Building A Better Fire
by Maya Tawi
"I swear to you, man," Seamus Harper said again, "this thing's legit. She came looking for me when that piece of crap she drives broke down, and she wants me to fix it up. That's all there is to it."
"The Maru,," Rafe Valentine said absently, almost wistfully. "She always loved that ship." He knocked back the rest of his scotch and gestured none too steadily for a refill.
Harper did the same with his beer. "So hey, you grew up with her," he said, as the bartender silently topped off the two glasses. "Was she always so uptight?"
"Uptight," Rafe echoed, like it was a foreign word hed heard before but wasn't quite sure he understood. "Beka?"
"Well, uptight in a violent sort of way, defininitely edging in on sociopathically neurotic. So I'm guessing that's a no?"
Rafe shook his head and gulped down another mouthful. "Are we talking about the same Beka Valentine?"
"If we weren't, I wouldn't be sitting here with you," Harper muttered, thinking of the blonde he'd seen earlier. She had left already, on the arm of some muscle-bound freak of nature, and a flash fryer to boot. He consoled himself with the thought that she was settling for second best and she was the one who had to live with it.
"Course, I haven't seen her for a couple years," Rafe was saying, and it took Harper a moment to remember who they were talking about. "It's entirely possible she's been abducted and replaced by pod people in a nefarious plot to take over the biggest disc collection this side of the Milky Way."
"Oh, sure," Harper said. "Like I need my life to be more interesting."
They drank in unison.
Harper slammed his beer mug down on the bar with a satisfying thwack. "What are you doing here, man?" he asked again. "You should be partying it up on New Mantea with your newfound riches by now."
"There are no riches. Just contraband."
He took a mental step back. The two had never really been friends, and Harper's excellent deductive skills told him the camraderie portion of the evening was coming to a close. "One more time," he said warily. "Slow."
Flatly Rafe said, "The simple shipment that was supposed to be an easy two grand? It turned out to be hot goods on the watch list of five governments on two different planets in this system. FTA's searching every outgoing cargo ship. There's no way to get it off the planet."
"You gotta be fucking kidding me."
"I wouldn't," Rafe said, his voice still curiously emotionless.
Harper felt as though he'd just been sucker punched. For a moment it seemed a very real possibility that his beer would once again see the light of day. If he'd had any sense, he would have dumped Beka and the Maru job off on some hack mechanic and taken the first ship out of the system; unfortunately, Seamus Harper could never resist a big payday, especially when it came from a sizzling hot redhead willing to pay any price.
Somehow he managed to control his gag reflex. Carefully he said, "I'm out of it, though, right? I mean, I did my part. I've got nothing to do with this."
"Oh, wake up, Harper." Strangely, Rafe seemed almost like he was about to laugh. "You think anyone FTA catches isn't going to turn in the rest of us if he thinks it'll get him off the death sentence?"
And then it all fell into place. Harper narrowed his eyes and said, "Like you, you mean."
Rafe leaned forward, and for once his eyes were honest, brutally so. "Hey, my ass is in the fire here, okay? Going down for the others was never part of the deal."
Sometimes being a genius was a thankless job.
Harper shoved his mug away and slid off the bar stool. "That's great for you, man. Thanks a whole freaking lot."
And then Rafe propped his elbow up on the bar, smiled, and said, "You're still working on the Maru, right?"
"You mean you're not?"
"I mean I know what you're thinking, and it's not happening. This is legit work here-"
"Yeah, and that's a real big government agency just itching to pull the trigger as soon as they find one or all of us."
Harper scowled. "What happened to 'leave my baby sister out of it', huh, you fucking hypocrite?"
"It's not about that," Rafe said flatly. "It's Valentine business. Come on, Harper, think of it this way- it's either your rep or your neck."
"Oh gosh, I don't know, give me a few minutes to think on that one."
He didn't have to do it. He could just run, stow away on the first passenger ship departing for parts unknown, vanish off the radar.
Yeah, he thought, and spend the rest of my life running from the FTA.
"Come on." Rafe stood. "I'll show you where it is."
Beka leaned back in the pilot's chair and sighed.
The Eureka Maru was a mess. The metal panel to the engine bay was hanging half open, and spare parts and unidentifiable bits of wires were strewn all over the floor. The slipstream drive poked merrily out of the hole in the wall, only half-assembled, and mockingly so.
The problem was that the Maru, for all the power it carried, was a relatively small ship. Her father and Uncle Sid had built it into an empty shell left for junk, and while Beka consiered it to be a piece of sheer engineering genius, the small engine bay meant that all the necessary components, upgrades, and sweet perks had been slotted in wherever they would fit. To get to the slipstream drive, Harper had practically had to gut the Maru.
Beka still didn't know what had happened; as far as she could tell, the drive had simply started to fall apart. Of course, that could happen to a ship that was over twenty years old.
Harper... she'd asked around, and supposedly when it came to anything technical, he was the best there was, practically a genius. And she was usually the last person to judge by appearances. But he just looked and acted so young. Young and incompetent. Not to mention a fucking asshole.
Not like Dikto back on Rhiemann, who'd been helping her father work on the Maru for almost a decade.
Not like anyone she'd want to trust with her father's only real legacy.
She didn't mean to fall asleep. She didn't notice herself dozing off.
When she woke up, the floor was clean, the panel was welded back into place, and Harper the engineering genius was flicking her lightly on the nose.
Beka jumped and smacked his arm away, a little harder than she'd meant to. Unperturbed, Harper stepped back and crossed his arms. His foot was tapping away like a nervous tic. "All done," he announced.
She blinked, certain she'd heard wrong, rubbing the last sticky, gritty traces of sleep from her eyes. "I thought you said it would take days," she said.
Harper shrugged. "I didn't take any lunch breaks. Amazing what a mainline of caffeine straight into the veins can do for a guy. I mean, I could take it back apart if you want, if you're afraid you'd miss my company. Or there's a better solution to that particular quandary- just because I like you, I'm offering a free ride-along to your next destination, so if anything goes wrong I'll be right there to fix it. So let's go, huh? Captain, we have liftoff, hope you enjoy your flight. Right?"
This time Beka had to pause to digest the steady stream of words. The kid did look a little more manic than usual. She felt a quick pang of guilt, and then an even stronger, far more characteristic pang of suspicion. "Why, did you do that bad a job?"
"Hey." He shook a warning finger at her. "I take pride in my work."
"You give all your employers this kind of personal attention?"
"Well, that and it's cheaper than taking a taxi." He ran a quick hand through his hair. "Can I come along or not?"
Beka didn't even hesitate. She was getting curious now, and after all, it only made sense to have him where she could keep an eye on him and find out what he was up to. "Sure," she said casually. "Just don't expect me to pay extra."
"Right, boss," Harper said, with a smile that looked a lot like a grimace. "Whatever you say."
Getting to Rhiemann took about ten hours. Harper's hasty job on the slipstream drive showed in the ride, which was far rougher than it should have been, and not for the first time he imagined various satisfying ways to torture Rafe. After all, he had his professional pride.
What was surprising was that Beka and Harper actually got along. In such close quarters, it was hard to avoid her; the Maru had been built for work, not luxury accomodations, and once she shifted into autopilot, she perched up on the bridge railing with him and started talking. They both had quick wits and the same bizarre sense of humor, and for a little while Harper got a glimpse of the Beka he suspected Rafe knew- wry, slippery and sarcastic, outspoken and easygoing. He wondered if the snappish, brittle woman he'd met was just a mask for dealing with people, or a symptom of a larger trauma.
If he'd stopped to think about what he was doing, he probably would have felt guilty. If he was still at the point where he cared.
As soon as they docked, Beka disappeared, claiming urgent business to take care of and entrusting him with the Maru- strange, considering her mama bear imitation back at the station, but he had other things to think about. He rented a private dock and then lingered on the outskirts of the chaos, trying to remember who Rafe had said he was supposed to find.
It wasn't long before a man with a face like a Nightsider but, unfortunately, the genetic makeup of a human being sidled up to him and said in a low, almost bored monotone, "You Harper?"
Harper frowned. "Hey, buddy, salute when you address the renowned master in the art of love."
"Yeah, whatever." The ferret lookalike was unimpressed. "Valentine said you had the stuff."
"Right. You." Harper narrowed his eyes. "Listen, I got a professional question for you."
"Yeah?" Unimpressed and uninterested.
"What kind of fucking moron sets up a job and then doesn't tell his employees the goods are hot? Basic logic progression, pal. We can't get it past the FTA if we don't know they're looking for it!"
The ferret shrugged. "You managed."
"Barely!" Harper exploded.
The ferret sighed. "Where is it?"
Harper stared at him for another second, then sighed as well. "Come on," he said, leading the ferret to the private dock. "I gotta get it unpacked. You get to stand there and tell me if anyone's coming, especially an angry redheaded babe. You can handle that, right?" He fumbled through his tool belt for goggles and a laser cutter and started opening the outside panel to the engine bay. "So what is this stuff that's wanted on two planets?"
"A better mousetrap," the ferret said dully, with unintentional irony.
"That's clever. You're a funny guy." Harper caught the panel and gently set it aside; Beka's hyperprotectiveness of the Maru was starting to infect him as well. Over his shoulder he said, "You do know I expect compensation for this extra trip, right?"
"I'll pass on the message."
"In other words, I can go screw myself. I love business talk." Harper turned the laser cutter on the dummy water tank he'd installed; the original had been a fifteen-year-old relic, rendered useless by various upgrades over the years. Without any water in it, the tank took a shipment of boxes like it had been made for the job.
Neither of them said anything as Harper started pulling the boxes out, and before long there was a heaping pile on the floor between them. To Harper it looked like more than enough of whatever to supply a reasonably populous planet, but the ferret gave it a quick once-over and then said flatly, "This isn't all of it."
Harper twisted the dummy water tank back into shape and started to weld it together again; no reason to make Beka suspicious. "Hey, man," he said over his shoulder, "that's all I had."
When the ferret spoke, Harper could practically hear the bared teeth. "There's one set missing, Harper."
He dropped the welder and turned around with a glare. "Yeah, well, maybe that's because the shipment was hot, you freaking rodent-"
"If you don't produce those boxes in the next five seconds-"
"Are you boys looking for this?"
Harper's heart almost stopped. It was like every action movie he'd ever seen, where the chick gets a gun and manages to surprise the studly sex-machine hero. Only it wasn't a movie, Beka Valentine wasn't smiling, and the gun pointing directly at him and the ferret was the biggest thing he'd ever seen that wasn't attached to a ship or a tank.
He suddenly felt a little inadequate.
She was still hot, though.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the ferret open his mouth, and said warningly, "Don't you even start, man. I told you to be lookout."
"You're taking the fall for this, Harper," the ferret hissed.
"Yeah, bite it, asshole. I think we can work this out between us, Beka and me." He turned to her with his most charming smile. "Right?"
Beka flicked a row of switches, arming the gun with practiced ease. Harper felt his eyes being tugged towards it like iron shavings to a magnet. It was big, black, and ugly, and the muzzle glowed with an angry red light, looking as though it would go off on its own in a second, just for the sheer joy of it. That, he knew, was what was in the boxes at his feet. Or pieces of it, anyway.
Obviously Beka knew too. "Work out using the Maru for illegal shipments?" she asked disbelievingly. "Oh yeah, Harper, we'll work that out, all right. As a matter of fact, I kind of feel like working it out on your face."
"Come on, boss-"
"Did you get a good look at this thing? It's Nietzschean made, designed for Nietzcheans." She gestured angrily to the gun stock, and for the first time Harper saw and understood the row of perforations on the side. The gun was made to strap onto a Nietzschean's forearm and fire automatically; the perforations were there to let the bone spurs through. He felt his blood chill.
Beka saw his expression and demanded, "What did you think you were shipping?"
Harper rallied. "Definitely not cheese crackers. Listen, Beka, hear me out-"
"Oh, I'm listening. Feel free to start explaining any time. Because this is definitely not professional conduct."
"Hey," he said angrily. "Your brother said-"
And then the gun swung around, and the glowing red barrel was pointed directly at his face. "What does Rafe have to do with this?"
Harper swallowed, his eyes glued to the muzzle. "He was working on the same job. He said you'd let it slide if I buried the stuff in the engine."
"He did, huh?" Beka's eyes were cold. "So, what, you just forgot to mention it to me?"
"No, but if I had you would've said no."
"For good reason."
"My brother is an unfeeling, opportunistic bastard who takes what he wants and doesn't give a thought to the effects on others," she snapped. "Do you know what these are?"
Harper rolled his eyes. "Yeah. Big freaking guns."
"Big freaking Nietzschean guns, in case you've forgotten." She gestured at the ferret with the gun, and he stepped back; Harper had almost forgotten he was there. "I bet if we checked this creep's manifest, he'd be headed for certain key military outposts. What world do you think they're planning on taking over next?"
Harper stared at her blankly, seeing not her but twenty years of hell on the planet he'd called home. She glared back with narrowed, blazing blue eyes.
The ferret turned and ran.
Beka spun and fired. The gun kicked wildly from the discharge, and the blast missed entirely; the ferret swerved around her and out the door, and then he was gone.
Just a split second too late, Harper tried to follow, and got an elbow in the face for his trouble.
"Hey!" He stumbled back, clutching his hands to his nose, feeling for blood or breaks. "Back off, lady!" he complained, suddenly furious. "This is the only face I've got, okay? Maybe it could be better- maybe- but I'm pretty happy the way it is-"
Then he paused, seeing Beka's expression, and offered weakly, "I can take my face and leave now. If that's all right with you."
Beka disarmed the gun with a flick of her wrist and tossed it disgustedly to the floor. "You're not going anywhere," she growled. "You know why? 'Cause you're gonna come back with me to the station, and you're gonna take me to Rafe. And then you're gonna turn these guns over to the FTA."
"Yeah, and maybe next I'll restore the Systems Commonwealth," Harper shot back. "I don't think so."
She grabbed his wrists, digging her fingers into the soft flesh. Harper gritted his teeth. "You want the Nietzscheans to get their hands on these guns?" she demanded. "You ever heard of a little planet called Earth?"
"Ancient history, okay?" Harper tried futilely to yank away from her grasp. "Let go!"
Beka ignored him. "You have one hour to put this back together," she said coldly. "Then I start shooting. Starting with your toes and working my way up."
Harper glared at her, and she stared him down, then released his arms with an exaggerated flourish. He stepped back quickly, rubbing at his sore wrists, as she took her own gun from her belt and moved pointedly to block the door.
Then he heard himself saying, almost sulkily, "How'd you know?"
"Because I'm not an idiot, Harper. Because you took about five minutes to finish the job and then you wanted to come along. It doesn't take that long to get from the station to here, you know. I just cruised around till you fell asleep and then checked out the engine myself." She narrowed her eyes. "And may I add that for someone who works with and claims to respect machines, that really was a piece of shit stunt you pulled? You could have ruined the whole engine for good."
"Bite me," Harper retorted, scooping up an armful of boxes and dumping them back into the dummy tank. "I know what I'm doing." He was a genius, not an actor.
"Oh, yeah. You sure proved that."
He grabbed another armful, then hesitated and turned back to face her. "What are you gonna do with this stuff?" he asked. "I mean, you're not really gonna turn it in to the FTA, are you? 'Cause, you know, I'm sure they'll just believe you didn't know about it."
Beka Valentine smiled.
"Well, Harper," she said, "that's for you and my brother to figure out."
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Epilogue