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 foreign ship.
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.
That 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.
Evgeny’s 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 comparative disciplines.
The 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.
But 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.
He 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.
Evgeny 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.
Still, 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.
“There 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 available.
“No, 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.”
“So?” Katy was probably deliberately avoiding his point.
“So I’m sending you and ‘Po over to meet their demands.”
“Oh, 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.”
“Don’t 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?”
“The usual cut of…”
“Don’t say profits, Lerner. I don’t buy that.”
Now 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 clear?”
“Wow, 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 room.
“I don’t recall threatening you at all, now or then. Unlike so many here, I’m a reasonable man… follow my example.”
“Fine, but I expect a double share of any ‘profits’.”
“Earn it. I have no problem with that if it looks fair.”
“How long do I have?”
“Hey, enjoy it. I stopped by to tell you first. ‘Po only gets fifteen.”
“Oh, what’s he got to pack? He only has one change of clothes.”
“Bye, Katy, see you at the shuttle in nineteen.”
Katy’s 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.
Crossing 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 now
The 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.
The two, captain and engineer, walked together to the shuttle dock at the opposite side of the upper engine level. En route, they discussed strategy.
“As 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.”
“Noted, 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.
“Listen 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 interaction.”
“She certainly is specialized properly for Gold Caste, with those…,” NuRikPo gestured around his chest, his long fingers shaping globes in front of his pectoral area.
Evgeny 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.”
Yes, 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 appendages.
Katy 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.
NuRikPo 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.
Instead, he turned to Evgeny. “Captain, ready to depart.”
Evgeny 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, of course.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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 usually verbal.
With 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.
Evgeny 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.
“Katy 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.
Gleamer 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, captain?”
“Nothing 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."
Tklth 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?”
“Keep 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 lives.”
Soloth 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.”
“We’re 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.”
“And 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 on Evgeny.
“So, 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.”
Soloth turned in response to an alarm from its console. “Ningyo shuttle is away. Our shuttle is signaling ready to depart.”
“Send them out. Gleamer, let the Ningyo know to come on in.”
“The vacuum’s fine,” Gleamer mumbled, still keying commands in rapid succession. “Done, done, and done.”
Then 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.
The 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 Evgeny.
Ten 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.
“Tell 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.
Gleamer 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.
“Okay, 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.
Evgeny 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.”
Gleamer 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.
“Soloth, 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.”
The 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 exit hatch.
The 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 captain.