Galactum Year 143
*Where did you find this guy? He’s a complete nil.* She was using the node far more easily now, and though it, ey could tell that the thought of having a bioware link to Know-It-All embedded in her brain no longer made her skin crawl. Still, it made it easier for them to communicate until ey decided the time was right to reveal es true nature.
*Now, now, Meat. You weren’t much better yourself the first time you walked through that hatch. Give him a chance.*
The subject of their scrutiny, completely unaware of their opinions of his skills and personality, lay on the deck, his torso and head buried deep in the access panel.
*I can’t believe you’re letting some stranger root around in your insides like that.* A shudder run through her and Vrick felt it through the node and an eerie echo of the rebounding reaction travelled back to her.
*Speaking from experience there?* The scar looked much better now, fading from the livid pinkness to a neat white line that divided the socket of her left eye. Ey had encouraged her to have it removed, insisting that there were funds enough to pay for the procedure, but she had been adamant that it stay. And ey had known her long enough to see her latent stubborn streak surge to the fore. When ey questioned her on the choice of prosthetic, black as a starless night, her only comment had been, “The specs are better.”
Ey recalled the agony of being able to do nothing but watch, drowning in impotent rage, unable to do anything to help her other than summon emergency medics from the nearest settlement. Ey knew ey had saved her life, but it was a cold and pale comfort.
“Who does your diagnostics?” muttered a voice deep within the maintenance port, heavy with contempt. “You are so far off spec, I’m amazed this ship even flies.”
*Are you going to let him talk about you like that?*
*Relax, Meat. With all the tinkering I had my repair mites do, he’s right. We’d never have made it out of atmosphere. I jiggered everything intentionally and so subtly, most techs would take three times as long to find the problems. I want to see how good he is.*
*As long as you can put it all back afterwards. Remember how long it took you to fix the mess the last one made.*
Ey chuckled. *I remember all too well. If it’s any consolation, of the systems he’s checked and readjusted, two are already testing at a higher efficiency than they were before I jiggered. I’d say he’s a keeper.*
*Not so fast, junkheap. You may be willing to have him wander around, touching your insides. That doesn’t mean I am. Having another person aboard means noises and smells and…habits. All of which I have to put up with, without the benefit of selective sensory deactivation. You like people a lot more than I do. I’m not so sure I’m ready for that.*
Concerned, Vrick brought up the latest data from her hospital scans and compared it with before, knowing that ey was obsessing. The data bloomed around em, and ey sent it out through Know-It-All to an AI ey knew at the hospital, receiving a response in the time it took for a human neuron to fire. Her body had healed, though ey knew from watching her training that she still favoured her left leg, though even that was improving incrementally.
She was leaner now, and ey could see how the hours of training and exercise had honed her. She had gained back the weight she had lost in the hospital, but it was muscle and sinew now, not the softness of curve she had possessed when they had met.
*I know you’re scanning me again, Vrick. What do I have to do to prove to you that I’m all right?*
*You could smile now and then.*
There was only a hollow silence from her node.
*I smile plenty.*
*You don’t, Lexa-Blue. I can show you the recordings.*
At the use of her name, ey felt a frisson of emotion from her.
*I’m better, Vrick. Really I am.*
*I know you are. And I know I worry too much. But you’re my friend and my crewmate. I’m entitled.*
*What are you worried about? If anything happens to me, you can shack up with the tech rat you currently have stuck up your ass.*
*That’s not my ass.* Ey said. *More like a nostril.*
*Is that supposed to be better somehow? Because it really isn’t.*
*Heads up. I think he’s finished.*
Their guest was shimmying out from the opening and, thanks to es description, ey could tell that all Lexa-Blue could think of was a six foot tall, dark skinned snot-ball rather than a solidly built and not bad looking young man around her age.
“Help me up, would you?” His hand was cool and dry in hers, despite the sheen of sweat on his forehead. She gripped it hard, seeing his brows knot together at the sudden pressure, and pulled him sharply to his feet.
“Well, tech rat, how does it look?”
His smile was guarded, still taking her measure, as he arranged tools in his kit. “Call me Keene. Tech Rat is more of a professional designation.”
She inclined her head with just a hint of an upturn of her mouth to indicate agreement. Vrick saw a flicker of reaction cross his face, then disappear, is he chose to read her expression as acceptance. “I finished the adjustments, but I’d prefer to run some diagnostics and engine tests before you take off again, just for my piece of mind. The stabilizer system was way out of whack. It would have blown by the time you hit vacuum. But you knew that already, didn’t you?”
“What makes you say that?” she said.
“I may just be a tech rat, but I happen to be a damn good one. You’re crafty, I’ll give you that. You don’t strike me as the type that knows spaceflight mechanics, Oh, you can pilot, that much I can tell, but those variances were too precise to have occurred naturally. They’d have fooled someone with fewer skills than me, but this time, you don’t have them. You have me. So, spill it.”
She appraised him carefully, and he could see that she was, if only a little bit, impressed.
Vrick felt only a wordless surge of shock from her.
*He’s passed my tests. Now, he has to pass yours. Hit him. Trust me.*
Lexa-Blue felt a calm flow of confidence emanating from the ship and stepped toward Keene. “Look, you’re right. I can explain everything.”
She struck with a carefully honed, precise ferocity, pulling the punch at the last minute, intending it only to sting.
Had it landed.
* * *
Keene saw the blow coming and managed to remember enough of his training to evade it, even though his dodge was clumsy. Her blow barely nicked his ear, the fist stopping in air behind him. In that instant, he knew she had his measure, and he could tell that she knew just how capable he really was. He had trained to a degree, but was out of practice.
Digging up what he remembered from his old training sessions with Lystre on the Liquid Starshine, he parried her blow with his arm. though he felt his wrist go numb and shot his other hand out at her sternum to push her away. The blow never landed, as she danced backwards out of range.
* * *
*I know everything, Meat. His school transcripts, his extracurriculars, his service records, and every personnel record ever recorded on him. Including his physical training and the defence classes he took during his time with the Merchant Fleet.*
*Nosy bastard. Isn’t that all confidential?* she asked.
She felt es nonchalance through her node like a shrug.
*I like to be prepared.*
*And, of course, you never did any rooting around before you met me.*
*Right. Let’s go with that.*
* * *
Unaware of the eyeblink of their exchange, Keene knew he was outmatched by her skills. He wasn’t going to win this with his skills. He probably wasn’t going to win at all, but he wasn’t going down without scoring some hits of his own. He lunged for his kit, coming up with a fuser in one hand and an angular probe in the other. Neither would kill her, but he’d definitely leave her something to remember him by. Lexa-Blue’s hands went up, palm first. “Pax.”
He eyed her warily, maintaining his defensive stance, the improvised weapons still at the ready and not wavering. “And I should believe you why, exactly?”
“I have an honest face,” she said.
Despite himself, the side of his mouth rose. He thought for a moment and sheathed the tools in his kit again.
“Another test?” he said. “How did I do?”
“I’ve seen worse. You need work. And a lot of it. You’re also not afraid to use whatever you have at hand to fight. I like that in a man.”
She held out a hand and, after a second’s hesitation, he shook it.
“So, now what?” he asked. “You need a crewmember, and you need one badly enough to make the potentials jump through a bunch of hoops. I need a ship, and I need one badly enough to do the jumping. What now?”
A sly grin formed on Lexa-Blue’s face. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
For more Maverick Heart adventures, read Soul’s Blood. Out now!