|Credit: Maxime Desmettre|
A sun dawned red over a blue-grey horizon—warming methane clouds high in the atmosphere, casting columns of shadow through the world’s stony orbital ring, flooding through the open viewports of TCV Thiessen’s dorsal cargo bay. Was it Thiessen? Or maybe Kai-Duong III, or Ojimbo. There’d been so many back then, nearly a dozen in four years, and she could never remember their names in perfect sequence. She’d climbed atop a shipping crate to sit and watch the stars, sipping liquor from a little plastic bottle pilfered from the galley freezer. Fourteen years old and so slight she barely looked twelve, licit procurement was out of the question. What else was a bored, surly youth to do? She reclined under that aging alien sun, laid out her arms akimbo in the red light and willed her skin to darken. She hated her skin: its ghastly pallor from a lifetime on starships, transparent with hideous blue veins running beneath, a far cry from the healthy tanned actors she saw in videos. Though she knew the viewports filtered out any UV, she figured anything was better than nothing. Just a little tan, a blush of color, and she’d look better. She knew she’d never be pretty and didn’t yearn for it, but nobody liked being so obviously ugly. Just a little tan.
Music jangling from her earbuds—guitar rock was back in fashion, as happened at least once per century, though her favorite bands were of course transcendent innovators—covered up the incoming footfalls on the deck. She couldn’t hear Tech Schneider’s approach, didn’t notice him whatsoever until he’d already called her name.
What? Snapped from her reverie, she sighted on him like a squirrel spotting a dog.
“Kid! The fuck’re you doing up there?”
Shit. She sprung to her feet in a single move, with a young girl’s preternatural agility. Schneider had already seen the bottle, would smell her breath. He’d tell Chief Leaf and she’d get in trouble. That much was certain; book it. But it didn’t need to happen now. He wanted her to come down and dutifully hurry off to punishment. She didn’t want to do that.
So she bolted. Turning away from the incensed Tech, she dashed away down the container’s roof with steps like glockenspiel tones. Flask still in hand, she hopped the eighteen-inch gap to the next container, looking back to Schneider, she saw him giving chase. Unfortunate; she hoped he’d be too lazy. The pyramidal stack of boxes she’d planned to climb down would lead her right to his clutches. Something else, then. Reversing course, she doubled back and tucked the flask into her back pocket. A support strut loomed over the containers and so she jumped, feeling the hard metal edge bite her fingers as she fought for a solid grip. Maxi climbed hand-over-hand across the gap to another cluster of crates—these stacked two high instead of one, offering only a narrow crawlspace below the ceiling. Into this space she slid, lifting her legs to wriggle through on her back. The corrugated metal hurt her shoulderblades and the flask dug into her bony ass (another depressing personal feature, if anyone had asked).
“Maxi, you gotta get down!” his tone was less angry, more pleasing. Like he was worried. Good, she thought. It’s what you get for being nosy. She worked her way through the dusty gap towards the far bulkhead. She hoped no spiders lived up here.
“It’s not safe!” he called. “Shit!” she heard him running off to find help. She’d have a few minutes at least. Following the sensation of breeze through the twilight, she came at last to the vent opening set into the wall. Auto-screws came undone at her touch and in a moment she’d slipped entirely through the hole.
Using her handy’s screen as a light, she made her way down the vent for several bodylengths before a five-foot drop into the main service duct. The lighting was better here and so she powered off the little device—they’d use it to track her, which meant they’d know she had researched and explored the duct system. Then a whole shit storm she didn’t need; way beyond what a little booze would cost her.
Maxi pulled out her flask, pressed her back against the smooth cold steel and slid to a sitting position. The stuff tasted fine; it was the aftertaste that got to her, the wave of sour and bitter and raw chemical burn that twisted her face out of shape every time no matter how she fought the muscles. From her jacket pocket she produced a small cardboard box, opened its lid and produced a white paper StimStick. These were real prizes, bought at a Rigel Prime corner store from a clerk too bored to check Maxi’s ID. Normally she didn’t dare light one, fearing the smell would carry, but since she’d found herself in the vents anyway…
Smoke hit her throat, flavored with citrus but harsh nonetheless, pulled down through irritated alveoli. She took it in a bit too far, felt the involuntary spasm and let out a short savage cough. Adrenaline pulsed through her system—might the sound give her away?—and she fought every urge to cough again. It didn’t work. Hack. She set down the burning stick, covered her mouth and tried to work through the spell with as little noise as possible. Every echo boomed like pots battling pans in the narrow space.
“Maxine Leaf,” she heard the Chief’s voice, nearly panicking until she realized it came through the vent she’d traversed. “Get out of D-Cargo this fucking instant. It’s not safe in there. You can pull all this teenaged bullshit in your own room without fucking over my insurance rating. It ends now, missy.”
She cringed at missy. He knew how she hated it. Maxi took another drag from her stick, was careful not to pull too far, let out the smoke with a shallow exhale. She had goosebumps, was starting to blush up as the stims hit her blood. The ash she tapped into a demure pile on the duct floor, swirled into spirals with a fingertip before blowing away the evidence. It wouldn’t do to have the Techs see her leavings. Sitting and smoking, running her free hand through the quarter-inch of dark scrub she tolerated on her scalp and enjoying the scratching sensation, she watched the veinwork in her arms. Blood ran beneath skin stretched over fine bones like a birding hound’s. That goddamned pale skin. She pinched at it, left a fingernail-sized dab of ash. Did smoking eventually make your skin ashy? She thought she had read it somewhere. Well, shit, Maxi thought to herself, sucking her stick down to the filter. It never ends.
* * *
“Do you really need that thing on?”
“It’s not my choice,” Lorena glanced to her handy, still taking everything in. “And if it were I’d keep it on. I need a connection to my crew; you must understand,” she smirked, gesturing to the roomful of screens connected to helmet cameras.
Maxi took her in, shrugged after a long moment. “Whatever you say. Out here you can only place so much emphasis on the rules.”
“In your line of work I’m sure that’s true,” Lorena replied with a frosty edge.
Maxi smiled, unperturbed. “Clarity to those who can afford it.”
“I’d love some clarity from you. What’re your people digging for?”
“Is this an official interrogation, Doctor Mizrahi? You’re recording it, so I interpret it as such. It would be unwise for me to answer without a lawyer present.”
“This recording is off the official record, certified by Lorena Mizrahi,” she snapped, rapid diction angrily clipped.
“There we go! I feel much more comfortable now. We’re digging for weapons tech, warheads, same as everyone out here. Except for you, obviously. I’m sure you had something or other to catalogue until our EMs offered a break from routine.”
Lorena didn’t take the bait. “Are you currently storing alien weapons on this ship?”
“Nobody does that. Something goes wrong and you’ve blown up your ride home. That’s never been S.O.P. Did they not explain this in your extensive law enforcement training?” Maxi snarked. “We’ve got storage units in the dig. They’ll get moved up when we leave.”
“What’s the risk your warheads detonate?”
“Who knows? It’s not nothing. We had a close call already, six weeks back. Thank god those things are shaped so well; the thing took out a fifty-meter chunk of hull in its front cone but didn’t touch my guys. Again, that’s luck. They’re more careful with the cutters now.”
“You’re taking them back to where? And who’re the buyers?”
“Honey, I’m flattered, but that stuff’s way over my head. I’m a spacer. I run the ship. Folks fronting the cash weren’t up for the long trip. We hit the water at Gagarin Station and that’s the last port on our itinerary. I get my bonus and walk.”
“So it’s not your ship.”
Maxi laughed. “If I had the money to buy a starship I’d spend it on better things than starships, believe you me. They’ll unload Toussaint, strip her for scrap and resell the C-H drive. I’ll find another gig.”
“Show me the dig site on the cameras,” Lorena pointed.
“Okay,” Maxi worked the console, shifting images between monitors. “You see Chelios, there? In the pressure suit and cutter? He’s near the blowout spot, looks like five decks down.” She pulled up a larger 3D model of the alien wreck.
“Oh wow, I see it,” Lorena examined the twisted, charred spars of steel standing like dry weeds around a yawning hole.
“That was a missile already in its tube—we didn’t realize as we cut through,” explained the shorter woman. “But the blast took out the tube and most of the loading assembly—I say this like I know it all, this is just what the dig managers tell me—so we actually have an easier path to the main magazine. And obviously we could look in the other tubes for warheads. Got a few scores that way.”
Lorena scowled at the word “score,” at the scurrilous business it implied. “Okay, everything you’re describing to me is emphatically illegal. Assuming you don’t have permits…”
“God, no. Nobody does that.”
“You just hope not to get caught?”
“Closer to home we might’ve used some trickery. Out here, not worth it. And yes, you guys showed up this one time.”
“Have you run digs out here before?”
“Not personally, but I did my homework first and I knew the numbers. Numbers say no goddamn way an E.C. clipper pops out of nowhere. Explorer Corps. No offense, I know you’ve got the authority, but it never happens. I’m the unluckiest bitch this arm of the galaxy.”
Lorena’s gave a bitter smile. “You’d be surprised.”
“Three months of solid ops and some park rangers get over-earnest. Hard to top that.”
“That’s the second time you’ve taken that shot,” Lorena bristled, “and I don’t want to hear it. We had a routine dive, looked for ship sigs and yours didn’t even stand up to a cursory check.”
Maxi balled her left hand into a fist and tapped her upper lip, thinking. “Why would you look for EMs in a graveyard?”
“Standard emergence scanning,” Lorena fibbed, realizing it was not the typical Corps practice and seeking to keep the other woman from probing at her mission.
But probe she did. “I’ve seen the published patrol routes. Corps vessels don’t come through Baraheni more than once a year. The charting initiative’s been locked in Congress for ten years. So unless you’re specifically looking for folks like us, I don’t get what you are looking for.”
“You don’t need to worry yourself over that. What you need to do is shut down your dig. Today, Captain Leaf. I can’t let you go on without permits.”
“Doctor, I asked because I’d like to help. We’ve been here three months, like I said. Done all kinds of surveys; the dig folks have some nice gear on those pods. If you’re looking for something in the ‘Yard, we might point you the right way.”
“It’s not your business.”
“I think it is,” Maxi leaned back in her chair and webbed her fingers behind her head, cradling her blonde bun. “Because you should want me to help you. It’s the best resolution you’re going to get.”
“What’s that mean?” Lorena felt a twinge of nerves, glanced around the room, swept her eyes over Maxi’s hips and legs looking for holstered weapons. She thought of her own pistol but kept her hands away from it.
“It means we’re at an impasse. See, you can order us to stop. Tell me to leave. But you can’t really make us, can you? There’s no brig on that clipper, let alone for thirty men. Unless you’re on permit duty full-time, which I doubt, it’s not even worth your time to find a Navy ship and report us.”
“Nimbus is less than a week out. We’re fresh from her docks.”
“Doctor, you may have seen the Nimbus but she’s a long way from here. I know those patrol routes are classified, but every old hand in this business has a source to get them. You can tell me to stop all you like, but I’m afraid we’re in a frontier-law situation. There’s a pistol on your hip, but unless you’re going to start executing us…” she trailed off, cocked her head saucily, awaited Lorena’s response. A tone sounded and a light on the console flashed; Maxi stabbed a finger at it, made it go away.
Her heart was racing, emotions bubbling towards the surface as she fought to keep them down. She wanted to punch this woman in the face. This was not how Lorena preferred to think of herself. What could she do instead? What could be wielded against this winking, smirking criminal? Ransacking her brain for ideas, she had to concede any traditional enforcement action was doomed. By the time any word got back to Navy, the scavs would pull up their stakes and leave. Toussaint’s name, designation and EM frequencies were of little value; she’d be scrapped and nobody would ever see her again. Leaf, el-Assan and the rest of the crew could easily vanish in the vastness of human society. Their cargo would be untraceable. Which left only one resource the scavs might truly covet: their Chen-Hau drive. Tens of millions of dollars sat in Toussaint’s heart—an utterly illiquid asset Maxi’s patrons would no doubt hope to resell. They might even rely on it to break even. And a Chen-Hau core’s radiation signature, she knew, was utterly unique. If you can’t grab a bull by its horns, her grandmother used to say with a salty grin, then go for its balls.
She needed Genz. Genz had the scanning gear, could easily pull a read while onboard. Konoko’s sensors might be enough remotely, but she couldn’t trust them—especially with only Vivek and Obo available to take the read. What’s more, she didn’t want Maxi to know her plan. If the woman offered help now, why play the extra card? Lorena decided she’d take what she could and signal to Genz at the first opportunity. To her fellow C.O., she forced her most patient smile. “So we’re clear—and yes, all of this remains off the record—you’re offering access to your scanner logs if I don’t immediately haul my ship for a Navy destroyer.”
The same tone sounded once more and the same light appeared on her console. Irritated, Maxi pressed a different control from before and ducked her head to a small microphone. “Make it quick. Five-seconds quick.”
From the speakers came a male voice mauled by static, his first words cut off. “—team pushing in the loaders. We’re not done yet.”
“Just work around them,” the scavenger C.O. replied. “Use common sense. You’re big boys down there.”
She killed the link, gave Lorena a look of apology, got back to business. “I’d like you to look the other way entirely. We’re not hurting anyone out here. No reason Navy needs to get involved.”
Lorena shook her head. “There’s no way. This is getting reported, Captain Leaf. It’s either very soon, or not soon at all. I can make this a priority issue. I can’t let it slide.”
“You see?” Maxi grinned and clapped her hands together. “Now we’re negotiating!”
* * *
Karl and Beatrice walked the wide corridor down Toussaint’s spine, bemusedly taking in their dingy surroundings. Karl looked periodically to his hand scanner, having looped the heavy case’s strap over one shoulder. With his other hand he nudged open a door left ajar—inside was a communal bathroom with a single shower stall, emanating the unmistakable stench of ammonia. “Grösser als mein Bad,” he remarked, and Beatrice snickered.
“Fast so sauber. At least they had the sense to douse it with chemicals. Lord knows how a ship full of men keep themselves alive without cleaning drones. It’s a miracle they didn’t drown in their own filth.”
“I don’t allow the drones in my cabin,” Karl was reviewing radiation numbers on his scanner. “I would prefer to clean it myself and avoid the intrusion.”
“Intrusion?” Bea cocked her head.
“I know it’s silly, but when they are in the room I feel as though I’m being watched.”
“Nothing so sinister. Judged, perhaps, but that too seems strong. I suppose I don’t like being observed. I have to ask myself what’s being seen and from there it’s as though I’m watching myself. And then I begin to judge. Every task becomes a test. I think too much and it’s exhausting.”
She nodded slowly. “It’s not just the drones.”
“No, people are worse. Compared to most people the drones are a quirk, almost. Same goes for mirrors—I can’t see myself in a mirror and keep working. I start asking myself questions and I can’t stop. But people are the worst.”
“You think they’re judging you.”
He grimaced. “I know they’re not. But I know they see me, and I have to ask what exactly they see. That’s where I get into trouble.”
“And it’s all people.”
“No. Well, it can feel that way, but some people are always better than others. I like Doctor Mizrahi. I like you.”
“I’m glad,” Beatrice smiled, though tightness in her brow showed doubt. She was not sure she understood. “I’ve always liked other people. The least predictable creatures in the universe and thus the most compelling.”
“They are…exhausting,” Karl sighed. “Like their voices make my skull buzz. If I can be alone, the vibrations wear down.”
“That’s so strange,” Bea shook her head. “It seems so alien to me. We’re social creatures, aren’t we?”
“In terms of anthropology, I would agree.”
“And the species advances through collaboration, yes?”
“That I won’t agree to. I can think of many great men and women who worked alone.”
“But their work only mattered because others could use it. A novel has value only because someone other than the author reads it.”
Karl pondered that, unsure how to rebut. Beatrice continued: “What’s more, those lone geniuses you idolize were geniuses only because a society already existed to support them. Mozart didn’t build the first violin; he didn’t invent the opera. Though given how his dick got around, I’m not sure we can call him a loner.”
Karl turned beet red. “I suppose everyone does only the best he can.”
“My point is, you may not like other people. You don’t even have to be nice to them. But you can’t deny what they’ve done for you; that in the end, you owe the universe a little something too.”
“I will admit that,” Karl said quickly, feeling his handy buzz, more than eager to bail from the increasingly uncomfortable chat. “Hold the scanner a moment?” he asked Beatrice.
She turned her nose up like a spoiled princess, her mouth’s corners turning up. “I will not.”
Karl sighed, bent over to set the scanner on the deck and pulled the handy from his pocket. A text message from Lorena. This he found immediately unusual, since she preferred voice or video links. It had always annoyed him; he vastly preferred the written word’s soothing impersonality. SCAN C-H CORE SIG, it read. BE DISCREET.
“We have to find the core, I guess,” Karl told his companion, stowing the handy and taking back up the scanner. “Lorena wants its signature recorded. Likely for our report.”
“Well, I’m sure whatever grease-encrusted mole man of a Tech they’ve got in there will be happy to see a beautiful lady.” Noting Karl’s sudden silence and renewed red, she teased him: “you think I’m beautiful, right, Karl?”
“Oh! Ja, na klar,” he blurted, deliberately immersed in his scanner like the secret to eternal life lay hidden in its screen.
Beatrice laughed out loud. They walked in tandem down the corridor, now nearly at its end where lay a door garishly painted in yellow hazard stripes. DRIVE had been crudely stenciled on the bulkhead above; turmeric stains drooled down from the letters to pool and dry on the door frame. As they approached, a red siren light suddenly burst to life and began a slow revolution. A sad, low klaxon sounded like a poorly tuned brass horn. “That’s not very neighborly,” Beatrice commented, just an instant before the blast swept the deck from under their feet.
NEXT TUESDAY IN PART TWENTY-TWO: A DREADFUL ACCIDENT LEAVES TWO CREWS SCRAMBLING AGAINST TIME AND PHYSICS TO SAVE THEMSELVES. SAVING THEIR COMRADES WILL BE A STIFFER CHALLENGE...
NEXT TUESDAY IN PART TWENTY-TWO: A DREADFUL ACCIDENT LEAVES TWO CREWS SCRAMBLING AGAINST TIME AND PHYSICS TO SAVE THEMSELVES. SAVING THEIR COMRADES WILL BE A STIFFER CHALLENGE...