“Come on, come on,” Muoi’s high pitched whine was more irritating than the constant hum of the ship’s standby dampeners, which needed to be swapped out. Pacing from one end of the dining cabin to the other, her quick, sharp movements added to Estra’s own nervousness. The waiting was wearing on them all, and Muoi wasn’t helping.
She took a deep breath and let it out, the way she’d been taught. Muoi was who she was, and they’d bunked together for a year now. She should be used to Muoi’s habits.
Muoi momentarily lighted against the table, rocking back and forth on her heels while she stared hard at the closed door. “How long is this gonna take anyway?”
Trying to look calm, Estra shrugged. She straightened the cuffs on her jacket, trying to present a proper appearance. ”It takes as long as it takes.”
“You’re so brilliant when you say shit like that,” Muoi replied, drumming her fingers against the table. Muoi didn’t care about looking proper. Her black hair was hacked off at chin length, and while her uniform was clean, it needed mending. Estra itched to go over and fix the collar so it would stand up right, but it wasn’t any of her business what Muoi looked like. They were adults, and Muoi didn’t want her to fuss. They’d already had that argument, and Estra knew better than to interfere.
Like they said, a gita does what a gita does, and no use trying to stop it.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fucking. Fuck.” Muoi slammed her palm against the table top; Atta visibly startled at the sound, and Estra suppressed a grin.
“Relax.” Dhal flicked some imaginary dust off her thick leather jacket, the brown color only slightly darker than her skin. “There’s no one else to send. We’ve got the job.”
Rumor had it that their hyperdrive failed just getting to this system, and they weren’t leaving until they could find a replacement. Which meant someone was going to have to dig around in the alleyways and backstreets of this dirt grubber’s paradise and find a replacement—a cheap replacement.
“Nico’s team isn’t allowed off ship in this port, and Beniez is too old for this.” From her perch on the best chair in the place, Atta flicked one of her unnaturally pale, long-fingered hands, the bangles on her arms sliding together with a pleasant click. She was the only one of them who had shown up in casuals. ”She’s what, forty? Fifty?”
“More like a hundred and fifty,” Muoi said and launched into her pacing again. “Young face, good deal, right?”
“That’s a stupid saying,” Estra folded her arms across her chest, and glared at Muoi.
“That’s just your crush talking,” Atta said loftily, her bright blue eyes showing cold superiority as only she could do. “She should stay on the ship, with the rest of the elders.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Estra growled, moving closer. Shipmate or not, there were times that Estra just wanted to haul back and hit her.
The door hissed open, and Estra turned at the noise, immediately on alert.
Beniez stood there with the captain, her dark eyes smiling with a ferocity that her lips lacked. Estra licked her lips; Atta gave her a slight smirk, and Estra wanted to shove her for that.
The captain was blunt and to the point. “Beniez is lead. You’ll take your orders from her.”
“Yes, captain.” Estra said, hearing the same phrase echo from the other women around her.
The captain gave a sharp nod, then looked at Beniez. “You’ve got three days. Confederation ships are due in then, and I don’t want to be stuck for another week going over tax rolls.”
“We’ll get it,” Beniez said grimly. “I don’t want to be stuck here myself.”
Estra left the ship armed with the scavenger reports of places that might have what they were looking for; Muoi would come with her to help evaluate what they needed, but they were not to participate in the negotiations in any way. Beniez was the one that held the purse for this purchase, and she wasn’t going to open it on any part-share’s say so.
At least they got to go dirtside, even if they did have to trudge around looking for spare parts.
“Hurry up.” Muoi checked her comm, and huffed out a breath. “You are the slowest thing on twelve planets.”
“I just like to be through.” Estra checked her tablet and verified the schematics that they were looking for, along with the list of makes and models that would do in a pinch. “A minute of foresight—“
“—beats an hour of hindsight. Yeah, I get it. Now come on.” She flicked her hand at the door. “Beniez won’t like it if we lag.”
“Just a sec.” Estra checked that her blaster was charged, and doubled checked her knife and pocket money. She wouldn’t be able to spend it on a lot of entertainment, but promised herself a decent beer in near future. “Okay, ready.”
“About time.” Muoi hit her comm. “We’re gone. Check in four hours from now.”
“Call earlier if you find something,” the duty officer said, and clicked off.
Muoi gave a whoop of delight, smiling brightly up at Estra. “We’re free for four hours!”
“We have a lot of places to check. It’s gonna take some time.”
“We can check and have fun. What’s one beer going to hurt?”
“Work first, play after.”
Muoi rolled her eyes. “Okay, okay Eager Edgar. We’ll do it your way. I can’t believe how by the book you’ve become.”
“You would be too if you’d gone through probation.”
Muoi snorted. “How’d you think I got stuck sharing a cabin with you?”
Despite their differences, Muoi was easy to talk to and it kept Estra’s mind off how different it was to be on a planet. She missed the quiet hum of the air scrubbers, and the way the ship smelled. The port smelled of too many people, burned foods and livestock, and it made Estra feel a bit queasy. She put her hand to her stomach, waiting for it to settle, while Muoi rolled her eyes.
“Come on,” she muttered, taking Estra’s hand. “The faster we get this done, the faster we can find a place to relax. “
She tugged on Estra’s hand, getting her moving into the too-bright, too-loud world around her. Within ten feet, Estra was glad the Muoi held her hand so tightly; she was afraid she might be swept away in the brightly colored crowds around them.
The first day brought nothing. Muoi and she collapsed into their beds early, just after evening mess. Estra couldn’t believe how much walking she’d done, and her throat ached from dry air and talking. As entertainment, being on a strange planet was really starting to suck.
Second day dirtside was worse; Beniez split them up to cover more ground. “We didn’t even get through half of the possibles. We need to get the replacement part installed in order to lift off, and it’s not an easy job.”
Being alone on planet made Estra even more uncomfortable, and she found herself gripping her money tightly. Muoi pinged her every half hour or after she finished with a place, giving Estra a complete run down on what she had seen.
Estra picked up a couple of flat breads with some sort of meat on them, when Muoi’s voice spilled out of the comm. “I found it!”
“A possible oscillator! The Hermit has a really old model one that they’re willing to sell, and it looks like it’s still got some wear left. It’s on the list. Think I should call Beniez in?”
“Yes!” Estra said around a mouthful of bread. It was a little dry, but not too bad. “You know she has to see everything first. Ping me after she takes a look.”
She waited for more information from Muoi as she continued searching, thrusters on half power, for the rest of the day. She had to wait until she returned to the ship to learn that Beniez had taken one look at it, turned around and nearly walked out.
“Not even good enough for scrap, she said.” Muoi turned up her nose and sniffed, imitating Beniez.
Estra dried her hair with a towel and pulled on a clean uniform. It felt great to get all of that dirt and grime off her skin. She was never going to settle down on some dirtball she swore. “Is that good?”
“It's not great, but it’s better than anything anyone else came up with. We’re due in the mess to go over schematics with the engineers at six bells, see if it’s a good enough fit.”
They spent half the night figuring out if it would be workable, but in the end, Beniez gave her okay to purchase it and all of them together would make the exchange. Estra grinned at Muoi and Dhal, and even Atta look pleased at the news.
It was as if they had been granted full shares.
Every part of Estra’s body ached, but she smiled, well satisfied, as Tewet, third mate on the Hermit, signaled for another round of drinks. Muoi nodded at him and headed back to the bar; this round would be on them.
The front door opened with a crash of drums, and Estra felt a chill run through her. A white-robed gita stepped into the room, his shaven, dead-eyed children surrounding him like a tidal wave, breaking around him. They ebbed out into the dining room to pound their goatskin drums and shake their collection plate in front of the noses of the patrons. “Ouran!” the gita yelled. ”We need a room.”
Muoi had almost made it to the bar when one of the children stepped in front of her, his yellow robes stained and his gaunt face ravaged by the drugs he took to see multi-dimensional space. Estra could read the panic in her face as the gita joined them, running his hand over Muoi’s arm and seizing her, pulling her to him. His voice was a pleasant sing-song as he said, “I found some entertainment.”
Estra felt her heard pound as Muoi tried to slide away from him, to the safety of the back room. She pushed back her chair to stand up, but Tewet grabbed her wrist. “Stay,” he said calmly. “The gita will take care of it.”
That’s what I’m afraid of, she wanted to say, but there was no one around her to say it to. Dhal was looking at her, and Estra had a weird, queasy sensation settle into the pit of her stomach as she watched Dhal ease back from the table and lean toward the engineer from the Hermit next to her, her hands far away from her weapon. They couldn’t let one of their own be taken. Shipmates came first, right?
She looked over at Atta, who was deliberately not meeting her eye, but her every movement screamed that, no, she was wrong. “Don’t borrow trouble,” she mouthed, her gaze sharp. The ship came first.
Estra couldn’t hear what the man said to Muoi, but she let out a deep breath when he let go of Muoi’s arm; she heard Tewet release a similar breath.
“Scavengers picking through the ashes,” he muttered. ”Wouldn’t even see them if this was a decent spaceport.”
Estra shrugged, and pulled herself back to the table, her eyes never leaving Muoi’s. “They’re everywhere, at least out here on the rim. Don’t know how you would get rid of them.” She gestured at Muoi to hurry back to the table.
The gita stepped before her again. Estra couldn’t see exactly what happened, but the gita touched her arm and she just…collapsed against the man who first grabbed her. He easily picked her up and followed the gita toward the sleeping rooms.
“Muoi!” Estra leapt up from the table to follow them, just as Beniez’s barked at her: “No.”
Aghast, Estra turned to look at her, but Beniez just stared back, cool, calm and collected. “We have other business first.”
Tewet nodded. “She’ll be fine.”
“We won’t leave without her,” Beniez said as her gaze softened.
Estra swallowed, and sat back down in her chair, obeying orders while anger, frustration and resentment rolled around inside of her. She didn’t know what she was more angry about, that Muoi had been taken or that she sat down and let it happen. Still, she had to trust her officers, that was ship’s law and she couldn’t disobey. It didn’t matter that her beer tasted like piss or the sweet cakes like ashes, that she had to smile and pretend to enjoy the meal. She had her duty to fulfill, and then she could head straight back to the ship.
Next time, someone else could go dirtside. As far as she was concerned, she never wanted to visit another fucking planet ever again.
The moment Estra heard movement in her cabin, she flicked on the light. She caught Muoi just inside the door, her face downcast, movement slow and deliberate; Estra’s stomach clenched just looking at her, looping and restless like gravity had suddenly been turned off and she didn’t know what way was up anymore.
She looked up, and Estra could see the scratches around her cheeks, her puffy lips, and how dark her eyes looked, the pupils totally blown; Estra realized that their unwritten rule would be broken at last.
Muoi squinted at her, as if the light hurt her eyes. “Estra?”
Estra got out of her bunk and pulled Muoi to her, wrapping her arms around her. Muoi momentarily stiffened, but she didn’t fight it. Instead, she let out a huge sobbing-sigh, and rested her head against Estra’s shoulder.
‘No crying in the cabin’ was supposed to be one of their rules, Estra thought. Along with ‘no fussing’ and ‘no sleeping in dirty clothing.’
She could feel it when the ship took off, shaking her off her stance and Muoi off her shoulder. She coaxed Muoi into the bottom bunk, and then slid in next to her wishing there was some way to keep her safe. The ship was quiet now, the dampeners repaired when the oscillator was replaced.
Silent and dark, sliding through space, Estra held tight to her friend and hoped for a better day.