Pan didn’t go back to Central.
She’d filed her resignation to Rota there and then and mailed it. By wedding a citizen of Central, Jennay had secured that same right for her adopted children, they no longer needed Pan for that. Jennay’s happiness had opened the way to her own.
For the next three years, she was living as a freetrader.
Home became a neat two berth, system flight capable, planet hopper. Big on cargo capacity for its size but lacking on just about every other front. Tolin, his looks almost perfectly restored and his body having regained its tone, was back to his old carefree self again. The memory of the fire on his previous ship that had maimed his face and nearly taken his life, seemed to be receding from him. Some days Pan almost fancied she could see the old sparkle back in his eyes.
It was a gloriously irresponsible lifestyle compared to the heavy weight of box ticking and regulation which working for Rota had been. As long as they picked up and delivered their chartered cargo of goods and passengers within the window of time agreed, they could set their own agenda. It felt like one long romantic vacation, seeing the sights of the galaxy and getting paid to do so.
Other freetraders were less fortunate. Where Tolin owned their ship outright, others had to pay off cripplingly high loans. Where Pan could run whatever maintenance was needed herself, others had to pay premium rates to keep their vessels space worthy. Despite that, Pan found the freetrading community were mostly good people to know. They might be close-mouthed and competitive when it came to trade contacts, but they would look out for each other, pass on tips and warnings and help out a friend in need.
Which was why she was not that surprised when Tolin asked if she would mind helping out some old friends of his who had a ship that needed some work.
“We go back a long way,” he told her as they lay tangled together in the bed that filled their entire tiny cabin. “These guys helped me a lot when I was starting up. Now they’ve hit some bad times. They can’t afford to get their ship patched up and until it is, they can’t fly and make money.”
It was something that they had both seen before and Pan had sometimes been able to help out. She could also see this meant a lot to her man, but she didn’t want to promise something she couldn’t deliver.
“I’ll take a look, of course,” she said, “but it depends what the problem is. If whatever I need to fix it is too expensive for them, there’s not a lot I can do.”
Tolin rolled over to drop a kiss on her lips.
“Thanks, love. I think you’ll be fine. They’ve got access to a full-on maintenance bay, just need someone who can use it.”
Which probably should have rung an alarm bell somewhere.
But it didn’t and six days Coalition Standard Time later, they were docking on a dust world.
The winds of the broken biosphere, ripped across its surface hurling dust, grit and larger objects at rock gouging speed. If the planetoid ever had a name it was not mentioned on any navigation chart. This was marked as an empty system, no inhabited worlds and none listed as fit for human exploitation.
“It was an early-expansion stop over,” Tolin explained as they slipped down through the tumult, relying on the gravity shielding of the dock below to protect them from the highwinds and debris. “From back when they couldn’t make the full run from Central to the Middle Worlds in one jump. The Coalition abandoned it a long time ago as there’s nothing here but the dust. Dek found it and him and a bunch of his friends use it as a sort of base.”
Pan did a rapid calculation. “Early-expansion? That would make this place at least three hundred years old. I can’t think they will have much in the workshop to help out with modern vessels.”
Privately she was thinking that any environment capture settlement that old on a planetoid like this was going to be a dangerous place to be. The risk of some system failing had to be horrifically high. But as the ship settled into the dock she tried to push those thoughts away. They were here now and the sooner she had a look at this ship, the sooner they could be on their way.
But Tolin knew her well. “I think you might be surprised. They had an engineer here for a while who equipped the place and fixed it all up for them. So I don’t think you need to worry about the life-support giving up.” He no doubt meant to reassure her, but as the grating clunk of an archaic locking system secured the vessel, Pan found herself far from comforted.
The outer hatch opened and a man bounded in. There was no other word for it. He was a bit below average height, with a slight frame and wiry muscles. He seemed to be fired by nervous energy, bobbing on the balls of his feet.
“Tols. Great to see you again and this must be Panvia?”
His head turned sharply as he glanced between them. Like a bird’s. From his face Pan reckoned him anywhere between thirty and seventy, the prime of life, but his eyes as their gaze switched rapidly between Tolin and Pan, looked ancient. Pan had seen the same cold and weary expression on too many of the older freetraders. Those who had fought too hard and done too much of the bad stuff, just to keep flying. Those who had turned to smuggling when legal ways of paying their loans and dockrents had dried up.
Tolin was smiling, but something about it felt forced.
“Yeah. Pan, meet Dekker Loxly. We go way back.”
Dekker stepped in and slapped Tolin on the back, hard enough to make him need to take a small sidestep to keep his balance. He might look smaller than average but Pan realised he was strong enough despite that.
“That’s right, Panvia. Me and your man here, we’re like brothers. Blood brothers. Isn’t that right, bro?”
Tolin nodded, but his smile seemed to be fading as he did so. Dekker bounded back and gestured to the main lock with one hand.
“Now you’re here, let’s not waste any time. I’ll leave you to make yourself at home in the maintenance bay, Panvia, and me and Tols will go and catch up on old times a bit and sort out what we’re doing.” He flicked up a screen and shared it to Pan. “This is all we have on the tub that needs patching. Hope you can fix her up.”
Pan wanted to protest, but something in those eyes held her tongue. Tolin was already following Dekker from the ship but turned briefly to give her an odd ‘get on with it’ look which seemed to carry a silent warning. And that was the only reason she bit back the sharp retort that had been burning her tongue.
There will be more Roguing Thieves next Sunday…