Claudia entered the seedy station bar. She wasn’t encouraged by her possible employer’s choice of a meeting place. The lighting was subdued, making it hard to see details aside from what was immediately around her. A slow beat vibrated the air accompanied by wailing reeds. She could feel it through the deck and the soles of her shoes. Her nose itched from smoke, and her eyes tried to water. Another law blatantly disregarded at Turbic Station. No wonder the air recycling fees were so high. And this was only the edge of the Fringes. How much worse would it be out in the unexplored regions beyond the United Dominion’s influence?
But she had no other options. Not if she wanted to stay in anything resembling the medical field. The one job open at the station she qualified for required high-level background checks. Background checks she couldn’t afford to have done. Despite her old patient’s skills, he’d been quite insistent the ID wouldn’t hold up if scrutinized too closely. Since Turbic Station was run by an ex-admiral of the United Dominion Fleet, he most likely had resources that would punch through her subterfuge in seconds.
A job on a ship was her best bet—one where they didn’t ask a lot of questions. So, it was this or nothing. The chance anything better would come along before her funds ran out were slim to none. If she had no money, they’d force her to indenture herself, an ugly and barbaric practice the info she’d dug up about this station didn’t even hint about. It stank of a system put in place to ensnare the ignorant and those down on their luck.
Claudia studied the listless dancers, who were separated from the patrons by thick tubes of clear plastic. The large blinking collars around their necks proclaimed them as indentured. The collars covered more of them than the skimpy costumes they were wearing. Had they, too, come here hoping for a fresh start? If so, now their dreams lay shattered.
She made her way deeper inside, trying not to choke on the tobacco smoke and the smell of desperation.
The fact the Holiday was even in this region, and her captain able to come meet about the job, had been a stroke of luck. From the chatter at the food dispensary, she’d learned some ships didn’t return to the station or be heard from for months at a time.
In the back of the bar, a man sat in one of the bolted-down chairs and table sets, his attention focused on a tablet. A large woman held up the wall behind him, arms crossed, her gaze scouring the room. The surrounding tables were conspicuously empty. Claudia headed toward them, they being the only ones in the bar not drinking or watching the slow gyrations of the dancers.
“Excuse me, are you Ricardo Bennet?”
The man looked up; dark dreadlocks on the right side of his head swayed and clinked with the movement. The hair on the left side was cropped close. Hard eyes studied her, a slight frown creasing his eyebrows.
“Yes, I’m Captain Bennet. You’re my fourteen-hundred?”
He didn’t move to stand, offer her his hand, or even motion for her to sit. He just studied her.
Claudia ignored his rudeness, as well as his insinuation there might be others vying for the job.
“I’m Aya Maynard. I’m interested in your open position for ship’s medical officer.”
Bennet made no reply, just continued to scrutinize her. Claudia glanced up at the woman behind him but realized there would be no help forthcoming from that direction. If anything, the woman looked even less friendly than the captain. She stood over two meters tall, stout, with close-cropped white-blond hair.
Claudia sat down without being asked.
“New to the Fringes, I see.” Bennet waved his hand in her general direction. Chains rattled at his neck. His clothes were a darker brown than his hair and looked well worn. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up, exposing white scars that crisscrossed his dark skin.
Claudia kept her mouth shut, the statement needing no additional comment from her. If he thought he could get a rise out of her by calling her a newcomer, he would be disappointed. Not the first time she’d had to contend with that attitude.
He looked her up and down again. “Educated, entitled, moral,” He made the three words sound like stigmas. “Never spent a single hour doing hard labor in your life.”
Again she had no intention of giving a response. It was all true. She’d lived her entire life on Ellos, one of the founding planets of the United Dominion. Her parents had done well for themselves, so she’d not wanted for anything as an only child. Her world had a well-established infrastructure, transportation systems, anything anyone might need. Not like some of the newer planets in the United Dominion, colonized by the sweat, hard work, and sacrifice of those sent there.
“I didn’t get to pick where I was born, Captain, and physical labor isn’t the only way to work hard.” She hadn’t gotten her position at Clonos Labs, mapping and marking ncRNAs as well as finding ways to change genomic ‘dark matter”, by doing nothing.
A flicker of a smile came and went. Bennet sat forward, leaning his scarred arms on the table. “I know you.”
Claudia stiffened, those words the last she expected.
“You looked familiar when I first saw you, but I wasn’t sure.” He leaned back again. “I hardly ever forget a face. Plus, after that little rebuttal, I know exactly where I’ve seen you before. I liked you better as a blonde.”
She looked away, knowing there’d always been the possibility someone might recognize her. She’d just never thought it would happen so soon or out here in the middle of nowhere.
“I’m sorry, you must be mistaken. As you pointed out earlier, I’m new around here.”
“I never said I saw you here.”
He sounded so sure. But then, who but the desperate ever came out this far? This could be a ploy.
Not many people got as much news coverage as Com News had decided to give her, however. Damn them. Still, that had been almost a year ago. Dare she risk it? Better to try to find something else, even if it wasn’t in the medical field.
“Sorry, I can see this isn’t going to work out.” Claudia stood. “I apologize for wasting your time. If you’ll excuse me.”
“One more step, and I’ll yell out your name for everyone to hear.”
The threat, no more than a whisper, made her stop all the same. She didn’t move, but she didn’t turn around, either. She refused to be the one to take the next step. She could be playing right into Bennet’s hands if she did. He was most likely bluffing.
“Despite what your ID says, ‘Aya Maynard’, you’re way overqualified for the open position on my ship. Which means I’ll be getting a bargain if I take you on. I like bargains.”
Claudia could hear the smile in his words. He would dare to blackmail her to become his ship’s medic? Despite herself, she turned around. There was still no proof he had any idea who she really was.
“Sir, this might not be prudent.” The woman against the wall didn’t shift position or expression, but her disapproval was palpable.
“Now, now, Stevens, this was your idea, remember?” He gave the woman a cocked smile. “Good for the crew, less expensive than bringing them here for care, less downtime, yadda yadda yadda.” He twirled his hand during the last part then pointed at himself. “My ship, my crew, my choice.”
“As always, sir. But if she’s not who she says she is, there could be trouble.”
“That’s why I keep you around.” He stood up, his gaze having remained on Claudia throughout the entire discussion. “In case you have any doubts about what I might or might not know, ‘Aya Maynard’, on the ship, you’ll be known as Doc Z.”
Claudia’s mouth went dry. Bennet did know who she was. The smug smile on his face declared bluntly that if she didn’t play along, he would expose her and have fun doing it. Child killers weren’t welcome anywhere.
Though she didn’t have a collar, she might have just become no less indentured than the rest of the desperate souls who got trapped here.