heather lin book

Lady of Mars: Chapter 24

When Capri woke again it was to the sound of Brody’s door sliding open. She blinked as the light from the hallway reached her eyes.

“Captain wants you at breakfast,” Brody said.

He came in and rummaged through a tote. Capri slid down from the top bunk, grasping the frame until she felt the cold floor beneath her toe. She felt Brody’s eyes on her as she moved to turn on the light, and she turned towards him. There was something there, in his gaze, and then there was nothing. He pulled his shirt up over his head as if she wasn’t in the room and changed into a fresh one.

Her cheeks grew warm. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen before, but she’d never seen a man’s bare chest when it wasn’t meant to lead to sex. She felt suddenly unsure, as unsure as she had when alighting from the bunk. She escaped into the bathroom before he could see her embarrassment.

She only had one set of clothes, rumpled with sleep, but she did her best to straighten them out, smooth her hair, and look presentable. In the palace, she had her beauty, clothes, Briony, Ekon’s favor, and the constant reminder that she was special. Here, there was nothing standing between her and insecurity.

It would be one week before she returned to Mars, to the role she resented but also took comfort in.

She stepped out of the bathroom, and Brody stepped in. He jerked his head towards the hallway before closing the door and said, “They’ll be in the mess.”

She hesitated, feeling that a moody, unpredictable escort was better than no escort. She wasn’t eager to meet a room full of strange men who didn’t want her there. But she forced herself to move, following the same route she had in the early hours of the morning.

The main lights were on now, bright but inoffensive. Capri heard the sounds of men talking and dishes clattering before she reached the doorway.

Leroy leaned against the counter, eating a bowl of cereal. At least, she thought it was Leroy. An identical man sat at the table, looking deep in thought, eyes on a reader as he methodically chewed a bite of sandwich. The last man, standing by the fridge, had to be the captain. She recognized him from the party. He was drinking coffee from a tumbler. She could smell it.

The twin at the counter noticed her first, and his face broke into a wide grin. She smiled back, relieved to have guessed correctly.

“Capri,” he greeted.

Normally she didn’t mind being the center of attention, but this was a different world. Leroy came over and took her easily by the arm, as if they’d been friends their whole lives. The other two men seemed only mildly interested.

She could tell from the way they didn’t react to her and the way they leaned slightly, subconsciously, towards one another that they were probably together.

Leroy pulled out a chair and set a bowl of cereal in front of her before sitting down beside her. The captain sat at the head of the table, and Leroy made introductions. She had the feeling the captain didn’t expect to get a word in edgewise anytime soon.

“This is Jax, my brother. I know it’s hard to tell.”

The twin lifted his eyes briefly, gave his brother an exasperated look, and then nodded to Capri before looking back down at the reader. The crewmembers clearly found Leroy exhausting, but she’d never met anyone like him. She was enthralled, and when she smiled at the joke, he flushed with pleasure.

“This is our captain, Colin Wilkins.”

“Thank you for having me aboard,” Capri said, ignoring the fact she had been forced there against her will.

 Colin gave a tight smile, too polite in turn to point out that the situation wasn’t by his choice. “I expect Shots told you we’ll be getting you back to Mars as soon as we can.”

“Yes.” She hesitated before speaking up. “Is there any way to get there sooner? I’m sure Ekon would pay you for the trouble.”

The captain was already shaking his head. “We can’t risk damaging good business relations over this. We’ve told Alexander where you are. He knows you’re safe. I’m sure Shots will have consequences to face when we get back.”

Capri caught a brief tightening of his jaw at this comment, though the words came easily enough.

“I understand.” What else could she say?

  Brody came in and glanced in her direction. He saw that she was already fed and went to a cabinet. He came back with beef jerky and water and sat down across from her. She felt hot. She was so aware of his movements. He always seemed to take up half the room, distracting her, making her feel clumsy and awkward.

She thought it was because he’d known her before she was a lady. He’d seen her at her lowest, and no one else had. She couldn’t pretend around him. It threw her every time—that, and the way her heart sped up, the way her breath caught.

With effort, she kept her eyes on the captain, who was speaking again. She felt as if Brody would know everything she was thinking if they made eye contact.

“While on board, you’ll be treated with as much respect as any of the crew. More, if we can muster it.” He glanced between Brody and Leroy, both of whom kept their eyes on their food. “I need to know I can expect the same in return. This obviously isn’t the sort of…environment you’re used to. To keep the ship running smoothly, I need to know I can count on everyone to obey orders.”

Capri nodded.

“Now, down to business,” he addressed his crew. “We’ll be stopping on Earth for fuel and supplies in Mexico Territory. They’re a little more lenient about papers.” He looked at Capri, who, of course, had none. “Even so, best to lay low until we’re checked into the dock. We’ll get fake documents while we’re there.

“Then we’ll be doing a pickup in the U.S. Territory for a Tycho sector. A night landing. We’ll get the goods, head for Tycho—”

 “Tycho?” Capri blurted out. An instinctive fear knifed through her.

Even she was surprised by her outburst, and her cheeks grew hot. The captain looked at her, irritated by the interruption but exercising his patience.

“Yes,” he said.

“Aren’t the rebel planets…dangerous?” she asked.

She felt Leroy shift next to her in his seat, like he was trying to telepathically tell her the right things to say. Unfortunately, he wasn’t getting through.

“They’re friendly enough, generally speaking,” Colin said.

He was growing more tense. Jax spoke for the first time. “The captain and Shots are from Ptolemy.”

Capri hadn’t thought her cheeks could burn any hotter, but they did. She could tell Brody was from some rough area. A slum on New Earth, one of the few that existed, if not a rebel planet. But she’d put her foot in it with the captain. She’d made assumptions. She stared at her food.

“Jax, we’re trying to convince her that rebels aren’t heathens,” Leroy said, and she glanced up in time to see him roll his eyes in an exaggerated way.

His attempt at humor took the focus off of her and lightened the mood. She shot him a grateful smile, and he winked.

“Shut the fuck up, Leroy,” Brody growled.

Brody’s look was more scathing than Leroy deserved for the jibe. There was bad blood between the two. She realized that befriending Leroy might not be in her best interest; it seemed to add fuel to the feud between them. But it was too late to go back now. She liked him. She wouldn’t give that up for the comfort of the man who had placed her in this uncomfortable position.

“Don’t go gettin’ hot,” the captain snapped sharply, ironically showing his rebel colors in his dialect. He turned to Capri, who felt very small under his intense gaze. “I understand you aren’t familiar with much of the System outside of Mars, but the rebels have needs and money just like New Earth and the kingdoms. So, yes, we deal with them, and, no, we will not be delaying our delivery a full day for the sake of your comfort level. Any other questions?”

Capri moved her cereal around with her spoon. She shook her head.

She didn’t need to look at Brody to know that he was thoroughly enjoying her discomfort, but she looked anyway. He’d finished eating and was sitting in his usual manner, reclined, relaxed, but she knew the muscles were always ready to spring beneath the flesh. He only raised an eyebrow, and she looked down again. She listened in but kept her mouth shut for the rest of the meeting.

After making the delivery to Sector 5 of Tycho, they’d collect fabric from 72—known as The Green Patch, since it was one of the few places on the hot planet where crops could grow—and bourbon from Sector 39. Then they’d head back to Mars, drop her, and with any luck still manage to do some business with Ekon.

They didn’t mention what might become of Brody, but it hung in the air.

“I mean, we did save his life. How mad can he be?” Leroy asked.

“He’s a king,” Jax said bluntly. “He doesn’t play by the same rules as the rest of us.”

“Well, obviously. He has a fucking harem,” Leroy said carelessly. “Doesn’t the U.N. have some law against—”

“Let’s stay on topic,” Colin interrupted sharply before he could say something hurtful in Capri’s presence.

She felt indignant. They were questioning the life she led. Ekon had taken care of them all, saved many of them from poverty. She doubted he really knew where she’d come from. The man who had taken her must have lied, pretended to be her father or something. Ekon wouldn’t have bought her if he knew the truth, she was sure. And the U.N. wouldn’t let the practice continue if they didn’t condone it. She was sure of that, too.

“We’ll see what happens on Mars and decide where to go from there,” Colin continued. “We’ll go over the plans for the pick up from the U.S. in more detail after Mexico. Any questions?”

The crew gave various versions of “no” as they finished their meals. Colin finished his coffee, stood, and was the first to leave.

“Did you get a tour of the ship?” Leroy asked.

Capri glanced at Brody. His expression was unreadable.

“No,” she said.

“I’ll show you where everything is.”

He got up, and she stood to follow him. She almost looked to Brody again, feeling as if she should ask permission, but she resisted. He’d said she wasn’t a prisoner, so she wouldn’t act like one. Just as she did on Mars, she would find a way to make her own, small way in the small world in which she was kept.

Leroy pointed out the living quarters. Each room was meant to hold two crewmen, except for the captain’s, but the crew was so small they each had the luxury of their own.

“I had enough of sharing a room with Jax growing up,” he said, and he made a face, eliciting another smile from her. “This is the lounge.”

Capri glanced inside. There were video screens, foosball, and two couches. One had a blanket and pillow shoved at one end. Brody’s temporary bed, she suspected.

“This leads to a cockpit.”

Leroy led her up a step. She hesitated at the door. Brody had told her to stay out of the cockpit, but he wasn’t here, was he? Jax was at the helm, pressing some buttons on a control panel so he could view the ship’s surroundings. She guessed the captain had gone back to his room.

“How does it work?” she asked.

She’d never seen the cockpit of a spaceship, but she’d read the biography of a U.N. pilot who fought in the brief war against Tycho and Ptolemy. Her interest was genuine. Jax seemed to sense it, but he finished typing before he responded.

Whereas Leroy was all over the place and willing to say anything if there was the tiniest chance someone would find it funny, his brother was laser-focused and chose his words carefully. Physically, they were identical, but Jax’s personality traits made him seem older somehow.

“Is this your first time on a ship?” he asked, finally looking at her.

His expression remained guarded, as if he wasn’t sure what to make of her. That was fine; she wasn’t sure what to make of him, either.

“Second. It was a long time ago.” Capri tried not to think about the circumstances that had taken her from New Earth to Mars, but a frown touched her lips.

“A lot of it is autopilot. I plug in the coordinates, monitor our progress, stay in touch with traffic control. I do the landings and takeoffs. Sometimes there are complications that autopilot can’t handle.”

She watched his hands intently as he gestured to different controls. She wondered if she’d get the chance to see him in action before she got back to Mars.

“We’ll leave you to it,” Leroy said abruptly. When they were out of earshot, he told her in a low voice, “We can’t stay too long or he’ll ask me to fix something.”

Capri laughed out loud, and his cheeks flushed. His long legs set the pace to bring them to the room across from Brody’s.

“This is where our tour ends.” He opened the door, and Capri peered inside.

It was a storage unit, four times the size and twice the height of the bunk rooms. Airtight travel containers labeled as food, parts, and bedding reached almost to the ceiling, all secured to the wall in the event of turbulence. A garbage chute was built into the wall, and there were dozens of panels and a closed door on another. The inner workings of the ship.

“This is where we throw stuff when we don’t know what else to do with it. It’s also where we have to say goodbye. Filters need changing. Wires need tightening.”

He gave her a grin that was supposed to be easy, but she could sense his disappointment. She felt it, too. What would she do for the rest of the day? Wander the small ship aimlessly, hoping she didn’t get cornered by Brody and his smart, disconcerting mouth?

“Can I help?” she asked.

Leroy actually laughed. Capri was stung, and it must have shown. He stopped mid-chortle, choking with the effort.

“I’m sorry,” he said, looking properly abashed. “I just…you’re a lady of Mars. I don’t think you’re supposed to be doing this sort of thing.”

“I’m not supposed to be here at all. But I am, so will you let me help or not?”

“Yeah, of course. I’m sorry. I’d like that.”

“Okay, then.”

His easy grin returned in blinding force, and Capri reciprocated, now that they were both in agreement.

“Okay,” he repeated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *