Evgeny wondered if he should have remained on the shuttle deck. The climb back up to the bridge and then down again had served little purpose. His presence on the bridge had been largely supervisory, a role he could have managed by remote monitoring and ‘comm. He could have then remained to await the Ningyo shuttle’s arrival. Soloth could have managed the rest above-decks, and Evgeny could have avoided his first mate a little longer.
That thought was nonsense on several levels. First, part of the reason he was still captain was personal presence. Nothing important could happen on the Scape Grace without Evgeny’s oversight. The reasons were both practical and psychological. Practical, because he limited crew access to just the ship systems needed for their duties. Psychological, because he wanted to make sure everyone knew whose ship this was and who gave the orders. The moment he started delegating command decisions was the moment he forfeited being captain.
Second, the Ningyo were coming in force: at least three of them, armed. If they – for whatever unpredictable reason – decided to try and overpower the ship or take its captain hostage, Soloth’s presence would significantly improve Evgeny's survival. No matter how much Evgeny might have offended Soloth by his attempt to abandon ship, his Mauraug associate would side with its captain over Ningyo boarders. Soloth’s augmented strength and combat experience might not be the best counter to Ningyo ranged weaponry, but those assets couldn’t hurt. If Evgeny really expected violence, he would have added the Vislin, Tklth, to their complement… but bringing Ticklish, armed, was virtually a guarantee of a violent outcome.
Soloth, at least, had self-control. A damned lot of self-control, today. The imposing simian bulk of it occupied more than half of the corridor next to Evgeny and fit the ladder tubes between decks with little room to spare. If Soloth ever really wanted to thrash its captain, Evgeny would be at serious disadvantage, particularly in these tight quarters. The kind of weaponry he would need to even out that fight would potentially wreck his own ship when fired.
Maybe he was being stupid. It could be that Soloth suspected nothing… now, that was stupid. They knew each other too well not to read those kinds of cues. Maybe Soloth wasn’t even offended. Why not, though? It would certainly sting him if Soloth bailed out on him, personally, let alone abandoning the ship. Hypocritical, no doubt, but still a fair analysis. If Soloth just didn’t care if he ran, then maybe their partnership was wearing thin on one side. Hell, maybe Soloth had decided that its easiest path to dominance over the Scape Grace was if Evgeny left voluntarily. That way, none of the crew would begrudge the Mauraug a bloody coup. It would just be stepping into the abdicated captain’s chair.
Fortunately, this was all the stewing Evgeny had time for before they were at the shuttle door and he was keying in the entry code. Soloth stood aside and back, tactically positioned near the emergency controls. Should the Ningyo come in firing, it could open the outer airlock and vent them to space, trigger the fire suppression systems, or even better, trigger the vacuum suppression systems and seal the whole bay in plastic foam. It could do all of that now, in fact. The shuttle deck was intentionally a dangerous position to hold. The Ningyo were trusting that the threat of their nearby flagship was sufficient to keep their own captain and crew members safe.
Not that total vacuum would necessarily kill the Ningyo inside their suits. Evgeny wouldn’t put it past them to build in safeguards. They already lived in spacesuits to endure any environment favored by ‘low-gravity’, ‘low-pressure’ organisms. A little extra reinforcement for even lower pressure, a little internal atmosphere recycling and pressurized gas for breathing, plus a built-in heating element, and the tinned jellyfish could probably go extra-vehicular for several minutes. For that matter, they might be carrying portable space-fold generators and just teleport off the Scape Grace, maybe back to their own ship, at the first sign of trouble. That seemed unlikely, given the cost of such tech and the hazard involved with using it… but wouldn’t it just be like the Ningyo to take risks for something they considered valuable?
Evgeny could see them now. There were three, stepping down a vaguely scoop shaped ramp extended from the side of their white, bulbous shuttle. The effect was something like a fruit with the peel pulled down from one segment, disgorging insects from its blackened insides. For all Evgeny knew, the design might be practical, artistic, or intentionally perverse in order to offend other sapient sensibilities.
He already felt that the latter was true for the Ningyo suits themselves. Rumor held that there were Ningyo suits built to mimic other sapient species: thick ones with tails and crests for Taratumm, short ones with animatronic ears for Hrotata, even bizarre serpentine and arachnoid ones to pass among species not yet accepted into the Collective. The mid-sized humanoid suits just worked well as an average, equally similar (and thus equally disturbing) to several Collective cultures and many other species of similar dimensions.
These three suits were generally shining white with black joints. Each was of similar height and build. There were individual exceptions. Jolly was familiar, with its deep-set eyes, shallow nose ridge, and missing mouth. Its limbs were carefully sculpted to look thin but not quite thin enough to be absurd.
The second Ningyo had an odd textured effect on its mask’s chin and crown. As it got closer, Evgeny realized what he was seeing: a sculptor’s impression of hair, including a small pointed beard. The shape of the beard suggested lips beneath, curled in a wicked smile, but the eyes were blankly innocent. The overall effect was like looking at a caricature of drunken confusion.
The third Ningyo was a surprise of a different type. A quarter of its mask, the upper front, was black. The color was seamlessly worked into the gleaming material. Blank white eyes stared out from beneath the black faceplate. It had a sharp, beak-like nose. Beneath that nose was a flat, wide mouth with a suggestion of parted lips. Its grin stretched almost to the sides of its head. The last aberration was this Ningyo’s shape: the abdomen of its suit distended slightly, seeming to have inflated and drooped at the front. Evgeny found himself wondering if it were trying to mimic pregnancy or if the bulge had a practical purpose, such as concealing equipment.
They were most definitely armed. The ‘bearded’ Ningyo carried a distortion projector, a nasty application of their culture's technology which could create a short-lived space fold at a controlled distance from its focusing pointer. Pretty much anything that needed its parts all in one place would be rendered inoperable if tagged by the projector’s field… living organisms particularly included. Jolly had another of the devices strapped to its back. The bloated third Ningyo had some sort of melee weapon strapped to one hip, a simple long black cylinder with a handle. No doubt it ignited plasma-hot, or conducted fatal current, or created sonic concussions, or something else destructive to matter and agonizing to a sensory system. A more traditional pneumatic handgun rested in a holster on the same Ningyo’s other hip. Having something non-electronic was a good backup idea. These visitors were not taking any chances. It was nice to be taken seriously as a threat.
With a few remaining reservations and a couple of new ones added, Evgeny nevertheless finished entering the door code and allowed the Ningyo to enter the inner shuttle deck. The three figures strode forward and stopped within a meter of the unarmed Human. Their manner seemed non-threatening; the one with a weapon in hand kept it pointed toward the floor.
Jolly stepped forward, its right hand extended. Evgeny glanced at it, then stared at the blank face of the Ningyo for several seconds more. Eventually, Jolly got the idea and let its hand fall. It shrugged, comically, and gestured to either side as it spoke.
“Captain Lerner, I presume? These are my colleagues: Comus,” here Jolly indicated the bearded, grinning figure, “and Punch.” Its waving hand moved toward the rotund, black-masked Ningyo. “Comus is our cultural relations officer, handling translation, diplomacy, and general communications. Punch is my security officer, handling non-verbal communications.” Jolly craned its neck to the side to ‘look’ around Evgeny. “Your friend there looks like it would get along famously with Punch.”
Evgeny steeled himself to remain neutral while dealing with the deliberately absurd Ningyo. He would neither dignify their jests by playing along, as some Humans did, nor by showing his irritation. Ignoring all provocation seemed the best means of disparaging it.
“I am captain Evgeny Lerner, yes. This is my second in command, Soloth bash’ Soloth. Welcome to the Scape Grace. If you will follow us, I will show you to your quarters.”
“Quarters, captain? We carry our homes in our shells. There is no need to set aside space for our occupation nor to set aside time for our preoccupation. Let us go to your sterncastle and lay in course for our voyage together."
Evgeny was taken aback. He had not even considered that the Ningyo might not want private quarters. Of course they were going to be underfoot and in his face every moment of this trip. Why had he thought they might want a refuge from ship’s operations or a private area to see to their personal needs? It wasn’t as if they required water for washing, or any rations ship’s stores could provide, or perhaps even a bed to stretch out on. As much as the Ningyo had studied and learned to mimic Humans, the relationship did not extend the other way, and Evgeny had little idea what facilities a Ningyo might need for comfort.
“Well, then. We might as well move on to the bridge. All the navigation controls are up there anyway,” Evgeny allowed. He tried to sound noncommittal, as if he had no concerns where the visitors went. He turned on his heel and started for the exit, passing Soloth after a couple of steps.
The Mauraug fell into step beside Evgeny once more, the pair preceding the three Ningyo. The trio walked single-file: Punch first, followed by Jolly, with Comus trailing behind. As they approached the exit door, Evgeny heard steady footsteps approaching, plastic soles slapping against the metal floor.
Turning the corner of an adjoining corridor, the third remaining original crew member of the Scape Grace stepped into view. Luuboh bash’Gaulig was slower than a fully-formed Mauraug might be, but still equaled the rushed walking speed of any Human its own height. If Human, it would have been considered a dwarf. For a Mauraug, its arms and legs were stunted. The differences were obvious when both it and Soloth were in view together, as right then. In comparison to a normally built Mauraug, Luuboh looked thin in the legs and thick in the arms and shorter in both, yet with a normal head and torso.
Next to a Human, Luuboh looked only a bit barrel-chested and big-headed, perhaps with a weightlifter’s build under a heavy fur coat. Otherwise, its appearance and coloration were not bad by Mauraug standards, with an even division of white and black sections and a well-proportioned face. Yet its ‘diminutive’ stature and relative weakness made it a laughingstock even among the genetically unstable Mauraug. A bad eye, a bad leg, even fragile bones could be repaired with sufficient cybernetics. Thanks to technology, most deformities posed no obstacle to physical Domination. Even Soloth, born with a cleft palate and open spinal column, had been repaired to meet and even surpass the physical standards of its race. Luuboh, unfortunately, would have needed all four limbs replaced… not to mention a major psychiatric overhaul.
Its parents, colonists of limited means, had not been able to afford such extensive surgeries and allowed Luuboh to grow up ‘crippled’. Other Mauraug might have been able to overlook such regrettable disadvantages had Luuboh's dominant parent, Gaulig, not also failed the child another way: it let Luuboh grow up believing it would be forever inferior. Worse, its other, subordinate parent encouraged the child to complacently accept this fate. Luuboh never strove to find its own path to Dominion, not even to labor and save up enough to replace its shrunken limbs with more powerful, normal-length prostheses. Unable to counter the abuse from its peers, it had begun to spend more and more time away from Locust Colony. Thus it was that Luuboh, weakest of the weak, survived the slaughter of its parents and those peers, all save Soloth bash’Soloth.
Evgeny and Soloth had accepted Luuboh into their survivors' rebellion partly out of sentiment – it was one of them in spirit – and partly out of practicality. Luuboh knew best how to survive in the wilds of Locust 4, having spent more time than any of them outside of the colony’s enclosure. It was also willing to carry more weight, cook better meals, and build more campsites than anyone else. Unlike any of the other survivors, Luuboh never balked at taking on its duty and someone else’s, too. It even fought hard to steal the ‘Grace, surprising Soloth and the other Mauraug survivors. Once they had departed Locust 4 forever, Luuboh continued in the role of quartermaster and cook. It resided within the intestines of the ship, cleaning and organizing and keeping the rest of the crew fed and equipped.
Now, it walked toward the odd procession crossing its ‘territory’ with something looking strangely like challenge. Luuboh halted in the center of the hallway and waited for Evgeny and Soloth to draw near. Evgeny was expecting a few whispered words, perhaps a question about operations that Luuboh felt necessary to ask immediately.
Instead, as Evgeny neared the Mauraug, Luuboh gave a flat-footed, open-handed bow in the direction of the Ningyo delegation.
“Honored guests, welcome to the Scape Grace,” Luuboh intoned aloud, its bass voice all the more surprising coming from the relatively small Mauraug. “I have prepared your quarters. You will find nutrient dispensers, hopefully correctly calibrated. Please, allow me to escort you. I would ask that you tell me if the accommodations are unacceptable in any way.”
Evgeny was drawing breath to explain its error to Luuboh when Jolly spoke first. “Thank you. You are very kind. We accept your generous offer and would happily accompany you to the provided quarters. Captain, if you will excuse us?”
The first Ningyo, Comus, began to step forward. Evgeny gave ground in confusion, falling to one side of the corridor as Soloth took a step back toward the opposite wall. They exchanged a look between the passing Ningyo. Soloth held a grimace of perplexity. Evgeny was sure his own expression showed his bafflement. Luuboh led the group further down the same hall, toward the stern sections holding engineering. No doubt the necessary accommodations for Ningyo had been worked out by NuRikPo’s pair of Human tinkerers.
As Punch went by, Evgeny turned toward the retreating Jolly. He was only able to call out part of his question: “Why are you…”
Jolly anticipated the rest: “Because it would be rude not to, after being asked so nicely!”
The captain was left behind to steam as Luuboh and the Ningyo delegation departed for their quarters. Soloth waited with him as well. Evgeny’s temper was rapidly approaching a point of imbalance. He decided that he could not manage multiple nuisances at once. It was time to resolve at least one of his many problems.
Facing Soloth, Evgeny sent the question broadside: “What’s going on with you?”
The Mauraug waggled its eyebrows in an expression Humans might mistake for humorous effect, but Evgeny recognized as confusion and distress. “What do you mean?” Its rumbling voice also conveyed genuine uncertainty.
“You haven’t said a thing to me, personally, since this whole mess started. You’re angry. I get that. So let’s have it out. Are you expecting an apology? An explanation?”
“Captain, I’m not sure what you think I’m angry about. I’m unhappy about this situation, certainly. But I don’t see what we could have done to avoid it. It was an effective trap, if heavy-handed and wasteful. If the Ningyo are true to their word, then we end up intact and possibly profit a little, if not in the way we had hoped.”
“You’re really playing dumb? You’re going to make me say it?”
“I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“When it looked like we were going to be attacked… when I started to walk off the bridge to ‘talk to NuRikPo’? I saw you. You looked crushed.”
“Of course I was. The ship was in danger. Its leader had lost courage.”
“Lost courage? I was ready to take the lifeboat and dive for deep space. If you ran like that on me, I’d be personally offended.”
“You should not be. Disappointed, yes. But I am not Dominant here. You are. If you choose to abandon that role, that is your choice. I would grieve for the loss of a leader and the necessity of taking Dominance myself, particularly in a situation with few options. Why should I be offended if you decide that you can no longer serve as captain? If you tried to stay behind after renouncing your authority, I would be offended. If you try to step down to be second in command, I might kill you. But abandoning all you have built would be fair punishment for renouncing your role as its master. I am surprised you do not have more understanding of Dominion, after all this time.”
“Soloth, I don’t think you Mauraug have a single understanding of Dominion, yourselves, after ‘all this time’."
“You are correct. My philosophy is from the Yurkot School, which holds that leaders exist only to serve themselves. To place any constraints or demands upon Dominion, save those required to assert Dominance itself, is to weaken and even deny the truth of pure Dominion. Saying that ‘a leader must do this or that’ is dictating to one’s betters. If a leader cannot lead, they will be removed from Dominance soon enough.”
“You realize that’s circular and contradictory, right?”
“If limited by propositional logic, perhaps, yet the essential truth of the School is proven again and again, in both Mauraug and Human history. Dominant leaders emerge in many ways and fall in many ways. Trying to define the terms under which rule may occur generates false and poor leaders and also false and poor followers. You assert your power in a different way than I do, true?”
“Sure, but there’s arguments for and against us both. Physical beatings only go so far. I only manage as long as the crew is kept separated by their prejudices and specialties. I’d be willing to say there’s a third, better option in there somewhere.”
“I would say no. We use the tools we have, in the circumstances we have, to their greatest effect. What other options are there? This is not a military ship, with the convenience of indoctrination to enforce a shared code of conduct upon those too weak to resist. It is not a hive mind, with the comfort of shared purpose countering any personal desires. This is an outlaw ship, crewed with wildly individual, culturally dissenting, and willingly violent sapients. Our methods of leadership work here, where other methods would not, else we would be replaced and probably dead.”
“I suppose I can see that, but…” Evgeny was interrupted, not rudely but firmly.
“Captain, if anything, you disappoint me in not already recognizing this. You seem to have developed an unpleasant guilt. We should speak more later, but this is not the time for extended discussion.”
Evgeny was still uncertain what he had lost or won in the exchange of words. Soloth did not seem offended, and that was fortunate. Evgeny still felt that he had lost the moral high ground. He had certainly lost some respect in the eyes of his first mate. Being lectured about his adherence to a religion he did not personally share would normally be absurd, but for some reason, he felt embarrassed.
Soloth had that effect sometimes. The Mauraug was more than a brute. For one evidence, it delivered its punishments with selective care and used threats to their maximum advantage. Apparently, underlying that physical aspect was a thoughtful consideration of force and its effects. By comparison, Evgeny felt like the lumbering ape, fumbling his way through one crisis after another.
Evgeny resolved to at least reclaim the semblance of self-respect. He could work on clearing out his personal feelings later. For now, there were interlopers on board his ship. He needed to find out their plans and their capabilities. That was the first step in making those plans change to his own benefit. Overriding the Ningyo’s advantages and asserting his own was the next step. Soloth was right. If Evgeny Lerner could not assert Dominion on his own ship, it wasn’t his anymore.
“Fine. Let’s get back to the bridge. We’ll see if Katy and ‘Po have anything new we can use. The Ning’ can come join us whenever they’re ready to shove off.”
“Very good, captain.”