Thoughts on the Fall of Empires

A print version of this story can be found in 'Tales From Space City 7'.

Part One

  She was going to miss the 'Liberator'. But then she had missed the 'Sappho' -- and the 'Behemoth', and the 'Libya' -- and every other ship she had ever stood at the controls of. This time, however she was walking away from something that by rights she should have held a one-third share in. Just when had Blake forgotten about that part of the deal?

  It seemed a pity to destroy her teleport bracelet, but keeping it would only tempt her into thinking about going back. So she destroyed it along with her life capsule as soon as she was certain of the freighter captain's intentions towards her.

  Morphenniel's main spaceport was overflowing with refugees. Most had lost everything in the war, and there were more beggars and itinerants than Jenna had ever seen in one place. Even after paying her fare she had more wealth on her person than any twenty of these people. But as yet she had no notion of how long her reserves had to last her, or if indeed the finance houses in which she had invested during her time on the Liberator, and before, were still operational. So she looked straight ahead, and strode quickly away from the poor and into the richer tourist district of the town.

  There is always a Hilton. No matter where in the galaxy one travels, some institutions remain constant. Jenna had a good idea how she must look to the doorbot, and to the human minding the reception desk. But business was slow, and anyone flashing a jewel the size of that she produced from her boot-heel was bound to be found a suite with no questions asked.

  Safely in her suite, she disposed of her battered flight suite into the recycling chute, and filled the improbably large sunken bath with rainbow water and scented bubbles. Thirty months with hardly a break from shipboard life -- not to mention six months of prison and prison ships before that -- and she was so looking forward to this.

  In the bath she let her mind go blank; there would be plenty of time later to analyse the past and plan for the future. Once she'd made the most of her skills and investments and was richer than even Avon could imagine she was going to make as much time as she could for simple pleasures. 

  Bathtime over, Jenna wrapped herself in the big fluffy towelling robe the hotel had provided, and began to peruse the shopping channels on her vis-screen. She fancied a change of image after spending so long pandering to other people's ideas of how she should look. And to no avail at that. Blake had hardly even noticed her, and had made less and less use of her skills as the men on the crew became more competent at piloting and shipcraft. Well, you would not catch her working for someone else again.

  She would buy a ship she could pilot by herself, and become an independent contractor. There were always going to be those who wanted the hard-to-obtain, and were prepared to pay well to get it. She knew enough people who could supply her with contracts and contacts. Even if some of them had died or gone out of business during the war, others would have stepped forward to take their places. Additionally, she still had a reputation amongst the freetraders that a three year absence would not have wiped out totally.

  To buy a ship though, she first needed to look the part. She picked out a brown leather jacket and trousers, low heeled sturdy ankle boots, and a selection of thoroughly sensible items to wear underneath the ensemble. Then she arranged for the whole collection to be delivered to her room, asking for two or three sizes to ensure the perfect fit -- no longer did she have Zen to produce clothes that would do that automatically.

  Jenna stood in front of the three full-length mirrors in her bedroom and assessed her new image. The clothes gave the impression she wanted, but the hair would have to change drastically if she were really to make a clean break with her recent past. She pulled her hair back from her face and up away from her neck. That looked better but her current style was not one that she could easily pin up so it had to go. Obviously the Hilton had a hairdresser. She was not in a mood to waste time searching out anywhere that could be potentially better or cheaper. So she repacked the unwanted clothes for the shop to collect later, and headed downstairs to the hotel's shopping complex.

  Now that was much better; Jenna cast one final look at her new short hair in the mirror before leaving the salon. On the way to the complex's exit her eye was caught by a peaked leather cap that exactly matched her ensemble. Feeling generally good about life, she pulled it on at a jaunty angle. Then she flipped a credit chip for more than the hat was worth to the seller, and strode briskly out into the late afternoon sunshine.

  People seemed to take the new Jenna a lot more seriously than she had become used to of late.

  "You'll like this one," the salesman told her. "Just a tad over a million kilospacials on the clock -- and only two owners. I'm cutting my own throat with this, but I can let you have her for fifty thousand."

  Jenna walked around the outside of the freighter. It was -- to put it politely -- compact, but then she would be crewing it by herself, so the low overheads might just balance out the smaller than average payload. Assuming, of course that she ran as smoothly as the salesman was implying.

  "Let me see inside," she said, "then we'll discuss the price."

  Jenna named her new ship 'The Hope'.


***

Part Two

  "It can't be done," Jenna told the blond as she set their drinks on the table and sat down opposite him.

  "Yes it can, Jay, and you're one of the few that can do it." Nils tucked a loose strand of hair back into his ponytail and straightened his lace cuffs. "You've made much more dangerous runs for us this past year." 

  "Have you seen my last three repair bills?" Jenna stared at Nils, waiting to for him to back down -- or at least offer her more money. Nils was a flamboyant nancy-boy, but his affectations covered up a sound head for business. "I'm losing good profits from having to hole up in port after every run I make for you." Of course, once she secured the deal she wanted, she was going to ask him which tailor had produced his red velvet jacket and breeches. She would rather like something like that herself to wear to the next social engagement she got invited to.

  "Thirty, and that's my final offer."

  "Thirty-three, take it or leave it." She would probably settle for thirty-two at a pinch; there were few loads available on Jevron, and she wanted to be on her way before the highly publicised visit by President Servalan and her entourage. Over the past year Jenna's new business had been quite the success -- to say the very least -- and she had put her rebel activities firmly behind her. Aside from the occasional run to deliver guns to any cell prepared to meet her fees, obviously. But Servalan, she suspected, would still be holding a grudge from that little incident at the fake Central Control so it was better to be well away before the woman showed up.

  "You drive a hard bargain, Jay." Nils sighed theatrically. "But, as you're an old friend of one of my very best friends, I'll go along with it. Now what say we finish up here then go supervise the loading of your cargo together?"

***

 Part Three

  So far so good. Jenna reduced her speed to intra-system parameters and checked the sensors once again. There had been no sign as yet of any Federation activity along her route, which made her highly suspicious. It could be that the usual patrols had been redirected to make up the numbers in Servalan's honour guard, but equally it could be that they had changed their tactics in anticipation of catching a pilot wise to the usual interception points. All sensors showing clear, Jenna backed the engines off still further as she prepared to enter the first of the system's five asteroid belts.

  "Damn!" The pursuit ship seemed to come from nowhere -- in all likelihood from behind one of the larger asteroids in this section of the belt -- and was almost on top of 'The Hope' before the proximity alarms were activated. Jenna's hands flew over the controls as she first deactivated the high-pitched whining then calculated possible evasive manoeuvres.

  She hoped against hope that she was fighting one-on-one as she spun the ship through a hullplate-stressing one-eighty degree turn and fired on the enemy vessel. With the luck that had returned to her in spades since quitting Liberator she scored a direct hit on the pursuit ship's main engine.

  Jenna banked her ship away, instinctively blanking out her view-screen briefly to avoid being dazzled by the explosions as first that engine then the whole ship blew. She ran the bare minimum of diagnostics in parallel with another sensor sweep. No sign of any other ships out there, but the Federation had cloaking technology, which she had almost forgotten in the months since she had last witnessed its use.

  There was almost certainly enough power in the reserve banks for her to run with her own cobbled-together detector shield up all the way until she entered the atmosphere of her destination. Times like this she missed Zen, who would have been able to make the calculation for her accurately and in an instant. Well, she was just going to have to risk it. If she kept her speed down between the asteroid belts it would add a few hours to her journey time, but could conceivably save her just the energy she needed. And it was not as if her cargo were perishable.

***

Part Four

  Jenna left one spacer-bar and headed for the next. She was tired -- practically dead on her feet -- and wanted nothing more than a night in a hotel; with a warm bath followed by a soft bed. But recharging energy banks, and making repairs to hullplating both ate into her profits. So she was sorely in need of a cargo for her return journey, rather than running with the hold empty as she had originally planned. She had plenty of funds scattered through the galaxy's more secure banks but that was her insurance, her savings for a new, better ship -- one that could bring in enough revenue to justify a crew perhaps -- and her retirement fund. So it was better by far to find additional work than to dip into any of her accounts.

  She looked over the patrons as she waited at the bar, hoping to spot at least one face she recognised. She was totally unprepared however for the face that she did see. She had wanted him from their first meeting, gone on wanting him even when she knew it was futile and finally done the only thing possible -- left -- rather than face up to working with someone so -- as she thought -- unattainable. The best thing to do would be to turn and walk out before he saw her. She should try perhaps one more bar tonight then go back to her hotel, and try this place again tomorrow.

  It was too late; he had seen her. He nodded to her, beckoned her over, and her heart sank. Jenna paid for her drink, and carried it over to the table where Blake sat.

  He seemed to have aged more than she would have expected since last they met. He was newly scarred, more heavily set, and more world-weary than she had ever known him. And yet when he looked up at her there was still a spark there that reminded her of what had inspired her to follow him in the first place.

  "Blake." Jenna sat down.

  "Jenna!" He seemed genuinely pleased to see her, although maybe it was just that he wanted something from her once again. "I always wondered what had happened to you. How have you been?"

  "Doing very nicely for myself, thank you." Jenna kept her tone neutral, and sipped her drink slowly, as she tried to assess the man's motivations and intentions.

  "And 'Liberator'?"

  "I wouldn't know." Surely he had heard that she had never returned after the War? This had to be a test of some sort. "I'm back in business for myself - as a free trader."

  "Ah," Blake said thoughtfully, "would you be interested in doing some work for me?"

  "Maybe," Jenna said, "just this once..."


Dormouse

 

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