs and feet. But spouting from her back where large velvety wings, purple and green, like a huge moth's. Her skin had a slight lavender tinge and she wore a beautifully embroidered nightgown altered for her wings.
Jellica Rose was correct, the babette was precious.
"She's like a two-year-old, speaking a few words, even. I know they are supposed to be made so they don't grow up, but we think she is different. She has grown since we got her. We think they made her to mature, to stick in some exotic brothel," Jellica Rose said.
"We hope to get out to a world beyond the belt, one where babettes aren't illegal," Maudette added.
"Does she fly?"
"Yes, but just short distances. And she only eats fruits."
After they looked at the babette, Maudette made up a bed for Flora and Sophie slipped her into it, removing her high top shoes, and dress.
"We'll be right below and will hear them if they wake," Maudette assured her.
They all sat at the center table. Jellica Rose served tea and tarts and Jack pulled out a type of board and pen. He drew a circle. "Here's where we are." He drew a few more circles. The Collingwood asteroid belt lies here. The gas belt is here." He shaded in a long horizontal line. Then he made an x on the far end of the shaded area. "Charity Wells is here. It is the closest jumpstream and the one they will most likely check. The big advantage there is the low fuel usage."
Jellica Rose looked nervous. "But they exterminate babettes there. You know, not that I want to be a negative Nellie, but if we should get held up and boarded..." Her voice trailed off and she sniffed.
"Snurr was based in Charity Wells." Sophie brought that up.
Jack nodded. "Then how 'bout Hogtie?" He marked another x even further away. "Quite a bit further away, but it has jumps that end way out on the Rim."
"Mighty expensive to go that far. What if we don't have cryst left to pay for a jump?" Maudette asked, face serious.
"Well, I have a little something to help. You know how I've been loading cryst and dumping loads on a rock outside the Collingwood Bubble?"
The ladies nodded.
"I have about twenty-eight tons. Enough to fill both our holds and our hoppers, with a couple of pull tanks. If we could get to Hogtie, we'd be home free."
"Now that is some good news!" Maudette's solemn face broke into a smile. "Damn but that was a good claim you had."
"I had the robots too. They do the work of four men."
"You're going to pilot, right? To Hogtie?" Jellica Rose shuddered. "A trip that far scares me. What if I calculate wrong?"
"I'll pilot. Plus I'll have Jim and Bob check my numbers."
Maudette brought out a pan of savory meat pies, fresh from a small oven.
"So, where are you from, Sophie?"
"I was raised on Chen Chen. My father was an antiquarian, as was my late husband, Mr. Farrel. They both found positions at the Halcyon University, very good positions, until they defunded it for the war."
"So sad you lost your husband. The galaxy is an unkind place for a widow woman."
Jellica Rose's face showed her understanding. Sophie got the impression the two had seen some difficult times.
Sophie nodded. "We did alright. I was able to pick up some cataloging jobs though the Antiquarian Society. But then we were kidnapped by Snurr."
"I can't imagine why anyone would drag you and your child out to that empty mining claim."
Sophie looked at Mr. Starlander. He smiled slightly. "You can be assured your secret will be safe with the Jessups."
She was suddenly flustered, her heart in her throat. Telling the family secret was not something she had ever done. But under these circumstances... "I am not entirely human. I'm a gryphon shifter."
Jellica Rose looked confused. "What is that? Some type of Krzsh?" she asked, referring to the lizard humanoids that populated many of the First Worlds settled by Terra.
"No, no. My family had this ability back on Ancient Terra. Basically, I can change form into an enormous flying beast. In that form I can sniff out precious metals and cryst."
"Oh. So you could make a miner rich."
"Yes. Snurr captured me and my daughter--she is a shifter also but can't shift without my help--and planned to sell me for a high price."
"And Jack rescued you."
"I just happened to be exploring that far side of my claim when they arrived. I thought maybe it was a new miner until I saw a lady and child. I watched her change to gryphon shape. Truly astounding. She was sent to find bags of cryst one of the flunkies buried, to prove her ability."
"I'm glad you are free." Jellica Rose patted her hand. "We both know what it is like to be bought and sold."
Maudette nodded. "We were forced to work in a brothel on Charity Wells until we persuaded an old miner to marry us. We were sister wives until his death."
"Now we are just sisters," Jellica Rose said. "Jack rescued us, too, because Earl died while on an asteroid claim and neither of us could pilot the ship. We approached him about melding our ships and were scared to death he would steal everything and throw us back in a brothel. Instead he brought us here and taught us how to pilot."
"Well, good night, ladies. A man can only take so much flowery speeches." Jack grinned as he rose and left for his side of the ship.
"It appears I have had the very good fortune to meet Mr. Starlander. And you two." Sophie wiped away a tear. "It is the first good thing that has happened to us in a very long time."
"I think we are all better off away from that mining company. Come with me, we'll find you some nightwear," Jellica Rose said.
The ladies dug out sleepwear and a few gowns and combinations so she would have a change of clothes.
"Maudette is really handy with a needle. We can alter a few dresses for you and get a couple smocks and pinafores made for your Flora. We'll start on them right away in the morning."
It felt so good to get out of her stays and boots. Sophie had barely dared to change into sleepwear for months. She always felt the need to be ready to flee in an instant. Jellica Rose loaned her a comb and some ribbons. She gratefully took her hair down and braided it loosely for sleep. Maudette started to make her a bed but she demurred. "Really, I've slept with Flora so long I'm not sure I could sleep if she wasn't near me." Sophie sighed in contentment as she crawled into bed with Flora. She felt safe. Safe! On a crazy old mining ship with a group of miners, robots and an illegal life form.