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6: I eat you

The current brought them evidence of the Icarus' fall within hours. Paige knew that Icarus had been heavily forested, but the amount that had been spilled off the vimana amazed her. The floating debris rolled toward them on the waves until the ocean was carpeted with green and brown. Drift flowers, naturally designed to ride the waves, reached them first. Then drop nuts, riding among the flowers like bald hillsides. Finally the broken bodies of dead land animals.

The chance of fouling the longboat rotors was too great. They would have to wait until the current carried the debris away. The repair to the fresh water tank was simple; filling it was an arduous process of hand-cranking the emergency desalination pump with a painstaking rate of one ounce of water per three minutes. They lacked the materials, though, to fix the hole punched through the crew's quarters. Rather than sit idle, stewing on what might lay ahead, Paige set the crew to fishing the drop nuts out of the flotsam. If she ended up buy a new engine, they'd need things to sell to raise money. With Jones standing guard in the sniper nest, the crew used the long boat hooks to herd the nuts into the cargo net to be lifted up to the deck. There Becky wrestled the large nuts out of the wet netting and rolled them into place to be dried.

"The birds I understand how they got up to the vimanas." Hillary prodded the body of a large furred animal with her boat hook. It rolled in the water, revealing that it was four-legged and hoofed. "But how did that get up there?"

"One of the many mysteries of life." Paige checked the nuts on the deck. Thanks to the baking sun of the cloudless day, the husk was already dry to the touch. "Take a break from fishing and turn these. Once they're dried, we'll move them to the cargo hold and fish more up."

Hillary made a sound of disgust. "One of the many mysteries of life. We're not savages. We still know how to build jump drives, terraform hostile planets into paradise, and alter our DNA. If we put our minds to it, we should be able to figure out anything. Can't you even guess?"

"I don't know enough to guess," Paige said.

"What is that suppose to mean? Don't know enough." Hillary shoved away the animal.

Surprisingly, it was Jones that came to Paige's defense. "How many life stages does that animal have? Kites start as nymphs. That animal there might have wings in a different stage in life."

"It could have evolved on the vimana." Avery said. "We don't know how old the vimanas are geologically speaking."

"Or devolved." Paige said. "Theoretically you could create a species that could fly up to the vimana and yet the next generation be wingless."

"Hell, it could have been catapulted up," Avery said. "It might have been the only one of its kind on Icarus."

"Catapulted?" Hillary said.

Avery nodded. "Ya-ya supposedly experimented with catapults a hundred years ago. They shot animals at passing vimanas."

"They did not!" Hillary snapped.

"Did too," Avery said.

"Hillary." Paige said as the girl opened her mouth to automatically deny the possibility. Avery had a way of mixing nearly believable lies with unbelievable truth, so you were always sure he was lying, but every time you tried calling him on something that seemed too unbelievable, he could furnish proof.

"Icarus does not pass over Yamoto-Yamagochi." The girl said after a minute of outraged silence.

"I'm just saying that if Ya-ya tried it, then maybe someone else tried it too," Avery said.

"Why they'd stop trying?" Becky asked. "Living up there on the vimanas would be better than being down here on the water."

Ranantan whistled in a negative tone. "Stay with ship. Tech is good."

"So dismantle the ship and haul it up, piece by piece." Becky said.

"The only thing you can land on an vimana is organic material like the kites," Avery said.

"Do you think that's really true?" Jones asked from her perch, her heavy rifle across her knees. "That spaceship hit Icarus. If you can hit an vimana, maybe you can land on it."

Paige shook her head. She had tried not to think of it, but the memory of the accident had replayed again and again. There were times she wished she had a different kind of brain, one that didn't see life as puzzles that needed to be picked apart. "The ship only grazed it. Icarus was rolling even as the ship skimmed its topside." Paige mimed vimana and spaceship repulsing each other even as the ship's trajectory brought them together. "Like two polarized magnets, they repelled each other. Don't think the ship would have survived otherwise."

"Did you see what kind of ship it was?" Jones asked. "Human? Minotaur?"

"Obnaoian?" Ranantan asked hopefully. The ships from his race were few and far between and rarely survived the harsh weather long.

"It was a human ship," Paige told the little alien, and then added for the others' sake, "A Novaya Rus frigate. Probably lost its bridge when it clipped the vimana."

"We're going to go help them?" Becky asked.

"We've got enough trouble of our own." Paige told the girl what she would understand. It was more complex than that. Military new arrivals were always heavily armed and viewed everyone and everything with suspicion. When their command structure survived, they often practiced "eminent domain" that was really piracy. When their command structure died in the crash, they imploded into violence. "We can't be the only humans that saw them come down. Someone not hip deep in trouble will contact them."

"Ship!" Mitch shouted from the crow's nest—the farthest point from Charlene that Paige could put him. "Ship off the port bow!"

Paige scrambled up to the bridge where Orin was already scanning the horizon. With the debris in the water, it took her several minutes to pick out the low-riding craft.

"Good eyes, Mitch!" She called back studying the form.

Orin made a sound of discovery, indicating he'd caught sight of it too. "That's a civ raft, isn't it?"

"I think so." Civ rafts were wide, haphazard looking things. She could identify the nesting dome, the salvage heaps, and the holding nets.

Like all sentient life forms, the civ could have only reached the Sargasso after their race developed wormhole technology. Their rafts—if you scrapped off all the junk and muck—bore witness that they were once skilled builders. The bare bones were of a synthetic thermoplastic polymer that floated and resisted saturation by water. And the construction across the various rafts was too uniform to suggest that they been lucky and raided someone else's technology. But whatever level of civilization they had when they came to the Sargasso, they lost. The civ had reverted back to complete savages.

"Is it tagged?" Orin scanned the raft. "I don't see anything."

Paige looked for symbols that humans painted onto civ rafts. "There's no ear tags on it. It's not a tribe we know."

"I think we should stay away from them. We're all but dead in the water. I don't want to end up lunch for them."

The civ saw everything as food, regardless of sentience, and they ate their prey alive. It was a nasty end, and Paige didn't want to think about the possibility that survivors of the crashed frigate might have been picked up by the civ. Statistically, it was highly unlikely. The frigate would have traveled another hundred miles or more before hitting water. The slim chance still put a shiver down her back.

On the other hand, the civ salvaged everything in their path. The definition of ownership for civ seemed to be that only when you couldn't pry something up did it actually belong to anyone. The trick in dealing with the civ, thus, was making sure you didn't get stuck to something they owned. Considering that they kept spider mites as pets, that was easier said than done.

"They might have a converter in their salvage heaps," Paige said.

"You're not thinking of trading with them? This tribe has never even seen a human before."

"All the tribes we've traded with have spoken the same language. I can do this. Let's wait for the debris field to thin down and then I'll take the launch across."

Orin was shaking his head slowly. Paige knew that he saw the same dangers that she did and didn't like the odds.

"We need a converter," she said. "Or we'll stay dead in the water."

Orin glanced at their dead radio and a frown quirked the corner of his mouth as he calculated the odds of help coming to them. "I'll do it then."

"Orin . . ." She caught herself before she finished her thought. Either the Bailey's odd genetic mix or something in the Sargasso itself had given her family remarkable gifts. Each of them had their own strengths and weaknesses. Orin was her equal in reading people, and thus a capable translator. He didn't have, though, that odd mental quirk that Paige thought of as the white space, where jumps in logic took place, and answers came from seemingly nowhere. He wouldn't have her edge when faced with complications.

Unfortunately, he read what she had left unsaid and his frown deepened.

She poked him in the gut. "Suck it up. We've got too much on the line. I'm the best choice and you know it."

"I'd feel better if I couldn't kick your butt in a fair fight."

"I'll just have to fight dirty."

He scowled at her for attempting to make him laugh. She poked him in the stomach again.

"Hey, I've got the easy job," she said. "You have to deal with the crew while I'm gone."

* * *

First week out, she'd made a rule that only she and Orin were allowed on the bridge to keep all of her crew from cramming into the room. Thus all of them were outside the door when she opened it.

"We're going to trade with the civ." She forestalled them from all asking questions at once. "Charlene, we need something to trade the civ. Something that will take them time to unload from the launch. Something awkward to handle."

Charlene gave a resentful look for being ordered away first, but she went, taking Mitch with her. That boy had to grow a backbone.

Paige continued to hand out duties. "Hillary, take Becky and get everything off the launch except the motor. Even the bumpers. Avery and Manny, I want to be able to move the Rosetta if the current shifts and brings the raft toward us. Ran, I'll need a headset that will let me talk to Jones." She repeated the last in Obnaoian, just to make sure he understood.

That left only Jones to ask questions. "I'm coming as your backup, right?"

"Yes. This is how it's going to work. Trading with the civ is like cooperative stealing. I'll go on board their raft, find what I want, and then start the trade. At that point, they'll take everything they want—which will be everything they can carry away—and I can take anything I can carry away."

Jones nodded her understanding. "What do I need to watch out for?"

"The biggest danger is their numbers. There's anywhere from fifty to two hundred of them onboard. If things go hostile, they'll tear us to shreds."

"They can try. What weapons do they have?"

"Nothing more sophisticated than knives."

Jones frowned down at Paige with her mouth shifted slightly to the side, as if rolling something about in her mouth, trying it out before letting it out. Finally, the woman asked, "I take it we can't do a preemptive strike?"

"No!" Paige cried. "They're intelligent. Primitive. But intelligent."

"Yeah, I thought that would be your answer. You know, I admire your morals, but they're damn inconvenient sometimes."

"They're not supposed to be convenient." Paige grumbled. She found it a little unnerving to discover that the most heavily armed person on board had such a homicidal attitude. "You have to fight to keep your bearings or the current will take you where it wants; the easy course is also the one that leaves you helpless."

Jones made a short disgusted noise. "Sometimes you don't have a choice."

"You always have a choice," Paige said firmly. She considered switching to someone else to back her up. No. If things went badly, Jones had the right mindset and reactions. In the future, with more civilized races, though, Jones would be a bad choice as backup.

Luckily Charlene and Mitch returned, saving Paige from clashing farther with Jones over morality. The teenage lovers carried a large rough wooden barrel which they eased down onto the deck cautiously.

"I think these will work well." Charlene pried the lid off the barrel. Inside were dark green glass blanks.

Paige picked one of the blanks up. They were slightly bigger than a softball, slick and difficult to hold. To a civ, with their smaller hands, the blanks would be nearly impossible to carry more than one, thus perfect for her needs. "Thanks Charlene," Paige put the blank back into the barrel. "We have like ten barrels of these?"

"Yeah," Charlene said.

"Can you pour two barrels worth into the bottom of the launch? And be careful, they'll shatter easily."

Charlene nodded her understanding. She and Mitch heaved up the barrel and carried it toward the launch.

Jones waited until the lovers were out of earshot before asking, "What were those?"

"Glass blanks." Paige had noticed that Jones didn't like to appear ignorant among her peers. There might also be an upper limit to Jones's willingness to admit weakness to her Captain. With that thought, Paige expanded her answer. "Everyone has sand enough to make glass but not the means to heat the sand until it forms glass in useable quantities. Minotaurs have foundries. They make these blanks in bulk. Humans reshape the glass to what they need."

"Oh, that's why you don't have glass windows in your houses."

"Why would you use glass in a window?"

"To keep out the weather." Jones's tone was as if she was explaining to a child.

Paige shook her head. "Glass would break in a storm. That's why we have shutters."

Jones breathed out a mix of disbelief and annoyance. "There are ways to make glass tough enough that it can withstand a bullet."

Paige rolled a blank around on her palm considering it. The civ weren't the only ones regressing. She hired on Jones because the woman knew how to maintain and fire the Rosetta's big guns and brought with her a laser rifle. Both her knowledge and her firearm were scarce in the Sargasso. When humans set out to colonize the stars, only the colonies that received a steady supply of people and materials succeeded. While new ships were always arriving at the Sargasso, like the Russian frigate they saw earlier, they rarely expected to find themselves stranded, nor landed safely.

What would happen to them if the humans outside the Sargasso lost their war to the nefrim and ceased to arrive? The question threatened to drag her into the white zone for an answer. She shook it off; even without checking that sharply analytical part of her brain, she sensed it would be a bad thing. They needed their constant supply of people like Jones to remind them of things like bullet-strong glass.

"So why are we pouring the blanks into the bottom of the boat?" Jones asked.

"It will take the civ longer to move them and give me more time to get a converter off their raft," Paige said.

"And if you run out of time?"

"Be ready for a fight."

* * *

Because of the need to keep equipment to a bare minimum, they were quickly ready. Jones pulled out the pieces of her combat armor that survived the sinking of her spaceship. Ran had pieced together a headset for Paige that operated on same frequency as Jones's com-line. Paige made sure that she had her folded bowie knife tucked deep into her hip pocket. They double-checked that the launch's engine was running smoothly, and then they pushed off.

The civ raft was a kilometer long, and as they slowly approached it, it grew until it seemed like an island, complete with rolling hills. The hills, however, were the domed hives and mounds of collected flotsam. Paige had Jones troll past all four sides as she scanned the edge. True to their recent bad luck, she spotted nothing that looked like it might have a converter inside.

"Pull up there, where the edge is low," Paige tucked away the binoculars. "I'm going onboard. Soon as I get across, pull away again."

She moved to the bow, and the moment the two boats kissed sides, she leapt across. The surface of the raft oozed slightly where she landed. The stench of rotting matter, manure and mold was nearly overpowering. She panted through her mouth rather than breathe through her nose and waved to Jones that she was on safe. Jones pulled the launch away, moving to a safe distance from the rafe and then idled there, waiting.

Immediately, Paige was noticed. A civ scuttled up to her, its five eyes gleaming like onyx marbles, opening its long thin snout to hiss at her, exposing all its sharp teeth. She held her hands up to her mouth, cupping them so her fingers took the place of teeth, and gave the shuttering hissed greeting back. "I eat you! I eat you!"

"Mine! Mine! All mine!" It cried gesturing at piles of salvage. "I eat you!"

"That mine! That mine! All mine!" She gestured toward the launch. "I eat you!"

Ownership established and proper threats exchanged, she left the civ pacing the edge of the raft, eyeing her goods. While they couldn't prove that the civ were telepathic, it would certainly explain why an exchange with one would work with all of them. After the first encounter, they ignored her except an occasional, "I eat you!" hissed in her direction.

Civ raft ships made her skin crawl. Everything was covered by a thin layer of excrement and viscera supporting an ecosystem of fungus and plants that the civ's pet spider mites lived off of. Spider mites' eggs, little pale globes of tissue, spotted everything. She tried not to shudder too hard when the omnipresent spider mites skittered across her skin—but she did make sure that they didn't pause. The civ used the spider mites' silk to stick down their belongings.

She passed the holding nets, careful not to touch the sticky strands. They held animals from Icarus, drugged senseless by the mite venom. In smaller nets the silk was woven into fine cloth, capturing both fish and the water needed to keep it alive. No humans, though, nor anything else she recognized as sentient.

Evidence of human contact was everywhere. A life preserver. A deck chair. A set of signal flags. Some of it was nearly lost under the spider mites that worked to attach it to the raft.

"Have you found anything yet?" Jones's voice came over the headset.

"They've been in human water for a while," Paige told her. "But everything so far has all been stuff that floats. They could have picked it up in open water after a storm. For a converter, they would have to salvage a wreck."

"Is there anything non-buoyant?"

"Not yet." Paige clambered over a mound and found a group of civ eating something four legged and furred. While the aliens feasted on its hindquarters, the creature still panted, its eyes flicking toward her movement. Paige whimpered and scrambled backwards, slipped, and fell with a cry. The spider mites skittered toward her. She leapt to her feet.


"I'm fine! I'm fine. I'm okay. I'm fine." It was taking all her control to keep from bolting from the raft. Frightened as she was, she couldn't leave without a converter. If Fenrir's Rock had been wiped out, the next storm could be the Rosetta's last without a converter.

"I don't see anything outside on the salvage heaps. They might have something inside one of the hives."

"You're not going inside are you?"

She crouched at the entrance, staring down the low tunnel, panting out her fear.

"If they take you down in there, we're not going to be able to get you out," Jones warned her.

"When are you going to learn? The correct response is 'it's going to be fine?'"

Jones gave a dry humorless laugh. "Go in, kid, and you're on your own."

This is what it came down to. Being so fucking scared and knowing you had to go on. She was shaking as she got down on her hands and knees. One last deep breath for courage, and she crawled into the hive.

* * *

The dark tunnel connected to a dimly lit chamber. Light seeped in through what looked like paper-thin oiled skins. She didn't want to think too long on what kind of skins the civ might have used. There were four tunnels leading out of the chamber, each so low she'd have to go on her hands and knees. She couldn't imagine the civ dragging engine parts through the low corridors, but she couldn't be sure until she explored them all.

* * *

One would have never guessed that the civ actually used technology from the outside of the ship, but buried deep inside the hive, she found evidence they did retain some knowledge of technology. Machinery that she recognized, and some she didn't, sat among the organic matter, as out of place as a wrench in a packrat's nest. Did they actually use it, or like the rodent, just liked it for the 'shiny' factor? She ignored the equipment that she didn't know; it would take too long to figure out how to get them open and how they worked.

In one chamber she found a Red combat suit, its distress signal recently activated. The beacon light flared the room to red brilliance before dropping the area to utter darkness. A suit wouldn't have a converter but it would have infiltration scanners. If they still worked, she could . . .

The beacon flared red again. With a sudden deep-throated growl, something large moved in the shadows. The light gleamed red like blood on bared teeth.

Paige yelped and scuttled backwards, but caught herself at the door.

"Bailey?" Jones's voice was weirdly comforting.

"They've got some fucking animal down here," Paige said.

"Not an animal." The slurred Standard came from that mouth full of teeth.

"Oh, fuck." Paige whispered and edged closer for a better look.

It was a Red male, furred over in reaction to stress, wearing shreds of a Novaya Rus uniform, pinned into place by webs, and partially senseless with venom. It growled a deep rumbling warning. Who knew what the poison was doing to its mind?

"Get me out of here." The Red snarled. "I'm not an animal. I'm human. I'm human."

"Bailey?" Jones said as the room dropped into darkness.

"They've got a Novaya Rus Red stuck to the wall." Paige whispered.

There was a minute of silence from Jones, and then, "That's not our concern. Find the converter and get out. We can't be playing heroes. We're too thin here."

It was unthinkable to leave him there, living food for the civ. But Jones was right. She was deep in the hive with Jones as her only backup. And the Rosetta was floating helpless without the converter.

The beacon flared to brilliance, and the red glared at her from his prison of webbing.

"Get me the fuck out of here," he growled.

"I don't know if I can." She whispered.

"Just cut me the fuck down and give me a weapon."

Yes, it would seem that simple, but he was tacked down, which made him civ property. If she cut him down, the civ would see it as stealing, unless she did it while trading with them. A trade, however, was the length of time it took the civ to unload the boat, during which time, she could grab anything she wanted. When the boat was empty, the trade would be over. If she started the trade without having a converter in hand, she wouldn't have time to find one.

"Get me down!" The Red shouted as the beacon light turned off, as if he was afraid that she would leave in the cover of the dark.

"I can't," Paige said to let him know she hadn't left—yet.

"Then fucking kill me. I saw what they do to the things they catch. I'm not going through that."

It was a simple and elegant solution. He was so helpless she could put her knife to his throat and, with one clean cut, put him out of his misery. The beacon flared on and she looked into his dark eyes, full of intelligence and anger, and floundered in moral impasse. She wouldn't jeopardize her ship and her family for this stranger, but she couldn't just kill him.

"Just—just give me time. I need to find something, and then I'll come back."

"Fuck you will."

"Yes, I will. You've got to trust me."

The light died. In the dark, he gave a low, rumbling laugh, and muttered something too low in Russian for her to hear.

"I will be back." She promised even though she wasn't sure she would be able to return. "Just wait. I'll be back."

"No, don't leave me . . .please." Even as helpless as he was, he clearly didn't like to beg.

"If I don't find what I'm looking for, none of us will be leaving. I have to find this first."

The light flared on. He glared at her as if he was trying to see to her core. To see if she was telling him the truth. She held his gaze, wanting him to believe in her—it would be kinder to give him hope.

"Hurry then." There was no hope in his voice.

Obviously the combat armor had been his, stripped off by the civ. It was brand new with more bells and whistles than she was used to, but close enough to the Georgetown armor that she could puzzle it out. Luckily the spider mites hadn't tacked down the chest piece; making it free game where the Red wasn't. Judging by the way the spider mites scurried away from armor each time the distress beacon flared on, they viewed it as too dangerous to cement into place. It was intact enough for her to put it on; it was too heavy and awkward to carry otherwise. The helmet was missing, but the backup headset was still slotted into place. She took off her jury-rigged headset and snug the armor's headset into place.

"Did you find one yet?" Jones's voice over the new headset made her jump slightly.

"I'm working on it." True to her luck, the suit's commands were in Russian instead of Standard. Who expected a Red to read Russian? She stumbled through the menus, surprised to find that the system was much more customizable than any she'd worked with before. Usually there was only a small selection of pre-programmed items that the infiltration scanners recognized. Mission targets were downloaded from the command ship; thus the Reds could ignore everything but what they were suppose to find and destroy. It took a few minutes but she managed to program in the converter itself. With the scanners activated, she worked back through the hive.

Three rooms later, the eyepiece highlighted the lines of a converter installed in an excavator buried a foot under the crud. It went way past being tacked down. There was no way she could start digging without first starting a trade.

"Jones, I found one. I'm going to start the trade. You're going to have to let one of the civ on the launch."


"Jones, I'm shit deep in the hive. If I start messing with the civ's stuff without a trade, they're going to tear me to shreds. The only way I'm getting this out is starting a trade—which means they have to be able to carry off what they want too."

Jones huffed but after a minute of silence said, "All right. I'm ready here."

Still, Paige wanted as much time as possible. She scrabbled at the muck until she cleared the access hatch to the excavator's engine. As she lifted the hatch, there was a rush of feet toward her. She turned and chittered at oncoming mass of civ. "Trade mine! Trade mine!"

The civs slowed, hissing at her. Did they understand her offer or were they just being cowards? Weapon of choice, other than their teeth, were clubs; the pack had sticks, pipes, and long animal bones. There was a joke about civ liking weapons that tenderized their enemies—somehow the joke suddenly didn't seem that funny.

"Trade mine!" She chattered desperately, all too aware that she was backed into a dead-end and that there was a quarter mile of twisting, narrow tunnel between her and Jones's laser rifle.

"Trade mine!" the nearest one finally chattered, and they washed away, heading toward her barter goods.

"Oh thank god." She breathed, and turned back to carefully disconnect the converter. "Got it. I'm getting the Red now. How much of the stuff has the civ moved off the launch?"

"They're having a bitch of a time getting these blanks off the boat."

"That was the idea. When the boat is empty, the trade is over."

"You've got to be fucking me."

"Jones, I find you entirely too intimidating to try that."

Jones gave a surprised bark of laughter. "Better move your ass, Bailey."

Cradling the converter, she could only manage an awkward crab walk in the low tunnels. She waddled as quickly as she could back to the Red. The light reflected off the Red's cat eyes.

"You came back." The Red sounded surprised.

"I told you I would." She ignored the fact that she nearly didn't. She reluctantly put the converter down and hacked him free. Immediately she snatched the converter back up. "Come on. I can't carry you. Keep up with me, or I'll leave you here."

"I'll keep up."

Out of the hive, she had to fight through the mass of civ carrying her trade goods to the salvage heaps.

"Bailey, you better be coming now. They're down to the last item."

"I'm out of the hive!"

She scrambled over the mounds and skittered down the last slope to the long boat. Jones was right. The civ were snatching up the last of the blanks rolling around on the launch's deck.

"Here!" She handed the converter down to Jones. "Don't let go, or they'll take it back!"

"You left the Red?"

Paige turned and looked back. The Red wasn't in sight. "Shit."

If they left him, the civ would overwhelm him and pin him again.

"Get in the longboat," Jones said. "You don't have time to go back for him."

"Wait for me!" Paige scrambled back up the mound. This is so stupid. So stupid. He's a stranger!

Still she raced back to the hive. She found the Red in the last tunnel, the civ trying to drag him back. She kicked them away from him, chittering, "Trade mine! I eat you!"

"Come on!" She grabbed the Red by the scruff of the neck. "Come on! We're running out of time!"

She pulled the Red to his feet. With him leaning on her, she managed to get him to move faster, a controlled running stumble. They half-fell down the last slope.

"Bailey!" Jones was untying the mooring lines. "Move it!"

Paige tumbled into the launch, pulling the Red in after her. "Go!"

The ex-marine picked up the last civ on board and threw it onto the raft and shoved off. Paige sprang to the wheel and gunned the engine. The launch leapt forward and they were clear.

The Red sprawled on the bottom of the boat, heedless of the bilge water. His eyes were closed and his mouth was open, panting quickly and shallow. Now that the madness of the trade was over, and they were safe, Paige studied him. He looked first generation; he had that tall, board shouldered, heavily muscled build. His short glossy fur was crèche-bred black, which always made Paige wonder why they were called Reds. There was nothing about him that suggested he wasn't anything but crèche-raised, with all the nasty socialization that implied. What was she bringing onto her boat?

"What's your name?" When he didn't answer, she nudged him with her toe. "Hey? What's your handle?"

"Turkish Delight."

She must have misunderstood his slurred words. Creche-raised had names like 'Spot' and 'Fang.' Or maybe he hadn't understood her, and thought she had asked something else. He'd spoken Standard in the nest, but with a Russian heavy accent. "Turkish Delight?"

He opened his eyes to give her a look of complete disgust. His eyes were full black from being in the pit; in the glare of the full dazzle, they started to shift to a chocolate brown. He couldn't have been able to see, so the glare was meant to intimidate her.

Paige sighed. It was going to be one of those discussions. Whatever his name was, it was now of minor importance. What mattered now was who could outstare who. She wished she could back down—she was exhausted, bruised and covered with slime that was making her skin crawl—but if she did, next time would be harder. To stay in command, she had to get his name.

"What is your name?" She put an edge to her voice and prodded him with it.

His thick eyebrows and dark eyes were wonderfully expressive; they told her his thoughts even while he silently gazed at her. He was smart enough to quickly go from annoyed to a realization that they were clashing over command issues. As he pondered his options, his focus shifted from her to the endless sea beyond her. At that moment, such despair filled his face that she felt cruel to firmly push for an answer.

He wet his mouth and made the effort to speak more clearly. "My name is Turk."

"All right, Turk it is." She knew he had said Turkish Delight the first time, but she pretended to believe him. She kind of liked Turkish Delight, but maybe he found it embarrassing. What did it mean, she wondered, and how did he get stuck with it?

Turk tapped her on her foot, getting her attention. "What's your name?"

"Paige Bailey. I'm Captain Bailey. Our gunner is Kenya Jones." Paige pointed to Jones who didn't notice. The gunner's focus was wholly on the civ rift and possible pursuit. "Look, I know this is all going to be new to you, but you're only going to get one chance with me. You screw this up, and I'll throw you back into the water. And don't think I can't. Do you understand?"

"Yes." He nodded to show he completely understood.

"I don't care what you were before. You now listen to everyone on this boat. Everyone. No matter how small they are. Someone tells you to lie on your belly and show your throat, you do it. You hurt anyone, and I'll shoot you dead. You disobey anyone, and I'll put you off my boat."

"Yes, Captain." His eyes said he believed her but wasn't afraid. Nor was he hostile. He was waiting to see how well they treated him. It was a good sign that he could dig up patience when he was this battered.

"Welcome to my crew." Paige said since the Rosetta had just come into view. "My boat isn't much to look at, but it's home."

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