Every Undertaker’s Friend
by Trek Journeyman © 2016
Chapter Fourteen Start at Chapter 1.1
Local midnight had come and gone. The camp was quiet, as most of the people not on guard duty slept in the freighter. Joseph was out on patrol with Kenya. A few men and women sat in silence in their assigned place on the makeshift barrier between the three circled ships. Nate chose to stay outside all night rather than be sequestered in his quarters. That way he could react to trouble the moment any started. He was asleep while the AI monitored all three ship’s sensors for inbound movement. If it detected anything it would tell him.
Jessica and Erica also decided to stay outside for the same reason. But that was what they told each other. In reality both women remained outside to better keep an eye on each other in relation to Nate. They sat in front of a fire, wrapped in soft, fleece blankets. They were joined by a older woman named India, also a crew member on the freighter. Nate slept restfully, opposite the fire from them.
Erica watched him as she sipped a Caff. In her thoughts, she still argued with herself about the dichotomy she saw in Nate. Flustered by her feelings, she could only stare at him. Jessica had been watching Erica the whole time they sat at the fire. Finally, annoyed by Jessica staring at her, Erica spoke up.
“I can’t love him. He’s killed too many men.”
Jessica started to primp her hair. The glare from the corner of her eye spoke volumes about her opinion of Erica’s excuse. “Let’s suppose Franco had busted into our quarters. Say you shot him. Then you would be a killer too.”
“What?” Erica snapped. “No! That’s not the same,”
“Sure it is,” answered Jessica. She continued to work her hair, not that it would matter when the only suitors would be six-foot boars. “Kenya and I both have guns. Where do you think they came from?”
Erica sat quietly, no answer coming to mind.
“We both got our guns passed to us by our fathers. Mine was killed on Ceres Station in a shoot-out with a gambler. Kenya’s father died fighting off a pirate raid.”
“Don’t you hate guns?” Erica asked incredulously. “I would think you both would, because how your fathers died.”
“It isn’t that simple. My gun is just another tool. Nate’s gun is just a tool. When you need them, you use them. I know what sort of man Nate Aluissi is because he’s no different from how my father was.” Jessica paused for a moment as she stroked her hair. “Except for the tendency to cheat at cards. I can’t see Nate being a cheater at anything.” She shrugged her shoulders, then continued. “Anywhere the law isn’t reliable, people can’t let the lawless run things, so men like Nate use their guns.”
India chimed in unexpectedly. “And all this time Jessica, I thought you were a bobble-headed blonde. I don’t want to even think about what would be happening now if he hadn’t showed up with his guns bucking.”
“And what do you think of Nate?” asked Jessica of India.
“Oh, If I were only twenty years younger, I’d be doing what you’re doing honey. Trying to get him to notice me. He’s more of a man than most I’ve come across over the years.” She met Erica’s eyes, “I mean as a mature man that can handle responsibility.”
After that, it was quiet around the fire for a long while as the women gazed into the calming flicker of the flames. Across the fire, Nate still slept. The night air was pleasant, helping everyone put the past few days behind them. It was hard to not feel the embrace of the tropical paradise they sat in. Despite the threats that might come from beyond the barrier, it was as though they were all on a vacation.
Nate awoke to a soft, salty breeze. The sun had yet to rise, so he hadn’t slept very long. He lay propped against a large rock, with a shirt balled into a pillow. His blaster lay in his lap. Across the fire, three women sat in silence. They hadn’t woke him, so they hadn’t been talking as far as he knew. Erica then stood and placed a log in the fire. India looked to be sitting with eyes closed, awake but resting. Jessica sat with a cup of what he assumed to be a Caff. He sat still, watching Erica for several minutes. She looked as though she were deep in thought. Finally, his eyes turned to look at the portion of the barrier in front of him.
Their getaway from the planet was foremost on his mind. Once in space, with three ships, they would be as safe as they could get. Esparza might try something, but he doubted it. Nate’s ship alone was an equal match to Esparza’s ship. Probably better. They could get back on course for the destination Joseph had originally set the ships toward. He didn’t know this sector of space like he did others, but Nate was confident he could easily guide them through. He had asked Gary to do an update of any new charts of the route before they had left Andretti Station. He had also picked Vinu over for what his friend knew. It would be enough.
They had a good chance to make it all the way safely. Esparza would be a minor threat, unless he got his slaver friends here to back him up. Were they already on their way? Was this planet supposed to be their rendezvous? Esparza no longer had possession of the circus gold. Joseph had told him about getting it back while they were on a patrol together earlier in the evening. There was always a slim chance the gold would be enough motivation to spur Esparza to look for any opportunity to get it back. Of course Marco would want revenge, so he’d follow Esparza or talk him into shadowing the circus.
But the pigs… did they have a ship? Did they have more than one ship? If they were space-faring they might be a bigger threat than Esparza. They surely were the sort to seek revenge. Primitives usually were prone to blood vendettas. But maybe they were not so primitive. A woman called from over the barrier, interrupting his thoughts. It was the current patrol coming back in. He stood up as the only makeshift gate in the barrier opened. A man and a woman walked though.
“Any sign of the pigs?” he asked them.
“No. And no new tracks either,” the woman answered.
“I’ll take the next patrol,” Nate said. He waved a man with a beam rifle to come over to him. When the man was standing in front of him, Nate spoke. “Keep alert from now until I get back. The time leading up to sunrise has always been a good time to start an attack. At least with us humans. I’ll be back at about sun up.”
“I’ll come with you.” Jessica stood with her blaster in hand. Erica rolled her eyes and turned to look in another direction. Jessica was smiling at Nate as she came up next to him at the gate. He didn’t say anything as he walked out into the darkness. Jessica followed wordlessly as someone else closed the gate behind her.
For an hour the two slinked about beyond range of the barrier and ships. Nate’s AI streamed a live view of the ship’s sensor display into his implants. He could see the icons representing him and Jessica, trees, and the canyon walls. There weren’t any signs of the pigs. None of the patrols had come across any sign the pigs had returned.
After two complete circuits around the camp in an hour, Nate made his way up to a concealed ledge overlooking the ships. From there, he and Jessica could clearly see the ground any pigs would cross if they came back through the stream carved canyon. It had been the same direction the surviving pigs fled after the first attack the day before.
“You seem to learn this sort of stuff quickly,” Nate whispered. He was referring to patrolling and sneaking about quietly.
“I’m more than the glittery showgirl I make myself to look like.” Her smile expressed more than friendly intentions. Nate ignored it. “I grew up with a frontiersman as a father. He wasn’t all that much unlike you.” Nate sat quietly, as though he was taking time to ponder a response. Not getting the response she had hoped for, she continued. “I’m sure there’s a planet like this one calling your name. Why don’t you find one and claim it for yourself?”
“A whole planet for a single person seems kind of lonely to me, no neighbors and all.”
“You don’t need neighbors Nate, but you do need a woman.” She shifted herself closer, almost leaning against him.
“A flashy showgirl wouldn’t prefer living such a solitary life would she?” Nate was referring to Erica, but Jessica assumed he was beating around the bush about her. Her eyes bore into his, seeing an affectionate connection. She didn’t sense any resistance to her probes so she leaned into and put her arm around him.
For a moment Nate’s arm moved around her too, but then he pulled it away. She sat up, surprised, and he shifted himself away a few inches.
“This isn’t any good,” he said. “Sorry. You’re a lovely lady and all, but…”
“Why be sorry?” she still retained her smile, but it wasn’t as wide as it was moments before. “This could work out just fine.”
“You’re only, what? Nineteen?”
“Eighteen,” she stated.
“Just a kid yet.” he said.
“A kid? Do I look like a kid? So I’m not your age. Thirty-something. So what. How old was your mother when she bore you?”
“Younger than me and she married, right?”
“I’m an adult,” Jessica snapped as she moved away. “Go get Erica then. She’s closer to your age, but she’s not right for you like I am.”
“She’s a solid woman.”
“Yes she is. One of admirable quality.” Her tone was sarcastic. “She’s the ideal type for a wife, but not yours.”
Nate couldn’t disagree with Jessica. Her claim had validity, but he would be a fool to start a relationship with her. He looked away into the early morning gray. “We need to get back.” He stood up.
“Right.” Jessica said, and she too stood up as he began to make his way back down to the ships.
Nothing else was said as the pair worked their way cautiously back to the barrier. Jessica strolled along behind him as though the conversation and rejection hadn’t taken place. Nate worried for her, she needed to be less forward with men like him. She could get herself into a mess if she made claims like that toward a lesser man than him. She had fire within her soul though, that was certain.
Nate called out the password, a few seconds later the gate swung open to admit them. Before parting ways with him, Jessica stood before him and reached out to poke his chest. Her nail clicked into his armor plating. “You big lug,” she said. Then she walked away with a forced giggle.
Joseph came out from his ship and had seen Jessica poke at Nate. He walked over to Nate, who was still staring after Jessica. “What was that all about?”
“It seems I hurt her feelings, but she’s too brash to feel sad about it. She’s a fiery one, that one.” Nate turned to face Joseph. “No sign of the pigs. Has Gary said anything about his progress?”
“Yes. I had a word with him not too long before you came back. He will be done within the hour.”
“Good.” Nate went to sit over by the fire and leaned against the same rock he had napped on earlier.
Erica and India were still at the fire. They woke up as Nate shuffled to get comfortable. Jessica joined them, prepping a pot of Caff over the fire.
“I’ve got a fresh pot brewing if you would like some,” she said to Nate. When it was finished, she brought the pot over and poured some into Nate’s cup.
Erica spoke to India in a hushed tone Nate could only hear as an unintelligible whisper. He chose not to use his audio implants to eavesdrop. Her quick glances in his and Jessica’s direction, and the poor attempts at concealing them, led him to think she was talking about them.
“She has feelings for you,” Jessica whispered, unheard by the other two women. From their perspective, it looked like Jessica was whispering intimate musings in his ear.
“No she doesn’t,” he whispered back.
“Yes she does. I can see it plain as day.” Jessica drew nearer, but not in an intimate way, but to Erica it looked that way. “The problem with her is that she can’t admit to her ‘High Society’ self that she’s in love with a gun fighter.”
“Can’t blame her for that.” Nate shook his head. “It’s not a life for a woman like her, although she’s doing pretty well on this trip. But a lifetime isn’t the same.”
“She’s had a sheltered life on Terra. She’s naïve about these things. Even with everything that’s happened on this trip, it’s all beyond her experiences.”
“And you seem to be taking it in stride. You understand this kind of life?” It was a rhetorical question.
“I do,” she responded.
Of course she did. Her being raised by a frontier card-sharp had been plenty of proof to that. It was tempting to give in to her advances. He was like any other man. He wanted to be loved and to love someone back. To have his own home and maybe kids. But there was no way it could fit with his lifestyle. Maybe it could if he dropped it all and went away, like she suggested. Find a lonely planet and make it home.
Many men like him try. Most fail. But it did happen. Every now and then he would hear of how a man he knew disappeared, only to pop back up with a wife and children. Too few succeeded though.
Doubt crept back into his thoughts. What could he offer any woman, let alone a woman of Erica’s caliber. He was a space tramp, and his income came from his blaster and his ship. That would be too dangerous for a family. They would be a weakness. A vulnerability he didn’t what to have to face one day.
It was at that moment his thoughts were interrupted by his AI. A signal was coming in from the direction of Esparza’s ship. Half a second later a series of explosions echoed from the freighter hold, its door wide open.