Anders Lockheed held a folded wad of cash to the side of his empty beer bottle. To an unsuspecting bystander this was nothing more than a payment for his crew’s next round. To an appreciative third shift bartender at Slips, this was a payment of a different kind.
Passing over several thirsty patrons, Nira offered a knowing nod to Anders who held up four fingers and a steeled glance. Without breaking her stride in tending bar, she bent over, plucked his order from the fridge, and with fluid motions and a hooked metal flat bar, popped the cap off each bottle.
She walked the few steps over to Anders and rested the freshly opened beers on the bar. Her hands dropped to the towel at her waist and he slid his warm empty bottle over. A moment later, she cupped her hand over his–and the bills–and gave him a wink. A wry smile curled at the corners of Anders mouth and he smoothly slipped his hand away.
He’d bought four beers this way, usually a few times a night, tipping double or even triple the standard and, most importantly, securing the staff’s silence if anyone came around with questions. It was an understanding Anders didn’t mind having.
He then shot her an appreciative grin, fingered two beers in each hand, and began weaving his way back through the crowd, settling murmurs as he passed by. He found his table and sat down beside two of his crew, Jones and Wick. On the opposite side of the table, their next interviewee, Severn, fidgeted in her chair. As instructed, his crew refused to say a word to her since she arrived, letting the hopeful recruit’s mind race in anticipation.
Severn was one of several recruits handpicked by Anders for the chance to join their ranks. If their research was correct, she’d be more than capable of handling herself in the roughneck lifestyle among these flight crews. And like the others she’d paid handsomely for the interview, however, this guaranteed nothing but the sit down.
Although he’d prefer anonymity, Anders’ team ranked among the best salvage crews in the known galaxy, which afforded certain benefits like hand picking the best recruits. On the books, they were a tight-knit crew, each job done perfectly and within the confines of the law. They paid their taxes to the Galactic Alliance as soon as they took payment, and except for one job recently, they’d never been late on any promised delivery.
Off the books, however, they held a different creed. Sometimes, a job required a few unorthodox methods to get it done right. No way around it. As such, Anders felt there was no need to tell the GC all the “minor” details of their operations, like their occasional noncompliance with the law. He always said, “Life’s just easier for everyone if the all-seeing Galactic Command don’t see it all.”
After letting Severn stew in nervous silence for a several moments, Anders handed her a beer and said, “Okay, so you’re here.” As if she wasn’t invited. “Now what?”
Jones and Wick grabbed the other beers Anders had left sweating on the table.
“What do you mean, now what?” Severn snapped back.
His curved eyebrow checked her attitude and he let her rest in her poor choice of words. Anders knew she’d act tough right off. All the hopefuls do, but he sought other traits in a new recruit too. Among a rugged toughness, everyone knew he required loyalty and intelligence; but more than that he looked for those that carry a moral compass that doesn’t always point north. A bonus that gave Anders the ability to bend the rules out in the cold and black when the job required it.
Most crew operate much in the same way, it’s not hard to find this. But what he looked for are the ones that don’t hide it. During an interview, if a recruit pretends to be all perfect and law abiding, then they’re willing to lie to the captain’s face. A huge telltale sign of an unworthy candidate.
In Severn’s case, he already knew she was smart based on the history Wick researched and loyalty is always earned. That part was easy for him but it left two traits that he needed to test. Sure, it was simple to act tough in the interview, anybody can do that so Anders had a plan to test her toughness and her ethical boundaries.
Collecting herself, she tried to recover with, “What else would you like to know? I already told you I was a first-class ranger, washed out of the Galactic Command Ranger Elect.”
“The GC,” Anders said pointedly, noticing her broad attempt to relax herself. “What are your ties with them now?”
“Oh, please,” she replied, glancing away from the table. “Everyone knows what happens when you get kicked out of GC training.”
“I do,” he said, “but I wanna hear you say it.”
“They abandon you,” she said. “No more money. No more training. Nothing. Too many wash out than what GC can provide for, so they refuse to be responsible for anyone who fails to make their ranks.”
“So whatcha gonna do now? Cuz we ain’t hirin’ a scrawny little punk like you,” said Jones with his deep, commanding voice. He let his dark eyes stare down into hers.
“Well,” she said, throwing her hands up from elbows propped on the table, “nothing, I guess, seein’ as how I spent the last of my dough on this broke-ass interview. What the hell is this?” she said, looking back at Anders. “You take my money for an interview, but you’re not even hiring?”
“Oh, we are,” squawked Wick, donning a wry smile. “Just not you.”
Severn nearly bit and Anders saw her catch herself. It pleased him to notice a sense of understanding wash over her face. A calmness flooded her body as she relaxed into her chair again.
She simply replied, “Too bad for you, then.”
“Why’s that?” asked Anders, satisfied to enter a new stage in the interview.
“I hear your team is the best,” she complimented.
Jones leaned in, his dark skin lightening under the single dim light hung over the table, “We are.”
“I can make it better,” she said with an air of supreme confidence.
“Wick,” Anders turned to him and asked, “is this true? She washed out?”
“Yup, I checked. They want nothing to do with her–she’s done. Discharged for disobedience.” Wick relaxed in his chair and sipped his beer, proud of his contribution to the interview. He wasn’t a soldier like the rest of them, but he was definitely one of Anders’ best assets, able to infiltrate almost any networked system. Not to mention his ability to whip up any type of gadget that might prove useful in a tight spot. He was, for lack of a better term, a super-space-genius. Truth be told, Anders could probably sell Wick’s things and support the crew comfortably without having to do these jobs, but he found no joy in that.
“All right,” said Anders. “If you’re so disobedient, then why should we pick you? We’ve got dozens of shiprats like you want’n to join our team.”
Severn smiled. “In my five years at GC I finished more then half my training. I’ve completed hundreds of missions for GC–I know their ways and how they think. I’ve gone up against some of the biggest outlaws and won, and I can fight better than any man here in the bar, not to mention any other shiprats interviewing this shift, wherever they are. I’m the best candidate you have, and we both know it. Besides it’s too late for me to transfer to law and my discharge would be a problem there anyway. I need work, I need it now, and I need it for life.”
Anders didn’t hear single a word explaining her disobedience so he waited for her to finish her answer. He was more concerned with that than her sudden change from keeping order working for the military, to working for a flight crew. In Anders case, he wasn’t worried about that. His work didn’t involve illegal activity–not on a regular basis anyway. A crew that listens to orders is paramount.
To Anders satisfaction, she’d realized what he was waiting for and simply added, “Just don’t order me to kill or go to bed with you and disobedience won’t be a problem.”
Anders glanced at Wick who nodded confirming his research matched her explanation. Then he looked at Jones who returned his questioning look with a dead stare. Having worked alongside the pair for many years, he knew that their responses meant they were willing to take the next step with Severn. As long as Anders was up for it. Regardless of her background, Anders saw something in her and went with his gut. “Prove it,” he said, initiating a final test.
“Prove it?” Severn repeated.
Anders stared at her. “Prove to me you’re out of GC. Prove to me you need this job. And prove to me you can beat out the other candidates.”
“How?” She asked. Anders noticed a faint reluctance.
He leaned close to the table, placing his brown, label-less bottle down on the same sweat ring it left before. Eying Severn for a moment, he flicked his gaze toward the bar, urging Severn’s sharp eyes to follow his line of sight. “You see those two meat-heads sitting together?” He pointed at two enormous, identical men wearing tank tops, cargo pants, and big, black boots. Twins, who also chose to dress alike.
“Ye’, I see ’em,” Severn replied.
Anders shot a challenging look at her. “They interviewed earlier and are waiting for my decision. I want you to pick a fight with them. Tell them they lost the job to you.”
Severn threw up her best poker face. With her lean, muscular build, Anders trusted she could beat down almost any man, but winning a fistfight against two brutes twice her size? He wondered if she’d ever had the “opportunity” to try her hand at a fight so unbalanced. But her thinning eyes said she wanted this job, needed this job, and calmly said, “No problem.”
As she rose from her chair, she downed her entire beer in three gulps, never breaking eye contact with Anders. The look she gave him almost broke his serious composure but he steeled himself regardless. Then, she slammed the empty bottle on the table and turned towards the twins, projecting as much confidence as she could manage. But before she even had a chance to leave the table, Anders grabbed her wrist, tugging her attention back to him.
“One more thing.” He grinned. “If you want a spot on the team, you have to win.” He let go and pointed to the hulking men at the bar, for emphasis.
“I wouldn’t have it otherwise.” She said and glanced over to Wick and gave him a wink before walking away. While her back was turned, she added, “Take some notes boys.”
Severn shuffled her way through the maze of tightly packed tables that hosted loud, obnoxious patrons. As she closed in on the bar, where the twins sat drinking, Anders asked Wick and Jones, “So, what do you think? Is she for real?”
“I believe so,” said Wick. “It’s not hard for GC and the law to fake her extrication inside their networks, but her story checks out everywhere else too. All the info I have in my network confirms she’s been totally abandoned by GC and has no connection to the law. I’m in.”
Their attention was briefly pulled from the conversation as one of the twins yelped when Severn yanked him backwards off his stool by his shirt. They watched as she stepped over his downed body and swung a hard right cross leaving him unconscious on the floor. The crowd in the area groaned with surprise.
“Yep. Me, too,” said Jones. “I’m in.” He nodded at the fight. “They’re gonna be pissed. Did you even tell them you were sending the recruit over to pick a fight?”
“No,” Anders said dryly. “They need punishment for dropping the ball on the last job,” Anders said. “We always deliver on time–they need to remember that. It’s how we keep our repeat business.”
“Kanor’s gonna kill her. I don’t see how she’s gonna punish them.” Wick said adjusting his seat for a better look but then was distracted by a familiar bleeping on Anders’ comm.
“Another attack?” Jones asked.
Anders looked up from the comm, “No, but they better figure out where those mechs are coming from.” He looked up at the partially completed construction in the ceiling. “You see all the defense prep Cambria’s doing in the hangar? They’re even doing it in here too.” Wick leaned over to glance at the comm so Anders tilted his hand to give him an eyeshot.
Jones replied with, “Yep’n I don’ wanna be here if this place gets hit.”
“My autolink to GC.” Wick said, losing his focus on the fight for a moment. Though slapping sounds could be heard while Severn and Kanor were locked in a torrent of thrown and blocked punches.
“Ye’, it is,” said Anders, answering Wick and looking back at his comm. “Looks like they’ve decommissioned something.”
“Nice. Always a good take on those.” Said Wick refocusing on the fight as he grew more concerned with Kanor lifting Severn in the air and less with the possible score coming over Anders’ comm. “You should stop the fight before something bad happens.”
“No. She either needs to toughen up or they need a lesson,” Anders said scrolling through the information on his comm. “She’ll get a few punches in and that’ll be good.”
“Ah Cap.” Jones said watching the fight obviously worried about something.
“Looks like it’s some kind of starship,” Anders said ignoring how Wick and Jones adjusted how they were sitting.
“Captain!” Wick said scooting his chair quickly away from the table while grabbing both their beers. Anders watched as Wick slid to safety. Then watched Jones stand up and take one step back, shoving his chair backwards with his huge calf. Before he could look at the fight, Severn landed on her back on the table. Anders’ eyebrows curled in confusion as they looked at each other while she slowly toppled over backwards with the table. She awkwardly rolled over her shoulder and then stood up, brushed off the front of herself, replaced the table, and said, “Excuse me, I’ll be right back.” Without missing a beat, she re-entered the fight at the bar with the twins.
Anders watched her run and jump knees first into Kanor’s chest. Severn on top, they tumbled down to the ground and Anders’ attention was brought back to his comm which made another bleep as it downloaded more information about the decommissioned starship.
“Ooo!” said Wick, who saw Severn finally land a healthy strike to Kanor’s jaw. “If my source linked to that comm is right,” he continued, “we have about two hours before GC sends that info out on the open networks for all to see. What kind of ship is it?”
“It says its a destroyer-grade class-M1A MKIII starship,” Anders replied. “And its close, too.” He glanced at the fight again, as Severn ducked a weak counter-punch from Kanor, and added, “She’s pretty good.”
“She is but she won’t be able to last long, Cap.” Jones said growing sympathetic to the unbalanced fight.
“She’ll be fine. From what I’ve read up on her, she can handle herself.” Anders said as he watched Ciris, the first twin Severn knocked out, come to and stand up behind her. It was clear she didn’t know he was there when he wrapped his beastly arms around her in a sweaty bear hug. Anders went back to his comm reading more about the possible job. His interest in it had been growing while they fought and when he finally found the location of it he was convinced he’d found their next job.
While reading his comm, Anders saw Wick quickly look away from the fight.
Anders gave Jones a certain look and then glanced at Severn. He eyed her entire form and how she stood well balanced with one leg back for power strikes. She was lean and strong and most certainly ready for his crew. He turned back to Jones, “We need this job and it’s gonna be a long game. I’ll have to call in Jug.”
Jones paused knowing what Anders’ suggestion meant and then simply nodded his understanding.
Wick shook his head and looked away again, “I can’t watch this.” He grabbed his beer and drank the rest of it down.
Anders grinned at him but then curiously stood up to see the crowd, now formed as a semi-circle enclosing the fight with the bar. The crowd shouted with a unified “Oh.” Ciris was still holding Severn in a bear hug while Kanor stepped in ramming his forehead into the bridge of her nose. The cartilage shattered with an audible crack, and Severn’s head snapped back at the force of the impact, nearly smashing into Ciris’ face.
Ciris released Severn and stepped around her wobbling form to stand next to his twin. But Kanor frowned at his brother, “How did you piss this one off?” Anders smiled noticing Kanor’s puffy eye and broken lip bleeding on his chin.
“I didn’t–I thought you did,” replied Ciris already with a swollen eye blackening with each passing moment.
“Hey, what’s your deal, chicky?” asked Kanor.
“What, can’t a girl get a decent fight around here?” Severn produced a crimson-colored smile, refusing to acknowledge the pain radiating through her nose. Anders was satisfied with his new recruit. Though she had a broken nose, it was clear she landed plenty of solid shots herself. He had effectively punished the twins for their mishaps on the last job and put her through an appropriate test. She was tough as nails and willing to follow difficult orders.
“Really?” Ciris said. “Fine with us.”
Anders walked towards the fight. The twins approached a still-unbalanced Severn, ready for another round. She kicked at Kanor to force him back, but Ciris grabbed her leg with a quick hand and dragged her forward until she was too close to escape. Each of the twins then settled a massive hand on one of Severn’s shoulders and reeled their free hands back, forming solid fists. The sheer force of their grips nearly paralyzed Severn, and she choked out a scream of pain.
The twins prepared to punch her simultaneously, a hit that would end the fight for good.
“Oh, damn,” she whispered and closed her eyes.
“Wait!” Anders yelled, stopping the twins. He raised his hand with his comm. “We got something. Bring her with, she’s in.”
Anders knew they understood what had happened by the way they nodded acknowledgment for the command. They released their grips on Severn. She nearly fell to the floor, but Ciris nudged her upright with a bump of his hand before he walked away. Kanor stayed and quietly paid their bill. He, too, left a large tip, as Anders had, but his money was an apology for the absolute mess they left.
Anders stood up and grabbed his old brown leather jacket from the back of his chair. He flipped the jacket on, wafting the smell of it into his face, and then gave Severn one last look before turning towards the exit. Even bloodied and wobbly, he saw something in her. She somehow had the kind of moxie he didn’t know he was looking for.
— End of Excerpt —
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