Today's Reading

The barrier was blue, which should mean safe, but I'd known some people who thought it was funny to reprogram the system. I carefully reached out a finger and pressed it against the field. I didn't get shocked, so I wouldn't have to worry about avoiding it. Today was finally looking up.

"What are you doing?" Loch asked.


He raised a skeptical eyebrow but didn't say anything else.

In addition to the bed, the only other features of the room were a tiny sink and, on the other side of the barrier, a toilet. The cell wasn't designed to be permanently divided the way the mercs were using it. The barrier was meant to hold the prisoner away from the door while the cell was cleaned or maintained.

"Do you know how many crew are on board?" I asked.

"At least eight, maybe nine."

A merchant ship of this size could be efficiently managed by as few as six, but the standard crew size was between eight and ten. If it was loaded out for maximum crew space, they could have up to fourteen.

The lights flickered and the floor vibrated with the subtle hum of running engines. The captain wasn't wasting any time getting under way. I moved around the room, touching the cool steel walls seemingly at random. I knew we were being watched, and I didn't want to make our audience nervous just yet.

"First time in a cell?"

"It's rather small," I said.

Loch barked out a laugh. "You get used to it. Let me guess, you're a surfacer."

Surfacers were people who grew up primarily on planets. Every day they woke up to big blue—or green or pink—skies, lots of solid ground under their feet, and plenty of room to roam.

Spacers, the people who grew up in the ships and stations floating around and between those same planets, seemed to think that surfacers had it easier. Even I knew that wasn't always the case.

"What gave me away?" I asked. I'd lived entirely on ships and stations for the last two years. I'd gotten used to the smaller spaces, but I still longed for the wide-open blue sky of my home.

His answer was interrupted by a male voice through the intercom speaker. "Stand away from the door."

I had not expected anyone so soon and this cell didn't give me much room to fight. Chains rattled behind me. I glanced back as Loch stood to his full height. At a meter eighty in boots, I was a tall woman. Loch still had me beat by at least ten centimeters. Damn. Why were the attractive ones always criminals?

The door swung inward to reveal a young man with a shaggy mop of blond hair that looked like it had never seen a brush. He held an armful of frilly fuchsia fabric and a stunstick. "Give me any trouble and I've got permission to zap you," he warned.

"Give me any trouble, and you'll get a boot to the teeth," I replied. "No permission required."

He almost smiled. What do you know, a merc with a sense of humor—it was like I'd found a unicorn. I'd have to blame it on his age because he looked all of sixteen.

"You're having dinner with the captain," he said. "Here's your dress." He dropped the frilly monstrosity on the bed.

"No," I said. I didn't balk because of the frills, which were horrible, or the color, which was equally horrible. I refused because it was a dress. I had no problem with dresses in general, but on a ship full of hostile men, it was smarter for everyone if I didn't go out of my way to advertise the fact that I was female.

"Umm, no to which part?" he asked hesitantly.

"I'll dine with the captain, but I'm wearing my own clothes." I had on a sturdy pair of black cargo pants, heavy black boots, and a long-sleeved black shirt. I wasn't trying to win Monochromatic Monthly's best dressed award, but black was easy to find, easy to match, and generally didn't show dirt or grease stains as fast as other colors. Win, win, win.

"Uhh . . ."

I tilted my head ever so slightly and let my expression frost over. "I will dine with the captain, but I 'will' be wearing my own clothes."

He ducked his head. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "Right this way."

A deep chuckle followed us out.

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