Excerpt: Wandering Star

I was used to being woken up by Deimos jumping on me. He was a cat, so I was only allowed to sleep as long as he didn’t need to be fed. Or didn’t want to be petted. Or didn’t feel like meowing in my face. Waking up with all of his claws buried in my chest was a new one.

I didn’t blame Deimos; he wasn’t used to floating.

I really wasn’t, either. Opening my eyes to see the ceiling a foot in front of my face was off-putting, to say the least. Carefully, I pried the claws out of my bare skin and held Deimos’s black, furry body against me with one arm. I grabbed the doorframe of the sleeping quarters and pulled myself into the hall.

Things were floating everywhere on the ship: pens, cups, and pairs of my shorts were drifting about me as I made my way to the engine room. Deimos let me know just how much he didn’t like this by yowling in my ear.

“Yeah, buddy, I know,” I muttered back to him. The door to the engine room was open, tools drifting and turning slowly. My co-pilot and partner in crime was at the engine, a panel floating just above her head, both arms deep in the hoses and wires.

Sixia Star was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever met. I didn’t know what type of alien she was (she ignored me every time I asked her), but her skin was gold-colored. I don’t mean tanned; I mean it looked like it was made of metal, but I knew from experience it was as soft and warm to the touch as mine. Her hair was just as gold, and her thousands of tiny braids were drifting around her head like she was underwater. The fact that she was wearing panties and no bra sure didn’t hurt, either.

“The artificial gravity failed,” she said as I got closer to her, pulling one arm out of the engine. “Hand me that screwdriver.”

It took me a minute to find it—Deimos was busy batting it away from me. “Yeah, I kind of figured it did,” I replied, handing the tool to her. “Think you can fix it?”

“I don’t know. It looks like it’s the power core. If that’s the case, there’s nothing we can do but replace it.”

“Well,” I began, pausing to wince as Deimos clawed his way up to my shoulder, “we just finished that job, so replacing it won’t be a big deal, right?”

Sixia looked at me. Under the bright lights, her pupils were cat-slit against dark green irises. “If sixty thousand-odd credits aren’t ‘a big deal’ to you, sure.”

“Shit.” I chewed my lip, looking at the gunmetal-grey walls as I thought. “Well, we don’t really need gravity, right? It’d be kinda fun to bend you over in zero gravity.”

“You mean me bend you over,” she corrected, rolling her eyes. “And you’re forgetting two things: your cat clearly hates it, and you won’t be able to drink coffee.”

“Oh, fuck, you’re right.” I pulled myself closer to watch what she was doing. I wasn’t mechanically inclined at all, but I always liked watching her work. I could see the power core; normally it would have been glowing bright orange. Now, it was dark.

“I’m totally useless here,” I said, resting a hand on her bare back. “But I can tickle your balls, if that’ll encourage you.”

Sixia rolled her eyes. A transwoman, she had told me once that she never intended to go through what she called “bottom surgery”, explaining that the results weren’t perfect, and she was used to what she had in her pants. I thought she appreciated that I didn’t shun her or fetishize her for it, but she wasn’t the type to tell me.

“That would just be distracting. Get us the rest of the way to Venus, so we can stop floating.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I pushed off of the engine with my legs, propelling myself toward the door. I had to admit, it was fun to float around like this, but it made Deimos dig his claws in harder. I had to turn the corner to get to the cockpit, and then catch hold of the navigation screen with both hands to stop myself.

We were about three hours out from Venus, set on autopilot. I could cut it down to an hour and a half if I really hauled ass. I moved to my pilot’s seat and belted myself in before I could float back off of it, relieved to feel Deimos climbing off of my shoulder to his usual place on the back of the chair. I turned off the autopilot and turned on the comm. “Sixia, you might wanna get out of that engine. I’m about to fire it up.”

“Go ahead. I’m just closing it back up,” she responded, voice tinny through the speaker over my head.

I dialed in the speed for as fast as I dared, bracing for the Wandering Star to lurch ahead. She did, but the pace quickly became smooth, and I focused on watching the navigation screen.

Deimos yowled one last time, then settled in to lick the back of my head. I don’t know why he always did that—I guessed he liked styling my hair.

By the time I could see Venus clearly, Sixia floated into the cockpit. She was dressed like she normally was for visiting ports: black sleeveless shirt, black cargo pants, and a gun strapped to her right thigh. She had a second one hidden on her, probably behind her back. “I’ll take over,” she said, moving into her own seat. “You’re not going to impress anyone by strolling through town in your shorts.”

“We’ll see about that,” I snorted, undoing my seatbelt. There was no way to take a shower like this, but I could at least make myself look less like I had floated out of bed.

About fifteen minutes later, I was standing with one foot against the ceiling and tying my boot when Sixia’s voice crackled through the speaker. “Atmosphere breached, coming into port.”

That was all the warning I had before the city of Vesta Rupes’s own artificial gravity took over, and I dropped like a rock to the floor. “Fuck,” I muttered, rubbing the side of my head as I got to my feet. Pushing the comm button, I said, “A little more warning would be nice the next time we have no gravity.”

“Sorry,” was the response, but she sounded more amused than anything else. Considering her sadistic sense of humor, she probably thought me falling on my face was hilarious.

I slipped my pistol into the holster behind my back, where it was hidden under my red leather duster. I wore black under it, like Sixia did, but I liked to have a little bit of flash. The coat would hopefully help people remember my name.

My name was awesome, anyway: Zane Loveless. How could anyone hear that and forget it? My parents didn’t have much to give me, but a great name can get you pretty far. It was what got me on this ship.

The Wandering Star wasn’t my ship—it was Sixia’s. I met her when she was looking for a pilot. I was shocked that no one wanted to travel with her, until she explained to me that she used to be an assassin and was well-known for it. I’d only flown simulators before, but I charmed her into giving me a shot.

Of course, the first time I flew through a meteor shower and barely got us out alive, she wanted to beat me brainless.

Sixia had docked by the time I made it back up to the cockpit and was looking through her personal communicator. Pom-Com was the most popular brand; we both had one. “I might have someone we can pick up a few jobs from,” she said, words mumbled because she was chewing on her lower lip at the same time.

“You don’t sound happy about it,” I observed, leaning on the back of her seat.

“He’s part of the Liberated.”

I exhaled hard. The Liberated weren’t a wide-eyed rebel group, like their name implied, but a cutthroat illegal business ring. I’d never worked with them before, but I’d heard stories about them. The kind of stories that keep you up at night. “So we’re going to have to worry about them killing us if we fail a job?”

“Maybe, but I think we can handle them. Or at least, I’m sure I can.” She looked back at me and patted my cheek. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.”

I licked her hand to make her drop it. “Hey, I’m watching out for both of us. Don’t be an ass.”

She stood up and I took a step back, in case she wanted to wrestle. To my disappointment, she only said, “Let’s just grab our cargo, drop it off, and go see Rence Aler.”

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