"I hear you're hiring."
Damienne Nevarre turned to look at the speaker, a small, wiry girl of about sixteen. "Temporarily. Do you mind handling -- unusual -- cargoes?"
The girl looked interested. "Legit or otherwise?"
"Does it matter?"
"No not really," she smiled impishly, "I was curious."
The silver-haired woman returned the smile, though guardedly. "Then I'm afraid I'll just leave you curious for now. What's your name?"
"Bran Cadwgwn," then, before her prospective employer had a chance to raise the question, she hurried on with, "I've done this thing before -- well, sort of, anyway."
Damienne's smile was amused. "I'd be very surprised if you'd had a job exactly like this one. You don't have a problem with animals, do you?"
"Only if their teeth are attached to me."
This time the ship's captain laughed out loud. "I don't really think that'll be a problem. Why don't you come and meet the rest of my crew?" Damienne neglected to cite that this was one last test -- one all too many people failed. She wanted Bran's honest reaction to Rafe.
Bran examined Damienne's ship, the Serendipity, with an experienced eye. Though it was not as pretty as many of the other craft around it, the matte black hull contrasting sharply with the shining silvery finish of the private yacht in the next berth, Bran could appreciate the sleek lines and slender, pointed shape of a craft that she guessed to be equally swift and maneuverable in space or atmosphere.
The man who emerged from the starcraft's hatch would have shocked and frightened most people. Standing well over six feet tall, with a powerful, muscular build, he looked as if he could have broken an ordinary man in half without even breaking a sweat.
Bran was not most people. She stepped up to the big man and held out her hand with a bright smile. "Hi! I'm Bran."
He turned to face her, and Bran stifled a gasp of shock. While one side of his face had the swarthy beauty of a fallen angel, the left half was marred by a thick, puckered scar running from temple to chin.
The gorgeous and the grotesque warred in his face as he smiled in pleased surprise and gently engulfed her slender hand in his. "Call me Rafe. And don't worry about staring. I'm used to it." He winked. "Pretty, aren't I?"
Bran's grin returned. "Better looking than some I've crewed with.."
Rafe chuckled deep in his massive chest. "Not many people can be so honest and so nice about it. Where did you find this girl, Damie?"
Damienne's smile was relieved. "Actually, she found me. Bran will be helping us with cargo handling on this next run."
Bran turned to Damienne, her smile growing wider. "So . . . what are we hauling?"
Rafael Domingo watched the two young women head toward to where Damie had stored the crates. That girl Bran was like a doll. Not in the sense of golden ringlets and dimples -- her hair was as black as his own -- but in the sense that she seemed so tiny and fragile that she might as well be made of porcelain. Granted, most people seemed tiny to Rafe, but she had been so unafraid . . . as if he were like any normal man . . . .
Bran went into raptures when she saw the cargo. "Oooooh! Kitties!" she breathed, carefully keeping her voice low, at the sight of the highly illegal animals.
Damienne shot the younger girl a quick confused look. Up till now, Bran had carried herself with a maturity and poise far beyond her years. It seemed that the Terran felines had brought out an entirely new side to the girl who already had a 'kitty' purring in her arms.
She raised wide, starry eyes to Damienne's face. "This one looks like a Jacen," Bran stated decidedly.
Damienne closed and counted silently to fifteen before answering, "We're supposed to be transporting them, not naming them."
Bran merely shrugged and went back to cooing over the cats.
After the cats (officially listed as Rigelian Monkey-Bats bound for a zoo on Cadmus Colony 3) had been loaded on board and Rafe had vanished into the engine room where he reigned supreme over everything from the great humming singularity drive to the most delicate computer circuitry, Damienne sat waiting for liftoff instructions from the tower and watching Bran playing with the cats that had become her special charges.
"So, is some planet having a plague of mice?" the teenager asked facetiously as one small white fluffball of a kitten launched itself onto Damienne's lap, and settled in for an extended nap.
Damienne smiled and began absently stroking the kitten's downy fur. "I didn't really ask. According to the Animal Control Laws, cats aren't even supposed to leave Terra, but you'd be surprised how much some people will pay just to have a pet that none of their neighbors has."
Before Bran could respond to that, a loud, belligerent male voice yelled, "Cadwgwn! I know you're in there! Come out of there, Cadwgwn!" Bran stiffened, swore, and passed her 'Jacen' to Damie. " 'Scuse me," she growled, getting to her feet, "I gotta go take out the trash."
The girl swung out of the Serendipity, and came face-to-chest with a tall, blond-haired man. He wasn't as tall as Rafe, nor as big, but still he towered over the diminutive young woman. "Dammit, Nelson, can't you take a gentle hint!?" she demanded angrily.
Nelson leered at her, eyes wandering over her slight form shamelessly. Bran's sapphire eyes narrowed in rage. "For the last time, pervert, I'm. Not. Interested. Get lost!" Instead, the man caught her wrist in a vice-like grip and yanked her to him, placing his free hand on her posterior.
Nelson smiled. "Relax, little one, I --" he got no further. Bran pulled away, then turned and threw the man over her shoulder. Angry now, he leapt to his feet, but the girl had jumped as well, and now she caught his jaw with a magnificent right hook. She then used her momentum to propel herself into a back flip while still off the ground, kicking his chin with her left foot. After landing, she snapped a side kick into his gut before Nelson could recover.
She held the pose as he stumbled back, winded, then slowly righted herself. Nelson dove for her with a roar, but the teen ducked under his tackle, and, as his body flew past her, pulled a hand tarrel out of her waistband and shot him in the side.
The man reached for his own weapon --
"Give me an excuse, Nelson. Just give me one!" Bran's voice was ice-cold and hard. Nelson thought better of his action and rose unsteadily to his feet, cursing. "Pull another stunt like that, Mark Nelson, and I swear by the Blue I will kill you!"
Damienne hid her surprise at Bran's unexpected fighting abilities and only said mildly as the girl holstered her gun and turned to reenter the Serendipity, "Try to avoid firing so close to the ship. I'd rather not attract too much attention."
Bran's eyes were as cold as her voice was, "Sorry, but I prefer keeping my virtue the way it is -- intact," then she stepped back through the light freighter's hatch muttering something about "Twice my age. Twice!"
She was distracted from her ranting by a staticky voice over the comm informing them they were cleared for liftoff. The Serendipity rose swiftly and smoothly, proving some of Bran's earlier guesses about its performance levels.
When Rafe climbed the ladder to the small bridge of the ship, he was startled by the anger still obvious on Bran's face and the look of fastidious disgust on Damie's. He glanced from one to the other and raised one velvety black eyebrow. "What have I missed?"
Bran scowled. "Nothing much; Just me beating off a thirty-year-old pervert."
"Some graceless Cretin came for Bran," Damie elaborated as Bran went into more muttering about "too thick to understand the word 'no' . . . " , "She handled herself amazingly well in getting rid of him. I was impressed."
Rafe's face darkened, making him look even more menacing than usual. "What happened?"
Bran waved a hand impatiently. "He wanted something I wouldn't deliver. Although," and here her face brightened visibly, "I did promise to kill him if he tried it again."
Damie watched Rafe anxiously. He didn't lose his temper often, but about what had happened seemed to have touched off a kind of protective rage in him.
Trying to lighten the general mood, Damie added cheerfully, "But we're already behind schedule, so I'm not turning around to let you kill him now."
Bran snickered and returned to her cats. The tiny tomcat she had christened Jacen seemed to have claimed the adolescent's shoulder as his own personal territory.
The planet Midas was like one giant resort town; even the automated voice of the tower controller had a cheerful, upbeat tone as it guided Damienne into her berth in the spaceport carved out of the famous gold-like stone that had given the planet its name.
The cats -- all but Jacen, who had gone into hiding just before they had landed -- had been lured back into their crates and registered as genetically engineered miniature bears for a novelty pet shop.
Damie had gone off to haggle about payment and Bran was eager to explore this beautiful, light-hearted, and frankly decadent world. But when she opened the hatch and looked out, she couldn't help staring at the people crowding the spaceport.
"Damn! The people here are small!"
Rafe gave her an odd look, as she was at least three inches shorter than almost all the normal humans bustling around the ships. "What do you mean?"
Bran grinned at him. " I grew up on a smuggling ship, the Pride of Thor. The crew -- three Brawns and a Bio-birth -- raised me, and I always thought I was the strange one. I'm still not used to non-Bios, I guess."
Rafe nodded. He had heard of the Pride. Supposedly the captain, Conlan Douglas, only allowed Biosynthetics on board.
People like Rafe, not born but made through the now-illegal process of Biosynthesis. Custom-made human beings who were now hated and feared by most of the rest of the human race because of their sheer differentness.
Rafe looked again at the crowds outside the ship. Throngs of normal people who would be anything but welcoming to someone like Rafe who, by his very existence, upset their happy, peaceful little world.
Mentally cursing himself for a coward, he turned to Bran. "Will you be all right on your own? I have some things I need to take care of here." The girl smiled at him. "That's fine. I just wanted to explore."
Rafe walked down a nearly deserted street in one of the less well known parts of the city. This was where the working people lived on Midas. Those who didn't go to the exclusive clubs and resorts to be waited on hand and foot, but to serve others who had the money to throw away in trying to buy happiness.
His attention was caught by a poster on one of the rough, unfinished walls of the apartment building next to him.
"Our makers, not our gods," it proclaimed in bold lettering, and, "Let the superior inherit the worlds the humans have enslaved!"
With a snort of disgust, he pulled the poster from the wall and tore it contemptuously in half. "Y'know, Patrick used to do the same thing." Rafe whirled, startled, and was caught off-guard by the quiet understanding in Bran's indigo eyes. "Don't they realize what they're doing?" he growled, waving half the poster vaguely. "The more people see this kind of thing, the harder it is for any of us to get any kind of acceptance."
There was a flash of sadness in the deep blue eyes. "I guess some people are just too small-minded to ever accept differences," she said quietly.
Somehow Rafe found himself hating the sorrow on Bran's face. He quickly changed the subject with something that had been nagging at him ever since she had mentioned the Pride of Thor. "I thought Captain Douglas only allowed Bios on his ship."
He was rewarded with a small smile and a shrug. "I guess I was a special case. Con took me in when I was five or so. He's the only father I've ever known." She grinned mischievously. "He's the one who taught me to fight."
"So, why are you back here?" "I was following you," she admitted shamelessly. Rafe laughed at that.
When Bran and Rafe got back to the ship, Damienne was standing outside it, glowering ferociously at two large wooden boxes.
"I hate 'sure things'," she informed them. "I despise 'rock-solid investments'. But what I really can't stand," here she shot the boxes such a glare that Bran was surprised they didn't shrivel up and burst into flame, "is 'excellent trades'."
"He didn't have cash in hand," Rafe translated.
"He doesn't have cash, he doesn't have any sort of credit with anyone, he's living entirely on borrowed money . . . ," she turned abruptly to Bran. "Don't bother looking for that fifth cat. He's not getting it."
Rafe looked at the two boxes. "What's he trying to trade?" In answer, Damienne flipped open one of them with the toe of her boot. A sleek ship's tarrel gleamed darkly in its bed of custom-fitted styrofoam insulation.
Rafe let out a low whistle. "You know, those could be useful."
Damienne shook her head. "Do you know how to work a ZXH-550 series? Sure they'd be useful . . . if we could use them."
"Doesn't look too different from the newer Nova models." Rafe and Damienne both turned to look at Bran, who had knelt beside the open box and was staring at the gun with an oddly loving expression in her eyes.
Bran's fingers moved, as if of their own accord, to caress the shining barrel of the weapon. "It shouldn't be that hard to figure out." A wicked grin spread over the girl's face. "I would love to get behind one of these and have Nelson in my sights."
Damienne looked thoughtfully at her. "You think you could use those?" Bran's grin, as she turned to look at the captain, seemed ready to split her face. "Definitely!" Rafe and Damienne exchanged grins before Damienne said, "Then we may be able to salvage something from this after all. Would you be interested in a more permanent position on the Serendipity?"
Bran looked as if she wanted to hug something, but then her face fell. "Does this mean you're letting this guy have Jacen?" Damienne considered the question with mock seriousness. "Weeeell, he didn't have cash. And it seems to me that a new gunner should be able to set some conditions on her job . . . ."
Bran replied with a fervent, "Thank you!" and, to Damie's astonishment and Rafe's amusement, gave her new captain a big hug.
Branwen Douglas swore when her comunit went off. She dove the device and answered angrily. "What the hell are you doing!? You want me to get caught?" Justin Siffer smirked. "I was fairly sure you had the intelligence to have this somewhere discreet." "Look, you ysgwd, someone could have been in here! How, exactly, am I to explain a comunit with you on the other end?"
"Stop posturing and report, Douglas," he interrupted, looking amused. Despite being only twenty-two and dark-skinned, his hair was pure white. Bran wasn't sure if his hair was naturally that color, dyed, or a wig. "I was hired temporarily aboard the ship Serendipity as per your orders. They need help with a live cargo."
"And the cargo?"
"On station, they were Rigelian Monkey-Bats, and on Midas they were genetically engineered miniature bears."
"And in between?"
Siffer laughed. "And the temporary has been rectified?"
"I'm the gunner."
"Good girl. Any of your crewmates . . . unusual?"
"No," she replied flatly before Siffer terminated the connection. Bran shoved the comunit away. "Burn in hell, Siffer," she growled.