Monday, March 17, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 1

          “We have a ping,” announced Soloth Bash'Soloth, turning away from the navigational console.   “Mass ten-to-the-tenth, reflecting as metallic, trace radiation but no active sources.   It's a ship, dead adrift.”

          This was excellent news. It was too good, in fact.  The crew of the Scape Grace had been running hungry for far too long, looking for a score just like this.  On the outer fringes of an outer-arm system, the most they could hope for would be a debris cloud, or possibly a stray comet carrying rare trace elements.  Otherwise, they could expect a long wait. 

          The Scape Grace had just made it out of the nearby system with its engines intact.  The Zig mining station they tried to raid proved to have hidden defenses. They fled a swarm of surprisingly nimble mining craft with upgraded armament.  The sting from that hornet's nest left the crew irritable and the 'Grace low on supplies.  At least the makeshift fighters were limited to simple thrust systems and could not pursue far beyond their dwarf planetoid base.  Unfortunately, to escape, the 'Grace had been forced to venture far outside of convenient gravity lanes.  Now they would have to skim the edge of the system until they found an unguarded mass point large enough for hyperspace entry.  If that proved impossible, they could expect instead to settle in for the long months of travel to the next system along.  The latter prospect would be easier to bear with scavenged goods in the hold.

          Fortunately, ship's engineer NuRikPo was being kept busy with repairs.  Otherwise, his complaints at being denied his share of the Zig mining tech might have driven the rest of the crew to violence. Soloth would have been last in line.  That was because the Mauraug first mate tended to end fights by disabling all parties involved.  The captain's second held its position securely by enforcement of Dominion as ship's law.  Why it never challenged captain Evgeny Lerner was an open mystery.

          Evgeny turned to Soloth with an appropriately skeptical stare.  The lines in his forehead flattened as he squinted at the nav screen from across the command bridge.  His buzzed-down hairline lowered with his dark brows.  “Sure our scanners aren't still glitched?”  Again, it was safe to risk criticizing their Zig engineer's work when he was out of earshot.

          Soloth shook its black-and-white head, slightly fluffing the glossy fur.  “No, I checked three times before announcing.  There's definitely a ship out there.”

          The captain turned to the other person on the bridge, a second male Human.  “Gleamer, any comm traffic?”

          The younger man pushed back the tail of green hair that curtained half of his head, revealing the gleaming black cybernetic 'ear' linked to the communication systems of the 'Grace.   “Nothing outside of background.  Whatever we've found, it's not broadcasting... not even an automated distress hail.”

          “So, knocked right out or unwilling to call for help,” Evgeny mused.  He pulled up their few reference systems and the news feeds they had scavenged on their last in-system stop.   Nothing came up reported missing in transit.  No battles had raged in the surrounding systems, nothing that might have sent all or part of a ship spiraling outward.  He scrolled back in time, hitting the hole that their last cross-system sprint had left, a period when they had not picked up any news.  How old was this wreck?  For that matter, would it even have been reported?   It might be an unlicensed smuggler or a raider like the 'Grace.  Still, a crew stuck in the fringes, if still alive, would know better than to drift silently unless they had high hopes of repairing their own systems.  Maybe they had called out, until their power failed.

          Evgeny searched without AI assistance.  So far as his crew was concerned, their captain was one of the rare Humans lacking an AI.  This earned him respect from his Maraug second-in-command and few Mauraug crew.  It also earned a measure of pity and underestimation from his Human crewmates.   Both perceptions were useful, but not nearly as useful as having a hidden AI as his trump card.  His secret crewmate, Matilda, lurked in the ship's computer, cached away and watching in case of mutiny attempts.  Of the crew, only Gleamer might spot Matilda's code, and Evgeny suspected the programmer would keep his secret.

          Gleamer himself was separated from his AI, Sid (short for Siddhartha).  The program was technically in 'lockup', confiscated and imprisoned in a network on Alpha Centaurus Prime.  Gleamer had been a naughty young man, spending other citizens' funds, living in their rental properties, and using their travel bookings to run from system to system.  When Evgeny found him, Gleamer was working off his debts in a data mine, writing search code for a Collective operation.  They struck a deal by trading blackmail: Gleamer had found one of Lerner's hidden accounts and the captain had been searching for Gleamer on behalf of a victim unsatisfied by his official punishment. They agreed not to destroy each other, forming an unlikely partnership.   Now, Gleamer kept the 'Grace's accounts well buried and even invested, while Evgeny kept the coder free to pursue his own interests.  One of those projects had paid off well.  Gleamer wrote sub-AIs, programs almost but not quite sentient.   One of them had pulled off a switch with Sid, sneaking the AI into another local (but more accessible) system while taking his place.  Now, Gleamer could at least correspond with his AI remotely, trading packets whenever he picked up a channel to the A.C.P.   Sid kept tabs on one of their accounts and bided its time until the 'Grace could slip in system to pick it up.

          Reaching a decision, the captain opened an intercom channel, hailing the crew.  “We have salvage of questionable origin on scanners.  All crew to stations to wait my orders.  Ticklish, to the bridge.  I don't trust this one yet.”

          "Ticklish", or Tklth, was needed to helm the ship's weapon systems.  The female Vislin was the best person to have watching for hostile movement.   Her species was geared to gauge and react to threats faster than Humans or even Mauraug.  Without an AI shipboard (officially), a Vislin was the next-best option.  With Tklth, they didn't even have to worry about managing the potential for frenzied panic if a situation turned bad.  She was technically 'insane', according to Great Family standards.  Instead of fleeing in terror when stressed, Tklth became aggressive.  Her brood mates had shunned her and she was mocked as 'part Taratumm'.   The ostracism had driven her to criminal activity, but even among renegade Vislin she was considered an aberration.  Her new pack, the crew of the Scape Grace, was at least accepting if alien.   Evgeny had learned the hard way not to openly praise or appreciate “Ticklish's” vicious competence in combat.  She was still touchy about being considered 'insane'.  Still, in a tight spot, she was a devil with knife or blaster.

          “Captain Lerner,” came a responding hail from the engine room, “While all systems are operational, I must remind you that we are not at optimal function.”   That was NuRikPo, on cue.  Evgeny would have been shocked if the engineer hadn't ventured a complaint.  He rolled his eyes nonetheless before responding.

          “Do your best, NuRikPo,” he said with tolerant authority, “We can't pass this one up just because we're a little bruised.”

          “Bruised, limping, concussed... oh, analogies are fun, aren't they?”  The engineer's voice dripped sarcasm, an unfortunately common trait among sentients.  “I hear you. Just don't try anything too strenuous.  Should I get the doctor to make this recommendation official?  Oh, Katy...”

          NuRikPo's voice drifted off as he released the intercom control.  His reference to the ship's doctor, Katy Olu, had been a surprisingly clever joke.  Despite her rather Zig-like name, the doctor loathed NuRikPo, not least for his 'weird' anatomy and tendency to get injured during work.  She also wasn't fond of Zig in general, nor Mauraug, nor Vislin... Evgeny suspected their doctor would hate Tesetsi, Ningyo, Hrotata or Taratumm, also, if there were any around for her to disparage.  That she at least tolerated her own species was good news for her Human patients.  Not that she would give less than her best for any crew member, but it was nice not to have one's bodily systems insulted while they were being repaired.  The doctor was the frequent recipient of, and necessary witness of, first mate bash' Soloth's discipline.  A Mauraug, even one without a mechanically enhanced spine, was quite capable of separating limbs at joints.  Soloth was careful not to attempt anything permanently crippling, but sometimes its 'reminders' put a crew member in quarters for a day or two.

          It was not a group of friendly comrades.  Evgeny Lerner was aware that he was leader of a gang of nasty, criminal sorts.  He led by virtue of Soloth's support and his private knowledge of ship codes, financial accounts, and secret contacts in various systems.  Of course, the codes were necessarily shared with NuRikPo, the financial accounts had been created by Gleamer, and the secret contacts had been, in large part, gained by Katy's diplomacy (including blackmail, sexual or chemical persuasion).  Better to say, then, that only he had all the cards, plus his AI trump if necessary.  It almost seemed like a clever plan to let his senior crew think they each held a knife to the throat of Scape Grace.  It gave them a sense of personal power and a stake in the ship's survival.   In reality, the current arrangements were simple effects of necessity.  Evgeny had parlayed a few strokes of luck, with a few clever plans, into survival and the occasional profit.

          One of those lucky strokes was the loyalty of Soloth bash'Soloth, the Mauraug so nice it named itself, twice. Its name was spit in the eye of its ancestry. It had dominated itself. Humans would call it being 'self-made'. Still, Soloth was as pious an adherent of Dominion as any skunk ape. It was ship law, by virtue of it being the lawgiver. It considered Evgeny the dominant master of this group and enforced his will without hesitation. The senior crew had each tested that relationship at one time or another and been answered with crushing reprimands. The junior crew, the motley mix of desperados that had joined the 'Grace more recently, often still had to be reminded of their place.

          What made the relationship between Human and Mauraug so mysterious was that none of the other crew had been around at its inception.  Both Evgeny and Soloth were survivors of the same catastrophe, the massacre of Locust Colony by Mauraug Apostates.  They had lost not only family, but most of their neighbors as well.  The colony had been separate enclaves of Human and Mauraug colonists each building their own cities on the same planet.  It was an attempt at peaceful co-existence, making it a tempting target for those who would be excluded by such an alliance.   The two juveniles had been outside of their respective cities when orbital bombardments wiped out both settlements.  The attackers had not stayed around to finish their work, fleeing before Collective peacekeepers could respond.  The few Human and Mauraug survivors had cooperated out of necessity for survival until they could be found and rescued.  Outside reports had remarked on the irony: the 'terrorists' had succeeded in forging Human-Mauraug unity.

          Evgeny knew better.  Most of the survivors had accepted help grudgingly, on both sides.   He and Soloth had bonded over their mutual anger at their own societies.  Soloth had renamed itself in disdain for the parent who had chosen to move them to that isolated planet.   Evgeny did not share this familial hatred, but he did have a grudge against the whole colony for their naïveté and against the Collective for leaving them unprotected.  He and Soloth had resolved to trust no one else for their survival.  Gathering up a few survivors that felt similarly, their mixed-species crew overpowered one of the Collective 'recovery' ships sent for their 'rescue'.  To the juveniles, these ships looked more like scavengers, sent to pick over the remains of their homes and loved ones.   They would not be rescued; they would rescue themselves.

          The coup was not bloodless; all those involved knew they would be pursued as criminals.  Still, a Collective salvage ship was a decent prize.  The first conflict in the raiding crew was whether to keep the ship and travel or sell it and split the profits.  Evgeny, Soloth, and two others had been victorious.  Those in favor of selling died or were 'put ashore', sent out in pods toward the nearest orbital station.

          A decade of piracy had aged all of them.  One of those first four, a Human woman named Mikala Turell, had been killed during a ship-to-ship boarding raid.  After that, Evgeny tried to make sure all of another ship's crew was dead before attempting to claim a prize.  His distaste for the Collective had been tempered with time.  His recklessness was reduced, but then his profits had gone down along with the willingness to take risks.  Their acquisition of Gleamer had been a boon, making certain their existing funds remained sufficient to cover expensive black-market parts and refueling.   As much as Evgeny was tiring of a life on the run, there seemed to be no other options.  Trying to return to the central systems of a Collective member would have them pursued and arrested at best, spread across empty space at the worst.   Even individually, most of the crew were known, wanted criminals.  They might not like each other universally, but it was a better life than submitting to the various punishments waiting in their respective societies.

          The third of their original crew would have little to do during this operation.  Luuboh bash' Gaulig, the other surviving Mauraug who had sided with Evgeny and Soloth, somehow kept itself far from hazard at every turn.  It also would not have survived well off of the ship, but for very different reasons than the others.   It was an omega, the lowest member of any group.  It was small for a Mauraug, with shortened limbs.  Among its own species, it might be considered a dwarf, although the altered dimensions made it seem more Human-like.  On the 'Grace, it cooked in the galley and cleaned the latrines, tidied up their bunks and vacuumed the corridors.  Any job dirty enough that no one else wanted it, Luuboh accepted with nauseating gratitude.  Soloth had long since ceased beating it out of frustration.   If it was not such an old and familiar presence, Evgeny might have suspected it as a foreign agent, present everywhere in the ship, indispensable for their comfort, but equally invisible in its ubiquitousness.  Still, his AI, Matilda, had instructions to keep an eye on Luuboh... if for no other reason that Soloth expected any Mauraug that lowly to eventually suffer a psychotic episode.

          Returning to the present, Evgeny ordered a slow approach, hoping to pick up any signs of lurking ambush before they were too close to retreat.   Soloth watched the readouts carefully.  It reported, “We have visual.  There's a Collective registry, 9-5-2-3-Alpha-Freight.  The name is... huh. I don't recognize the characters.”

          Gleamer piped up, getting the same readout, “It's not in any of the listings we have on record.   I can't be sure if it's a forgery, like ours, or a new registry... or in the data hole.  We really need to get our hole filled.  Next port, right?  Maybe Katy can...”

          “That's enough,” Evgeny cut him off.  “Can you translate the name?   That might give us a hit.”

          “No... the script doesn't correspond to any variant in any known Collective culture.  It might be a newcomer to the fold.  I'll set Rikki to work, see if it might be a rebus or something.”   Rikki was Gleamer's literary sub-AI, filling in for the programmer's lack of cultural study.  He might be correct.   The ship's owner might have used a clever puzzle to obscure the ship name.  It wasn't exactly illegal, as long as the registry information was clear.   Evgeny liked the thought that the wreck might have been unregistered, illegal, perhaps a pirate like themselves.   No one would miss a ghost ship; no one would seek reprisal for the death of a rogue.

          Tklth arrived finally on the bridge, slipping smoothly into her modified chair at the weapons console.  Her claws caressed the touchpad that gave her control of their gunnery systems and short-range propulsion.  Her scales were tinted metallic blue, purple, and red, colorful even beyond her native yellow and green patterning, making her look like a snake advertising its poisonous nature.   Her crest swayed slightly as she scanned the record of their approach to the unidentified ship.  From what Evgeny could tell, she would be considered quite attractive among her own species, well-proportioned and clean in eye and claw.  Too bad her aberrant nature made other Vislin flee, even when they might otherwise consider joining her crew/pack.

          Soloth gave the reticulated reptilian back a quick glare and returned to its own readouts.  Gleamer was engrossed in his data, probably viewing something separate from the stimuli his 'ear' translated into sound.  Just as well the ship lacked tactile screens, or their comm officer might try to get a third data stream through his fingertips.

          Still, Gleamer was the first to bring in new information, “I'm hearing a hail, but not from the derelict.  Putting it on speakers.”  With a few keystrokes, he switched the audio feed to the bridge comm outputs.

          “...respond if able.  Repeat, this is the Harauch, Collective registry 0-3-0-6-Beta-Transport.  To Saving Grace, state your intentions.  To the damaged ship, we are en route for rescue, respond if able.”

          “A double prize,” Soloth spoke above the broadcast, “A derelict and a Mauraug transport.”   Its pleasure at the opportunity to commandeer a Mauraug ship was evident.

          If Evgeny had been suspicious of their sudden fortune, the presence of the Mauraug 'rescuer' at least relieved his concerns about the accuracy of their scans.   It identified the other ship as a derelict and also was getting no communications from the vessel.  The Maraug felt safe enough to approach, considering the larger but more distant 'Grace the actual threat.

          Soloth confirmed the new ship's location and trajectory: closing on the derelict from an obtuse angle, not quite opposite the Scape Grace.  It had emerged from within the system, but counter the 'Grace's spinward direction.

          “Continue to close on the derelict,” Evgeny ordered, “Make them race to keep up with us.  Wait until they're committed.”  Tklth and Soloth cooperated to keep them on heading, on a convergent course with the drifting, dead ship.

          Gleamer kept eyes and ears out, updating their awareness of the Mauraug ship's progress.  “They're continuing their hail. It's getting a little more threatening, now.”  He gave a snort of laughter.  “Oh, no, they have guns.”

          Tklth gave an appreciative hiss at the humor.  Her claws ticked against the console in anticipation of the battle to come.  She had been disappointed for over a year; they had not had a real fight in that time.  Their last successful capture had surrendered almost immediately and its crew was permitted to flee in lifeboats.  A few shots of covering fire were all the violence she had been able to perpetrate in their abortive flight from the Zig mining site.  And thanks to the captain's orders, she had not been able to engage in any direct personal combat.  Evgeny suspected that the next time they took shore leave, he would have to pray that the Vislin was not arrested for assault or murder.  If so, he would have to leave her to rot in a brig, presuming she was not shot outright.

          Hopefully, this fight would provide her some release.  Or hopefully not. Every battle was another chance for the 'Grace to be damaged or destroyed.  Another nice clean surrender would be the captain's preference.  It might have been even nicer to just pick up unresisting salvage, but Soloth was right: two for one was convenient.  The worst outcome would be if the transport managed to cripple them first, then flee away to notify Collective peacekeepers.  They would be easy prey at that point. Much as he hated to admit it, it was necessary to strike first.

          “Ticklish, when we're close enough, disarm them.  If they power up to shoot first, dodge and then break them.”

          “Yes, sir,” Tklth breathed, waiting only two more seconds before keying in firing commands.   “Close enough... now.”

          The Scape Grace's main guns spat accelerated subatomic particles in a tight stream across miles of empty space.  The unsuspecting Maraug transport was struck across its bow, the most likely location for any energy weaponry.  If it had rear guns, it would have to turn about before sighting on the 'Grace.

          Even without magnification, the resulting flare of superheated metal and gases was visible through the forward view screens.  Evgeny feared that their gunner had overpowered their attack and destroyed the Harauch entirely.  Then the ball of light elongated, streaked by acceleration at full reverse.

          “The transport is fleeing,” Soloth confirmed.

          “Pursue, full speed,” ordered Evgeny, “Don't let them get to anywhere they can boost away.  Try to take out their engines.”  It was an unnecessary command.  They were each familiar with the process of hamstringing and running down prey.   Hell, the Vislin was probably an old expert since her childhood.  The crew had also worked together and knew their roles with practiced familiarity.   Even the engineer, NuRikPo, had modified the 'Grace to be a better predator, with longer range on her guns and fast short-range acceleration.   Any other engineer allowed on board would know this was a warship, even if it looked like a salvager from the outside.

          “They're not screaming for help,” Gleamer added, “Must have taken out their comm array.”

          “Good,” Evgeny replied.  It was good.  They would have more time to empty out the transport, possibly steering it away if it was repairable.  They would need that time to scavenge two ships before anyone received the transport's initial salvage claim and its report on the derelict's position.

          The 'Grace leapt forward, closing space with the Harauch.   Tklth fired twice, surgically, trying to target the other ship's propulsion without setting its fuel systems alight.  At this distance, her caution was equally for their own safety as much as to avoid destroying the transport.  A fuel explosion would send fragments of Harauch in all directions, possibly through the 'Grace, and the shockwave could send them spinning.

          “Captain...” Soloth spoke slowly, odd in the heat of pursuit, “The derelict... it's powering up.”

          “Whoa, what?” Gleamer sprang into action, bringing up his own readouts, “Oh, look at that.  It is.  It's awake.  It's behind us.  It was sleeping.  Really?  That's nearly suspended animation.  It was dead.”

          “Unless they had an engineering miracle, it's a trap,” Evgeny confirmed with grim satisfaction.   Being right in his suspicions was no comfort.  The dead ship with the untranslatable name also apparently had unfamiliar technology that could mask the output of a functioning engine.  A working ship should at least output a modicum of readable radiation.  Unless his crew was getting sloppy, there had been no such trace to detect.  He could go over the records later to decide if someone was due a reprimand... for now, survival was the first priority.

          “Get us out of here,” he ordered.  Tklth hissed angrily, deprived once again of a kill.  She fired one last strike at the retreating Maraug transport out of spite, then began to reroute targeting to the new threat.  Soloth was already correcting course.  The resulting inertial shift was sharp enough to overcome dampeners and be perceptible as a physical lurch.  Evgeny's inner ear protested.   He wondered how the non-Human species experienced the sensation... or where.  Katy would know.  As much as she protested, she knew her xeno-bio like the Collective med school expellee she was.

          Calls lit up his intercom panel, but Evgeny kept them muted.  Everyone on board would know the fight was turning ugly.  If they were hit, both Katy and NuRikPo would be expecting repair demands for the damage.  The 'militia' would be asking if they should suit up for boarding.  Only Luuboh would sit placidly, as safe as possible deep within the hull, ready to clean up the mess afterward.

          The Scape Grace accelerated smoothly again, tacking away from both the derelict and the transport.  Neither fired on them.

          “The unidentified ship is moving.  It is pursuing us,” announced Soloth.  “The Harauch has slowed.  It is no longer fleeing.”

          Possibly, seeing their attacker spooked and running, the Maraug had decided to risk cutting their engines to reduce the risk of further damage.  Perhaps they even perceived the foreign vessel as a potential ally... or knew it for a confederate.  It depended on how badly the transport had been hurt.   Had they crippled the prey so badly that they had no choice but to take any reprieve?   Or was it turning about to join the pursuit, now that a preplanned trap was sprung?

          If the latter, the decoy had leapt too soon.  With its better, Zig-tuned engines, the 'Grace could easily outrun anything but a fighter, even if the other ship were not also accelerating from a dead stop.  They would be clear in minutes, with plenty of open space to boost to super-light speeds.  That they would be sprinting even further into the extra-solar depths was a drawback they could not currently avoid.
          “The Harauch is changing tack,” Soloth amended, “It is moving at a diagonal, to our flank.  The unidentified is not pursuing directly.  It is aimed on a perpendicular course to the Harauch.”

          Evgeny brought up the display on his own command console.  The three ships were describing a reversed arrow, with the two others splitting away at right angles to the 'Grace's central path.  If they were trying to catch up, this was terrible strategy.  Even if the unidentified ship had engines as advanced as its camouflage technology, it was wasting distance by approaching at an angle.  It could not overtake and backtrack to block the Scape Grace before the pirate disappeared into the higher layers of physics.

          He saw the pattern, seconds too late.  Their maneuver was terrible for two ships pursuing a third; it was ideal for three ships boxing in a fourth.

          “Scan forward!” Evgeny barked, startling the other three. “Something's coming from our fore!”

          “I don't... FRAGGIT!” Gleamer screeched.  Soloth bristled, seeing the same readout simultaneously.  Even Tklth snapped her beak at her screen.  Moments later, Evgeny saw what they were reacting to.

          The star-speckled space in the fore view screen distorted and bent in an unpleasant manner.  Between one painful blink and the next, a vast white object filled the warped area.   It was well ahead of them.  They could slow or dodge, but either maneuver could be countered.  The object was a ship, a very large ship.  Provided it could move at their same speed – and it probably could – it could keep close and hold them in normal space.

          Given the manner of its arrival, the ship had Ningyo folding technology.   It had not arrived from hyperspace, it had jumped from origin to destination without traversing the space in between.  Its white, bulbous appearance also suggested Ningyo influence.

          Gleamer provided some information, “Markings read Collective registry 1-2-3-8-Nu-Capital, Ningyo command ship Black Humor.  Um, yeah, they outclass us a whole lot.”

          “Thank you.  Very helpful.  All right, let's try a reverse toward the wounded transport.   We might be able to hold them hostage long enough to negotiate with the jellyfish.”   Evgeny used an antiquated slur for the Ningyo, his frustration showing as he reached for a desperate plan.  He generally tried not to use any of the old nicknames around his mixed crew.   There was no need to alienate them (ha ha) with bigotry and raise suspicions that he favored Human crew over non-Human.

          If they survived here, he would already have questions to deal with.   They would be lucky to escape undamaged.  Their only hope was that the Ningyo would make a mistake somewhere... or, in their unpredictable way, might choose to negotiate.  If they were under Collective command or just chose to oppose the pirate ship, the Scape Grace would not 'scape at all.

          Evgeny started to consider his personal escape plan.  Matilda could open up his cryogenic escape boat and get him stashed undetectably for now, but he could not launch away, not with another ship so close and watching.  If he went into hiding too soon, he would be powerless to react if they scuttled the 'Grace.  Besides that, he would have to slip away without the bridge crew suspecting his motives.

          It might be necessary to sell out the crew.   Matilda could also wipe the ship's logs.   He could declare himself secondary to Soloth and plead for survival by turning witness.  Few among the crew would pass up the chance to sell out the brutal Mauraug taskmaster, so long as Evgeny did not specifically betray them.  He might regret burning an old ally, but no one else was believable to pin blame on. 

          “They're hailing us, “ Gleamer piped up again.  This was it, the verdict on their survival.

          “Put it on,” Evgeny waved his permission, “Keep pursuit on the transport.”

          A digitally generated voice poured through the speakers.  On-screen, the video feed showed the smooth white carapace of a Ningyo's environmental suit.  Odd.  On their own vessel, the Ningyo might have generated their preferred environmental conditions: extreme pressure and gravitation. They might be more comfortable without their suits.  They also did not need to transmit video.   Evgeny certainly was not reciprocating with a view of his own bridge. No need to be identified if they could avoid it.

          “To the aggressive vessel with false Collective registry: Hello!”  The voice was typically bright and slightly mocking.  The humanoid shape of the Ningyo suit moved in concert with its words, waving cheerfully at the camera.  Its simple ovoid head had only two depressions to suggest eyes and slight extrusions to mark a nose and chin.  It was a starker design than Evgeny had seen depicted in records, slightly disturbing in its blankness.  The figure stood before a black background, as if to emphasize its outlines.

          Evgeny toggled to respond, “Hello, Black Humor. We deny your accusation.  This is the lawfully registered Saving Grace, Collective registry 6-1-0-1-Eta-Salvage.  We are not aggressive.   We were engaged in rescue operations on the freighter there.”

          “We see an operational freighter and a recently damaged transport.  The Mauraug report your vessel firing upon them.  We just assume your registry is forged.  I apologize if incorrect, Gracie.”

          “Negative.  The Mauraug are the aggressors.  They arrived after we began approach to the freighter.  It appeared inactive... we suspect it was a decoy.  The Mauraug disputed our claim and moved to intercept. We fired in self-defense.”

          “We confirm.  The freighter was a decoy.  Captain?  It was our decoy.  The Mauraug ship was our provocation... and also a decoy.”

          That was it, then.  Evgeny took pride that it had taken three ships to set a trap capable of snaring the 'Grace, one of them a command ship capable of instantaneous arrival.  Had the Zig miners managed to give such a detailed report, so quickly, to set up this trap?  Or, had the 'Grace simply fallen prey to a general snare meant for any unscrupulous salvager in this space?  Either possibility seemed improbable.  They had to have run afoul of mischance somewhere.  Either the Zig had found a sympathetic ear close by, or they had just chosen the wrong over-pirated region to scourge, or the Ningyo had a psychic aboard, or something very odd.

          Speaking to the other ship had ruined his chance to foist responsibility off onto Soloth.  They would never believe the voice responding to their questions was the Mauraug, or that it belonged to anyone other than the ship's owner.  The remaining option was escape.  Damn.  He had liked this crew, tired as he might be of the criminal life.

          He had to keep the other ship talking while he laid his plans.  Evgeny started the timer, “I see. What are your terms?”  Turning off the comm, he turned to the crew.  Gleamer was watching him directly, turned to the side with his hands still on the communications screen.  Soloth was hunched over its display, tensed and ready to react if new orders came.  The heavy, bare scar covering its artificial spine was taut and shiny.  Tklth scratched lightly at the edges of her console, itching to go down in a blaze of futility.

          “This looks bad.  I'm going to talk to NuRikPo, see if we can do anything tricky.  I don't trust the intercom; they might overhear.  Gleamer, get ready to wipe our logs.”  Evgeny got up from his seat and started to head to the exit hatch, mentally mapping out his route to the escape boat.

          Soloth turned and fixed him with a vacant stare.  It knew.  They were too familiar with one another.  His first mate knew he was running.  It probably would have done the same if the option were available.  Evgeny was afraid for a moment that Soloth would make an excuse to walk out of the room with him.  The cryo equipment on his boat was only meant for one, and Matilda couldn't mask both of their life signs.  Would Soloth let him go?  Would they have to fight over the last, desperate path to freedom?

          Evgeny was spared this discovery.  The Ningyo responded as he stood.

          “Our terms are generous.  I want to join you,” the Ningyo's posture was open, its arms spread as if offering an embrace.  Despite himself, Evgeny was surprised.  It was typical Ningyo absurdity, contrarian statements which might or might not contain truth.  The dolls seemed to think themselves philosophers.  Some Humans found them funny.  Evgeny did not.  Nonsense cloaked as wisdom was the same in any language.  Whether it was the Ningyo or their apologists claiming that there was method in the madness, Evgeny simply considered them alien.  At best, they concealed nothing of value.  At worst, they had sinister motives behind their blank shells and silly antics.

          The Ningyo had watched Humans, probably manipulated them, for centuries before they were forced to reveal themselves publicly.  The Mauraug had been bullies to Humans, but Evgeny felt more kinship with the pseudo-primates than with the Ningyo.  He certainly had no additional reason to trust this ship full of the pretend humanoids.

          “Join us?  Sorry, we don't need help with this salvage.  Or do you mean you, personally?  Wait, are you commandeering us... as privateers?”

          “You, sir, are a sharp one,” the Ningyo's tone remained obnoxiously jovial, “Yes, I personally wish to join your merry crew.  Daddy needs a new suit.  This one is too big.  Oh, my apologies.   Introductions before business.  I'm Jolly.”

           Of course you are.  The name was as transparent a joke as the Ningyo's intentions were opaque.  So what did they do?  There seemed to be a chance to play along with this game.  That was probably intentional on the Ningyo's part.  What did it really want?  It wasn't their destruction; that could have been accomplished easily.   It might want to forestall a strategy covered in their seeming surrender.  Perhaps the Collective wanted them taken alive.  They could, in fact, provide a wealth of information on corrupt Collective officials, black market sales, smuggling operations, and other shadow operations all across this galaxy.  That was if they chose to be helpful.  With no other options, they might be tempted, individually or as a whole.  Even if they chose not to share their knowledge, there were enough rumors of psychic interrogation to make unwilling compliance a possibility.  Such tactics were supposed to be illegal under Collective law, but laws only extended so far.  Their own continued operations were testament to that.

          Evgeny shrugged mentally and chose to take the offered course a little further, “So you're not going to scrap us... or arrest us... you're just coming on board?”

          “Well, myself, and a couple of friends.  And our very intimidating weapons.  It will get crowded.  One or two of you will probably need to transfer to the freighter over there.  I recommend someone technical.  It's a fascinating ship.”

          The shape of the Ningyo's plan started to form for Evgeny, and he growled privately.  For some reason, the Ningyo wanted cover.  Either the 'Grace or the unnamed freighter would do, but the 'Grace was faster, tougher, better armed and came with a skilled crew.   Provided their new commander could maintain order aboard the appropriated ship, it would provide a unique asset that could not be purchased... not legally.  Even seeking out a crew on the private market would leave traces a decent investigator could follow.  Here, out in the empty fringes, they could conduct business unobserved.  The traces of their communication would dissipate and become nearly irretrievable once they reached inhabited systems.  The only record of the event was within the logs of four ships, three of which the Ningyo controlled.  Shortly, it would be all four.

          There was also the memory of the crew themselves to consider.  Evgeny had no way to determine how moral the Ningyo might be.  Would they keep the crew captive after their goals were met?  Would they simply exterminate every witness?  Or would everyone be free to go their way afterward?

          He decided to ask.  Why not?  “What do we get in exchange?” Evgeny demanded.

          “What you don't get is death, arrest, or a big hole in your ship. Sorry!” The Ningyo had to be deliberately maintaining its infuriatingly cheery tone.  “But there's more! Whoever transfers gets to see the fascinating unidentified tech in the ship over there.” It pointed off and to the side, pinpointing the location of the unnamed freighter relative to the Scape Grace's own aft screens. Ningyo were excellent with spatial perception. “And...,” it continued, “You get adventure, mystery, and maybe a big chest o' gold to haul home, yaharr! That is, them that survive split the booty!”

          Gleamer stifled a snorting laugh. Of course he would find the Ningyo humor amusing.  Evgeny was just aggravated. He was aware of the pirate stereotype of his species' home world.  The Ningyo no doubt were as well, having indulged to excess in the media of old Terra.  Being reminded of that fact as a pretext for shared cultural reference irritated him.  There might be an additional layer of provocation, with the implied romanticization of a lifestyle they both knew was desperate, hazardous, and uncomfortable.  If the Ningyo actually thought they enjoyed piracy, it was an idiot.  If it knew otherwise, it was mocking him.  Either way, it was failing to make friends.

          Then again, it was negotiating from a position of strength.  It didn't have to be friendly, just persuasive enough to keep them from trying to bolt or blow.  Listening to it this long had been necessary but also backed Evgeny into a corner.  Now, he had to give serious consideration to the proposal or be openly perceived as forcing his crew into unnecessary suicide.  The asshole had even sweetened the pot by implying a chance of profit.

          “Fine,” Evgeny finally replied to the Ningyo, “We give.  You get to play pirate.  But I choose who transfers over, and they leave before you arrive.  Who do you have on those other ships?”

          “Wonderful!  No problem with your terms.  You know your people best.  The Maraug ship is actually crewed by Ningyo.  Tricky, yes no?  But here's the best part... nobody is on board the other ship.”

          “What, it's automated?” Evgeny was intrigued despite himself.  The Ningyo had arrived after the freighter came to life.  The Mauraug ship had not sent any command signals to the derelict. That meant that the unnamed vessel was either pre-programmed or had its own auto-pilot to decide when to wake up.  Yet, it had been powered down when they approached... unless it could shield its own power use somehow.  If the Ningyo was not lying outright, there was some sort of unique tech on board that ship.

          “No, there's a crew.  They're just not alive.  It's a ghost ship!”

          “Just... just cut it out.  Nobody is appreciating your jokes.  You want our help, just say what you mean and stop the puppet show.”

          The Ningyo, Jolly, put its hands on its hips and tilted its head to the side. “Ooh. A tough guy. Okay, tough guy, there's just one ghost.  It's the ship.  It's not dead or alive, but it is intelligent.  The whole thing is a foreign AI.  It doesn't even have a registry.  That one's a fake, too.  It's a tattoo, Mister Tough Guy.  When we found it, it didn't have markings.  Then it did.  It's a little lost baby in a big mean galaxy.  We're going to take it home before anybody else notices and kidnaps it.”

          As Evgeny and his crew stood still, consumed by wonder and disbelief, the Ningyo leaned into the screen and pointed its finger at the camera, “And I want you, my nasty vicious piratses, to escort it quietly away.  The big MacGuffin, smuggled past the borders with nobody the wiser.  Are you going to take it?  Are you Human enough to take it?”

          “How do you know I'm Human?” Evgeny had to ask.
          “If you weren't, you wouldn't know what the hell I was talking about,” Jolly replied.

No comments:

Post a Comment