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Rayne grinned, baring her perfect white teeth with excitement, as she pressed the throttle forward through the last few notches. The engines pushed on past their normal throaty whine and into the territory of a fevered scream as the Neophyte’s Serendipity hurtled away from Hygea at breakneck velocity. The only thing that whined more than the ship’s hull as Rayne jerked at the controls, twisting the large vessel around the various asteroids that still shielded her home from discovery by prying eyes, was Jarvis, the shipboard computer.

-Really, Miss Torres, I distinctly remember Captain Torres instructing you to take good care of the ship. I hardly think that burning out the new ion drives five thousand miles from home qualifies as good stewardship.-

“Hey, Jarvis?” Rayne’s grin shifted from one of mirth to one more like that of a crazed serial killer.

-Yes, Miss. Torres?-

“I think you missed the part where Dad told you I am the captain of the Neophyte now — ”

-Captain is an earned title, young Miss Torres. I’m afraid you are going to have to prove yourself worthy of the title before I can acknowledge you as such.-

“So, as far as you’re concerned, I’m not the captain of this boat?” Her words were part jab and part anger, but it was difficult to tell which part was the weightier of the two, as she jerked the yoke to the left, causing the ship to twist to the port. Spiraling around an asteroid, the engines continued to protest their harsh treatment.

-I might go so far as to acknowledge you as acting captain.-

The computer’s dry response seemed to attempt to defuse the situation, but Rayne saw right through his ruse.

“Well, if I weren’t captain, could I do this?”

Flattening out the ship’s trajectory, she pointed the bow of the Neophyte toward Jupiter and, with the flip of a switch, the large red button on the side of the throttle lit up almost as brightly as her glittering blue-violet eyes.

-Miss Torres, that is not a good idea.-

“Captain’s prerogative, Jarvis!” She interjected as she jammed the button in with her thumb, and the ship lurched forward. The console in front of her lit up with warning lights and status indicators for the fuel remaining in the Jet Assisted Take-Off  rockets she’d just fired and the delta velocity indicators started climbing with obscene speed.

The acceleration pressed her lithe frame back into the newly replaced acceleration chair, and her purple and blue striped hair pooled into the headrest around her, as she listened to the sounds the ship made under stress. There was a point to what she was doing, and her parents had taught it to her over the past decade while teaching her everything she’d need to know to do the job she was now speeding toward. Her very first solo run.

She’d be damned if she was about to go into the unknown, even if it was supposed to be a “milk run”, without knowing every weld and every bolt in her ship. Rayne needed to open the taps up and see what the Serendipity would — and could — do. She had just overseen the ship’s refit and this was her first opportunity to get behind the stick and test out many of the new and updated systems working together in real-time. She knew there was always going to be that one time that she’d need to give it more than was safe, and she needed to know how far past safe the vessel could go without killing her.

Plus, there was the added benefit of annoying Jarvis with her apparent recklessness. The computer was like a member of her family. She’d grown up aboard the Serendipity, making runs with her parents, hiding in the superstructure and crawling through the service ducts. She’d probably rebuilt the ship more times than her father had since he’d bought it at auction more than thirty years before. She liked Jarvis, but to her, he was more like an annoying, know-it-all, older brother than a sagely parental figure.

-Miss Torres, I must insist that you disengage the JATO rockets and throttle back the main engines immediately. I am reading harmonic build-up in the engine pylons and the navigational shields are experiencing power fluctuations along the starboard dorsal fuselage. If you persist in this activity, the starboard inboard engine will trigger the safety shut-off in thirty seconds.-

“Is that what that sound is?” Rayne forced her acceleration-squished face into something resembling a grin, as she jabbed at Jarvis. Even so, she tuned her preternatural senses into the sounds the ship was making, taking special care to listen for the sounds of the stressing pylon on the indicated engine. Her pointed ears twitched a bit. They were nothing like the long, tapered ears of her mother, but they were definitely more than human, and although she had more conscious control over hers than her mother did, they still occasionally got away from her and betrayed her emotions to those who knew what to look for.

Still, they had their benefits, and an ability to hear into the subsonic and supersonic ranges was definitely one of them. Closing her eyes, she turned her entire attention to the sounds of the Neophyte’s Serendipity, even drowning out Jarvis’s incessant countdown to their apparently imminent doom.
As he hit ten seconds, her ears at last separated the stressing groans of the pylon from the rest of the creaks and moans the vessel was making. That was the weak point. Now she knew it. And more, she knew what it sounded like on the verge of failure. And what the rest of the ship felt like when it was under stress.

Tensing her hands on the controls, she waited for Jarvis to reach two, then yanked back on the throttle, releasing the JATO button and opening her eyes to watch the glassy instrument panel’s red lights fade back through orange and into yellow. The acceleration stopped and the ship settled down into something resembling normal flight operations mode.

Scanning her eyes across the board, she smiled as all of the previously screaming indicators slipped back down into shades of green and the screaming engines wound back down into their normal whine. Leaning forward, she pulled herself free of the conforming, gel-filled acceleration seat and swept her hands over the controls, checking the ship’s systems in more detail, while Jarvis told her off.

-I feel I must tell you that it is my duty to inform Captain Torres of your actions, young Miss Torres. Your behavior is irresponsible and self-destructive. I have been charged with your safety, and the safety of this ship, and I cannot in good conscience ignore the actions you have taken here today.-

“Jarvis?”

-Yes, Miss Torres?- he politely asked, as if he hadn’t just berated her.
“Thank you for informing me of Miss Torres’s behavior. I shall take it under advisement when I perform her mission debriefing after the job is done.”
-I suspect you understand my meaning, Miss Torres,- the computer snarked.
“I do, and I suspect that even a stubborn old goat like you was able to understand it when my dad told you I was Captain of the Neophyte’s Serendipity now.”
There was a long pause before the computer responded to her words, and when he finally did, his response seemed carefully crafted.

-I acknowledge Captain Torres’s decision, and his order to me, to treat you as I would him. Just bear in mind that you do not own this ship, yet.-
“I know I don’t own her yet, Jarvis. But I did rebuild her, and any fresh refit needs a shake-down. And are you telling me that this is how you talk to my dad?” she chuckled.
Again, a lengthy silence filled the bridge before Jarvis spoke. -Your parents and I have an unconventional relationship. I am given to understand that most shipboard artificial intelligences are not afforded as much leeway as I have been.-
“You’re almost certainly right about that,” she replied, finishing her system checks and punching in a more definitive course for Io. “She’ll be mine soon enough, Jarvis,” she added.

-Not if you destroy her with your irresponsible actions,- Jarvis warned.

“You know I would never do that,” Rayne’s face soured. “I all but built this ship.”

-Perhaps you should bear that in mind the next time you feel it necessary to break it.-

As soon as she had Io in her charts, she locked in the autopilot and pulled herself completely out of the acceleration chair, stretching her arms up over her head and arching her spine as she worked the stretch down through her muscles. “I hear ya,” she intoned. “Which shield emitters were having trouble?”
-Starboard side, dorsal section. Emitters one-eleven through one-thirty. Fluctuations varied across the group but were between ten and sixty percent plus or minus.-
“Thanks,” she groaned, finishing her stretch and cracking her neck with her left hand. “I’ll go down and have a look if you can keep an eye on things here for a bit.”
-Of course,- he confirmed.
Turning to walk off the bridge, Rayne untied the sleeves of her jumpsuit from her waist and shrugged her arms into them, pulling the zip up to her neck as the doors slid closed behind her. On her way to the lower service ducts, she stopped in the captain’s cabin, her cabin, to pick up her tool belt from the locker in the corner. Taking a moment to secure the belt around her waist, she swung her gaze over the room, large for such an old vessel, but certainly not luxurious. She had yet to really add any personal touches, but she did manage to clean all of her parents’ junk out before taking off.
The king-sized bed stood in the center of one wall, with a water closet in one corner of the opposite wall. In the other corner of the same wall was the locker that held her tools and small odds and ends. Between the head and the lockers was a small table with a computer terminal on it. There sat the one extravagance she had invested in before taking off. Her new bedding. It consisted of four huge, fluffy pillows, a set of thousand-thread-count sheets, because she could really feel the difference, and her big, heavy duvet. The one her parents had given her for her twentieth birthday a few years ago.
A smile crept across her lips at the thought that it was all hers now. The ship, the room, the business, all of it. Moving from the room, she stopped again farther down the hallway to look into the main room with its entertainment center, the galley, dining table, some comfortable chairs, and a couch. She’d called this place home as often as their place on Hygea. Riana and Vincent had raised her aboard this ship, and when they had recently decided to stop making their own runs and take some time off, she had all but begged them to not sell the Neophyte.
In the end, they’d completely refit the vessel, set up a couple of milk runs for her, and handed over the keys, saying that they couldn’t let go of the ship and that there was no one else they could think of to take over the helm. Their reputations were impressive, to say the least, even before considering who her mother really was. Rayne knew their names would carry weight with many of her potential clients as she developed her own business, but she also knew that she had to work to create her own reputation.  Everything had to be perfect.
Shaking off the butterflies in her stomach, she turned away from the common room and made her way into the service ducts to work on the shield emitters. Her parents had set up her first job and made a point of it being a milk run, so she had plenty of time to spend tinkering with her new ship. She’d been assured of an easy introduction into her chosen profession. She couldn’t imagine anything going wrong.

 

Chapter 2