Jazz Healy is estranged – purposefully – from her mother, who runs a galaxy-spanning criminal organization. Twelve years ago she lost her father when pirates attacked a freighter delivering supplies to a frontier planet. Since then she’s decided it’s better, safer, to keep to herself. Even if means being alone. And often lonely.
Right now, she’s delivering pets, of all things, to a lawless space-station. Apparently even the most hardened criminals like animal companionship. One critter especially is making the cargo run worthwhile: a gene-splice kitten. Jazz will earn a cool hundred thousand Commonwealth dollars if she safely delivers the little fluff ball to its new owner.
But cargo that valuable brings out all sorts, from wannabe animal activists to tech cultists with enhancement fetishes. And maybe even Jazz’s mother. Though the cat is only one bullet point on her agenda.
Targeted Age Group:: 13+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I actually got the inspiration for this book, and series, from a single word short story prompt. The word was 'cracked' and from that I wrote a story about a certain Jazz Healy and her efforts to steal a valuable artifact from a planet. I enjoyed writing the story, and liked the character, and got to thinking more about her and her background, and suddenly found myself with a 4-book series on my hands!
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Characters are funny things. They're generally parts of people I know or have observed, and often many different people mixed together. Sometimes characters create themselves as I write a story, and other times I write a story around characters. For this particular book, I'd already come up with Jazz's character for a short story but needed a supporting cast so tried to think of character traits that would both complement and challenge her. In turn, I found her character personality shifting, too, as I gave her backstory and family.
Jazz Healy slapped the cockpit dash of her Z-Class long-hauler but the extra life-sign on the internal scan refused to go away. She scowled. “That’s the last time I let Rankovic talk me into a job.”
The tiny splice-kitten in the cot at her feet mewled.
“Don’t stress, little one.” Jazz rose, mentally cursing that she hadn’t made time to replace the broken mote cameras in the cargo hold. “I’ll feed you when I get back.”
The surplus life-sign radiated too much heat to be one of the other baby animals, escaped from its pen. That meant a person lurked below and Jazz wasn’t getting paid to transport people to Garbadon Minor.
After closing and locking the cockpit door she hesitated. Was it really safe to leave the kitten alone inside? Rankovic’s instructions had been to keep the red-and-black striped fluff-ball away from the other animals but that was out of regard for its safety – value, in all honesty – not theirs. The splice-kitten’s buyer was forking out a very large sum of money for successful delivery. So much, in fact, that Rankovic was willing to pay Jazz one hundred thousand Commonwealth dollars for nothing more than a basic intrasolar freight run.
Yes, definitely safer to keep the kitten behind a locked door.
She ran a diagnostic on the nanomachines that fortified her body – optimal; good – before rotating her cybernetic right arm and flexing its metal fingers. Finally, with her left hand, she drew her gun and set off.
Sneaking aboard should have been impossible. She had personally overseen loading, not once leaving the entrance ramp, and she’d closed that ramp as soon as the process finished. The animals had all been carried on by hand, their holding pens erected earlier from scrap pallets already in Jazz’s possession. There had been only one crate of supplies – feed, sedatives, straw, and the like – and she’d opened that in the company of the Customs officers who’d arrived with the delivery people. She’d even counted off everybody as they entered and left.
The internal scan, now hooked into her enhanced optics and displaying in the upper corner of her right retina, showed the life-sign continuing to drift aimlessly about the cargo hold.
She passed through the common room, an area filled with magnetized wooden chairs, a table grooved by a myriad cuts, cupboards, a bench, and other necessities for storing and preparing food. She barely spent any time in here nowadays, preferring to while away flights in the cockpit eating ration cubes and watching B-grade thrillers.
From there she ghosted through passenger alley, noting that each cabin remained locked and showed no signs of tampering. Her ship could berth nine but she had come to despise carrying human customers. They always wanted to socialize and took to complaining if she left them to their own devices. And the ones who didn’t want company usually planned to shoot or stab her while she slept. Nope, much easier to transport animals than people. At least, that’s what she’d thought until a few minutes ago.
Past the cabins the corridor branched, one appendage heading to engineering and the other to the cargo hold. Jazz skirted the engine housing – protected by blast-strength steel twice as thick as her – and stopped on the cargo hold balcony. Floodlights mounted in the ceiling gave scant opportunity for shadows to form on the large open area below but did highlight the many scuff and paint marks that decorated the grey walls and floor. The array of makeshift pens, open-topped and filled with straw, food and moisture-absorbent underlay, took up the center of the hold. Each hosted a young animal destined for a pet store on Garbadon Minor. Only the kitten in the cockpit had been privately bought.
The intruder stood out like a wheel-fruit in a field of crawling grass. A man, thickset, wearing a poor imitation of a Customs Officer’s uniform, the jumpsuit’s blue pants tucked into faded and fraying boots. He leaned over one of the pens, his back to her.
The scan showed no other unexpected life-signs. Jazz brought her gun to bear, braced herself, and said in her roughest voice, “Stop right where you are, put your hands on your head and turn around slowly.”
The man squealed and whirled about, both arms flying upwards. The words ‘Port Authority’ were plastered across the torso of his jumpsuit in thick white script. Brown hair in that awful yet timeless bowl-cut style and a bunch of multi-colored bracelets on his right wrist completed whatever look he was going for. He dropped into a half-crouch, hands pointing at the ceiling, sweat patches under his arms.
“Who the hell are you?” Jazz said.
“Um,” the man stammered, then sucked in a deep breath and stood upright. “My name is Darren Tollett, Port Authority, Exotic Animals Division, and I demand you turn your ship around this instant.”
Jazz let out a gravelly chuckle. “Never heard of it.”
“It’s a very important division, I can assure you. You are carrying prohibited fauna, therefore you must immediately regress to Halinder Intergalactic on Garbadon Major. Upon arriving you will be charged with unlawful export as well as aiding and abetting illegal genetic exploitation. Depending on the state of the animal in question, you may be charged with animal cruelty as well.”
“I see. Well, I’m not turning around.”
“If you do not I will have no choice once we reach port but to press additional charges for kidnapping.”
Jazz started down the stairs, her gun never wavering from the intruder below. “How did you get onboard my ship?”
Tollett, or whoever he was, lowered his hands to rest on his head. “I came aboard with the other Customs’ officials, of course.”
“No, you didn’t.”
He bobbed his head emphatically. “Yes, I did.”
Jazz reached the cargo hold floor but moved no further forward. Best to stay well out of arms’ reach. Wisdom borne of experience. “Then you should have left with them.”
“I would have but I was busy looking for an animal listed on the manifest but not present here.”
Jazz cocked an eyebrow. “Oh really?”
“Yes.” Tollett dropped his hands to his sides before vigorously rubbing them on his pants. “There is a kitten listed on the manifest that is not in any of these pens. I want to know where it is.”
“There must be a mistake on the manifest then.” Garbadon Major didn’t do manifests for living organisms. They did scans and bio-prints. Time to reverse the heat. “And, speaking of charges, I’m sure as hell gonna do you for trespassing. I don’t know who you are, but I know you didn’t come aboard with the official Customs’ crew. They arrived in a group of three and they left in a group of three, happy as pigs riding choppers.”
Tollett furrowed his brow. “Cool, I guess. Weird but cool. Cooler if they’re wearing leather helmets and have nose rings.”
Before Jazz could figure out a response to the sudden change in persona, her peripherals – silver teardrops at the outer corner of each eye – picked up a blur of movement and something pressed into her side. The following pulsating jolts told her she’d been bushwhacked by a high-grade incapacitator. Typical Commonwealth police issue. She snarled and turned towards the new threat, fighting to keep her gun arm raised. Her assailant swore and jammed the incapacitator into her again.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” she ground out, coming face-to-face with a skinny teenage girl wearing a deactivated stealth suit. The kid’s eyes widened, the freckles on her face wobbling in surprise. No, the freckles weren’t wobbling. Jazz’s vision was. If she didn’t act fast her nanos would overload and the kid wouldn’t need to do any better than she was already.
Footsteps sounded behind her and then another incapacitator – where had this Tollett guy stashed that? – entered the fray.
“Dammit!” Jazz managed before her nanos rebooted and excruciating, pulsating pain racked her entire body.
The last thing she heard before losing consciousness was the girl’s squeaky yet triumphant voice: “Score one for the animals, you jacked-up scum-su—”
* * *
Jazz woke to a stinging sensation on her cheek. It passed but she remained still, fitting the jagged pieces of recent memory together.
The stinging returned, accompanied by a breathy voice saying, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, wake up,” and Jazz realized she was being slapped.
Instinct, mixed with enhancement, kicked in. Eyes snapped open, cybernetic arm flashed out, hand grabbed wrist, squeezed. The target of her attack wailed and Jazz squinted, adjusting her focus. Tollett, face not nearly as close to hers as it had been a moment ago, his mouth open wide, his tongue flicking rapidly from one side of his mouth to the other. An ineffective pain-coping mechanism, if ever there was one.
Her foggy brain and machine arm weren’t communicating optimally; her grip wasn’t enough to break his wrist. There would be a nasty bruise, though. Jazz relaxed her hand. Tollett snatched his arm away and retreated from view.
The immediate threat dealt with, Jazz allowed her vision to widen out to the rest of her environment. She lay on the cargo hold floor, the ceiling lights needles of pain to her eyes. A siren blared. Tollett leaned against one of the animal pens, cradling his bruised wrist. His young accomplice stood, feet unnecessarily far apart, pointing Jazz’s own gun back at her. The stealth suit hung off the girl like a coat, her ginger hair – a sharp contrast to the dull gray of the suit – dreadlocked and escaped from her collar. She had the cutest button nose.
The girl said something. Jazz blinked and started background diagnostics on her nanos. Everything appeared normal but it never hurt to check.
“I said,” the girl shouted, “move and I shoot you dead.”
Jazz doubted that very much but she’d already made one false calculation today and didn’t feel like making another. Time for some parley. Tollett had obviously been trying to rouse her for a reason.
That reason became clear a moment later when a rough voice emanated out of the speakers crudely attached around the wall at balcony height.
“This is your last warning Z-Class. Reduce to idling and prepare to be boarded or we will put missiles through you.”
What the hell? Jazz jackknifed to her feet and shook off the wave of dizziness that followed. The girl didn’t try to shoot, her attention on the speakers, the gun now pointing somewhere over Jazz’s shoulder.
“How long has this been going on?” Jazz said.
The girl reoriented her aim. “Ten minutes, maybe.”
“And how many warnings have they given?”
“Five or something.”
Maybe not such a credible threat, then. Anytime a person gave someone five warnings before opening fire they really didn’t want to open fire.
“They’re Novus Replicates,” Tollett said.
“Yeah,” the girl said, now waving the gun around, “they were all like, ‘We’re Novus Replicates, you better hand over that cat or you’ll be sorry,’ and we’re like ‘No way, tech-huggers, we’re not afraid of you’ and they’re like—”
“Xandra,” Tollett shouted, then grimaced and pressed his arm even tighter to his chest. “We didn’t say that. We haven’t said anything. We can’t access the cockpit, where I’m assuming your comms are.”
Novus Replicates? After the kitten? Jazz put a hand up in the universal gesture for quiet. Replicates weren’t to be messed with and, as determined as this one seemed to be to avoid a firefight, with all the stuff likely coursing through his veins he could change his mind at any moment.
She pointed at Xandra. “You, give me the gun and follow me. When we go through the common room, there are some cupboards. Third on your right is first-aid. Look for some cast-gel, which will stop your buddy’s wrist from swelling up like a balloon. There should be at least half a dozen packs in there. Do you copy?”
Xandra hesitated, then held the gun out. Jazz plucked it from the kid’s grasp and trotted off.
By the time Jazz made it to the cockpit – after halting in the common room to open the first-aid cupboard and hand Xandra some gel packs – the two-minute period between threats was well and truly over. She’d just opened the cockpit door when the hail started again.
The projected face was classic Novus Replicate. Shaved head, nano-tats writhing on cheeks and neck, an eye-obscuring visor, and ears sculpted so as to be pointy at both ends.
“Z-Class Freighter,” he said, his upper teeth gold-capped, “stop forward momentum now and prepare to be boarded. We are Novus Replicates and you will give us what we want.”
Somehow, the kitten had hauled itself onto Jazz’s seat. It stared at the Replicate’s faux-horrific face and mewed. Jazz was sure she heard humor in its tone.
Jazz nodded. “Yep, they’re morons, but right now they do have us at a real disadvantage.” She opened the channel at her end – no visual – and said, “Having some technical issues here. Just got back online. Sorry, what is your request?”
The Replicate wasn’t buying that one. He pointed two fingers in a horizontal scissor at the screen and barked, “Halt this ship right now, pilot, or we turn it into scrap metal.”
After making sure she’d closed the channel, Jazz let out a few choice curse words. Not that she’d expected a different outcome other than to give her a few more seconds to think. That nap she’d taken had put her so far behind the eight-ball she might as well rack her cue.
Scan showed the Replicate was hailing from an Alumoda Fighter, 3rd Generation. Lots of muscle and teeth, but slow to bite and to respond. Still, even with all the mod-work Jazz had put into her Z-Class, the Alumoda held a definite edge. It was fighter versus freighter after all. In a straight sprint the Replicate ship would win at a canter, and it already had its missile launchers loaded and lowered, to boot. Additionally, being the ‘tech-huggers’ that Replicates were, they would’ve deep-scanned her to kingdom come and probably knew everything there was to know about her ship, from what frequency her shields operated at to how many bolts connected her hull plates.
The rear cameras confirmed what she already knew: the Replicate ship sat close enough to kiss her Z-class.
Which meant going to boost was not an option. The boost engine’s built-in failsafes would prevent it from operating until there was sufficient distance between her and the Replicate vessel.
“You don’t got a lot of options here, do you, Jazzie?” she said in a terrible imitation of a partner she’d once had who’d tried a double-cross before they’d even left port. She thumbed comms open once more. “You’re still breaking up on me. You want me to halt, I got that. It’ll take a few minutes to safely decelerate. What do you want, exactly?”
The Replicate leaned back, his shirtless, nano-tat laden torso popping into view. The scar-etching on his right shoulder indicated he bore the rank of Star Knight. Jazz pursed her lips. That was a high-ranking Replicate to accompany the hunt of a nothing freighter in a fringe-Commonwealth system.
“Don’t play dumb,” he said. “You know what we want.”
“No,” Jazz replied, “I don’t. I’m just carrying a cargo of pets. Really nothing interesting at all.”
The Replicate roared and filled the projection with his face. “Stop goading me! Halt this ship immediately and bring the splice-kitten to your aft-most airlock. If you hand it over to us willingly you and your crew will not die.”
In her meekest voice, Jazz replied, “Yes, sir, we will do that right away.” She closed comms and turned to the kitten, who watched her with inquisitive eyes. “Well, everybody wants a piece of you, don’t they, little one? You’re obviously a very special kitty.”
A little voice from the doorway said, “You’re not really going to give her to them, are you?”
Xandra stood there, eyes wide, defiance vanished. Tollett loomed over her shoulder, his wrist sloppily encased in gel. He said, “You can’t give them the kitten. They’ll use it for their ascension rituals.”
“They’re not those kind of cultists,” Jazz said. “And what other options do I have, exactly?”
“Blow them to hell,” Xandra bellowed, her bravado restored.
“I admire your spirit, kid, but if I try that we’ll get there long before they do.”
“Will they cut out our organs?” Tollett said. “I don’t want to be part of someone’s organ necklace!”
Jazz shook her head in disbelief. “You’re obviously not the highly-trained mercenaries I thought you were. Though, in all fairness, I should’ve picked that up from the tween with the cattle prod.”
“I’m thirteen, thank you very much,” Xandra said, her arms now crossed.
“Whatever. Now both of you shut up and let me think.” Before Jazz had a chance to do any actual thinking the comm alert sounded again. She screwed up her face. “This guy is not a happy camper, is he?”
However, instead of an enraged Novus Replicate, the projector displayed a baggy-eyed woman clad in mismatching, bloodstained military fatigues. She said, “Approaching Z-Class and Alumoda. Garbadon Minor is closed to incoming traffic for the foreseeable future. We apologize for any inconvenience and loss of business. This message is relayed on behalf of General Glaton of the Sipand-Under Rebels.”
“Who’s General Glaton?” Tollett said.
Jazz rubbed a hand along her chin. “If I’m guessing I’d say they are the leader of whatever rebel group is currently trying to overthrow the Garbadon Minor corporate overlords. They don’t usually get so far as commandeering ships, though, so good for them.”
The woman repeated her previous message. The broadcasting rebel vessel was already visible through the cockpit window and scan showed another two approaching, though still some way off.
Jazz opened a return channel and said, “Ma’am, I’m carrying live cargo already purchased by pet shops on your planet. I have no ties—”
“There are no exceptions.” The woman cut the transmission.
“That was rude,” Xandra said.
Jazz didn’t reply. She plucked the kitten from her seat, sat, and changed the ship’s vector so it was moving away from Garbadon Minor. Another alarm shrieked. The Novus Replicate ship had locked missiles on her. Jazz smiled. Just what she wanted. Scan said the rebels also had weapons active. Excellent. Jazz raised shields and increased speed.
“What’s happening?” Tollett asked.
Jazz glowered at him. “You ask too many questions.”
Tollett busied himself with examining the gel casing on his wrist. Jazz continued the stare-down for another moment before returning her attention to the screens set into the dash. The missile lock alarm went silent. The Replicates and the rebels were now sizing each other up like two schoolyard bullies whose paths had unexpectedly crossed. Hopefully comparing missile launcher sizes would keep them busy for the few minutes Jazz needed to get clear.
Jazz swung her chair around. “One problem down. Two more to go.”
Tollett and Xandra both regarded her warily.
“Most importantly,” Jazz continued, “do I try to slip through the very loose net these rebels have cast so I can deliver my cargo? It’s highly likely this rebellion will be all quashed and another one will have started by the time I land.”
“You can’t deliver the kitten,” Xandra said. “She deserves to have a real life like a real animal.”
“And that leads me to my second problem. What do I do with you two? Actually, first, who the hell are you and where did you get yourselves stealth suits?”
Xandra puffed her chest out. “We’re animal activists, you scummy gene-trader.”
Jazz raised an eyebrow but before she could return fire Tollett pushed in front of the girl. “Could we talk in private, please miss… uh, ma’am, please? Perhaps we can sort this out amicably.”
With a sigh, Jazz nodded. “Sure. The door slides shut.”
“Thank you.” Tollett ushered Xandra towards the corridor. She shoved him. He yelped and waved his injured arm at her. Jazz looked down at the kitten, who had decided to crawl halfway inside her jacket and nibble at her shirt. This was turning into a really strange day.
“It’s about time you had a feed, isn’t it?” she said, feeling around in the open compartment under the dash for one of the formula bottles Rankovic had given her. Rankovic had also relayed very detailed instructions on how to administer said formula but Jazz hadn’t paid any attention. She figured it boiled down to put bottle nipple to kitten’s mouth, let kitten drink. The kitten was down with that method, placing a tiny paw on Jazz’s thumb and slurping away with gusto.
Finally Tollett managed to get his sidekick out of the cockpit. He slid the door shut and wiped his brow with his good hand.
“She’s not going to go on some sort of destructive rampage, is she?” Jazz asked.
Tollett shook his head. “No, no, she won’t. Well, probably not, anyway.”
He paused. Jazz allowed the pause to drag on before saying, “You wanted to speak with me in private?
“Uh, yeah. Well, see, we’re not really animal activists.”
“And I bet you don’t work for the Port Authority, either.”
“No,” Tollett replied earnestly. Maybe her sarcastic voice was too subtle. He leaned against the doorframe for a moment before pointing to the copilot’s chair. “Can I sit?”
He sank into the chair and patted the armrest a couple times. “Oh, okay. I thought it’d be self-configuring. Did it used to be? Anyway, it doesn’t need to be. It’s actually got really good back support. You could sit in this for five or six hours at a time, easy.”
“Get on with it.”
“Yeah.” Tollett licked his lips. “We do want to free the kitten but we’re not officially aligned with any groups. See, Xandra, she’s my daughter incidentally, she’s been following some net-chatter about a huge gene-splice project,” —he pointed at the kitten— “and she doesn’t think life as someone’s trophy pet, paraded around in a cage, is any way for an animal to live. I agree with her.”
“So you’re just a father-daughter team tackling the galaxy’s big issues. Issues like animal rights and proper pet care?” Jazz made sure to amp up the sneer in her voice. According to the scan nobody was paying her any attention. She increased speed again. Soon she’d just be a disappearing blip on the scanners of the other ships.
“Not as sarcastically as that, but yes.”
“That doesn’t explain how you both have military-grade tech on you worth close to a million dollars.”
Tollett’s eyebrows shot up. “That much?”
“Well, uh, I got a good deal on them, then. Look, when I was in university I sold an idea to a big company and I still get royalties from every sale. I’m pretty much set up for life. So when my daughter wants to free a kitten I make sure we can get it done.”
It wasn’t the stupidest story Jazz had heard but it was up there. She gave a mental shrug. The girl and Tollett shared the same eyes and nose so she was either his spawn or closely related – perhaps sister if not daughter – and everything else about them did scream amateurs fighting for a cause.
She leaned forward. “Look, the easiest thing for me to do is let you off on Garbadon Minor once I run the cordon and you can find your way back home after the rebellion quiets down. I won’t press any assault or kidnapping or whatever other charges and we can all get back to living our lives.”
Tollett’s face sagged. “You want to leave me and my thirteen-year-old daughter on a planet in the middle of a revolution?”
“Look, this is a pretty typical day cycle for them. I’m sure you’ll find someone to ferry you home within twelve hours.”
“But we never got processed by Customs on the way out.”
“You’ve got stealth suits, remember?”
Tollett began to stand, then sank back into the chair. “This, this is inhumane.”
“Chalk it up to life experience. Really, you should count yourself lucky, buddy. Most people in my situation would’ve flushed you out the airlock without a second thought.” The comm alert beeped again. Jazz frowned. “What now?”
Neither a Novus Replicate nor a weary rebel soldier filled the projection this time. In fact, nothing did.
The light beneath the comm screen flickered. “Oh,” Jazz said, “it’s a prerecord. Tollett, was it? If you don’t mind exiting stage right, I’ll be back with you shortly.”
Tollett took an age to get to his feet and stomp the two steps to the cockpit door. He needed several tries to yank it open and several more to close it behind him. The kitten, meanwhile, had drained the bottle of formula and now wrestled with the sleeve of Jazz’s jacket. What choice did she have, she thought, absently scratching the kitten’s head. Dropping these two totally out-of-their-depth individuals on a foreign, fractured planet wasn’t especially charitable but if she took the time to return them to Garbadon Major first – or even after delivering her cargo – she’d need to do another big refuel, plus fork over tariffs for re-docking within such a short space of time. That would eat into her profits. And Jazz had plans for this pay packet. Serious, time-dependent plans.
“Awesome!” Xandra shouted loud enough to be heard through the thick cockpit door.
Jazz smirked. Daddy-O’s regrets would be even bigger now, wouldn’t they?
Like she’d figured, the message was from Rankovic. His hair hung frayed about his shoulders and he stared at the screen with wide, unblinking eyes. Half the buttons on his shirt were undone and scrawled-on scraps on paper covered the wall behind him. Typical Rankovic. Despite the disarray, though, he somehow always had clients with interesting, exclusive jobs.
Sucking in a deep breath, he said, “Okay, Jazz, you’ve probably found this out already but Garbo Minor is having another mini-meltdown. I hope you haven’t already run whatever blockade’s been put in place to deliver the cargo because that deal is a no-go. Instead, the kitten’s buyer is en-route to Daxi Station, of all places. Meet her there in Chilblain’s Entertainment Plaza. Identify yourself at the door as Loli Savea.”
The way Rankovic emphasized ‘she’ narrowed Jazz’s eyes. It almost made her think he was referring to her mother. But that was just silly. What would Mother want with a gene-spliced kitten? The only pets she ever kept were her lackeys, and she cycled through those at a furious rate. Then Jazz had another thought. Out loud she said, “And where am I supposed to get rid of all these other animals?”
As if in answer to her question, Rankovic continued, “I’ve organized a buyer on Daxi for the rest of the stock. Total profit-wipe but you gotta do what you gotta do. There’s a data packet attached to this message with the buyer’s details. They’ll organize pickup. And don’t worry, your pay won’t change. As long as every animal arrives alive, that is. One of them dies and you get nada. Rest of the deal’s still the same: delivery’s gotta be confirmed before your money leaves my account. So don’t dillydally. Get to it!”
The message ended. Daxi Station? Why not back on Garbadon Major, or any of the other population centers in this system? Daxi was a twenty-four hour boost plus at least two hours sublight. Getting there would use less fuel than crawling back to Garbo Major but it would screw up any chance she had of getting to that auction on Primok Centra in time to bid on the ancient Teschli Empire map she wanted.
She stood, cradling the kitten, who still nibbled and scratched at her jacket arm. No point stressing about this turn of events. She might not be able to buy the map but one hundred thousand dollars could buy her plenty of other things.
Before she opened the cockpit door she came to another decision.
Tollett and Xandra stood directly outside, Tollett’s face so droopy it was almost at his knees and Xandra with balled fists and eager eyes.
“Change of plan,” Jazz said.
Xandra groaned and Tollett straightened.
“We’re going to Daxi Station.”
“Where?” Tollett said.
“Twenty-four hour boost from here. Nestled in between Commonwealth and Fed space.”
Xandra smacked her fists against the sides of her legs. “Yes!”
Tollett swallowed. “And you’re going to leave us there?”
“What?” Jazz said. “No. That’s my new delivery point. I’ll drop you off afterwards at Garbo Major. I promise.”
“I suppose there’s a good reason why you can’t drop us off before.”
“Yeah, there is. My ship, my rules. The applicable rule in this case is: non-paying passengers shut up and do what they’re told.” Jazz smiled at him until he looked away. “And I was only given enough feed and sedatives to transport these animals to Garbo Minor, which is a ten-hour crawl from Garbo Major. Now I have to take them all the way to Daxi. I can ration out what I have left but the longer I stuff about the greater chance an animal dies. I’m sure neither of you would want that.”
“No!” Xandra said.
“So all up it’s going to be about two or three day cycles before we’re home?” Tollett said.
Jazz nodded. “Yep.”
Xandra plucked at Tollett’s sleeve. “It’ll be awesome, Dad. We’re always talking about seeing other planets and stuff.”
“Daxi Station is a space station,” Jazz said, “and neither of you will be leaving the ship while we’re there.”
“That’s not fair,” Xandra wailed.
Jazz eased her way past them. “You obviously weren’t listening a moment ago, were you? Let me put it this way: I’m sure you’d rather be my guests than locked up in the brig.”
“What’s a brig?”
“In this case it’s a padded cabin with a very fancy deadbolt on the door. I can also show you one of my airlocks if you’d prefer to hang out in there.”
Tollett cleared his throat and jabbed Xandra in the side. “We’re happy with whatever arrangements you’re happy with, Miss…”
“We’d done so well not trading names to this point. I’m assuming Darren Tollett is a fake, right?”
“No, why would it be?”
Jazz’s right eyebrow involuntarily arched towards her hairline. She raised both hands. “Of course, why would it be? My name’s Jazz. It’s also my real name. I give it to you out of shock rather than honesty.”
“That’s a cool name,” Xandra said. “Sounds like a ninja princess. A real badass one.”
With a shake of her head Jazz started towards the cabins. When they made no immediate move to follow she said over her shoulder, “You’re welcome to stand there the whole trip but you might also want a bed to sleep in.”
“Right,” Tollett said and trotted after her, Xandra following in his wake a moment later.
“I’ll get another job from Rankovic to cover the extra fuel,” Jazz muttered to the kitten, who had burrowed its way into the crook of her arm and was nearly asleep, “but is it bad that this isn’t the weirdest thing that’s happened to me in the last six months?”
The kitten wrinkled its whiskers and let out an exaggerated sigh. Jazz lengthened her stride. The sooner she had her two unwanted passengers closeted away the better.
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