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The Earthrise was always in need of repairs, but Reese fled to the engineering deck when she most particularly wanted to be alone. The cold usually deterred the rest of her crew from following. Not that she left it that cold just to convince them to leave her alone; it was honestly good for the electronics.

"I didn't mean to startle you," Irine said as Reese sat up and rubbed her head.

"You didn't startle me," Reese said, then amended, "Much." She scowled. "Well, don't just stand there, Irine... what is it?"

"I'm afraid there's a call for you," Irine said, chafing her arms.

"I thought I told you not to both—"

"Bother you, yes, I know, but this thing's lighting up so many security alarms on my panel I think it's going to blow up."

Reese eyed her. "Security alarms."

The Harat-Shar girl sniffed, her socked tail curling behind her. "Even the handshake is encrypted. Talk about an obscene amount of money... "

Reese stood, the beads braided into her black hair clicking against her shoulder-blades as she shook them back. She ignored the clenching in the pit of her stomach with difficulty. "I'll take it. Go see how the loading is going."

"Okay," Irine said, and stepped silently on her socked feet toward the lift.

Reese watched her go, then stalked to the fore of the ship. Built in the Terran solar system, the TMS Earthrise's bridge spoke little of the amenities and luxurious waste of space so common to Alliance-built vessels; the human had to wedge herself between a few crates to the forward-facing windows with their communication consoles. As Irine had testified, a real-time comm request flashed on the screen inset on the side wall, the lagged blink of secure traffic.

Not even her curiosity could untie the growing knot in her stomach. Reese could think of few reasons a small-time trader captain might receive such a high priority, highly private signal. She didn't like any of them.

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