Catt Sayer’s eyes darted from one of the airship’s observation screens to another. Then she stared at the forward windscreen while licking her lips nervously. “You sure the fort won’t spot us hiding in this canyon, Lance?”
“Sure?” Lancelot’s electronic voice was deep and creamy, every woman’s wet dream. “Certainty is impossible, Catt. Escapee is out of the fort’s line of sight, but neither the canyon walls nor clouds can protect us from electronic surveillance.”
“I know that, Lance. Sheesh.” Most of the time she preferred the uncomplicated companionship of her android copilot, but other times she wished for someone a bit less literal. “It was a rhetorical question, seeking reassurance we’re unlikely to get caught.”
“Unlikely? Our probability of remaining hidden depends on whether the fort has trained instruments down rather than toward space, where previous threats came from.”
“We’re a supply ship, not a threat.”
“A supply ship sneaking up on the fort. I estimate our likelihood of remaining undetected at either ninety-six or thirty-one percent. I do not know if you consider these extremes unlikely or merely unpredictable.”
Knowing why the range was so huge, Catt scowled. Captain A-Hole—her nickname for Castle Mountain’s new commander—was the type to obey regulations rather than common sense, and he might have ordered full-range surveillance even though it was unnecessary and a nuisance. He was the problem. She didn’t care whether every other soldier at Castle Mountain knew she’d arrived, so long as the captain remained ignorant.
“One of these days,” she muttered, “I’ll be able to afford a human copilot who knows what I mean, not what I say.”
“One of these days? Taking into account Escapee’s age and your habit of sending half our profits to your family, such a day will occur in two-hundred-thirty-seven years, eighteen-point-four-three days.” He paused to emphasize a punch line; he was working on his comic timing. “In the meantime, I shall consider my job safe.”
A blip appeared on her fadar screen, and then the screen went dark. “Hold on, I saw something.”
Lance gripped the edge of the command console with both hands—another of his jokes.
With her index finger, Catt tapped the screen. Although the proximity meters worked fine, she needed the far-radar for far away things such as the blip,—but the persnickety fadar flickered. When she tapped it again, it stayed lit.
Yes, the army’s automated shuttle was taking off from Castle Mountain. If her spies were correct—and they’d better be, or she’d get even—the shuttle carried Captain A-Hole up to this moon’s orbiting space station, hence to the home system for a three-week leave.
“Victory.” Catt thrust her fist in the air and shouted a whoop of triumph. She twirled an imaginary mustache like a villain in one of those stupid melodramas Dad used to watch. “Mitt Cabbytain A-Hole gone, de wallets of Castle Mountain lie defenseless at my feet.”
“Your feet? Neither helpless nor near your feet. Although understaffed and under armed, Castle Mountain is quite capable of destroying something so large and fragile as a blimp.”
“Puh-lease. Advanced technology airship with buoyancy aids. Not blimp.”
“Advanced technology?” He paused for a punch line. “A hundred years ago, maybe.”
“Not funny. Why does an android even care about developing a sense of humor?” Before he spouted a long, convoluted answer she’d heard before but couldn’t comprehend, she added, “Rhetorical question.”
With one hand, she tapped switches to release the twelve land anchors holding Escapee down. She plunged the other hand into the command box and gripped the joystick that controlled the ship’s struggle against wind. The box responded with sluggish reluctance. One of these days she’d have to upgrade it, too.
“Anyway,” she said, “you know what I meant about Captain A-Hole. I told you often enough what he called me.”
“I know you wish to avoid the captain, Catt, but I do not quite comprehend why you remain angry four weeks later.”
“Because Captain A-Hole called me a prostitute. That wasn’t a bad enough insult, so he had to add cheap prostitute.” With infuriating upper-class arrogance, Captain Dukelsky—A-Hole’s real name—had assumed there could be no other reason why his all-male command treated her supply trips to Castle Mountain like holidays.
Without warning, a side draft slammed the ship and the deck underfoot shuddered. The aluminum floorboards, which were so battered and bent they’d need to be replaced soon, sent up a metallic howl as they ground against each other.
“Going to die because of this plarking basket of rivets,” she muttered. “But not today, not today. Edge left one degree to give the starboard cliffs more clearance.”
“Edging left one degree.”
“A little more, Lance. That’s a bad cross-wind.” Catt swore at the command box’s slow response. “More…a little more…steady, old girl. Steady.” After several minutes that dampened her armpits with nervous sweat, the airship stopped shuddering in the cross-current.
“A cheap prostitute,” she said, returning to the previous topic. “Me!”
“Prostitute? I still do not understand, Catt,” Lance said. “You have told me thirteen times how you shot right back that you had a special price just for him: five-thousand Standard Units, which I calculate to be eight-three-and-one-third times the going rate of sixty Sues at Rundle City.”
“Why does an android know how much prostitutes charge? No, rhetorical question. I do not want to know the answer.”
“Most of those thirteen times, you describe how this high price brought the first-ever flicker of a reaction to the captain’s face. He raised one eyebrow.”
“Cold-hearted, humorless, unemotional bastard. You have more emotions than he does.”
“I am flattered.” Lance paused. Punch line coming up. “Emotions are, after all, the primary goal in any android’s life.”
“Ha,” she said, matching his sarcastic tone, “ha.”
“During the first eight tellings, you laughed. The next three times, you failed to laugh. During the final two tellings, tears glinted in your eyes.”
“You notice too much.”
“Too much? Only as much as experience has programmed me to notice. Did you react so strongly because poverty forced your mother to resort to prostitution after your father died?”
“Gar off,” she said with a sigh. Gar off was the command for Lancelot to cease being chatty.
He stopped talking. He looked more robotic in non-garrulous mode. Since he didn’t need to move his head to watch dials and readouts—the readings went into his nervous system when he was plugged in—he sat with inhuman stillness.
“And Dad didn’t just die,” she said, although she knew he couldn’t answer—or perhaps because of it. “He was murdered by patroons.”
The ship rose from the clouds into the light. With the worst danger over, Catt had time to think before docking at Castle Mountain. That was the best thing about piloting a slow-moving airship. Plenty of time to think.
Being called a whore by a scary-powerful man like Captain A-Hole didn’t bother her. Well, yeah, it did, but that wasn’t the worst thing about the incident. The worst was that Captain Dukelsky had looked right through her multi-layered shells and saw—
What had he seen? From the glint in his eyes, not the skilled captain of a fragile and fickle aircraft. Nor one of the guys who had painstakingly infiltrated the old-boy’s club on a man’s world.
He saw a woman.
* * * *
Captain Hector Dukelsky was alone in the robotic shuttle, so he allowed himself a long, disillusioned sigh as he switched on the viewscreen covering the forward bulkhead.
He didn’t want to look at Banff. For a little while, he wanted to forget the lethal cesspit existed. Nonetheless, he selected Rearview Mirror to see how Castle Mountain Fortress would look to an invader.
He hated Banff, true, but he didn’t hate his troopers. His duty to them got him from one day to the next, and if he could observe anything to help keep them safe, he must look. He might not be the best officer in New Ontario’s army, but he protected his men’s lives better than any other, and that’s what mattered—to him, if not to the high command that had banished him here.
The screen snapped to life. With another sigh, Hector forced himself to look.
Long ago, Banff had been a planet with microscopic life forms. Then it was captured by the gravity of the massive planet circling Nuck III, the smallest star of a sprawling trinary system; his home world, New Ontario, orbited Nuck I. Although Banff was now a moon of the gas giant, the giant wasn’t yet satisfied. Slowly, inexorably, it was pulling Banff closer, eager to hug it to death.
Banff’s atmosphere convulsed with storms and cyclonic winds. Massive tidal pressures tore the surface apart, causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It was the epitome of a worthless hunk of rock. But it was Hector’s worthless rock for better or, mostly, for worse.
In a thousand years or so—tomorrow morning, by cosmic standards—Banff would reach Roche’s Limit, at which point tidal flexing would crush it into asteroids like a child crumbling a cookie. By human standards, of course, a thousand years was plenty of time to rape the moon’s mineral wealth.
From the air, Banff was a cloud world: storm clouds, grey clouds, black clouds, thunderous clouds. Here and there, mountaintops pierced the cloud cover, islands in a dark, violent sea. Atop such crags, Banff’s few humans huddled like fugitives from Hell. In the distance stood the domes of Takahashi Mining, automated to save on isolation pay. Closer at hand, sunlight gleamed off the six domes of Castle Mountain Fortress. Home, such as it was.
As the shuttle gained speed, Castle Mountain shrank. Hector reached to switch off the screen, but paused with a thumb on the push pad. A long, fat ship rose out of the clouds and lumbered toward the fortress. Alert and filled with adrenaline, Hector zoomed in the view.
From above, all he could see were three streamlined torpedo-shapes, but he knew they hid a small cabin and large cargo holds, suspended below the gas-filled torpedoes. It was an airship.
Decades ago, some mining company genius who’d never visited Banff imported a hundred airships, planning to ferry heavy ores around at minimal cost. Bad decision. Even with masterful piloting, which was in short supply on such a godsforsaken outpost, the unwieldy ships were easy prey for predatory storms. Most crashed within a few years and weren’t replaced.
Only one antique airship remained—and in it, Catteroon Sayer was sneaking up to the fort the instant he left. The woman possessed both pluck and cunning; he’d give her that much.
Hector allowed himself to relax, and a reluctant smile nudged his lips. Sayer posed no threat to his troopers’ lives, just their morals. The way his men reacted to the visits of her supply ship, she obviously did more than just deliver government-issued supplies.
When he confronted her last month, her stricken face had convinced him she wasn’t a prostitute. He’d intended his comment as a backhanded compliment: You’re up to no good, but you’re attractive enough a man would be willing to pay—though not five thousand Sues. Needless to say, the words hadn’t come out right. They never did.
Thinking back, he suspected her wounded puppy dog expression was an act. He wouldn’t fall for it again—and when he returned, he’d get to the bottom of whatever she peddled under the table.
But that was for later. Now, he must deal with three weeks of leave. Use it or lose it.
He would rather have lost it, but family duty called. His twin brother had married the heroine of Farflung Space Station, who required reconstructive surgery on planet Heartsrest. Hector had been designated by the family to entertain her during her layover at New Ontario’s primary space station.
The trip to Enno, the third planet of Nuck I, would take three-point-five days each way. That left two weeks to fill. Sure, he would enjoy getting to know his sister-in-law…but entertain her on his own for two weeks? By all the Draynian gods, how could he endure two endless weeks away from his duty?
One thing was certain. He wouldn’t call his sister-in-law a whore.
At least he hoped not.