In an outpost on the solar system’s outer rim, Ran McCoy runs a crew of outlaws. Zhea, his second-in-command and battle- hardened war companion, has recently lost her husband and struggles with finding new meaning in her life. Kierin, the outpost’s quiet, proper doctor, has fallen into a possibly too- easy relationship with Allie, the crew’s mechanic. Zhea and Kierin surprisingly find themselves in a steamy affair. Neither wants to hurt Allie or the other crew as they hide their growing affections for each other.
Kierin Osaka noticed Zhea Steinberg standing just outside the hatch to the far airlock of the station. He tugged the door to Allie’s quarters closed, then paused, watching the darkness fall around Zhea. She was a strong woman with dark skin, her curled hair tied back at the nape of her neck. Middle of the night, station time, and she still wore her usual clothing―mended combat vest, dark long-sleeved undershirt, and multi-pocketed cargo pants tucked into scuffed combat boots.
Kierin always felt odd slipping through the night, back to his own quarters. As if being with Allie late at night was somehow wrong, despite them being a clear item in daylight amongst the small crew. Kierin was not sure if he had a type. When he’d been younger, he’d always been too much into his studies, then his work as a top doctor, to think much about romantic relations. Being with Allie was easy, simple, and sometimes he wondered how much of it was her wanting and his own mere acquiescence. Kierin wore full clothing still, slacks, button-down shirt, and a now-threadbare suit vest. He ran a hand through his thick brown hair to right any errant strands.
Usually, his heart hung in his throat for the trip back to his own quarters. He worried someone would wonder why he didn’t spend the night with the woman he loved. If stopped, he knew he would play up being serious about his job as doctor to a mere half-dozen people, mention how they got in too many scrapes in their not-quite-illegal ventures. He could mention not wanting to leave his sister, Rori, alone, even if her mental problems had greatly improved since he’d smuggled her off Earth and into this outlaw life.
Zhea didn’t glance over her shoulder at him, although somehow he knew her gaze would not have held the judgment of the others. Something about the loneliness clinging to Zhea drove him forward, until he found himself beside her.
Kierin broke the gentle silence. “Have you used it...” He gestured inside the airlock to the small spacecraft the others used for their missions. “Since... I mean?”
Zhea’s husband, Orlin Berg Steinberg, had died in that airlock after a job went wrong. Kierin still remembered the blood, the man’s pale, clammy skin, and his fogged-over eyes. As a doctor, Kierin had seen people die before, and from injuries just as bloody. Having been in the war, Zhea had certainly seen people die of gunshots before, more than a few, if the stories the others told about Zhea and Captain Randell Ran McCoy held any truth.
Zhea stared ahead at the airlock door and through it. Beyond, Saturn hung low in the black of space above the frosty satellite ring rock the outpost sat upon. “Not beyond a foot.” Her usually deep voice was only a whisper this time.
Kierin wondered if she still saw the deep red blood stain upon the metal deck plating under Berg’s lifeless body. They had seemed such an odd couple―Berg always with a joke, a laugh, and a sense of humor that never dulled, and Zhea with her silence, rigid posture, and steady way of moving.
Without thinking, Kierin stepped forward and took Zhea’s hand.
Her return grip on his hand surprised him with its strength. Her stance relaxed and her shoulders barely fell. When he stepped closer, her body, which always held itself strong and apart, slightly sagged against his.
He reasoned their proximity was appropriate, but ways were different out here in the far reaches of the solar system. He forced himself to not worry about it. Instead, he wrapped an arm around Zhea’s waist. He brushed an errant strand of her curls from her face, his finger gliding down her dark cheek. His movements held an intimacy that somehow seemed greater than the lovemaking he’d just performed with Allie, perhaps because of the distance with which Zhea held herself from everyone.
They stood there, together, gazing at the empty airlock and Saturn beyond. Something about the silent way Zhea simply existed, no questions, no explanations, calmed and quieted him. He hoped his presence here gave something back to her as well.
* * * *
Everyone gathered in the common room. Laughter from a half-dozen voices bounced off the metal walls, creating a tinny sound. Zhea managed a smile. She caught Ran’s gaze at her, worry in his blue eyes. Unlike her, he still wore his old uniform, including the patched gray coat. He kept his brown hair cut militarily short and face clean-shaven.
This was Ran’s team, his work, such as it was.His worry wasn’t about their last job, but instead about her well being. After the war, Ran had chosen this rundown old mining outpost―the freedom of being out in the outer rim, away from authority, where even thieves weren’t proper villains―as his salvation. Zhea had chosen the lively Berg as her salvation, his ability to make her laugh, to make her want to live.
The recent job had been a simple one―reroute a transport of mining ore going back to Earth from Europa, empty it for reconstruction near Europa, and send the empty transport back along its way to the inner planets. Not saying Ran’s bad luck couldn’t have ruined it. After all, they’d gone afoul with simpler plans. But today, at least, all had ended well.
“Maybe next time we can get more coin for our good deeds,” Tracey Jamison said. Their hired gun, the large man cared about more than coin, but he wouldn’t want anyone to catch on to that.
“See what I can do.” Ran pulled his gaze from Zhea.