Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

We’re eighty-four days out from Sondehaven before we pick up the right beacon. I get everyone’s attention with a short blast of the klaxon, which prompts a round of rude guesswork as to my parentage and next sexual partner.
“You’re all hilarious. Now, we’re on beacon, so decide what we need to get repaired and fake it. You’ve got about an hour before we enter nosey bastard range. I’ll klaxon again five minutes out.”
The Firefly-class freighters that gad about the free trade routes often provide settings for broadcast soap opera. I presume scriptwriters associate independent minds and close quarters with dubious morals and tempestuous relationships. I wish. While free traders might be prone to cowboy-esque antics, the real problems occur in the freespace habitats. Even the folk on orbitals have the option of getting groundside for a holiday.
In space, no-one can hear you argue. Having to put up with every little foible without respite is a recipe for disaster when you add the levels of stubborn and strange that attract people to living in the big empty. No-one can hear you kick the living spit out of your partner – or partners – either. Cults and abusers love freespace.
I let the klaxon wail fade slowly this time, knowing how the diminishing sound spurs us on to get things completed before it goes quiet.
The moment we get within range, Sarah comes over the comm.
“Emma, we’ve just been double-tapped by lifeform and weapons scans. Both wide spectrum, just inside legal limits for civilian use.”
Indicator number one: paranoid overreaction. Somebody’s expecting something.
“Jahnee, time to turn the macho up and do the aggrieved owner routine.”
I listen in.
“Bluebitch calling beacon site. Bluebitch calling beacon site. Request assistance.”
The voice that comes back is grating: “Bluebitch? Good name for a ship, brother. What can Halla Station do for you?”
“Something in the air scrubbers is fried and none of the fluffies on this tub have enough mechanic to fill a cup.”
“See that too often, brother. A breathable berth and tech access for a day do you? Got decent food if I gee my skirt up, so you come down for a chinwag and leave the fluffies to the scutwork. They’re on your tab, after all.”
“Got a point there. I’m Dean. What do I call you, and can I bring my own waitress?”
The laugh is menacing.
“Name’s Tom. Bring whatever you like, as long as it’s pretty.”
I’m going to enjoy this.
An hour later, Jahnee’s in combat gear, while I’m in a demure little bodysuit that’s a size too small. I call it my ‘fishing gear’.
Jahnee might as well be invisible. Tom’s an eager lad. With him pawing my anatomy, this is too easy.
“Hello, precious. What’s your name?”
“Stungun Surprise.”
Down he goes. Jahnee gets the sedative in fast.
Natalie and Mike dash past, calling for our passengers: “Nameh? Raxon? We’re from Bluebird.”
We help victims vanish into the big empty, off to better lives. As we’re free traders operating under aliases, the abuser has next to no chance of tracking us.
Another thin woman, another boy with haunted eyes, another small trunk of belongings.
Natalie explains.
“A shipman on your supply run called Bluebird. They monitored things for a while. After they confirmed the shipman’s opinion, they sent us.”
Nameh gestures to Tom.
“What about him?”
“There’s warnings on the courtesan networks and other useful places. He’ll have to adjust.”
Or die.
She looks at me like I said the last two words out loud, then nods.
“Let’s go.”