Building A Better Fire
by Maya Tawi
Rafe checked his watch. Then he glanced at the clock on the wall. Then back down at the one on his wrist.
The confirmation should have come by now. Harper and Beka'd had plenty of time to get to Rhiemann; he knew they hadn't been stopped and searched by the FTA, or he'd have heard about it. By rights, the shipment should have already been paid for and spirited away to the Divine knew where; he didn't particularly care, as long as it was somewhere far, far away from the FTA, the two planets, and especially the body of one Rafe Valentine.
Unfortunately, the next link in the chain was still waiting for the goods, and he was really starting to grate on Rafe's nerves.
"No, I don't know," he hissed testily at the image on the screen. "I told you, I don't have any- well, if we'd known in the first place-"
He broke off abruptly, not listening to the link's angry retort. Someone very familiar had just walked, or rather, been pushed into the bar.
Make that two someones, he thought dismally, when he saw exactly who had done the pushing. Stalking towards him with a singularly angry, determined expression on her face was none other than the shapely, long-legged walking attitude that was his sister.
Rafe swore softly, disconnected the screen, and tried to slip out the back door.
Beka caught up with him just behind the bar, shoving him against the wall with her gun pressed up against his throat. "Hi, Rafe," she said brightly, with a saccharine sweet smile that didn't get anywhere near her eyes.
He glanced at her disgruntled companion, who was doing his best to fade into the background, and failing, due mainly to Beka's iron grip on his arm. "Harper," he said. "What an incredible coincidence to see you again, here, in this very same bar."
Harper's expression could best be described as snarky. "Hey, man, get your ass out of this fire, okay? I don't owe you a thing."
"Hey!" Beka shoved at the gun, jerking Rafe's attention back to her. "Eyes front, pal. I'm not done with you."
"Beka," Rafe said smoothly. "Been a while, huh? Congenial as always-"
"Hey, up yours, bro. So you're going on in the family business, huh? Funny you're giving our father that much respect when you didn't even turn up for the funeral." The words poured out like water from a floodgate. Or bullets from an Old Earth gun.
He sighed. "And it starts. Look, Beka, I had stuff to take care of. Our father of all people would have understood."
Her expression turned even grimmer. "Yeah, well, I don't."
"Doesn't matter, does it?" Rafe retorted, watching her carefully. "You're not here because of Dad."
Surprisingly, she backed off maybe an inch or so and shifted gears. "No, I'm not," she said angrily. "How dare you try to use my ship to do your dirty work?"
"Your ship now, huh?"
"Yeah," she said, and her voice had a dangerous finality to it. "It is."
Harper's voice, coming from somewhere over Beka's left shoulder, was alien and out of place in the midst of the tense family reunion. "Well, I can see you two kids have a lot of issues to work out. Dr. Harper recommends a healthy shouting match and maybe some moderate acts of violence, while he waits somewhere in the next solar system. Gotta go for the rest of my life-"
"You're not going anywhere," Beka snapped, and without even looking at him she closed her free hand unerringly over the scruff of his neck. Harper squawked, his inelegant escape summarily aborted.
Then his sister added ominously, her blue eyes boring into his, "Answer the question, Rafe."
Time to get serious. "Beka, there was no other way," he said honestly, hoping that after so many years of wading through bullshit she'd recognize the plain, unvarnished truth. "FTA's on the lookout, the penalty for gunrunning on this station is death, and if I don't finish this job soon, some very ugly people are going to be cooking up Valentine bits for Christmas dinner."
"Very ugly people have always been after Valentine bits," Beka shot back, but she seemed a bit calmer. "Why the Maru?"
Rafe smiled hopefully. "Because I knew if you found them, I could charm my way out of it?"
"Wrong answer," Beka said. "You're on your way to the consolation prize, and it involves my foot and a very uncomfortable place. Rafe, those are Nietzschean guns you're running."
"And call me crazy, but in the little war between them and the rest of sentient civilization, I'm kind of on our side!"
"There are no sides, Beka," Rafe said mildly. "Just profits."
Her gun wavered in her grip, and something in her eyes softened. Quietly she said, "You sound so much like Dad."
Rafe met her gaze levelly. "You don't sound like my sister."
"I can't pretend I don't know what these are going to be used for!" Beka shouted. "Bottom line, bro: if the Nietzscheans get this shipment, I'm going to the FTA and telling them everything."
"You wouldn't," Rafe said. Her eyes were hard and serious, with an unassailable resolve he couldn't remember ever seeing before. He felt his blood run cold.
"Two words, Beka," he said, hearing and hating the sudden note of panic in his own voice. "Death and penalty."
"You'd find a way out of it," she said coldly. "You always do."
"Come on, sis," Rafe pleaded, with as much dignity as he could muster. "Just the one shipment couldn't make a difference-"
"I don't care!" Beka burst out. "I am so sick of people dying on me!"
And then the light dawned. Carefully, quietly, emphasizing every word, Rafe said, "You can't save Dad."
"It's not that simple. It never is-"
"Hello! Harper calling the angsty hero-types!" Harper insinuated himself in between the two of them, somehow managing to look both irritated and unbearably smug. "I hate to inject a little dose of reality here, but you do know that even if we ditch the shipment, they'll just get another one, right? Damage done, minimal. Difference made, zip."
Rafe glanced at him, then hopefully back at his sister. "The kid's got a point."
"Gee, thanks." The kid's voice dripped so much sarcasm, he could do a backstroke in it. "You're what, five whole years older than me?"
"A little more than that," Beka said distractedly. Her eyes were narrowed again, not in anger this time but in thought.
"I don't care. I can't let you do it."
"Well," Rafe said. "We're kind of stuck then, aren't we?"
"Not from where I'm standing-"
"Hey!" Harper clapped his hands sharply, once again demanding attention. "Put the weapons away already! All right? You guys don't need to worry about a thing." Then he grinned, a devilish, thoroughly disconcerting grin. "You have no idea how lucky you are."
"How's that?" Beka asked, sounding like she didn't particularly want to hear the answer.
The grin grew impossibly wider. "'Cause I'm on your side. You see, if you wanna cook some ordinary turkey, a simple plan will work fine. But if you're going for the genetically enhanced Nietzschean turkey with three-inch claws coming out of its forearms, you're gonna have to think a little bigger, campfire-wise."
"Meaning?" Beka said impatiently.
Rafe frowned. "Where'd the turkey come from?"
Harper dismissed the question with a roll of his eyes. "Meaning that there is a god in this universe, and his name's Seamus Zelazny Harper. And just in case you're interested, he has just come up with a brilliant plan to put all other brilliant plans to shame."
For a few moments, they could only stare at him. Harper wiggled his eyebrows enticingly.
Then, in unison, the two Valentines echoed, "Zelazny?"
"You know, I really can't work like this. I'm an engineer, not a party clown."
"You said you're a mechanical master," Beka pointed out. "Several times. I'm just here to see the master at work."
"Get back, you fiend, the master's methods are not for mere mortals to see." Harper paused, considering this last sentence, and then said, "Actually, that's a pretty good line. You got a transcriber anywhere on you?"
"It's alliterative," Beka said. "I'll give you that. Not too memorable though."
"Philistine." Harper deftly rearranged the last of the wiring inside the gun barrel and tossed it onto the growing pile next to him. "Make yourself useful and get me the next one, would ya?"
As she pried open the next crate, Harper added darkly, "By the way, just so you know, I don't appreciate any of this. It's got nothing to do with me, and you know it."
"But it is your plan," Beka countered. "Here... and anyway, it's not your gratitude I'm looking for."
"What then?" Harper watched slyly out of the corner of his eye as she stiffened slightly, and continued, "I mean, there's this whole thing between you and Rafe and your dad, and I feel like I'm caught up in the middle of it."
"So?" Wary, defensive. Typical Beka, apparently. Though not according to Rafe.
"So there'd better be a good reason," Harper said. "'Cause I don't like being pushed around by a dead guy."
He waited, bracing for the angry outburst he was sure that comment would elicit. Beka, for her part, seemed to consider giving it to him; then she deflated, apparently too tired to work up a worthy rage.
Instead she just said wearily, "I'm not looking for anything. I just want to do what's right."
Harper snorted. "Oh, that's convincing."
She started pacing again, looking frustrated- with herself, or him, or someone else entirely, Harper wasn't sure. "My father lived his whole life by the same values Rafe has now, and look where it got him-"
"Doctor Dead Guy, I presume?"
Again she failed to react. "Exactly."
"So? Everyone dies, Beka. The life expectancy of a clean-livin' hero-type isn't much longer."
"I don't care," she said resolutely. "I think this is the right thing to do, and I'm doing it. I have this thing for the underdog."
Harper rocked back on his heels, the gun and his tools forgotten. That kind of talk was the kind that started trouble. The lethal kind. The kind a kid who'd grown up on Nietzschean-occupied Earth learned to avoid if he happened to be relatively fond of living.
"Yeah," he said flatly, "well, in my experience, the underdog is just one step away from being six feet under. I'm sorry, I can tell you have this noble goal and all, but Niets are scary people, and I've always done my best to stay away. And see? I'm still walking, talking, and overall very much alive-"
He broke off then, because Beka was giving him one of those looks. Those thoughtful, contemplative looks.
"-And you can just stop that right now, boss lady, 'cause you are not gonna figure me out," he finished, feeling obscurely like he'd let something slip. His past experiences were not things Harper cared to share.
Beka didn't seem to register this last comment. "How'd Rafe get you into this, anyway?" she asked.
Harper shook his head, picking up his nano-laser again and attacking the gun's innards with renewed vigor. "Hey, nobody got me into anything, all right? Rafe had a job that needed doing, I had the skills, and some very rich people had the two grand."
"So you do this kind of thing a lot, then."
It wasn't particularly a question, but he answered it anyway. "I do enough to get by."
There was a long pause in which some gears seemed to shift, and then Beka said, with a new kind of interest in her voice, "Two grand, huh? Do you think these guys need a getaway pilot?"
Harper glanced up at her quickly, surprised despite himself. "I thought you wanted to be the hero. You know, the... knight-ress in shining armor. Valentine, Warrior Princess, with slightly less impressive... ah, assets," he amended hastily.
"I never said that," Beka countered. "I said I want to do what I think is right. I mean, I want to be able to live with myself. A little redistribution of wealth, I could probably live with that." She paused. "And by the way, Mister Harper, there's nothing wrong with my 'ah, assets'."
"Definitely not," Harper agreed fervently. "No complaints here."
Then Beka said thoughtfully, "You know, I was planning on getting a crew together after I get the Maru fixed up, maybe finding some legit cargo or salvage work. I could use a good engineer on hand. If you happen to be looking for a steady job."
Harper smirked. "And so naturally you think of me."
"Well, I did ask around, but all the good ones were already taken."
"I like having you around," Beka said, sounding studiously offhanded. "You seem to know what you're doing there. And if this is any indication, I think we work pretty well together."
Harper eyed her skeptically, snapping the gun barrel back together and tossing it also onto the pile. "If continued threats of physical violence are anywhere in the employment contract, I think I'll pass."
"Buy me a punching bag for my birthday and we'll see if we can't work it out."
"Dead or alive?"
"Do we have a deal?"
"Do we have a substantial salary to support a man of my tastes?"
Without missing a beat, Beka recited, "Paycheck proportional to quarterly monetary profit, percentage to be negotiated later."
Harper grinned, grudgingly impressed. "Sounds doable," he allowed. "How about Rafe?"
She looked blank. "What about him?"
"Hopefully nothing. I mean, I think the guy's an asshole, Grade A stamped twice on his ass, preferably with a branding iron." He paused for effect. "I just wondered if you're planning on keeping him on too."
"Rafe?" Beka grinned, seemingly unaffected by her new engineer gratuitously insulting her older brother. "Fifty guilders says he'll be gone before the dust even settles on this thing. He's not really one for seeing things through."
It was a sucker's bet, of course, and Harper wasn't really sure why he took it. Maybe just to appease Beka. Maybe as a metaphorical handshake on their new partnership, in a language he knew they'd both understand.
Whatever the reason, he didn't have to think about it before he stretched past Beka, snagging another crate and not-so-coincidentally brushing up against her as he did. Then he settled back, grinning at her now-familiar exasperated expression, and said, "You're on."
Rafe was once more propped up at the bar, turning on the charm for some brunette with an unhealthy fascination with tie-dye and natural fibers. Beka managed to catch a few snatches of their convesation; as far as she could tell, her brother was, once again, pretending to be more- or less- than he actually was.
"-so I just grabbed the baby squirrel and-"
Beka sauntered up and smacked him a little too heartily on the back. "Rafe!"
He winced, glancing up with a pained smile. "Beka?"
The brunette glared at her suspiciously. Beka stared her down. Under her breath, she hissed, "Rafe, what the hell are you doing?"
Rafe deliberately put an arm around the shoulders of his latest conquest. "Dani," he said sweetly, "this is my sister Beka Valentine. Beka, this is Dani. She's very big on conservation of our valuable natural resources."
Beka narrowed her eyes. "Let me guess," she said. "Just like you, right?"
Rafe grinned at Dani and deadpanned, "She knows me so well."
"It really is a serious problem, you know," the brunette said earnestly, all traces of hostility wiped away now that she knew her "competition" was no competition at all. "Every year, millions of acres of natural-growth landscape are being destroyed for-"
"Yeah, whatever." Beka shook off the glaze already starting to descend over her eyes and smacked her brother again, more sharply this time. "Hey, Romeo Nader, we gotta go."
Rafe leaned in close to Dani. "You have my number?"
Beka grabbed his arm and hauled him away. "Boy," she muttered, "if she doesn't, I sure do."
"Stop that," Rafe said defensively. "She's a nice girl."
"Nice piece of ass, you mean."
"What, the two are mutually exclusive?"
Beka rolled her eyes, dismissing him as a hopeless case, and returned to the more pressing subject. "Harper's done with the guns."
Rafe's snort at the engineer's name was far more eloquent than any comment he could have made. Then he said, disinterestedly, "And you need me to do what exactly?"
Beka mustered her most dangerous grin. "Deliver the shipment, of course. What else?"
"Of course," Rafe echoed. "So what, you actually think the brat's plan is gonna work?"
She linked her arm through Rafe's, an unexpected gesture that made her brother stare at her, surprised and wary. A congenial Beka usually meant trouble for somebody.
"Trust me," she said smugly. "He's smarter than he looks."
Harper burned in the last screw on the engine plate, then swept his goggles off and took an elaborate bow.
No one applauded.
"Wow," he said dryly. "Tough room."
Beka stared at him, then turned and marched back towards the pilot's seat. Rafe was strapped in, looking grim and more than a little apprehensive.
She leaned over him, rested a hand gently on his shoulder, and said in a soft voice:
"If you hurt the Maru in any way, I will hunt you down and kill you slowly."
Rafe arched his eyebrows; perversely, there seemed to be a faint hint of a smile on his face. Then he saluted and strapped himself into the pilot's chair.
"Let's do this," he said.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Epilogue