"Oh dear," exclaimed Seepy Weepy.
Libby looked up from the food she was preparing. The elegant evening gown she wore seemed out of place in the Sparrow's cramped kitchenette, but her choices were limited. Her entire wardrobe had been packed aboard one of the Rebel Transports, and the small selection of female clothes aboard the Serendipity Sparrow had been left behind by a woman whose chosen lifestyle dictated the exquisite over the practical. It was all gowns and lacy lingerie, with not a decent pair of thick trousers or a rugged tunic to be found.
Her own outfit was in the wash.
Mal had plopped himself down into one of the chairs in the small dining area and was staring tiredly into the distance. He was smeared with grease and grime, and the expression on his face was not a cheerful one.
"Keep chopping these," she said to Seepy Weepy. She placed the knife onto the cutting board and wended her way past the 'bot, out of the tiny kitchenette. Sitting in the seat across the table from Mal, she took one of his hands in her own.
"What is it?" she asked him.
He shook his head. "I had hoped that, with a little peace and quiet, we'd be able to repair the hyperdrive engines and be on our way."
It had been sixteen hours since the Sparrow had detached herself from the Imperial Planetary Dominator. Libby had slept for a while, and woken feeling refreshed. Mal—with Shaggus at his side—had spent much of that time in the engine room. Now his eyes were red-rimmed with exhaustion.
"No such luck, I take it?"
He shook his head again. "The exotic energy focuser is cracked; without that, we're not going anywhere. Except at sub-light speed, of course."
"Cracked?" she asked. "I thought those things were practically indestructible."
Mal shrugged. "Well known fact that if something is 'practically indestructible', it will break it the worst possible moment—and, of course, be impossible to get at when it does." He lifted his free hand up in front of his face and inspected the filth which coated it. His fingers were trembling. "We had to dismantle most of the port exhaust manifold to take a look at the thing!" He sighed. "It's probably a stress fracture; I've been running the Sparrow too far and too fast for far too long now."
Libby hesitated before asking the obvious question. For a man as carefree and confident as Mal usually was, he already looked alarmingly depressed.
"And no," he added, answering her question before she had to voice it, "I don't have a spare! Don't need one, remember? Bloody thing's indestructible! And we don't have the facilities on board to repair it, either."
"Well," she said lightly, "I guess we're still going to Tibrogar, then."
"Yeah," he said. "Sorry."
"Don't apologise," she began, but he shook his head.
"I'm sorry I've let you down. I've failed you. You put your life in my hands and..."
"... and you kept me alive, and free, against overwhelming odds," she said sternly. She squeezed his hand tightly in hers. "Don't you start doubting yourself now. I have total confidence in you, but I need you to keep it together for me."
"Yeah," he said. "Sorry."
"I will smack you," she told him fiercely.
He grinned, and she felt her heart lighten at the sight of it. "Gotta catch me first," he said.
She looked at the table between them, where her hand still clasped his. "Looks like I've already caught you," she said, returning his grin.
He also looked at their linked hands. Lightly he ran his thumb across the back of her hand, leaving a dirty smear across her fine, pale skin. His grin faded, and a strange expression flitted across his face. "Yeah," he agreed, "looks like..."
For a minute or two the silence was broken only by the sounds of Seepy Weepy carefully slicing vegetables and dropping them into a pot.
"Three weeks isn't so bad," said Libby softly. "The Rebellion will survive without us for that long."
"I guess we could probably both do with a break from being chased across the universe," agreed Mal. He blinked slowly, his eyes heavy with the need to sleep.
"Where's Shaggus?" asked Libby.
"In his bunk," said Mal. "I think I could do with a nap myself."
"You go to bed," Libby told him. "If there is a problem we'll wake you. I promise!"
"What about..." Mal nodded towards the kitchenette.
Libby shrugged. "The food will be ready for you when you wake up." She chuckled. "Besides, I suspect Seepy has spent more time in a kitchen than I have; between the two of us it will likely be eight hours before we're ready to serve it up! Go. Go to bed." She disengaged her hand gently from his.
Without further argument, Mal pushed himself to his feet and wandered down towards the sleeping quarters.
The days flew past on the Serendipity Sparrow.
Of course, for the ship's small crew, since they had no sun to steer by, the actual day-night cycle was artificially regulated. Studies had shown that, for space voyages longer than 96 hours, it rapidly became vital for some regular lighting cycle to be instituted in order to preserve the mental health and well-being of those on board. Nobody wanted a repeat of the events—rapidly attaining the status of legend—which had taken place during the ill-fated maiden voyage of the IPD Agamammanon. Imperial or Rebel, one could not help but shudder when the ship's name was mentioned. An entire crew turning upon each other in a frenzied bloodbath was just plain bad news, and not the sort of thing any space-faring person would wish upon his enemies.
Such dark thoughts, however, found no place to fester in the minds of Mal and Libby and Shaggus—and Seepy Weepy, not having a mind as such, was immune to the horrors of fear and depression.
The four of them rapidly fell into a routine.
Each morning—as the ship's lights brightened to full intensity from the dim, almost-darkness of the "night" cycle—they would gather in the dining area. Mal and Libby would share breakfast duties in the kitchenette. They had banned Shaggus from preparing food after his first efforts, following which they had all spent several hours coughing up fur balls.
Seepy, despite all his table-setting talents, had proved to have all the culinary capability of a rat—and despite the rumours that some rodents from Lurk's home planet were better cooks than the moisture farmers, that exception had no bearing on Seepy's lack of ability. "I'm only a sex 'bot," he had said quite early on, "and not very good at making breakfasts. Not at making them interesting, anyway!"
After they had eaten, they would typically go their separate ways until lunch.
Mal could often be found in the cockpit, checking that the auto-pilot was still on course, scanning the path ahead for any impending obstacles, or merely staring out at the star-speckled blackness through which they were passing. Once he called everybody up to join him in watching the beauty of a passing rogue comet, and once they all gasped in awe at the sight of a distant nebula flaring brilliantly, lit up by the blast of a star going nova. Mostly, though, he spent his mornings alone.
Libby spent the first few days of the journey exploring every nook and cranny of the Sparrow, familiarising herself with the layout and capabilities of the ship. Once she had done so—the Sparrow was by no means large, as freighters went—she took to reading. The ship had a small library, stocked with perhaps a thousand books; in pride of place were three antique novels made from real paper, and Libby was very carefully working her way through those. She had only ever read one other paper book, and the feel of these, the smell, brought back memories of her childhood. They were not easy to read; they were written in one of the dead languages of old Earth, a language she had studied long ago but with which she was far from fluent. However, the sheer joy of holding them in her hands, of feeling the texture of the paper beneath her fingers, more than made up for any difficulty in following the text. Besides—she asked herself—how could anyone resist a book with a pink teddewok on the cover?
Shaggus preferred to spend his mornings tinkering in the engine room. Perhaps the hyperdrive engines were beyond repair, but there were many other systems which were long overdue for a good service. After the first couple of weeks he had increased the Sparrow's energy efficiency by almost fifty percent, and repaired six critical components which had also been on the verge of failing. He also managed to boost their sub-light speed enough that he shaved a whole day off of their travel time to Tibrogar.
Typically Seepy—with no great desire to better himself, and not prone to boredom—simply shut himself down until the evening meal.
After a light lunch, Mal and Libby generally gravitated to the lounge. There they played board games, spoke about their respective mornings, or took the conversation to deeper, more private topics.
Once or twice Shaggus popped in on them to let them know of his latest victory in the engine room, but most of the time the Woonky left the two humans alone; the required maintenance wasn't going to perform itself! Besides, with his highly developed sense of smell, he knew from the pheromone levels in the air that Mal wanted to mate with the female; from what little he knew of human mating practices, Shaggus preferred to stay well away. Given Mal's prior prowess in the mating arena, Shaggus could only wonder why the two had not yet gotten the act over and done with. Woonky social and sexual behaviour was so much simpler!
All four of them would return to the dining area for the evening meal. Seepy did not eat, of course, but it was a chance for them all to talk about whatever came to mind. It did not take them long to discover that, with his prodigious memory and his excellent ability to mimic almost any sound he had ever heard, Seepy was a natural story-teller—although his sense of comic timing occasionally left a little to be desired. Many times they would sit for hours as Seepy entertained them with tales of previous owners. He assured them, of course, that he would never tell such tales about his current owners.
Afterwards, Seepy would settle himself into one of the seats in the cockpit to keep watch in case of an emergency, and the other three would retire to their separate sleeping quarters.
The days flew past...
"What am I looking at?" asked Libby. She was peering out the front view port.
Mal moved to stand beside her, his arm pressed warmly against hers. "There," he said. "See that bright star? The big one, with the other one beside it?"
Libby nodded. "What about it?"
"One of them is not a star. It's Tibrogar!"
"We're here already?" said Libby. Her surprise was genuine; she had not been counting the days.
"Allowing for deceleration, we're perhaps eleven hours out," said Mal.
Libby turned to look up at him. He was staring forward at the planet and its star. Once or twice over the last three weeks he had floundered in a sea of depression from which she had been unable to lift him. Now, however, with their goal in sight, he wore a huge grin and he seemed every inch his usual cocky self.
On a whim, she hoisted herself up onto her toes and pressed her lips briefly against his cheek. He turned towards her then, a question in his eyes. He leaned forward. Closing her eyes was easier than facing his unspoken question. She brushed her lips lightly against his, then more firmly. She felt his own lips part beneath hers.
Suddenly she felt the urge to thrust her tongue wildly into his mouth, to crush her body hard against his, to drag him to the deck and tear both their clothes off and grind herself against him in an orgy of unbridled passion. The urge was almost irresistible.
Instead she lowered her heels slowly to the deck, drawing away from his kiss. She opened her eyes again, and stared into his. He was so close, so damned gorgeous, that it took every last ounce of willpower she could summon to turn away from him and stare back out the view port. She sensed his confusion, and she wanted to hold him and console him.
Instead she clasped her fingers lightly around his.
"It's beautiful," she said softly, once she was sure she could keep her voice steady. Even in the last five minutes, the distant planet seemed to have grown larger.
"It certainly is," agreed Mal. He was still gazing down at her. "It certainly is."
The planet Tibrogar loomed hugely to one side of the Serendipity Sparrow's view port. It was a gas giant, its atmosphere a swirling green colour, laced with vast eddies of blue and orange. The gas mines were giant orbital cities, floating domed discs perched atop large cylindrical shafts which plummeted down, down, down into the clouds below where the raw materials were siphoned from the atmosphere and pumped back up to be refined.
All four of the Sparrow's complement were in the cockpit, watching as the planet rolled slowly past their starboard wing. After the monotony of deep space, the view was a welcome change. The ship was on the final approach to Gas Mine Epsilon. The locals called it "Cloud City"—but this was true of all but one of the seventeen Tibrogargan Gas Mines. (The exception had been christened "Titan Uranus" by an administrator who had wanted to pay homage to humanity's first gas mine, in the old Sol system. Barely a week after the name change, the administrator had been thrown over the edge of the city by a mob of angry citizens, and he had become a permanent part of the gas giant; however, the name had stuck.) Three light fighters flew in formation around the Sparrow, guiding her to the designated landing pad.
A laser blast rocked the ship.
"Hey," said Mal Single urgently into the comm, "what are you doing?"
"You will not deviate from the specified flight path," came the reply. "You will follow us to landing pad sixty-eight. Failure to obey will result in your destruction."
"What the hells?" muttered Mal. He keyed the comm. "We are obeying," he said. He guided the Sparrow past the many cylindrical towers which formed the skyline of the city.
"Well, see you continue to do so!"
Shaggus snarled angrily: They seem very touchy about something!
"It's going to be okay," said Mal. He did not sound as confident as his words suggested.
"I wonder why they don't want us to stray?" mused Libby. "There must be something here which they don't want us to see. I have a bad feeling about this."
"Lardo is a businessman," said Mal, "and all businessmen have secrets. After a while, protecting those secrets takes priority over everything else; even protecting them from people who aren't interested."
"Maybe," said Libby. "Are you sure you trust him?"
"With a name like Lardo Carntrustim?" asked Mal. "He always used to say that the only thing about him you could trust was his name. But he has no love for the Imperium, I can tell you that much. He'll repair our hyperdrive for us. He'll do it for the sake of our friendship—or he'll do it for cold hard cash. Either way..."
"It's not like we have any choice," Labia finished for him.
This was not the first time they had discussed variations on this theme, and no matter what else they decided, it always came back to the simple truth that they had nowhere else to go.
"There's pad sixty-eight," said Mal, pointing. He pushed forward on a lever, taking the Sparrow down towards the circular pad. The ship touched down gently, the pneumatic landing gear absorbing any slight shock, and Mal cut the power to the engines. The fighter escort roared past overhead, then disappeared behind a building.
"Come on," he said, "let's go meet our friend."
Just watch your back, snarled Shaggus.
"Always," said Mal. "Come on. You too, Seepy; we could all do with some time away from the ship, I think."
"Oh my, yes," said Seepy Weepy. He stood and followed the two humans and the Woonky through the cargo bay of the Serendipity Sparrow and down the ramp.
They stood together as the ramp hissed quietly closed behind them. Mal wore his habitual brown outfit, and his long coat flapped in the strong wind which whistled across the landing pad. Beside him, Libby once more wore her padded white pants and fur-trimmed jacket. Shaggus wore a coarse cotton tunic beneath his thick, brown leather vest. Seepy wore nothing, of course; his metallic skin gleamed redly in the light of the setting sun, and reflected the glorious orange hues of the clouds which drifted serenely around the floating city. Apart from the four of them, the pad was deserted. A long walkway stretched from the pad itself to a door leading into the interior of the city.
"There's nobody here," said Seepy. "Are you sure this is the right place?"
"I'm sure Lardo is very busy. He probably can't take time off to meet every old friend who drops in unexpectedly after twenty years."
"Yeah," said Libby. "I'm sure that's it."
"I guess we should just go on in," said Mal. He began heading across the walkway. Libby and Shaggus followed him, and Seepy Weepy scurried to catch up.
Suddenly the door they were heading for hissed open, and several armed guards ran out towards them, weapons drawn. Mal stopped, and rested his hand lightly on the butt of his own laser pistol. Through the door waddled a huge man, as wide around the waist as he was tall—and he wasn't a short man. A crimson cloak fluttered around him as he moved. He approached rapidly, finally lumbering to a stop just inches away from Mal.
"You've got a lot of nerve coming here after what you pulled," he said.
"Well, hey," said Mal, "I always figured we both made plenty on that deal." Mal cautiously backed up a step.
The big man suddenly lunged at Mal—and hugged him fiercely. "Great to see you again, you crazy old pirate," he said, laughing.
"Hey, Lardo," squeaked Mal as he disappeared into the man's huge grip. After a few seconds, he began to flap his arms in the air. "Can't ... breathe!" he struggled to say.
"Whoops, sorry," said Lardo, releasing him.
"Same old Lardo," wheezed Mal. "You haven't changed a bit."
"Well, a little greyer, perhaps," said Lardo. "But you, you haven't aged a day. What's your secret?"
"Clean living," said Mal, "and a clear conscience."
"Yeah, right," scoffed Lardo. "But I see you have a new crew? And such a lovely crew at that." For a man of his size, Lardo was surprisingly graceful. He stepped easily past Mal—barely noticing that the other man was swept aside by his huge bulk—and took one of Libby's hands in his own. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed her daintily. "And who are you, my sweet?" he asked.
"Alright, you big smoothy, that's enough," said Mal, quickly scrambling back to his feet and inserting himself between the Princess and Lardo. "This is Libby."
"Enchanté," said Lardo with a charming smile. "Truly, Libby, you are an angel, and belong with us here among the clouds."
"Thank you," said Libby, returning his smile.
"And I'm sure you remember my co-pilot," said Mal, indicating the towering Woonky.
Lardo nodded up at Shaggus. "Hello," he said. He frowned slightly. "I never forget a face; have we met before?"
Always the joker, grunted the eight foot tall furry green Woonky.
Lardo grinned. "Oh Shaggus, it's you. Hardly recognised you! What are you still hanging around with this pirate for?"
Shaggus whuffled a reply which was far too obscene to translate, and shook his arms above his head.
"True," said Lardo. "True." Finally he relinquished Libby's hand.
"And I," said Seepy, stepping forward excitedly, "am Seepy Weepy, human cyborg relations, at your..."
Ignoring the 'bot, Lardo turned away. "So Mal," he said, wrapping his arm around the other man's shoulders and half-dragging him towards the door, "what have you done to my ship?"
"Your ship?" said Mal. "Hey, I brought her from you fair and square."
"Well," said Seepy as the two men walked away. "How rude!"
"He seems very friendly," said Libby thoughtfully. "Shaggus, keep your eye on him, okay?"
Shaggus grunted agreement.