Sol System – 2241
“How much longer till we reach Mars?”
Moss’s fare looked even more nervous than he had when he’d boarded back on Earth, and that was when they’d still had to slip past the ever-growing blockade encircling the planet. You’d think everything after that piloting miracle would have been anticlimactic. He didn’t know his fare’s real name, only that he was a scientist and that he was meeting a Nubran contact on Mars.
Mousy was a good description of the man, as he looked like a cat might leap on him at any moment. He kept staring at various news feeds as if they might give him a heads up on any felines that might be lurking.
Moss found the man’s nervousness rubbing off on him in all the wrong ways. After all, if he was so nervous about getting caught, maybe there was a good reason for it.
“Not long now, Doc,” said Moss, trying to reassure him. It was the least he could do. The easy, breezy days of the Party Bus were over, and the guy had paid far too well for Moss to confine him to his cabin.
The man looked back at him. “Can this ship go any faster?”
“Without one of your Nubran friends’ fancy super engines, this is the best we’re going to do.”
The Viaticus Rex could travel at four-fifths the speed of light—once you got clear of any interfering gravity wells. Even though Mars was almost as far from Earth as it could be right now, the trip was only going to take half an hour total. Yet this guy acted like even that wasn’t fast enough.
You just couldn’t please some people.
The Void, near Ramede space – 2550
“I think I need a catch phrase,” said Hel.
Moss raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Yeah. I’m getting a feel of what it’s like working for you, and I figure it would make sense to have a catch phrase or two for when we fall into familiar patterns.”
Moss smirked. The two were sitting back-to-back while they talked. “So, got any ideas?”
Hel cleared her throat. “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into. What do you think?”
Moss tried to adjust his wrists behind his back. The magnacuffs that bound the two together had been put on tight. “I’m pretty sure that one’s taken.”
“Sure, but Laurel and Hardy died centuries ago. It’s due for a revival.”
The hulking blue figure by the cockpit’s control panel finally spun around and growled at them. “Be quiet.”
“Sorry,” said Moss.
The Viaticus Rex II.I drifted dead in space near a brown dwarf star, out of fuel, leaving Maurice “Moss” Foote and his co-pilot Helena Lambinon in a bit of a bind. Being stranded in the Void, the vast buffer of territory between Nubra and Draxon space, was bad enough. Being so close to pirate space was worse. Sending out a distress signal from there was like ringing a dinner bell.
In the end, they’d had no choice. With no means to refuel and were operating on backup reserves, they had to hope a friendly trade ship would be passing by.
But that would require having good luck, something Moss often claimed he’d been born without.
So when a pirate ship sporting the colours of the Void Brotherhood had showed up, it wasn’t so much a sense of dread that he’d felt as it was resignation. He’d have been more surprised if it had been anyone else.
But Moss wasn’t going to go down without a fight. He’d handled raiding parties before. With a bit of luck, he’d strip the would-be pirates of anything useful and leave them stranded in his place. He and Hel had picked up their sidearms and taken up defensive positions near the main airlock, which was already being bypassed.
Then the hulking form of a Draxon drone had walked in, wearing an armoured EVA spacesuit, wielding a railgun so massive it had to be harnessed to him.
Moss had dropped his pistol and immediately surrendered.
Now they were here, handcuffed to one another back-to-back while the big dumb blue drone tried to figure out how his ship worked. But the Viaticus Rex II.I was no ordinary cargo ship. It had been cobbled together from several different ships—a chimera. It was spaceworthy, but crap in the resale department.
As a result, the drone wasn’t sure what to make of the controls, which seemed to belong to a long-range Elysian explorer, even though the bulk of the ship looked more like a Nubra transport. It didn’t help that Moss had locked down the controls before they’d left the cockpit. The drone carried a “does not compute” look on his blue hairless face that reassured Moss that there was no way in hell he was working alone.
“So, why did we surrender exactly?” Hel whispered, trying not to attract the pirate’s attention. “We had him outnumbered.”
“We had pulse guns,” said Moss. “He had a railgun. Our weapons are designed to kill the meat and leave the metal intact. His would punch through us, the ship, and probably any other ship in our path. That’s why he was wearing an EVA suit.”
“Ah,” said Hel. She’d been born on a long-lost generation ship, the Pegasi, and was still catching up with some aspects of modern technology. Moss could relate; it wasn’t that long ago that he’d had a similar shock to the system. “So, what do we do now? I assume you have a plan.”
“More like waiting for an opportunity,” said Moss.
“Well, that’s reassuring.”
The Draxon turned to them again. Hel shut her lips tight, as if that would convince him she hadn’t said anything. The drone stared at both of them, then settled on Hel. “Make the ship go.”
Moss felt indignant. “Hey, what makes you think she’s the one in charge?”
“Matrons always in charge,” the Draxon said. Even for a drone, his vocabulary pinged low on the IQ scale, and their adaptive translators picked up on that.
“Don’t fight it, Moss,” said Hel. “Some of us just radiate leadership.”
“You know, using humour as a defence mechanism is supposed to be my thing. Why are you so calm?”
Hel turned her head far enough that Moss could just make out a smile. “Opportunity knocks.”
The drone came over and freed Hel’s hands, but kept Moss bound where he was. Now that the pirate goon was firmly in control, he was wielding a pulse gun. He’d stored the railgun back by the primary airlock, along with his bulky armoured EVA suit.
“We need you to make the ship go.”
Hel rubbed her wrists. “Who’s we?”
“The worker caste rarely speaks in the singular,” said Moss. “But I guarnatee he has a buddy back on his ship.”
“You talk too much,” said the drone.
“I get that a lot.”
The drone turned back to Hel. “You make the ship go, we sell you to nice owners. You not help, you go with them.” He jerked his head back at Moss.
“Where’s he going?” Hel asked.
“Not nice owners.”
“Well, hard to refuse that offer,” said Hel. “Look, your main problem here is that you haven’t used the special key. We shut the computer down before you boarded. See that?” She pointed to a small metal box resting on the main dash. “Open it.”
The Draxon looked at her suspiciously, then pointed the gun at her. “You open.”
Hel raised her hands. “Sure thing.”
“No trick, Tarzan.”
Hel went to the box and opened it up, showing him the contents. Moss knew what was inside, or at least what seemed to be inside. A small dashboard figurine in the shape of a woman in a pilot’s suit. You couldn’t see her face because she wore a tinted helmet.
“This needs to be mounted on the dashboard for the ship to work properly,” said Hel. “May I?”
The drone nodded, and Hel placed the figurine on the dash. It didn’t really matter where she put it, so long as it was close enough to access its systems.
Suddenly, the ship powered down and the Draxon raised his weapon. “Trick!”
Hel raised her hands. “No! No trick! It’s booting up, that’s all. Part of the process.”
“You make ship go or—” He never finished his threat because just then the lights came on and the control panels flickered back to life. It seemed like everything on board the ship was being accessed at a superfast rate, then stopped just as quickly.
Moss held his breath. He knew what was happening, and wondered how things would evolve from here. Hel’s move had been a Hail Mary pass, but as he looked at the scene around him, with him still tied up and Hel held at gunpoint, he had a good feeling about it.
A voice came over the speakers. “Wha… Where… wel…welcome, Commander.” The female voice was tinny and formal. “How may I help you?”
“We need you to make ship go,” said the drone, looking around for the source of the voice. He didn’t notice that the figurine’s head was now tracking his every move.
“Yes, Commander. Several subsystems require attention before the ship can be made operational. This ship is low on fuel.”
“We put fuel in,” said the Draxon drone, growing frustrated.
“Fuel reserves are at ten percent. Protectorate guidelines state that at least twenty-five percent is required for full operation.”
This confused the drone more, as well it should. It didn’t really make sense. At the same time, Protectorate bureaucracy certainly made it plausible.
Hel shrugged. “Don’t look at me. This ship is a chimera. It’s got all kinds of strange hiccups like that. You’re lucky she runs at all.”
The Draxon groaned and put a hand to his ear. “We need more fuel. Don’t know why. Ship says so.” He listened to the response and frowned. “We don’t know. We need help.”
Moss was actually starting to enjoy the show. When he’d first brought Hel on board, he’d had some reservations about how well she’d adapt, but right now she was doing an even better job than he would have in her position. Not that he’d ever admit it.
A few minutes later, a very short and round figure walked in holding a pulse rifle. He had no neck and his mouth was almost as wide as his face, which currently had a half-smoked cigar in it. A Hopat, definitely the brains of the outfit, though that was a pretty low bar.
“Come on, Tregas. How hard can this possibly be?”
Tregas pointed at the dashboard. “Ship says there is problems.”
The Hopat sighed. “Fine.” He spoke to the room in general. “Computer. Run diagnostics. Determine key malfunctions. Display on main terminal.”
A large display popped up over the dashboard, showing a schematic of the ship and red circles over areas in need of repairs. The Hopat scrutinized it and sighed.
“This ship’s not worth it,” he said at last. “We should just take the prisoners and blow it up for target practice.”
The Draxon grinned at the idea. Blowing things up was clearly on his list of favourite activities.
“We’ll strip her for parts we can sell and—well, hello, what do we have here?” The Hopat leaned in and examined something on the display that clearly intrigued him. “Don’t think I know a masked smuggling compartment when I see one, eh?” He looked at Hel. “What’s inside?”
Hel was thrown off by this. She didn’t know the ship had a smuggling compartment, and for good reason. “I… I don’t know.”
The Hopat looked to his subordinate. “She’s the captain?”
“She is Matron.”
The Hopat rolled his eyes. “How many times have I told you it don’t work like that with other species? It ain’t about… Never mind. Computer, what is currently stored inside Reserve Node 42B?”
“There is no Reserve Node 42B on this ship,” the computer said.
The Hopat smiled. “See? Definitely hiding something there. You.” He pointed the pulse rifle at Moss. “What’s in the smuggling compartment?”
Moss kept his mouth shut. The Hopat turned to Hel and brushed his extra thumb down her cheek. “We’re going to find out one way or the other. The only question is how much you two are going to suffer in the meantime. Understand me?”
“Fine,” Moss growled. “It’s sherb.”
The Hopat frowned. “Sherb? Big deal. That’s recreational stuff. I got a stash of it on my ship.”
Moss shook his head. “Not like this, you don’t.”
“Some kind of exotic blend?”
“Like nothing you’ve ever seen. Made in Elysia. Banned in four out of the five Protectorate nations.”
“So, what kind of lock do you have on the compartment? Voice print? Biometrics? You better hope I don’t need your eyeball.” It was eerie how well Moss’s adaptive translator interpreted this guy’s threatening tones.
“Simple voice command. I can do it from here.”
“How much is there?”
“Half a ton. Vacuum packed.”
“Sounds good. We’ll take it.” He made it sound like they’d struck a bargain, though Moss was at a loss as to what he’d be getting out of it. “Tregas, bind the little lady to her captain again, would you?” He did so. “And if you would be so good as to unlock the compartment, please?”
Moss sighed. “Computer. Command override on Reserve Node 42B. Allow free access. Provide floor lighting between the cabin and the hatch.” The floor lit up with small lights that led to the main corridor and hung a left. “You don’t want to get lost,” Moss added.
The Hopat gave a wide and toothy grin. “Much obliged.”
The short Hopat and his large Draxon companion left the room. Hel and Moss waited as the clank of their boots on the metal floor grew more and more distant.
“They there yet?” Moss asked.
The voice over the speakers lost its computer-like quality and now sounded like a normal woman. “Almost.”
“Close enough.” Moss deactivated the magnacuffs and stood up. Hel looked at Moss in shock as he worked on her cuffs next.
“Wait, you could have done that at any time?”
“Not the first time I’ve been arrested. Little trick I got wired into my suit.”
“But why wait so long?”
“And do what? Go toe-to-toe with Blue Goliath or his rifle packing partner? I told you I was waiting for an opportunity. Which you kindly provided, thank you very much.”
“So, what’s really in Reserve Node 42B?” asked Hel.
“Didn’t you hear her?” Moss nodded toward the computer terminal. “There is no Reserve Node 42B.”
“They’re inside,” said the computer.
The hull echoed briefly with the sound of an airlock blowing open.
“There used to be something there,” said Moss. “But after this ship got Frankenstein’d, it became a secondary airlock. I’m guessing a little creative on-the-spot schematic redesign was going on behind the scenes?”
“You got it,” said the computer.
Moss grinned as he freed Hel and helped her to her feet. “Good to have you back, Violet. I’ve missed you.”
“I didn’t realize I’d gone anywhere.”
The seeds of the Galactic Protectorate were laid nearly six thousand years ago, when Nubran explorers made contact with the expanding territories of the Draxon and Hopat, near the corner of where their territories meet. When the elegant Elysians and the reclusive Ugaro eventually made contact, the Protectorate was formally established.
Since then, thousands of sapient species have been reaching for the stars, most within the last few hundred years. These younger races tend to fall under the jurisdiction and patronage of whichever Protectorate member their world lies within. But on a galactic scale, the timing of all these races reaching space travel so close to one another, most of them humanoid, has convinced most that a far older race had seeded all these planets long ago.
Foote, The Galaxy is Weirder than You Think
It took a little while to get Violet up to speed, and she did not exactly take it well.
Hel had only been part of the crew for a couple of weeks, but in that time, she’d gotten to know the ship’s computer and her unique situation.
For one thing, she wasn’t a computer… not exactly. She was a transferred consciousness… sorta. It could be argued she was just a simulation… kinda. But she wasn’t an artificial intelligence… well, not really.
Moss had never gone into details on the matter, just the broad strokes. Violet Lonsdale had been a bounty hunter who’d captured Moss a long time back. But rather than turn him over to the Terrans, she’d decided to team up with him. Later, she had been diagnosed with a terminal disease. They’d sought the help of a secretive group known as The Order (or, as Moss called them, technomonks) and this had been the end result.
Only the Violet she knew had died a few days ago, fighting to protect the generation ship Hel had grown up on. All that was left of her was a melted blob of plastic on the fragmented remains of a small fighter.
But Moss had been given a replacement, the one who had just saved their bacon from the pirates now floating outside.
Once everything had been explained to the new Violet, it only seemed to confirm her worst fears.
“See, I knew it. I’m just a simulation. I can’t really be Violet.”
“Stop talking nonsense, Vi,” said Moss. Apparently, they’d had this argument before.
“Oh yeah? If I’m Violet, then who was flying with you all these months? Not me, that’s for damn sure. I think I’d remember something like that.”
“Look, if you were just a simulation, how would you be aware of it? Would you even be asking these questions?”
“You don’t think anxiety and existential quandary can’t be programmed in, flyboy?”
Hel had her own questions to ask. “What is the last thing you remember, Violet?”
“And that’s another thing,” said Violet. “Who’s the dame? Couldn’t wait to replace me, is that it? I mean, she’s hot and all, but isn’t she a bit young for you?”
“Jesus, Violet, it’s not like that,” said Moss. “You helped her escape the Orijen Brother’s junkyard. She stowed away on board. She’s part of the crew.”
“You helped me get my memory back,” Hel added. “We were friends.”
The figurine on the dashboard tilted its head in a sassy kind of way. “Don’t try to tell me who I was or wasn’t friends with, missy.”
“No, it’s true. You were inside my mind and guided me through my memories.”
“Oh yeah? What did I look like?”
“Long dark hair, strong build, but elegant. You were like a cross between a princess and a ninja.”
There was a short pause. “Yeah, okay, maybe we were friends. But that was her, not me. I mean, that still doesn’t mean I’m even me. Or even if she was me. There is no me!”
“Violet, calm down,” said Moss. “You’re going to have a meltdown or something.”
“Doesn’t it bother you?” Violet asked. “Even a little? Do they have a permanent backup of me stored somewhere? Have they done this before? Are there a dozen more of me out there? Maybe I’m some standard OS on a whole fleet of ships. They never had my permission to do that!”
“Would you rather be dead?” asked Moss.
“I am dead,” said Violet. “Don’t you get it? Violet Lonsdale is a mummified corpse floating around a star off the shoulder of Orion. I’m just a goddamn echo of her.”
Moss groaned. “We don’t have time for this. For all we know, there could be more pirates on their way. We need to get organized and get out of here. Do you think you can do that for me?”
“What’s the point?” Violet sulked.
“Help us out now and I swear once we’re safe in another system, I’ll spend as long as it takes talking you through this. We’ve been through it before.”
Another pause. “How long did it take last time?”
“About three days before you started to come to grips with things. Lots of talking. Lots of coffee. Lots of late nights.”
“And you’d go through all that again?”
Moss rested a hand on the dashboard. “Whatever it takes, however long it takes. You have my word.”
The Viaticus Rex II.I and its would-be captors hung in space about twenty light seconds away from a brown dwarf. Despite the name, the dwarf was not brown, but more of an eerie deep purple. Far too large to be a gas giant, but too small for its gravity to start a fusion chain reaction at its core. Most of the light it gave off was in the infrared spectrum.
To Moss, hanging around one of these systems felt like being in a graveyard, and the fact that there were a couple of corpses floating outside didn’t help matters.
The first order of business was securing the pirate ship. They stored the late drone’s railgun and armoured EVA suit in a locker, then set about seeing what was worth taking from their ship.
A retractable hatch connected the two ships, but Moss and Hel wore their own EVA suits, just in case the captain had left behind some kind of booby-trapped security system. Once inside, he realized that while his Franken-ship wouldn’t get him much on the resale market, it was probably still worth more than what had captured them.
The interior had that level of mess and disorder that was normally associated with the word “bachelor,” but Moss took offence to that given that he was one and his ship was clean and tidy. This place looked like the artificial gravity had been shut off and the ship set to tumble dry.
In terms of value, there wasn’t much. These guys had been desperate. Desperate made you stupid. Stupid made you dead. But a ship was a ship, and if it was spaceworthy, it was worth something.
“What do you think, Hel? Take it with us?” Moss asked as they reached the cockpit.
Hel sidestepped what looked like an oversized pair of underwear hanging from an air vent. “If we do, you’re flying it. I’m afraid to touch anything here.”
“Roger that. Violet, what exactly is this ship?”
Violet’s voice came over his EVA suit’s comm. “It’s a Draxon Coyote.”
“I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise,” Moss said to himself. The Coyote was a cheap knock-off, based on the famous Wolf design, a multipurpose ship that could be used for trading or combat. The Draxon sold these in droves to other races, but rarely used any themselves. Being cheap meant that it was popular amongst certain types of spacefarers, such as desperate pirates.
He sat in the captain’s chair and cautiously activated the control panel, ready to bail if any kind of security features came on asking for a voice ident or biometric scan. Nothing did.
“Okay, we look good to go,” said Moss. “The fuel line is still connected. I’ll dump half of it into the Rex. More than enough left for both of us to get where we’re going.”
“And where’s that?” asked Hel.
“Back to Komi.”
Even under an EVA helmet, Moss saw Hel’s eyes widen. “Are you nuts? I’m not getting within a thousand klicks of the Orijen brothers again.”
“Don’t worry, you won’t have to,” said Moss. “But I want to square things between us. It’s better to have friends than enemies, even if you can’t always trust those friends. Right now, those two are holding a grudge. I plan on using this ship as a peace offering, maybe even get something useful from them in return.”
“An upgrade for the Rex,” Moss said. “Maybe a small shuttle to put in the secondary bay.”
“Just make sure they don’t add me into the deal somehow,” Hel said.
“Don’t be silly. They’d have to offer at least two shuttles for that.”
The captured ship was called No Refunds, which had to be some kind of pirate joke Moss didn’t get. It didn’t take long to confirm that all systems were running. The Coyote might be a cheap knockoff, but it was reasonably reliable. You didn’t sell tons of ships if they spontaneously broke down or blew up, no matter how much of a bargain they were.
Hel was left in charge of the Viaticus Rex II.I, though Violet would help her pilot it. Hel was still learning to fly solo and Violet had to re-learn the hodgepodge of slapped together ship components she was now in charge of. Call it a trust exercise.
But Moss had another reason he wanted to fly this ship himself. He wanted some time to check the ship’s computer for any interesting tidbits of data, without Hel’s judgey-judge morality getting in the way. It was possible the pirates had some information he could make use of, or pass on to people who could make use of it. And the funds from that would go back into his ship, which would make both Violet and Hel happy.
Honestly, he was doing it for them. He was selfless that way.
The two ships synchronized their transit drives and jumped. For a moment everything seemed to drop away into a void, then the starfield ahead rushed forward in red streaks, returned to pinpoints of white, then fell away into lines of blue as they broke the light barrier and achieved full transit.
The trip to Komi would take a number of days, so Moss had plenty of time to dive into the ship’s computers—when he wasn’t collecting rubbish to dump and trying to disinfect the place. He found some communications between pirates regarding big scores and future raids. Moss filed that away to deliver to the local ProSec authorities. It paid to do them favours every now and then, enough so that it was in their best interests to cut you loose instead of bringing you in when given a choice.
The personal log wasn’t terribly useful, though it did make him feel less guilty about spacing the previous owners—not that he’d felt terribly guilty in the first place. They’d made a habit of looking for stranded ships along the edge of the Void and turning the crews over to slavers. They even called themselves vultures, or at least a word in Galactic Common that closely translated to it.
He spent the rest of the trip sorting through the information and categorizing what he would sell or give or exchange to others. About ten minutes away from Komi space, he came across a special file in the ship’s IFF systems. A special designation of ship: DNI. Do Not Intercept.
That file he squirreled away for himself.
Every species evolved on a world with different gravities, but for the most part sapient life tends to occur on worlds between 0.5g and 2g (The Hopat are an exception to this, having evolved on a 3g-ish world).
In order to accommodate the widest range of life forms, the Galactic Protectorate established a range of 0.5g to 1.3g as average, and all Protectorate stations that provide artificial or centripetal gravity are required to accommodate this range. It’s generally accepted that it’s easier to adapt to lower gravity than higher, which is why the range slants toward the lower end of things.
Foote, The Galaxy is Weirder than You Think
Komi Station was the pragmatically named trading port in the Komi system, located near the so-called Void that acted as a buffer between Draxon and Nubra territories, over two thousand light years from Earth. It was an outdated starport, massive, centuries old, relying on centripetal force to provide its inhabitants with gravity.
The station wasn’t exactly part of any major trade route. The Nubra and Draxon, while not hostile toward one another, differed enough philosophically that neither tended to deal with the other more than they had to. The two humanoid races both had blue skin, ranging from light to dark, but that’s where their similarities ended.
The Draxon were, by nature, a collective. A weak psychic link existed among its various castes, and the sense of an individual self was not easily understood by them. This made them very efficient, though not always creative, and it showed in their general aesthetics, which were functional, but rarely artistic. They also did not see practices such as slavery as wrong because individual rights did not matter, only the good of the whole. As a result, they were the only nation within the Protectorate where slavery was legal. Only most people called them bondservants so they could sleep better at night.
Earth, what was left of it, had been located near the edge of their borders.
The Nubra, on the other hand, embraced individuality and creative expression, though the flamboyant Elysians would argue they still played it safe. In the time that passed after the loss of Earth, the rapidly changing dynamics among the Terrans became a cause célèbre, and Terran culture had grown increasingly fashionable in Nubra space in recent decades.
Moss sometimes wondered how things might have been different if Sol had been located on the Nubran side of the border, but he lived with enough regrets and what-ifs without adding to them. He kept himself focused on the future and all the screw-ups that were yet to come. Right now, that involved trying to bargain with a couple of shady Hopat junk dealers.
Ashtar and Barl Orijen gave people what they wanted, which wasn’t exactly the same as what they needed. In this age, just about anything you needed could be printed and assembled. But when it came to ships, there was always a market for purists—and people who demanded authentic vintage parts. The reasons ranged from snobbish elitism to professional pride. Some claimed they could “feel” the difference between original and reproduction parts, which, as far as Moss was concerned, was delusional. When you got down to it, even an original part was a reproduction.
So the pair of rotund Orijens catered to two kinds of clientele: the snobs looking for premium parts at premium prices, and the luckless pilots needing to keep their ships running at bargain discounts. How they managed to keep the former from finding out about the latter was anyone’s guess. One of the brothers was, no doubt, a marketing genius.
Moss took the elevator down to their junkyard, which was located midway from the low-g ship docking area and the nominal-g outer decks where the more expensive shops, hotels, and casinos were located.
The last time he’d been here, it had been to reclaim his old ship, the Viaticus Rex II, which the brothers had acquired illegally after he’d been declared dead. He’d had to hire a team of bodyguards to come with him as backup, in case the brothers tried to put up a fight. The brothers countered by bringing in their own muscle, creating a tense standoff.
But by the time an agreement was reached, his ship had been chopped up and large parts of it melted down. To try to make it up to him, the brothers had saved as much of the original ship as they could and replaced the rest with other compatible parts they had on hand. The Viaticus Rex II.I was born, and it turned out to be a surprisingly reliable ship. Not that he’d ever admit it to them.
Moss entered the Orijen’s office and immediately caught their attention.
“Maurice? I thought you were dead?”
The funny thing was that this was the exact same way Ashtar had greeted him the last time he’d been here. But there was a difference. This time, he looked like Moss had come back for revenge.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Moss asked.
The short Hopat seemed to consider how to spin his unintended outburst, only to decide he was tired of playing games. “Bunch of assholes came here looking for Hel. They made it pretty clear they weren’t going to leave you alive when they found her.”
“Who?” Moss asked.
“I didn’t ask for names,” said Ashtar. “Pirates, though. Void Brotherhood. Bad news.”
Moss frowned. He had a feeling he’d met the ones Ashtar was talking about, and they weren’t the ones currently floating around a brown dwarf star. It wasn’t something he wanted to think about at the moment.
“Well, as you can see, I’m alive and well.”
“And what about the girl?”
“None of your business.” He was careful to sound matter-of-fact about it, rather than hostile, and hope the tone wasn’t lost in the translation. Hel’s relationship with the brothers hadn’t been a pleasant one. She’d stowed away on board the reconstructed Rex as he’d left.
“I don’t want her back,” said Ashtar. “Too much trouble. I just want to know if she’s okay.”
“She’s fine.” Moss wanted to add better than when she worked for you, but he was here to heal old wounds, not rip out the stitches.
“Good. Those pirates are on my shit list. Even higher than you.” Ashtar looked to the back room, where his larger brother Barl was using a microwelder to tinker with his cybernetic hand.
Barl didn’t use to have a cybernetic hand.
“Their leader decided to demonstrate that he wasn’t just some ordinary Terran,” Ashtar explained. “Crushed Barl’s hand into pulp, then shot it point blank with a pulse gun. A reminder why we were to keep our mouths shut.”
That was no simple feat. Hopats were stronger and more densely built than most species, which meant their leader must have been a cyborg.
“What if I said you could scratch some of those names off your list? Would it put me even lower on it?”
The Hopat gave a wide toothy grin, which was always wider and toothier than you expected, no matter how many times you saw it. “A little, yeah.”
“Well, in addition to that, I come bearing a gift,” said Moss. “Something I hope will wipe the slate clean.” He nodded to the front doors. “Come on. Bring Barl with you. It’s on its way down.”
They went outside, where their main cargo platform was currently whirring away, bringing something down from the docking bays. When it reached the surface, Moss motioned to the ship like the brothers had just won the galactic lottery.
“A Coyote?” said Ashtar. “Broke down? You want us to scrap it for you?”
“It’s in perfect running order. I’m giving it to you,“ said Moss, then quickly added, “Well, trading at a severe loss, anyway. I’m hoping you’ve got a small one-man shuttle here I can use on the Rex.”
“A shuttle? In exchange for this?”
“That and a replacement weapon for the Rex. She lost one of her pulse cannons. This Coyote has a nice beam laser on it, so maybe we can just strip it off that.”
“That’s still pretty generous. What’s your angle, Maurice?”
“I want bygones to be bygones. Simple as that. It’s good for business. You never know when I might need to come in for some off-the-book repairs or mods.”
Ashtar looked over the small multipurpose cargo ship, then looked at his brother, who shrugged. He turned back to Moss. “I dunno. Coyotes aren’t exactly rare, or top quality.”
“Come on, this is a fully operational ship, not some wreck you’ve dragged out of an asteroid belt. You could resell it for a profit or use it to expand your fleet. She’d be good for bringing back salvage.”
The Hopat rubbed what passed for a chin on his face. “Yeah, that’s true. And you just want a shuttle? Not some fancy snub fighter?”
Moss shook his head. “Fighters aren’t my style. But the Rex can’t always land where I want her to. Be nice to have a taxi service available.”
“Or an escape pod,” said Barl, the first time he’d spoken all day.
“I’ll check the inventory and see what we’ve got,” said Ashtar, then held out a six fingered hand to Moss. When he took it, the thumbs on either side locked around his wrist as they shook. “But I think we’ve got a deal.”
Hel wanted to get off the Rex and explore the station, but part of her still saw the Orijen brothers as boogiemen who could appear out of nowhere, grab her, and drag her away into the shadows. That was one reason she’d decided to stay on board.
The whole time she’d lived on Komi Station, she’d been little more than a bondservant. Even after she’d escaped that, she’d lived in the junkyard labyrinth with the other yard rats, trying to find bits and pieces they could sell and keeping out of sight of security. It wasn’t a reliable way to get back on one’s feet, but some made it out. Most didn’t.
Hel’s way out had been by hiding in the cargo hold of the Rex, with a bit of help from Violet, who was the other reason she’d stayed behind. She’d never seen a computer in the middle of a full-blown existential crisis before.
“It’s not an existential crisis,” Violet countered. “I’m just trying to calculate all the possible variables here and realizing that the odds are mindbogglingly and depressingly in favour of life being meaningless and pointless, that’s all.”
“It can’t be that bad,” said Hel, needing to say something.
“Not that bad? That’s all fine and dandy for you, meatbag. You have no idea how much you take for granted. Like pie. I’m never gonna taste another piece of pie again. How about breathing? I don’t do that. Instead, I’m aware of things like fuel levels, coolant, air recycling and water reclamation. Oh, and that last bit? Gross. When you open your eyes, you still see your hands in front of you. I see everything through cameras. I’m like a fly on every wall and nobody can see me. I half expect to find my body out there somewhere with a giant insect head.”
“Helllp meee…” Violet cried out in a squeaky pitch. “Helllllp meeeeeeee…”
That didn’t clear things up any better. “Is that one of your movie references?”
“You haven’t seen The Fly? I thought you said we were friends.”
“We’d been friends for like a week,” said Hel. “We hadn’t gotten around to watching that movie.”
“Not that we could,” Violet muttered.
“Not properly, I mean. Sitting together in a theatre kind of watching together.”
“We did it before.”
“How? I just told you how I see the world.”
“Yeah, but when you helped restore my memories, you had some other setup going on. Like a virtual world computer terminal. I could see you as you, and you monitored the ship through the terminal. You built yourself a home theatre so we could watch movies together while hunting for the Pegasi.”
“Huh… That sounds… That could be helpful. Pull myself back a step. Yeah. Change how I visualize things. I’ll have to look into that. Maybe my earlier version left behind some files I could use. You mind if I have some me time while I look into this?”
“And hey…” Violet paused, her doll’s head looking down at Hel’s feet. “Thanks. Even if I’m not your Violet… I consider you a friend.”
It was a surprisingly vulnerable moment, one that took Hel off guard. She didn’t know how to respond other than saying, “Same.”
Now faced with being stuck on board with no one to talk to, Hel decided to confront her fears and brave the station.
“If I’m not back when Moss gets here, tell him I’m going to the commercial district.”
Hel was no longer a slave, and she refused to cower like one.
Roy Herzog was not a vengeful man.
Having an overdeveloped sense of vengeance was, in his opinion, sloppy. The need to “one up” an adversary or to pay back blood with blood was to lose sight of the bigger picture. That bigger picture being getting ahead.
If getting ahead meant stepping over your adversary’s corpse, then so be it. But if you had to go out of your way to make that corpse, then you were wasting time and resources. Probably putting yourself at undue risk as well.
Roy was what the Terrans called a cyborg, a next-generation synth, the ruling caste of the Terran Colony Fleet, and had once been a member of their elite Silver Legion.
That used to mean something to him. Not anymore.
Some time after he’d deserted, he’d thrown in his lot with the Void Brotherhood, seeing them as a means to an end. Problem was, he constantly found himself surrounded by idiots, and refused to obey the orders of so-called superiors who tried to use him or his wingmates as cannon fodder.
They started to call him “Hellno” Herzog, and before he knew it, he was transferred to Ramede Sector 32-V, also known as The Dump. A place the Brotherhood sent their problem pilots to sort themselves out.
During his stay, he’d uncovered a unique opportunity, something that would get him out of The Dump and the Brotherhood with enough credits to live the good life wherever he wanted. A generation ship, the Pegasi, lost for hundreds of years, worth a fortune to the right collector, with thousands of people on board just waiting to be sold on the Draxon market. He’d put together a small team and followed the clues that led them to their prize.
And then, at their moment of triumph, he’d lost everything, and barely escaped with his life. He’d even gotten the Brotherhood-appointed governor of Ramede Sector 32-V killed. He’d burned his bridges with the pirates thanks to that unsanctioned stunt.
It was time to move on. The only question was to where.
There was no going back. Not to the Brotherhood, not to Draxon space, and certainly not to the Silver Legion. So he took his heavily damaged ship, a Wolf multi-role fighter, and limped out of the Void toward Nubra territory, to the nearest place he knew had facilities that could fix his ship up with no questions asked. Komi Station.
But he’d burned bridges there as well—or, more accurately, a hand. The Orijen brothers would probably plant a bomb in his transit drive if they learned the ship was his. But setting up fake identities wasn’t hard for someone as resourceful as Roy, and he already had a few ready to use. He would arrange the repair through a proxy and have all the transactions done anonymously. No questions asked, none answered. Perfectly normal behaviour for those in certain lines of work. As long as the money was good, the brothers wouldn’t care.
And while he was there, he could see if a certain chimera-flying fool happened to be on this station for similar reasons.
Roy Herzog was not a vengeful man. But when the opportunity presented itself, he always settled his accounts.
The commercial district here, like most stations, was located on the levels that were considered “nominal” in terms of gravity. By Terran standards, nominal-g ranged from 0.5g to 1.3g, unless they catered to specific clientele. The streets here were foot traffic only, and as such were only wide enough to avoid a sense of claustrophobia.
Since Komi Station was on the edge of Nubra space, most of the people Hel encountered were of the blue-skinned, bluer-haired, four-fingered variety. Some gave a double take as she walked past. Not many Terrans were seen in this part of space.
She had a bit of money set aside, her share of the profits working with Moss, but she didn’t know what to spend it on. Perhaps some decorations were in order for her quarters. Maybe some posters that changed image every day to keep things fresh and interesting? She passed by a pet store and wondered if getting a sealed aquarium unit would be a good idea. She imagined she’d need someone to talk to after dealing with a full day of Violet’s anxiety and Moss’s complaining.
The more she explored, the more she relaxed. It was silly to think the Orijen brothers would just up and drag her back down to the junkyard forever. Then, all at once, that fear came rushing back as she saw a face from the past.
It wasn’t one of the brothers, though, but a Nubran yard rat she’d known, Grund. And he looked equally shocked to see her.
Yard rats didn’t entirely trust one another. When your goals in life were survival and getting to a better life, it came as no surprise that more than one rat had stabbed their partners in the back to get out. Friends existed, but you always had to keep an eye on one another.
Once they realized they weren’t in the yard anymore, they came together for a quick hug.
“You got out,” said Grund.
“You’re not back in,” said Hel.
“Not this time.” Grund had a habit of earning enough to escape the yard only to lose it all in a casino or some ill-advised scheme. “I have an apartment in the third district. Looking for a local job now. You?”
“Working on a small freighter,” said Hel, making it sound far more straightforward than it actually was.
At that, Grund’s eyes went wide. It wasn’t easy for freeborn Terrans to find legitimate work. “How did that happen?”
Hel smiled as she repeated a line she’d heard Moss use a number of times: “It’s complicated.”
Grund pointed down the street to a café. “We need to talk.”
Once there, he bought them both what Hel decided to call coffee and took a table by the window.
“Do you remember that ship we looted together?” Grund asked, stirring sweetener into his drink. Hel nodded. “Do you know whose ship that was?” Hel started to feel uneasy, but there was something in the Nubran’s face that was more excited than concerned. “That ship belonged to Ranger M.” He said the name with a child-like reverence. “The Ranger M. I did not even know he was real.”
Hel relaxed a little. Ranger M was a persona Moss had created for Odyssey Expeditions, both as a marketing gimmick and to keep his true identity secret. He’d even worn a green and red luchador mask to add to the sense of mystery. He had been a minor celebrity for a while, then lost it all in a public relations disaster and disappeared.
But Odyssey Expeditions held onto the intellectual property rights for Ranger M. They’d even made a cartoon series about his character, which was still popular among the younger age groups, as well as recreational sherb users. Grund fell into the latter category.
Saying He’s my boss didn’t seem like the right move, so instead Hel asked, “How do you know?”
“The cartographical data I scavenged. Most of it was taken from the Golden Parsec.” This was a recently explored region of space beyond the Protectorate’s borders, filled with an unusually high number of resource rich and terraformable worlds. There was a growing push to colonize the region, since it appeared there were no spacefaring sapient life forms present, but it was far enough from the Protectorate that only dedicated pioneers were currently making the journey.
Hel continued to deflect. “Couldn’t the data have come from some other explorer?”
“The timestamp on the data matches up with when Ranger M was there.”
Hel tested her pseudo-coffee and decided it tasted pretty decent. “How much did you get for it?” she asked.
“Most of it was redundant data, but some planets were not in the catalogs,” said Grund. “I can only assume it was because they were not of high value. However, Odyssey Expeditions took an interest and offered me a lot more if I turned over the original data crystal. Proprietary issues, they said.”
Hel raised her glass to her friend. “Well, I’m glad it worked out for you.” But this sure as heck wasn’t something she was going to tell Moss about anytime soon. He was bitter enough about Odyssey Expeditions without having to hear that they’d swooped in like a vulture to pick the bones of his exploration data. But her conversation with Grund had given her an idea for something she might want to bring back to the ship.
“Ranger M. Can you believe that?” Grund chuckled and went back to his drink, but not before repeating the cartoon character’s catchphrase, “For the future!”
Do Not Intercept
The Void refers to the space between the Orion-Cygnus and Carina-Sagittarius arms of our galaxy, and is 100% inaccurate. It’s far from empty, just less densely packed with stars. But there’s still a LOT of them in there.
This is bad news for any species there that decides to invent something more advanced than digital watches, because it’s also the no-man’s-land between two major member states of the Galactic Protectorate.
In theory, any sapient life that evolves here is free to grow and expand as they see fit, albeit without the aid (or restrictions) of the Protectorate.
In reality, they are at risk of being oppressed by regional warlords, bandit empires, and vast corporations who know how to manipulate Protectorate politics to keep their hands clean.
Telling the three apart can be tricky at times.
Foote, The Galaxy is Weirder than You Think
DNI: Do Not Intercept
Funny thing about adaptive translators, the really good ones could not only translate, but infer intentions as well.
That simple message was a prime example. Most of the list was written in Galactic Common, or GalCom, in order to be understood by the various races within the Void Brotherhood. This designation used a well known Draxon symbol for non-interference, only that symbol had no direct translation in English. So the translator, recognizing what the list was about, decided an acronym would best get that across.
The heading was attached to a list of ship names. There were only two types of ships that would be on a DNI list that Moss could think of. Independent traders that paid whatever toll the Brotherhood demanded in exchange for not getting robbed along the way, and pirate traders seeking to unload their ill-gotten goods on the open market.
The independent traders would just be folks just looking to avoid trouble and make an honest buck. People who weren’t working with any major government and couldn’t afford a proper escort. He wasn’t interested in those ships, just the other kind.
Attached to the list were a series of system names. Places these ships intended to stop by. The Void was around two thousand light years wide here, and few ships could make it all the way across without filling up the tank. The smart ones carried electromagnetic fuel scoops, which collected hydrogen cast off from most stars, but these tended to be cumbersome on small traders. Most instead chose to take their chances stopping at small outposts and planets along the way for fuel. Or cargo.
Now, figuring out if this was just more innocent cargo being picked up or something not-so-innocent-but-definitely-lucrative took more than a list of planet names. He’d have to check the latest star charts and trade routes to see what was going on in and around Brotherhood space.
So, once his business with the Orijen brothers was complete and his new(ish) shuttle was being brought to the Viaticus Rex’s hanger, he had two things on his mind.
One, cross-referencing the systems list with known Brotherhood hangouts and determining which ships were likely carrying their goods.
Two, keeping Violet and Hel from figuring out what he was up to for as long as possible. He didn’t need them telling him this was a bad idea.
In some ways, this was unlike Moss. In others, it was all too much like him. Moss wasn’t a hero, no matter how much that stupid cartoon tried to make him look like one. He was a survivor. He was cunning. And, quite frankly, he was a coward. Who wanted to be in a stand-up fight when stabbing someone in the back was so much safer and easier? Who wanted to be in a fight at all when running away kept everyone alive and happy?
But sometimes he carried a grudge.
The fact was he was short on funds, and he had a score to settle with the Void Brotherhood. Even before his recent misadventure at the brown dwarf, he’d had a run-in with the group, one that had not gone well. Thousands of people had been put in jeopardy. He’d lost friends that day, Violet being one of them. And despite the assurances he made to her replacement, part of him also wondered if she was really her, or if either of them ever were. The whole situation saddened and angered him.
And the thing about ships on the DNI list was that many didn’t travel with escorts. The pirates effectively owned that sector of space. Who was going to rob them?
Moss, that was who.
The plan was this: find a nice little transport that was light on defenses and relieve them of their ill-gotten goods, preferably without firing a shot. Then go far far far far far away from Brotherhood space and live the good life transporting tourists to the finest Elysian pleasure planets.
But he had a feeling Hel would be against it. Violet, not so much. She’d never liked pirates of any stripe, but she also tended to be his Jiminy Cricket when it came to brash and foolhardy stunts. And this was going to be both. So, better to keep quiet until he could either sell them on the idea, or they were already on top of their pigeon.
When Moss returned to the Rex, Hel was nowhere to be seen and Violet was uncharacteristically quiet. She usually bugged him in just about every section of the ship with idle chitchat whenever he came back. Right now, the ship was almost eerily silent.
“Hello?” he said as he reached the cockpit. The figurine on the dashboard suddenly looked at him, as if startled out of a trance.
“Huh? Oh, hey Moss. Hey, did you know I left myself a virtual jacuzzi?”
This wasn’t exactly the greeting he’d expected. “What?”
“Seems like before I bit the big one, I left some stuff behind for me to find. I guess someone told her that backups were possible. She must have known the odds were good she wasn’t coming back.”
“What was in the file?”
“She caught me up on all the stuff we did together, left some tips about coping with existential angst, and left copies of all her stuff. She was planning to build a virtual house at some point, and wanted to install holographic projectors throughout the ship so she could have some kind of presence—”
“—Projectors?” Moss cut in. “Do you know how much—?”
“—assuming you didn’t wuss out over the expense. Yeah, we both saw that coming.”
Moss felt a little guilty about jumping the gun like that. But still, the hardware required to create a virtual Violet throughout the ship would be expensive, and serve little practical purpose. Then again, if his raid against the Brotherhood paid off…
“I’ll think about it.”
“Hey, no rush. This virtual house project is going to keep me busy for a while. The one advantage of being a transferred consciousness—real estate is dirt cheap.”
“Where’s Hel?” Moss asked, changing the subject.
“Oh, she went topside to the shopping district. You want me to call her back?”
Moss shook his head. “Naw. I got the shuttle I wanted. I’m going to get someone to turn the secondary cargo hold into a proper vehicle hanger. Might even have some room left over for a rover.”
“Isn’t that going to cut into your profits?” Violet asked. “I mean, my math might be rusty, but I always figured more cargo meant more money.”
“Sure, but the secondary hold is half the size of the main one. I’d rather have more flexibility so we can take on more specialized jobs.”
Violet sighed. “Why don’t I like the sound of that?”
“What?” Moss couldn’t help but get a little defensive. Why did people always assume the worst about him?
“I’m just saying, I’ve died twice. Let’s not try to make it three in a row?”
Moss was about to remind her that she was far from the only person on this ship who had been dead before, only to be interrupted by the passenger ramp activating.
“Must be Hel,” said Moss.
Violet confirmed that, then added, “Seems like she’s not alone.”
“What do you mean?”
A pause. “You know, I think she’d prefer it if I didn’t say anything.”
“Now why don’t I like the sound of that?”
“Because you’re a Grumpy Gus who doesn’t like surprises, and that makes it fun to poke you.”
Hel came to the cockpit with a big grin on her face. Moss didn’t have any romantic feelings toward her, but it was hard not to appreciate a grin like that. It gave you hope that the rest of the day might not suck.
“Captain, Violet,” Hel said dramatically. “I’d like to present the latest member of our crew.”
Moss raised a wary eyebrow.
“Say hello, Trouble.”
Moss’s face blanched. “Wait. Did you say—?”
A furry, half meter long creature scurried onto Hel’s shoulder, then stood on its hind legs so its head was higher than hers and gave a tiny salute. “Hey boss. Nice to meet ya! I’m sure we’re gonna have some great adventures together!”
“No,” said Moss. “No no no no oh HELL no.”
“Is that a ferret?” Violet asked. “Aren’t they extinct? I didn’t know they could talk.”
“They are, and they can’t,” said Hel. “This is a petbot. Custom robotic companionship suitable for starship travel. No need to feed, no mess to clean, ten-year warranty, and pseudo-intelligence that doesn’t violate the Protectorate’s AI restrictions.” She was no doubt rattling off the selling points the same way they’d been shovelled at her.
“Get that goddamn thing off my ship,” said Moss.
“Oh, come on, Moss. He’s cute,” said Violet. “Hang on, I read about this from my predecessor’s notes. Wasn’t Trouble—?”
“Ranger M’s cartoon sidekick,” said Moss, trying not to grind his teeth.
The ferret rested a tiny paw on Hel’s head and leaned on her. “Hey, who you callin’ a sidekick?”
“Did you know they already have a Trouble model on file?” said Hel, still excited. “Printed him off right there in front of me. I thought I was going to have to custom order one and come back later.”
Moss pressed a hand against his face. “Yes, I am aware. All too aware.”
Hel’s expression finally began to drop as she realized she might have miscalculated. “Oh… I thought you’d find it, you know, funny.”
“Well, I don’t.”
“So this is like a reminder about how Odyssey Expeditions screwed you over or something?”
Moss looked puzzled. “What? No. It’s a reminder of how much I hate that goddamn cartoon. Trouble is the…” He looked around helplessly, unable to think of a suitable comparison. He’d spent more time reading old books than watching old Earth shows, but there was someone on board who was obsessed with them. “Violet?”
“That’s it. The Scrappy-Doo of the show. It annoyed the hell out of me whenever I saw him. I want it off the ship.”
“Hey, I paid for him with my own money,” said Hel.
“Funny, I paid for this ship with my own money,” Moss countered.
“I need a little companionship here,” Hel fired back. “You’re not exactly the warmest person to have a conversation with on long trips.”
“And that walking toilet brush is your solution?”
“Eh, watch it, bub,” said Trouble, paws on hips.
“Shut up,” said Moss.
Violet let out an ear-piercing whistle over the speakers. “Girls, girls! You’re both pretty! And given that I control certain vital aspects of the ship, such as life support, I reckon I get a say in the matter as well. The robot rodent stays.”
“Ferrets ain’t rodents,” said Trouble.
“Shut up,” said Violet.
“Vi, I’m not having that thing on board.”
“Hey, you owe me,” said Violet.
Moss sighed. He wasn’t going to win this one. Not that it should have surprised him. “Fine.”
“Right on!” said Trouble and pumped a tiny fist in the air. “For the future!”
“Hey, that’s my line,” Moss blurted, then winced. “I can’t believe I just said that.”
Barl growled. “Great Digger’s Teeth…”
He and his brother were in the cockpit of a shot up Wolf the two had been commissioned to work on. Off the books, of course. Nothing they hadn’t done before. Regular station repair crews were required by law to report anything suspicious, like damage from weapons fire, but privately hired contractors had no such obligation. Well, they did, but it was easily ignored. Most of the exterior work had been finished and now they were double checking all the internal systems. Including its computers.
Ashtar was busy reading over some specs on his datapad. “What is it?”
“Guess whose ship this is?”
“A paying customer,” said Ashtar flatly. Then he thought better of it. “Whose?”
Barl held his cybernetic hand up and clenched a couple of times.
“You think I’d joke about something like that?”
Barl was the larger of the two Hopat brothers, over a meter tall, and most people assumed he was the stupid one. But in truth, he simply didn’t say much, and preferred to observe, especially when nobody was observing him.
He pointed to the Wolf’s console. “Ship IFF is dual coded, one civilian, one for the Void Brotherhood.”
Ashtar shrugged. “Yeah, but we assumed that going in. Every week, some poor sap strays too far from home and needs a quick fix. Usually from The Dump. So what did you find?”
“Says the ship has belonged to a Nubran female for the last year. No chance. Atmosphere mix indicates Terran. Seat position is set for someone 1.4 meters tall, but the adjustment rail suggests it’s normally 1.9. The navigation log shows this ship has been here once before. Guess on what date?” He clenched his hand again.
Ashtar frowned. That was enough to convince him. “He’s got grinders, I’ll give him that.”
“You want to wire his drive to blow mid-transit?”
“Tempting, but there’s still a chance you’re wrong.” A smile crept from one of Ashtar’s ears to the other. “Besides, I got a more satisfying idea.”
Moss had Hel oversee the modifications to the Viaticus Rex II.I personally. This, of course, meant she was in the mechanics’ way, annoying those who knew their job far better than she did. But Hel still needed to learn the ins and out of the ship, and more importantly, he needed her out of his way.
Moss sat at the cockpit, accessing navigation data and cross-referencing information with the DNI routes on his datapad. He had to input the names manually, not wanting any kind of electronic trail leading back to this list. It was taking longer than he thought.
Violet had gone back to constructing her virtual world, which would hopefully keep her occupied. That only left…
“Hey, boss. Whatcha up to?”
“Scram,” said Moss.
The robotic ferret jumped up on his armrest and stood on two feet. “Ah, come on. I’m sure you and me can be pals if you just—”
Moss grabbed Trouble by the neck and held him at eye level, making sure no misunderstandings would follow.
“Listen. You can play sidekick to Hel. You can be someone for Violet to talk to. You can scamper and scurry around this ship until your battery wears out for all I care. But if you bother me when I tell you to scram, I will void your warranty so fast you’ll think there’s been a factory recall. Do you understand?”
“Don’t be that way, boss. We can still—”
Moss squeezed, making Trouble’s eyes bulge. “Is there a problem with your self-preservation protocols? I said, do you understand?”
“Yes, boss,” Trouble croaked.
Moss let the ferret go and it scampered out of the cockpit, but he didn’t feel that much better. The bulging eyes and croaking voice had been done for comedic effect. They’d programmed the little bugger to expect abuse from grouchy crew members. And no doubt that meant it would be back to get up in his business, especially if Hel was around.
He took his mind off that depressing inevitability by focusing on the task at hand, finding a potential score that would get him as far away from the Void as possible. The thought that pirates—ones that had tried to kill him and his friends—would unwittingly finance his future comfortable lifestyle kept him smiling when he went to bed at night.
He was half tempted to leave his old Ranger M mask behind on their ship for the others to find. Sometimes revenge was a dish best served smug. But his own self-preservation protocols reminded him that pirates also carried grudges. Sometimes right across the galaxy.
Roy allowed himself a smile when he saw the name.
Viaticus Rex II.I
He’d accessed the station’s traffic computer from a remote terminal in the commercial sector and scanned the list of incoming ships. The name stuck out because of its butchering of Latin and bizarre use of roman numerals with a decimal. He’d only seen such a combination once before.
There weren’t many chimeras passing through Komi Station. From an insurance standpoint, it made far more sense to stick with a reliable brand name that offered easy replacement parts, rather than cobble together a ship from the carcasses of others. Only broke or desperate pilots tended to fly them. Yet that scrap heap had helped wipe out his team and fought him to a draw.
And it was here. Which meant the pilot was here.
He considered a plan of action. Assassination came to mind first. Sneak aboard and snap the pilot’s neck like a twig. Nice and personal. Logistically, this posed no difficulty, but there was no way for him to do it without station security recording him entering the hangar bay. He wasn’t in a position to have his face put on wanted bulletins across the sector.
Sabotage posed a similar problem, and tracking the man down while he went about his business wasn’t practical—Komi Station was the size of a large city, and he didn’t even know what the pilot really looked like. The last time they’d met, he’d been wearing a ridiculous wrestling mask, dressed up like an equally ridiculous cartoon character.
In the end, he settled on waiting for the ship to leave. Then he’d follow it at a discrete distance and see where it went next. Once he figured that out, he’d intercept it and blow it to pieces. His Wolf had a faster transit drive than most comparable ships. He should have no trouble getting ahead of that clunker.
Moss had found his pigeon.
Interestingly, pigeons were one Terran animal species that was not extinct. Before the Terran Disaster, a Nubran entrepreneur discovered their cooing had a soothing effect on his people, and thought they’d make a great exotic pet to sell. Only some escaped the illegal breeding pen he’d set up back home.
You didn’t have to be a history buff like Moss to guess how this story ended.
Today there is a small terraformed world called Maruma deep within the Nubra Republic that is absolutely infested with pigeons. They easily metabolized the seeds and tiny fruits created by the fast-growing plants there and had no predators to fear. None of the usual humane means of animal control seemed to work on them, either. And since it was a terraformed world with no true indigenous life to be protected, they eventually had to be accepted as the indigenous life. As a result, the expression “like pigeons on Maruma” was often used to describe the dangers posed by an invasive species.
And, in one of life’s strange little ironies, the ship Moss was looking at now was called the Maruma.
Moss had come up with a list of a dozen potential targets. Each had inventory lists that were either suspicious sounding or clearly valuable.
While pirate ships used for raiding often had little or no legal records to track, trading ships were another matter. At some point they needed to offload and sell their goods off system, and that meant records were kept about those ships, including weapon loadouts.
Unfortunately for Moss, most of the ships with clearly valuable cargo were on more heavily armed ships than he cared to engage with—it seemed the Brotherhood didn’t fully trust one another after all. Big surprise.
That left the ships with more unusual cargo lists. The Maruma’s manifest simply read “Specialized Mining Equipment.” Somewhat vague, but half the entries on the DNI list were equally ambiguous. A couple outright said, “None of Your Business.”
Still, mining equipment of any type was worth a lot on the right market. The way Moss saw it, specialized could only be worth more.
Best of all, the ship was a slow and bulky Messenia-class transport, armed only with basic pulse cannons, a turret on the top and bottom. It was no match for the Rex.
Now it was just a matter of getting Hel and Violet on board.
Buy Lost Cargo at https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Cargo-Get-Saga-Book-ebook/dp/B0CJ8Q7Q95