Tklth held herself tightly pressed against the walls of the overhead crawlspace. Her shape was obscured by a ventilator grating, which provided just enough visibility to observe the hallway below. Her legs ached terribly. Her toe-claws threatened to pull loose from their beds. Only the determination and patience of her predatory heritage enabled the waiting Vislin to silently maintain her position. This task was made more difficult by the need to keep one hand on the plasma thrower she had retrieved on her way from the bridge.
It was almost time to act. Against a single target, possibly even two, her plan had a very high probability of success. Three Ningyo of unknown skill and armament posed a challenge. The cramped conditions worked in her favor. If she attacked from the rear of their formation, the lead Ningyo would be blocked from responding right away. Luuboh would probably flee. That would at least provide a distraction. If the pathetic Mauraug took unexpected initiative and engaged the lead Ningyo, its assistance would greatly improve Tklth’s chances. She couldn’t count on help, though. Only her own cunning and reflexes could be trusted.
Planning was stupid. The captain and first mate and that chattering half computer atrocity could talk all day and accomplish nothing. They needed the sharp beak of a Vislin to cut through tangled plots. The occupying Ningyo must be removed, otherwise every step they dictated would wrap the Scape Grace tighter into their snare.
The necessary moment of tension passed, and Tklth leapt into action with a surge of joyous relief. She fired directly through the vent cover, targeting the rearmost of the Ningyo. A bolt of superheated matter, plasma conducted by a carrier of ‘cooler’ gas, flashed from the muzzle of her thrower and through the Ningyo’s suit. Familiar with the vulnerability of that species, Tklth had targeted the suit’s midsection. The bolt punched a clean, glowing hole through the center mass of the Ningyo suit, breaking its integrity. The living creature resident within was explosively decompressed. It expanded grotesquely through the breach before bursting in a multi-toned greyish mess over the walls and floor of the hallway.
Tklth did not wait to see the reaction to her fatal shot. She released her grip on the crawlspace walls and dropped heavily downward, bending and breaking through the vent grating as she fell. She landed hard on the floor of the hallway. The well-prepared Vislin was already running forward as she hit the ground. She cleared the short space to the next Ningyo in two hops.
As she did, she registered the identity of her second target. It was the Ningyo captain, Jolly, the one they had seen on the view screen earlier. Perfect. Perhaps the last of the three boarders would hesitate or even surrender if she took their leader hostage. Tklth also noted that, as she had expected, Luuboh was running away from danger. That was just as well. If the Mauraug could not help, it could at least get out of harm’s way. Tklth would normally have no concern about accidentally incinerating her pack’s omega, but the captain might be unhappy to lose his cook.
The plasma thrower’s greatest flaw was the recharge time it required to heat up between shots. That was a tradeoff for its excellent penetrative force. Really, in a ranged combat, two seconds’ wait was well worth being able to fire through cover. Here, though, it meant that Tklth had to get cover for herself before she could fire a second time. There were no openings to either side. That meant her cover was her target.
Tklth jumped and grappled Jolly, hooking one fore claw into its neck joint and the other into the wrist of its right arm. The plasma thrower was trapped between them, hanging from a strap around Tklth’s neck. Her toes anchored her to the rubberized decking. The material was slick with the remains of the dead Ningyo but was engineered to provide grip even if coated in silicone lubricants. The Ningyo were comprised of similar substances, though somewhat more volatile. Tklth’s bare feet itched where the ichor had smeared.
Her pin prevented Jolly from reaching the weapon strapped to its back. It was also prevented from turning in place to present Tklth as a clearer target for its ally. It struggled, but the mechanisms of the Ningyo suits were built for Human scale and strength. Against a well-trained and well-exercised Vislin, such constructs were unable to break free. This particular victim didn’t even seem combat trained. It writhed ineffectually, wasting time and effort by pushing in directions Tklth was already resisting. It did not even try the most basic techniques for evading a claw hold… not that those would succeed, either. Tklth was ready to react to most evasive strategies.
The main problem was that she had to keep holding the Ningyo or release it to fire again. Against a less armored victim, Tklth would have just kicked out its entrails and moved on to shoot the third target. Ningyo were entirely unsatisfying to claw or bite: not only hard-shelled but unpalatable inside. Those fluids were really starting to sting her feet now. She would have to wash down thoroughly after this slaughter.
In reaction to Tklth’s appearance, the black-masked Ningyo had originally drawn its gun. Now, unable to fire without hitting its fellow, it smoothly holstered that weapon and drew its baton. Depressing a stud set into the device’s handle, the Ningyo caused the black cylinder to hum loudly. The air around its upper portion began to shimmer and arcs of electrical discharge ran its length.
A stun baton of some type. That was clever. Tklth recognized that the device would wreak havoc on the nervous systems of most organic life. Whether it would affect a Ningyo inside its suit was an open question. She could withstand one or two blows from such a weapon but would weaken greatly with each hit. There were two questions: would this Ningyo get a chance to land any such attacks? And if it did, would the stun baton harm another Ningyo as much as a Vislin?
Tklth decided to test both hanging questions. Planting her rear foot, she shoved hard against the captive Jolly, sending them both flying toward the armed Ningyo. That target stepped backward, belatedly, and was clipped by its leader’s body. Unfortunately for Tklth, it proved to be a far more skilled warrior than Jolly. It kept the stun baton raised and away, avoiding collision with the other Ningyo. Then, letting both Jolly and Tklth fall flat, it took advantage of the opening to strike down against the Vislin’s back.
Tklth was hit squarely at the base of her spine, at the junction of her tail. The pain was unbelievable. Her bowels and ovipositors clenched in spasmodic agony and her tail lashed hard enough to tear its joining ligaments. Her fingers flexed and claws released the suit of the Ningyo beneath her. Even her beak clacked spasmodically and her breath came in tortured gasps.
Tklth summoned enough composure to roll away from the horrible baton. She came to her feet, weak and shaking, on the opposite side of the hall, diagonally across from her attacker. The prone body of Jolly lay on its back between them. Wary now, Tklth circled around, reaching for her own weapon. The Ningyo gave her little time to aim. It jumped forward, swinging the baton in a diagonal arc toward Tklth’s forearms, forcing her to pull away. The blow missed but prevented her from lining up a shot.
The same was not true for Jolly. On its back, the Ningyo captain had gained all the time it needed to recover, retrieve its spatial fold projector and aim at Tklth. When she jumped back, Jolly gained enough space to fire safely and avoid catching its own ally in the field.
With a warbling shriek, the field was engaged. A spherical region centered slightly behind Tklth turned chaotic, swirling in a moiré pattern of darkness and light. Vacuum and pressure warred with one another as multiple volumes of space were relocated to other positions within the same field. Along with them traveled their occupying matter. This happened to include sections of Tklth’s back, tail, and rear leg. Chunks of Vislin dropped to the floor several centimeters behind their previous positions. Their formerly attached organism lost its support, not only from the loss of two appendages but also from having the lower section of its spinal cord removed.
Tklth fell to the ground, screaming in horrified anguish. Her vision blurred as her perceptions narrowed to the sole awareness of burning, stinging, wracking pain from her back. She was at least spared the additional torment of her lost tail and leg, as she could feel nothing from below her tail juncture.
Faintly, she heard Jolly’s voice as shock set in. “Hold. The threat is gone. No need for more suffering.” Then blood loss completed the process and sent Tklth into painless unconsciousness.
On the bridge, the first indication of any problem was a hazard alarm lighting up on Soloth’s panel: high heat and smoke detected. The actual sound of Tklth’s weapon discharge had been muffled by many layers of vibration-dampening material. Her initial shot had barely registered on their ears, no louder than a buckle scraping against a bulkhead in the same room.
Luuboh’s voice came unexpectedly over the bridge comms. Indicators showed that it was sending over the emergency line from the shuttle deck.
“Problem in mid-engineering. Tklth attacked the Ningyo.”
The air in the bridge colored with a palette of curses as Evgeny, Soloth, and Gleamer reacted similarly to the news in their respective native tongues. Evgeny rose from his command console immediately but had to wait for Soloth to storm past toward the door.
“Hold the bridge,” Soloth insisted, holding a hand up to stay Evgeny’s movement. “If the Ningyo come seeking reprisal, you will need to lock them out of ship functions from here.”
It was sound advice, though it sounded more like orders. Evgeny grimaced but nodded in agreement. “Go. If they’re on the move, collect crew to help you hold the line. If they’re stationary, hold off anyone who might go charging in and make things worse.” His own orders sounded like simple statements of common sense. Leadership lately seemed more and more like choosing the least stupid options out of a range of bad choices.
As Soloth exited, the open door admitted sound transferred through atmosphere. The distant shriek of the Ningyo weapon discharge confirmed that a firefight was taking place.
Gleamer had not even bothered to rise. Instead, he had turned back to his instruments. A schematic of the Scape Grace showed on one panel of his view screen. Moving dots showed mobile, living objects as identified by infrared sensors scattered throughout the ship. Gleamer tripped several controls and cut off several of the dots.
“I’ve locked down quarters, Gene,” he called back informally. “The roughnecks won’t be getting underfoot above-decks.”
“All the little furry gods…! I told you never to override the blast door controls!” Evgeny was furious now. Was nobody on this ship actually under his command? All it took was one definite crisis and everyone sailed off on their own self-appointed courses. He would have some serious social engineering to do once they were done dealing with the Ningyo. How many crew could you threaten simultaneously and still have those threats remain credible?
At least in this case, Gleamer’s disobedience was proving useful. Soloth, as well, had acted in a reasonable if brusque manner. Ticklish, though… Evgeny was starting to understand the reasons the Great Family had shunned her as mentally unstable. She had heard exactly what she wanted to hear – remove the threat – and acted impulsively and violently. It wasn’t just her panic reaction that was aggressive. She was almost a caricature of the worst stereotypes of Vislin.
Maybe it was Evgeny’s own fault that he found uses for such instability. A criminal enterprise was at best a balance of extreme forces. Stable, obedient people did not steal starships or raid mining bases. They did not kill sapients for their belongings or extort colonial governments out of their savings. Granted, a great many unstable people were hiding out there pretending they were well-adjusted and doing all those things anyway. Perhaps pirates were just more honest about their inability to accept civilized, Collective society.
While these thoughts simmered, Evgeny kept busy monitoring everyone else’s activity. From a mirror of Gleamer’s readouts, he watched the movement of figures around the ship. There seemed to be two dots – Soloth and Luuboh? – closing on two others moving in the hallway connecting the mid-engineering decks. Two other mobiles were staying within Engineering: probably NuRikPo’s people, Burnett and Zenaida. The dozen dots crowded around the blast door separating general quarters from the rest of the ship were the boarding crew, the rank and file who handled less technical operations off-ship.
To that mob, Evgeny directed his next ‘comm message: “Scape Grace crew, this is captain Lerner. You have heard indications of a problem on board. Hold your positions. First mate Soloth is checking on the situation. If it requires your assistance, you will be notified. If it does not require your assistance, do not put yourself in harm’s way.” He had meant the last phrase to contain an implied threat. It came out sounding like parental caution. Maybe it really was necessary to sound like a sneering brute to be taken seriously as a pirate captain… even by himself.
Soloth found Luuboh waiting at the exit from the fore ladder. It had already prepared for trouble, scrounging up two magnetic flechette throwers from a lower deck weapons cache. The slightly bulky handguns could cause considerable surface damage to either Vislin hide or Ningyo armor, without the risk of fires from an energy weapon or hull breaches from a more penetrative payload. Tklth, among other misjudgments, had grossly overreached by using plasma inside the ship. She was fortunate that the beam had burned out before puncturing the outer hull, igniting something reactive… or catching somebody on a lower deck in the line of fire.
Soloth took one of the guns and gestured for Luuboh to follow. Soloth did not wait for the other Mauraug’s slower pace but instead jogged out of the fore section. Visible in the hallway ahead was one standing Ningyo and three bodies.
The one standing, Punch, drew its pistol with its free hand and kept its baton ready in the other. One of the downed Ningyo rose from the floor, evidently not badly damaged. Soloth recognized their leader, Jolly. Its armor was scratched deeply in several places but did not appear functionally damaged.
Soloth risked not sighting on the armed Ningyo immediately. Instead, it toggled open a side door to a storage room and gave itself partial cover in case Punch fired first. That Ningyo did aim toward Soloth. When the lead Mauraug stepped aside, Luuboh was left in the line of sight. The second Mauraug kept its hands down but did not attempt to dodge aside.
Risking exposure, Soloth stuck its head out and called, “The Vislin was acting alone! If you lower your weapons we will drop ours. We intend to honor the original agreement.”
Jolly’s voice came back as it stood and turned to face Soloth. “Comus is dead. Your crew member is dying. I will let you recover her if you do drop your weapons. Don’t delay; she has only seconds.”
Luuboh immediately dropped its gun and scrambled to kneel by Tklth’s mutilated body. Soloth might not have trusted the Ningyo, but when they did not execute Luuboh immediately, it felt safer about taking a risk. Still covered by the side wall, it lowered its own gun to the floor and set it down carefully.
Luuboh called out, “She’s lost her tail and a leg. I can’t stop the bleeding by hand. We need a cautery bandage and Vislin-specific circulatory synthetics. Help me lift her? Between the two of us we might make it to meds in time.”
Emerging and walking forward slowly, Soloth watched the two Ningyo warily. “She killed one of you. Why is she still alive? Why are you allowing us to help her?”
“Comus was my friend.” Despite the synthetically cheery tenor of its ‘voice’, Jolly’s rapid, terse delivery betrayed its distress.
Soloth put pressure on the major circulatory vessels in Tklth’s back as it helped Luuboh hoist the Vislin into a level carry. Without a quarter of her mass, Tklth was light enough for either of the Mauraug to lift easily, but they wanted to transport her without causing further damage. They began to move toward the freight lift behind engineering, in order to bring Tklth to medical as gently as possible. Magenta fluids dripped between Soloth’s fingers to spatter on the rubberized flooring, leaving a trail as they walked.
Punch followed close behind, still armed but no longer actively aiming the pistol at either Mauraug. Jolly had slung its own space fold projector onto its back and picked up Comus’ weapon as well. It held the second projector loosely, also not threatening.
In genuine confusion, Soloth finally replied, “If it was your friend, wouldn’t you want her dead even more?”
“Dead is ended… no more learning, no more suffering. Comus believed in sapients understanding one another. He wanted to learn more about other cultures and to teach about our beliefs. I hope she lives. She owes a debt. If she wishes, she may pay it in suffering. She may also choose to learn something from the experience. I would like to learn, myself, why she chose to attack the three of us, alone.”
“She was deranged,” Luuboh grunted, a surprisingly unkind sentiment, particularly when coming from the often similarly accused Mauraug.
“Perhaps, but not so mentally damaged as to be shunned from your company,” Jolly rebutted. Its cadence was returning to the format of its former conversations.
Soloth admitted, “It’s no secret that we want you gone, dead if necessary. Tklth just couldn’t restrain herself any longer.” Soloth’s candor would have made Evgeny cringe. Even Luuboh was somewhat taken aback. There were different strains of opinion about the relationship between deception and Dominion. Soloth evidently held the attitude that falsehood was a sign of weakness. Luuboh itself was uncomfortable with its own various deceits, but it was equally uncomfortable directly stating a threat to an enemy’s face.
Jolly delayed its response until they reached the lift platform. It waited at the edge and watched Soloth and Luuboh enter the enclosed cage. Punch made a move to join them, but Jolly held it back with a raised hand. Instead, it looked at the two Mauraug.
“Go, tend to your murderous pack mate. We will go to the bridge as intended. You may not want us here, but we want to be here… and we need one another. Comus would have explained better. I will have to do my best in his stead… as my penance for his death.”
With that cryptic closing, Jolly turned and walked away. Punch followed after a moment’s pause to stare at the Mauraug.
Soloth was not well pleased to leave the Ningyo free to traverse the ship, particularly not with them heading toward the bridge, but it had few options. Soloth resolved to get Tklth’s body to medical and leave it there with Luuboh. If their multi-talented servant could not save the patient, then so be it. Either way, Soloth would be free to return quickly and deal with any trouble starting above decks.
It was tempted to just leave Tklth to die, but Jolly was right about one thing: the Vislin deserved to live and suffer for her idiocy. After this much trouble, she would owe her life to her ‘pack’, not to mention being indebted for any prostheses they could cobble together. From that day forward, Tklth would be working without shares just to pay off her debt. From what Soloth knew of Tklth, she was the type of Vislin that would honor such an obligation. She could become useful again… hopefully, worth the investment.
Luuboh nudged the lift controls with its elbow and the platform descended toward the second lower deck, the level containing Katy Olu’s work space. With no medic on board, Tklth was guaranteed a chancy and painful triage. At best, her recovery would be slow and demeaning.
Right at that moment, even her ‘pack mates’ felt she deserved that fate.
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