From the author: It's just Janessa's (bad) luck when she finds herself in a race against her ex-husband to salvage some profit out of the failed colony world of New Galilee. Of course, things can always get worse...
The moment the Bonadventure emerged from FTL, Janessa began calling up system reports.
It wasn't that she didn't trust her newest pilot – Darion was better than her last three pilots combined. But Darion was also still young and didn't have much experience with interstellar travel. Anyone with half an understanding of calculus could throw together coordinates for a basic FTL jump; the difficult part was making the dozens of ship-specific adjustments required to make the jump without damaging said ship. One of the Bonadventure's aft sensor arrays was especially prone to shearing off in transit – she'd owned the ship for seven years and lost as many arrays in the same time period.
"I didn't botch the calculations, Jan." Darion drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. "All systems should be green to go. Will you stop fussing and check out the planet? I think that transmission really was a distress call."
"Should be," Janessa muttered, even though the reports all seemed to be agreeing with him. Still, as a freelance trader – and occasional treasure hunter – her entire livelihood depended on her ship's welfare, which meant she checked every single system report and made certain her ship was in perfect working order before allowing her attention to be diverted to the visual he'd plastered across all four of the bridge's viewscreens.
At first glance, the viewscreen only appeared to show what they already knew. The mysterious transmission they'd received five hours earlier had originated on this solar system's only terrestrial planet. The Interplanetary Database supplied them with its name – New Galilee – and classification – luddite, which meant it eschewed all spacefaring technology and was closed to interplanetary commerce. The latter was particularly obvious from space as its orbits remained uncluttered by stations, ships or even space debris. The planet was pristine, all greens and blues, the way historic Earth was always portrayed in holovids.
Of course, in the holovids there usually wasn't an enormous cloud of ash spewing out of an erupting volcano near the horizon line.
"You think that's their problem?" Janessa pulled up the full Interplanetary Database's entry on New Galilee and began scrolling through, looking for information on the planet's communications capabilities. "The transmission didn't mention a volcano." Then again, the transmission hadn't said much of anything; it had mostly consisted of apocalyptic ranting that didn't bear so much as a passing resemblance to a distress call, for all that it had been broadcast on the dedicated emergency frequencies.
"What else could it be?" Darion asked. "I'll put us in low orbit and see if we can get a response back on the same frequency."
Janessa paused as a line of text caught her attention. The planet's only settlement had been built near the summit of a landform that the New Galileans called Mount Sinai, but it wasn't really a mountain – it was a volcano. She cross-checked the settlement's coordinates with the sensor data and her stomach lurched. "Don't get your hopes up. I doubt there's anyone left down there."
"What are you talking about?"
She flipped the text up onto the starboard viewscreen and enlarged the pertinent sentences so Darion could read them easily. All color drained out of his face. "That can't be right – why would they do that? It's insane!"
"The volcano was supposed to be extinct." Janessa scanned the next few lines. "Initial exploratory surveys suggested it hadn't erupted in over twelve thousand years."
"But they must have put seismometers in place-"
"Luddites," Janessa reminded him. "By the time there were visible signs of volcanic activity, it was probably too late to evacuate." Though there'd apparently been enough time to send off a transmission about the redemption of repentant souls and the smiting of the wicked.
"All those dead," Darion whispered.
Janessa didn't particularly want to think about the New Galilee population estimate she'd seen in passing, nor the percentage of that population that had been under the age of sixteen. No good could come from crying over an empty oxygen tank, after all. Instead she tried to refocus on what she did best: making money.
The New Galilee volcano was as good a treasure trove as any ancient ruin. That was how she had to think of it – as an ancient ruin, its inhabitants long dead and far beyond the need for anyone's help. And the treasures from that volcano would be worth enough to earn back all the costs of their detour and more.
"We'll call it Galilean Obsidian," she decided, scrolling to the mineralogy reports. High silica content, good. Gold, copper, iron and aluminum were all listed, as well. It looked promising enough that she dared to hope they'd find some brilliant colors in the volcano's obsidian flows. Black obsidian could be made into nice, saleable jewelry; rainbow obsidian would make stunning and very expensive jewelry, especially when coupled with a tragic story like New Galilee's. Every socialite in the Sharman Sector would be desperate to get her hands on a piece of Galilean Obsidian, at least until the next fashion trend eclipsed it.
"We... what?" Darion stared as if she'd lost her mind.
Janessa shook her head. "Don't worry about it." She'd hired him for his piloting skills, not his business sense, though she'd had hopes he would eventually develop the latter. He hadn't. He'd still managed to last longer than most of her post-Ethan pilots – almost five months – but she was probably going to have to find herself a new pilot soon. Hopefully, they'd earn enough off this venture that he wouldn't object to being ditched at Jemison Station. "Just focus on your flying – we're going planetside."
The Bonadventure had originally been designed as an in-system yacht and only later modified to function in deep space. The finicky sensor arrays were one of the more irritating consequences of not buying an exclusively purposed tradeship, but Janessa had been more than willing to put up with such quirks because her ship had one feature that tradeships lacked: it could handle atmospheric flying and even planetary landings. It would take a ridiculous quantity of fuel to escape the planet's gravity well, afterwards, but every good trader knew you had to spend money to make money.
Darion took his sweet time bringing them down, allowing them to slowly adjust to the increased gravity while he scanned every available frequency for any sort of communications. Janessa did her own scans, looking for signs of human habitation that might have served as a refugee camp, but without much hope. There wasn't even a trace of New Galilee's original settlement – it had probably been buried when the volcano erupted.
Janessa consoled herself with the knowledge that none of them could have suffered long – there were far worse ways to die. Then she turned her attention back to the mineralogy reports. "Find us a safe landing spot, a klick or three away from the crater. You can keep monitoring the comm for survivors while I check out the lava flows."
"Check what out?" Darion demanded, but obediently began searching for a place to land while Janessa went to gear up.
She didn't have a proper heat suit, but she wasn't expecting to hit temperatures of more than 700 Kelvin. Instead, she made sure almost every inch of her skin was covered, from her thick-treaded boots to her gloves and hard hat. She carabinered a laser scalpel and gas mask to her climbing harness, hoping to use the former but not the latter. Last, but not least, she shrugged into the straps of her backpack, making sure to distribute its minimal weight evenly over both shoulders.
To his credit, Darion didn't laugh when she reemerged on the bridge, though he did give her a sidelong look that showed his thoughts clear as crystal. He thought she was mental. Well, she probably was, a little bit. The Bonadventure's safety was one thing; her own was another matter entirely. Fourteen years of risking life and limb to turn a profit had definitely skewed her definitions of acceptable personal risk to the extremities of the human bell curve.
"Three standard deviations of crazy," Janessa said, though she knew it would confuse Darion. Unlike some of her other pilots, he'd never implied she was merely the brawn of their operation, so she'd mostly broken her habit of randomly lapsing into brainiac jargon. Maybe she should hold onto him a little while longer. If Darion made it to six months, that would break her post-Ethan record of five months and three weeks, which was almost reason enough in itself to keep him.
"Never mind." Janessa checked her consoles again, trying to get the lay of the land. There were some promising-looking lava flows a quarter klick east of their landing site. She reeled off the coordinates. "I'm going to head that way. Keep a comm channel open to me, you know the drill." Not that Darion had ever monitored her planetside, but he'd supervised enough of her space walks that he ought to be able to translate the skill.
"And if I make contact with any survivors?" Darion asked, with relentless optimism. Or maybe it was just denial. Either way it made her feel old, reminding her that she was almost twice his age. That annoyed her; when the human life expectancy was almost a hundred and ten, she shouldn't feel old at thirty-eight. No, it really was time to get rid of him and find a new pilot.
"If," she bit off the word, "they've survived this long, they can last an hour or two longer. It shouldn't take me too much time to look around and get back here." Hopefully with a backpack full of souvenirs, though it wouldn't do to bring too much obsidian back. An object's value was in direct correlation with its scarcity, after all.
Darion bit his lip and looked unhappy, but he didn't protest as she went back to the airlock and cycled herself out onto the surface of the volcano.
The heat hit Janessa first, sweat popping out from every pore and trickling down her skin. The overwhelming stench of sulfur registered next, nearly making her gag. Her boots sank at least a decimeter deep into the ash lining the ground and even more ash was falling from the sky, dusting her clothing and clinging to her eyelashes. Every time she breathed in, she could taste the ash coating her tongue and drying out her mouth. She hoped she didn't end up coughing up that crap for the next several days.
She toggled the comm channel open and cleared her throat, "You read me?"
"Loud and clear," Darion said.
She glanced around, trying to orient herself in the right direction, but anything more than ten meters away was obscured by a thick curtain of falling ash. The Bonadventure's landing gear had left two deep furrows in the ash, which probably stretched out a good quarter klick or more, but of course they led in the wrong direction. "Visibility officially sucks out here."
"No problem, I'll give you a shout if you go off course."
That was the kind of thing only a pilot could say, holed up safe and sound aboard the Bonadventure while she took all the risks. It would never occur to him that she wasn't concerned about getting lost so much as stumbling into an active lava flow or getting crushed by a volcanic bomb she hadn't seen in time to dodge. But standing in place wasn't going to get the job done – and her back to safety – any faster, so she began to carefully pick her away across the surface of the volcano. If there was such a place as hell, it had to be very much like this.
Once upon a time, she'd believed in heaven and hell and 'til death do us part. That faith had died in a burst of gamma radiation, along with her unborn child, her fertility and – though she didn't realize it at the time – her marriage. Ethan had sworn he didn't care about children; he claimed they were a bloody expensive hobby he could do without. She'd believed him for two years before she realized he was having an affair. Knowing her own recklessness was at least partially to blame for their estrangement hadn't made the ensuing fall-out any easier to deal with. She should have known better than to spacewalk pregnant, and the New Galileans should have put seismometers in place, and either way it was the children who somehow ended up paying the most for their parents' stupidity.
Not the cheeriest line of thought while she was climbing around on an active volcano. "Darion, you still with me?"
There was a crackle of static, barely audible over the dull roar of the eruption, then Darion's voice came through. "You're still on course, maybe fifty meters still to go."
"Getting a bit of noise in the signal."
"I'll keep an eye on it," Darion promised. "Might be why I haven't heard so much as a peep on any other frequency."
Or he wasn't hearing anything because there wasn't anything to hear. Janessa bit her lip and didn't say it; if he hadn't already considered the possibility, nothing she said was going to convince him.
Up ahead, she thought she caught a glimpse of something red-hot and glowing. She slowed her pace, moving even more cautiously and squinting to see through the ash falls. Despite what she'd told Darion, she didn't actually want to find a lava flow. Or rather, she didn't want to find an active lava flow; she wanted a nice little river of felsic lava that had already solidified into obsidian. With this much ash, it wasn't strictly necessary to find real obsidian – she could use an acetylene torch to melt the ash into obsidianite that would net her enough to recoup her landing costs – but obsidian would be a hundred times more valuable.
As she got closer, it became clear that she'd found a partially solidified flow, glowing streaks of red-hot lava standing out against the darker, solidified lava like veins in a man's arms. If she could afford to wait until later, she might be able to mine it safely, but even she wasn't fool enough to start poking around at it now. "This one's a bust. I'm going to follow it and see if it forks anywhere."
"Sensors show something maybe a hundred meters south-southwest of your current location," Darion offered, helpfully.
Janessa refrained from pointing out to him the impossibility of her judging south-southwest. "Just keep an eye on my location and give me a shout if I'm about to go into the lava, okay?"
She backed a respectable distance away from the lava flow, then turned and began following it. Within thirty meters, it split in two. The other fork was no more solid than the first, so she didn't bother branching off after it. There had to be something better, if only she could find it.
After a good half an hour of walking, though, she had to admit she was no closer to finding the right kind of lava flow than she had been when she left the ship. That and she was getting perilously close to the edge of comm range – the static had grown exponentially. She was just about to give up on finding natural obsidian, and go back for an acetylene torch to make obsidianite, when there was a crackle of static over the comm that resolved into Darion's voice.
"We've got company."
Darion would have sounded much happier if he'd found survivors. "Someone else responded to the distress call?"
"I don't know, they didn't open communications when I pinged them. Um, ship's transmitter is broadcasting its registration – Alpha Six Niner Quebec Echo Delta. The Sundancer, registered to-"
"Ethan." Janessa's stomach lurched. "Ethan d'Lacour."
"That's right, how did you know?"
"Don't ping again – I'll be right there."
Janessa cursed her misfortune all the way back to the Bonadventure.
Of all the people to be in the sector, it had to be her ex-husband. Most people would have ignored such an odd not-distress call, but she'd worked with him for long enough that their mind ran along similar tracks. He was doubtless here for the same reason she was – to make a quick profit. Unfortunately, every penny Ethan made off of New Galilee would be a penny less for her to pay her bills. There were only so many rich socialites willing to pay whatever it took to have the latest in fashionable accessories the moment they first became available; most people would wait until a horde of eager treasure hunters had brought down the price by flooding the interplanetary markets with Galilean Obsidian.
She cycled through the airlock and headed for the bridge, wincing a little at the ash she was shedding all over the place. Darion's eyes went wide when he saw her and she held up her hand, palm-out. "Not one word – there'll be plenty of time to clean up once we're in FTL. Sitrep?"
Darion flipped an image of the planet up onto the viewscreen. "The Sundancer's in a geostationary orbit. They launched a lander and it headed straight for the volcano." He zoomed in and traced out the lander's trajectory on the screen; whoever was piloting had done a flyover of the settlement's coordinates before setting down dangerously close to the crater. "I haven't pinged them again. They seem to be ignoring us."
Of course Ethan was ignoring her – every second was precious, now, if he wanted to beat her off the planet and back to civilization. The lander was little more than a rocket attached to an escape pod; it could take off much faster than the Bonadventure, but he'd lose at least a quarter hour with docking procedures, no matter how much he hurried them. So long as they left before the lander did, they ought to be in the clear. If the lander beat them off the volcano... all bets would be off.
"All right. Start on the pre-launch checklist. I'll be back before you're done."
"You going to tell me how you know this guy?"
"Tick tock," she said over her shoulder as she turned away. "We're on a tight schedule and time's a-wasting."
She pretended not to hear him and headed back towards the airlock. It would only take Darion maybe ten minutes to do the pre-launch checklist, so she wasted no time in finding an acetylene torch and cycling back out of the airlock.
This time she was grateful for the ash that was still thick in the air and even thicker on the ground. She went a few meters from the Bonadventure, to give herself a safe working zone, then turned on the gas and lit the torch.
It wasn't long before the ash began to melt into chunks of reddish glass. She gave the chunks time to cool while she filled her pack with more ash, in case she ruined this batch and needed to make more obsidianite once they were back in civilization. Then she gathered her meager bounty, wincing at the heat that radiated through her gloves, and hurried back inside.
Janessa stowed everything carefully and stripped off the worst of her ashy gear before heading back to the bridge. "Please tell me we're ready to go?"
"Just waiting for you," Darion said, powering up the engines.
Janessa dropped into her seat and strapped herself in. A quick check of the sensors showed that the Sundancer's lander was still on the volcano. She smiled at the readings. Even if the lander took off, right that instant, she'd still have a lead in the race back to civilization. Eat my exhaust cloud, Ethan.
While Darion taxied the Bonadventure into position for take-off, she turned her attention to composing the message she would send to all the local treasure hunters once they reached Jemison Station. With Ethan right on her tail, there was no point in trying to keep the planet a secret. She scaled the fee she was asking, depending on the amount of information they wanted. The planet's coordinates alone would be relatively cheap; details on the disaster would cost them significantly more. The smart ones would be able to extrapolate the volcanic eruption from the Interplanetary Database entry on New Galilee, but there were always people willing to pay someone else to do their thinking for them.
A hiss on the emergency channels broke her concentration, then Ethan's voice came in load and clear. "Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is Sundancer, Sundancer, Sundancer. Mayday, Sundancer. I require immediate assistance, over."
"Now that is a proper distress call," Darion said, reaching across the console.
"Was it?" Janessa swatted his hand away. "I didn't hear anything."
"Jan!" Darion protested.
"It's a ruse," she told him. "Oldest trick in the book. Well, one of the oldest, anyway." Ethan had probably noticed Darion start the engines and was trying to cut into their head start, delaying them with a fake distress call.
"How can you be sure? Who is this guy?"
Janessa considered ignoring the question a second time, then took in the determined look on Darion's face and sighed. "My ex-husband. We were married for nine years and I taught him everything he knows. Ungrateful bastard."
"You were married?" Darion stared at her, mouth dropping open slightly. "For nine years?"
"Yes, I was married," she snapped. Why was that so hard to believe? Just because her recent track record with pilots wasn't great didn't mean it had always been that way. "And yes, I'm sure it's a fake distress call. If it was real, he'd have told us what was wrong."
Another hiss of static. "Damnit, Janessa, I know you're out there, listening! It's an emergency, so come in, over!"
"Maybe we should still answer?" Darion bit his lip, but didn't take his eyes off his console to look at her again. "Just in case?"
"Not on your life. Or your hope of being paid."
"Janessa, I'm begging you, I need help!"
She felt the first twinge of nervousness – Ethan never begged. Reluctantly, she hit the comm. "What is it, Ethan?"
"Thank God!" That made Janessa even more nervous – Ethan prayed as much as he begged – until he added, "The lander was hit by a bomb and now Avari's trapped down there."
It didn't take a genius to figure out why Ethan's new wife and partner had ventured into an area being pelted by volcanic bombs – she'd found a vein of real obsidian. If they were going to take suicidal risks, let them deal with the consequences. There was no point in Janessa risking her ship, or her life, to bail them out. "And how this is any of that my problem?"
"But the bombs-"
"Tell her to hide behind a spur or something."
"Janessa, she could die-"
Cry me a river. Was Janessa really supposed to care about the tart who'd stolen her husband? "She's got at least a fifty-fifty chance of surviving even if she was stupid enough to go out without a helmet-"
A coal of hatred she thought she'd long ago smothered flared back to life again. Whether or not he was telling the truth, it was low of him to bring that up. "Then what the hell is she doing on an active volcano? You damned coward, can't you ever do your own dirty work? If they die, their deaths won't be on my conscious, they'll be on yours. Assuming you even have one, which by now I seriously doubt!"
Janessa toggled off the comm. "Let's get the hell out of here."
Darion stared at her, wide-eyed with shock. "We're not going to help?"
"He'll come down for her."
"But that's a tradeship – it doesn't have any planetary landing gear!"
Janessa felt a glimmer of satisfaction. "I know. They'll be stranded for a day or two, until the treasure hunters start overrunning this place and they can bargain for passage off. Serves the bastard right."
"We're taking off, now, or I'm getting a new pilot as soon as we dock," Janessa snapped.
Darion bit his lip and looked like he wanted to argue more, but finally started down their improvised runway.
The engines began to whine as he boosted their fuel intake, a loud, obnoxious sound that out in deep space would have signaled some sort of problem. She could feel the engines straining to break free of the planet, the moment when they reached the tipping point and the Bonadventure began to move upwards. Acceleration dragged at her limbs, making her feel even heavier than the planet's gravity did. She didn't let that distract her from monitoring the ship's systems, though. As Ethan himself had drilled into her: there were old pilots, there were bold pilots, but there were no old, bold pilots.
Ethan was going to be an old pilot, the coward.
Speaking of Ethan.... Janessa frowned at her consoles. As she'd expected, the Sundancer was breaking orbit, but it wasn't headed towards the planet. "What does he think he's doing?"
Darion barely glanced up from his own consoles, preoccupied with keeping the Bonadventure on course. "He's too close to the planet to enter FTL."
Janessa shook her head, certain she must have misheard. "He what?"
"Either he knows you better than you think he does, or he cares more about his ship than her," Darion said. "Can I adjust course now, or do I keep wasting fuel?"
Darion was wrong. He'd only known her five months and was still young – naive, even. Ethan, on the other hand, had been her pilot and husband for nine years. He knew how reckless she could be with her own life, and with others' lives as well, especially when money was on the line. He wouldn't leave Avari – pregnant or not – at Janessa's non-existent mercy.
A bright white light flashed across the forward viewscreen; the Bonadventure's sensors went crazy, reporting a burst of radiation that spanned the electromagnetic spectrum, but that white light was the only visible portion. Then it faded, leaving only the blackness of space where the Sundancer had once been.
Janessa stared in disbelief. "He left. He really did it. The bastard."
"I'm adjusting course," Darion said, not bothering to wait for permission. "Don't suppose you have any idea of what comm frequency she'd be listening for?"
She should tell him to stop. They didn't have time to waste on a rescue operation, not when they were already going to lose precious time breaking free of the planet's atmosphere. Ethan wouldn't just beat them back to Jemison Station – he'd preempt her selling the location of the planet to the other treasure hunters. The value of her obsidianite would begin to plummet before she even made it to the station, much less made contact with her buyers. With the way her luck was going, they might not even make enough to refuel.
"I got it." Her hands danced across the consoles, finding the right frequency and coding in Ethan's old encryption algorithm. He liked to think that made his communications more secure, as if it wasn't child's play to break an encryption that never changed. "Avari, it's Janessa, can you hear me? Over."
"Janessa?" Avari's voice – and the anxiety within it – came through loud and clear. "Something's wrong with my comm, I lost contact with Ethan."
That's because he abandoned you. But Janessa suddenly found she couldn't say it. "Little birdie told me you were pregnant." It had to be a lie – Ethan would never have left her if she was really pregnant. "That so?"
"Three months," Avari answered, without hesitation. "You've been talking to Ethan? Can you relay a message for me?"
Janessa felt like someone had punched her in the stomach. Her whole life, everything she'd believed, had been a lie. Ethan didn't care about children any more than he'd cared about her or Avari. He'd let her believe it was all her fault, just so he could get his hassle-free divorce and move on to a newer model of wife. Once they'd found out she was pregnant... had he been setting her up for failure? Deliberately pushing her to take greater risks than usual? One more job, Janessa, it should be an easy one. You know babies are bloody expensive, Janessa, we need the money...
She dug her fingernails into her palms and ground out the words. "Kind of hard to relay a message to someone who's gone into FTL."
Dead silence greeted her words, and for a moment Janessa thought she'd lost the connection. Then Avari said, "Oh."
"That's what you get for trusting a guy who cheated on his first wife." There was so much else Janessa had wanted to say to the woman who ruined her marriage, so much she had been waiting to say when she got the chance, but suddenly she felt like she was kicking a puppy. Besides, she wasn't sure Avari was the enemy, not anymore; Ethan had screwed them both over. "What's your sitrep?"
"FUBAR?" Avari offered, with a shaky little laugh. "The lander's a total loss, the bombs are still falling everywhere...." She swallowed, audibly. "And I'm pretty sure my leg is broken."
Janessa swore, a long string of profanity that used every curse she knew and a few she made up on the spot. If Avari couldn't walk off the volcano by herself, they really were in trouble. It wasn't as if Darion could just set the Bonadventure down right beside her; even in the best case scenario, they'd somehow have to transport Avari over at least a hundred meters of unstable ground while being pelted with bombs thrown out from the still-erupting volcano. FUBAR, indeed.
Abruptly, Janessa became aware that silence had stretched out on the comm and that Darion was frowning at his consoles. It didn't take a genius to figure out why – the situation was bad enough that no one could possibly blame her for deciding it was impossible to attempt a rescue. Here was her perfect opportunity to see the home-wrecking tart dead.
"Avari, you still there?" Janessa asked.
"Just sit tight. We're coming for you."
Darion flew over the crater twice, searching for an adequate landing site. The Bonadventure was at least ten times the size of Avari's lander and it quickly became apparent that there wasn't enough solid, lava-free ground to set down anywhere near her. Finally, he pointed out a little promontory, over half a klick away. "I think that's the best we're going to get."
Janessa bit her lip. That was a hell of a distance to haul a wounded woman. "Best as in nearest or best as in safest?"
"Nearest. It's not at all safe," Darion said, bluntly. "I'm going to use the incline to dump speed so I won't need as much space to land, but it's still going to be dicey. You want something safe, we might as well head back to where we landed originally."
Janessa actually considered it, but if she wasn't sure she could carry Avari half a klick, how was she supposed to carry the woman five times that distance? "Nearest it is, then."
"Look on the bright side," Darion said, adjusting course. "Worst case scenario, I wreck the ship and we all hang out inside, safe and sound, until help comes."
"I suppose that's slightly better than we all die." Janessa unstrapped herself and rose. It would be a rough landing, the kind she ought to be safely strapped in for, but she couldn't bear to watch this. "I'm going to go put together a first-aid kit. Try not to wreck my ship while I'm gone."
While the ship shuddered and lurched around her, Janessa queried the computer to confirm that pregnancy didn't alter the necessary first-aid procedures for a broken leg. She dumped all the ashes from her pack into whatever containers she could scrounge up, then began refilling the pack with bandages and drugs. It wasn't exactly sanitary, but given all the ash outside she didn't think a little more would hurt. She did well enough with the rough landing until she tried to climb back into her ash-covered gear; then she fell over twice, sending clouds of ash flying into the air. Assuming they survived this insanity, she was going to have to scrub every nook and cranny of the entire ship.
The Bonadventure finally touched ground, hopped twice, then settled down with an agonizing groan of stressed metal and strained engines. Janessa shuddered at the sound and laid one hand on the nearest panel. "I know, Bon, I didn't much like that either." She waited a few seconds longer, as they slowed to a shuddering halt, then carabinered a pair of hiking sticks to her pack and went back onto the bridge.
Little red lights were blinking all over the consoles. Janessa winced and forced herself to focus on Darion instead of those lights. "What's the damage?"
"It could be worse?" Darion said, his hands flying over the consoles as he checked the system reports.
Janessa fought down a growl of annoyance at his non-reply. "Can we take off again?"
"Are we space-worthy?"
"Um, sorta. We'll be a bit..." Darion hesitated, clearly searching for the right word. "Leaky. But we should still be able to go FTL."
Leaky. Janessa didn't even want to imagine the repair bill they were going to have. "Fine. Rig up some extra shielding around my quarters, to be on the safe side. We'll put Avari there." She and Darion would be safe enough on anti-radiation meds, but they couldn't chance giving them to Avari, not while she was pregnant.
"I'm on it."
This planet was definitely some sort of hell, Janessa decided, as she cycled back out onto its surface. She made a quick trip around the Bonadventure, checking out the extent of the damage. The landing gear was fine and the aft sensor arrays were intact – for once – but that was about the only good news. Darion must have hit a couple of bombs, coming in, because there were clear impart craters on the hull. They were going to be leaky as a sieve until she could afford to pay for repairs. At least it could be repaired.
"Bloody expensive," Janessa muttered, then toggled the comm channel open. "Darion – whatever shielding you were planning on, double it. Avari – we've landed and I'm on my way."
Half a klick gave Janessa plenty of time to appreciate the monumental stupidity of going this close to the crater of an erupting volcano. Bombs were falling all around her, not that she could see them; most were hidden by the thick ash falls, their existence betrayed only by the explosive sound they made when they hit the ground. One did get close enough to see – and close enough to hit her, too, if she hadn't dived for cover. The sound of its impact, only a few meters away, was deafening.
It was a relief when she finally caught sight of the ruined lander, though the giant bomb that had crushed it was a sobering reminder that even the Bonadventure wouldn't survive a direct hit from a large enough bomb. This one had probably been over a meter in diameter, though it was hard to tell for sure given the way it had deformed on impact with the lander. Avari was crouched in the shelter provided by the wreck.
Janessa hastened to join Avari, appreciating the irony of the giant bomb protecting them from the lesser bombs that still flew all around them.
"God, you have no idea how glad I am to see you," Avari said, wrapping her arms around her stomach. She was a mess; her right leg was stretched out in front of her – probably the broken leg – and brown streaks on her cheeks marked where tears had washed away the grey ashes that coated the rest of her.
Janessa dug her canteen and ace bandages out of her pack. She tossed the canteen to Avari. "Drink this. I'm sure you need liquids by now and I doped it up with pain meds."
Avari had the canteen uncapped and to her lips before Janessa finished speaking, but then she hesitated. "It won't hurt the baby?"
"I double-checked with the computer," Janessa assured her. "It won't hurt the baby."
Avari nodded and chugged the canteen's contents.
"I'm going to splint your leg," Janessa said, unclipping the hiking sticks from her pack. "And then we're going to get the hell out of here." She laid out a stick on either side of Avari's broken leg, extending them until they were the right length, then began using the bandages to tie them in place.
"I...." Avari lowered the canteen and sniffled, rubbing at her face. "I don't th-think I... I just, I can't-"
"Girl or boy?" Janessa only realized she'd tightened one of the bandages a little too far when Avari hissed in pain. She loosened it and tried again. "Your baby – is it a girl or a boy?"
"I don't know yet. Ethan-" Avari faltered for a moment. "We were going to let it be a surprise."
And didn't that sound achingly familiar. "He probably didn't want to pick out names, either, did he?" Janessa shook her head and went on in a sing-song voice. "A name is one of the most important things a parent gives to a child, we shouldn't rush this decision. How can we know what to call the baby until we meet the baby?"
Avari frowned. "That sounds like Ethan, all right."
"Mine was going to be a girl – I had the technician tell me when Ethan wasn't in the room." Janessa had to force herself to be gentle as she tied off the last of the bandages. "Bonnie. Ethan didn't know it, but I was determined her name was going to be Bonnie."
"That's a nice name." Avari laughed, shakily. "Ethan would have hated it."
"So," Janessa said, sitting back on her heels. "Are you going to get up off your ass, walk out of here with me, and choose a name for that baby that Ethan will hate? Or are you going to sit here sniveling until you die and free Ethan to screw over wife number three?"
Avari stared, eyes wide. "God. You really are as much of a b-bitch as Ethan said." But then her face hardened and there was a new determination in her voice as she added, "But bitches survive."
"Atta girl." Janessa held out a hand and tugged Avari to her feet. Well, foot. Even with the painkillers and the splint, Avari wasn't putting any weight on her injured leg. "Put your arm over my shoulders and lean on me."
Janessa was still a little worried that Avari might collapse again, the first time they took a lurching step forward. Avari whimpered and clenched her hand painfully tight on Janessa's shoulder. But she kept moving.
After four or five steps, Janessa felt confident enough to signal the Bonadventure. "Darion, we're on our way back."
The static on the comm drowned out half of Darion's reply. "Rog... done with... ding in... the bridge... watch your six."
"Watch my six, like I've got eyes in the back of my head," Janessa grumbled. Not that it was bad advice – the bombs were now coming from behind her, after all – but at the moment it was all she could manage to keep them moving in the right direction.
"He's worried – ow – about you. 'Scute," Avari managed to say, through gritted teeth. "Boyfriend? Ow!"
Janessa rolled her eyes. "He's half my age."
Avari was probably just trying to distract herself from the pain, but her questions still annoyed Janessa. "So no. But don't get any ideas about stealing another one of my pilots, I'm sick of training new ones."
"Well." Avari looked slightly taken aback. "Don't think I'll – damnit ow– need another one soon, anyway."
It seemed like hours before a smudge in the distance began to resolve itself into a larger blur that was probably the Bonadventure. Janessa sighed in relief – she wasn't sure how much longer they could have lasted. She was about to signal Darion, to confirm, when the ground gave a violent shake that nearly knocked them both off their feet.
"Jan," Darion said, his voice strangely flat. "If you can run, now would be the time."
The ground kept shaking and Janessa had to stop for a second to brace herself against the motion. She could run, but only if she abandoned Avari. "Not going to happen."
"If you have to leave me-" Avari tried to let go, but Janessa clamped her hand on top of Avari's.
"Shut up and move."
Two more steps and Janessa was sure they were only a few meters away from the Bonadventure. They might as well have been a few klicks away, for all the good it would do them.
Then the airlock cycled open and Darion dashed out. It was insane – he wasn't dressed for the heat and his lightweight deck shoes were little better than going barefoot. But he hardly seemed to notice as he skidded to a stop beside them. He grabbed Avari's free arm and pulled it over his own shoulders, lifting her off her feet entirely.
"Okay, run now," he said.
Janessa dredged up the strength to run the last few meters to the airlock. The instant they were inside, Darion dropped Avari and kept on running through the already-open inner airlock door.
"You jammed open the airlock?" Janessa shouted after him, but he was already gone.
Swearing, she helped Avari to the ground then looked back at the outer door. The ever-present ash falls had actually cleared a little. Now she could see all the way back to the lander and beyond – to the avalanche of darkness roaring towards them.
A pyroclastic flow.
"Oh, God!" Janessa dashed to the control panel whose cover Darion had removed. The floorplates beneath her feet began to vibrate as she frantically uncrossed and recrossed wires to fix the short he'd created. The outer doors slid closed with a little whine of protest for their mistreatment, drowned out a moment later by the angrier whine of the engines.
Janessa grabbed Avari under the arms and hauled her through the inner airlock, then hit the controls to shut those doors, too. "Brace yourself!" She followed her own command, sliding down the wall of the corridor and pressing her feet against the opposite wall. Avari awkwardly mimicked her.
Her stomach gave a little lurch as the whine of the Bonadventure's engine increased in pitch and they began to win their battle with New Galilee's gravity. "Come on, Bon, you can do it-"
Then the pyroclastic flow slammed into them.
The Bonadventure spun like a child's top – once, twice, part of a third time. The motion stopped almost as abruptly as it had begun, though Janessa could still hear the deafening roar of the flow surrounding them. She wasted no time in staggering to her feet and grabbing Avari again, dragging her two meters down the corridor to the door to her quarters. She slapped the door controls and pitched Avari inside. "Strap into my bunk if you can."
She didn't wait for a reply, just turned and ran for the bridge.
Darion was fighting with the controls, desperately trying to gain altitude while keeping the Bonadventure level with the horizon. The viewscreens displayed radar instead of visuals, probably because there was nothing that could be seen in the dark cloud of superheated gases that had engulfed the ship. If it had hit them while they were out in the open, they'd have died instantly. Though they still might die – the engines were screaming in protest.
"I'll monitor for bombs." Janessa flung herself into her seat and pulled her straps tight.
Darion nodded, without ever taking his eyes off his own console.
As agonizing as it was to quietly sit there and let Darion do all the flying, Janessa kept her hands to herself and her eyes on the sensors. She had to trust him; he was her pilot, this was what she had hired him to do, and he did it well. She only had to warn Darion about incoming bombs twice, and both times he managed to narrowly avert impacts that would have compromised the structural integrity of the ship. The second time, the bomb in question sheared off their aft sensor array. Janessa nearly laughed. She should have known better than to think that bloody array was going to make it through this mess, intact.
Suddenly, Darion gave out a shout of triumph. A moment later they broke free of the bomb-filled darkness, moving into the clear air – and then clear vacuum – above it.
Once they achieved low orbit, Janessa took over the controls and sent Darion off to take care of his burns – the heat had begun to melt the synthetic fabrics of his jumpsuit and the way he limped off indicated he probably had worse burns beneath his shredded deck shoes. He'd laughed off his idiotic act of courage on New Galilee, saying at least he'd gotten to rescue two survivors, but he wouldn't be laughing once the adrenaline wore off and pain of those injuries really hit him.
Janessa took advantage of her temporary privacy to run a full set of system reports, wincing at what she found. The damage to the Bonadventure was extensive and it would be more than her obsidianite was worth to pay for any of the repairs, much less all of them. Some things could wait – the landing gear was more of a luxury than a necessity – but the essential repairs alone were going to eat up all of her savings. She didn't know how she was going to pay for the docking fees and refueling, too.
At least she could take comfort in the fact that Ethan wasn't going to come out of this any better; once Avari was done divorcing him, he wouldn't have a penny left to his name.
Darion returned to the bridge, still limping but in a new jumpsuit. "Our passenger is fine – or, at least, no worse than she was before. She seems to be fascinated by our database of baby names?"
He sounded so puzzled that Janessa had to laugh. "Glad to have some good news."
"You're both completely mental, you know that?" Darion shook his head. "Oh, before I forget, she wanted us to have this, as a thank you for saving her." He reached into his pocket of his coveralls and pulled out a piece of shining red glass. It looked just like obsidianite, but there was one important difference – it was real. "She said it was the only piece she got. Does that make sense to you?"
Janessa took the obsidian, carefully, and cradled it in her palms. "Yes. Yes, that makes perfect sense." It was unique. Priceless. She could sell this for enough to repair the Bonadventure and then some. They'd come out ahead on this voyage, after all.
"Well, that makes one of us."
Darion was never going to develop a business sense, but Janessa wasn't sure she cared anymore. He was a good pilot. And he had saved her life. "What do you say about heading out towards the Tereshkova Sector, once we're done with repairs?"
He eyed her, thoughtfully. "That's almost a four month round trip."
"Yes, yes it is."
Darion grinned. "Sounds like a real adventure."
This story originally appeared in Far Orbit: Speculative Space Adventures.