“You must want this very badly, ványe, to track me down here.”  Here being Jumble Station.  If there’s a better place to hide than Jumble, I’ve yet to find it.  “And what makes you think I knew Xavier Montaigne?”

We were sitting in the cargo bay of the Ašo, my comfortable old AMI light freighter.  Where most people hauled cargo I had a put together a cozy living area.  It wasn’t like I needed the cargo space, I hadn’t hauled anything bigger than a suitcase in decades and I did that in Čadra, my heavily stealthed  Žegáč long range escort.  I made a pretty penny running in and out of Karketh.  I might not be as rich as Davros, or one of the other drug runners, but information had its buyers and sellers as well.  And it was mostly legal.

The young girl across the table from me had shoulder length, honey blond hair that she’d let fall forward on her left side to hide a bruise that was swelling purple against her dark skin.  She saw me notice and pulled the hair back.  Her eyes were cat green and if there was any hint of uncertainty in them, I couldn’t see it.

“I did my research,” she answered.  “All through school.  I dug up everything I could on him, but I knew if I wanted the real story, I’d have to find you.”

And how did you do that, ványe?  I don’t look anything like I did back then.  Black hair gone all silver, lines criss-crossing my face and a couple of pounds more than I’d like about the middle.  How did you connect that young woman with me?  I don’t even go by the same name any more.

“How’s that?”  I asked.

She’d claimed to be a journalism grad looking for the big story that would get her a job with GNS or one of the other big news agencies.  And this might do it.  Well, if it didn’t get her killed first, it might.  She looked like she hadn’t eaten in a week and she didn’t get that bruise bumping into a door.

“There’s a vid taken during the peace talks and you two are in the background – arguing.  Somehow I just knew you’d have the inside story.  The truth.”

“Ahhh, so you want the truth about Xavier,”  I said.

And don’t I remember that argument.  Everything had gone his way – the Terran Federation was about to back off and everyone was going to get amnesty.  Everyone except his Anyúvin ‘soldiers’.  They were going to get shoved out an airlock.  And I couldn’t let that happen.  So we argued.  And later he was dead.  And the Anyúvin were gone and suitable for framing.

Why is it people always want to know about heroes?  Especially the dead ones.  Why do we want to know the ‘truth’ about them?  Are we trying to make sure that they were what we thought they were?  Or are we looking for the feet of clay, the dirt that proves they were really no different from the rest of us?  Well, Xavier Montaigne was far from being a hero, that’s for damn sure, but a lot of people put him up on that pedestal anyway.  He played the rakish pirate to the hilt and Heaven knows he certainly was handsome enough for the role.  But was he a hero?  P’shodj!  Not as far as I could tell.  Decent enough in his own way, but not a hero.  Not in the end, at least.

“Why dig this up now?”  I asked.  “It isn’t going to change anything and all you’re going to do is piss off the Feds and everyone on Jumble.”

“You tell me he was the hero everyone here claims he is.  You tell me the legend is true and there’s nothing for me to write that hasn’t already been written.”  She leaned forward,  “Convince me of that and I’ll leave now.”

I can see the confidence in her eyes.  How does she know this has been a thorn in my side the last forty-odd years?  Or is she just guessing?  Do I tell her my side of it?  And how long will I last here on Jumble if I do?  And do I care any more?  Maybe I take this old ship out and explore some.  Then they can hate me all they want.  Maybe I’ll go chase after Djáni and Móra Šivák.  The truth won’t win me any friends, but it probably won’t make me any more enemies.  And if it does?  Well, they can take a number.

“OK, Turn that thing on,”  I said, waving my finger at the recorder on the table.  “And I hope it’s got a lot of memory, because I’ve gotten garrulous in my old age. But I’m warning you, no one wants to hear the truth.”

She didn’t even blink.  I’m not sure what gave her that kind of confidence, but I’m tired and I had given up on that battle a long time ago.    Hell, she might even succeed where I failed.

“What is it, ványe, that you have when you have nothing else?”  I asked.  It isn’t much of a riddle, but most people never get the right answer.  “You, that’s what you have.  Stark naked without a penny to your name, you’re still a commodity.  You can sell yourself, if you want, but more likely someone’s going to come along and do that for you – if you’re unlucky enough.”

Yeah, and isn’t that a pleasant memory.  You’d think forty years would blunt the edge, but it doesn’t.

The same damn dream.  Dad disappearing into the smoke and the noise, throwing promises over his shoulder as he ran down the companionway to try and find Mom.  The sudden lurch as the escape pod blew away from the Diamante, the hot blossom of flame as her fusion bottle failed, and the bright copper smell of blood before I passed out.  Not so much a dream as reliving a nightmare.

I woke up soaked in sweat and chilled.  When I tried to move, my ribs reminded me that they were broken and my head swam.  Things were getting better, but I still could barely move.  And I really wanted to get out of there.  ‘There’ was one of the few hospitals on Jumble, if you could call someplace that run down a hospital.  The stale smell of disinfectant did it’s best, but the place still smelled faintly of old blood, rust and urine.

“And how are you this morning?”

I opened my eyes at the sound of Doc’s voice.  He hadn’t shaved again this morning.  And I was pretty sure he hadn’t changed the ratty old lab coat he’d worn since I got there.  The place was a dump and he looked as poor as his patients.  I wondered what he did with all the money he got selling them off.

“Still hurts,”  I said.

He pulled up a chair and sat in it backwards, flipping the bangs of his salt and pepper hair out of his eyes.  Granite gray eyes.  The rest of his features weren’t much to write home about, but those eyes could pin you down.

“Do you want pain meds?”  He asked.

I shook my head – slowly.  “No, thanks.”

“Why not?”  He asked, laughing.  “It’s not going to make that big a difference in your bill.

I groaned.  “What is the bill so far?”

Doc pulled an old pocket comp out of his pocket.  It looked as disreputable as the coat.  “Let’s see, another day’s room fees, that’s 500,” he mumbled.  “Three more doses of Xylacillan, that’s 120.  Another rad purge treatment, that’s 300.  Hmm, brings you up to 32,480 credits.”

I did the math in my head.  At roughly 800 a day, I must’ve been here over a month.  I remembered about four days.  “How long was I out?” I asked.

“Oh, about three days.” I must have scowled because he laughed.

“Ahh, you’re forgetting the surgery.  Brain surgery, my dear.  A subdural hematoma is fatal without treatment.”  He shook his finger at me.  It was like he was trying to be funny.  “You would have died without me drilling that hole in your skull.  What’s your life worth to you?  I think 15,000 is cheap!”

A part of me wondered what he drilled the hole with.  Then I decided I didn’t want to know.  I suppose he had a point, but my life didn’t look to be very nice going forward.  I had no idea how long an indenture that 32k would buy, but Hell, I could buy an old Aurora for that kind of money.

“Besides,” he went on, “I paid 5,000 to the scags that brought you in.  To be honest, I almost didn’t – you were in pretty bad shape and I figured to lose that money, but…”

He seemed to get serious after that, shook his head slowly, then looked at me.  “You can’t think of anyone who’ll pay your way out of this?”

Everyone I knew blew up with the Diamanté.  My family and everything we owned was now just so much plasma drifting through Karketh.  My Mom had a step-sister someplace, but they hadn’t spoken since she married my Dad – not too likely get any help there, even if I knew where she lived.  Hell, I didn’t even know her married name.

“My family are all dead.  You’re looking at everything I own.”

“Hmm, not quite.  Your pressure suit was a bloody mess and they didn’t bother to strip it.  It’ll take some doing, but I think you can fix it up enough to keep you alive if we lose pressure.  Otherwise it isn’t worth much, really, so you might as well keep it.”

“Thanks, you’re great.”  The sarcasm was thick and he took it badly.  His eyes looked like green fire.

“Listen, let me tell you something.  I could have left you with those scags and more than likely they’d have used you ’til you got cold and then spaced what was left.  I didn’t.  Instead I saved your life.”

“Right now you’re property.  Nothing more.  But you can still make a place for yourself.  I don’t sell to slavers.  Or brothels.  So more than likely the worst that will happen is you’ll work hard for five or ten years.  Keep your wits about you and you can make a place for yourself here.”

“Stay here?  Why?”  I couldn’t believe he was serious.

“Or don’t.  Extend your contract for a year or so and buy passage out.  You wouldn’t be the first.  Jumble isn’t for the faint of heart.”

He leaned back, some of the intensity gone.  “Look.  This isn’t really the Federation – no matter what they’d like to think.  There’s a kind of peace here, but it’s fragile and it doesn’t extend to outsiders.  You’ll be better off working for one of the local ‘businessmen’.  They’ll take care of you until your contract’s up.”

“So you’re not selling me into slavery, you’re only looking out for me.  Wonderful.”  I said.  “I suppose you think this makes you ‘good’.”

“No,” he said.  “Just better than most around here.”  He got up and swung the chair back against the wall.  “This is the best deal you’re going to get, bad as it is, and I don’t expect you to be grateful.”

“Yet,”  He added as he walked out the door.

My suit was patched, and Doc, for a small fee, had given me a small escape bottle of air.  The suit would keep me alive, but it wasn’t clean and still smelled bad.  The last thing I wanted to do was flip the helmet over my head and dog it down.  I had to wonder what this guy thought of me.

I soon found out.  “Jeez, Doc, she stinks,” he said.

Doc shrugged.  “She’s fine,” he said, “it’s the suit.”

“Whatever.  But I’m not putting up with it.”

Doc shrugged again.  “Your problem, not mine.”

Xavier Montaigne was on the short side of average, but what he lacked in height he made up for in muscle.  Jet black hair hung down in a ponytail behind his head and one ear had a diamond stud.  With a swarthy complexion, his steel blue eyes looked out of place.  He was also the cleanest smelling person I’d met since I woke up in this rathole.  Soap and water may be in short supply around here, but Montaigne didn’t seem to have that problem.

Montaigne turned to me.  “Here’s the speech,” he began.

“You work for me the next…” he paused and looked down at the paper in his hands.  “…8.9 years.  If I like your work, I maybe offer you a real job after that. Either that or guarantee passage clear of Cathcart.  Well clear, so you don’t have to worry about winding up back here.”

“After a couple of months, if you behave, you’ll get every 10th day off and enough pocket money for a few drinks.  Cause trouble and you work every damn day.  Cause enough trouble and I’ll sell the rest of your contract to the Fengs.  Trust me, there isn’t a worse place to be around here.  Understand?”

I nodded.

“Good.  Ron.”  He looked around.  “Ron!  Where the the hell…”

“Here, boss.”  Ron scurried out of a nearby hatch.  He was very short and very old.  His hair, what was left of it, was pure white and puffed out in a halo around his head.  His eyes had a milky tint, like he was getting cataracts, and his hands were skinny and wrinkled.

“Take her to maintenance and get that suit cleaned up before we all puke.  Then take her down to cargo 3.  She can start there.”

Ron bobbed his head.  “Right boss!”  He said and headed back toward the hatch he’d come out of.  “Well girl?  Shivvy up.”

I started to turn, then saw Xavier handing something to Doc.  You can talk about ‘indenture’ all you want, but somehow when you see the money change hands, it isn’t any different than slavery.  I didn’t care how long it took, I was going to get that money back from him.  Or kill him – I wasn’t really feeling that picky at the moment.

“Listen, Girl.”  Ron’s voice was right in my ear.  “No be sussin’ this.  No eyeballin’ he tha’ way.  Be proper to he, other you be hurtin.  Now shivvy up, work needs doin’.”

What Ron said made sense, but I really wasn’t in the mood.  As soon as we’d gotten five meters down the companionway, I grabbed his arm and spun him around against the bulkhead.  It amazed me how light he was and he hit harder than I expected.

“Don’t call me ‘girl’, got it?”  His eyes were wide with fear and suddenly I felt sorry for him.  And a little ashamed.  I backed off.  “Sorry about that.  Never been a slave before.  Call me JD, OK?”.

I smiled and he relaxed some.  “Don’ be scarin’ I like tha’,” he said.   “An’ you no slave.  Slaves never get free.  But ‘dents can, if’n they be good.”

“‘Dent?”  For a moment I couldn’t figure out what he meant until I realized it was short for ‘indentured’.  “Right.  Well, this ‘dent’ expects a little respect, at least.”

I thought for a moment.  “How long do you have left?  I asked.

“Oh, I ain’t no ‘dent.”  He said, proudly.  “I got free years ago.  I get paid!”

“Why’d you stay here?”

“Where I go, eh?”  He shook his head.  “Got nuthin’.  Boss keep I ‘cause I useful!  Cain’t work cargo n’ more.  Cain’t suss out papers, but I can run errands and such.”  He leaned forward.  “I knows I way ’round here, I does!”  He winked, laying a finger beside his nose.  “Knows places the boss don’t.  Heh.”

Really?  I thought.  That could be very useful.  I made a mental note to ‘help’ Ron if I could – maybe learn some of those ‘secret’ places.

He turned and headed down the companionway again then stopped and turned.  He was smiling.  “Well?  Shivvy up … JD”.

Between me and Ron my suit had been scrubbed out to the point where I didn’t smell like a week-old corpse and, as he led me down to Cargo 3, I was mulling over what he had told me about there being “ways to make credits on the side.”  The whole idea seemed risky to me, swiping stuff from cargo and selling it, but he claimed everyone did it – at least with the less valuable cargo.  If I was going to escape this place, credits would be necessary, but was it worth the risk?  Then again Ron wasn’t that bright, if he was getting away with it, it might bear looking into.

Cargo 3 was the largest bay in Montaigne’s base.  A number of Constellations were being loaded, or unloaded, and it was busy, noisy and smelled of hot metal, spilled fuel and lubricants.  Nobody paid any attention to us as he led me over to a desk.  The guy behind it looked bored and had day old stubble that could have sanded down a rusty hull plate in nothing flat.  Dark eyes blinked under heavy brows.

“New worker for y’ Higgins,” Ron said, “Calls ’erself  ‘JD’.”

Higgins grunted and looked me over.  I could see that I was being sized up in terms of what kind of work he could get out of me.  “Marcoli’s a bit slow today, put her to work unloading the Bastard’s Pride.”

Before Ron could take me away Higgins turned and looked behind him.  Up on a stack of crates, watching everything that was going on was a young Anyúvin.  Male or female I couldn’t tell.  Hell, who can?

“Hey, Djáni!”  He yelled.  “New worker.  Ižova?”

“Djá.”  The Anyúvin nodded.  “Vaš vákda madjáve.”

“That’s good,” Higgins said, back to sounding bored.  He turned to Ron.  “Well, off with her.”

Ron led me over to the ship and introduced me to Marcoli, who snickered.  Marcoli was another one of the hygienically challenged I’d met so many of around here.  Only, with him, you’d swear he liked himself that way.  You could practically see the sleaze dripping off him.

“What am I supposed to do with a punk kid?”  He asked.  “I doubt she can lift ten kilos.”

“Twenty five, actually,” I said, “Or, at least I could before I got splattered all over the inside of an escape pod.”  This guy was already pissing me off.

“Really.”  Marcoli didn’t sound convinced.

“Of course that’s with proper weights,” I went on, shifting into sarcastic lecture mode.  “Clumsy things like crates, well…”

“Uh, huh.  Right.  OK, super kid, jump in and help Carlos shift those crates back to the loading ramp.”

Which I did.  Carlos looked a tad older than me.  Pretty good looking too, about my height with sleek dark hair and impish eyes.  He was silent at first, but once he saw I could do my share, he loosened up.

“So, chica, what does ‘JD’ stand for?”

I hate this question almost as much as I hate being called ‘chica’.   And does it never occur to people that if I wanted to discuss my real name I wouldn’t go by ‘JD”?  Still, in the interests of camaraderie…

“You tell anyone and I’ll gut you, comprende?”  He smiled, but nodded.

“OK, it’s Jasmine Delores Bane.  Jasmine was my grandmother on Dad’s side, Delores was my Mom.  She wanted to name me after her mother, Carlotta, but Dad insisted.  He said when they had a son he was gonna name him Franklin and why shouldn’t she have her name passed on too?”

“So what’s wrong with Delores?  And Jasmine’s kind of exotic.”

“Do I look like a Jasmine to you?”  I stood my full 174 centimeters and glared at him.  Yeah, I have great hair, or did, before Doc shaved it all off, but I’m a little too tall and angular to be the delicate little girl.  Hell, I didn’t want to.  I had more fun with Mom in the engine room than I ever did when she dressed me up to go ‘visiting’.  I just didn’t have Mom’s talent – or her body, to be honest.  I, well, I looked more like my Dad, which was fine by me.   “And don’t call me ‘chica’.”

Carlos relented.  “Um.  OK, no.”  But those eyes were smiling and I knew he wasn’t serious.  We went back to work and got the rest of the crates in position just as Higgins signaled break.  Which was good because I’d sweated out whatever water I’d had in me.

I stepped out of the hold and walked down the ramp towards the water barrel.  The people that hadn’t seen me come in stared for a bit, then went back to whatever they were doing.  I was filling a cup when I felt someone grab my ass.

There’s always at least one in every group and this was not my first time.  I reached around with my right hand and grabbed his, wrapping my fingers around it, digging the knuckle of my thumb into the back of his hand.  Then I stepped forward, turned and pulled his arm out and put my left hand on his elbow, bending him forward.  It was Marcoli.  Great.  My team leader is a perv.

“Six years of Jiu Jitsu, asshole,” I whispered in his ear.  I looked around as I let him go and said, “I trust I’ve made my point?”  The assorted sniggers answered my question.  Marcoli was rubbing his arm and glaring.  I knew this wasn’t going to be the end of it.

“You that one enemy make be.”  I nearly jumped out of my skin.  The Anyúvin guard was right behind me and I hadn’t heard anything at all.  And the fact that it had gotten down here so fast amazed me.

“I didn’t make him an enemy.”  I said, trying to calm myself down, “He always was my enemy.  I just didn’t know it until now.”

Djáni laughed that strange, barking laugh of theirs.  “Cávi.”  Djani said, then pushed my right shoulder.  I twisted to let the arm go past, but the Anyúvin never lost its balance.  I tried to push back, but Djani was wicked fast and hooked my hand behind its own and pulled.  So I twisted mine around his and pushed.  I knew this game.  He was playing “sticky hands” with me.  For ten minutes we went back and forth, each trying to make the other take a step – backward or forward, it didn’t matter.  I got into it so much the whole break went by and it wasn’t until Higgins came up that I lost my concentration and Djani pushed me back a step.

“Right you two, stop screwing around.”  He looked around.  “Break’s over, people.  Back to work!”

Djani glared at Higgins for a minute, as if he’d been cheated of something.  To be honest, I was right there with him.  I hadn’t cared which of us would have ‘won’ in the end, but it wasn’t supposed to end like that.  And now Higgins was glaring at me.  I knew better than to ask what else could go wrong.

Next: Reckless