by David A. McIntee
'Someday, I'm going to hire a First Mate to do this sort of thing.' Lisa Nguyen paused to shift her gunbelt so that the blaster didn't scrape along the dud grating, and started crawling again. The inspection lights flickered briefly as her shoulders rattled the cable that was pinned to the ceiling, and she froze. A faint rhythmic pounding of limbs on metal echoed along the duct, closing slowly but inexorably. 'Computer, is it just me or is that life-form on the move?'
'Life-signs are now in motion,' the computer's voice came back over the intercom. 'Anomalous life-form is currently traversing inspection-way theta seven.'
'Must be heading for the filtration plant again, which means it has to come through here.' She wondered why she felt glad of that - getting trapped in the duds with some hungry bug-eyed monster wasn't one of her reasons for going into the Spacer business. Wincing as she banged her elbow against the side of the dud, Nguyen tugged the blaster free, and rested it on the floor in front of her. If the creature turned out to be hostile...
She slipped off the safety as the metal tunnel she was crammed into started to vibrate. Breathing became distinctly audible ahead. Perhaps, she thought, it'd be better to shoot first - out here you didn't get second chances... Up ahead, something pale appeared under one of the inspection lights, its mouth a dark 'O'. It suddenly froze as it saw Nguyen. She hoped it couldn't tell how slippery the blaster's butt felt under her palm. She propped herself up on her elbows to get a better shot, her finger tightening on the trigger as the lifeform's front limbs came up.
'Don't shoot!' it yelled, the voice deafening in the confined dud. Nguyen's thumb reflexively put the safety back on an instant before her finger equally reflexively hit the trigger. She felt the blood drain from her face as the girl came closer.
'Shades, kid, I nearly fried you,' Nguyen complained bitterly, a shocked guilt overtaking her. She re-holstered the blaster and started pushing herself backwards, beckoning to the girl who crouched stock-still ahead of her. 'Come on. This isn't a Corporation ship, I'm not going to toss you out of an airlock.' Though I might be tempted to after that shock, she added mentally.
After a few minutes' severe sweating, Nguyen clambered back out into the ship's hold and straightened up with some uncomfortable popping sounds before bending to help the girl out of the inspection duct. The girl had dark hair cut boyishly short, and didn't look much older that fifteen or sixteen. Though stained and wom, her clothes were clearly a Spacefleet cadet uniform. 'Most runaways from the Academy back there just slip me a few grotzits to look the other way when they come on board. I've never nearly shot one of them on a bug-hunt,' she added pointedly.
'You mean there really is no such thing as a free launch?'
'I think I will toss you out the airlock,' Nguyen grumbled with a wince. She shook her head, recalling how desperate she herself had been to get her first flight. She wished she'd thought of stowing away - it would have been less painful in the long run. She envied this one's guts, if she was going to be honest with herself. 'All right,' she said slowly, hoping she sounded suitably put-upon and reluctant, 'We're far enough out from Beta Caprisis that taking you back there would cut into my profits, so I guess you can stay aboard as far as Salostophus. There are always odd jobs to be done, especially on a military surplus ship like this, and if you behave yourself I might even pay you a wage.'
The girl nodded. 'Sounds fair, Captain..?'
'And I thought you'd picked my ship specially for the sparkling company, or is it just that you like second-hand Tramp Freighters? Lisa Nguyen, but if we're going to be cooped up in here for the next three weeks, you'd best just call me Nguyen. There's a cabin where you can bunk just along past the main lock; I always sleep on the flight deck anyway.'
'Just in case?'
'Exactly. Now, are you going to tell me your name, or will I just shout,"hey you"?'
'Summerfield. Bernice Summerfield.'
'That's hellishly long-winded. Welcome aboard the Faithful Pet, Benny,' Nguyen said on the spur of the moment, holding out her hand. Benny shook it.
Guy de Carnac wondered briefly if the star that flashed across the sky was a soul traversing the heavens, or merely a star that had fallen from there. He hoped it was the former, as then it might even be that of the girl whose eyes stared up from the muddy riverbank.
The stars blurred and streaked as the wings of the Faithful Pet shifted out of atmospheric flight position as she (eapt into hyperspace. On the flight deck's navigation computer screen, Lisa Nguyen could see a dirty brown globe displayed. 'Who would want to tramp around on a mudball like that?' she muttered to herself, leaning back in the seat and letting the autosystems take over now that the jump to warp was complete.
Source: Doctor Who Magazine #225