Exes and Ohs

T he Sysco Galactic Services Corporation’s headquarters was based at Taurus, a massive, cylinder-shaped space station with thirteen circular modules mounted on a rotating axis. In addition to its docking and storage facilities, the various elevations hosted vital functions, including ship repairs, executive-level operations, logistics, medical, and even a prison section for the incarceration of criminals. Located in the center of the galaxy, the corporation managed over one hundred and twenty freighters. It also controlled 70 percent of the shipping in the galaxy, making it the leading shipper of the seven shipping companies. Led by Empire Shipping, Sysco’s main rival, the six competitors pooled their resources together in an attempt to buy out Sysco and take over the magnificent station.

Gemini, the sultry CEO of Sysco, was as dangerous as she was beautiful. She assumed control of Sysco from her mentor, John Mallory, who had died in a suspicious explosion at Taurus a year ago. Mallory had built Sysco into the shipping leader it was now from a small fleet and took Gemini on as a business partner due to her expertise in handling Special Forces logistics. In doing so, he trained her to run the corporation and deal with the hostile competition that saw her gender as a weakness. Female executives were rare in the shipping business and often the targets of envious and ambitious males. Her success through hardball tactics only increased the pressure she received from others determined to force her out of Sysco. Several attacks recently occurred against her freighters and, although unsuccessful, they were ramping up in frequency. It was only a matter of time before losses were incurred and lives were lost. Once the first successful attack occurred, others would surely escalate their attacks against her ships. In addition, her board members had already resigned due to threats against their lives, leaving Gemini to run the entire operation by herself.

Gemini entered a high-tech conference room, wearing a long black dress and stiletto heels and carrying a small handbag. She sat at an oval glass table and tapped her fingers nervously, eyeing the intercom in front of her. A tall, shapely brunette, Sara, entered the room and stood with arms folded. Lost in her thoughts, Gemini didn’t acknowledge her. Sara remarked, “You look stressed, little sister. Relax.”

After a brief pause, Gemini looked up and countered, “That’s easy for you to say. Tell me you have something I can use.”

Sara smiled confidently and walked around the table toward her sister. She tossed a packet containing ten pills in front of Gemini and suggested, “A drink may be in order, if you get my drift.”

Gemini’s mood improved, and she responded with renewed enthusiasm. “I knew I could count on you, Sara. You always have my back.” She went to the bar and poured two bourbons.

Sara peered about the conference room, impressed with its luxurious finish. Gemini stared back at her, anxious to know what information she had regarding her competitors. “Empire Shipping is recruiting Scrat to disrupt your shipping lanes,” revealed Sara. “They realized that their resources weren’t enough to sustain human mercenary forces against your crews.”

Gemini approached her with a drink in each hand and set the glasses on the table. Sara sat down and took one of them. “Scrat, huh?” Gemini mumbled and swirled the contents of her glass, gazing at her sister. Baffled by her sister’s lax demeanor, Gemini opened the packet and ingested two of the pills, followed by a gulp of bourbon. She grimaced as the bitter taste overwhelmed her. A few seconds later, she grew confident as the effect of the pills took hold. She exhaled with a sigh of relief.

“I thought you were quitting that crap,” remarked Sara.

“Desperate times require desperate measures,” Gemini responded coldly and stowed the remainder of the pills in her handbag.

Sara tapped her glass against Gemini’s in a mock toast. “To Empire’s demise,” she announced.

“To Empire’s demise,” Gemini echoed, and they sipped from their glasses. “Now what else do you have for me?”

Sara gazed into her glass. “Empire blackmailed the other shippers into joining them,” she revealed. “Empire plans to have total control of all shipping operations once they succeed in recruiting the Scrat.”

“Do I have time to deal with this?” Gemini asked uneasily.

“I believe so. Be aware, though, a Scrat command ship is already in place. How it got there, I’m not sure.”

Gemini sipped again from her drink and pondered. Sara knew her sister would come up with something conniving. Gemini always did.

“Years ago, Mike and his partner left a path of destruction on the Scrat planet while taking out their military bases,” Gemini related to Sara. “That was in the Nebula sector, a long way from here. I provided the intelligence and logistics for the job.”

Sara suddenly became concerned. “Do the Scrat know you were involved?” she inquired.

“No, but…” Gemini paused for a moment and then continued. “Perhaps if I contact these Scrat, I can make them a better offer than Empire.”

“They are traders of sorts,” Sara added. “Perhaps you can use that to your advantage.”

“In fact, I think I can make them an offer they won’t refuse,” Gemini remarked giddily. “All I have to do is have it delivered to them, and everything else will fall into place.”

“But who would undertake such a dangerous task?”

Gemini grinned fiendishly and finished her drink. Her confidence grew to arrogance with the increasing effect of the pills. “I know just the person to handle this.”

Sara’s expression suddenly turned sour. “No, Gem, not Mike.”

“Oh, yes,” she replied, grinning deviously. “With his vanity, he will certainly take the assignment just to prove he’s still the best.”

“But what if they recognize him?” Sara asked, concerned for his well-being.

“So what?” Gemini replied arrogantly. “He’ll figure it out. He always does.”

Sara finished her drink and set the glass down. She wasn’t at all happy with Gemini’s plan. “Just because the two of you sucked at marriage, doesn’t mean you should risk his life like this,” she chided. “He’s a good man.”

Gemini glared at her and blurted angrily, “He’s an asshole! Do you know how much he hurt me by leaving?”

Sara was shocked by her reaction. “You were the one screwing around!” she reminded her. “Can you blame him?”

“One damn time!” shouted Gemini. “Besides, if he really loved me, he would have forgiven me.”

Sara stood and remarked condescendingly, “If it were me, I’d have killed you.” She stormed out of the room, upset with her sister’s contempt for her ex-husband.

Gemini was surprised by Sara’s concern for Mike. It still didn’t change her resentment against him for walking out on her three years ago, without even a chance to explain why it had happened. She pressed the button on the intercom and summoned her security officer, Captain Tieg, to the room.

Tieg was in his late twenties with shoulder-length blond hair and blue eyes. Gemini instructed him to contact her ex-husband, Mike Colby, as they briefly discussed her plan to have him deliver terms of a treaty to the Scrat leadership. Tieg was miffed that he couldn’t handle the task for her. Gemini patted him on the back and explained, “This is a very dangerous mission, and I can’t afford to lose you.”

“You underestimate me, ma’am,” Tieg responded in disappointment and left the room.

A woman’s voice sounded over the intercom, informing Gemini that her visitors for the afternoon meeting had arrived. Gemini promptly made another drink. “Sometimes I hate this friggin’ job,” she muttered and chugged the drink. “Where are you when I need you, Michael?” she uttered, disappointed.

As Gemini waited at the head of the table, three men in suits entered the room. She gestured for them to sit. “Well, gentlemen, I hope this is important,” she announced irritably. “I’m a busy woman.”

The men sat motionless, staring at her with stone-cold expressions. She was used to intimidation tactics and knew a few of her own. Unfortunately, she relied on the pills for the courage to use those tactics. On the outside, she appeared tough as nails, but inside, she was terrified. One day, she feared, they would call her bluff, and she would crumble—but not today.

A middle-aged bald man with dark skin, Antwan, stood and leaned over the table on his palms. “I take it you’ve considered our offer,” he remarked.

The second man, Grim, added, “This is our one and only offer. I suggest you think long and hard before you reply.”

Gemini laughed and removed an electronic cigar called a Perfora from her bag. Pressing a button on the side of the metallic stick, she inhaled and blew rings of smoke to amuse herself. The air filled with the scent of cherry as she stared him down.

“Now why would I consider your lame offer?” she responded sarcastically. “After all, Sysco, which is my corporation, in case you forgot, is the leader in this stinking industry.”

Antwan grew impatient. He placed one foot up on the chair and leaned on his knee in a Captain Morgan pose. “Perhaps because your life is in danger, and you could easily be replaced by someone else—someone worthier of the position,” he responded cynically. The men now grew edgy as they waited anxiously for her response. Gemini, annoyed by his disregard for her furniture, pointed to the chair for him to sit. She inhaled again from her Perfora.

Jessup, bearded with long, scraggily hair, became impatient and slammed his fist onto the table. “This corporation was John Mallory’s. You have no right to it!” he challenged her.

Gemini leaned forward, on folded arms now. She responded mockingly. “How dare you come here with demands and accusations? You were the spoiled crack bitch who slept in dumpsters instead of learning the business like I did.”

The others laughed at him, realizing he had no grounds to speak. Jessup was embarrassed that his peers failed to support him. He stood with clenched fists, ready to assault her. Antwan glared at him and commanded with his eyes for Jessup to stifle himself. Jessup reluctantly obeyed.

“John knew better than to waste his time on a loser like you,” Gemini added mockingly. She hoped by taking the offensive against a lesser partner like Jessup that Antwan and Grim would back off.

After a tense moment of silence with the two staring each other down, Antwan interceded. “One way or another, we will have Sysco. You, my dear Gemini, can either work with us or…” He gestured with his hand across his throat. “Well, you get the point.”

“Shove it, Antwan,” she retorted angrily, now showing her emotional side. “Go back to your ghetto satellite and stick to your video games. This is the real world where grown-ups play. Meeting over.”

Gemini pressed the intercom button and informed security that her “guests” were leaving the Executive Level and should be escorted to the main lobby. She stood and waited anxiously for them to leave. The men glared at her, again as an intimidation tactic, as they passed on the way to the door. Jessup was last and remarked arrogantly, “When this is over, you’ll be my whore. I’ll do you like a dog, and I’ll make sure there’s an audience to see you humiliated.”

Gemini touched his cheek affectionately and smiled. Before he could react, she kneed him in the groin and floored him. Jessup cried and shuddered from the pain. Gemini suddenly lost her self-control and kicked him repeatedly before jamming her heel into his eye socket. “Imagine this as skull sex, Jessup,” she shouted, “and I’m using your eye for a vagina!”

The other two men paused at the door, stunned by the turn of events. Antwan requested and then demanded she stop her assault on Jessup. Gemini twisted her heel twice more into the man’s skull and then removed it from his eye socket. Jessup’s screams were heard in the corridor outside the conference room.

Five security guards rushed in, but Gemini gestured for them to stand down. She enjoyed humiliating Jessup and wanted more. Jessup moaned as he covered his ruptured eye with both hands. As Antwan and Grim attempted to remove Jessup from the room, Gemini kicked him once more in the groin and spat on him.

“Just as I thought,” she mocked them. “Just a bunch of overaged punks with no balls! Now get the hell out of my station and don’t ever come back!”

The men exited the room with Antwan staring back at her. “You’re out of time,” he warned. “Now you will pay.”

Gemini approached him and pressed her nose against his. “Screw with me again, and I’ll give you something you won’t ever forget.”

Antwan was concerned by the confidence she exuded and needed to know what she was up to. Forcing a smile to hide his concern, he left the room. The security detail escorted them to the elevator.

When the door closed, Gemini dropped into a chair and cried. The effect of the pills faded as quickly as it started. She feared that over time, she wouldn’t hold up to her competitors, even with pills to back her up. Perhaps, she thought, Mike would finally forgive her and join her. But he’s a stubborn, self-righteous ass, she reminded herself.

Her composure returned, and she wiped the tears from her cheeks. Glancing down at the blood on the floor, she summoned housekeeping to clean and sanitize the area. She hated the monster she had become, but she blamed the men who had left the room for making her that way. If they’d just leave me alone, she told herself, I could be the person I used to be. Maybe then Mike would take me back.

Gemini went to the bar and poured another glass of bourbon. As she sipped, Captain Tieg entered, looking concerned. “What is it?” she asked impatiently.

“We sent your message to Colby, but he hasn’t responded.”

“I’ll handle it,” she remarked curtly.

Tieg approached her and gestured pleadingly with his hands. “It is I who should deliver your terms to the Scrat general, ma’am,” he revealed, disappointed. “I’m your security officer, and I’m responsible for what goes on both in and out of this station.”

Gemini sat down at the table and finished her drink. She wasn’t in the mood to explain herself, but Tieg deserved an answer. He was loyal and trustworthy, just not someone she wanted by her side in a street fight. He was all about rules and protocol, whereas she preferred down-and-dirty when necessary. She shoved the glass across the table, and Tieg dutifully poured her another drink, just another test of his dedication to her.

“I chose Colby so that I can gain credibility with the Scrat,” Gemini explained. “If they accept the offer, I win. If they refuse it, they know they have to deal with Colby. I’m sure they remember what happened last time.”

Tieg handed her the glass and sat across from her. “Will Colby know the risk?” he inquired uneasily, knowing the Scrat would kill him over their history.

“He doesn’t have to,” answered Gemini confidently. “He can get out of these situations better than anybody I know.”

“I understand,” Tieg answered disappointedly. He stood and left the room.

Gemini removed her shoe and eyed the bloodstains on the heel. With disgust, she tossed it at the wall.

In the Stanton District on a poverty-stricken planet called Yord, a dilapidated shuttle glided between soot-covered buildings. Dense fog smothered the decrepit city, making its navigation dangerous. The buzzing of a failing floodlight from an abandoned apartment complex across the street echoed eerily.

The shuttle paused near a six-story warehouse and rose above it before setting down on the rooftop. Mike Colby, dressed in a long trench coat, boots, and boonie hat, exited the rusty shuttle and peered down the side of the building. Armed with a pulse pistol and a six-inch knife on his hip, he climbed down a rainspout to the fourth floor and cautiously stepped onto the ledge.

From an open window, he heard men argue about the fate of an heiress if the ransom wasn’t paid. Mike crept to the window and peeked inside. There were four mercenaries of various races in ragged uniforms, carrying archaic firearms.

A bald, muscular man, Virgil, urged his peers to move their hostage to a different location before they were targeted by corporate security teams. The other men were confident that Hellfire Fuels’ CEO wouldn’t risk the life of his daughter and would surely pay the ransom.

Mike sidled across the ledge to the next window and peered inside. The vague outline of several file cabinets lined the wall of the storeroom. A woman’s sobs caught his attention. She was tied to a chair in the corner with a rag stuffed in her mouth. Mike crept through the window and approached the woman. “Don’t say anything, Zenith,” he whispered. “I’m here to rescue you.”

The young woman went into a rage, shaking her head back and forth while moaning at him. Like a spoiled brat, she had failed to understand the severity of the situation. Rarely are hostages set free after the ransom is paid; she had no idea of the seriousness of her predicament.

“Stop it!” he ordered in a low tone. He couldn’t understand why Zenith would jeopardize the rescue like this. The men heard her moans and rushed to the door. Mike quickly turned one of the file cabinets sideways and shoved it between the door and the wall, blocking the door from opening. The men tried to force their way in but with no success.

Mike took a remote device from his pocket and pressed one of the program keys on it. The shuttle sprang to life on the roof and descended the side of the warehouse with the hatch open. He waited anxiously for the shuttle to position itself outside the window. After several seconds, the shuttle appeared but was too low and far away for them to leap. Frantically, Mike pressed the buttons, but the shuttle still hovered too far for them to reach. “Son of a bitch!” he muttered to himself. He attempted to restart the program but with little success.

Virgil peered out the window and noticed the shuttle. He immediately alerted the others. Two of them used hand tools to disengage the hinges on the door while Virgil aimed his pistol out the window, ready to fire at Mike. There was still no sign of Mike or Zenith. “Get that door open now!” he shouted at the others. “I told you this was a bad idea.”

Mike stood in front of Zenith and instructed her to keep quiet when he removed the rag from her mouth. She grunted and then headbutted him. “How does that feel, loser!” she shouted at him.

Mike staggered back two steps and became red-faced. He yanked Zenith to her feet and slapped her ass. “The next time, it’ll be bare bottom, missy,” he warned.

Zenith considered his words, and her eyes widened as if she had perceived his threat as more of a treat. Mike lifted Zenith’s squirming body over his shoulder and stepped out of the window onto the ledge. Gunshots immediately riddled the ledge by his feet, forcing him to leap right away. The damp surface made for an awkward push off the ledge. Mike slipped, and the two of them tumbled awkwardly through the hatchway of the shuttle with Mike facedown on the floor and Zenith between him and the hatch.

Pulse fire peppered the top of the ship but only left dull indentations on the outer hull. Two of the mercenaries lifted a small safe to the windowsill and shoved it out. The safe landed on the rear of the shuttle with a loud crash, causing it to lurch. The ship tilted, and Zenith rolled out the open hatch. Mike dove and caught her legs as she hung precariously out of the ship. Dragging her back inside, he closed the hatch and hurried to the controls.

The men watched in horror as Mike and Zenith escaped in the shuttle. Virgil appeared again at the window with a high-powered rifle and targeted the shuttle. Before the shuttle could disappear into the fog, a round from Virgil’s rifle ripped a hole at the top of the shuttle and damaged the leveling device just over Mike’s left shoulder. He jumped at the near miss and breathed a sigh of relief.

Once out of sight, Mike placed the shuttle on autopilot. Without the leveling device, the shuttle teetered repeatedly. The transmitter beeped twice, and the monitor displayed an incoming message: Sysco Galactic—respond. He ignored it.

Mike helped Zenith to her feet. Her jeans were soaked with urine, and her eyes were teary. He removed the rag from her mouth and untied her. Zenith shuddered from her near fall from the shuttle and said nothing. Mike tossed her a set of scrubs from his locker. “Put these on,” he ordered. “Your dad can’t see you like this.”

“Thank you,” she piped. “You saved my life.”

Mike was surprised by her change of heart. He took his seat and piloted the shuttle away from the Stanton District. Zenith took a seat next to him, now wearing his scrubs. Looking tired, her hair hadn’t been washed in days and her eyes were sullen. She confessed that she hadn’t taken her kidnapping seriously, knowing her father would pay and that this was just a minor inconvenience in his life. Her near fall made her realize the peril she was really in. Twice more, the transmitter beeped, annoying Mike. It was Sysco Galactic again.

“Shouldn’t you answer that?” Zenith inquired.

“No, it’s my ex,” he mumbled. “I’m not in the mood to deal with her right now.”

Mike stopped for shuttle repairs at a depot thirty miles from the Stanton District. The repair to the bullet hole was necessary for hull integrity before they could make the trip back to Hellfire Fuels on Sigma-3, a small industrial planet. He and Zenith sat in a crude cafeteria and shared lunch while getting acquainted.

Zenith questioned Mike about his solitary life as a mercenary and his coolness under pressure. Mike then probed into Zenith’s poor attitude and violent nature. She revealed her frustration and disappointment in men who only sought her father’s money and approval. They weren’t dating her; they were dating him through her. Mike advised her to be patient. Her man will show one day. She eyed him, thinking that maybe he could be the one.

When they finished lunch, the two of them entered the service bay and inspected the shuttle’s hull. The technician finished pressure-testing the shuttle and signed off on the repairs. Once inside the shuttle, Mike and Zenith took their seats and prepared to depart. Zenith gazed at Mike until she finally caught his attention. “What’s wrong?” he asked uneasily.

“Are you still going to spank me bare-bottomed?” she countered coyly. “I wouldn’t mind, you know.”

Mike chuckled and politely declined her offer. Zenith then inquired if she could join him as his crew member. Again, Mike politely declined. Disappointed, Zenith rested her head against the side of the shuttle and slept the rest of the way to Sigma-3.

When they reached Hellfire Fuels’ headquarters, Zenith’s father, Dax, waited anxiously to greet them. He invited Mike to his suite for drinks and praised him for his perseverance with Zenith. Then to Mike’s surprise, he offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to him. From the other room, Zenith shouted, “Stop it, Father! I’ll handle my own business, thank you.”

“Zee, shut your damn mouth before I shut it for you,” shouted Dax. He rubbed his temples, a sign of frustration over his daughter’s behavior. He turned his attention back to Mike. “You’re just the kind of man she needs to keep her in line,” Dax insisted. “She has a little bit of a problem with authority.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I couldn’t do that,” Mike explained apologetically. “I was already in one marriage with a woman just like your daughter.”

“How long did that last?” Dax asked curiously.

“Oh, about a year. I caught her with another man because she had ‘needs.’”

Dax laughed hysterically and then inquired, “Whatever happened to her?”

“I divorced her, and she went on to become the CEO of Sysco.”

Dax’s laughter ceased, and he grew serious. “You’re talking about Gemini?” he asked curiously.

Mike sipped from his drink and responded sadly, “Yes, I am.” Dax assured him of an opening with his corporate security if he ever changed his mind. Mike briefly considered but realized that would be a bad idea. Dax would likely be interested in corporate secrets in Sysco, and Mike wasn’t about to become a spy for him.

They shook hands, and Mike departed. Dax sat at his desk and pondered Mike’s relationship with Gemini until Zenith barged into the room. Dressed in a halter top and shorts, her hair was tied back in a ponytail, and she looked frantic. “Where is Mike? Did he leave?” she asked anxiously.

“I’m afraid so,” replied Dax. “We’ll see him again, I’m sure.”

“We’d better, for your sake,” she shouted and stormed off.

After a moment to consider his daughter’s unexpected interest in Mike, he summoned his financial officer. Jim Sykes, an older man with thin gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses, entered the room with a clipboard and notepad.

Dax discussed the advantages of a merger with Sysco and how to make a palatable offer to Gemini. Sykes took several notes and assured him that they could obtain some leverage in a potential deal if required. The meeting concluded, and Sykes departed. Dax leaned back, smiling as he considered a beautiful future with Gemini and the potential of their two corporations in a merger. Even better, a relationship between Mike and Zenith would remove a major distraction from his plans.