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Judgment Call

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The drop into Esperance system was straightforward, only a double-dump for a little ship on this trajectory, even mass-heavy as Le Cygne ran this trip. Sandy, comp said, in Ross Kreja's voice, Sandy, wake up. Get the comp. Allison reached for switches, fingers still a bit numb from the drugs, brain still reorienting from jump.

"Got it," she said to Le Cygne's little bridge crew. She cycled the vanes, skipped the ship along the interface, as Curran handled incoming com. Lane assignment popped up on screen 2.

"Cargo secure," Day Kulin reported, one of Sandor's hire-ons three trips back. Quiet, precise, curly hair braided in tight rows on duty, dark Day was quick to volunteer for any onship work when Le Cygne called on Pell, and Allison had her darker suspicions on that, but loading and unloading was never smoother than under Day's watchful eye.

Allison skimmed readout, tweaked their course once, to put them straight down the lane, before opening com. "The ship is stable," she said. "All crew cleared to move. Mainday to stations in fifteen." Bridge mainday would be Sandor, Neill, and Hetty B., another hire-on, this one her find. She missed Deidre, briefly, but a bad run had convinced her cousin she was done with small ships. It was freckled little Erin who had taken her place, Dublin's Cargo 95 and not so little now, a comfortable presence as she hung about just off the bridge.

Fifteen minutes gave mainday a chance at a quick shower before shift change, or a scant meal. Sandor, fair hair still damp, waved Erin to the post least in the way in the cramped space. Allison keyed control to Curran, rose and joined them as Sandor sorted the earliest flood of station dataflow, sent out before their time-lagged presence registered. Some of their cargo was straight contract, haulage for a flat fee, but the rest... had Sandor and Allison holding their breath, as they fed screen after screen of market data into Erin's analytics programs, searching for advantage.

"Well?" Allison said, as the dataflow slowed down to insystem rates.

Sandor shook his head in familiar pessimism... pessimism that wasn't often justified. "Don't believe it until the cargo's sold, Reilly."

"Which this lot is likely to do on the run in, Kreja," she said, heart light. "We'll clear that loan, this run." Dublin's original loan, on a ten-year limit, paid off in eight. It was hard, good work, hers, Sandor's... all of theirs.

"Save the drinks for dockside," he said shortly, rising to relieve Curran.

It wasn't the reaction she'd expected, with the promise of the ship running free and clear for the first time in Sandor's adult life hanging in the balance. She stewed on it as she showered, dressed, reheated a frozen that she only picked at, preferring sips of coffee to the curry and vegatables. Glanced at the bridge, but instead paged through her handheld, debated watching one of the vids Neill had loaded to the ship's library on his last liberty. But instead she echoed the system market data, watching Sandor and Erin by remote. There were offers for about half the ship's goods, offers Sandor could - by the old agreement - take without consultation, but he'd learned the hard way to use Neill or Allison's good sense before finalizing a trade deal. A merely adequate bridge officer, Neill might be, but he had a born instinct for economics and trade that other merchanters envied.

Numbers shifted as she watched, one trade and another accepted, rejected, the possibility of a good voyage becoming something closer to certainty. The end of an era, it would be, if they paid the debt down this voyage, she reflected... and she thought she started to understand some of the wheels spinning behind Sandor Kreja's pessimistic mood.

*Dinner?* she sent to Sandor, on the bridge. *Private. Ship's business.*

*Acknowledged*, he sent back, before she finished her coffee. She drained the dregs and went to find Day and a pack of cards.

***

Dinner meant his, mainday's end of the day meal overlapping with alterday's breakfast. They took their trays to Sandor's cabin, that had been Le Cygne's Old Man's time out of mind, Sandor had said on one of the occasions he had spoken of his dead kin, and had the extra space that fit a table and two chairs, bolted into sliding tracks against acceleration. Allison ate half her synth ham and egg sandwich in silence, as Sandor made inroads on his lasagna.

"Trade's looking good," she offered. Which was true; their cargo had hit the trade boards while she slept, with strong interest from Esperance's trade companies. "The Candide deal should bring a nice bonus." Erin was working extra on the cargo boards, with Day and Curran on call, closing a transship deal with Candide that would send their Pell-sourced biologics deeper into Union space.

Sandor shrugged.

"It's the loan, isn't it," she said. Clearly the man wasn't in the mood for small talk. "A ten year term, but we'll clear it in eight. We can do that refit, get that new generation rig..."

"We," he said. "Who's 'we', Reilly?"

She held in a sigh. "We is we, Sandor. You think Curran and Neill and me are going to leave now?" But that was in his thinking, she guessed. It was the same pessimism she saw in Hetty, unlucky survivor of a bad mechanical that had wiped out most of her kin; and Day, whose history was a haze of wild dockside yarns at bars and never mentioned by Day onship. It was the dark thoughts of her own bad hours at Voyager station, that generally she preferred not to recall, that made her scant patience stretch for Le Cygne's more War-scarred crew.

Here and now, Sandor rose to open one of the locked drawers. The reader he pulled out he put on the table. "Eight years," he said quietly. "Eight years on Le Cygne, but you've always kept the option to go back." To Dublin Again, she understood. "Would this change your mind?"

She scrolled though the reader. Transfer documents, powers of attorney, modified operating agreement, share division schemes... it was no spur of the moment offer. She looked at him. "This is a part-owner offer," she said. The sort of share-holding that went along with her own ideas about crewing and economic strategy, considerations that edged close to Sandor's absolute powers - absolute on paper - as captain-and-owner.

"You've put the work into it." He gestured to the reader. "Thought about some of what you said, about getting class longjumpers. We've run small and tight - if we want to run a Family ship, we'll need more hands."

And there it was, the unspoken reason. Deidre had her first, Allison knew; another Colleen Reilly, for Dublin. She wasn't getting any younger, and Sandor wasn't, either. Sandor, male, was the end of his Name, unless he could persuade a women to give him children.

They had sleepovers, on station, sometimes; sometimes they had other bed partners. There might be children with Sandor's genes in the wider world - Allison, on the treatment, renewed as automatic as breathing, hadn't lately asked if he was - but none of them would be Krejas.

She set down her coffee. "Is that what this is about?"

"One of the things." He had the sense to look uncomfortable. "If you look at the boards dockside, there's openings for crew, but little enough for crew with kids. I could name half a dozen solid longjumpers pushing paper in dockside offices because station is safer for their kid than any ship who would take them."

"Someone who would marry aboard?" she asked skeptically.

"Or someone already aboard." He took a deep breath. "Ever think about kids?"

She let out a long breath. "Every Dubliner does." It was the wrong thing to say, she saw that immediately. "It's not - it's a big ship. You take time off for a child, you'll never make posted bridge crew."

"You're bridge crew here. That -" He gestured to the reader. "- it's not dependent on the, the other thing," he said lamely. "I want you to stay."

"And Curran?" she said lightly.

"And Curran. And Neill. Erin, if she'll stay." He looked her in the eye, bringing to mind the canny, hungry marginer who had bluffed Dublin Again and the Mazianni, and kept four Dubliners alive to boot. "It's a change in operations, we'll all talk about it. But I wanted you to be first. Alterday Helm."

Bluff and hustle, again. It had saved their lives, on the fringes of dicey systems and at a few lonely null-points.

It was her judgment call about Sandor's merit, once upon a time, that had made those voyages possible.

She took the reader. "I'll think on it."

***

They filed with Pell's legal office, some months down the line. "Want those shredded?" the clerk asked Sandor of the old ownership papers, faded and amended. "We're pushing to digitize the whole system. It's mass-efficient, and the encryption-"

"We'll keep them, thanks." The shabby paper, with the handwritten correction, had advantage. Any nullpoint dealer who tried to hassle a little starship like Le Cygne would think twice before crossing one of Mallory's associates, however distant that threat.

Allison wandered off, not quite out of earshot, as Stevens signed the electronic pad. "You owned a starship," the clerk scoffed. "Now you have a committee."

Sandor didn't rise to the stationer's bait. His quick temper hadn't softened, not a bit, but it was unbothered by a mere stationer's foolishness, his profound misunderstanding of a working captain's authority. "I know what I've done," he said.

What they had done, Allison thought, amused. Alone, Sandor Kreja had owned a starship. With her backing he had family, and with it the future of the Name.