Give her a good life, and then one day, she makes a mistake by doing the right thing out in the deep dark. She answers the call for help from a small stranded ship and discovers what every scientist has been protecting for centuries––aliens.
But as an orphan, she had been brought up as a family on this ship, and she would help the tall stranger in the black liquid armor, and his warriors find a way home.
The Stardance was the name painted on the side of her ship. It had been painted there for a long time and had a few scratches. It probably needed to be touched up, like a lot of other things aboard the space freighter. There also was the insignia of the strange half moon with the face in it on one part of the spaceship.
Dwane Mina Romane Amer Challe got up after having very little sleep. Her freighter had finally been released two days ago from Port Christopher, and that made her late for her delivery.
Everyone knew her as Dee Challe. Her father and his father and many fathers before all believed in family names, so she was chained to a long list on all her certificates. One of those certificates was the ownership of this freighter spaceship with the unusual name.
Her mother's brother had owned the freighter before her, and he had put that unusual name on the side of the spaceship. He was the crazy Captain Bart who took goods across the open distant trading areas. Uncle Bart had taken her in when her dad had died, and she was only eleven. Her father was declared deceased in ways that remained unexplained on his papers.
No one gave any information to a small child without funds. She had stayed in the large house for weeks, waiting for her father to return. The servants had been kind, but there came a time when they slowly began to drift away.
It began with those who worked outside, and it worried her that her father would be unhappy to see the lawn not being tended. The cattle were left out in the fields and not brought to the barns. The mail piled up and spilled off the table by the front door.
Slowly, Dee noticed that there were fewer and fewer of the helpers in the house. Her nanny stayed close, and at last, they began to eat their meals together in the kitchen. There were just the two of them left of the big expanse of land that belonged to her father.
Every time she asked her nanny when her father would return home, there was just a sad shake of the motherly woman's head. At last, the power went out, and she slept with the nanny on a couch in her father's library. They used the lights that use some type of batteries.
When the people in the blue uniforms came to take her away, her nanny packed two suitcases for her and told her to remember to be brave like her father. Then, with those words, she never cried. By the second move from hospital and children's home, she was down to only one tote for her items.
Dee waited for word from her father and remembered the words of her nanny, so she never let the tears flow. The unsmiling adults took her away from her home and separated her from her beloved nanny. She was put in a cold area with other children of all ages who were sad and crying and wanted their parents. There were hard benches all around the room and bars on one wall where people looked in and told the children to be quiet. There was no help or sympathy.
From there, the children were separated, and a few along with Dee were put on a bus and taken to another building and put into what Dee felt was storage. It was first a barely warm shower with some chemicals that left a smell to their hair and bodies.
Both boys and girls were given a long shirt that went to their ankles and loose underpants and put into beds, all in the same room. There had been no supper. Dee did not cry.
While it was still dark outside, a tall frowning woman came through and woke them up. She put a pile of clothes on the end of each cot and told them they had five minutes to get dressed and line up at the door or they would miss breakfast.
Everyone in the room moved fast except for one little girl who was hiding under her thin blanket. As Dee got into the dark old clothes, she watched the blanket that didn’t move. Over the noise of the others, Dee moved to the cot and raised the blanket. The child had a strange look, dark blue around the eyes and mouth.
Reaching out to shake the small girl, Dee was surprised to find the body felt as cold as the room. Something was wrong. Looking around, Dee ran over to the line forming at the door by the tall woman.
Pushing up to the woman over the protests of several boys, Dee looked up to speak. “Miss, that little girl is sick.”
“Get into line immediately or no breakfast.” The woman tried to ignore the waif at her knees.
"But miss, the little girl is not moving." Dee reeled from the sting as the slap hit her cheek. She could hear some of the kids gasp, but there were a couple of snickers.
"Go to the back of the line right now." The woman was leaning over her, and there was even spittle hitting Dee as the angry woman pointed.
With her head down and out of the side of her eyes to glance at the bundle of blanket in the one cot, Dee went to the end of the line. Breakfast was cold cereal with a half cup of milk to either drink or put on the cereal.
They were all allowed to go to the restroom afterward and told to return to sit on their cots until they were to be moved to court. When Dee looked, the cot with the unmoving girl was empty, and the blanket was folded on the end like all of the others.
They were all hauled in small groups to sit in the cold halls of the court, and people in blue uniforms were watching them carefully.
When the different children asked questions, they often received a sharp knock against a knee by a long rod that was in the belt of each watcher. Dee learned after the first slap and never brought attention to herself. She just watched and waited for word from her father.
It was when Dee was taken roughly into the tall room that seemed to be a court of some kind that she learned that her father was dead. She did not cry.
Bartholomew Dew, or Uncle Bart, appeared out of nowhere when a frowning court Assessor was deciding her fate. The small, bony kneed girl refused to cry as she heard all the adults talk about the fact that her father's estate was gone. There was nothing to take care of her or pay for her expenses, so she was about to go into one of the faraway children's works homes.
These residences taught the children a skill, and the funds earned from the work that the youngsters performed, paid for a roof over their heads. All very proud for the government on the planet that Dee had lived on for the first few years of her life. Ugly.
Then into this sterile high ceiling room with all the wood and so many people frowning at Dee marched a large, robust man that didn't fit. He looked and dressed like a modern-day pirate and had two others with him that fit the bill. One was a protection robot, and the other was an obvious ex-Fed soldier wearing his old armor.
It was how Dee found out that she was not an orphan and still had a family. After a lot of yelling, with the big guy yelling the loudest, she left with the three new scary people and didn't know if that was good. She did know that the two with faces didn't frown at her like the people in the court.
What Dee remembered of that day was strong in her mind because it was more important and clear than the loss of her father. Her dad had gone on a trip from the comfortable home, one of many such excursions he made monthly. But he didn't return from this one.
The servants had argued with the police when an official came to evict them all from the property. Dee was taken and put with a few other children, and no one would answer her questions, especially the one about her father.
In this cold, strange courtroom, she was told her father was dead and that there were no funds in his estate. It was also in that ugly room that she met her other family. They were strangers that did not frown at her. In fact, they glared at the people in blue uniforms and the Assessors and the court members. It made her feel strangely good as these strangers spoke up for her.
These unusual people took her out of the court area with a lot of threats to those around them. They put her into a floater outside the important building, as some of the frowning people followed along with men who held weapons. The big guy turned to Dee and smiled.
"This is going to be fun. I have a spaceship, and we are going out among the stars."
Dee decided she trusted him because he had blue eyes, the same color as the images of her mom. So her life changed from a pampered child who went to schools and had people to see to all her needs to a space orphan. She was on a special spaceship.
Twenty-two years later, Dee owned the ship with the unusual name, and the orphan girl had an uncommon education. Ships were named after important events or historical people. They did not have some strange name that did not mean anything in the archives.
She had been born in a very prominent family, and they had buried Uncle Bart out in space. There was an odd crew on this ship, and they were what made up her family and who had educated and trained her.
Her formal education began with Uncle Bart, who had taught her everything he knew about flying, navigating, traveling, control panels of all types, ships of all kinds, and how to survive in the deep void.
There are great academies out there that give out certificates that proclaim that you are now an able-bodied Navigator. You can find a school that accredits your proof as a Captain. There are universities that take four or six years to declare on paper that you are knowledgeable on all Ship Control Panels.
But with all those schools available, to be able to sit at the knee of a professional who has practiced and excelled beyond in those processes was priceless. To have a Captain who had fought the perils of the deep dark, who had struggled with all that could go wrong out alone—that was more than could be taught on a planet’s institution.
Maggy, a protective robot, was the one who taught her the three Rs. Well, there was so much more to learn in schools than to read and math. Maggy was a robot with an unusual AI that was in constant contact with the InfoWide.
There was a lot of conflict about how smart an AI could be, and most felt the AI had to be limited. There was the fear of a great number of humans that AIs and robots would get smarter than the people that created them.
It didn't take much to tickle an inferiority complex. Don't let someone or something smarter than me loose out there. So controls and laws were in place on most worlds controlling the construction of computers and AIs.
There was Maggy, on this strange ship within its metal frame, a self-learning AI that was smart and getting smarter. For the crew and one little girl who grew up inside the ship, they all thought Maggy also had developed feelings.
The InfoWide—it was the open system that anyone could tap into or post on to get information or add whatever they wanted, including communications.
The AI in the robot found its role as tutor to be something that gave the robot a meaning, and it poured all its free time in studying what it could teach a growing human child. As a result, with a young girl who was smarter than most, teaching and learning were fun. It scanned and put into archives so much of what was out there for future use and for what it was teaching a child as she grew older inside their moving home.
Yes, there was math, and because Maggy had available all types and the robot found an open mind on the child, she taught Dee whatever the girl questioned.
There was writing and reading. Reading was fun for both Maggy and Dee. Maggy had only studied technical manuals. Maggy had repaired and built additions to its frame and helped Stak in engineering.
Now Maggy found a whole new world in the libraries about recent history and ancient times. It also started on the things that were recommended for young children. When Dee was bored, Maggy hunted for more exciting downloads, and they both enjoyed the ancient discoveries. Of course, there were the warriors who fought with honor.
The math, especially the stronger rigors were a benefit for Dee when she was learning from Uncle Bart. Math was a tool for so many processes when running a freighter.
There were others on the Stardance to give lessons to Dee. So while it went from port to planet to moon to satellite, her family took care of her education as well as giving her love.
There was Archibald Coldwell, Sargent First Class, retired with honors from Federated Armed Services. Archie decided that a pretty little girl needed to learn how to defend herself, so there were a lot of lessons that involved personal workouts.
There has always been an armed force in the system, even though it is a vast area. The Marines have served on most of the ships as they travel out to explore or defend.
For Archie, he had walked through some of the worst of the battles before peace had settled. He never spoke of his history, but his memory was full of stepping over dead comrades.
This old warrior knew first hand the kind of threats that were out there for a woman, especially a pretty young girl. So he started her on the obvious. Don't expect to win a fight; avoid them. He took years to teach her a self-defense mode that would let her defend herself if she had to fight off an attacker. But mainly, he taught her out to duck, move fast and escape, or mislead anyone who wanted to catch her or hurt her.
This smart old combatant taught her the secret of listening. He taught her about the sound of a step, the air moving as an arm swung, the hiss of clothing shifting. Never let anyone sneak up on a small female—that was her first lesson.
After that, as she got older, he did teach her defensive and attacking moves that a small person could use. He showed her how to use her forearm instead of her fist. There was the fact that she could use her palm that was better than her fingers. There was her foot and knee if she was in a good position. He also taught her those good positions.
Dee fell over and over as she was a growing child on the mats and in Archie's training. Finally, she began to find ways to miss his strikes, and then when she could hit back, he was satisfied. They still trained, but now it was different. It was to keep their muscles in good shape and build up what Archie called body memory.
By the time Dee was sixteen standard years old, she could handle most small ships, figure the weight of the general size of either a minute gem or an asteroid, and takedown two grown men without a weapon. After all, there were a lot of hours and tedious work when traveling through the void, so learning was suitable for a growing female.
The ship ran on a unique engine; well, it had several engines, but one of them pulled it through the void. People couldn't travel from star to star or system to system in normal time. That meant humans, in their ignorance, just found a way around the laws of nature and latched onto things out in space that would allow them to travel faster than the rules stated.
There was a unique engine on this freighter called a grabber that could find some magnetic force that existed in different places and would allow one to jump long distances immediately, like right now and in a blink. There were times when a ship had to use a slower engine to search for a spot for the grabber and, of course, when approaching anything with gravity.
The engineer on the SD was Stak DeMetra. Stak thought that if a smart girl knew a little bit about any engine, she would never be stranded in the void. Stak was a small thin man who had been born on a large satellite world. He was not comfortable on planets or large masses, as he had spent his entire life on moving, man-made items.
The first time a small person wandered into his loud, dirty work area, he asked her to hand him a tool. Dee stayed the afternoon, learning the names of tools and handing him what he needed. He shared his cookies and coffee, and they were friends. He told her how he missed his rotating home, and she told him how she missed her father.
The next time she woke in her cabin, there was a puzzle made by Stak outside her door as a gift. She put it on a special shelf with the gifts from Archie and Maggy and Uncle Bart.
It was obvious that the rest of her education would be in engineering. Dee would never be the great instinctual engineer that Stak was because the man loved engines. She found them fascinating and enjoyed what Stak taught her, but she never loved them.
What he did help her to understand was that if she was ever stranded in a small trundle ship, she could repair it. She could find ways to send out messages for help or get enough of an engine moving to slowly transfer to somewhere closer for repairs.
It was in the engine room that she got her favorite outfit as she got older. A pair of bib pants. These almost indestructible trousers were loose but had heavy straps over the shoulders to the bib on the front and lots of pockets.
Dee had many types of shirts to wear under the straps, some colorful and some just warm. She also found heavy boots that got bigger as she grew with her age. The interesting part was that her family on the ship loved her and never quit on the education.
So Dee thought about her freighter, as they were deep into the lonely dark. It wasn't a pretty ship, but it was ugly with its fat length and the two large exhausts for the great hidden engines. Near the front were two steering engines sticking out with a little surprise, concealed weapon ports.
It wasn't sleek, just fat enough to carry carts from one place to another for clients. It was her home, and now she was out heading to make a delivery, hoping nothing went wrong for a change….
The ship had other crew that came and went, depending on the loads and the needs. They were temporary sailors who were picked up at one port and left at another. They were warned before crossing the lock on the threat of life to avoid harm to the female who was on board.
As Dee grew older and took on more duties, helping her Uncle decide what loads to pick up and bargain for prices, the warning was not as strong. Dee had grown into a beauty, but she was a threat by herself. It was thanks to her training.
What was her life? Living on a freighter with her family.
There was one rule that no one would break out in the void. A signal of needing help was always answered. There is the thought that any ship might have a problem and need assistance. For example, your ship might find itself in a position of needing some air, or water, or the aide from an engineer.
The worst scenario was the need to be rescued from a ship too damaged to be repaired or to last long enough to limp into a nearby sanctuary. A ship too damaged to get anyplace with humanity or anywhere to get help was a lost cause. Unfortunately, space and the void are just too large.
There were whispers among the shippers of finding the old derelicts that had nothing left on board but frozen bodies. These were perhaps centuries old. The finder could claim the right of salvage if there were any value in the vessel that was a morgue. Sometimes, just the red triangle was put up to warn of collision danger, and any small items of value were stripped away.
There was another danger. Greed, crime, and pirates could resort to the help signal to bring in someone, or a small ship, in order to capture a prize. On the opposite end of the picture, it was a lot harder to take over a ship out in the void— which a few humans who thought like pirates might find out as they were turned away or found themselves needing help.
Getting from one ship to another wasn't easy and usually meant one person at a time. If a boarding party was armed, the waiting sailors were always armed well. The boarding party did not know the hiding places and where the traps could be set up on the waiting ship.
Still, pirates were a threat. They came upon freighters that were not able to have a lot of weapons. They used the threat of blowing the freighter apart unless they were allowed access. They would then come in, one after another in armor and lots of weapons.
Normal sailors were not an answer to such desperate thieves. Most felt the answer was to run or surrender and hope that the pirates would take the crates and leave the crew alive. The Stardance crew was not normal—they were family.
Archie was on duty at the bridge at Standard Time Eight-Thirty morning as he looked carefully at the distant extreme distress signal in internal code. First, he rechecked the signal, as it was remote and not on the route they were floating. Floating was a term used for ships that were between the quick instant grab jumps. In the floating mode, a spaceship used the secondary engines to travel at any speed they needed to move to their destinations. In this case, the SD was looking for another line to grab for the next jump.
If there was a ship out here with a distress signal, it was definitely in trouble. On the other hand, this was a place in the void where ships often had to change for a new grab. Archie started to put in a call to the Captain when she walked onto the bridge.
"Hey, we got a ping."
Dee scratched her left rib as she moved into the Captain's seat at the console. She had on her usual uniform, big heavy boots, loose pants with many pockets topped by a bib, and wide straps over her shoulders. Dee had gotten the work pants from Stak, as they were the same kind he wore in the engine room. The pockets were full of snacks, tools, and some unknown items.
Under the bib and straps, she wore a comfortable skin shirt. This type of cloth was the type that kept the body comfortable, and when put on, it pulled in to form around the person. For females, it was great, as it gave support for the breast area. For men who liked to wear this type of material, it allowed movement with help to the muscles.
Bringing up a lot of lights by waving her hand over the console in front of her, Dee frowned. "It looks small."
"Yep, like maybe just a shuttle." Archie waved a hand and threw up a large screen that showed a small dot against the black of space. Using his two hands to enlarge the view, there still was not much to see.
"It is out of our way. Can we check for a red warning?" Dee asked as she moved her fingers over lights that she didn't need to touch to activate. Her ship was state-of-the-art when it came to what was on this bridge and the engine room. The rest was old and left to give an appearance of not-worth-messing-with.
Bringing up more of the examining screens, Archie was shaking his head. "Nope. This guy looks brand new. I'm not sure what it is, but Captain, it would make good salvage. Look."
Swinging her chair, Dee looked up at the first screen that now had the dot enlarged. They had gotten closer on their same path, even though they were still not moving toward the problem.
"Wow." This was now Dee's favorite word. She had changed, as she grew up from Gosh to Darn to Damn to Fuck. The first had earned her a smile, and the last had promised her a spanking, no matter how old she was, but the new one seemed to suit everyone.
"Okay, Archie, change course. Alert the crew. How many temps do we have aboard?" Dee nodded as she watched another screen to see the movement between the SD and the small ship. She reached under the console and pulled out a hand weapon with a hip attachment.
"We have four people out in the storage area. I'll go back and give them instructions while I get my armor." Archie got up to head off the bridge.
"Wake up JeBe. I need the extra eyes up here." Dee spoke over her shoulder and got a wave from Archie as he left.
JeBe San was the other permanent member of the crew. After losing Uncle Bart to a stupid accident on the outside of the ship doing repairs, they all voted to take on another partner.
Bart got caught between the Stardance and a dock on a large trading satellite while he was making outside repairs in an offside suit. The entire large city had moved when a ship exploded, taking out a portion of the area around the docking area near that ship.
The city satellite had all the standard safety procedures in place and every door locked shut, preserving air and stopping fires. Protecting it in areas that were not damaged. That prevented a great tragedy, just taking the lives of the repair crew on the ship and a few around that docking area.
But even though this was an immense space city, physics still was a fact, and the shock moved or reverberated throughout, causing other injuries, damage, and deaths. One was Uncle Bart. The crew took his body aboard, left the area, and buried him in the void.
After a time of bereavement and taking on new shipments with temp crews, they checked the records. Bartholomew Dew had willed the Stardance ship to his niece Dwane Mina Romane Amer Challe. It was time to move on, and the partners elected Dee as Captain.
Within a short time, they started to eyeball the temps, looking for one that might fit into the partnership. The partners got different shares and had different values to their votes, with the Captain's being final.
On the run with a lot of crates and a short crew, JeBe was a middle-aged man with a lot of talent. The only place he came up short was in background details. In the first few hours on board, while still docked, he had re-arranged the hold to settle the crates in a central gravity mode. He also found they were short one small unit.
During the first trip, with leaks in the engine room and both Stak and Dee up to their elbows in slick; without notice, JeBe was in the middle with the right tools, finding a different problem. With dark oily marks all over her, Dee asked JeBe what else he could do.
Without a smirk, he announced, "I'm the best pilot in this system and in most."
Dee didn't try him out right away, but he stayed with the ship, as temp for several more loads, and then got on the good sides of everyone. One reason was that he was quiet, stayed to himself, and helped where needed. He was offered the job and was voted in as a junior partner. Dee did try him as the pilot, and he was better than she was in handling the bulky old freighter.
He never did make fun of the strange name of the ship. He liked the name, thinking it was better than Emerson or the Third Battle at Diamond. Now he came forward after only about an hour of sleep from his all-night shift. JeBe never complained, just did what needed to be handled.
"Fake, real, or old?" JeBe? was a male of few words.
"Not old, but we will see about the other. There is a weapon near your knee." Dee continued to wave her nimble hands over the console, and lights went on or off, and the big boxy freighter moved smoothly into the direction of the bogey.
"Two degrees upper transit." JeBe had an opinion as a pilot, so Dee nodded.
"Go ahead and take over. I want to watch for life." Dee brought up other equipment as she touched her ear to speak to the engine room. She knew that Stak would be there by this time, watching his babies push this awkward hunk of metal through the void.
By this time, Archie was in his military armor and making sure the temps understood what weapons they could use and where they could go to avoid trouble. Dee also knew he was vetting the temps to make sure none of them were with whoever was out there on a dead but dangerous-looking small vessel.
"I have five live bodies that are not moving." Dee had the blue glows of the bodies on a separate screen.