“We’ve lost contact,” Gleamer greeted them without preamble.
“With…” Evgeny prompted.
Gleamer stared at his captain dully, taking several seconds to focus his thoughts down to one stream. He finally elaborated, “With Katy and NuRikPo. Both the public and coded channels went dead when their exit closed off.”
Evgeny took a moment to consider the meaning of this unpleasant news. “So their 'comms are cut off. Interference? Power loss? Or do we assume their shuttle was boarded or destroyed?”
“Nothing that would take time; the signal cut off exactly when the opening disappeared. If the shuttle was destroyed right then, I think something would leak out. I’m going with interference, maybe even EM spectrum reflection.” Gleamer’s speaking rate increased incrementally as more of his interest was drawn by the problem. “I’ll try some workarounds. If they’re online inside there, ‘Po will figure out that we’re being blocked, too. He might find a way to signal. I’ll keep watching for whatever he schemes up.”
“That ship could have better shielding than we do, if that’s true. It might be up there with the best Great Family energy ablation. That makes me wonder if it deflects high energy beams equally well or if its defense is just meant to block scans. That would be an expensive waste even if it’s just lead lining. Worse, if it’s a higher-end heavy metal,” Evgeny mused.
Soloth resumed its post at the navigation console, having little to contribute to the technical discussion. Not that the Mauraug was any less conversant with engineering physics than captain Lerner. In some categories, it was quite the opposite. However, in this case, Evgeny was filling the role of sounding board well enough that Soloth had no need to involve itself further.
By contrast, Tklth had nothing at all to add. She continued to watch the same readouts as Soloth, but for differing purposes. Her interest was focused on the movements and energy outputs of the two other ships in nearby space: the Ningyo flagship Black Humor and the salvager Harauch, ostensibly Mauraug but actually crewed by Ningyo as well. If either ship showed the slightest hint of aggression, Tklth would be ready to figuratively claw out their throats.
The salvager, she could probably kill. It was already wounded from Tklth’s first attack, showing a carbon-scored gap across its rear flank. Still, her shot might have done less damage than the captain first thought. At the time, Harauch had ceased all communications, and the Scape Grace had assumed that its comm array was burned out. Now that they knew that the Harauch had no reason to call for help – help had been only a space-fold away – its silence was less meaningful. One or more Ningyo might have died from the hull breach on Harauch, but perhaps not. The ship could have a skeleton crew. There was no reason for extra personnel to be anywhere else but the ship’s bridge during combat operations. Tklth might have damaged the other ship’s mobility, but then again, maybe not even that. Other than some sub-light speed maneuvering after the Black Humor showed up, the Harauch had no reason to move further.
The Ningyo flagship was another issue entirely. At this range, armed with the premium fruits of its builders’ native technology plus the second-best produce of several other Collective cultures, the command ship hopelessly outclassed the Scape Grace. The 'Grace was heavily modified, true, but there was only so much space for better engines, shielding, and weaponry, and only so much pillage (credit, or tech itself) available for upgrades. A lone pirate was certainly not going to be in competition with the product of an entire system-spanning culture. The Ningyo might seem to be terrible investors from a galactic economic standpoint, but they spent well on environments: their suits, their habitats, and their ships.
With these realities in mind, Evgeny moved on from unsolvable problems to the merely difficult ones. The Ningyo wanted Scape Grace to lend deniability to their effort to escort the unnamed ship. That meant that Black Humor would have to leave the area before long. At that point, only Harauch and the unnamed ship would remain to oppose Scape Grace. That gave the pirates a chance to reverse the tables and their fortunes. They might even seize the original two prizes that had been dangled before them earlier as bait.
Evgeny voiced his thoughts to break up the uncomfortable silence: “Three Ningyo are currently on board, being settled into ‘quarters’ near engineering. They are sufficiently well-armed to represent a threat by themselves. We have a salvager ship, somewhat damaged, crewed by an unknown but likely minimal number of Ningyo, which will be accompanying us from here to an unknown destination. Since these are Ningyo, they will not be entering hyperspace. More likely, we will be traveling slowly. That means our destination is somewhere nearby. Finally, there is a ship of unknown provenance and uncertain capabilities that we are expected to escort safely to said uncertain destination. Given its properties both observed and stated, this ‘alien’ ship is likely worth a vast amount to the right buyers. Certainly, the Ningyo want to keep it out of sight. So, how do we clear out the obstacles between us and profit? Thoughts?”
Normally, such planning conferences were held only between the captain and first mate Soloth. Gleamer sat still a moment, his silence now due to surprise and genuine engagement. Tklth looked between the two Humans and one Mauraug expectantly. Such as it was, this was her pack. Tklth did not consider herself one of its leaders, but if called upon for input, she would make an effort.
The harlequin-scaled Vislin ventured, “We can go to hyperspace. Cripple the Ningyo here. The other ship will not follow.” She was referring to the well-known but little-understood inability of the Ningyo species to cope with hyperspace travel. Something in their physical or mental makeup reacted especially poorly to the altered physics of hyperspace. Not that other species particularly enjoyed hyperspace jumps, but the symptoms were usually shaken off after a few minutes. When their civilization first tested hyperspace travel, most Ningyo pilots just died. A few survived but were permanently mentally damaged. Even being too close to a hyperspace shift tended to cause the Ningyo severe discomfort. This disability had led their civilization to focus on other forms of interstellar transport, culminating in the invention of their signature space-folding technology. They altered the universe’s fabric because they could not stand being warped and folded themselves.
Evgeny shook his head in response to Tklth’s suggestion. “That just brings us back to the same problem we had before: sneaking up to a safe mass point for a jump out of this system. I suspect that might be the same goal for the unknown ship, with the same challenge we’ve had: not getting seen. If so, and we wait until then, we’ve lost our chance.”
Soloth brought up another concern: “If the unknown ship does not leave, and we jump away, we risk losing track of that ship. Removing the Ningyo here is not worth the loss of our two crew members.”
“Right,” Evgeny agreed, “not to mention losing everything they might learn about that ship. If we can’t snag the ship itself, getting our researchers back is our other opportunity to collect on this wager.”
“So, yeah, lousy idea,” Gleamer snarked, rolling his head toward Tklth. “I think we have to wait and see what Katy and ‘Po can do at their end. Supposedly, the little lost ship is run by an AI. If they can override or overwrite that – or get me access so that I can deliver the code de grace – then that switches the ship from the Ningyo's side to ours. That makes it two against one. If we go after the Harauch first, the other two ships could gang up against us."
“Wait. Wait. Wait.” Tklth snapped out the word in distaste. “My wait is bad; your wait is good? It is all the same wait. Yours does not even promise a definite result. Maybe we can reprogram that ship. Maybe Katy and NuRikPo are dead or captured! Fewer assumptions mean more certain results.”
“Hey, every plan makes assumptions, that’s why they're called plans. At least my plans include the possibility of out-thinking the enemy, rather than just blowing them up.”
“At home, there is a word for hunters who wait too long…"
Soloth spoiled the punch line of Tklth’s retort by stepping forward threateningly. It snorted and huffed a warning clear enough to translate across species. As this also gave it the floor, it was obligated to contribute to the discussion.
“Some waiting is necessary. We need information, either from the Ningyo or from our researchers or both. Once we know our heading and its purpose, we will know how much time and what opportunities remain for action. When we know more about the unknown ship, we can anticipate its capabilities and intentions. I think that ship is limited somehow. If it could leave on its own, it would not need help. It needs something: fuel, materials, a particular position or particular conditions… perhaps it only needs enough data for triangulation. If the Ningyo worked so hard to involve us, there must be reason to suspect the unknown ship would attract attention before it gets what it needs. I wonder whose attention?”
Evgeny chose to respond to the rhetorical question with one of his own: “Collective attention? Freelancers like ourselves? Non-Collective spacefarers? We’re near the edges of familiar space, though not so deep that really foreign travelers should be passing through. Even if the Ningyo know exactly what they’re concerned about, they probably won’t share much with us. I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘Jolly’ keeps most of this mission to himself, just giving us sufficient orders to keep up. We’ll have to work out what they’re not saying based on what they are.”
“I’ve got processes watching the unknown as we speak, compiling any observable evidence and weighing out the probabilities,” Gleamer confirmed. “I’ll put another watcher on the Ningyo here, to listen for any hints they drop. They have patterns if you know what to listen for. It’s like they can’t avoid throwing verbal bread crumbs to see if you’re following.”
“Crumbs you lick up, yes, good.” Tklth rose from her custom contoured seat at the weaponry console. “I have no more clever ideas, captain. May I refresh myself until something actually happens?” She was clearly agitated, though trying to smother her temper in a layer of apathy. The result could rightly be called passive-aggressive.
Seeing Ticklish’s tail tip twitching, Evgeny decided that dismissing the Vislin might be a wise idea. She might have actually added some worthwhile thoughts but was unable to sit patiently and endure Gleamer’s needling. In the interests of peaceful discussion, Evgeny agreed, “Sure, go gnaw something bloody, maybe catch some nest time. I’d rather have you sharp when we get under way.” With a curl of his fingers and wrist, Evgeny waved Tklth toward the exit.
As she bobbed past on her way out, Evgeny picked up Gleamer’s thread: “I’m not sure whether it’s better to play along with the Ningyo here or just cut them out of the equation. As long as they’re on board, armed, they can dictate our actions. They don’t have to tell us anything except what they want done.”
Soloth rebutted as the bridge door clicked shut. “Pretending to accept their terms, at least at first, has several benefits. First, their ship may be waiting for an all-clear signal before pulling away. Second, as Gleamer states, much may be learned even from limited explanations. Giving our ‘guests’ a sense of secure superiority may encourage them to share more. Last, they may have value as living captives: as hostages or informants. The longer we have to observe and maneuver them, the more likely we are to gain an opportunity to disable their advantages.”
“So, a compromise,“ Evgeny judiciously allowed, “We do what they want up until a decision point is reached… an opportunity to catch them less alert or a point past which we lose our options. Of course, this is probably what they’re counting on: that we’ll be curious enough to wait and see what happens. So be it. I’m actually less suspicious if they just make demands; any gifts might be further lures into trouble. Speaking of which, anything new from the foreign ship?”
“Nope,” Gleamer covered his ears with his hands, then moved them to cover his eyes and finally his mouth, “nope and mmffph.”
Evgeny huffed in frustration. “All right, the first thing we ask for out of ‘Jolly’ is an explanation why our people are being cut off. The Ningyo have some kind of communication with that alien ship. If this jamming isn’t deliberate, then they can damned well tell it to stop. If it is, we have one more reason this deal stinks and should be ended quickly… after their flagship leaves, that is.”
Soloth’s hand hovered over a communications console, “I will tell Luuboh to send the Ningyo to the bridge, then?”
Evgeny nodded. “Yes, as much as I liked having them distracted, we need to get a few things resolved.”
Soloth keyed in the general speakers for the engineering deck and spoke, “Luuboh bash’ Gaulig. Bring our visitors to the bridge. The captain requires their input… in private.” It cut the channel, neither waiting for nor expecting a reply. It had no reason to expect that Luuboh would do anything other than obey promptly. If the other Mauraug encountered resistance from the Ningyo, it could honestly appeal to their sympathies. If it could not fulfill Soloth’s orders, Luuboh would be punished. Unless the Ningyo were both petty and cruel, they would at least respond directly rather than balk at being ‘summoned’.
Evgeny sighed inwardly. He and Soloth most definitely had different styles of leadership. Soloth had claimed both were effective in their own way, for their own reasons and within their own settings. That was just as well. Evgeny was genuinely better with the carrot… and if he was driven to the ‘stick’, he would most likely just beat the mule to death and find a better mule. Left to his own morbid musings, Evgeny wondered if he would have to recruit a new medic and engineer, presuming the rest of them survived this voyage.
In the makeshift quarters set aside for the Ningyo, Luuboh had long since finished showing its three guests around and had stepped outside to give them ‘privacy’. Despite seeming outwardly complacent, the Mauraug dwarf was actually quite careful about its duties. It had made certain that listening devices of several types were secreted in multiple locations throughout the room. If the Ningyo actually lowered their guard enough to have any private discussions – even over radio or other EM bands projected by their suits – Luuboh would have a recording available for the captain.
The two had made similar arrangements for the surveillance of the rest of the crew. Luuboh was troubled morally by the distrust implied by the captain’s need for constant vigilance, and its own collaboration with this spying, but could not argue the value of pre-empting any plotters. A potential rebellion, an undercover operative, or just a rogue agent could be dangerous to the stability of the ship’s order. It was less mess to identify and remove one threat than to allow a problem to spread, recruiting a larger portion of the crew into opposition.
Luuboh recognized that it would never be Dominant. But if it was trusted by a leader, valuable to him, and close to his confidence, that conveyed value by association. For all its bluster, Soloth bash ’Soloth never really beat Luuboh hard enough to cause any serious pain. It knew that they both had parts to play in this power structure. It also knew that Luuboh could easily poison it at meals. Luuboh could even poison Soloth’s relationship to captain Lerner with a few edited recordings. In their early conversations, Luuboh had proven to Soloth that it was beyond fear, having already lost everything of worth to a Mauraug. With the taking of the Scape Grace, it had regained a feeling of power it had once abandoned forever. It had chosen its place in the universe, at the side of a truly Dominant leader, and no power would dislodge it. That was true Dominion, as far as Luuboh was concerned. It had mastered itself and its own existence.
Luuboh was aware that Soloth still worked on the captain to reduce his opinion of the other Mauraug. After all, it was privy to any conversations the captain did not hold in his own quarters (which were explicitly off-limits to listening). This politicking was amusing. Unable to directly state the reasons for its distrust, Soloth was forced to paint Luuboh as mentally unstable. Sometimes it tried to raise suspicions that Luuboh was a planted mole, an agent of the Collective or the Dominion just pretending to be a pathetic wretch. These were both tactics that Luuboh could not directly counter without shedding its amiable manner with the captain. Soloth was managing to use what little latitude remained while still pretending to know nothing about Evgeny and Luuboh’s true relationship. Such labyrinthine maneuvers!
So, when Soloth’s orders sounded over the ‘comm, Luuboh was hardly surprised. Even now, they had to play the game. Clearly, the captain felt that whatever he needed to know from the Ningyo was more important than any secrets they might let drop in idle conversation.
It knocked politely on the door it had closed not long before. The panel slid aside to reveal the black, sharp-nosed mask of the one called Punch.
The Ningyo spoke brusquely, “What is it?”
“The captain requests your presence on the bridge for a private discussion. I am ordered to guide you there. If you would, please follow me.”
“We heard the announcement and understood its nuances,” the ‘bearded’ Ningyo, Comus, replied from the room’s far corner. It had just begun to use the nutrient dispensers Luuboh had provided, following an inspection to verify their utility and safety. Luuboh was aware that the actual, organic Ningyo was housed within each suit’s chest cavity, but still had no idea how they accessed external resources. It was disappointed that it would not have opportunity to observe one feeding.
“If so, you understand that I must encourage your compliance.” Luuboh spoke flatly, neither cajoling nor threatening. It suspected that the best way to manipulate the Ningyo was to give as few cues as possible to its true feelings and let the others assume whatever they preferred.
“I understand,” Jolly responded finally, “Fortunately, this matches my own preference. Let us join the captain upon the poop deck and point out the star that sets our course.”
With this assent, Luuboh stepped back out of the doorway. Punch stepped out of the room, followed by Jolly, who was trailed by Comus. Luuboh took the lead of the procession and headed to the fore ladder, returning back along the hallway they had followed to reach the sternward engineering section earlier.
For all its skill at observation, Luuboh had no warning about what waited en route.