Final Flight
@Sheryl Nantus 2015




Jack Weaver stared at the dead body beside him, biting down on a piece of stale chewing gum.

Damn.

Hal had been talking about quitting at the end of this run. The old man wanted nothing else other than to sit on the porch of his ranch in Texas and watch the sun go
down.

This was Jack's first run to a fresh colony. It'd been Hal's idea to make one big trip before retiring and he'd talked Jack into it. Usually they stayed local with trips only
a few weeks back and forth to established colonies. This was a long run to the edge and Hal wasn't going to make it.

Now he'd have to settle for watching the stars fly by as he sat in the command chair, head slumped to one side and dead, probably a heart attack. He'd mumbled
something about his declining health to Jack but promised he wouldn't die before this job was over.

He hadn't kept his promise.

And if Jack didn't do something right away he'd join him before the end of this trip.

"Happy trails you old fool." He patted Hal's shoulder, trying not to wince as the bald man's head rolled forward.

It'd only been good luck that Jack had woken up early and noticed Hal's slumped figure, prompting him to roll out of bed and race for the controls to make sure the ship
was still on course.

He checked the dials and readings, his heart and head pounding from fright. All good, all stable.

For now.

His options were limited. He couldn't be away from the controls for more than maybe twenty minutes, a half hour at the most before the ship would start to drift off
course and he couldn't afford more than a few minutes of that. A few degrees too far and they'd have to spend fuel to get back on course and they had damned little to
spare.

The system was set up that way on purpose. Keep you on the straight and narrow. Keep you from thinking of veering off, changing your mind willingly or unwillingly.
Keep you terrified you'd end up a floating coffin because you zoned out and forgot to check your bearings.

There was a reason why most truckers passed on this type of job.

"Keep it steady, baby. Keep it steady," Jack murmured as he sprinted for the hatch set in the floor, leading to the cargo bay.

He slid down the ladder to the large square room usually filled to the brim with boxes and crates destined for various colonies.

This time it held only a dozen cryogenic tubes, laid out one by one across the floor. He walked between them and stopped at each to check the manifest clipped to each
one.

He didn't look at the offense committed, too busy studying their bios.

They all had the same sentence.

Hopefully one of them had the skills he needed to finish the trip and get them all to Auphosis safely.

The words blurred as he studied the third one and felt his heart race.

He might finish this trip alive.

It took a few minutes to scan the rest of the pods and confirm that there was only one option here, one chance to pull this out of the fire. One way to finish this trip alive
and well.

This one.

He flipped open a panel to show the numeric keypad. It took a second to put in the override code and stand back as the defrosting cycle started. The codes were
printed right there on the clipboards but only to be used in extreme emergencies.

If this didn't qualify he didn't know what would.

The faceplate began to darken, the heating elements carefully bringing their precious cargo back to life. He watched the monitor closely but knew if anything went
wrong he wouldn't be able to do a damned thing.

One hour left to defrost his new co-pilot.

Jack headed back to the ladder. Hal's body wasn't going to drag itself into the body bag and down here for storage. He wasn't a religious man but he figured he'd make
up something along the way to keep himself from throwing up.

Fifty-five minutes later he stood in front of the cryogenic pod again, sweaty and shaking. The black body bag was behind him and he reeked of antiseptic spray. Hal
might have died quick but dead bodies were still messy as all hell. It'd taken more time than he'd wanted to clean the chair and choke back the nausea, all the time
keeping an eye on the damned dials. But finally it was done and Hal had become cargo instead of crew.

Jack pulled himself upright as the final seconds counted down on the timer. He ran a hand over his short black hair and sniffed his armpits, hoping his nerves hadn't
turned him into a funky monster.

Let's look good for the lady.

The case gave a final burp and began to open slowly, reminding Jack of the old vampire movies he'd watched with Hal.

Not quite undead. Just sort of half-dead.

***

She tasted sour milk. And needed to pee desperately.

Her blurry vision began to clear, easing her panic. She'd been told it'd take a few seconds to recover but there were stories of blindness and she couldn't shake the
terror until she could properly focus on the face above her.

He wasn't what she expected.

The scruffy beard, deep brown eyes that held more than a bit of fear and curiosity, the strained look—

Something was wrong. Very, very wrong.

Dana levered herself up on her elbows and watched the man watching her. She turned her head slowly, remembering the warning that she might be dizzy for the first
few minutes.

She was lying in a large steel box, her cryogenic pod. With her fellow travelers beside her.

And a… was that a body bag on the floor?

Her gut confirmed it. She'd seen too many of them to not know what one looked like.

Her attention darted back to the stranger standing by her side. His weak smile didn't make her feel any better or safer.

"Dana Banfield?" He touched his chest, poking at the black T-shirt. "I'm Jack Weaver, pilot of the Lazy Mack."

She dimly remembered the name of the ship. It'd been on her forms—

"We're not at Auphosis yet." He rubbed the back of his neck. "We're in kind of a spot and I had to thaw you out early."

She looked at the black bag behind Jack. "Who's in that?" Dana glared at him. "What the hell is going on?" She sat up and coughed.

"First things first. I brought you some water." He held out a plastic bottle. "Did a little research. It said you might have a sore throat waking up. But it's early in the trip
so I wasn't sure if it'd be too bad."

The cool water helped the burn. Dana wiped her mouth with the back of her hand as she sat up and swung her legs out over the edge of the pod. "How far out are we?"

"Three months." He gave her a sheepish grin.

"What the—" She drank more water as her mind did the math. "That's barely halfway."

"Yeah." Jack gestured at the black plastic. "Hal here is my boss. Was, I guess. Kicked off during his watch. Now I need help to fly the ship." He rubbed his eyes with
the back of his hand. "He was my buddy, you know?" His voice cracked with emotion, startling Dana.

She took another swig of water and stood up. "So you woke me up." Her legs were steady, surprising her. "You do know I'm a convict. I wouldn't be on board if I
weren't part of your shipment to Auphosis."

Jack nodded. "I read your bio. You used to be military, flew transports before you—" He waved a hand overhead. "Whatever. Right now I don't care what you did but
I need your help. And you need your help otherwise none of us are going anywhere."

She put the near-empty bottle on the pod and rubbed her eyes, trying to assess what the hell was going on. "Give me a minute. Give me a minute to get all this down."
She hugged herself, trying to assimilate the facts that had just slapped her in the face.

She'd gone to sleep ready to awaken in a distant hell. Suddenly she was back in control of her life for one last time. Dana took a deep shuddering breath to try and
balance the emotions racing through her.

***

Jack couldn't stop talking despite her request for silence. Hal's death had started a domino effect of fear that tugged at him. It was easy enough to lose your mind out
here on the long hauls; this was pushing him toward the edge fast.

"We got a few minutes before I gotta sprint upstairs and check the controls. The Lucky Mack's an older MT-340 model." He figured it wouldn't hurt to start briefing
her, preparing her for the job. "Takes two of us to keep her going. I can't do the next three months in the command chair nonstop. And if I fall asleep or—."

"I get it." She rolled her shoulders and he saw the muscles flex under her dark green shirt, the grey track pants hiding what he imagined to be a beautiful woman. "I
didn't realize we'd be flying in such a piece of garbage."

"Hey. She's a good piece of—" Jack stopped when he saw her wide grin. "A funny girl. Great."

"Funny woman." She stuck her index finger up. "So I got to spend the next three months holding your hand?"

You can hold something else, his libido screeched before Jack shut it down.

"We got plenty of movies and books on file." He grinned. "And I do play poker."

Dana cracked her knuckles. "That's nice." She put her hands on her hips and studied him. "You're not afraid I'll kill you in your sleep and take over the ship?"

Jack shrugged. "You can but then you'll be in the same spot I'm in. There ain't nothing about for thousands of miles, no other colony before we get to Auphosis. They
fixed it that way from the start in case any of you popsicles woke up early. And you're the only one on board who can fly this crate other than myself." He tapped his
chest. "You need me as much as I need you. I can't do this alone."

The words seared his soul as he tried not to look over at Hal.

"Okay." She scratched her chin. "Let me get cleaned up and we'll get to work."

"We need to, ah, take care of Hal." He pointed at the body bag. "I figure we'll put him in your pod and that'll keep him until we make landfall. I don't really want to
dump him out the airlock. His family deserves better, you know?"

Dana nodded and moved to take one end of the bag. "Good idea." She grunted as Jack picked up the other side.

They placed Hal into the metal box. Jack swallowed hard as he closed the lid and tapped the control panel. "They got a setting here for emergency frosting. Guess they
use these to transport bodies as well."

She didn't say anything as he patted the cooling box and headed for the ladder, forcing himself to stay calm.

"Come on up and see the place. It ain't much but it's going to be your home for the next twelve weeks." He grabbed hold of the rungs, hoping she'd follow him without
asking too many questions. She was ex-military, she knew how to deal with death.

She was also a murderer according to her rap sheet. Suddenly his self-assuredness that she wouldn't kill him in his sleep didn't sound so secure.



It took a week before he could sleep fully through his shift. He'd wake up a few hours in, sweaty and afraid and look over from his bunk to where Dana sat in Hal's
chair, staring out into space.

It took three weeks before he asked her what she'd done.

"It's on my file." She stood next to him and glanced down at the panel. "We're two degrees off course."

He made the correction. "I know but I figured I'd ask you what the backstory was." Jack looked at the digital clock. "We've got a few minutes before I hand the controls
over to you. Might as well chat." He leaned back in the chair and heard his back crack. "Gotta love the eight hours on and off. You never know what day it is."

"Yeah." She cleared her throat. "We used it on our combat drops. Once you get used to not counting the days it flows nicely."

Jack waited. He knew sometimes silence said a lot more than anything else.

"I killed a man." She stared out into the darkness. "He was a civilian. Informant, to be clear. Sold details about our movements to the rebels and they knew exactly
where to hit us. I was told to bring him in for questioning but I'd lost too many buddies, too many friends. So I snapped his neck. System decided to make an example."

The matter-of-fact way she told him took him aback for a second until he realized the number of times she had to have told that story. "So why not military prison?"

"I turned it down for a chance on Auphosis." She turned to face him. "Stockade for fifty years versus the opportunity to die on a whole new planet? Not much of a
choice."

"Okay." He slid into the chair beside her.

"Okay?" Dana turned to face him. "You're okay with that?"

Jack shrugged. "I'm not in a position to judge. Might have done the same thing if I caught that situation. Either way you're here now."

She opened her mouth as if to say something then stopped. After another check of the dials she started again. "What happens when we land?"

"I pick up another co-pilot and go back out. Six months I'm over at Starbase Twelve and arranging for another run." He smiled at her, enjoying the slight blush on her
cheeks in reaction. "I'm no colonist."

"Neither am I." Dana got up out of the chair and walked away.

***

She wasn't sure if she was grateful or angry at Jack for putting her in this position. Before they'd put her down she'd reconciled herself to a long sleep and waking up to
a hard life as an indentured servant on Auphosis, sold to the highest bidder.

Now her future had been tossed upside down, at least for the time being. It wouldn't put off the inevitable but it offered a taste of her old life, offered her the dignity of
being treated as an equal for the last time.

And, as she looked at Jack sleeping on the bottom bunk, it wasn't a bad situation at all. He was a damn fine pilot and kind of cute.

Dana turned her attention back to the dials and screens in front of her, checking to make sure they were on course. There was only enough food and water for two
people for exactly the length of the trip, making it unlikely or impossible for prison transports to go astray.

Although she wished this one could.

She glanced over at Jack again and smiled as he mumbled something in his sleep. They both could have done a lot worse for a partner out here on the edge.



It was six weeks until they started having sex, fast frantic couplings with an eye on the unmanned cockpit. She'd been as eager as he had, taking him up on the offer by
stripping down faster than he could. Dana laughed as Jack mumbled something about performing under pressure.

He managed with a smirk and a nip on her earlobe to remind her who was technically on top here. Not that it made a whit of difference but she'd already won an
obscene amount of money from him playing poker and there had to be something he could do better than her.

This much he succeeded at.

Eight weeks into his unusual relationship Jack caught himself wondering about who he'd get to replace Hal. He'd be able to find someone on Auphosis for the ride
back; there were always pilots looking for work but—

He snuck a look at Dana as she lay on the top bunk, snoring fitfully. She was a convicted killer and as such there was no way she'd be allowed to leave once they
arrived. She might get a gold star for helping him but there was no parole, no exceptions to her sentence. Once they'd locked her in the cryogenic pod her fate had been
sealed.

Just as his had been when Hal had died.

***

Ten weeks in Dana knew he wanted to talk but couldn't bring himself to start. He drummed his fingers on the headrest, dangerously close to her ear. It was his most
obvious tell that he was nervous.

She wished it was just about poker.

"We land in two weeks," he said.

"Yeah." She studied the dials, not wanting to turn and face him.

"I don't want you to go back to jail."

She sighed. "It's not jail. They're going to sell us to the colonists as indentured servants. Slaves. Work the fields, do the hard work and reap none of the rewards for
five years."

"After five years you get to leave?" The hopeful lilt in his voice had her shaking her head.

"No. But we'll be upgraded to regular colonist and allowed to make our own way, stake a claim and start all over again. We'll have voting rights and all that. Those of
us who are still alive. Word is that they work their people hard." She tapped the dial. "Check the left thruster fuel hose, please."

There was nothing wrong but he went to check anyway, ending the discussion.

They never spoke of it again.

Two weeks later Dana watched the green and blue planet grow larger as they approached it. Jack sat beside her, finishing the trip together.

"Lucky Mack you're cleared for landing," the controller droned. "Your updated roster has been received and preparations made. Please do not exit the ship until told to
do so."

"Translation: They're going to have soldiers waiting to make sure I don't make a break for it." Dana rubbed the back of her neck. Her hair had blossomed into a long
bushy black ponytail during the trip, marking her as quite different from the rest of the new arrivals.

"Maybe," Jack said. "Or they're wanting to be careful about taking Hal off. I put him in the pod but you know there's all sorts of health things to worry about." He
tapped his nose. "Only thing stinking up the ship now is you and I."

She smiled, loving him for his attempt to deny the inevitable.

The ship landed without incident in the middle of the military compound. She saw the soldiers approaching from all sides, guns drawn.

No matter what Jack had told them about her helping out she was still a convicted murderer and considered extremely dangerous because of her military training.

"Time to go." She tried to make it sound lighthearted but the look on his face banished all hopes of a quiet exit.

"Thanks for saving my life." He drew her into a deep kiss, the last she'd have for a long time.

"Thanks for giving me good memories of mine," she whispered as the hatch opened and the soldiers marched in.

***

Jack watched them hustle Dana away, barely able to make out her among the swarm of soldiers.

An officer approached, backed up by another squad. He held out a clipboard. "Sign for the cargo transfer."

Jack scanned the paperwork as the soldiers pulled open the hatch leading to the cargo bay and began unloading the cryogenic pods. "Hal—"

"We received your transmission. His body will be cremated and returned to his family. We can't afford to ship the body back home." The officer scrunched up his face
as if smelling something vile. "Good idea to pull the criminal out to take his place."

Jack noticed he didn't refer to Dana by name. "Yeah." He scribbled his signature. "What's going to happen to them now? This is my first run here, usually I do shorter
sprints to the bigger colonies." He nodded toward the queue of coffin-like pods.

"Thawed out and then auctioned off to the settlers. Hard labor for five years or until they die, whatever comes first." He sniffed. "Too good for most of them."

Jack nodded. "I suppose." He handed the clipboard back. "What's my turnaround time?"

"You've got a day or two. Got a few more transports due in so we're going to load you all up at once with outgoing cargo." He jerked a thumb at a distant dome-shaped
building. "Start there. Sign in and you'll get directions to whatever you want. Bunkhouse, brothel, general store. You can mingle with the colonists as they come in for
supplies but don't cause trouble." A sneer worked its way free. "We'll toss your ass off planet with an empty cargo bay and let you eat the loss."

Jack nodded and walked away, disconcerted by the conversation. He didn't expect a welcoming committee but the rough attitude made him worry even more for
Dana's safety

He paused at the directional sign posted in the middle of the compound, studying the different plastic arrows pointed at various buildings.

There.

Jack Weaver increased his pace to a trot, running from the Lucky Mack and the soldiers gathered around her.

***

Dana was stripped and searched, her ponytail shorn away by a barber who had a rough hand and a rougher mouth. The black coveralls were one size too big and she
suspected the color was chosen because it hid most stains, including blood.

The rest of the women and men with her in the corral stayed silent, no one voluntarily confessing their sins.

Dana sat in one corner of the enclosure and looked up at the deep red sky, ignoring the brawls. The Lucky Mack would be launching soon enough, heading back to
deep space with a new co-pilot.

She only hoped Jack chose well. Another six months back to civilized space with an incompatible pilot would suck.

Not as much as her next six months however.



The auctions started two days later, the last transport landing and disgorging more prisoners. Dana wasn't the new kid any longer—she was a veteran at keeping clear
of the bullies and snatching food when she could. The soldiers made sure no one got killed or badly injured, no one starved to death or froze to death on the cold nights
but they didn't do much else.

The officer who had been there on her arrival appeared at the gate, clipboard in hand and flanked by two guards. "Attention."

The two guards fired into the air, the bullets arcing up and over the compound wall. That got everyone's attention including Dana's.

He surveyed the thirty-odd arrivals. "You all chose to come to Auphosis instead of serving your sentences in regular law enforcement facilities. We thank you for your
sacrifice but now it's time to get on with your new lives." He drew his finger down the list of names. "As per your agreements you have all been sentenced to
indentured servitude. You will now be assigned to your new masters and mistresses."

This earned snickers and jeers from the crowd. Dana flinched as two soldiers waded into the group, fists flying.

Silence fell quickly.

The officer continued. "Your new owners have paid handsomely for your services. Please don't make them return you to this compound." He glared at the front row of
prisoners. "If you are brought back for any major infractions you will be shot. No exceptions, no appeals. We don't have the time or inclination to deal with your bad
attitudes."

One burly thug opened his mouth as if to speak and closed it with a snap, glancing at the nearest soldier.

"Good. Please line up and prepare to be assigned. We hope you'll survive long enough to take advantage of this second chance at a good life and make yourself an
asset to Auphosis." He waved at the soldiers flanking him. "Let's start."

The soldiers began to bark orders, pushing and shoving them into a single line to exit the corral and enter the nearby dome. The bluster and fight went out of the crowd
as if someone had blown out a candle, the men and women accepting their fate without any further fight.

She shuffled along in line, entering the nondescript building. It was hard to keep her emotions in control even with her strict military training.

A wave of nausea swept over her, threatening to return the sparse breakfast with anything else left in her belly. Dana grabbed at her stomach and pressed tight, forcing
herself to stay standing. She hadn't felt this sick and scared since her first combat drop.

So this was it. The end. She'd end up either being worked to death or worse, forced to endure harassment and abuse for five years or until she died. The best she could
hope for was a decent master or mistress who wouldn't take advantage of the situation and make her wish for death.

She made her way inside. The large room reminded her of a warehouse, empty except for the single table at the far end. As the line moved she saw the simple system
in action—the unlucky servant had his or her identity verified at the table, a metal bracelet snapped on the left hand to declare their status and the new owner would
come out from another room to take control and lead his/her new possession out the nearby exit. Short sweet and as fast as possible. You didn't see who your new
employer were until the last minute, not giving you much time to react before you were pushed out of sight and into your new life.

She was next in line. The man ahead of her scowled as he was led off by a small grinning wisp of a woman.

"Dana Banfield." She tried to shut out the low growl detailing her sentence; tried not to flinch as the cold metal encircled her wrist.

Dana closed her eyes and wondered where Jack was. Safe in space aboard the Lucky Mack headed for—

"I brought you some water."

She opened her eyes and stared at him. He wore the same grey flight jacket she'd gotten accustomed to seeing.

He handed her a cold bottle of water with a sheepish grin. "Figured you'd need this." He looked at the man standing beside him. "I'm good to go?"

"Yeah. Good luck." The soldier pointed past Dana at the next in line. "Move it."

She couldn't speak as Jack took her elbow and led her out of the assignment building. It wasn't until they were far beyond earshot that she found her voice again.

"What are you doing?" She looked around, dropping her voice to a low whisper. "Are you stealing me?"

Jack laughed. "Can't steal what's mine. At least according to the law." He withdrew a piece of paper from his pocket. "Says here you belong to me as an indentured
servant for the next five years." He scowled at the printed words. "I don't like this at all. I don't want you to think you belong to anyone, much less me."

"You—" She couldn't find the words. "You bought me? But only colonists—"

He held up a hand. "I sold the ship and bought a stake here. Cashed in my savings and all that. Don't seem right flying without Hal so I figured I'd try something
different, settle down." He smiled. "Thought I'd do it with you. For at least five years until you're free." A blush colored his cheeks. "I mean, if you want to."

Dana stared at him. "You—" She fumbled to put her thoughts together. "Why?" She gestured at herself. "What we had it wasn't—" She fell silent, not sure if she was
about to destroy herself and her possible future.

Jack chuckled. "Don't worry. I ain't going to make you say you're in love with me or swear my dying devotion to you. We got together in a bad spot, in a tight spot and
I'm not going to hold either one of us to what happened on board."

He rubbed his chin. "But I'm a man who believes in paying his debts and in doing what's right and leaving you here to be worked like a horse 'til you drop don't sit
square with me." Jack shuffled his feet in the dark brown dust. "Five years'll make you a free woman and would give you right to half the claim we'll make here." He
cleared his throat. "We can start from that if you like and see where things take us."

She laughed as she hugged him and kissed him on the cheek, ignoring the odd looks from the couples gathering nearby. "Yes. Yes." Dana stepped back and looked at
him, holding his hands. "You're a good man, Jack Weaver."

"We'll see." He grinned and nodded toward the exit gate. "Besides I still owe you five hundred and thirty three dollars from that damned poker game. Got to give me a
chance to win that back." He tugged on her hand. "Let's go make us both a new future."


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