Trading DreamsBy Betty Ragan
Page 1 of 2
"I think I might have found a job for you, boss!"
I gave Dacey a skeptical look as he slipped into the booth across from me. The last time Dacey "found a job," it involved carrying a load of badly-packaged unstable chemicals. The poor Starstrider would have been a cloud of debris at the first hyperspace bump we encountered if I'd taken his word on things. Fortunately, I always insist on inspecting the cargo myself. On the other hand, the time before last, we'd made enough for me to pay off the ship, and won a good repeat customer besides. It was always fifty-fifty with Dacey.
"Carrying what?" I asked, and sipped my beer.
"Not what. Who." He leaned forward. "One of my contacts has a friend on Jevron was supposed to transport some political refugees offworld. Only said friend forgot to pay his membership dues at the local spaceport" -- bribe money, he meant -- "and is currently cooling his heels in a holding cell. So they're looking for an alternate arrangement. They've got good cash, my friend says, and they're willing to part with it. Things are getting bad again on Jevron."
I swirled the drink around in my glass and thought about it. "Political refugees," of course, is as much a euphemism as "membership dues." Did I really want to get involved with this?
"You know I don't work for the rebellion any more." I'd tried to, at first. Done some weapons smuggling, even transported rebel troops. But the risks were too high, not just to me, but to them. My face and name were too well known, even out here. And, truth to tell, my heart wasn't in it. Not any more.
"You transported those supplies for Tocel's lot last month."
"That was just business." Tocel's shipment had been innocuous supplies: food, medicine... nothing that would scream "rebel" to a Federation boarding party as loudly as, well, rebels. And it'd been a quick in-and-out drop. No hanging around talking to people who'd want to remind me of things I'd rather forget.
"So's this! Come on, Jenna. It's an easy run, well worth the risk. And you know as well as I do how much we need the money. The poor old 'Strider's in desperate need of some tender loving care, or at least a good engine overhaul."
It was true. Our last run hadn't been especially lucrative, our regulars had had nothing for us for months, and my attempts to scare up business on this back-end-of-nowhere colony world hadn't met with much success. I chewed my lip. "How many passengers are we talking about?"
"Just three. We can put 'em in the spare crew rooms." Dacey was smiling now. He knew he had me. Bastard.
"And where, exactly, are they going?"
"Not too far. Some little farm-world, got itself declared Open. Gauda Prime."
I drained my beer and nodded, trying to ignore the feeling in my gut that said this was a very, very bad idea.
The feeling had eased a little by the time we made planetfall on Jevron. I hadn't changed my mind about anything, but when you've got a ship to run, you can't walk around in a constant state of worry. At some point, you have to put it aside and get on with your job.
Besides, things weren't actually looking bad. By all reports, the Federation patrols -- frequently given to harassing traders they suspected of illegal activity, which was most of us -- had been pretty quiet along our planned route of late, doubtless busy with more important matters elsewhere. And the rebels -- excuse me, "political refugees" -- were paying quite handsomely. Where they'd got the money, I didn't know, and didn't care to ask.
The first of them looked harmless enough, not that I haven't long since learnt not to trust to appearances. I greeted him with the usual polite-but-distant "I'm the captain, don't give me any trouble and we'll get along fine" routine I use with passengers I'd rather not have to interact with much, and turned to the second man. He scarcely registered on my consciousness, though -- a fact I'd later have cause to regret -- because at that point I caught sight of the person standing behind him.
The shock of seeing him was almost physical, like being smacked in the head by memories I thought I'd dodged. His eyes widened with recognition at the same time mine did, and I recovered my senses enough to shake my head at him as he started to open his mouth in greeting. His people didn't need to know who I was, and Dacey, assuming he didn't recognize the face from the viscasts, didn't need to know who he was. Much safer that way.
Blake, thankfully, hadn't lost any of his intelligence since the last time I'd seen him. He caught my meaning immediately, and did an excellent job of pretending ignorance, but the look in his eyes said that, sooner or later, we were going to talk.
I wasn't sure whether I welcomed that possibility or dreaded it. But, knowing Blake, there wasn't any way I was going to avoid it.
If Dacey noticed the looks that passed between us, or saw me going into Blake's cabin, he no doubt assumed it was some sort of sexual assignation. It's funny, there was a time when that's exactly what I would have wanted from Blake. But I try not to make it a habit to pine after things I can't have, and any feelings of the sort I'd once harbored had long since faded away.
I closed the door quietly behind me. "Hello, Blake."
"Jenna!" His face lit up, and I couldn't help but smile in return.
"It's good to see you," I said and, without really intending to, I found myself hugging him. Not a lover's embrace, but the warm clasp of old friends who haven't seen each other in a very long time. He returned it readily.
"I heard rumors," he said. "That you were alive, that you'd gone back to smuggling. I'm glad to find out they were true."
"I heard a rumor you were dead. I'm glad to find out it's not."
"You've done well for yourself," he said, glancing around at the ship.
"Reasonably well," I said. But I could hear my pride in Starstrider putting the lie to my attempt at modesty. She wasn't Liberator, by any means, but she was mine in a way that Liberator had never been.
He smiled again and sat down on the edge of the bed, motioning me to take the tiny cabin's single chair. "You never returned to the Liberator." It wasn't quite a question.
"No." I settled myself into the chair. "Neither did you."
"No," he said, clearly not wanting to talk about his reasons any more than I did. We lapsed into silence for a while, me thinking about Liberator and him thinking about I don't know what.
Then slowly, his faced changed, grew more thoughtful, more intense. Oh no, I thought. Here it comes.
"Jenna," he said, leaning forward. "I'm planning on putting together an underground rebel base on Gauda Prime. I could use a good pilot. Someone with connections. Someone I trust."
Something deep inside me felt terribly warm and flattered at this, but I shook my head slowly. "I don't do that any more. I had to be talked into transporting you. My policy is no rebel business."
"I see." His voice was quiet. "Do you mind if I ask why?"
I drew in a deep breath. I did mind, actually, but this was Blake, and I felt I owed him honesty. "Because Avon was right. Bringing down the Federation was nothing more than a dream. It was always beyond us, Blake. If the Federation could survive the war and everything that came after it intact, what chance did we ever have?"
His face was calm, but something blazed behind his eyes. "You said once that some dreams were worth having."
"Yes, well, I woke up from that one." I reached out and touched the metal cabin wall, stroking it lightly, feeling the sense of connection I've always had for my ship. "This was my first dream, you know. A ship of my own, the stars around me." I smiled. "A certain amount of adventure, of the sort you can usually get out of by waving around enough bribe money. It's a good dream. A possible one. And it's mine. I don't want to go back to yours."
"I see." He looked at me for a long moment, rubbing his chin. "You're sure I can't change your mind?"
We sat there in silence for a while, until eventually he changed the subject, asked an innocuous question about the food stores we had in the galley. After that we talked easily about inconsequential things: old memories, shared jokes. It was a pleasant conversation.
But when I finally left, in the small hours of the morning, I could feel his eyes watching me go, and I knew they were sad.
The four-day trip to Guada Prime was quiet enough. Blake and his people spent a lot of their time locked away in his cabin, apparently discussing rebel matters I really didn't want to know about. Blake and I continued to behave like strangers in public. We had another friendly conversation or two in private, but he never tried to convince me to join up with him again, for which I was grateful.
The other two seemed all right. Zane, the one who'd come aboard first, was a sweet-natured kid who kept offering to clean up in the galley and do other little shipboard chores. I occasionally took him up on it. The other, who was introduced to me as Farr, was a quiet sort and mostly kept to himself, and that suited me fine, too.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly, and I was almost ready to admit to Dacey that my gut instinct about this job had been wrong. Almost.
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