Dark Salvage, Chapter 1
By E.S. Wynn
Date: 21st August, 2316. 12:27 (ES/GMT)
Location: Kamm’s World, Upsilon Constantinus (HD 126614)
“You were in the war, right?”
Tessa glanced up from her drink. Piercing, sapphire eyes rose to meet the careful stare of the man watching her from across the rough surface of a fiberboard table. His own eyes were sharp and serious, coal black, perched in a face full of heavy lines that seemed to bend under its own weight into a flat, direct expression. In a way, they contrasted perfectly– where she was lean and sleek, his skin was like asphalt, sunblasted to the same dark color as the local brew that sat thick and heavy in their cured leather cups, untouched. Only their hair bore even the slightest resemblance, both shades of midnight, hers cropped back to a short cut, his all but gone, a graying frizz of curlicues clinging like resolute soldiers to a perimeter of smooth and barren brown. When her response came, it was as no-nonsense, as direct and serious as his features.
He glanced at the sheet of silicon in his hands, paused thoughtfully. She studied the neon flowers on his shirt as she waited, bright orchids swaying in some digital breeze with distant ocean stirring quietly behind them. It was unusual, the kind of print you never saw on the frontier, and a sharp contrast to Tessa’s own simple outfit of jeans, vest and sleeveless shirt. After a moment he looked up again, ran one finger thoughtfully over the weak stubble on his lip where a mustache was trying to take root.
“Flew Seindrives against the Coralate?”
“For the better part of a decade,” she nodded. Her eyes dropped back to her hands, the cup propped reluctantly between them.
“Record makes you out like a real war hero.” He looked up at her again, leaned back in his chair and pulled in a deep, considering breath. “Now, I’ve never been to Earth or Alpha C, but I hear the VFW guarantees a job and luxury living for veterans of the Cygnus War on both of those worlds.” He gestured lightly. “Somebody with your record, I figure you’d be flying a desk in some corporate stratoscraper, maybe playing captain on some fancy cruise ship for a legacy carrier like, I don’t know,” he made another gesture. “Carniva?”
“Yeah,” she looked up again. “You’d think.”
The man blinked in the long quiet pause, leaned forward. “So then, what exactly is someone like you doing all the way out here, scratching around on the frontier?”
“I guess I’m just not your typical war hero.” Tessa shrugged, the barest edge of steel creeping into her voice.
“That’s an understatement.” The man let his eyes wander back to the silicon sheet. “Your performance record in the war is off the charts. Hundreds of confirmed kills, outlasted your fair share of wingmen–”
“Is there a point to this?” Tessa’s eyes hardened.
“There’s always a point.” He shifted, fixed her with a careful stare. “Why’d you dodge the question?”
“Don’t push me, Grant.”
“Fine,” he paused, cracked the silicon sheet. “We’ll come back to that one.” Eyes dropped to reading again. “The records I got a hold of say you were given a medical discharge, but I can’t track down a reason why for love or carbon bonders. It’s like they just...” he made a futile gesture, “let you go. No correspondence, no benefits, nothing but a cut check and a ticket to nowhere that’s never been cashed. Just wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and you’re out, flying a stint with the Ixion Condottieri.” He thumbed an emphatic gesture. “Why is that?”
Eyes never wavered. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“And I don’t want to bring on crew with secrets,” Grant said flatly. “Especially big military secrets that people in government are keen on keeping classified.”
“Then don’t hire me.” She stood up suddenly. “I’ll find another ship to fly.” She paused, half ready to turn away, glanced back at the cup. “Thanks for the beer.”
“Tessa, wait a minute.”
She hesitated, eyes finding his again, half ready to walk out on him in that stretching instant. Grant pulled in a careful breath, set down the sheet and steepled his fingers.
“Now, you may walk out that door and you may find another quick job in another dusty, rundown bar on this backwater world, but I guarantee you won’t find a ship as clean or reliable as mine.” He paused, letting it sink in. “The Junkyard Queen’s a salvage freighter, yeah, but she’s been modified for speed, so she flies like nanowire through hydrogen fog. She deals strictly in legal finds, floaters and artifacts of possible historical interest– it’s the kind of low profile job most pilots would kill a man for, and it’s served on an open-ended contract, so the pay starts the moment you sign, instead of after the job’s done.” He shook his head as she looked away again. “I’d hate to see a pilot of your caliber blow off an opportunity like that just because you don’t feel like answering a few sensitive questions.” He paused. “Besides, how long has it been since you were able to afford a decent meal?”
Tessa stood silent. When she turned back again, she watched him for a long time, eyes solid, unreadable. Grant gave her his softest smile, gestured to her empty seat.
“I hope you understand that it’s nothing personal. I’m just watching my assets here.” He hesitated, watched as she turned the chair around and straddled it, slouching forward into the back, arms crossed. “You’ve got a history of flying real low, doing everything under the radar, disappearing off government networks for months at a time, like a ghost at the edge of civilized space.” His hands slipped back to the sheet of silicon. “Sounds like a lot of the people I bring on for jobs, but you’re a war hero, and that makes me kind of nervous.”
“It shouldn’t,” she said, tone level. “I like my freedom. There a problem with that?”
“Never had a problem with freedom,” came the quick response. “Secrets? That’s another story.”
“Everyone has secrets, Grant,” she shot back. “Especially out here. It’s the rim.”
“So I tell myself every day,” he gave her the edge of a patronizing smile, “but I still can’t shake the feeling that if I let your particular secret slide, it’s gonna come back to bite me in the ass before this run is over.”
She looked away.
Grant blew out a quiet, exasperated sigh. “You know what it looks like to me?” He paused, shot her a questioning stare. “Every time I look at your M.O. over the last few years, it reminds me of this mechanic I brought on for a stint ‘bout six months back.” His eyes dropped back to the sheet. “Real pretty boy, strong arms, real quiet about his affairs. He had a secret too– turned out he was somebody’s pet. A Genetic Construct that had spent a couple years dodging the law. Seems he belonged to some fat duchess on one of the planets as far in as Tau C.” He gave her another soft smile. “But that wouldn’t be anything like your secret, would it? I mean, the military physical checks for Construct markers as soon as you join up, right? They never would have let you within a hundred clicks of a Seindrive if you were somebody’s love doll.”
Tessa’s hardness faltered– she looked away.
“Least,” he paused, eyes making little movements, studying her face. “That’s what I’ve been told.”
“Yeah,” her eyes met his again, hesitant, untrusting. “That’s what they want people to believe.”
“But you know otherwise?” He asked carefully.
“I know it’s possible for a GMO to get into the system,” she managed. “There are... holes– you’d have to bribe all the right people, work with sympathizers in the underground, watch your step...
“There something you want to tell me, Tessa?” She watched him for a long moment, eyes shifting only slightly as his lips spread into a slow smile. “What happened? What did you do, bribe the wrong doc?”
She looked away again. When she spoke, it came quiet, eyes unable to meet the intensity of Grant’s gaze. “It’s... complicated. I was injured, unconscious, alone. The doctor discovered the tags while I was out. There was nothing I could do.”
“So you’re a non-person, then. A Derivative.” He smiled. “Well, imagine that.”
“Yeah,” she said flatly. “Imagine that.”
“Boy, I bet that rashed some colonel’s coolant sleeve,” he laughed. “What model are you? Spend any time in brothels before the war?”
She gave him a dark look. “I’m not a clone, Grant.” All the steel came back, all the strength, all the resolve. “One of my ancestors was a prototype for a high-performance vatgrown soldier some corporation was developing in the second half of the twenty-second century. She escaped during the pre-colonial upheaval and ended up riding steerage on one of the first ships to head for ‘Ceti.”
“So you’re just unlucky.”
“I guess,” she said, words coming flat. “Whatever you want to call it, it’s enough to justify discrimination as far as most people are concerned.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.” She fixed him with a careful look. “So do I get the job?”
“With a flight record like yours, how could I say no?”
“You don’t care that I’m a ‘dangerous hybrid’?” She tried, gestured half-heartedly. “A soulless automaton taking good jobs from hardworking transport pilots?”
“Look, I’m not a racist. As long as what you are doesn’t get my ship into trouble, you can hang onto it. Makes you a better pilot in my eyes.” He gestured loosely. “But if you’re lying to me and we start getting shot at because my pilot’s a fugitive or made some dangerous enemy in the military or somewhere else, I won’t hesitate to push you out an airlock or hand you over to the powers that be. Clear?”
The faintest edge of grin touched her face. “Crystal.”
“Good.” He smiled back. “Welcome aboard, then.” He stood, shook out stiff legs. “Come on, I know a better place where we can catch dinner.” He pulled a grimace. “I can’t stand the beer here.”
- - -
E.S. Wynn is the author of over forty books.