*This novelette was originally published in the anthology Accessing the Future, from The Future Fire, June 2015*
by Nicolette Barischoff
The floater turned out to be one of those shiny, sky island multi-deck passenger deals that would occasionally completely lose its shit in the middle of a jump.
This one would have been alright–various backup systems humming away, fifty or sixty first-colony licensed pilots determined to discover just what went wrong–had it not jumped straight into something else. Probably a garbage scow; there were a lot of garbage scows this far out. Now, the ship just drifted, listing and rolling like a fat, pretty corpse.
The Dustpan’s crew all had their faces flat against the port windows, eyeing it like a bunch of dogs with tongues out. That was the only reason Rumer had let them go salvage. You pass up a big, beautiful floater like that, you never get your men to do anything useful ever again.
We don’t got the time or space to pull her apart, he’d told them. No scrapping. Get yourselves something small and shiny and get back.
For the most part, they’d listened, filling up their suit-packs with the sorts of little things you always find on a floating hotel like that; alcohol in expensive-looking bottles, VR games with an obscene number of attachments, the palm and wrist PCs that were only considered valuable out here where nobody could afford them. Bottles and needles from a well-stocked sick bay, cards, cash, the turtles out of an elaborate terrarium… Kell, the mutinous asshole, had tried to haul back two of those sultry-voiced concierge kiosks, and a broken servitor droid.
Rumer wasn’t sure which of them had brought back the girl.
She looked to be about fifteen, but to Rumer Pilgrim, anybody not born and raised out of New Pelican looked young.
She didn’t have to be conscious to tell you she was far from home, either Earth or first colonies… German, Canadian, American, some single-nation settlement; she was that same kind of glass-house pretty. Well fed, with pale, untouched, swany skin, and a long, long waterfall of hair that somebody brushed out for her every morning, and a pale pink mouth that looked like it was used to pouting. When her eyes did flicker open for a split-second at a time, he could see they were a pale and brittle green.
The crew crowded around that narrow infirmary bunk for a full day and a half. Diallo, a skinny kid from the pan-Africas with half a field medic’s education and a permanent shit-eating grin, actually left the pilot’s chair to bandage her head wound. And Kell, his lecherous one-eyed bulldog of a first mate, seemed to think he was going to wake her by flicking her nipples.
“Haven’t even seen one like her in a while,” he said, rubbing his scrap glass eye, a sort of endearing nervous tick once you got to know him. “Kind of forgot they made ‘em like this.”
“With two eyes and two whole titties?” said Diallo. “Not every woman’s like your New Pelican dock-workers, Kell. Back up, man, an’ stop gettin’ in the light. This one’s never seen anything ugly as you.”
Kell grinned. “I’m sure she’ll just love that child-fucker smile you got.”
Rumer ignored their dick-swinging. “Who brought her?” he asked.
Diallo shrugged. “She was the only thing alive on that boat, Captain, her and that mess o’ turtles.”
Rumer frowned. “Bad time to have a hitchhiker, you forget that already? What’re you thinking we’re gonna do with her when we have to make our drop?”
“Don’t ask me,” said Kell, “you ask me, we shouldn’t have the stuff in the first place.”
“Right. But I didn’t ask you, and we do have the stuff, and we’re going to have to make a drop before much else happens.”
“You mean before the shit’s no damn good to anybody, or before big Papa Kang figures out who took it and sends a team after us? Because I can guarantee you that second thing’s already happened.”
“I’m thinking, Captain,” said Diallo, making the sort of diplomatic silencing gesture that made Rumer like him, “she is very far from home. She might help. With carrying, with distribution. In exchange for passage, you know.”
Rumer cocked his head. Nodded.
“It’s useful to have someone who looks like her, where we are going, what we are doing. People trust someone who looks like that. Nice pretty white face. They’ll take it from her. No need to tell her where it comes from.”
“So she plays little White Mother for us, we put her down wherever she wants, she goes on home having gratefully agreed to tell nobody, and everybody’s happy and still alive, is that it?”
Diallo grinned wide and white. “She won’t even have a ship’s name to tell her mother.”
“It might work,” said Rumer. “If we don’t run into any transit police or any Peacekeeping Officers she feels like chatting to.”
“Why would she talk to any Blueberries?” asked Diallo. “Why leave the ship at all? We are just some nice men of varying degrees of handsomeness taking her to port.”
Kell laughed at that, his loud bulldog bark. “I’ll agree with that! Why leave the ship at all? Hell, I’ll teach her to have fun sittin’ in one spot.”
“You’ll wait ‘til she’s awake, you ugly fuck,” said Rumer. “If she don’t immediately bite your balls off and run screaming from your very presence.”
Kell laughed again, louder and longer. Rumer turned to Diallo.
“She’ll get her ride, but she’ll have to work. You think you can get her to work?”
Diallo paused. The girl’s green eyes flickered open. And she sat up.
Or rather, she tried to sit up, squirming strangely for several minutes before going limp, and saying, in a slightly strained voice: “Could one of you please help me up?”
Nobody moved for a second. Diallo took her by the arm, and when that proved insufficient, grabbed her by the armpits, and propped her against the corner. Her feet were bare, and her legs dangled off the edge of the bunk, limp and pale. “Thank you,” she said.
Diallo answered with a nod.
The girl looked around her, not exactly frightened. Not exactly. But looking a little like she’d been thrown into an icy gray lake, and was just now bringing her head up out of the water to discover which of them had done it to her. “Who… What… happened? Where is this?”
Rumer thought it best to let her have it all at once. “I am the more-or-less captain, Rumer Pilgrim, and you are currently a passenger aboard my ship, this streamlined and classically engineered cargo vessel you see before you.”
“Well, young lady, because your own is presently floating through deep space like a chunk of particularly metal-rich frozen shit. Now, I don’t know who you are, and I don’t really care to. But you’ve got to know that we’ve gone pretty well out of our way to pick you up. Now, I didn’t mind doing it, and you’re welcome. We’ll drop you off soon as we’re able, anyplace you want to be, so long as it’s not a place where people are likely to get up in our business. But before that happens… what?”
The girl was shaking her head, green eyes dry. “The ship, I was just… how did…?” She blinked, touched her head bandage, and suddenly settled on a question. “Your name’s Rumer Pilgrim?”
“That’s your real name?”
Rumer frowned. “Never had another.”
There was the smallest flick of a smile on that pink mouth. “So your name is actually ‘Pilgrim, Pilgrim’.”
“No.” Rumer Pilgrim looked at her with narrower eyes than he intended. “No, and I can’t say I know what you’re playing at.”
The girl’s smile widened the littlest bit. “Nothing. Never mind.”
“Young lady, if you’d rather not ride with us…”
“No, no. It’s fine. Thank you… Thank you.”
She let out a somewhat shuddering breath of air. She looked around. “Sorry… can I have my chair, please? Where did you put my chair?”
Rumer blinked. Blinked again. “What chair?”