The Story Continues From Last Time …
Rain turned on her heel and stalked down to the bottom of the ramp. She seized the girl’s elbow and hauled her to her feet in spite of her protests.
“You’re coming with us,” Rain said.
“To Orbona City?” the girl exclaimed, black eyes shining.
“Hell, no.” Rain flung her to the floor grates in the cargo bay as she shut the ramp. “I don’t know where we’ll take you, but we aren’t taking you there.”
The girl pulled the sheet around herself tightly, and Rain pulled her toward the spiraling steel stairwell in the corner of the cargo bay. But she froze on the last step as Snow stepped into view.
On first glance, Snow Stormcloud didn’t seem frightening. Average height. Slender build. Sure, the vast assortment of sharp objects belted around her waist gave most people pause, but most of the time, nobody figured Snow could be much of a threat. A woman that beautiful wouldn’t possibly risk breaking her nails in a fight, right?
Oh, so wrong.
“Hey, sorella.” Rain shrugged.
“Why is it here?” Snow glared at the girl in the sheet.
“I’m handling it.”
Snow turned on her heel and strode toward the bridge, jaw muscles ticking in irritation. Yeah, Snow would skin her alive in her sleep. Rain groaned and pulled the girl after her down the corridor to her quarters. The Tamatebako shuddered as the engines kicked on, and the bulkheads rattled as Snow guided the ship out of the atmosphere and into the void of space.
Rain opened the door to her room and shoved the girl inside. “Clean yourself up. I’ll find you something to wear.” She didn’t wait for the girl to answer and shut the door.
She sagged against the bulkhead and ran her fingers into her hair.
“What the hell?” She asked the shadows. “What am I doing?”
Rain dropped her hands and grunted as a towel smacked her in the face.
She glared as Snow reappeared, illuminators making the black streaks in her vibrant white hair look like daggers.
“You are covered in Maxwell’s filth.” Snow pointed at her. “Wipe yourself down while you explain that creature to me.”
“I couldn’t just leave her.” Rain toweled her arms, shoulders, and back off.
“We do not pick up strays, Rain,” Snow said. “We are delivering Maxwell’s body to Wallace, and we are leaving. That creature will only complicate matters.”
“Look.” Rain bunched the towel in her hands. “Somebody told the kid she needed to get to Orbona City to get a job.”
The muscle at the back of Snow’s jaw clenched.
“Somebody also told her that her only other option is Hektor.”
And there went Snow’s nostrils. Twitching and flaring. Yeah, Hektor wasn’t exactly a happy memory for either of them.
“The kid didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
“She is not your responsibility.” Snow pointed to the cargo bay. “Maxwell is your responsibility. He is seeping all over the flooring grates. If we deliver the body to Wallace in that state, Wallace may shoot us just for the hell of it.”
That was entirely possible.
Marshall Wallace, former bankroller for the Black Dragons, worked for himself nowadays, but everybody knew working for him was tantamount to throwing in with the syndicates. Nobody crossed Wallace.
The Stormclouds tried to stay away from him, but every now and then he threw a job at them that they couldn’t refuse. Maxwell had been one of those jobs. And working for Wallace wasn’t all that bad. Wasn’t all good either, but they had worse clients.
Besides, Wallace had a soft spot if you knew where to poke.
Wait a minute.
“Why would you bring this child into our affairs, Rain?”
Rain threw the towel at her sister. “I’ve got an idea.”
Snow held the towel between index finger and thumb, lips curled in disgust.
Rain glanced at the door to her quarters. “It’s crazy, but it might work. And it’ll be a better place for the girl than anywhere else.”
“You have not answered my question, sorellina.”
Rain sighed, eyes still fixed on the door. “Nobody helped us, Snow.” She let her shoulders slope. “I just couldn’t leave her.”
Snow lifted her chin and sighed heavily. She turned, without a word, and disappeared into the darkness of the corridor. She tossed the filthy towel in the trash chute as she passed.
That was positive. At least she didn’t skewer the girl and toss her into the trash chute. Snow had done worse before.
While the girl washed up, Rain dashed down to the cargo bay to wrap Maxwell’s headless body in poly-sheeting and douse him in cryospray. She rolled him onto a pallet and belted him down.
They could grab a hoverlift at the Arcadia docks on Thebe, and moving him would be a breeze.
Running up the stairwell, Rain eyed the door to her quarters. Still closed. So she hurried down the corridor to the storage closet and pulled the door open. Inside, she pawed through several bins of odds and ends until she found a solid-color sundress that would fit the girl. Who knew where it had come from? But at least they wouldn’t arrive on Thebe with a girl wearing nothing but a sheet.
That would leave everybody with the wrong impression.
When Rain reached the door to her quarters, the girl had just opened it. Her black hair dripped in long straight strands to her waist, and her face brightened in a smile as Rain handed the dress to her.
“Cover up.” Rain rolled her eyes. “Running around naked doesn’t work in the rest of the system, kid.” She snorted. “Well, it works in some places, depending on your line of work.”
The girl pulled the dress over her head and spun in a circle. The illuminators shone on the beaded turquoise necklace around her neck.
Rain sank into the chair in the corner. “What’s your name, kid?”
The girl wrapped her arms around herself. “Tala.”
Cleaned up, she didn’t look so pitiful. Long legs and arms, high cheekbones and proud features. What nationality was she? Not from Mars. She wasn’t a Venus native either.
Natives of Venus had a distinct yellowish tinge in the whites of their eyes. Not this kid.
She didn’t seem like a colony brat either. Kids on space colonies usually went into homes or rehab programs instead of being tossed to the void to fend for themselves.
“Where are you from?” Rain asked before she could stop herself.
The girl smiled. “Earth.”
“That’s a load of shit.” Rain scratched her nose.
Nothing good came from Earth.
The girl frowned, black eyebrows drawing together. “I lived with my grandmother in the preserved lands.”
Rain sat back. “No kidding.”
No wonder the girl seemed off. People from the First Nations settlements rarely left their compounds, and the ones who did were so deeply inbred that they couldn’t function in normal society.
“What purity?” Rain scowled. “An eighth? A quarter?”
As though the girl would know. The purest First Nation squatter Rain had ever met had been mostly NUItalian, but he’d had enough Cheyenne in him to qualify for entrance into the preserved lands.
Rain rolled her eyes. “Fine. Cherokee. Whatever the hell that is. Is that your tribe? What purity are you?”
The girl kept frowning. “I am Cherokee. My mother was Cherokee. My father was Cherokee. My mother’s mother and my father’s father, for generations and generations. We are all Cherokee.” Tala beamed. “People of the Earth.”
Rain leaned forward. “You’re not saying—are you a full-blood?”
The girl scowled again.
“Kid, I’ve never met a full-blood from the First Nations. Are you sure?” Rain’s heart leapt. This might actually work.
“That’s what Grandmother told me.” Tala yawned hugely and blinked.
Rain pointed to the bunk built into the wall. “It’ll be a while before we reach Thebe. You should sleep.”
The girl eyed the bunk with a skeptical glance, and she hugged herself. “I can’t sleep. Maxwell wouldn’t let me.”
Rain stood and ushered the girl to the bunk. “You can. That jackass can’t tell you what to do anymore. He can’t hurt you anymore either.” She lifted the girl into the bed and pulled a blanket over her. “Comfy, huh?”
Tala frowned up at her. “It’s lumpy.”
“Lumpy?” Rain sniffed. “Everyone’s a critic.”
Tala threaded her fingers into Rain’s and stared up at her. “Are you taking me to Orbona City?”
“No,” Rain said. “I already told you. We’re taking you to Arcadia. It’s a city on Thebe where you can get a good job. You don’t want to go to Orbona City.”
Rain pulled away, but Tala held on. “What is this ship?”
“The Tamatebako.” Rain shook her hand trying to break free of Tala’s grip.
“That’s a funny name.” Tala giggled. “What does it mean?”
“Who the hell cares? Let go.”
Rain wrenched out of Tala’s grip, but the girl grabbed on with her other hand. “Don’t leave me alone, please?”
Rain sighed. “Nothing will get you here, kid. Just go to sleep.”
Tears formed in Tala’s eyes and spilled down her cheeks.
“Would you quit with the waterworks?” Rain sagged against the bulkhead. “Shit, kid, just go to sleep. You’ll feel better.”
Tala bit her quivering lower lip, shining tears trailing down her cheeks.
Damn it to hell. When did I turn soft? Rain lowered her head. “If I tell you a story, will you go to sleep?”
Tala blinked at her. “What’s it about?”
Rain pressed her back into the bulkhead and smiled at the ceiling tiles. “It’s an old legend from Earth. So maybe you’ve heard it, but I doubt it.”
Tala rolled to her side. “Tell me, please.”
“On Old Earth, thousands of years ago, this old fisherman rescued a turtle.” Rain glanced down at the girl. “Do you know what a turtle is?”
“The green animal who lives in his shell.”
“Right.” Rain crossed her arms. “Well, this fisherman saved a turtle one day, and then he discovered that the turtle was magic. And the magic turtle belonged to the Queen of the Sea.”
Tala’s black eyes widened as she gasped in wonder.
“To thank the fisherman for saving the turtle, the Queen of the Sea invited him to her palace under the ocean.” Rain rested her head against the wall. “The queen and her court fed him all sorts of wonderful things. Juicy fruits and hearty meats and rich desserts. It was one hell of a party, and the fisherman was the hero.”
“Did he marry the queen?”
Rain chuckled. “Naw. I mean, they probably got it on. Who know? I would’ve. It’s the freakin’ queen of the sea. That’s got to earn you points somewhere.” She shrugged. “But the fisherman was ready to go home, and so the queen gave him a gift—an ugly old box called a tamatebako.”
Tala gasped. “That’s the name of your ship.”
“The queen told the fisherman that he should never open the tamatebako, because even though it looked worthless on the outside, it contained the most priceless gift of all.” Rain allowed herself to smile, feeling the warmth of knowing the end of the story before she told it. “So the fisherman went home.”
“Is that the end?” Tala whispered.
“No,” Rain looked down at her. “Because when the fisherman got home, he discovered that everything he knew was gone. Everyone he knew had died, because even though he’d only been with the queen for a few days, three hundred years had passed.”
Tala covered her mouth with her hands. “That’s so sad.”
Rain turned to the bunk and pulled the blanket up over Tala’s shoulder. “Story’s not over yet, kid. Since he didn’t have anything left to lose, the fisherman opened the tamatebako.”
“What was inside?” Tala yawned again.
Rain smiled. “All the years the fisherman had lost. When he opened the queen’s gift, he got all his years back.”
“Did he die?” Tala pinned Rain with her dark eyes.
“Yeah, he did,” Rain said. “But he didn’t have to keep living knowing he’d lost everyone he’d ever loved.”
Tala yawned again. “He went to be with them.” Her eyes drifted shut. “He left his shell and went home to the Great Spirit.”
Rain chuckled. “Whatever you say, kid.” She brushed the girl’s hair back. “Sounds like a happy ending to me.”
Tala breathed slowly, in and out, sleeping soundly. Rain switched the light on the wall off and stepped back toward the door to the room and paused, finding it open. She stepped into the corridor and stopped.
Snow leaned on the wall beside the door, arms crossed, eyes shut. Rain turned and shut the door.
“What?” she asked.
“I have not heard that story in many years,” Snow said quietly. “I did not realize you still remembered it.”
With a shaking breath, Rain pressed her hand against the door. “How could I forget it, sorella? You told me that story every night on Orbona City, when we were hiding from the gangs and the pimps and the snatchers.”
“It was the only story I knew,” Snow whispered.
“It helped me sleep,” Rain said. “I figured it would help Tala.”
Snow shook her head. “You are going to give her to Wallace, aren’t you?”
Rain nodded. “Wallace has a soft spot for traumatized orphans, sorella. That’s why he keeps hiring us.”
“He hires us because we complete jobs on time.”
Rain smirked. “That too.” She jerked her head at the door. “But Tala’s a First Nation pure-blood. You don’t meet those every day. That’ll be worth something to Wallace. And he hates whorehouses, so he can find work for her somewhere decent.”
Snow’s shoulders sloped with the weight of her sigh. “We cannot stop for every lost cause we encounter, Rain.”
Snow looked old, far older than she should have. Anyone in the business knew the Stormcloud sisters were the system’s most heartless mercenaries, and they knew Snow was the most heartless of all. But Rain knew her twin sister better than that. There was no ice in Snow Stormcloud’s heart. That’s why she seemed cold on the outside.
“Tala’s not lost, sorella,” Rain said softly. “We found her.”
Snow clenched her fists against her elbows. “And if Wallace does not take her?”
“He’ll take her.”
“If he does not take her?” Snow tilted her head.
“He’ll take her.” Rain leaned against the opposite wall and grinned. “Think positive.”
With another heavy sigh, Snow pushed off the wall and started up the corridor toward the bridge. “Thebe is her place of harbor regardless, Rain. Strays are not welcome here.”
Rain snickered. “What if she can cook?”
Snow glared over her shoulder at Rain, and Rain laughed.
As Snow disappeared into the control room, Rain leaned her head against the bulkhead wall and smiled faintly at the door to her quarters. Wallace would take Tala. And even though he was an opportunistic, syndicate-bred bastard, he had standards. He’d do her right. No hellholes like Orbona City for Tala. No nightmares like Hektor either.
Rain ran her fingers over one of the rivets in the bulkhead, still smiling.
“Our Tamatebako,” she murmured softly.
Their reward after a pit match on Hektor that they both survived. Their key to freedom and life on their own terms. The years they’d lost as children finally reclaimed as adults.
A loud clanking rattled the floor grates, and the ship shuddered as it lurched into the bluish-green haze of psuedospace, engines warbling like a child’s battle cry.
It didn’t look like much, but the Tamatebako’s treasure was on the inside. It meant a new life with new names and a new future together.
“You helped us out.” Rain patted the wall fondly. “Maybe you can help Tala too.”
She started toward the engine room, leaving Tala to sleep as long as she could while the engines chirped a cheerful lullaby.