Captain Soo-jin Dokgo is no saint.
Foul-mouthed and hot-headed, she trawls the system’s outskirts, taking odd jobs, stripping salvage sites, and steadily washing her problems down in a cotton candy haze of clubs and alcohol.
But a message from an old friend leads to a job she can’t refuse, and a mother and son need more help than any sane person can give them.
It’s time to boot up Huli Jing’s drives and show the system what she can really do.
Because pirates are on their tail, and they’re playing for blood.
A hand touched her shoulder. Soo-jin flinched, curling inward. Thick, pounding pain throbbed across her temples, as if someone had stuck her head between the pincers of a hydraulic vise and pushed. A raspy, leaden groan scraped from her throat. The world came to her ears in an uncertain, hazy drone.
For a moment, when the blanket slipped and the cool air pricked the skin of her very naked shoulder, back, and buttcheek, a jolt of fear flashed through her, her mind transported straight into a smaller, darker room and a different set of circumstances, but she quickly recognized the familiar hum of her ship’s life support droning on in the background and the ambient blue and orange colors of her quarters glowing around her.
As well as the blurry form of her first mate standing right beside her bunk.
No, the past was gone. This was just another fucking hangover.
Sol’s gods-damned child, why do I do this to myself?
She turned, wincing away from the light.
Zan touched her shoulder again, their hand pressing more firmly into the bare skin. “Soo-jin.”
She didn’t jerk at the touch this time, expecting it somewhat, but she did groan again. Zan stepped back as she stirred, their form slipping into a wayward, painful focus that had her brain fighting to put shape to. A nonbinary individual, existing at neither end of the female-male gender spectrum but a bigender blend somewhere in the middle, their appearance took on a mixture of masculine and feminine, from the thicker musculature of their arms and chest to the collected, narrow shape of their face. Their rich brown skin seemed to absorb the light in a matte way rather than gleam, and their dark features always pulled attention. Black hair fell midway down their spine in thick waves.
Like Soo-jin, they wore it in a simple, practical ponytail. Unlike Soo-jin, this didn’t give them a quick tomboy effect. Instead, Zan could have caught a starring role in one of the historical romances Soo-jin watched—on either side of the binary.
Currently, her first mate looked ready to kick someone’s ass.
They cleared their throat, arms crossing over their chest. “Did you tell Daisuke to re-align the heads of the collision drive?”
Memories flashed. A face. A little bit of pretty, a lot of dumb. A hanger-on at the club, and, apparently, an acceptable take-home partner for Drunk Soo-jin.
It took a moment for her to register the rest of Zan’s words. When she did, Soo-jin was suddenly much more awake.
Few things could get her up in the morning. Dumbasses fucking with her ship’s engines neared the top of the list.
She jerked upright, grabbing for the blanket. “What?”
The entire room rolled with the motion, and a bright wave of nausea flooded through her skin, every hair standing on end.
She clamped her teeth together and ignored it, feeling for the edge of the bed and snatching at the clothes she’d left on the floor. Nausea could wait; the potential ruin of her collision drive could not. The blanket slipped, leaving her more naked than not. Neither of them cared.
After five years together on a ship, they’d seen just about everything the other had to offer. The blanket had been more to keep the cold away.
A few seconds later, Zan pressed one of Soo-jin’s old shirts into her shoulder. She grabbed it, grunted a thanks, and swiped at the closest pair of loose pants.
The headache rocked into her right lobe, pinching so strong, it sent a shudder through her muscles. She dropped the shirt and leaned a hand into the spot, swallowing hard and attempting to feed a leg through the pants.
“The collision drive?” she confirmed with a wince.
I’m going to kill him. I’m going to kick his ass so hard, they’ll find it in the next universe. I’m going to wrap the drive tubes around his stupid little neck and see just how well these strength augments work.
If the Alliance thought two-ish square meals a day and a paltry wage was going to keep her out of jail, they had another think coming.
She fed the second leg through, then stood. The room swayed. Zan watched her stumble to the wall nearest the engineering door, a single eyebrow arching upward.
Okay, maybe she wouldn’t be going to jail today. She could barely walk.
“You gonna make it?”
“Yep. Just give me a second.”
She breathed through her nose, using the cool touch of the air to stabilize her, then groped for the bottle of water and hydration patches she kept in the nook above her storage trunk. Shaking fingers popped the seal off the tub, pulled two patches out, activated them with a twist, and slapped them onto her bicep.
She looked down, realizing she was still half-naked.
She twisted, wobbled from the movement, then made a controlled fall back onto the bed to reach the shirt. Sore, abused muscles stretched in her abdomen, along with the beginnings of a bruise on the ribs to the left side of her back. A vague memory of bouncing into the edge of a corner at a club came to her.
Zan watched from the midpoint of the room, both eyebrows now fully arched.
But if they had anything more to say about her drinking habits, they’d made their point many times before.
A few seconds later, the hydration patches had mixed enough to work, thank the fucking suns. Her breath caught in her throat as their cool touch numbed her arm. Rocking back, she made it upright again, grabbed the water bottle from where she’d left it, and took several big swallows, swishing the water around on the last one to combat the dryness in her mouth.
“How much did you drink last night?” Zan asked.
Ah. Apparently, they were going to say something.
“Too much. As usual.” Lucky for them, she was a functioning alcoholic. She gulped down one more swig, twisted the cap back onto the bottle, then pressed her weight into the door panel until it flashed green. “Come on.”
Huli Jing was an old ship. A Griffin-class former Alliance dropship, she’d served in the Tala Border Conflict and was well over a hundred. When Soo-jin had found her, there’d been six outdated, full-scale ion burst engines powering her thrusters, and a fossil of a second-gen gravity generator that had taken almost six cubic meters in the center of the ship.
Signs of her age.
Soo-jin and the passel of highly skilled engineers at Wolfrun Station had gutted her insides, stripped the old, obsolete parts for reset and repair—most had been perfectly fine, thanks to the effects of zero-G, vacuum, and the Alliance’s steady service rotation, but she wasn’t about to fly around in a hundred-year-old-ship with parts that hadn’t been inspected—and joyfully auctioned off the parts that had pissed them off the most. Then, they’d retrofitted the engines with the latest tech civilian money could buy.
The collision drive was part of that.
Bridging the gap between the Huli Jing’s four main thrusters, the drive provided a stabilizing circuit that boosted their output, bypassed the previous drive limitations, and forwarded a secondary set of data to the bridge that she relied on for more accurate readings.
Messing with any of it was inadvisable without an engineering degree and a healthy investment of time working on engines similar to hers.
Unless Daisuke had crammed four years of school and an advanced internship at a vintage station yard into the past six hours, Zan and Soo-jin were the only qualified people on board to work on it.
She lurched through the door, wobbled to a halt on the platform, and steadied herself against the railing. Cold flooded her chest and arms, and her hand shook against the railing pipe. The sharp, steep drop to the lower part of the engine room pulled another wave of nausea from her, but her anger bubbled up first. She shoved off the railing and strode toward the anterior engine bridge.
Fuck this guy.
Huli Jing wasn’t big. It took less than three seconds to spot the pair of masculine legs sticking out from under the collision drive’s second wiring hub. The glow of a hundred stabilization and cooling tubes put a bright blue cast on his pale skin. Tools and equipment—her tools and equipment—lay strewn in a semi-circle around his hips and ankles.
He had, at least, put on clothes.
Thank Sol for small mercies.
She stopped next to his feet, staring down through a gap in the hub as he fiddled with the next head.
“What are you doing?”
He jumped at her voice, and his gaze snapped to her a second later, taking a few moments to find and lock with her own. Large pupils looked up at her, circled by narrow bands of green iris.
A rock solidified in her stomach.
Not only was he screwing with her engine, he was doing it while incredibly high.
I’m going to fucking kill him.
Her mouth pressed into an incredibly thin line. Idly, her mind guessed at the drugs he might have dropped. Formra, maybe, but he was too relaxed, and his performance last night had not been that…memorable. Marijuana? Cocaine? Weskitin? Purple Dame?
Sol. All were bad news. He wasn’t even qualified to work on the engine sober.
He shot her a toothy grin, oblivious to her shift in manner. “Hey, baby. Sleep well? Thought I’d help you with engine maintenance. I saw you had a few misaligned heads here. Just patching them up now.”
Her jaw muscles rippled, teeth grinding together, and her hands twitched, already imagining themselves wrapped around his neck.
There wasn’t anything misaligned in her engines, and he wasn’t ‘patching’ shit. He was unplugging sensitive tubes, removing her labeling, and fucking around. A dozen heads were already disconnected, dangling in the air to the left of his head, and a scattering of old labels lay crumpled on the floor beside him.
Her gaze tracked up to where the opposite ends of the tubes disappeared into the engine housing above.
Great. I’ll have to pull down the bumper just to figure them out again.
“She’ll be much faster when I’m finished.” His loopy gaze slid back to the head he was working on, pupils dilated like a drugged cat’s.
Nausea rolled through her stomach, making her sway, but her attention still tracked the hand he reached up to the hub.
She physically winced when he tugged another head out.
Good thing they were powered down and docked at a station right now.
“This is a retrofitted drive.” She cleared her throat, trying to fight the dryness of her tongue and mouth. “The alignments are unique to her build and different from standard strip-hubs.”
“Yes, but I noticed this weird bypass that was happening between G-12 and H-14. If you get rid of that, you’ll get far more power out of her.” He flashed her a smile through the gap in the hub. “Just think of the new speed. Almost twelve G of added acceleration.”
Her hands twitched again, aching to tear the smirk off his face. She knew precisely what bypass he was talking about. She and three other engineers at Wolfrun had configured it during the new engines’ testing runs.
In her head, she imagined dragging him to the railing and pitching him over the side. He’d make a lovely sound when he hit the bottom.
I’m an upstanding Alliance citizen, and I don’t kill random people, she reminded herself. Even if they are annoyingly stupid.
“The bypass is necessary,” she said, her words sounding cracked and hollow, grating at the back of her throat. “Without it, excess power generated by the ion cells builds heat in the exhaust core, compromises engine integrity, and risks head meltdown. I’d rather not be dead in space a week into flight.”
“Oh, no need to worry about that. The latent systems fix that.” He smiled at her, another toothy grin. “Don’t you ladies worry, I’ll hook it right up to the wireless. You’ll get a direct feed.”
On second thought, maybe some people were too dumb and annoying to live.
One, Zan was not a ‘lady.’ Neither was Soo-jin, for that matter, in the sense that she preferred being elbow-deep in engine grease, swearing at misbehaving ship parts over attending high class opera performances or whatever it was the elite ladies did these days rather than being a divergence of the popular gender binary.
Two, Huli Jing didn’t have a system wireless. She was too old for that, brought up in a time when the Alliance had shitty software protection and a healthy respect for signal jacking. Every inch of her engine dashboards was hardwired, and Soo-jin had elected to keep her that way.
The only exception was the transmitting program she’d linked to the ship’s comms network, which mirrored the engines’ statistics, comms, and security feeds and reports to her and Zan’s netlink accounts, and the general wireless network that fed into the comms net, provided station and relay access, and allowed her to watch an unhealthy amount of dramas every cycle—and which was completely separate from anything to do with ship systems.
If one wanted to get into Huli Jing’s systems, they had to breach her hull with a torch.
“Oh, will you now?” she said, injecting her voice with a false enthusiasm.
“You bet, baby!”
She winced at the pet name. Then, slowly, she lifted her gaze to meet Zan’s equally unimpressed stare.
“Out?” she asked.
They nodded once, gruffly. “Out.”
Five minutes later, Daisuke was swearing at them on his way down the air bridge from where Zan had hauled him, hopping a few steps as he struggled to put on the second sleeve of his jacket.
“Fuck you! I was doing you bitches a fucking favor.” His lips curled back, his toothy-grin now turned into a malicious snarl. “Enjoy your fucked up dump heap of a ship.”
“Bye!” Soo-jin called, chucking his bag down the ramp after him and giving his retreating form a mock-cheery wave. “Don’t let the lights hit you on the way out!”
By the wideness of his pupils and Westikin—the drug she’d decided most likely responsible for his current inebriation—the station’s old, flickering LEDs were likely hitting his brain like a ton of gravball bats. Served him right. She couldn’t stop the sliver of gloating curling up the edges of her mouth.
He didn’t reply to that, but he did stagger near the bottom—right where her ship ended and any potential injury lawsuit got turned over to the station government.
Great, let him be someone else’s problem.
She let out a sigh after he vanished from view, the sound quickly shifting into a groan as she bent her head and rubbed at her eyes. “Fuck me.”
Zan grunted. “Where’d you pick that one up?”
“I don’t even know. Jibril’s? Maybe Zenith?” She shook her head, then winced at the movement. The pounding of her head was getting louder, and the painkillers were on the other side of the ship. “The dick wasn’t worth it, though.”
Zan snorted. “No dick is worth that.”
“Truer words were never spoken.” She groaned again, finally conceding to press her palm to her temple in an attempt to relieve the pain. “I suppose I better go pay for my drunken mistakes and fix what he messed with. You see him on anything else?”
“No, but I’ll check the cameras.”
“Thanks.” She turned, giving the threshold of Huli Jing’s airlock an affectionate pat on the way by. “And don’t you listen to him. You’re a beautiful fucking ship, and he has no sense of taste.”