really hate Ningyo, captain Evgeny Lerner thought to himself as the current
focus of his hatred blinked out of view.
His counterpart on the Ningyo ship Black
Humor, the ‘amusingly’ named captain Jolly, had given them a truce of half
a Solar hour. During that time, Evgeny
had to select one or more crew members to send over to the “ghost ship”, a
craft of supposedly unknown origins with a currently untranslatable name. Jolly had claimed that the foreign ship was
controlled by an artificial intelligence devised by no culture known to the
Collective. At the same time that
Evgeny sent his hostages away, Jolly and several other Ningyo were to come
aboard Evgeny’s own ship, the Scape Grace. From there, presumably, they would oversee
the escort of the foreign ship to safer space.
Why the Ningyo couldn’t just bluff
or bully their way to wherever they wanted to take the ship was a
mystery. For some reason, the creepy
dolls didn’t want to be associated publicly with this visitor. For that matter, couldn’t they just bend
space with their drives and drop the little lost ship at home? Evgeny spent more of the allotted time
trying to unravel these puzzles than he spent deciding who to exile to the
situation actually made that decision easy for him. Given the AI angle, he might have considered
sending Gleamer, who had some cognitive programming experience. Unfortunately, given the split between ships,
he needed Gleamer on board the ‘Grace
to ensure the possibility of secure communications between himself and the
separated crew. With his familiar tools
at hand, Gleamer should have little trouble keeping the Ningyo from spying on
any private plotting. Instead, the
captain would have to go with second best, ship’s engineer NuRikPo. The Zig should be able to spot and analyze any
novel technology found on board the foreign ship. In fact, the Ningyo had all but invited him
to send an analyst capable of appreciating and exploiting their discovery.
might be one reason for this whole production.
The Ningyo could be placating the unnamed ship – that is to say, its AI –
by making up a story about giving it safe escort. They could claim to be unable to transport it directly. That would buy them time to examine the foreigner
at length. It was just like the Ningyo
to play out a con to its full extent. They probably
were enjoying the process. Plus,
by involving a criminal third party, they kept their own government from being
directly associated. That would be handy
if any patentable discoveries emerged as a result of their proxy’s probing.
second choice for the mission also came down to practical considerations. There was risk involved with entry into any
alien environment. He wanted their
xenobiologist on hand to watch for any potential hazards. That meant their ship’s medic, Katy Olu,
would be accompanying NuRikPo. She would
also be able to handle a little sociological and biological factors research,
trying to decipher what the alien technology could tell them about its
creators. As much as Katy claimed to
loathe non-Humans, her distaste was well-informed by years of study in
best thing about this pairing was just that, their mutual dislike for one
another. With another pair, Evgeny might
have to worry about collusion to hide discoveries or just steal the other ship
and set off on their own. If not
directly cooperating, another dyad might have a dominant member who could cow
their counterpart into going along with a mutiny. Given their currently strained relationship,
Evgeny certainly could not let his first mate, Soloth bash’ Soloth, out of his
sight within a possible escape ship.
Ticklish might be tempted to run amok in several different ways, given
too much freedom. Anyone else, from the
various dozen grunts in the passenger hold to their ship’s “omega”, Luuboh,
would be dead weight if sent aboard the other ship.
Katy and ‘Po… they would neither help nor hinder one another. They might not produce any synergy, but at
least he wouldn’t have to worry about them scheming together. With that cheery thought in mind, Evgeny
notified the others on the bridge – Soloth, Ticklish, and Gleamer – that they
were off the hook. He then excused
himself to travel below decks. This
time, his excuse was legitimate.
first stopped by Katy’s quarters. He did
the medic the courtesy of thumbing her pad-lock, announcing his presence as the
system scanned his thumbprint. The door
scrolled open on an archaic track of ball bearings. Inside, Katy stood rigid, her fists pressed
against her hips. She was definitely not
any prettier when angry. Her carefully
shaped eyebrows were folded into a tense vee and her purple lips were tightened
flat. A sheen of familiar Human
perspiration reflected off her loam-dark skin.
Like Evgeny, she had chosen to crop her hair short for practical
reasons, but instead of his military ruff, she managed to make the buzz cut
look like a model’s stylistic minimalism.
She was dressed similarly to Evgeny as well, but her utilitarian trousers clung where his hung flat, and her button-down work shirt was buttoned slightly lower to accommodate other curves.
had managed to get the issue of attraction to a crewmate of compatible species
and gender out of his system during Katy’s first year aboard. That didn’t mean that he didn’t still
consider her temptingly attractive. Most
Human males did, which was part of her benefit to the Scape Grace. Granted, as a
medic, Katy would still be immensely valuable, but her willingness to open up
her own body had opened up several opportunities for the pirate crew. For those who didn’t find a woman’s
attentions sufficient trade for their cooperation, Katy had also made use of
her command of intoxicants, slow-acting toxins, psychoactives, and sometimes,
just brute psychology. There were other
reasons Evgeny had found her charms waning… something like the same reasons he
didn’t want to sleep with Ticklish.
the Collective had lost a potentially brilliant covert operative when Katy was
dismissed from medical school for unethical conduct. She had taken the reprimand as a challenge to
show them what ‘unethical’ really meant.
Right now, Evgeny suspected he was about to be challenged.
had better be someone bleeding,” Katy began, her apparent joke carrying a
promise that she herself could provide a victim if one was not already
we’re involved in a different type of battle now,” Evgeny approached the
subject while trying not to sound placating.
“We’re pinned between two Ningyo ships, one of them a command vessel,
and a third that seems to be their ally.
It’s apparently from no known culture and abandoned except for some
pilot AI. They’re giving us… actually,
demanding that we send over someone to take a look. Supposedly, that’s our trade for getting the
ship out of Collective space without anyone noticing, or at least without
noticing any Ningyo involvement.”
Katy was probably deliberately avoiding his point.
I’m sending you and ‘Po over to meet their demands.”
no. First, I agreed to fix up crew. I take on other projects only by my
choice. Second, I don’t like that copper
ass. Third, why don’t you send Gleamer
for AI work? That’s none of my interest.”
“Because I’ll need someone over here to
talk to you over there without the Ningyo catching on. Also because it’s not just an AI in a ship,
if we believe the jellyfish. Their
speaker was implying that the ship itself is the body for a unique sort of AI. You can check it out from the perspective of
its builders. You already know the other
reason… ‘Po won’t mind his own vitals without help.”
try to appeal to me by putting down an obvious cripple. You have your plans. That’s great.
What do I get out of risking myself here?”
usual cut of…”
say profits, Lerner. I don’t buy that.”
Evgeny had built up enough genuine anger that he could let the excess leak into
his persuasive banter, “You’ve seen me work, Olu. We will profit from this mess, one way or another. I don’t plan to give the Ningyo what they
want, not without more reward than they’re currently offering. I’m putting you on board that ship to see
what’s worth taking and to find the best way to take it. You won’t be pulling your weight over
here. So rather than letting you take a
vacation while we play cruise ship for our commandeering guests, I want you
where you’ll be useful. Do I make myself
you didn’t even threaten me with the gorilla.
How polite!” Katy had a
point. Several months ago, she had
nursed a broken rib and a black eye earned by defying Evgeny in front of first
mate Soloth. When the captain’s temper
had reached its limit, Soloth had backhanded Katy down a hall into a storage
don’t recall threatening you at all, now or then. Unlike so many here, I’m a reasonable man…
follow my example.”
but I expect a double share of any ‘profits’.”
it. I have no problem with that if it
long do I have?”
enjoy it. I stopped by to tell you
first. ‘Po only gets fifteen.”
what’s he got to pack? He only has one
change of clothes.”
Katy, see you at the shuttle in nineteen.”
parting vulgarity was cut off as Evgeny keyed her door closed, demonstrating
that he could just as easily override her security as submit to it. Hovering between a smile and a grimace, he
followed the corridor to the end of the deck and then laddered down to the
engine levels of the ‘Grace.
the engine level to the aft chambers where NuRikPo held court, Evgeny passed
two of the regular crew, a male and female Human named Burnett and Zenaida,
respectively. They shared the same
surname, Georges, and the same colonial accent, but claimed to be cousins
rather than mates or siblings. Evgeny
did not particularly care what they were, provided they obeyed orders and
performed their jobs well. The two,
olive-skinned and sharp-nosed, were perfect compliments to their Zig overseer,
even dressing in the same utility jumpsuits.
They handled the routine maintenance and repairs for the ‘Grace under NuRikPo’s direction. As their captain passed, Zenaida raised a
hand in greeting, while her counterpart kept his hands on the gauge he was
gluing into place. Both watched Evgeny
warily, aware that any displeasure by their leader could have financial or
physical consequences. Evgeny gave them a
slight nod to reassure them that he was watching them, even if he had no reason for inspection just
visit to NuRikPo was much less trouble than the argument with Katy, in keeping
with the self-proclaimed Zig reputation for efficiency. Evgeny delivered much the same synopsis he
had given Katy. NuRikPo’s response was
to delve directly into the known facts.
They put Gleamer on the comm and the three of them reviewed the data
collected up to that point on the “ghost ship”.
During the exchange, the Zig began arming himself with an arsenal of
tools which he loaded into a rucksack: probes, recorders, cutters, stasis
cylinders for storage, and even his prized transmutation chamber, a bit of
proprietary Zig technology. The engineer
was so opposed to sharing the device that he would not even operate it within
view of another sapient.
After ten minutes, NuRikPo called
halt to the recitation and took the rest of the information on a storage
bead. Katy’s jest was proven true, as
the engineer topped off his baggage with a single spare jumpsuit. Like the one he was already wearing, it was a
rough khaki fabric intended for resistance to a wide spectrum of corrosive
fluids, radiating particles and energies.
Its color was not far from his own skin tone, a pale reddish brown with
an opalescence of silver. Only his wide
eyes offset this relatively drab palette, with gleaming star sapphires for irises. Evgeny often mentally compared
his engineer to the lizards of his childhood home, with their own jeweled eyes
belying dusty camouflage. He had the
right build, too: spindly limbs and a thick torso.
two, captain and engineer, walked together to the shuttle dock at the opposite
side of the upper engine level. En
route, they discussed strategy.
I told Katy, I expect that you’ll be looking for ways to take control of that
ship. Don’t be passive visitors; find
anything we can exploit. We’ll run a
dual comm stream: make basic reports over the standard line and run anything
subversive underneath on Gleamer’s doubletalk encryption.”
captain,” NuRikPo nodded in a courteous bow.
In contrast to Katy’s overt defiance, the Zig was deferential out of
cultural habit and expressed his independence through action. If the engineer felt that an order was
ill-informed, he would simply ignore it and act as he thought best. Since that insubordination had once saved the
lives of everyone on the Scape Grace (when
it turned out that firing the damaged main cannon would in fact fatally irradiate them all), Evgeny tended to turn a
blind eye to all but the most egregious disobedience. In return, ‘Po did him the courtesy of not
making his exemptions public knowledge.
to her if she gives a warning. Despite
appearances, she’s interested in keeping you alive. She’s also going along to interpret. Consider her your Gold Caste counterpart, if
you have to, and trust her to read any cultural cues and handle any social
certainly is specialized properly for Gold Caste, with those…,” NuRikPo
gestured around his chest, his long fingers shaping globes in front of his
grinned. “Fair enough. Okay, let her mammaries be your guide. Just do like you would for me and don’t take
any stupid orders. You’re the primary as
far as physical research. Find whatever
is valuable and go shopping. She’s
already getting double share, so I’ll give you the same incentive… just make
sure to share whatever you bring back. I
find out that you’re holding out, I’ll share that news on general comm.”
he was threatening with the gorilla.
Evgeny briefly wondered how many kilos Soloth massed. Was it 180?
That would be hilarious. That is,
if anyone even knew the old Terran joke about the 800 pound gorilla. The Ningyo might. The hell if he would entertain them, though.
NuRikPo only nodded again. By then, they were at the shuttle dock. An airlock door would cycle them into the
simple teardrop shaped lander. They kept
the shuttle for a wide variety of reasons: an extra escape route, a surface
transport when it wasn’t safe to land the ‘Grace,
and a runabout for towing debris or managing larger external repairs. As such, it was a multitool of various added
devices. The engineer was reaching a
point of diminishing returns on the small craft, as each new system tended to
displace or interfere with existing functions.
As such, its weaponry had been steadily decreased in favor of more constructive
pushed the deadline and arrived thirty seconds late. Evgeny could be certain, because ‘Po insisted
on counting them out and announced the final count when the medic arrived.
“Thirty? That how many centimeters of ileum analogue you want
removed next time you come in with shrapnel?”
Katy scored a point by referencing a mishap where an over-pressurized
autoclave had exploded and sent shards of steel into the Zig’s abdomen. A human most likely would have died from the
trauma, but genetic hardiness worked in the engineer’s favor and he was back to
work a week later.
still maintained that the equipment was at fault, not the operator. He did not deign to reply to Katy’s threat, a
twitch of his fingers the only indication of his aggravation.
he turned to Evgeny. “Captain, ready to
turned, himself, and keyed the unlock code for the shuttle into the airlock
door. Along with other security codes for the Scape Grace, he kept the shuttle under tight control. It was too tempting a lifeboat for anyone
wanting to jump ship, whether to run off with stolen goods (doubly stolen, to
be fair) or sensitive data to sell. The
last thing he needed in a tight situation – like the present – was to leave
anyone a way out. Anyone except himself,
door cycled open and admitted the two passengers to the shuttle dock. Katy carried two hard-shell cases slung over
both shoulders and resting on her hips like saddlebags. She had also strapped on a gun belt. Her favored sidearm, a compressed-gas
minidart gun, rested in its holster. The
belt’s pouches held ‘bullets’ composed of a gas charge and hardened glass
ampoules designed to inject any of a variety of nasty substances into their
target. If Evgeny knew his medic right,
several of those loads were specific to Ningyo biochemistry. Maybe one was Zig-specific. The charges were powerful enough to punch
through many plastics and some thinner metal plates. In a pinch, they could even be fired point
blank to provide a simple kinetic ‘punch’, although that was a fairly crude use
of an elegant assassination tool.
Honestly, it was a testament to their success as a team that half of the
crew wasn’t dead from neurotoxins. It
was still more useful for Katy to leave them alive – even suffer Soloth’s
tender ministrations – than kill them one by one.
same was true for each of them, he supposed.
The threats from Soloth and the Vislin, Tklth, were obviously physical, but
even NuRikPo could gas them through the vents or just strip the oxygen from the
air. Evgeny or Gleamer could selectively
shut down life support throughout the ship.
Hell, even Luuboh could probably tear most of them in half if it had a
mind to… maybe in that berserk meltdown Soloth was always expecting from the
seemingly passive Mauraug runt.
simple fact was that they managed through mutual threat. Anyone starting a final showdown had better
be ready to finish off every single other crewmate, or they would become the
target of a unified strike by every other sapient still interested in working
together. It was much more likely that a
dissident would try to sneak out than shoot it out. As long as they each had something to gain
from staying and too much to lose from leaving, the détente would hold. The only violence would remain nonlethal and
those further happy thoughts, Evgeny watched the inner door cycle back closed, sealing
Katy and NuRikPo inside. They opened the
shuttle door (now unlocked as a consequence of Evgeny’s permissions) and
stepped inside. Most likely, without an
audience, the two would slip into silent synergy, working together to ready the
shuttle for departure.
did not remain to see them off. Instead,
he took the fore ladder and returned to the command level, emerging not far
from the bridge. Crossing the hall, he
returned to the nerve center of the Scape
Grace, finding Gleamer, Tklth, and Soloth still at stations, right where he
had left them.
and ‘Po are aboard the shuttle. Hail the
Black Humor and let them know we’re
ready for the transfer.” Evgeny spoke to
the entire room, not bothering to direct his commands to anyone in
particular. These three knew their
individual duties well enough.
cycled to the new frequency the Ningyo had selected for their ship-to-ship
communications, avoiding the standard Collective spectrum. “Black
Humor acknowledging. Want to say anything,
polite, no. Tell them we’ll leave our
shuttle dock open after our runabout leaves, but they’ll stay in the ‘lock
until I’m sure our people are safely on board the other ship."
craned her crested head around on her flexible neck, looking directly at
Evgeny without turning her chair, “Should we keep them outside until we are sure
they do not plan to attack?”
your enemies close… so that their allies might shoot them by accident. I’d rather have them as our own hostages if
something goes wrong. Until that command
ship leaves, having them aboard keeps us a little safer. That’s presuming Ningyo value one another’s
replied to both the Vislin and its Human captain, “They do, at least enough to
trust that they won’t waste a commander’s life unnecessarily. Still, the stories I’ve heard do indicate
that they will sacrifice themselves in favor of the survival of one another. If we threaten to execute their boarding
crew, ourselves, they might decide to designate a few martyrs.”
not in a strong position here,” Evgeny admitted, “But they have to concede to a
few common-sense measures. I’m going to
toe the line between bowing to their terms and forcing them to prove their
strength. Taking what we can.”
what we can’t, we can,” chimed in Gleamer, not looking away from his display
screens. The doggerel seemed to come out
as a reflex, an automated response triggered by the right cue phrase. Soloth grimaced and flared its nostrils in
disgust, while Tklth ignored the Mauraug and younger Human and remained focused
no, don’t even bother keeping targeting on their shuttle,” Evgeny answered the
Vislin’s unspoken question. “We look
friendly but cautious, like we’re really interested in finding out what they
have planned. Technically, I am
interested, for our own private reasons.
They’re not stupid, though. They’ll
have failsafes. Look sharp and watch for
tricks. The bigger threat isn’t the guns
they’ll be waving around. I’m pretty
sure they have a private reason for dragging us into this escapade. They might be trying to learn something that
they couldn’t get by blasting us into fragments. Let’s not give anything away.”
turned in response to an alarm from its console. “Ningyo shuttle is away. Our shuttle is signaling ready to depart.”
them out. Gleamer, let the Ningyo know to
come on in.”
vacuum’s fine,” Gleamer mumbled, still keying commands in rapid
succession. “Done, done, and done.”
there was a quiet wait, while on view screens, two moving dots transited
between three larger, stationary shapes.
The silvery shuttle from the ‘Grace
moved to intersect the unnamed foreign ship.
The spherical, matte white shuttle from the Black Humor approached the ‘Grace. In the meantime, the remaining ship with the
Maraug name and apparently Ningyo crew, the salvager Harauch, stayed put. It
stood silent and still, a mute observer to the interchange.
Ningyo shuttle arrived first, as the Black
Humor had emerged absurdly close to the ‘Grace
when it appeared from folded space. Soloth
confirmed the shuttle docked and closed the outer doors without prompting from
minutes later, their own shuttle signaled that it had come within unaided
visual range of the “ghost ship”. This
was followed by a curious transmission along the secondary, coded
subchannel. NuRikPo declared that the
ship had “opened its mouth” and they were reluctant to walk inside. This was accompanied by a visual showing what
looked like an elliptical shuttle bay opening in the otherwise smooth hull of
the other ship. Other than its stark
simplicity and perfectly engineered dimensions, nothing appeared odd enough to
explain the Zig’s hesitation.
him to take the invite. If he sees teeth,
he has my permission to run.” Evgeny kept his tone deadpan, refusing the
temptation to sarcasm.
did grin as he sent the response. Tklth
only nodded in agreement. The gunner had
little to do while they were playing friendly.
Evgeny could not fault her for being twitchy.
they’re inside. Ew… he might have a
point. Take a look.” Gleamer threw the visual transmission from
the shuttle onto the main display, where it displaced the tactical view showing
the relative position of their neighboring ships. It showed the ‘shuttle bay’ from the shuttle’s
rear camera. The oval opening went from
a carefully engineered portal to a shrinking orifice as it closed unevenly from
all sides at once. The effect was unpleasantly organic. From the inside, the shuttle’s lights showed
an unbroken dark grey surface where an exit had once been.
ran a hand across his darkly stubbled scalp, “Keep monitoring them. Let’s hope it’ll open up again when they’re
ready to leave. Fortunately, we sent a
surgeon, in case they need to cut it open from the inside.”
sent the message, head bobbing in response to some inaudible signal. For all Evgeny knew, the comm officer might
be ‘hearing’ telemetry data or the compositions of his musical sub-AI, maybe
both at once. As long as he didn’t miss
anything important, the captain allowed the programmer his hobbies.
let’s go greet our ‘guests’. Ticklish, I
know you want to say hello… which is why you’re staying here. I want us ready to react if they do try
something. Your job is to watch for any
sign of attack from either ship. If they do threaten, we
have to respond fast.”
Vislin had indeed turned around in her seat to rise, halting as she was
addressed. She clicked her beak in
frustration but did not argue the point.
Soloth simply stepped forward to join Evgeny as he walked to the bridge’s
two old allies, Human and Mauraug, left the bridge together. This
should be fun, Evgeny thought to himself, going along with a friend I just nearly betrayed to meet with enemies I
have to pretend are friends while I plan how to screw them over. Just another day in the life of a pirate