Lila's Voyage

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Lila discovers she had a niece and her brother is missing. Lila and Autumn search the galaxy for him.

Submitted: September 04, 2012

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Submitted: September 04, 2012

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Author's note: This was written on my Iphone mainly because the ideas would come when I wasn't at the computer. I did the editing on the laptop because it was much easier to proof it. If you find any mistakes let me know.

 

Chapter 1

 

The view outside was not as spectacular as one might expect, in fact it was rather boring. The vids always showed the gorgeous colorful galaxies when in reality the view in deep space was black with only small points of light indicating stars. Space travel in particular was not all that exciting as the media had portrayed it in movies and television. The spacescape was dark and dismal. The long travel times spent either in deep sleep or tedious work routines. Not the exciting and fantastic adventures that dated back to the early Star Trek and Star Wars movies. She had been in deep sleep for 62 days on the way to the Toab system to deliver a load of durillium in hopes of making a profit and procuring another load of something that would take her to some other place in the galaxy. Of course, cargo hauling was not the most exhilarating vocation to start with. There were more glamorous jobs like the cruise liners, more adventurous occupations like the scientific explorations, and more dangerous jobs like the military. But the quiet, easy-going cargo hauling profession suited her just fine.

This was her third year running cargo, not her first plan for a career, but since her dismissal from Earth Fleet, the details still haunted her, she felt fortunate to have kept her pilot's license. They say in deep sleep you don't dream, but when she woke up there were vivid images that she couldn't place. Some of the images were about her career in the military, but some of them were about tramping through forests with strange creatures. She could understand the dreams about her career, but was confused about the forest images. She supposed that the doctors didn't understand everything about deep sleep.

"Lila, it's time to wake up," the voice of the computer spoke. During deep sleep the computer was in control of the ship. It activated the wake up procedures, reducing the sleep agent gas in her breathing mixture allowing Lila to gradually regain consciousness. During deep sleep the computer monitored all the ship's functions and woke her up in case of emergency or at the end of the mission, this was the latter. The computer was a complex piece of equipment that was an integral part of the ship. Although, the model on this ship was not exactly state of the art, it was more than sufficient to be in control of the vessel most of the time.

Lila slowly opened her eyes, the light were dimmed so her eyes could gradually adjust to the light. She took a sip from the drinking tube and waited for the green light that signaled it was okay to remove the IV tube from her arm. Doctors said that in deep sleep one aged about one day for every week, so technically she was only eight days older. She had turned 27 a few months ago, but felt much older due to deep sleep. She was told that was a normal reaction, however it still bothered her, knowing her brother, her only relative was aging normally. Her parents were deceased and Jeffrey was a doctor on one of the planets of the Burgman system. It had been five years since she had seen him at her parents' funeral after they had been killed in a flying accident back on Earth. They were not close, not like they had been as children. But she still thought about her older brother occasionally. She wondered if the dreams had anything to do with him.

"You are cleared to get up now," the computer said.

"Thanks, Mike," Lila responded. Since she spent most of her life onboard and because she had no relationships, she had chosen a masculine voice, a very deep voice for her computer. She had tried a couple of times to foster a romance, but they had ended as quickly as they had begun. The extended space voyages had doomed any long term affairs. Being gone for months at a time was not conducive to a strong relationship. Also the deep sleep she was in affected the aging factors. When your boyfriend aged and you didn't it killed the relationship. Seldom did her travels take her back to the same location anyway. She could have taken a partner, however she had come to enjoy not splitting the profits. She was totally in charge of her own ship and she liked that situation. If its not broke, don't fix it.

"There have no major anomalies since your deep sleep was initiated. Only a small leak in the coolant reactor that I took care of 31.6 days ago."

"Thank you, Mike.”

"You are welcome. We are three days, four hours, and 42 minutes from Oodiks."

Lila sat up slowly, she learned the hard way that if you sat up too fast the blood drained from the head and you would have a killer headache for two days. While many people would crave companionship, Lila had become quite accustomed to solitude. In fact she now preferred it over interaction with other people. Being by yourself was much less complicated and there was no other person's drama to deal with. The time spent searching for a new load and the time spent haggling over fees left her stressed and ready to be back in the private cocoon of her ship.

She climbed out of the sleep module and carefully went to the mess hall. Since this ship was made for just two people, the mess consisted of a closet sized room with a stock of frozen foods and a micro oven. Most of the time was spent in deep sleep anyway, so amenities were sparse. Which was fine by her, wasn't the girly type anyway. Her needs aboard the ship were minimal. Food, water, air, was about it. Less things in her life meant less complications. Once in port she would treat herself to a 4 star hotel, a spa treatment, and gourmet dinners, which made up for the lean times in space.

She pulled her shoulder-length blonde hair back into ponytail and washed her face in the small sink. She saw her reflection and almost didn't recognize the person staring back at her. She had not kept up with the typical feminine habits of make-up and hair care since she was the only person on board. The last three years had not been kind to her appearance. Looking beautiful was not that high on her priority list. After all, personal appearance was wasted on a computer. This time the shock of her image signaled an alarm in her mind that she would have to do something about it or she wouldn't even like being around herself. That would be something she would have to take care of at the next port.

First things first. After waking up from deep sleep she was always hungry. Sixty-two days of intravenous nourishment had left her stomach completely empty and her hunger was pressing. She had to be careful not to send her empty stomach a barrage of foods that would overload her system. She began with yogurt and tea, later she would nuke some pizza and chips, her favorite meal after deep sleep and about a gallon of chocolate milk, one of the luxuries she demanded.

 

Chapter 2

Three years ago

 

Captain Lila West sat in the command chair, her new bars still shiny from the promotion ceremony. The youngest captain in the fleet had set records at the academy and had been put on the fast track. She had spent only two years as executive officer on a patrol ship protecting Sol from piracy. She had been promoted after her captain had been injured during an encounter with pirates. She had taken command and in a series of bold maneuvers destroyed not only the attacking vessel, but lured the pirates into revealing their base and she led the capture of five pirate ships and 73 personnel. There were rumors that her strategy would be taught at the academy. Lila had totally impressed her superiors and herself.

It was no small wonder that Lila was feeling pretty damned good. Even if her first command was a small 12 man sloop that patrolled the inner planets of Sol, more like an old-fashioned state trooper than a warship, Lila was riding high. To her, being captain of this lowly vessel was just as important as being in charge of a destroyer or carrier class starship. Yet she knew that this was just a first stepping stone that would culminate in a lofty command. This was their first patrol, lasting six months. To date they had rescued three private vessels and one cargo ship, all in the first month. It kept them busy and the last few weeks had seemed to fly by. She loved the excitement and adventure of the military. She was the third generation of military pilots and was proud of her heritage. Ever since she had been a little girl all she had wanted to do was become a pilot and she had worked her whole life to attain that goal.

Ensign Anwar Dell alerted her, "Captain, a distress signal from ASS Lugent has requested assistance due to a computer failure."

Lila couldn’t suppress a smile. ASS stood for Ambassador Space Ship how appropriate that acronym was. "Send a reply we are on the way."

"Yes ma'am."

"Harry, set a course for the ASS Lugent," she pronounced the abbreviation as a word rather than spelling it out.

Jerry Harry, the navigator, yes he had experienced every conceivable joke concerning his name, loved his captain's dry sense of humor. He actually had a crush on her, but he knew she was a stickler for regulations and affairs between members of the same ship were forbidden. Of course, there were people that had affairs anyway, but he knew she wouldn't be one of them. He would have to be satisfied with just fantasizing about her. "Aye, aye Captain, course set,  arrival in four hours, thirteen minutes." Harry keyed in the commands to the computer and was pleased when he felt the ship respond.

"I'll be in my quarters, Harry you have the bridge." He watched her leave. Maybe someday when they didn't serve together he would ask her out.

Lila went to her quarters, very spartan due to the nature of the small class of ship she commanded, but it was private. Other crew members had to double up, awkward when one was female and the other male. But life in the military was not a cruise, many sacrifices were made to be a spacer. All the people under her command were here voluntarily so complaints were generally kept at a minimum. She enjoyed the private quarters, she enjoyed the prestige, she enjoyed giving orders and seeing people jump, she enjoyed everything about being captain!

She pulled up the records for the Lugent and found out it was carrying the ambassador from Mars. He had been on a trip to the mining community on Mercury. The purpose was to negotiate a treaty for minerals, but no agreement has been reached. Tensions between Mars and all the other Sol colonies were tenuous at best. Because Mars had been the first colony, they were extremely independent and had a chip on their shoulders the size of Deimos. They were hotheaded and not afraid to push it to the limits. Mars reminded her of the old western vids she had seen as a child. People trying to settle a harsh environment, working hard, but also partying hard. Martians were much like the Texans of twentieth century Earth. This particular ambassador was notorious for wanting his own way. He advocated Mars' independence and was rumored to be the favorite candidate for Governor of Mars.

Lila wanted to prepare for any situation that might arise. She had a reputation from the pirate incident to live up to. She looked the regs concerning rescue operations. Her ship's primary mission was to rescue the personnel and deliver them to the nearest planet. The craft itself was left to salvage companies. Many owners were very upset having to leave expensive space craft to be salvaged. They would get their craft back, but not without paying a hefty recovery fee. Spaceflight was more safe than driving a vehicle on Earth. However, things did go wrong occasionally and her ship was there to help. She wasn't going to allow anyone to die on her watch. Knowing the temper of the ambassador, he would not be pleased leaving it behind. She ran several scenarios through her head and worked out the glitches before they occurred. That way she could use them to her advantage, like any officer would do.

The intercom buzzed, "We're an hour out," Drew informed her.

"On my way." She made her way to the bridge, nodding at the crew as she walked. She had established an excellent rapport with the crew in a short time. She always tried to have a compliment ready for each member, a habit that had not been overlooked by the crew. The loyalty she enjoyed was quite unprecedented for someone so young and inexperienced.

As she entered the bridge the shout came, "Captain on the bridge!" She would never get tired of phrase!

"The bridge is yours, ma'am," Harry said.

"Thank you, Harry." She sat in her chair. She felt the chair mold itself to her body, fitting her like a glove. Her first inclination was to snuggle down in the chair, but she forced herself to sit ramrod straight. She tapped the intercom, "Medical prepare for the transfer of twenty crew  from the Lucent. No medical issues at this time." She knew that the medical team would be ready to deal with any medical situation.

"Computers are synchronized," Dell reported.

"Keep a sharp eye out, Mr. Harry, I don't want anything to come back and bite us in the butt."

"Aye, ma'am." Even though the computers were controlling the docking  maneuver, the navigator had to be ready to take over in a split second. The Lucent's computers were down so her only her ship was capable of maneuvering.

Harry kept a running commentary going while Lila watched on the main screen. "One thousand meters. Lila saw that the Lugent was not a standard issue vessel, but high-priced luxury cruiser. That could be a problem. "Five hundred meters." She ran a scenario through her head. "One hundred meters." It didn't have a pleasant outcome. "Twenty-five meters." She could only hope for the best. She felt a gentle thud. "Docking completed and secure."

Just the way she liked it, "Good job, Mr. Harry." She pressed the intercom, "Medical, commence rescue procedures." She stood up, "I suppose protocol would dictate I greet the ambassador. You have the bridge, Mr. Harry."

"Aye, aye ma'am." Harry knew she wasn't thrilled to have to deal with a politician. He was glad he wasn't the captain. Sometimes being XO had its advantages.

Lila walked down the passage to the docking station hoping she could keep her cool. Her ship, PSS Tomahawk, had a hold for rescued passengers. They could accommodate 35 people for three weeks. More than enough for the ambassador's crew as long as he didn't pitch a fit because of the lack of privacy. She took a deep breath as she opened the door to docking station.

Lila had no problem deciding which person was the ambassador, he stuck out like a sore thumb. He was at least 300 pounds and only 5'5" at most. That left him looking like a short version of WC Fields, complete with a red bulbous nose. "Welcome aboard, Ambassador Hyrek."

He strode over to her, his face just inches from hers. Instinctively she started to move back, but caught herself at the last second. It was a classic move on his part, violate her space, force her to retreat and establish dominance. "You're Captain West?" She wouldn't allow that on her ship! She could smell the sour odor of his breath, but she didn't budge

She nodded, "Yes." She wanted to add is that a problem, but she didn't.

He snorted his disapproval, "No disrespect intended, but I was not expecting a woman as captain, especially one as young as you."

He was living up to his reputation as being a chauvinist. Lila clenched her fists behind her back in an effort to control her temper. It had been wise to practice her calming techniques. "Well, I hope I won't disappoint you."

"I hope so too.” He backed up slightly, surprised at her standing her ground. “Now if you can get us back to Mars it would be greatly appreciated. I have a very important meeting to attend to."

She anticipated he would ask something like that. "I'm sorry but regulations specify you will have to be dropped off at the nearest planet, in this case Venus." She could see his face getting red.

"I know what the regulations say," he said condescendingly, "but I'm sure that if you contact your superiors they will make an exception. Call Admiral Mota, he will allow it."

This was to be the pivotal moment in her life. She knew she could ask for an exemption, but her pride did not want to bow down to his superior attitude. "No, that won't happen. This is our sector and I will stay on post." It was one of those moments when you say something and immediately wish you hadn't. Had she really said that out loud?

Evidently she had. He turned a bright shade of red as the blood filled his fat face. She thought he would explode with rage.

"I am the ambassador from Mars and I expect to have my orders obeyed."

There was no turning back now. She couldn't capitulate after defying his request. Lila took a deep breath, "I am the captain of this ship and it goes where I say, no disrespect to you, Mr. Ambassador, but we are going to Venus as per regulations." Before he could argue with her, she keyed her intercom, "Mr. Harry, set course for Venus, full speed."

"You will not be captain for long. Woman, your career is over, I'll see to that!"

Lila had a sinking feeling he might be right about that. “Good day, Mr. Ambassador. Your welcome for the rescue.” She could tell her parting remarks had stung his ego.

She turned and walked into the hall and leaned on the bulkhead. He might be right about her career, but there was no way she would give in to his demands.

She did take him to Venus. Within hours after his departure they received orders to return to Earth. A sense of dread filled her heart. Surely, the higher ups would recognize that she had followed the rules, after all, rules were made to be obeyed.

“Set course for Earth base, Mr. Harry.”

“Aye, Aye Captain.” He keyed in the coordinates. Lila surveyed the bridge. There was a strange, subdued hush covering the bridge. Word got around fast on this small sloop. She could sense the attitude shift from complete loyalty to one of distancing themselves from her. She was confident that she would be exonerated, maybe even commended for following regulations and following her orders.

She endured a week of inquiries from the board. Her attorney told her she had nothing to worry about, she had done nothing wrong. When the board announced their decision Lila almost broke down in tears. Only with a supreme effort was she able to keep herself composed. Although she had the regs behind her, the board of inquiry caved to the pressure of not pissing off the Martians and she was stripped of her command. Sorely disappointed, but not broken she appealed the ruling. Her appeal was denied. The board wanted this to just disappear. Her lawyer told her that they had offered a deal. If she left the service she would keep her pilot's license and receive a large separation settlement, as long as she faded into obscurity. At first she balked, she couldn't just give up her dream and the career she had worked for all her life! He explained that if she didn't take the deal, she would be reassigned to tug duty in the asteroid belt. Piloting a tug was equivalent to driving a dump truck. Even her pride wouldn't be able to put up with that humiliation.

By now she was completely disenchanted with a service that did not stand behind their officers. The lifelong desire to follow in her families footsteps had been effectively extinguished.  She accepted the offer. The only silver lining to this cloud was that Lila knew in her heart that she was right and the morons in the bureaucracy had been wrong. With the severance pay and her inheritance from her parents she bought the CSS Dekram, she was captain again.

 

Chapter 3

Present 

 

"The space dock has assumed control."

"Thanks, Mike, take the rest of the day off." She often joked with him. She wasn't sure he picked up all the humor, but he seemed to understand the gist of her sarcasm.

"Magnanimous offer, but if it's all the same to you, I'll run some diagnostics."

"Suit yourself, I'm going to supervise the unloading these Oodiks are notorious for cheating on cargo weights."

"I sent the manifest to your compad, watch them closely, I'll have video recording it also."

"I'll have to go down planetside to negotiate a new load. You okay for a day or two?"

"I'll be fine, a tug will park me in orbit."

Lila knew the ship would be fine, no one wanted an old, empty cargo ship, but it was hers and she loved it. "Get you anything while I'm gone?"

"Some new memory chips would be nice, you can never have too much memory."

"You got it!" But she could have too many memories, she thought as she made her way to the cargo hold to make sure the Oodiks didn't try to rip her off. She was experiencing dreams in deep sleep and normal sleep. Yet they weren't chaotic, seemingly random bits of information her subconscious built a story on. They were more like memories, things she should remember, but were just on the fringe of remembering. She had also been having bouts of deja' vu. Maybe she needed a couple extra days in port.

It only took two hours for the unloading and true to form they tried to steal a couple of containers, of course she caught them and they claimed it was a computer glitch. Situations like that were part of the normal way of doing business in some ports. Lila had become very proficient at detecting dishonesty in her business dealing. Her parents had raised her to be honest and fair, traits not found much in the cargo business, but she had gained a reputation for honesty. She believed that is what kept her busy, she was never without a load. She caught a shuttle to the surface to find another load.

The port was a typical low tech city that catered to the crews of cargo and merchant ships. Lots of bars and seedy hotels lined the main street that led away from the shuttle station. Lila never stayed in this area of the ports. She always headed inland to find nicer lodgings, one of her luxuries.  She checked in at a quaint, smaller hotel, yet it still had the amenities she required. She looked forward to soaking in a hot tub, while the water jets massaged her body. One of the cons of deep sleep was that the muscles weakened after 30 days. She had some serious exercise to do to get her muscles back into the shape they had been in the service. Her small ship did not have the artificial gravity generators like the military, so as unpleasant as it was to be planetside, she needed the pull of gravity on her muscles.

The Dekram was small, by cargo hauling standards, but there was a niche for smaller loads that could travel with less cost, thereby saving clients money. Since she was a crew of one there was no split, which allowed her to cut her prices that allowed her to give better deals. This kept her in business, paid her bills, and allowed her to splurge on days like this.

She used he compad to check in with Mike and found him resting in orbit. Then she spent the next several hours lounging in the tub. The water jets massaged her sore muscles and she would have stayed there all day, but more pampering was on its way. For the next hour the cosmetologist applied creams to remove wrinkles and topped it off with a professional make-up job. She looked in the mirror and once again almost did not recognize the person. Only this time it was a pleasant experience. A stop at the hairdresser completed the transformation of a grungy, too old looking, really white spacer into a tanned (fake), young, and attractive woman. Damn, she looked good!

She dressed in her gray cargo uniform with her captain's bars on the lapel.  As captain of a ship, she had to look the part if she wanted to do business. Even aliens seemed to not like dealing with a woman. Lila wondered if it was like some universal law to give women a hard time. After a sumptuous meal at one of the nicer restaurants she would seriously look for a load. After frozen meals and IV drips the very authentic spaghetti and meatballs tasted delightful. The salad was not right since Earth vegetables were not available and the Oodiks substitutes were edible, but lacked the correct flavor. The meatballs were close to the real thing, but she knew that there were no cows on this planet. She knew better than to ask what they were made of. But compared to the fare onboard ship, it was a gourmet meal. If she had been earning a monthly salary, she had just spent it on one day of luxury, money well spent.

Satisfied, she decided to return to the seedier side of town to inquire about procuring a cargo. She walked instead of taking a taxi. Her muscles needed the additional exercise and she needed to use the zillions of calories she had just ingested. As she entered the bar that served as the unofficial bartering headquarters for cargo haulers, she looked around and saw a couple of familiar faces. She nodded her acknowledgment of them. She didn't see Hymee, the local black market port master. There was a government port master that handled the legitimate cargo loads then there was Hymee that took care of everything the government didn't want to touch. Naturally, there were kickbacks going both ways. Another one of those mysterious universal laws. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the bartender motioning for her to come to the bar. She was mystified by his attention.

"Captain West?" He inquired.

"Yes, I'm Captain West."

"The port master was in earlier asking for you. He said it was very urgent." He passed her a card with a number to call.

"Thanks."

She walked back to her hotel. She mentally reviewed the events during the unloading and  figured she had handled the affair satisfactorily. Bribes had been paid to everyone properly. She could think of no reason the port master would be wanting her. She called to see if anything was wrong there. She took out her compad and keyed in the number that was on the card.

A secretary answered, "Port Authority, how can I help you?"

"This is Captain West from the CSS Dekram, I had a message to contact the port master."

"Hold while I transfer your call ."

A couple minutes went by when a voice said, "Port Master Nosam."

"This is Captain West."

"Ah, yes, Captain West. I have a very urgent matter to discuss with you. Could you please come to my office immediately?"

A face to face request was highly irregular. "Right now?"

"Yes, it's a highly sensitive matter."

Lila wasn't liking the sound of things. "I'll be right over." The port authority was within walking distance and on way she called Mike and instructed him that if she didn't return by morning to self-destruct his memory banks.

"Suicide?"

"Sorry, but something hinky is going on." She also told him to keep close watch on his sensors, in case someone tried to board the ship. She didn't like how things were shaping up. She knew most ports had a certain degree of corruption, that was just part of doing business, but generally the higher ups were on the level. No port could afford to bad a reputation or trade would just move to a safer place. She wasn't keen on destroying Mike's memory banks, but she didn't want anyone to access her accounts and steal her ship. Without Mike, the ship was a useless piece of metal.

She arrived at the authority and proceeded into the office of the manager. The secretary waved her through and she entered his office. Not having to sit in an uncomfortable chair in the waiting room to see a government official made Lila very nervous. "Thank you for coming on such a short notice." He motioned her to a chair.

"What's this all about?" She asked.

"Do you know where your brother is?"

That question was like the proverbial curve ball, she didn't see that one coming. "Last I heard he was in the Burgman system, is there something wrong?" She got a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.

"Currently, he cannot be found. He left on a mission to the inland peoples and he is a week overdue."

Lila was curious why they just hadn't sent her a message on the ship. "So why the face the face? You could have sent a message."

"Well, we have a slight problem. Because your brother is missing you were listed as next of kin for his daughter."

Daughter? Her brother wasn't even married. All of a sudden the spaghetti seemed to be a giant ball in her stomach. Her mind was reeling from the information. All she could manage to say was a weak, "I don't understand."

"His wife passed away and since we can't find him, you are the next relative."

He never said a word to her about being married or having a daughter. I'm an aunt? Jeffrey is missing! I'm the next of kin? "Where is she?" Lila figured the right thing to do was to at least visit her and introduce herself.

He dropped the bombshell, "In the room next door."

She jumped from the chair, "She's here!" Lila was normally a very calm person. She liked to control the circumstances. Her uncharacteristic emotional outburst took her by surprise. She quickly sat down and composed herself.

"Yes, they sent her here, they knew you would be docking here. She has been here for two days."

Lila sat back down.”I didn't know he was married or had a daughter. He never told me anything." She was completely at a loss. "So what happens to her?"

"Well naturally you will take her."

Lila let out a chuckle, "No, seriously."

"You are the next of kin, legally you are responsible for her."

"But I'm the captain of a cargo hauler, I can't have a kid on my ship.” Lila thought of a million more reasons why she couldn't or didn't want to be responsible for this child. “How old is she anyway?"

"Thirteen Earth years."

"Practically a baby, I can't have a baby on board."

"Actually, you have no choice. You are the next of kin and the guild demands that you take her. It is our law.

The guild was the organization that supervised the interstellar trade. Lila was a member and had agreed to follow its rules. Its guidelines it stated that while on a planet all crew must follow the local laws or have their membership revoked, that would mean no work. Non-guild members were regulated to hauling illegal loads for little pay and many hazards. She could not take chances with her standing in the guild.

"I'll bring her in to meet you."

"But...." It was too late, he had already gone to open the door. Lila was trying to think about what to do. May she could run and get off planet before she got shackled with a kid. Damn her brother for not telling her and for being conveniently missing.

 

Chapter 4

 

The door opened and in stepped a young girl. She was thin and had mousey brown hair just past her shoulders, but it was her light gray eyes that caught Lila's attention. Lila just stood there not sure what to say.

The girl spoke first, "You're Aunt Lila?" The girl said with a bit of contempt in her voice. "Dad said you looked like a model from the vids, guess he exaggerated."

Lila knew she had not placed much importance on her physical appearance since her dismissal from the force, but she didn't think she looked that bad. After all she had just spent a fortune getting primped. "And you are?"

The girl rolled her eyes, "Your niece, Autumn West."

"Sorry,  but I didn't know I had a niece. I didn't know Jeffrey was even married." She felt totally inadequate trying to relate to this kid. "Sorry about your mother."

"Thanks , but you didn't know her, so it doesn't matter." She flipped the hair out of her face with a twist of her head.

This wasn't going so well, thought Lila.

"Hrrump," the port master cleared his throat. "If you would sign these papers, she's all yours."

Lila was ready to argue with him. "But I can ....."

The girl said, "It's okay, I understand you don't want or need a kid hanging around. I'll just go to an orphanage or maybe get hired on a cruise ship as a maid or if worse comes to worse I'll live on the streets. I'll be fine."

Lila felt like she was 2 inches tall. After all, this girl was her brother's child, her niece, her flesh and blood. She couldn't just ignore her. Lila hated having to be forced into a corner where she had no control. Damn! "Where do I sign?" Out of the corner of her eye saw the girl smile. Lila had no idea how she was going to handle this situation. None of her military training or experience had included having custody of a child.

Lila signed the papers. "Do you have any luggage?"

"Just my backpack," she replied pointing to the bag by the door.

"Well, come on then." Lila walked to the door. Autumn grabbed her backpack and followed behind. "I have to stop at this ba..., place and negotiate a deal for a cargo. I'll need you to stay quiet, can you do that?"

"You won't even know I'm there."

What on earth was she going to do with a kid in tow. Many of the places she had to frequent wouldn't allow kids in their business. There were some places even Lila wouldn't take a kid. Another mouth to feed. Where was she going to sleep? Didn't kids have to go to school? So many questions, too few answers. The walk was long and silent. They arrived at the bar. "Remember, be quiet." Autumn pulled an imaginary zipper across her lips.

They walked in, Lila motioned for Autumn to sit at a table. "Order something to drink," then thought again, "Nothing alcoholic!"

Autumn gave a mock salute, "Aye, aye, mein kapitan." Lila wasn't sure if the kid was being a smart-aleck or respectful. She could usually read people pretty well, but her whole life had been turned upside down in the last hour.

Lila looked around a found the person she was looking for. "Hymee, you old space slug, how's it hanging?"

Hymee rearranged his three legs and his considerable belly. "Captain West nice to see you. I see you've picked up a new crew member." He said in a gravelly voice.

Lila frowned, great it seemed like everyone knew about Autumn. Hymee probably knew about her before she did. "Yeah, my niece, gotta watch her until I can find my brother. But I still need a load, got anything headed towards the Burgman system?"

Hymee was the main contact for finding work here. Although not connected with the government he knew every bit of business on and off the planet. Plus his brain was like a computer, he kept track of billions of tons of cargo and knew what ship had what cargo. "Closest thing I have is a load of farm implements bound for the Vega system, not too far from Burgman. If you're interested it can leave in the morning."

Lila thought farm implements coming from Hymee was suspicious. "What's the percentage?"

"The standard 25%."

Unbeknown to Lila, Autumn had wandered over and heard the conversation. "I've heard about the uprisings on Ralop, seems to me farming equipment is about the last thing they would need. I think they would prefer to beat their plowshares into spears."

Lila whipped around about to pop the kid in the mouth. Autumn continued, "I'm guessing 30%  would be a more plausible arrangement for such a valuable and risky haul."

If Hymee had a mouth he would have smiled, "Very astute, little one, you would make a good negotiator."

Lila was puzzled, "What about Ralop, is it true that they are in a revolution?"

Hymee cleared his throat, "A political situation does seem to in progress."

"And you were only going to give me 25%, when 30% is standard when delivering in a danger zone. I'm really pissed off by that."

"Just business, one must stay current on events around the galaxy. Thanks to your little partner I just lost 5% profit. I am impressed. When you tire of hanging with Aunty Lila,  I have a job waiting for you."

Autumn smiled, "Nice to know I have options."

"You can load up in the morning at dock 17." Hymee turned back to his drink and negotiations were over.

Lila got up and left the bar. Autumn followed.  "I know I was supposed to be quiet, but he was going to cheat you, I had to say something."

Lila was pissed,  not because Autumn had spoke up, but because she had missed an obvious opportunity. "No, you were right to speak up. You made an extra 5% on the haul. I made a big mistake. Thank you for watching my back. When we finish the run those credits will belong to you."

Autumn perked up, "How much is that?"

"Almost 4k credits ."

"Really, wow I've never had that much money before."

"You earned it, but with great wealth comes great debts, you'll owe me for food and lodging on the trip."

"A girl just can't catch a break, thanks Aunty."

Lila couldn't help from smiling, " And don't call me Aunty, makes me sound old."

"Aye, aye mein kapitan."

This time it was Lila that rolled her eyes. It would be an interesting trip.

 

Chapter 5

 

Lila called Mike on the compad. "It looks like we are going to have a passenger, you'll need to prepare the other deep sleep module. She's human, 13 earth years, 95 pounds, and 4'9"."

"This is your niece, I presume."

Lila was surprised, "How did you know about that?"

"I monitor all the communication channels. It seems that you are quite the celebrity."

"Nice to know my personal life is open to the general public. So am I the heroine or the villain?"

"The culture of this planet places great value on family, I would estimate your rating jumped 100% on the heroine scale."

"Maybe I can get a discount on supplies. Send me a list of what we'll need for two people for two weeks planetside and we'll stay awake on the cargo run."

"You going to look for your brother?"

"Yeah, got a daughter to return to him."

"You could keep her, she could be some help to you, or so I heard!"

Lila grinned, "Smart-aleck, but she's not a piece of property, she has a father and needs to be with him. Besides I'm not exactly the role model for her."

"Have you asked her what she wants?"

"You're fading out, must be sunspots." Lila touched the disconnect button. She didn't want to debate about Autumn with a freaking computer. No, she hadn't asked Autumn what she wanted to do. Lila knew that she didn't want kids and didn't need a partner. She was fine by herself.

Autumn returned from the restroom. Lila's compad buzzed alerting her that the list from Mike had arrived. "I have the list of supplies. Let's go shopping.

Autumn followed behind a few paces. "You can walk beside me, you know." Autumn crept up beside her. "How long has it been since you've seen your dad?"

"Not since the divorce when I was five."

"Maybe you should start at the beginning, I've been out of the loop."

As they shopped for supplies Autumn told her story. "My mom met Jeffrey while she was in grad school. They fell in love immediately and got married, I was two at the time."

Lila was taken be surprise, again! "You're not Jeffrey’s birth daughter?"

"No, I was an accident during mom's high school days. But she never regretted having me. She always told me I was the light of her life. Jeffrey always treated me like his natural daughter. In fact I didn't know until the divorce I wasn't his real daughter. Custody became an issue during the divorce, but Jeffrey finally conceded that mom would be better suited to raise a girl. Jeffrey was married to his job anyway, that was part of the cause for the divorce."

Lila had no idea so much had transpired in her brother's life. She realized how much she missed her family. She had been doing just fine on her own, or at least she felt she had been. She wasn't getting rich, but she was paying the bills and keeping busy. Her love life didn't exist, but that didn't bother her all that much, but now that her niece was here, she felt an empty space in her life that she had not been aware of before.

Autumn continued, "I haven't seen him since. My mom got a job as a resource officer on Mars. She contracted an infection of a Martian bacteria that had no cure and she died three months ago. I spent a few weeks with CPS while they tried to contact Jeffrey. When they couldn't find him they saw your name as next of kin and they eventually located your whereabouts. And here I am."

Lila wasn't sure how to respond to all this new information. "Why didn't you go with your dad after the divorce?"

"Like I said, he is married to his job. We both realized he was not going to be able to deal with a teenage daughter."

"And I can? I know less about raising a kid than anyone."

"Jeffrey said you were always the mature and responsible one. He said you had been an officer in the Earth Force. He was very impressed with that."

Lila wondered how he would feel about her present job of hauling cargo. Not exactly a glamorous job. And responsible yes, but just for herself. She asked the question she was afraid to hear the answer to. "What do you want?"

Autumn smiled, "See asking didn't hurt that much. I don't want to stay where I'm not wanted and I can adapt to just about anything. But I would prefer to stay with you. I think I've shown that I can help you and I can carry my weight. Besides, you seriously need someone to help you with grooming and fashion!"

In spite of her misgivings Lila laughed, "Yeah, I probably do. We've got a load that will take us close to where your dad is. We'll try to find him and see where it goes from there." Something about having Autumn with her seemed to fill a void in her life. It was a feeling that was new to her, she had not decided if that was a good or bad thing.

Autumn heard the "we" in Lila's statement and smiled. "I can live with that."

Lila thought it was a fair proposal. "Let's get the supplies back to the ship. We have work to do before we load up in the morning."

"Aye, aye mein kapitan."

They collected the supplies and took the ferry back to the ship.

 

Chapter 6

 

Together Lila and Autumn unloaded the supplies from the ferry to the Dekram. They stored the food in the freezer. "Mike, this is Autumn, she will be a crew member with all the privileges and responsibilities that come with them. She will also need to continue her school work, make sure she doesn't fall behind."

"School? I thought you were the cool one!"

"Nice try. I was in the service long enough to know a snow job when I see one. School is not an option."

"I'm a teenager, I had to try. But I would expect nothing less."

Lila was pleased she had passed the first test. "As a crew member you will have access to Mike and all operations of the ship. Mike will provide all the instruction and practice so that in an emergency you could take command of the ship. Since this run is only three weeks, we'll stay awake so you can learn the ropes."

"So do I swab the decks too," Autumn said with a playful lilt in her voice.

"Unfortunately, in zero gee that would cause problems, but I'll find a reasonable substitute."

"We'll start with a tour of the ship and each of the functions," Mike said. "Follow me." A light flashed at the end of the corridor and Autumn pushed off and floated towards the light.

She had to clear out the extra crew bunk. It was in the same room, but it had some of her things strapped to it. She actually didn't have much, just a few mementos from her time in the service and a couple of keepsakes from her parents. She wasn't the sentimental type, instead she preferred living in the present. She stored her things in the locker and made her way to the bridge. In the morning they would load the cargo and begin the journey.

"Good morning," Lila said as she sipped coffee from the premixed bubble drink. Drinking coffee from a bubble wasn't as pleasing as sipping from a cup. No aroma, no steam rising from the cup, but it was the only way to drink in zero g.

Autumn floated to the food dispenser and got her own bubble of coffee. "I guess morning in space is just as bad as it is planetside."

"Not the morning person I take it."

"Duh! I'm a teenager, none of them like the morning."

"Technically we don't have a morning. We can keep the lights on any cycle we want."

Autumn took a swig from her bubble,"Doesn't matter about the cycle, anytime I wake up is morning."

Lila smiled, "Spoken like a true believer." Lila put some eggs and sausage in the micro. "You want some?"

Autumn nodded, "Is it edible?"

"Barely, but one has to eat." Even with all the available technology of putting people into space, no reliable way of keeping fresh food had been invented. Thus, most food was freeze dried and later heated up. This was one reason Lila and most spacers placed a high value on planetside food when they where in port. "At least we won't starve. Normally I would be in deep sleep and wouldn't be eating all all that much. My taste buds will probably go on strike from eating for the next three weeks."

"Think of it as reeducating your taste buds, that's a positive thing."

"You seem to think of everything in a positive view."

Autumn paused, normally she wouldn't open up to anyone. She hadn't even bared her soul to her mother, but there was some compelling reason and she didn't know what it was that she felt completely at ease with Lila. "I've had to be positive or I would have gone crazy. It wasn't easy losing a father, especially twice, even though I didn't know my birth father. Losing Jeffrey was very traumatic, I really loved him. He always treated me like his little princess. Then mom had to raise me once again and having one parent was not the same as two."

Lila listened and gained an entirely new insight into Jeffrey. She never imagined that he would be such a good father, hell she never even knew he was married.

Autumn continued, "When my mom was infected, I was devastated. I watched her die, die slowly. The bacteria slowly ate her body, then her mind. At the end, she was trapped in a body she couldn't control and then her mind just vanished. One day she was there and the next she wasn't."

Lila saw the tears form and drift away from Autumn's eyes forming little dots of moisture in the zero g.

"Sorry, I don't usually cry."

Lila drifted over to her and did what just came natural and embraced Autumn. "It's okay to cry."

Autumn snuggled into Lila's arms. "I really miss them."

Lila felt her throat tighten, "We'll find Jeffrey, I promise!" Lila knew that she would try with everything she had to keep her promise, but she also knew it would be difficult. She would hate herself if Autumn lost her father and she her brother. She was not as positive as Autumn.

 

Chapter 7

 

Mike set the ship on a course for the Burgman system. It would be a long haul for Lila since usually she was in deep sleep, but at least this time she would have company. Routine ship operations were actually very repetitive. Once the ship was pointed in the right direction and maximum speed was obtained all she had to do was make sure she didn't run into a stray asteroid. Once the engines shut down just routine inspections of all the equipment filled most of her time.

She used the time to teach Autumn all the workings of the ship. School was in session.

"I never thought about all the equipment needed to keep a ship running."

Lila was taking the cover off the UVAC system that regulated the air quality. "This cools the air by briefly exposing it to the vacuum of space, no refrigerants needed. If the air needs heated the air is run past the reactor. Carbon activated filters embedded with micro-algae that purifies the air."

Autumn was absorbing the information at an incredible rate, her high IQ allowing her to not only absorb, but comprehend all of it. "At least it's not as gross as how the water is recycled."

"Yeah, the hybrid flytraps do taking a little getting used to, but they are very efficient and they use the solid waste for their own nourishment."

Autumn followed Lila's instructions and replaced the filters and inspected all the air lines. "It's almost as if the ship is alive."

Lila explained, "It was discovered that using live organisms as much as possible made for a more efficient system. The living things don't wear out, they self replicate, plus there is a built in survival mode in living things."

"A very smart move." Autumn replaced the cover. She had mastered using tools in a zero g environment. Lila had always had trouble compensating for Newton's law usually accompanied by a string of vulgar words, but that was when she was alone. Now with Autumn she found her temper had mellowed. In fact her whole personality had calmed down, she was perplexed by that.

"So what about Mike, is he machine or alive?"

"He's more alive than not, but he is attached to the ship so there will always be a part of him that will be a machine. His brain is organic, cloned from chimpanzees, but it is mechanically attached to the ship and he will never be able to disconnect from the ship."

"So what happens if the ship gets destroyed or wears out?"

"Then he will  cease to exist."

"That's really sad. Does he have feelings?"

"Ask him, he's always listening, unless you tell him to give you privacy."

Autumn looked at the ceiling, "Mike do you have feelings about dying?"

"Technically I am not alive according to other sentient beings. But I do believe that I am alive and I would like to remain that way."

"Are you afraid of dying?"

"No, it happens to everything, it is part of living."

"Are you lonely?"

Lila was mesmerized by the conversation between Mike and Autumn. In the three years on the ship she had never thought to ask him questions like that. She just thought of him as part of the ship.

"No, I have Lila to talk to and now there is you."

"Well, I expect to have many more conversations with you. I find you most interesting."

"I look forward to picking your brain too!"

Autumn laughed, "And he's a comedian too!"

Mike assisted Autumn with her studies, although she didn't need a lot of help. Lila continued to check all the systems. It was a chore she did on the shorter runs. Since she was the captain, engineer, and navigator in one she was responsible for keeping everything in working order. Very seldom did she have to put the ship in dry dock, except for repairs to the hull or replacing a major component.

Lila added the memory chips to Mike's system and he was very appreciative.

"I need to inspect the hull, interested in taking a space walk?" Lila asked.

"Sure sounds like fun."

Lila led Autumn to the docking hatch which doubled as an exit. "You'll be attached to the ship with a safety line and your boots are magnetic. Keep an eye on your readout for any messages from Mike."

"Is it scary?"

 "It's little daunting the first time. There's really no danger, you'll be connected to the ship and I'll be there, you never go out by yourself."

"Didn't you go out by yourself?"

"Most of the time I waited until we were in dry dock. One time one of the antennas was hit by a meteor and I had to go replace it, but it's not something I would do on a regular basis."

Autumn took a deep breath, "Okay, let's do it!"

Lila check Autumn's helmet and then instructed her to do the same for her. Using the radio Lila said, "Push the red button and wait for the inner door to open." Autumn followed the instructions. "Now walk inside." They went into the small airlock. There were two red buttons about three feet apart on the wall. "The buttons have to be pressed at the same time to prevent accidentally opening the door. After you open the door attach your safety line to the hook on the hull. Then you can step into the void. Your line will reel out automatically and retract when you press the button on your sleeve."

Autumn inspected the array of buttons on her sleeve and the small screen displaying her vital signs. She heard Mike's voice reassuring her. "I'll be watching you every step of the way."

"Thanks." Autumn felt her heart race slightly as she reached out and pressed the two red buttons. She could hear the pumps remove the air and the door slid open. She looked into space and her breath left her. The darkness completely enveloped them, it was like turning the lights off in an inner room of a house. The voice she heard startled her.

"Awesome, huh?"

"Not at all what I expected. All the vids show stars and bright lights."

"Just move your head forward to turn on your helmet light. Yeah, deep space is actually empty and dark. If we were in a system there would be light from the sun and it wouldn't be as dark as it is here." Lila attached her line and Autumn followed suit. "Outside lights please." Mike turned on the exterior lights that illuminated the hull. "I'll show you how to attach to the ship." Lila pushed off into space twisting slightly to orient her feet towards the ship. She activated the line to reel in and her feet lightly touched the ship and the magnetic boots firmly attached her to the hull.

Autumn took the step into space and tried to twist like she saw Lila do, but she over compensated and inertia put her into a spin. "What do I do now?"

Lila could hear a slight waver in her voice, but was impressed with Autumn's self-control. She had seen many cadets completely lose it the first time they did a EVA. "You're doing fine. Just give your CO2 jets a little shot to slow your spin, then another shot to point them towards the ship. Once you're lined up activate the winch and reel yourself in."

Lila watched Autumn carefully follow her instructions. Again Lila was surprised at the mental and physical control, it took her just a few tries and then she was standing next to Lila.

"I did it!"

Lila could see the huge smile through the faceplate of Autumn's helmet. "Very good, it normally takes a person a half hour to do what you did in five minutes."

Together they walked the hull of the ship looking for damage. Autumn was surprised to find that the main part of the ship was just a big box. There was a short protrusion out of one side that looked like an inverted funnel.

Sensing her confusion Lila explained, "That," she pointed at the protrusion, "is the dimonium drive, powered by the dimon crystal that breaks down releasing scads of energy. I forget just how much."

Mike interjected, "That would be 10 to the 64th power kilojoules of energy per gram. That's enough power for about five years of continuous use. Currently we have 2.55 years of power left."

"Thank you, Mike," Lila said. "The ship is square so it's easier to store the cargo. With no air resistance the shape is irrelevant. Another fact the vids fail to accurately portray."

"Once the shock wears off, it's actually very peaceful." Autumn whispered softly.

Lila knew what she meant. The darkness and silence was like being in a sense deprivation tank. Only small pinpricks of light could be seen from the far-away stars. "It can be very relaxing."

After a few minutes of solitude they continued surveying the hull they headed back inside. "That was really cool, thanks."

"Glad you liked it, but it's part of your education."

Autumn grinned, "Sounds like you are planning on a new crew member."

Lila smiled back, "Not necessarily, just a smart move, everyone needs to know the safety issues and you have to pay your way, this ain't no cruise ship."

 They got out of their suits and stored them in the closets. "Well, thanks for the education."

The rest of the trip was without any significant events, which pleased Lila. Autumn spent time with Mike learning more about the ship and continued her studies.

"We are docked and ready to unload." Mike informed them.

"We'll get back en route to the Burgman system to look for your dad as soon as we unload."

Autumn said, "You can find another load, I don't want you to go broke or anything."

"Not a problem, I haven't had to split the profits with anyone, so I've been able to save up a comfortable cushion. Besides I want to find your dad."

"Can't wait to get rid of me, huh."

"No, that isn't the reason at all. I'm worried about Jeffrey, after all, he is my brother. Every day he is missing is a bad sign."

Chastised, Autumn apologized, "Sorry, it's just that I've really enjoyed being on the ship."

Lila had also enjoyed the company. She had forgotten how important human interaction was to one's own well-being. "It's okay, I've enjoyed having your company. You've learned so fast that I would trust you with the ship."

 

Chapter 8

 

It only took a few hours to unload the cargo and after getting paid they were back in space headed to the Burgman system, just two days away.

"I'm a little hesitant about taking you planetside," Lila told Autumn. "It could be dangerous and I would hate for anything to happen to you."

Autumn knew Lila was right, but it was her father. "I know and I appreciate your concern, but he is my dad and I feel like I need to look for him."

"Have you ever fired a rasper?" Lila asked. The rasper was a standard particle beam weapon that fired a high energy impulse of radiation. At low settings it would disable any nervous system and at high settings it would destroy the body's cells. It had been a very successful weapon for the last fifty years.

"No, I've never fire a weapon at all."

"If you go down you're going to have to be ready to use one, so we'll have to practice." Lila had picked up two pistols and two rifle raspers awhile back for emergency use. "We'll also have to take immunization shots to protect us from the local germs. One side effect is we'll be sick for twelve hours."

"A small price to pay if we can rescue Jeffrey."

"We'll start the rasper practice in the morning, if you can get good then you can go down."

Autumn grinned, "Deal!"

The next morning after a quick breakfast they headed to the cargo bay. "We'll be using low settings. The raster is safe to use on a spacecraft, that's one reason it's used by just about everyone." Lila handed her the rifle and showed her how to operate the rifle.

Autumn shouldered the weapon and aimed at the target Lila had set up fifty meters away. Sh


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