Burnett Georges emerged from the side room, carrying a metal tray. It was apparently hot; he wore a thermal protective glove on the hand holding the tray. He saw captain Lerner shortly afterward and blinked in surprise.
“Captain! We did not expect you… you are welcome, of course. Please, come in. We were about to have tea.” Burnett set the tray down on a wire mesh rack on a cleared workbench. Evgeny could see small, golden, rectangular cakes glowing in their individual cups. He recognized the tray as a mold for metal casting. Hopefully, the baker had cleaned that equipment thoroughly before repurposing it.
Burnett did not wait for Evgeny’s response before calling out, “Zenaida! We have a guest! Bring three cups!”
His cousin’s voice answered from another room further back in the engineering area. “Oh? Who is it?”
Evgeny decided to answer for himself, “It’s captain Lerner. Look, I was just stopping by to give you an update on our situation. No need to set a place for me.”
Burnett fixed him with a patronizing look, “It’s no trouble. After all, business is best discussed over tea and cakes. Sit, join us, and have a bite before you’re called away again.”
Evgeny once again had that feeling of being only nominally in charge. He supposed being welcomed was better than being avoided. Still, he had to suppress suspicions about the safety of offered food and drink. If anyone was going to drug or poison him, though, the Georges were low on the list. Their power and privileges descended from NuRikPo; as long as they kept the Zig engineer happy, they maintained their upper-deck status and shares.
Zenaida Georges entered the room bearing one of the signs of that privilege. She held three simple porcelain teacups on saucers. Expertly balancing the dishware, she sat one cup in front of Evgeny, then placed the other two in front of her cousin and herself. Burnett pulled up a tall stool and sat down, sniffing at the dark liquid in his cup.
Evgeny followed suit. The ‘tea’ was a different creature than the pale brew he was accustomed to. It was quite opaque, almost as black as coffee. It smelled like a dozen different plants had sacrificed various fragrant parts of their anatomy to its creation. The smell was not unpleasant, but it was also difficult to classify as ‘pleasant’. It was too complex.
“Sugar?” Zenaida asked, and Evgeny’s attention was drawn from the strange drink to the equally intriguing woman. Her hair was nearly the same color as the tea. Her skin was somewhere between Evgeny’s pallor and Katy Olu’s burnished ebony, a brown highlighted with gold and green. Evgeny had never seen the shade among other Humans, not even in videos. Her facial features were also more expressive than most Humans from his experience. She shared her coloration, wide eyes, narrow nose, and full lips with her cousin.
The two humans lived together, worked together, and clearly, cooked and dined together. The speculation on the ship was that they slept together, as well. Certainly, neither had been intimate with any other crew member. Such an affair would have been impossible to keep secret. No one had seen or heard either of them seeking companionship at any port of call, either, though discretion was somewhat easier off-ship.
Evgeny had even tried to drop hints about his interest. Zenaida had completely ignored his more subtle advances and politely changed the subject when he made his attraction more clear. Evgeny could have forced the issue, possibly even forced her compliance, but from his experience such behavior had steep costs. He would rather have a loyal, friendly, and untouchable comrade than an angry, bitter, and mutinous conquest.
So what if she preferred family? The truth was probably that the Georges just enjoyed one another’s company and maybe even had cultural restrictions against ‘fornication’. Both of those traits – close family ties and intentional abstinence – were rare enough to most of the rowdies on board the Scape Grace to be considered improbable in combination. Incest was somehow a more likely explanation.
Evgeny squinted in thought, then responded, “Um, what’s recommended?”
“Sugar,” Zenaida replied, decisively. She went to a drawer and withdrew a brushed steel cylinder. Evgeny would have assumed it held something requiring protective containment: perhaps chemical samples or a computer component. Instead, it held crystalline white cubes, compressed blocks of sucrose. Zenaida dropped five cubes in her cup and Evgeny’s.
Burnett grunted in playful derision. “If this were proper chai, it would be sweet enough without help.”
“Chai is tea flavored with spices: cinnamon, cloves, cardamom…” Zenaida explained for Evgeny’s benefit, “We picked up a couple of kilos at our last landing.”
“Anchor? Yes, I remember the trade hub. No idea they had Human spices there.” Evgeny held the cup to his nose, trying to appreciate the separate notes that clanged against his receptors so harshly.
Zenaida nodded, swirling the tea in her cup to mix in the dissolving sugar. “They had probably traveled a long way even to get there… like in the early days of cross-continental trade on Terra. Spices were as good as money, sometimes better. Dried well, they could last for a very long journey and still be potent.”
“This was a premix, though,” Burnett interrupted, “Packaged for commercial sale. They still charged double the store price. Imagine what actual fresh cardamom would have cost!”
Zenaida gave her cousin an exaggerated frown, but added, “He’s right, it’s only a weak reminder of home. If it were proper, we’d have cream, or at least milk. NuRikPo won’t even let us synthesize casein, much less lactose and butterfat.”
Evgeny smiled indulgently at their banter, understanding only part of the discussion. He sipped the liquid and found it as bitter as expected, but pleasantly floral and sweet underneath. The aftertaste was actually better than the initial taste. He could understand how a little fat would improve its texture and taste, smoothing out the rough edges and forcing the aromatics to linger.
Reluctantly, the captain shifted topics toward his original objective for the visit. “I wanted to let you both know how matters stand. We haven’t heard back from NuRikPo or doctor Olu. I know ‘Po told you he was going to investigate a completely foreign ship; since they’ve been inside, we haven’t received any communications. The Ningyo claim they’re just not picking up. I have my doubts. Either way, you two are our engineering staff until further notice.”
Burnett tested the little cakes, then upended them onto the cooling rack. He offered one to Evgeny, who declined with an upraised hand. With a shrug, Burnett bit into one of the rectangular pastries, then blinked with pain as his mouth was scalded.
Evgeny continued, “You won’t just be placeholders. The Ningyo have commandeered our ship. We’re under their control; their leader demanded my codes and is sitting in my chair. They’re using the ‘Grace to raid for supplies for the foreign ship, along with another salvager they’ve turned pirate. We’re likely to see some combat and probably some damage. Hopefully, they don’t get us killed.”
Burnett stopped with cake half-eaten. Zenaida was also wide-eyed with surprise. She furrowed her brow. “Why raiding? Why can’t they buy whatever the other ship needs?”
“That’s what I asked,” Evgeny commiserated. “Apparently, they have to get the goods fast and without drawing attention to their alien friend. Friend, they kept calling it. Like they were doing a favor for a comrade.”
“Anyway,” he returned to the briefing, “You’ll need to finish up whatever repairs ‘Po had left incomplete, then start preparing for emergency duty. We’ll have maybe five or six days before we return to the system.” Evgeny sipped his tea again. It had cooled enough to allow for a full swallow. The warmth and sugar reminded his stomach that he had not eaten a full meal in several hours. He decided to take one of the cakes to keep him going until he could raid the galley. It was excellent. Somehow, without dairy or eggs, Burnett had managed to produce a soft, yellow-brown pastry with a distinct citrus and butter aroma. It even had a crisp outer ‘shell’. Some areas of science had more beautiful payoffs than others.
While Evgeny finished the cake and reached for another, Burnett asked, “How do they intend to keep us from getting killed?”
Evgeny swallowed his first bite of the second cake hastily. “I’m not sure they have a plan. I’m hoping they do. Still, I warned their captain that we won’t sit quietly for a suicide mission. If things look too dangerous, he’ll either pull us out or have a second fight inside the ship.” That was exaggerating somewhat, but Evgeny wanted his crew to be ready to rebel when given the signal.
With a burst of inspiration, Evgeny asked, “Could I get a compad? I’ll give you the codes for full access to ship’s stores, in case you need something for repairs, plus the door codes if there’s a breach anywhere. It might be too late to pass those on, after trouble starts.”
Zenaida took a few steps across the room to a shelving unit, picking out a reasonably contemporary compad and flicking it to life. Evgeny shifted himself to one side, not coincidentally cutting off the view of the camera watching engineering. He typed at the pad’s surface, spelling out: Private comm in storage bay 3e. Not on official circuit. Send messages to me or Luuboh there. Possibly receive there. Be ready to cut out bridge access to systems on my order. Set up automated kill switches where possible. He pushed the pad, screen glowing, back across the workbench.
The advantage of the portable computer pads was that they were not linked to the ship’s network. That isolation was intentional, to keep some resources safely insulated from any power interruptions or computer errors that might affect Scape Grace’s own nervous system. That failsafe held a second advantage now, allowing for private conversations safe from Jolly’s eavesdropping.
Zenaida picked up the compad and nodded at the screen. “Thank you. We appreciate your trust.”
Burnett looked at her quizzically and started to open his mouth, but shut it again at a shake of his cousin’s head. He covered his confusion with a large mouthful of tea, wincing as the heat stung his previously burnt palate.
Evgeny pushed back from the workbench-turned-tea table. He picked up a third cake for his travels and finished his cup with a deep, sugar-gritted swallow. Nodding to Burnett and then to Zenaida, he replied, “Thank you for the tea… and the cakes. I won’t tell Luuboh, or it might get jealous, but this is the best cooking I’ve had in days.”
“We have a lot of spare time,” Burnett jibed, “or we did, up until this past week. Any chance things will get boring again, anytime soon?”
“Not likely, but we can hope,” Evgeny shot back.
He was starting to feel the stimulant effects from the tea. That, plus the cakes, were curbing his hunger. With a wave and a reluctant last glance at Zenaida, captain Lerner left engineering to follow the halls back to his cabin. Rather than a grim or thoughtful look, the woman’s face had held a thin smile of amusement. For him? Or just wry humor at their strange situation?
She and her cousin were a puzzle. That probably made her more attractive. Evgeny knew himself well enough by now to recognize his own need to understand and control his environment. A woman he could not easily classify and predict was a challenge.
The Georges were the only two of his crew without a clear reason to join a criminal enterprise. They had come aboard after talking to some of the combat crew at a space station, thinking that they were booking passage to the next system over. Originally, the grunts had planned to rob the ‘couple’. One or two might have harbored thoughts of taking advantage of Zenaida. The resulting scuffle below-decks ended with one Mauraug enjoying a punctured lung and two Humans cradling crushed testes. Burnett had suffered a broken arm, himself, but his hidden pen-laser had warded off the rest of the crew well enough to spare him a broken neck.
It had taken Evgeny and Soloth a few hours to sort out the damages and the conflicting stories. In the end, the Georges chose to join the crew rather than be marooned on the nearest planetoid. He could have shot them outright, Evgeny supposed. He always had to bear that in mind as a possible solution. Thank goodness they had chosen to enlist, instead.
They were certainly qualified; in fact, they were probably more qualified than the bruisers they had held off. Besides being able to handle a fight, they were both trained in space station maintenance, a background which translated well enough into the daily repair needs of the Scape Grace. NuRikPo had enlisted them for his grunt work, in return training them in more advanced sciences to make them more useful minions. The Zig would hardly admit to being a mentor, but he certainly had a couple of devoted graduate students.
On the average, piracy did pay better than station maintenance. It might be irregular in spots, probably more dangerous overall, and certainly less stable an existence, but it was much more exciting. Probably smelled better, too, from what Evgeny had experienced of the average orbital station. The two travelers were definitely getting to see much more of the universe than they might have as laborers.
That still didn’t explain why they were so cheerful most of the time. Idle time tended to wear on the more active members of the crew, fraying nerves and leading to hostility, sometimes violence. In a crisis, the senior crew were typically stressed: Katy was absolutely nasty when too many patients piled up at once. Soloth’s level of cruelty tended to increase with the number of simultaneous transgressors. By contrast, Burnett and Zenaida seemed positive whether work was slow or constant. Maybe the pair had found their preferred niche in life; maybe that was why they had stayed on.
Evgeny himself wasn’t sure if he would prefer piracy, given a real choice. It was the life he had been offered. Rather, he had chosen that existence versus accepting that his family, friends, and even home were an acceptable sacrifice in the name of ‘civilization’. His grudge against the Collective had mellowed after a few years following the death of Locust Colony, but by then, he was a known criminal fugitive. The options now were continued flight or surrender for permanent imprisonment. That was an even poorer choice.
In that light, he was envious of the Georges. Granted, once aboard, their choices had been equally lopsided, but they could still ask to quit at any time. They were not known as criminals, nor even as the accomplices they were. Evgeny would have allowed them to leave. He had no concern that the two might talk to Collective or even Terran security… first, they weren’t the type to turn informant, in his opinion, and second, they would be incriminating themselves if they talked. They wanted to be here. Evgeny could not be sure he could still say the same about himself.
As Evgeny reached his cabin, he realized something that churned his stomach. Jolly had the crew manifest. Even if all went well and the Ningyo left their ship alive, it had the names of everyone aboard. That meant that the Georges would no longer be unknown. Everyone associated with the Scape Grace could lose the option of quiet retirement.
Well, that was just one more reason that the Ningyo shouldn’t be allowed to leave, wasn’t it?