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Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books

Chilling Effect

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Chilling Effect

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Author: Valerie Valdes
Publisher: HarperCollins/Voyager, 2019
Series: Chilling Effect: Book 1

1. Chilling Effect
2. Prime Deceptions

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Captain Eva Innocente and the crew of La Sirena Negra cruise the galaxy delivering small cargo for even smaller profits. When her sister Mari is kidnapped by The Fridge, a shadowy syndicate that holds people hostage in cryostasis, Eva must undergo a series of unpleasant, dangerous missions to pay the ransom.

But Eva may lose her mind before she can raise the money. The ship's hold is full of psychic cats, an amorous fish-faced emperor wants her dead after she rejects his advances, and her sweet engineer is giving her a pesky case of feelings. The worse things get, the more she lies, raising suspicions and testing her loyalty to her found family.

To free her sister, Eva will risk everything: her crew, her ship, and the life she's built on the ashes of her past misdeeds. But when the dominoes start to fall and she finds the real threat is greater than she imagined, she must decide whether to play it cool or burn it all down.


Excerpt

Chapter 1

SAVE THE CATS

Captain Eva Innocente crept down the central corridor of La Sirena Negra, straining to hear the soft rumble of her quarry over the whine of the FTL drive and the creak of space-cold metal.

((Getting warmer,)) Min pinged over her commlink.

Min would know, since the ship was essentially her second body when she was connected to the piloting interface. But the critter Eva was tracking wouldn't stop moving. It had gone from the cargo bay down below, up through the mess, and was now somewhere between the crew quarters and the head. If it got to the bridge--

((Warmer.))

A hiss of steam sprayed Eva's hair. Startled, she nearly dropped the vented box she carried onto her foot, juggling it awkwardly before settling it against her hip. She resumed her barefoot tiptoeing with a scowl. Vakar would have to fix that leak later, once the more immediate problem was taken care of.

((Red hot!))

Eva crouched, held her breath, and listened. At last, in a gap between two panels, she heard it.

A lone kitten, purring.

Eva reached in, grabbed it by the scruff of its neck, and dropped it into the box.

((Got it,)) she pinged back at Min. Eighteen down, two to go. Her arms were covered in scratches and her black hair was a mass of tangles from being woken up in a hurry, but on the plus side, she'd gotten pretty good at catching the little mojones.

On the minus side, they were only a few hours from their drop point on Letis, and she wouldn't get paid unless she delivered the full cargo.

The kitten mewled, and Eva lifted the box to glare at it. "Don't start with me," she said. "This is the third time you've escaped and I'm ready to throw you all out the airlock."

Green eyes stared her down, the slitted pupils dilating to black discs.

"And stop trying to hypnotize me," Eva muttered. "It's rude." Fucking psychic cats.

The cat yowled in reply.

Eva carried the box down to the cargo hold. The tall ceiling allowed for multiple stacked containers, with catwalks near the top that had earned their name repeatedly over the past cycle. Metal plates were bolted onto the ship's frame, some hinged to allow access to the guts underneath, with no exposed pipes or wires to break the monotony. A blocky passenger cabin sat in the corner, for the occasions when someone hired them for transportation instead of delivery. Mostly it transported broken parts Eva hadn't bothered to sell or scrap.

Leroy stood in the middle of the room, sweat beading on his upper lip, his curly red hair sticking up at odd angles like it had been licked into place. Since she'd found him on the floor covered in cats earlier, that was to be expected.

Eva was almost a half meter shorter than him, and each of his pale, tattooed arms was thick as a steel beam, but he stiffened into the straight-backed pose of a soldier about to get chewed out as she came closer.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"I heard you the last ten times. Relax."

His shoulders hunched. "I thought maybe, just one, for a minute--"

"I know, Leroy. They're hypnotic." And you're prone to suggestion, she added silently. One of many unfortunate side effects of his years as a meat-puppet soldier, being thrown into whatever corporate war needed warm bodies instead of tactical nukes, controlled remotely by people with an eye in the sky and no skin in the game. Other side effects being anxiety, nightmares, and the kind of sudden, extremely violent outbursts that turned an asset into a liability.

Eva knew how those nightmares felt. She was also good at turning liabilities into assets, and Leroy was no exception. He'd been responsible for managing supply chains and tracking inventory when he was deployed, so handling smaller, less-frequent cargo logistics came easily to him.

She dropped the cat into the spacious, climate-controlled shipping container from whence it had escaped. It had food, water, self-cleaning litter boxes, toys, tiny hammocks, raised platforms on which to run or recline--anything a cat could want, or so the person who designed it had thought.

Apparently, what a cat really wanted was freedom.

Eighteen balls of fur sat, or splayed out, or licked their butts, most of them studiously ignoring Eva and Leroy. A few glanced up and blinked languidly, as if they had not been slinking around the ship getting into trouble only minutes earlier.

This was what she got for taking on live cargo. If she weren't doing this for her former captain Tito, and if he weren't paying better than their last four jobs combined... That smiling comemierda hadn't told her the critters were genetically engineered mind-controlling geniuses. It was exactly the kind of casual not-quite-lie that had made her quit his crew seven years earlier, over her father's objections. Given that her father preferred whole-ass lies, and given that he was Tito's boss back then, his opinion had mattered as much as a fart in a hurricane.

Fuck 'em both, she thought, not for the first time.

"Found another one trying to get into a supply cabinet in my med bay." Pink sauntered in holding a kitten to her chest, rubbing its face absently with one dark finger. Her dreads were tucked under a sleep cap, and her eye patch was flipped down to cover her cybernetic eye, while her organic one took in Eva's scruffy condition with a raised brow. "You're looking splendid," she said.

Eva examined her welt-striped arms. "I look like I wrestled a needle-bear."

"Are those real?" Leroy asked.

"No," Pink said.

"Says the lady who hasn't wrestled one," Eva retorted.

Pink rolled her eyes. "I'll clean you up and synthesize you some allergy medicine when I'm done making my hormones. How many cats left?"

"Just one." Leroy paused for dramatic effect. "The leader."

"Cats don't have leaders, honey," Pink said.

"Tell that to... the leader."

Pink may have been right, but Eva knew who Leroy meant. The one who kept busting everyone out was the smallest cat, a calico with mottled brown and black fur with patches of orange, and hazel eyes that looked like they had seen some shit. They probably had. She didn't know what it took to make the kittens more intelligent, but she doubted it was nice.

"Viva la revolución," Eva said. "But not on my ship. Min, can you pinpoint its location?"

No response.

"Min? Can you hear me?" The silence grabbed her stomach and slid it up to her throat.

((Bridge, help,)) her commlink pinged, the limitations of the mind-to-mind communication feature more frustrating than usual at the moment. It was Vakar, who for some reason made the cats nervous. Maybe it was the quennian's pangolin-like skin, or his twitchy face-palp things, or the fact that his smell changed to match his mood. These particular psychic cats probably weren't designed to work with nonhuman people.

"Me cago en la hora que yo nací," she muttered. If the cat had gotten into the bridge, there might be more trouble than lost wages. "Leroy, stay here. Pink, with me."

Pink shook her head. "I'm not leaving Leroy alone with these babies when we're so close to docking." She punctuated this by placing her kitten in the container and closing the lid firmly, then standing next to Leroy, hand on hip.

"Fine. I'm sure Vakar and I can handle one damn cat." Eva stalked out of the cargo bay, back up past the mess and crew quarters and head, past her cabin and the med bay, all the way up to the short hallway that led to the bridge. Min's neural implants--originally meant for controlling repair mechs on her family's solar farm, later used for the bot fights that had earned Min her reputation--let her control and monitor La Sirena Negra from anywhere on the ship, but the pilot still preferred to be near the physical controls. Eva had told Min to ping her if a cat made it inside, and she had assumed the comm silence meant good news.

She should have known better.

Vakar waited outside the door, smelling like tar. Nervous, Eva's scent translators supplied. He had taken off the gloves he normally wore and was trying to dig his four-fingered claws underneath the handle of the emergency door release.

"You know your hands are too big," Eva whispered. "What's the situation?"

"I tried to reason with the cat," he whispered back. "It ran in and the door locked. I managed to bypass the security protocol, but the manual override engaged. I must say, for creatures without prehensile extremities, these cats are remarkably--"

"Later." She gripped the handle and tugged it out, then twisted it clockwise to disengage the dead bolts. Each unlocking pin made a loud grinding sound as it moved.

"When was the last time you lubricated this?" Eva snapped.

"I would have to check my maintenance logs, but I have been rationing lubricant and this was lower priority than other items."

Eva suppressed a joke. Vakar was always so sensible, and it wasn't his fault she'd been denying his requisitions.

"On three, you open the door and I bust in," she whispered. "Ready?"

He shrugged assent.

She moved aside and drew her pistol, loaded with tranq rounds for the occasion. Hopefully she wouldn't need them. Hopefully they weren't strong enough to kill a cat. Hopefully she wouldn't miss and hit something that would blow up the ship.

Hope in one hand and shit in the other, and see which gets full first, she thought. She leaned against the bulkhead next to the door and pinged the countdown silently at Vakar.

On three, he slid the door open and she leaped in, scanning the room with her pistol leading.

Min lay in the pilot's chair, black eyes open, short dyed-blue hair in disarray. Because she was connected to the ship's systems wirelessly, she didn't have to look at the instrument panel in front of her, so her chair was reclined as far back as the small bridge allowed. Where some ships had holographic controls, La Sirena Negra was all old-fashioned buttons and switches and blinking lights less fancy, but cheaper to maintain and not as prone to sudden catastrophic failure. Above that, the display connected to the fore hull cameras was turned on, projecting an image of the dizzying streak of stars passing them as they flew through the red-tinged blackness of space.

Sitting on the instrument panel, pawing at the manual control override, was the calico cat.

It hissed at Eva, hazel eyes flashing. She felt a sudden vertigo, as if the artificial gravity had shifted. Shaking her head to clear it, she leveled her gun at the critter.

"Get down from there, you cabrón revolutionary," she said, "before you break something."

"The little cuddly-poof accidentally blocked my commlink access, Cap." Min spoke through the speakers in the bridge instead of her human mouth, as usual.

Eva snorted. "Accident, sure. You okay?"

"Yeah, comm's almost back up."

"But are you okay?"

"A few bites and scratches in random spots. Nothing Vakar can't fix."

"I meant your-- Never mind." Eva was going to say "real body," but after four years the ship was as much Min's body as the one she'd been born with.

The cat crouched, its butt shaking in the air. Then, in a fluid motion, it jumped onto another part of the panel.

"Idiot," Eva hissed. "Get away from there. You'll jettison everything in the cargo hold."

It raised a paw threateningly.

"You're seriously going to kill all your little cat buddies? Flush them right out into space?"

It hesitated and cocked its head at her.

"Cap," Min said, "you're talking to a cat."

"I believe it can understand us quite well, Min," Vakar said, peering around the edge of the door.

"Right, okay." Eva hunkered down and stared at the cat, face-to-face. "Listen, kitty. I'm taking you to a nice new home somewhere. A café where millions of tourists will come every year to pet you and feed you canned meat. I don't even get to eat canned meat."

The cat's tail lashed back and forth.

"Yeah, I don't know, maybe that's not your idea of a good time." Eva ran a hand through her tangled black hair. "What do you want me to do? Someone is paying me to take you to another planet, and if I don't deliver, I don't get paid. And if I don't get paid, I lose my ship, so pretty please with sugar on top, get in your cabrón crate already, coño!"

The bridge was silent for a moment.

"That did not sound like a compelling argument," Vakar said.

Eva made a disgusted noise and threw her hands in the air. As if in response, the cat leaped onto Min's human lap, where it settled down and began to lick its paw.

"Okay, what the hell," Eva said.

"Ooh, I think it likes me," Min said. She scratched the cat's ears with a pale hand.

"Too bad. Twenty kittens, cash on delivery. We don't get paid for nineteen."

The cat yawned, showing tiny sharp teeth and a throat pink as a guayaba.

"It is arguably cute," Vakar said.

"It broke out of its cage, locked itself in the bridge, and tried to take over the nav systems!"

"Cap, come on. How would it know how to use the nav systems?" Min scratched the cat's chin and made soft cooing noises at it with her human mouth.

"Psychically," Eva said. "Mira, cute or not, I want these sinvergüenzas off my ship as soon as we dock. If that cat isn't in its box in the next--" She glanced at Min. "How far out are we from Letis?"

"We'll hit the nearest Gate in about an hour, then two hours to orbit, plus docking time and customs."

"Madre de dios. I was supposed to call Tito to find out who we're meeting and where." Eva cast one last snarling look at the kitten, which had the gall to wink at her. "I'll be back for you, cat, so don't get comfortable. Vakar, keep an eye on them."

She stalked past Vakar, back straight, fighting the urge to scratch her welted arms until they bled. Could one thing go right for her this cycle?

* * *

"You're shitting me."

Eva sat in the mess room, clenched fists resting on the big oval table in the center. The smirking face of Tito Santiago, patron saint of smug assholes, floated in front of her. His dark, wavy hair was precisely tousled and his brown eyes twinkled with barely suppressed amusement.

"Shit happens, Beni," he said, his holo image crackling slightly. "It's not my fault the buyer went bankrupt."

"Cómetelo. Now I know why you convinced me not to take the usual half up front."

"I'll owe you a favor."

"My ship runs on fuel, not favors."

His smile didn't change, but his eyes narrowed. He was getting annoyed. Back when he was her boss, it had worried her; now it just pissed her off more.

"No es pa tanto," he said. "You can sell the cargo on the black market for triple what the buyer was going to pay."

She ran her finger along a scratch in the table's metal surface. "You know that's not my game anymore. Not to mention the damn things are a righteous pain in the ass."

"You wouldn't know anything about that, I'm sure." He ran a hand through his hair. "Decídete, mi cielo, I haven't got all cycle."

Mierda. It wasn't like she could return the cats as defective, either; the sellers would credit the original buyer. And probably reprogram them, whatever that entailed. Animal protection laws got flexible in certain sectors.

Eva thought of that stupid little ball of fluff curled up on Min's lap and sighed.

"A big favor," she said finally. "An expensive favor."

"Claro que sí, mi vida. You know I'll take care of you."

"You take care of your boyfriend. Me, you just fuck."

He glanced at someone over his shoulder. "Bueno, speaking of boyfriends, te dejo. I'll let you know if any more jobs come in that will fit your... particular preferences. Adiós." The holovid flickered off.

"Particular preferences." Only Tito could make her desire to avoid illegal or unethical work sound perverted. Hell, he'd probably given them the job in the first place because legality shit all over his bottom line.

Why was it so hard to make a living without killing strangers or screwing people over? Seven years of cargo delivery and passenger transport, of building up a reputation from nothing, and what did she have to show for it? A few regular clients, a handful of shell companies under various aliases, and a message box full of unpaid bills.

Eva forced herself to unclench her hands, placing her palms on the table. ((Mess room,)) she pinged to the whole crew. Time to deliver the bad news. Not to mention--

"The fuck am I going to do with twenty cats?" she muttered.

* * *

Everyone sat around the big table in the mess--even Min, who was flying the ship remotely while curled up in a chair, drinking a misugaru shake. Pink munched on a protein bar, her dreadlocks tied back from her face. Leroy leaned forward, hands clasped together under the table in his lap, his hair still a frizz of red and his tattoos programmed to look like barbed wire. Vakar sat on a stool, his double-jointed legs straddling the metal seat, smelling like incense but with a faint undercurrent of something else. Vanilla? Eva couldn't place it, but her translator told her it was anticipation.

Eva stood, bent forward so her palms rested on the table. "Do you want the good news or the bad news?"

A chorus of "Bad news" answered her.

"The bad news is, Tito shafted us, so we're not getting paid."

Pink chewed slowly, pinning Eva with a glare from her visible eye. Leroy groaned and dropped his forehead to the table. Vakar's smell transitioned to cigarette smoke with a hint of fart.

"What's the good news?" Min asked.

"We can do whatever we want with the cargo, and Tito owes us a huge favor."

"Favors are delicious," Pink said. "I ask myself, 'Dr. Jones, what do you want to eat for lunch?' and favors are the first thing--"

"I told him that, but there's nothing we can do to him, and he knows it." She squinted at Pink. "Unless your fancy lawyer brother might be able to help?"

Pink scowled. "He's still up to his nose hairs in our habitat's lawsuit."

"Assholes." The only thing worse than scummy freelancers like Tito was corporations. In Pink's case, a Martian megacorp had encouraged a bunch of idealistic people to take out big loans to set up a habitat on an unclaimed world and do all the hard work of making it self-sustaining, then started shipping tainted seed and faulty tech to sabotage them. Inevitably, the settlers sold off their assets dirt cheap or had them seized to cover their debts, then the corporations rolled in, slapped on a coat of fancy, and resold everything at a huge profit.

Where most people gave up on fighting an impossible enemy, the Jones family got mad. And when they got mad, they got busy.

"What will we do now, Captain?" Vakar asked, interrupting her dour thoughts.

Eva straightened, her hand creeping to the back of her neck to pick at a scab. "Since we're already about to Gate to Letis, I say we dock and see if we can find a cat buyer or pick up a new client. Or both."

"I'll post an ad on the q-net," Min chimed in. That meant she would also steal some time to play a VR game with her friends, but Eva didn't mind. Pretending to shoot and stab imaginary bad guys was much safer than dealing with real ones.

"Use the Gato Tuerto Enterprises q-mail address," Eva said. "And keep an eye on the box in case someone responds while we're there."

"Any chance of shore leave?" Leroy asked, perking up.

"Sure, but take Vakar." She pointed at the quennian with her free hand, still scratching her neck with the other. "Vakar, start making a list of the damage the cats caused so I can send Tito a bill he can wipe his ass with, and pick up anything you need while we're there." She winced as her neck scab gave way to blood. "Anything we can afford, that is. Pink, same for you."

"Aw, that's work, not shore leave," Leroy whined.

"Make it a game. Whoever finds the cheapest rations that don't taste like shit gets to eat them." Her crew wore expressions ranging from dismay to anger. "Any questions?"

"Yeah," Pink said. "Next time I see Tito, how many times can I punch his sweet little face?"

"Once for every cat we still have in our hold." She pursed her lips and squinted. "In fact, if you need me in the next twenty, I'll be beating the shit out of a heavy bag with his picture on it. Dismissed."

The others stood and left, but Vakar lingered. "Would you like company?" he asked.

Eva opened her mouth to accept, then shook her head. "You need to get that parts list together. Next time, though."

"Of course." He stood, his disappointed smell making her feel inexplicably guilty.

"I'll help you with the list," she said. "It will get done faster, and then we can--"

"No, that is all right. I still have the scar from the last time we sparred when you were angry."

She grimaced. "I'm still sorry."

"That was not an admonishment. It was my fault for being careless."

He smelled less distressed, but she flapped a hand at him anyway. "You take aft, I'll take fore. If we finish early, we can hit each other until I feel better. Deal?"

"Terms accepted." He left, humming softly. Another smell snuck in under the others, dark and vaguely fruity. It had started a few months back and it was driving her up the wall. She'd even had the scent translators installed to supplement the rest of her translation suite, but the damn things were still learning.

Well, she'd figure it out eventually. Eva grinned, feeling cheerful despite herself, and got to work.

* * *

The inspection took longer than expected, so they were almost to the Gate before Eva finally crawled out of the last access tunnel and went back to her cabin to change her clothes.

It had been a long time since her every waking moment was spent in a spacesuit. Its impermeable quick-rigid material doubled as armor in a pinch, and the isohelmet that popped into existence with a thought could deflect projectiles and scrub bad air. And, of course, there were the gravboots, perfect for kicking asses when she didn't care what anyone's name was.

She'd just finished pulling on her boots and activating the pressure seals when Min poked her voice in.

"Hey, Cap, you have a call on the emergency frequency."

Eva froze. The only people who knew that frequency were her crew, who were all on the ship, and her family, who had barely spoken to her for years. A tickle of unease slid up her back like phantom fingers.

"Send it in here, and give me privacy," she said, sitting on the lone chair near the closet.

The lights in the room dimmed to allow a better view of the holo image that projected from her closet door. At first, nothing happened, and Eva leaned forward as if she could reach into the transmitter and pull the person through.

Then, a crackle of static appeared, formless and vague. Eva's eyes strained to turn the visual gibberish into a face or a body.

"Captain Eva-Benita Caridad Larsen Alvarez y Coipel de Innocente," a voice said. It sounded gravelly, like it was being modulated.

"Who is this?" Eva demanded. Not many people knew her whole name, and she'd dropped Larsen permanently after her father--

"I am an agent of The Fridge," the voice said. "We have apprehended your sister, Marisleysis Honoria Larsen Alvarez y Coipel de Innocente, and will hold her until her ransom is paid."

The Fridge? The intergalactic crime syndicate? Yeah, right. And she was a secret Martian princess with millions in frozen assets.

"Fuck you," she said. "Prove it." This couldn't be real. It had to be some twisted joke. But they knew her name, the emergency frequency--

The quality of the sound changed, and a blurry image of her sister took the place of the static. "Eva, it's Mari. Please, you have to help me."

She sounded scared, and Mari had never been scared of anything except her wild little sister getting lost or hurt. Eva's stomach shriveled like a freeze-dried fruit.

"They said to tell you something no one else knows but us. Remember when you were eight, and I was eleven, and you climbed into Abuelo's closet and found his gun safe?"

The memory rose in Eva's mind. She'd thought she would be able to crack the code, because she'd seen a holovid where someone did it and it looked so easy.

"You couldn't get it open, and you accidentally pulled the shelf down and everything fell, and you didn't want to get in trouble. I never told anyone, Eva. Never."

Mari had told their mom that Eva was with her the whole time, reading about alien cultures. Abuelo had said something about shoddy construction, fixed the shelf, and forgotten all about it.

Mari always did have her back, even when Eva didn't deserve it.

"I'm not buying this," Eva said, but she was already half-convinced. Only a handful of people knew the frequency they were using. Spoofing someone's identity wasn't impossible, but only her family used their full name--it was shortened on legal documents, and Eva operated under enough aliases to form her own fútbol team. She also doubted Mari would have a reason to randomly drop that story on someone, then for them to concoct a wild plan to use it like this.

Mari's face faded to static and the modulated voice returned. "You may ask one question for proof."

One question. She had to make it good. What was something only Mari would know, something that couldn't be found on the q-net quickly?

"How did you almost die while you were doing your dissertation?" Eva asked.

Mari's face returned, her voice trembling. "The Proarkhe ruins on Jarr. I still have the scar. A cabrón giant spider took a bite out of my leg while I was trying to dig up an impossibly well-preserved metallic container. Mom was so mad, she almost didn't come to my graduation ceremony."

Mierda, mojón y porquería. That was Mari, no doubt.

"Are you all right?" Eva asked, feigning a bravado she hardly felt, but Mari disappeared and the sound changed again.

"Your pilot will be provided with coordinates at which you will meet your assigned handler," the modulated voice said. "You will receive more information when you arrive. If you ever want to see your sister again, you will do exactly as you are instructed. Tell no one, or she will be terminated."

The transmission flickered off. Eva stared at the space behind the projector in disbelief.

Equal parts rage, fear, and determination fought for supremacy inside her. How dare these assholes fuck with her family, her flesh and blood? Especially Mari, sweet Mari, who used to save snails from hot sidewalks because she couldn't stand the thought of someone stepping on them. What if Eva couldn't do what they asked, and they killed her sister? How would she ever face her mother again?

No, she wouldn't let that happen. She'd play their game, bide her time, and figure out some way to free Mari in case honor among thieves turned out to be less applicable to kidnappers.

Min spoke through the speakers. "Cap, someone sent me coordinates for--"

"Set a course."

"But Cap, what about Letis?"

"Forget Letis," she snapped. Then, more calmly than she felt, she added, "Don't worry, it'll be fine. Send those coordinates to my commlink, please?"

Tell no one, the message had instructed. How would they even know? Was that a chance she was willing to take? Not especially. Acid climbed her throat at the thought of lying to her crew. Maybe this was all a setup, and she could blow in, bust heads, and get back to her real problems.

The Fridge was like the chupacabra: everyone knew of someone's cousin's friend's acquaintance whose goat had been sucked dry, but no one really believed it. Secret organizations didn't actually go around kidnapping people and throwing them into cryo, or running illegal labs and asteroid mining operations, or stealing artifacts from ancient civilizations for mysterious evil purposes. Only conspiracy theorists like Leroy believed in that nonsense.

And yet. Her father had warned her about The Fridge years ago, after one of his best clients suddenly sold every spaceship they owned and ran off to casa carajo. They wouldn't tell him why--got extremely nervous when he asked--but he'd looked into it. He'd found people going on mystery vacations or suddenly quitting their jobs, their loved ones liquidating assets or, if they were big shots, throwing their weight behind causes or projects they hadn't previously supported. Some of those people came back from wherever they had disappeared to, only to move away for good after a few cycles. Some stayed gone, and some, well... Not every culture published obituaries. Still, he told Eva, it was more void than substance. It might all be coincidence.

Also, he had told her not to fuck with The Fridge.

She stared at the fish tank on the panel above her bed, her only real luxury, and a reminder of the family she had left behind when she went into the black for good. One fish for every family member: a brilliant green one for her mother, dark red for her father, striped ones for her grandparents on each side, yellow and blue respectively.

And one for her sister, of course. Indigo and black, it tended to hide among the rocks and corals, avoiding the light. Mari, who finished schooling two years early. Mari, the brilliant historian and scientist with the cushy government job studying ancient ruins. Mari, the quiet one, whereas Eva was like their mother, loud and outspoken, quick to laugh but also quick to shout.

But Eva remembered their last big fight: her at twenty-three, thinking she knew everything there was to know about everything since she'd already been in space for five years. Mari telling her to stop being so selfish, to stop letting their father drag her into his line of work, the work that had pushed their mother into leaving the man after a decade of marriage even though it meant raising two young kids on her own. "Think of Mom," Mari had said. "You're breaking her heart." Eva had stood there and let her scream, let her vent, like she was a barnacle and her sister was a wave. She'd even let Mari hit her, once, and then she'd left.

Mari had been right, of course. And here Eva was, trying to do what she'd been told so many years ago, only to have this happen. Mari would see the irony, perhaps, but she wouldn't like it. She'd always thought Eva had it in her to do better, to be better, and Eva had resented the endless pushing.

Still, maybe she could unload the cats, get paid, keep to the straight and narrow path.

And maybe she'd find a café that sold some actual pastelitos de queso. Or a chupacabra.

The Fridge was bad news. She couldn't drag her crew into this, but until her handler gave her instructions, she could only guess at what to expect. What a genteel word for it: "handler." As if she were some famous person who needed a combination supervisor and assistant. Nicer than "master," or "controller," or "overseer." And yet it made her feel like an animal instead of a celebrity.

Maybe those cats had the right idea after all, wanting to escape their cage.

There was a polite knock at the door, and Eva realized she had stood up at some point and taken a fighting stance, hands curled into fists. She forced herself to relax and sent a mental command at the door to open it.

Vakar stood outside, his gloves back on. "I was thinking, are you sure you want me to go with Leroy? I can find anything we need myself, and he can--"

"Never mind," Eva said. "Something came up. We're diverting to..." She checked her commlink. "Station U039F." Even as she finished saying it, she stifled a groan of realization.

"Omicron?" Vakar asked incredulously.

"You've been to worse places. Can you stock up there?"

"Probably. Are you well?" He smelled of incense. Concern.

She met his gray-blue eyes long enough to feel like she'd licked a battery, then looked away.

"I'm fine," she said.

"Are you sure?"

"As the night is long." She didn't feel like sparring anymore, but she plastered on a smile. "Come on, your ass needs kicking and I've got my boots on."

The incense smell strengthened even as he stepped aside to let her take the lead. She thought of her one time in a church, with her abuela, that heady, dizzy sense of something watching her, invisible and dangerous.

Just as she had then, she stared at her feet and prayed.

Copyright © 2019 by Valerie Valdes


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Chilling Effect

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  (2/2/2020)

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