Jax had vanished over a year before in the Dark Star region. Melissa believed to the marrow of her bones that his disappearance had been hidden by Outer Reaches, the multi-jillion dollar company that controlled, exploited and marketed Dark Star Expeditions.
After his transport reached the sector, her lover hadsent Melissa two short but cheerful wavecoms. Then…space silence. Her Increasingly frantic coms first to Jax and then the company, had elicited the information that Jax had launched a short exploratory flight to the sector of his mineral mining rights, returned, checked out of his cheap lodgings, and fallen off the radar.
“I’m sorry.” The company rep on Earth didn’t sound sorry at all. “According to our records, Jax Donovan left primary Outer Reaches facilities for purposes of his own on star date 2291.7.8”
Melissa uncurled her fingers from the fist in her lap and tried to modulate her voice. “Why,” she asked, “would he use all our money and rack up all our credit to buy a mining exploration pod, get mineral rights for the adjacent systems, and then just go AWOL? We worked on this dream for two years!”
“I’m sorry.” She still didn’t look sorry. “Outer Reaches has no knowledge of Mr. Donovan’s actions, and as an contracted independent miner, we have no responsibility for his whereabouts.”
“I know something has happened to him!” Melissa cried out. “Why are you keeping this secret? Please!”
That seemed to wedge a small crack in the rep’s indifference. She hesitated, and then said, “The outer systems aren’t always what people expect or can deal with. It’s not uncommon for contractors to abandon their plans. Asteroid mining is hard, lonely and dangerous.”
“I know,” Melissa snapped. “I’m an astro-geologist. Thanks for nothing.”
The rep folded her arms across her chest, signaling that Melissa would get nothing else from her or the company.
There had to have been an accident, Melissa decided as she stormed out of the glass and wood tower. Or some incredible new discovery. Money had to be at the core. Economic expansion was the primary goal of all the government’s interplanetary policies, but even the government had some laws they enforced. Jax must have done or found something that threatened this megacorp’s grip on the lucrative Dark Star region.
Somehow Melissa had begged, borrowed and worked for enough cash to buy a seat on a tour. After the fuss she’d made, the company wasn’t about to let her on their transports or freighters, but as a nuisance not a felon, they couldn’t legally refuse her passage as a tourist.
Everything she had saved had gone to mount Jax’s expedition. Maybe she should have insisted on going along. But she was an academic, not an adventurer. Only the lethal combo of love and terror could have pried her from her labs.
Jax was a less accomplished geologist than she (third grade journeyman as opposed to her master papers) but he had been enthralled when she showed him her research and calculations. She was certain that deposits of margentum, a key ingredient in the new alloys, could be found in the outer asteroids of Dark Star. As a kid she had dreamed of getting out there to mine and discover, but as an adult it seemed too…too alien…and dangerous. Jax was a fine navigator and despite the very best in equipment (which they didn’t have) maybe his raw muscle power would be an advantage. She could work out more, but what if someone else figured out that there were riches to be gained in the region. Melissa decided it was better for him to go solo and she would come later when he had established a solid base.
But then he had disappeared.
Staring out now from the cruiser’s observation window, Melissa watched the outer planets draw steadily closer. She had risen early, hoping to acclimatize herself to the time zone shifts they would experience – and giving herself a chance to drink her coffee and make plans without the repellent babble of the excited tourists and their too exuberant offspring.
Tony Barducca slid onto a chair beside her, nursing his own coffee. The first mate had rings under his eyes. “Mind?” he asked.
Melissa shook her head.
“Thanks, I need some rational silence.”
She cracked a grin, but maintained uninterrupted air between them. They’d had a few technical conversations over the past few weeks and she’d pumped him for practical information about the sector. And she liked his sense of humor. With the first stop approaching, too many of the passengers, despite the cruisers many activities, had partied way too hearty the night before. She guessed Tony had drawn the unenviable duty of being the officer in charge.
He took another long drink. “At least in space no one can fall overboard.” He muttered. “Not to say they didn’t try. Thank heavens for coded air locks.”
Melissa snorted her laughter, and despite his exhaustion, Tony grinned.
“So what’s your first stop?” he asked casually.
Tracking Jax, Melissa thought. Instead she offered, “Thought I’d go with the crowd on the tram trip through the woodlands. See a few of the indigenous animals.”
Tony studied her. “I would have thought the museum of exploration would be more your speed.”
Damn, Melissa thought. That’s what comes of oversharing with a sympathetic man. He had none of Jax’s charm, but after a year of desperate research and questioning, she had fallen prey to the desire to have someone intelligent and open listen to her.
“Jax and I studied the animals. I thought seeing them would ease me into letting go.”
Tony continued to watch her face. “I have a friend in the control tower,” he said finally. “Maybe I can talk him into giving you a look at the flight logs.”
Melissa wondered if shock was draining her face of blood. It would explain why the world seemed to be tilting on her. “H..how?” she stammered.
Tony shrugged. “You don’t have the feel of a tourist, and as an officer, I have access to a lot of records. Deep space flights get more intel than you’d think because the risks are so high. In your file was a list of your petitions, lawsuits, and questions.”
“You were detailed to keep an eye on me,” she accused.
He nodded and took another long sip. “Yup, but it wasn’t very hard.” He grinned. “Didn’t take long to see you’re not a crazy. I’d hunt for my partner just as hard and just as determinedly. Besides, I get tired of tourist talk. It’s a relief to have a conversation about real space. Maybe I’ll be able to get out there some day like your Jax.”
Melissa’s thoughts whirled. How much more should she tell him? Bitterly, she realized he’d already figured everything out, so she might as well take the help he was clearly offering.
“I’d like to talk to your friend.”
Tony nodded and stood up. “Once we dock, I’m on leave. I’ll let Marcus know we’re coming.” His eyes twinkled. “Then you won’t have to waste time looking at animals you could care less about.”
Melissa laughed and felt a tiny bit lighter. Despite Tony’s engaging manner, she would have to remember he worked for the company. But maybe when he opened the approved doors for her, she’d catch a glimpse of a clue. After all, she knew Jax and their plans in a way a company, with all its records and intel, never could.
The “luxury” accommodations promised in the tour information consisted of a private bedroom the size of a closet, with personal amenities crammed into a smaller closet. But in space, that truly was luxury Melissa realized. And there was a window overlooking a street buzzing with transport vehicles, with the blue-green foliage of the planet’s ecosystem beyond. One of the fourteen tiny moons hung in the sky above. Even though the atmosphere was almost identical to earth’s, the colors and the smells were just slightly different – enough to make Melissa realize that despite her years of study, she hadn’t truly understood the alien nature of worlds beyond her own. And it was beautiful.
“You always think things are the way you think they are,” she accused herself. She took a long, deep breath, lulled into some kind of relaxation – probably for the first time since Jax had walked into her grad student class. Fear had kept her planet-bound, kept her studying other scientist’s data rather than being out in the field collecting it. But Jax had loved her significant intellect; Melissa wondered now if she loved it herself. Out here, listening to the squeals of the flying lizards, she felt some part of her uncurl in the excitement of a real adventure. The fantasies of her childhood unlocked a little.
She couldn’t wait to share her new self with Jax...wherever he was.
The next morning went nowhere. As promised, Tony took her to meet with his friend, Marcus. In exchange for a small envelope of real coffee, he cheerfully opened the log file for Melissa’s perusal. He and Tony laughed and talked about a new club that had opened on “the strip” while in growing frustration, Melissa checked, rechecked and cross-referenced the flight logs. Nothing beyond what the company had told her.
She sat back, wanting to pound something.
“What about manifests?” she interrupted.
“What?” Marcus paused mid-anecdote.
“Shouldn’t there be a manifest – you know, weight, cargo, personnel? Jax was going to hire some muscle for the work.”
“Don’t need muscle in space – that’s what we’ve got machines for,” Marcus retorted, but he typed in codes and a new file opened up.
“And no gravity does make muscle redundant most of the time,” Tony said.
Melissa froze, heat blazing across her neckand cheeks. Stupid…planet bound stupid to have never thought that through during their months and months of prep. Simple, stupid, simple mistake.
To hide her humiliation, Melissa leaned closer to the screen. Her eyes were blurred, but she somehow found what she was looking for. “J. Wolanski. D. Mauka. Crew.”
“Those are the guys I need to find!” she declared. “Maybe they know where Jax headed.”
Marcus typed a few more commands. “Wolanski shipped out back to earth a five months ago…but I have an address for Mauka.” He sent it to Melissa’s com device.
Tony wanted to stop for a drink, but Melissa was insistent. “I’ve been waiting a year,” she told him. “If you’re tired of babysitting, go get that drink on your own.”
His mouth tightened. “We’re way beyond babysitting, Mel.”
They were able to rent a city transport vehicle that took them to the address for the crewman. But when they reached it, two women and their child were in residence. “We rented from a guy named Anderson. Don’t know who had it before,” one of the women offered. “Sorry. Things around here change so fast, no one can keep up.” She paused thoughtfully. “Try Botany Bay, the new club. You can ask around there.”
“Thanks,” Melissa managed as Tony pulled the transport around for her.
She slumped into her seat, fighting tears. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy,” she said. “Why did I think, after a year, I could solve everything in one day?”
Tony watched her. “You made it here. Like it or not, you’re part of the first waves of space exploration. It’s a big deal.”
“But I just came to find Jax,” Melissa wailed.
A smile quirked Tony’s mouth. “Where to now?”
“Let’s check the club,” Melissa said miserably.
Unsurprisingly, it was closed until 8 p.m.
“How about that drink now,” Tony suggested. “And maybe some food.”
They ate at a café overlooking the section of land that had become a vast safari park for the tourists.
“What about the rest of the planet?” Melissa asked finally. “What’s happening there?”
“Exploration,” Tony told her. “The company figured tourism would get huge numbers of people on board. So much potential out here – and so many companies and zillionaires trying to get a piece of it.”
Melissa sat back, thinking of the mineral riches she already knew were out in the asteroids. Suddenly, she wished she’d had a partner, a practical, no nonsense kind of partner like Tony to discover them with. She pushed away the thought that Jax might have been less perfect for this than she had thought.
To pass the time, they took the safari tram, marveling at the range of creatures browsing through the forest. They were cute…and alien.
“Aren’t there predators?” Melissa asked Tony.
He grinned. “Not anywhere near the tourists. The company isn’t stupid.”
“But they let Jax disappear,” Melissa protested. “That wasn’t so smart.”
Tony opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. Melissa stared resentfully. “What?” she demanded.
“The club opens in an hour,” Tony said. “Let’s head back and clean up.”
The almost tropical heat of the planet had made Melissa’s face shine unbecomingly. The shower was tiny and awkward but it did the job. She found herself pawing through her clothes, looking for something a little sexy – in case I find Jax, she told herself.
Tony was waiting with a transport. It took only a few minutes to hum along the streets to the club. Already, a line of people were waiting, but Tony flashed his company ID and the bouncer at the door, let them in.
The room looked like a WWII cabaret. Tony whistled softly. “Cost a bit to set this up,” he muttered.
A waiter hurried over to settle them at a table featuring a white linen cloth and a bouquet of weird local blooms in the center.
“Wait,” Melissa grabbed the waiter’s arm. “We’re looking for some people. A man named Mauka…and maybe one name Jax Donovan.”
“Ms. Mauka is over by the bar,” the waiter said, withdrawing his arm. “Is there a problem? Mr. Donovan will be here after he’s greeted some of the club’s guests in the VIP lounge…”
Once again Melissa felt the blood drain from her face. Tony caught her as she slumped.
“I’m…sorry…a little dizzy…” She felt the tears streaming down her face. She’d known. She’d had to know. And she was so stupid….
Tony ordered her a drink. She gulped it down and as the liquor fired into her system, she was able to stiffen her spine again.
“Did you know?” she asked Tony.
He shook his head. “I wondered, but I couldn’t fathom why the guy didn’t stick with you.”
Melissa knew her smile wavered, but she was so grateful when he gripped her hand. A few minutes later, Jax came over.
“Melissa, sweetheart! Why didn’t you let me know…! Neil!” he gestured to the waiter. “Everything on the house here!”
Melissa looked at him wonderingly. How had she thought Jax charming and perfect? How had she believed he loved her? He was chattering on, nervous maybe.
“…so Deena and I just knew we weren’t cut out for mining, so we used the pod as collateral to start the club…”
“What?” Melissa demanded, leaning forward. “The mining pod is in my name. You don’t own it.”
“Technicalities are a bit fluid out here,” Jax told her a flush highlighting his handsom cheeks. “But I suppose you could say you have a small share in the club…”
“Technicalities aren’t that fluid,” Tony interrupted.
Melissa sat back, mind spinning. Jax was a stranger, a slightly sleazy stranger at that. She laughed. The pod belonged to her. If she had someone like Tony as crew….It was possible…all possible.
Without a word, she stood up and walked outside. A lizard whistled in the brush. Seven of the moons soared across the blue-green sky. Beyond that was the asteroid belt.
There were discoveries to be made and riches to be found. And she was just the woman to do it.