September Stories (9/11)

"The Occurence" by DeviantArt user Julia Davis  (juliadavis)

So continues my September Stories project! If you missed any of them, you can find the full list here.

Honor Among Thieves By Danielle Davis

Emerson scratched the back of her neck where a few tendrils of hair tickled the skin around the bionic spinal support. Her nails skimmed over the hard polysilicon case of the first node to scratch around the edges, where it met flesh. She twitched her shoulders, trying to get rid of the sensation, as she gazed over the rest of the passengers on her ship. She tried to ignore the collective weight in their gaze as they looked back at her.

She knew how she must look to them—everything about her outfit screamed rag-tag: leather porkpie hat with the fraying brim atop a blue and black striped bandana. Wayward strands of sea foam green hair that had escaped beneath it—just enough to cover the strap on the eyepatch over her right eye. A single-strap leather vest that crossed across her chest, shiny from the years of use, and the way it left her arms and one shoulder bare. The mismatched brass buttons down the front of it and the bright, even gleam of the bullet holder armband tightened across her bicep. The worn, baggy trousers that cinched tight at the waist, held in place by her gunbelt. Pants legs tucked into thick-soled black boots covered in assorted straps and buckles.

All of it was largely worn for comfort and functionality, though she knew it helped contribute to the ambiance. After all, as one of the last remaining charter boats this side of the galaxy, she had a certain part to play. So she was used to the looks she normally got.

But it was harder to pretend they weren't staring at the BioProsth that formed her right arm from the elbow down. With a deep breath, she twitched the brim of her cap and took a few steps toward the crowd, tapping the microphone application at her voice box.

"Hello! I am Emerson Maguire, Captain of the Magna Charter, and we are pleased to have you aboard today!" The microphone app connected her voice to the ship's speaker system—it was amplified so that she could be heard anywhere on the ship over the whirring of the engine.

With a grand wave of her bionic arm, she indicated the vessel they stood on. Her voice droned in the well-rehearsed welcome speech, the one she got to make up to four times a week if she was lucky. So far, this was only the second time she'd said it and it was already Thursday.

It wasn't hard to keep the resignation from her voice, but she did have to make a slight effort. The effect of all their dull eyes on her made her skin crawl, so she fixed her eyes on a bare spot on the deck, somewhere in the middle of the crowd, so it looked like she was looking at them.

"The rest of my crew are in the process of getting ready to push off, so you'll be introduced to them later. Today's expedition will head toward the Vega Mizair System and cruise the orbit around Arcturus VII. From there, we should be able to get some fantastic sightings of various astro-maritime creatures in their natural habitat. Also, in accordance with Federation Article 718, I am required to inform you that the Astro-Maritime Control Agency maintains a strong protection over such creatures and it is against Federation law to interact with them in a civilian capacity. In other words, it is illegal to shoot them through anything other than a camera lens." She paused with a small smile to allow the expected chuckles.

"There are 13 of you setting sail with us today. As you have all been given the ship rules, I expect you to abide by them. This is also true of anyone within your care." She eyed a couple with two young kids—the girl had a smug look she didn't like the look of. That look said the girl thought she was above such warnings. Which meant she'd probably be the first one Emerson was going to have to rescue from falling overboard, or turning on the delousing spray instead of the shower faucet, or throwing trash over the rails to leave a floating line of debris in their burn wake.

A sudden breeze across the deck made everyone's hair flutter. The air took on the salty tang of ocean spray as the processed air canisters kicked on. Emerson's nostrils flared, always hungry for that first breath that smelled like freedom. She saw others in the crowd do the same, some subtle and others not so much so.

Below her feet, the deck thrummed as the ship's stabilizers kicked in. She glanced up and noticed the bio bubble that surrounded this portion of the ship was still transparent, giving an expansive view of the docking station they were currently joined to. As she watched, however, the scene changed so that puffy white clouds chased each other across a clear afternoon sky instead of showing the metal supports and uniformed dock staff. Once they got into deep space, Maisee would turn the bio bubble transparent again so the passengers could enjoy the beauty of the galactic imagery they passed.

Of course, red dwarves and multi-ringed minor planets weren't what this crows paid to see. They were aboard to view some of the astro-maritime creatures wandering about space. And, if they were very lucky, a nebula shark or two.

But Emerson was going to make sure they got to see one. A certain backer had made a very special request, in the form of an implied amount of untraceable credits, if such a feat was successful. And given how slow the last few months of honest work had been, she and her crew needed it.

She had never regretted going straight arrow more---well, mostly straight arrow, since she didn't turn away under-the-table payments if the offer was right—than when her ship's fuel tank was nearly empty and she had only a half-load of paying passengers aboard. Not to mention a crew that had taken a liking to eating and getting paid.

She nodded as she concluded her speech, touching her fingers to the brim of her cap in a sort of salute. The passengers gave half-hearted applause and wandered away. Some would be looking over the railing of the deck, enjoying the simulated feel of sunshine and salt water on their faces. Others would be putting away or getting items out of their storage lockers under deck. And still others would just have a seat on the few benches available on the viewing deck and wait until the expedition got underway.

But when she turned, she noticed the young couple moved closer and was eyeing her bionic arm with fascination. It was little more than two bare pistons, which formed the forearm, attached to a shiny metal hinge at the elbow. It looked more like twin gun barrels than a proper prosthetic her passengers were used to seeing. She had multiple attachments that clipped into the end, depending on the purpose. Today she wore the hand attachment, which was comprised of three finger appendages and a thumb covered in PseudoSkiin. Under the family's wide eyes, she reflexively flexed the digits into a fist.

"I can't remember the last time I saw low tech that old still in use," the man said. Though his voice was casually conversational, Emerson stiffened.

"Byron!" His wife flushed and smacked his arm. "Captain, my husband didn't mean to say that." She threw her husband a sharp sideways look as she growled. "Did you, honey?" The kids looked from her face to his.

Emerson forced a stiff smile. She was very aware of how she must appear to them given the older quality prosthesis. "The outer shell got damaged some time back," she said with false cheerfulness. "So even though the cords are exposed between the pistons--" with her other hand, she pointed to the black electrical cords looping messily from her elbow down the forearm"--it still works fine."

She fluttered the fingers in a wave at the kids, who grinned. "It is low tech but it's durable. In about five years, all I've ever really had to fix was the odd fluid line. They get caught and snap every now and then. And occasionally I've got to patch the PseudoSkiin, but who doesn't, ya know?" Though the couple nodded and smiled at Emerson's joking tone, they weren't quite able to hide their discomfort. The wife thanked Emerson for her time and then steered the family away.

Landbounders, Emerson thought with a small trace of bitterness. So accustomed to med care that kept most injuries from needing bio attachments. Wealthy enough to afford, for serious injuries, bio limbs that looked like the real thing. Wealthy enough to have white collar jobs that paid from the neck up. And certainly--

"Wealthy enough to charter us to shuffle them around the solar system for a few hours," Rilk murmured as he coiled a length of rope next to her. Emerson raised an eyebrow, causing Rilk to grin. Having an empath on board was helpful, especially when it came to customer service, but Emerson hated when Rilk read her without permission.

Emerson looked out over the handful of tourists loitering around the prow railing. "One of the benefits of being Captain of a charter boat is getting to direct our services to our paying customers," she murmured back. "Not by being on the receiving ends of them, First Mate Delaney."

Rilk pressed his thin lips together to wipe away the grin, but his eyes still glinted at her. "Ay ay, Captain."

Though Rilk was an excellent empath, despite having drunk the serum to become so only two years prior, his real talent was the utter deception of his physical appearance.

With his shaved head, hooked nose, and tattooed skull, he looked more like a hired thug than an empath. He was tall, with massive forearms, and a midsection so muscular it erased any waistline curves a fit man normally had. He was aggressively intimidating, but if one looked in his eyes, they'd see the clear, gray kindness inherent to all empaths. Luckily for her, few worked up the guts to look him in the eyes.

Thanks to his appearance, she rarely had trouble from raiders or brawlers when they were planet-side. This was especially handy when he accompanied her on some of their less-than-lawful excursions. Particularly since folks tended to see Emerson's spine and arm prostheses as indicators of weakness.

But while his strength made him handy around the ship, his mental talents were what Emerson retained him for.

"I need to know who's got pretties they could be persuaded to hand over." She left off the part where they then forget they ever did such a thing. Rilk knew how the game was played.

Rilk glanced over the group on deck, assessing each with a cool glance. "I thought we were going straight on this one, Cap'n." He spoke sotto voce as he appraised the passengers.

She shrugged. "Well, a bent arrow can't ever truly fly straight, can it? Especially when it's carrying a load only half full."

Rilk turned to face her but gazed at a spot over her shoulder as he coiled a length of rope. "I'd say the two couples near the railing—one's trying to recruit the other to swing with them later tonight--; the sharp-dressed gentleman on the aft side, who is considering his sizeable stock funds; the older woman in the purple dress, who's only doing this because her late husband never got the chance, even though she hates space, always has--; the middle-aged guy who's about to hit on the woman to his left, and the woman to his left who sees right through him and is planning how gently to turn him down."

Emerson frowned in appreciation. "Nice. But, seriously? That's barely half our body load!"

"There are a few more near the storage compartments. I'll see what kind of read I get on them later."

"What about the couple with the kids?" Emerson asked, jutting her chin in their direction.

But Rilk didn't even turn around. "Nah. They're strapped. Family outing they could barely afford, but they want it to be a nice experience for the kids. They're going to tell them about the divorce when they all get home."

"What a big happy family we are," Emerson grumbled. That was the part she hated most—hearing about peoples' sordid lives and petty details. She wasn't above pettiness, as a general business rule. But it was always depressing hearing about how sad the bulk of folks' lives actually were. Rilk's reports rarely contained happy details.

"Now, if you'll excuse me," Rilk murmured. He turned and headed toward the woman he'd reported was about to get hit on.

The deck beneath Emerson's feet shuddered, sending up a startled cry from the passengers. Most of them clutched at the deck railing to keep their footing. She noticed the woman Rilk was intent on fall conveniently into his arms as the ship undocked, much to the dismay of the man next to her.

A young woman with blue skin and black eyes moved past her. Instead of hair, her head formed into two horns that curved like a ram's down around either side of her face. She balanced on the thick mass of her tail as she slithered upright toward the passengers. As she caught Emerson's eyes, she gave a small salute, then adjusted the uniform jacket around her upper torso.

"Now if I can have everyone's attention, please," she called in a sultry human voice. The passengers stared with delighted fascination as they formed a semi-circle around her. The Midusii were a hypnotizing race, which was why Emerson had been so keen to employ one as the tour guide. Once they were in sight, it was hard for most people to look away.

The Midusii were generally shy but, thankfully, Ariadne didn’t mind being the face in front of the passengers. It helped keep their minds off the more boring in-between parts of travel, which Emerson liked, and it allowed Ariadne a chance to display her above-average knowledge of space travel, celestial bodies, and astro-maritime creatures.

Also? It kept the passengers not focused on how well their valuables were stowed.

"How are we doing?" Emerson leaned over her pilot's shoulder as she glanced at one of the side screens. Ariadne's mouth moved as she gestured to something off the port side of the ship, while the passengers looked on in awe. Rilk was nowhere in sight, which was good—it meant he was already inspecting the valuables in the storage compartments to see what was worth acquiring.

"Well, ok so far, though I'm getting a strange read from our wake," Maisee answered back. "It's like we've got an echoing burn signature. Kinda weird, but nothing I'd be too worried about."

The large black bear twitched an ear in irritation as she glared over her shoulder. "Can you give me some space, please?" Maisee let out a snuffling, snorting laugh as she realized the pun she'd made—she adored them—then sobered. "No, really, you're breathing into my ear and it's..." She shook her head, making her ears make muffled slapping noises, and growled.

"Cool it, Maisee. I just want to know where our payload is?"

"Well, technically we just passed it. Didn't you see the schools of alpha- and beta-starfish back there? There were about, four, classifications of them, I believe. Then we had the pod of Rigelwhales, which were feeding on the protoplankton. That was super cool—I love Rigelwhales." She turned to fix her beady black eyes on Emerson. "Did you know I once thought I was going to be an astro-maritime biologist? When I was a cub. I used to put on these shows for my parents where I--"

Emerson sighed and gave Maisee an impatient look. Ursa-sapiens were a talkative species and they got distracted very easily. Which was fine if you didn't have any information you wanted particularly fast.

But Emerson did.

"Sorry," Maisee said. Her ears flattened to her head in apology, then pricked forward again as she turned back to the screen in front of her. "We've also had several, uh, other types of creatures. And we're closing in on the energy bursts I was monitoring last week. I think we're close to their territory."

"Good," Emerson murmured. She scanned the screen like she was expecting a nebula shark to dart across it at any moment.

"Uh, Captain?"

Emerson's eyes didn't leave the screen. "Yeah, Maisee?"

"You're doing it again," the bear said. She sounded apologetic. "The ear breathing thing...?"

"Right!" Emerson took a step back and nodded. "Keep me posted on the com, ok?" She turned to leave.

"Where will you be, so I know which quadrant to ping you on?"

Emerson skipped down the metal railing that led from the control room, calling back over her shoulder. "In the storage compartments!"

Then, as her boots clanked down the ship walkways, her voice lowered to a growl. "To find out who our anonymous benefactor might be."

The plan had been to meet in the storage compartments below deck once they were an hour underway. Then Emerson would be able to meet the person who'd been messaging her about their deal. The person, who'd always signed off as "N.P." had asked for a nebula shark sighting, which was tricky on the best of days. Aside from nebula sharks being one of the rarest astro-maritime species to have been discovered in about 140 years, the AMCA kept a tight patrol on known territories—nobody was allowed within the range of a light year. So the trick came in knowing not only where the best locations were to find them but also the timing of the patrols. In return, the Magna Charter would receive a "donation" of three deca credits. All untraceable. All under the table.

It was the best deal she'd had in months.

But the benefactor never showed.

After waiting ten minutes past rendezvous, Emerson knew something was up and it wasn't just her temper. She'd had to call in a favor with a friend at the AMCA for the patrol schedule and pay a small sum to another for the location of a small breeding ground just outside the asteroid field that orbited Arcturus VII. Both the favor and the credits were things she didn't give up lightly. But in light of the potential payload, it had seemed like a good investment. Even when weighed against the few decades she and her crew would get if they got caught anywhere near where they were.

And now the envelope with her donation was nowhere to be seen.

"This is why crime never pays," she grumbled to herself as she stomped back up the stairs to the top deck. "You can't even trust an honest thief these days!"

She arrived on deck with the intent of finding Rilk to get him to out their benefactor—they weren't going to get out of their chat so easily. But as soon as she cleared the passageway, she caught a flash of fuchsia and electric blue streaks that looked like lightning and halted, enraptured.

They'd found it.

Maisee's monitoring was nearly never wrong and the source was obviously reliable, but even Emerson had been a little doubtful they'd actually arrive at the right place at the right time.

The nebula shark glided over the bio bubble. Its body was a swirling, shifting mass of gasses that flowed over itself in magenta-, lilac-, and blue-colored clouds. The mouth, always open, always searching, showed the black gap of space between its jaws. The tail moved in long strokes that left behind small streaks of ionized dust particulate.

And it was huge.

Everyone's head turned in unison as they tracked its arc over the top of the ship. It was easily three times the size of the Magna Charter, which was a medium-sized vessel. Emerson wondered what would happen if it decided to swallow them whole. Would they burn to death in the heated cloud of gas that made up its internals? Or would they glide right through it like a hand through a phantasm?

Another shark followed, this one smaller and covered in purple and yellow clouds of shifting gas. Emerson tore her eyes away and glanced over the deck. With shock, her eyes took in the swirling shapes of five others, all of various sizes, as they glided through the dark space around them.

"It's a shiver," she murmured to herself. It was something she'd never thought she'd actually see.

She heard a low buzzing sound that got increasingly louder, even as she turned to find its source. But she saw it at the same time as everyone else: a sleek metal bullet raced through the space above their bio bubble.

The crowd gasped in surprise, all of them craning their necks as they tried to get it back into view. It had disappeared around the other side of the ship in the time it took for them to take a collective breath. But Emerson knew what they'd seen—there was only one kind of ship with that kind of speed that would be out this far.


They favored smaller ships, the type of moon dusters that had tight maneuverability but not the build to handle the cold of deep space. They usually stayed closer toward their origin planet, preying on the creatures and smaller vessels they could catch within its gravitational range. The ships were usually decked out with magnetized laser captures, able to immobilize larger things for a short time. But since it only took a few seconds to electroblast whatever they'd caught, it didn't matter how long they were able to hold their prey before it got away.

She couldn't believe she was seeing one this far out. It had to be impossible. Something Maisee said tickled the back of her mind, but she pushed it away. Now wasn't the time to figure out how it had gotten here. What mattered was getting it gone before they got themselves and her boat caught by the feds.

She bolted toward the passengers crowded together on the deck and slid to a halt next to Ariadne.

"Rilk." Emerson's voice was tight with urgency, and Ariadne nodded her head toward the observational deck above them.

Emerson immediately turned and sprinted up the stairway to the upper deck, taking the steps three at a time and using her hands to pull herself up the railing. She didn’t have a plan formed yet, but that rarely stopped her before—some of her best plans had been made on the fly.

But when she reached the upper deck, Rilk was nowhere in sight. However, the woman he'd saved from falling earlier was. She leaned against the railing, gazing up at the nebula sharks with a dreamy expression on her face.

"Have you seen First Mate Delaney?" Emerson gasped out. But even as she spoke, she appraised the woman before her. Something about her demeanor made Emerson's skin tighten in warning.

"Lovely creatures, aren't they?" the woman sighed. "I've always wanted to see one, ever since I was small. I used to pester my parents all the time to take me on a charter outing like this one." Her words reminded Emerson of what Maisee had said earlier. When I was a cub...I used to put on these shows for my parents... But that wasn't all Maisee had said, was it? Hadn't she also said something about--?

"But we never got to go," the woman continued, breaking Emerson's train of thought. "It wasn't until I was an adult that I learned how amazing they actually are. And how valuable. All that energy!" The woman turned to Emerson with wide eyes. "Did you know that one small nebula shark can generate enough energy to power a small moon? Can you imagine what something that size could power?" Her expression turned wistful as she gazed back up.

But Emerson caught a greedy note in her voice, as well. And it finally clicked together.

"I'm sure quite a few things," Emerson said in a casual voice. She moved a step closer toward the woman. "I'm also sure that someone wouldn't hire a few poachers to ride our wake this far out for something as mundane as powering the neighborhood grids on a few planets."

A few more steps closer. The woman remained gazing upward at the sharks prowling the space above the ship. Emerson's peripheral vision was filled with swirls of silver and red and green. It was hard not letting them distract her.

"Poachers aren't cheap, after all. Someone must have thought their fee to be a good investment. Especially if she was getting a better price herself."

The woman glanced over her shoulder and gave Emerson a wicked grin. "Oh 'better' doesn't even come close to what I'm going to get for them." She turned with a rolling twist of her hip and strolled towards Emerson.

"Who's the buyer?" Emerson asked. She forced her tight shoulders to slump as she cocked a hip to the side and rested a hand on it. Her BioProsth hung at her side.

But the woman just smiled and shook her head. "Someone who doesn't like certain members of our Federation. And who likes things that go boom." She shrugged. "I don't ask for names. Just the account number where I'll find my credits."

Emerson laughed and ran her tongue along her top lip. "I can appreciate that. I have the same business model. But you gotta be careful. Sometimes folk don't follow through like they say."

"Oh, you're not sore about that, are you?" The woman frowned, then rummage in her back pocket for something. Her hand emerged holding a small envelop, which she tossed at Emerson.

With her eyes on the woman, Emerson snatched it from the air and ripped the side edge off. She turned the envelope sideways, dumping the contents into the palm of her hand attachment. Only then did she glance down to examine it.

A thin strip of paper with thirteen digits on it.

She held it up at the woman and raised her eyebrows in silent question. The woman grinned in response. "It's the account number, silly! You can relax now. You're still getting paid. Three deca, just like we agreed."

"So you're N.P. I don't remember an N.P. on the passenger listing."

The woman made a tsk, tsk noise. "I wouldn't be very good at my job if I used my real name during my transactions, now would I?"

"You also wouldn't be very good at your job if you get us busted by the feds. And that's exactly what's going to happen with those idiots up there buzzing the sharks. Do you have any idea how small our window is? It was barely enough for us to get a sighting in, but we were going to make it. But catching one? Dragging it back to wherever it's headed? That kinda time's going to get you caught. And when the feds, who aren't stupid, do a scan to find the larger ship that allowed the poachers to piggyback this far out in the first place, guess who they're going to find? Me."

"You don't have to stay," the woman said in a petulant tone. "I've seen what I came to see. You can get your little crew to turn this dinghy around—" she made a twiddling motion with her fingers "--and scoot us back to safety. Those guys are professionals--they'll get my cargo without getting pinched."

Emerson dropped the envelope and took several long strides forward. She stopped close enough that her nose brushed the other woman's. So close the woman's wide, startled eyes filled her view. "I don't think you get it." Emerson's voice was a cold whisper. "The kind of energy it'll take to catch something that large? That'll set off sensors. Which'll bring feds. Which'll catch my boat. And I ain't interested in that. Understand?"

Anger began to fill the woman's eyes. Her lips slid into a sneer, then her mouth opened to respond.

The metal hinge of her BioProsth caught the woman in the jaw before she got a word out. She crumpled to the ground like a marionette whose strings were cut and didn't get up.

Emerson glared at her smugly. "And I don't like to be kept waiting. It's rude."

She left the woman where she lay and raced back to the control room. Maisee's ears were pinned to her head in agitation as she monitored the small poacher ship on her screen.

As soon as Emerson burst into the room, Maisee began babbling. "Captain, I'm tracking the ship but I'm not sure what they intend to do seeing as how they're only one small ship and they're buzzing around an entire school of nebula sharks. But before you ask, I know how they got out here because I figured out that they must have ridden in our wake to stay warm enough not to freeze to death before they got here because, as you know, the Z42s don't have the hull capacity to withstand the temperatures out in deep space. At least, not unless they're using another ship's burn to warm them, which is tricky but not impossible--"

"Maisee, I need you to focus. And listen." Though Emerson's words were spoken in a low, calm voice, Maisee shut up as if she'd been slapped.

"That's not going to work," came a gravelly voice behind her. Emerson turned with a glare and saw Rilk leaning against the cabin wall with an ice pack held to his temple.

"I haven't even gotten it out yet," Emerson snapped.

With his free hand, Rilk tapped his forehead. "We can't shoot them out of the sky. We don't have the ammunition. That got spent back on Cleopatra with the Feinstein brothers, remember?"

Emerson was forced to nod in agreement. What was supposed to have been a casual salvage swap had turned into a firefight when the Feinsteins decided they didn't actually want to give up the parts they'd been intending to swap. It had gotten ugly.

"So what's your bright idea?" she retorted in irritation.

Rilk grinned. "We leave 'em here."

"And the feds?" Maisee asked. If Emerson had said it, it would have sounded snarky, but on Maisee it just sounded interested.

Rilk turned a gleaming eye to Emerson. "Don't you have that buddy in AMCA...?"

Frowning, Emerson glared at him. "Of course I do. That's how we found out about this location in the first place."

But Rilk shook his head. "Not that one. The other one. The one that owes you the favor...?" He nodded his head for emphasis in a way that suggested Emerson was missing something obvious. His eyes darted to Maisee, then back to Emerson.

Emerson looked at Maisee with a blank face. Then suddenly she understood. "Oh! That one! The, uh, the favor!"

Her cheeks flushed slightly as she turned to Maisee. "I want you to get Ward on the line, fast."

Instead of moving, however, Maisee just blinked at them. She looked at Emerson, then at Rilk. "What does my brother have to do with any of this?"

"Just get him on the line for me, will you?"

Her furry face in a dumb expression of puzzlement, Maisee turned and, moments later, a broad fuzzy face filled the screen. "Maiz! What's up? Why're you calling on the private channel? Everything ok?"

Before Maisee could answer, Emerson pushed her way into view. "Ward, I need you to bring up the federal scanners for the quadrant around Arcturus VII."

"Why? What's going on?"

"Just do it!" Rilk and Emerson shouted together. The bear jumped and began clacking on the keyboard in front of him.

After a moment, his brows furrowed together. "Why am I getting your ship's ident coming up in that area? You aren't getting my sister in any trouble, are you?"

"No, you're getting her out of it," Emerson said. "Once you erase that record."

"What?" Ward hissed. He glanced over his shoulder at something they couldn't see, then he leaned forward toward the screen. "I can't just delete a federal record!" he whispered. "That's a major offense punishable by--"

"If you don't wipe that record, your sister's going to find out exactly how long the punishment is. We're on our way out now, but we don't need anyone to know we've been here at all, got it?" A hard knot tightened Emerson's stomach. What if he didn't delete the record? What if they were found out after all? What if--?

"It's done." Ward sighed at the screen, then glanced over his shoulder again. "But you have thirty seconds to vacate that quadrant or the next scan will snag you again, got it?"

Emerson grinned at him and snapped off a salute. "Maisee, you heard your brother. Let's get the hell out of here!"

As Maisee punched in the coordinates and readied the ship's hyperdrive, she cast Emerson a worried glance. "But Captain, what about the poachers. We can't let them get those sharks. Can we?" He voice was hesitant and anxious.

But Rilk answered for her. "They won't be able to do much harm. They might get a small one, but they won't be able to tow it back anywhere. They'll freeze to death first. If the feds don't get them first."

"Oh." Maisee eased the ship into position and fired the hyperdrive. On one of the side screens, Emerson saw the passengers all fall to the deck and slide across it to slam against the wall. They ended up in a tangled pile of limbs and bodies, but thankfully none of them fell overboard.

As the ship soared through space, leaving the illegal quadrant far behind them, Emerson let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. That was a close one.

"Captain? Why did my brother owe you a favor?"

Emerson smiled and patted her on the shoulder. "Because I hired you."

She snagged Rilk's arm and pulled him behind her as Maisee gasped in outrage. They were out the door and down the stairs before the bear was able to form a response.

As they headed toward the top deck to untangle and console the passengers, Emerson gave Rilk a sidelong glance. "How'd you end up with that knot on your head?"

Rilk made a disgusted face. "That woman. Nola."


"Nola Penelope." Emerson remembered the message logs signing off as "N.P." and nodded. That made sense.

"One second I was putting my best moves on her, reading that she was totally into me, then the next thing I know, I'm on the floor of the storage compartment and there's a crowbar on the ground next to me. I didn't even see it coming. So I came up to the control room to see where she was. That's when I saw that you'd already found her first. By the way, nice elbow." His voice was warm with admiration. "You hit her right on the button."

Emerson gave him a small smile, but her eyes glinted with something darker. "I don't appreciate rude people. And I don't like to be kept waiting."

Rilk laughed and adjusted the ice pack on his head. Emerson let herself relax enough to laugh a little. Besides, the trip wasn't a total waste, she realized. There was still an entire storage compartment of goods to pilfer. And she remembered every digit on the slip of paper in that envelope. What a shame it would be for Nola to wake up to find her account had been cleaned out. And with the credits being untraceable, there would be no paper trail for the police to find.

Emerson smiled to herself. And if N.P. was stupid enough to come looking for those credits? Well, she'd find out that sometimes marks didn't take well to being marked. Sometimes they actually turned out to be sharks in disguise.

Total Writing Time: 6 hr., 45 min.

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