Tomas Ek emerges from the crew quarters about forty minutes into the Aurelius’s flight. He walks into the cockpit, cradling his tablet like a newborn. His already pale face looks wrung of any remnants of color. He sidles up behind Wei Parker and Henry Saito, sitting at the cockpit’s nav computer. The computer offers no information about their path or location, instead flashing: AUTO-PILOT ENGAGED.
They are playing cards.
Ek clears his throat.
Wei and Henry spin to face him, setting their cards face down on the solar system map laid into the console.
“So, what does the old home office have to say?” Wei prods.
“Can they do anything to turn this ship around, or deactivate the auto-pilot remotely?” Henry asks.
Ek leans against the cockpit doorway.
“My superiors at UST first want to applaud our bravery in tending to the Aurelius,” Ek begins.
“Our bravery?” Wei asks.
“It was hardly beneficial to cast any of us in a lesser light,” Ek argues.
“I’m sure it was,” Wei replies.
Ek looks at his tablet, reading notes.
“UST believes that given the present circumstances, it would be best to determine the nature of the ship’s malfunction, which they believe will be revealed at its final destination.”
Wei sits forward. “Are you serious? They aren’t going to bring us back. They just want us to go along for the ride?”
“As I said, the home office believes that the potential value of knowledge-gained outweighs the potential risks to person and property.”
“They’re not risking anything,” Henry says.
“This ship is worth billions of credits to them, and the lost cargo is invaluable,” Ek responds. “I don’t care for it any more than you do, but the home office knows what it is doing. The home office is good.”
Wei picks up her cards, eyes her hand, and plays a pair; nines of astral sextant.
“So you’re saying that they’re not doing shit for us, and they’re not going to.”
Ek appears flustered.
“They are going to check in once daily starting with the end of our conversation,” Ek says. “And they assure me that they’re exploring all possible solutions as we speak.”
“What a relief,” Wei sighs.
“Yeah, we’re home free now,” Henry replies.
Ek lowers his tablet to his side, pouts, and then taps his feet like a restless child.
“I’m doing the best that I can here, and I’d appreciate if you would show a little appreciation.”
Henry plays a pair: sevens of orbit. He draws a card from the pile, and grimaces.
“Not gonna win that way,” Wei jabs. “And yes, of course, Mr. Ek. Thank you so very very much for making one com call to the home office and telling us just how thoroughly fucked we definitely are. You’ve really done a lot, and you might just want to lay down for a bit. Recharge. We’re probably going to need your incredible ‘best’ again very soon.”
“I don’t want to be here either,” Ek barks. “I thought I was doing a routine inspection.”
“Yeah, yeah, we’re all equally screwed here. Did UST say anything else?”
Ek eyes his tablet again.
“Umm,” he says. “They did want me to ask you about your experience with the neural processing interface.”
Wei plays another pair: aces of squadron. She looks at her hand, reaches out toward the draw pile, and then pulls it back, choosing not to take another card.
Henry scoffs. “You’re bluffing,” he says.
“Wait and see,” Wei smirks. “What do they want to know, Ek?”
“Mister Ek, please, Miss Parker,” he returns.
“Yeah, I don’t think so, Ek,” she answers. “I think that given the circumstances we’re far from pleasantries.”
“Fine,” Ek says. “And they wondered if you’ve experienced any difficulties in the uplink process lately.”
Wei cocks her eyebrows.
“Now they want to know if I’ve had any difficulties? Did they miss the once-a-week reports I sent when they installed the system two years ago?”
“They didn’t say.”
“Well, I’ve been telling the home office that every time I plug into that thing it’s like a powersurge in my head. My eyes blink funny. My thoughts are scrambled. I say my own name over and over just so I can remember how to talk and run the station at the same time,” Wei says. “In short, yes, there have been numerous difficulties. And they’ve been reported.”
Henry places his free hand on Wei’s leg. She looks down at it, then at Henry, and he pulls it back.
“I’m sorry, Miss Parker,” Ek says. “They didn’t share that record with me.”
“Maybe they’re not as infallible as you think?” Henry says.
Ek shakes his head.
“UST is doing a lot of very interesting research in shared processing, and they asked that I thank you personally for your participation in the Hyperion pilot project,” Ek reads from the tablet. “Thanks to you, Wei Parker, UST is developing more advanced versions of neural shared processing technology that may serve to eliminate the need for AI completely.”
Henry plays a pair: queens of academy. Then he lays down a second pair: aces of astral sextant, atop Wei’s aces of squadron. He smirks at her, and leans back in his chair.
“Sorry,” he says to her.
“Ain’t over yet,” she replies. “Read that last line again, Ek?”
Ek repeats the last line.
“Eliminate the need for AI, huh? So what, human brains running all the machines?” she says.
“It doesn’t say human brains specifically,” Ek replies. “But I would assume so.”
“That’s exciting,” Henry says. “Far less risk for catastrophic failure.”
“Why don’t I feel like it’s a selfless act?” Wei says.
“Experience?” Henry replies.
Ek scoffs quietly, and shifts his weight from one leg to another.
“At least you can assume, Miss Parker, that any discomfort you experienced was in the name of progress,” Ek says.
Wei plays deuces of constellation.
“Damn,” Henry replies. “Good game.”
He extends his hand, Wei reaches out and shakes it.
“Good game,” she says.
“The important thing,” Ek interjects. “Is that UST has our best interests in mind. I think the most prudent decision at this point is to trust them, and accept any resources they offer us to aid our passage.”
“And you’ll continue questioning us on their behalf?” Henry asks.
“I will act as supervisor, and UST’s eyes, so while I will try to avoid unnecessary conflicts, I will speak as the authority here.”
“Sure you will,” Wei says.
“We’re just your left and right hands,” Henry smirks.
“I strongly believe we can work mutualistically,” Ek adds.
“I can’t wait,” Wei replies.
The Aurelius bucks suddenly, toppling off axis for a moment, tossing Wei onto the map console, Henry from his seat, and Ek into the cockpit door jamb. The ship rocks and shifts, settling awkwardly back to its proper orientation.
“What was that?” Ek cries.
“Something bad,” Wei says.
The ship shakes and rolls again, tossing them around the cockpit.
“Blaster shots,” Henry Saito says.
“Out here?” Ek asks. “Why?”
Wei pulls herself up onto the nav computer and switches through the scanner cameras.
“Pirates. That’s why,” she says.
Wei taps on the viewscreen. Two smaller ships, not much larger than Ek’s cruiser, but outfitted with aftermarket weapons, flank the Aurelius on both sides. The pirate ships are keeping pace with them, cannons now trained forward, herding the Aurelius wherever they want it to go.
The com lights up.
Henry turns it on, and they sit quiet, bracing themselves, waiting for their attackers to speak first.
“Hello there, fly,” a raspy voice says. “This is the spider. We think you know what happens next.”
Wei mutes the com. She eyes the weapons console on the other side of the cockpit, looks at Henry, and unmutes the com.
Henry Saito slides over, and begins fiddling with the controls for the Aurelius’ defense turrets. He flips switches, turns dials, and tries to turn on the targeting computer, but nothing works. Henry turns toward Wei and shakes his head.
“Spider, huh?” she replies to the com. “We’re not so good with metaphors over here. Mind explaining what’s going to happen?”
Henry jumps up, and sprints down toward the engine room, passing Ek cowering in the cockpit doorway.
“Well, fly, we’re pirates, you see,” the voice answers. “And we’re going to take your ship and your cargo, and we’re probably going to kill you and your crew in horrible, gruesome ways.”
Henry runs back up into the cockpit.
Wei mutes the com again.
“Any miracles for us?” she asks.
“Afraid not,” Henry replies. “We don’t have control over anything, and we can’t override anything.”
“This is disappointing,” Wei says.
Ek clutches his tablet to his chest and slides down the doorway into a seated position, and begins rocking back and forth, shaking his head in denial.
“We’re really going to enjoy it too,” the pirate continues. “See, we really do like hurting people. It’s not just about the money. And frankly, it’s sad that we live in a solar system where so many can’t simply follow their passions.”
“I suppose we could hide and try to fight them,” Henry says. “Element of surprise?”
“No no no no no no,” Ek repeats mindlessly.
“While Ek and I don’t usually get along,” Wei says. “I think he has a point. If we go quietly, it might buy us some time to mount a thoughtful defense.”
Wei unmutes the com.
“Hello, spider, this is fly. We’re willing to go quietly here, but full disclosure, we are carrying no cargo, so you don’t stand to gain much,” Wei says.
The com falls silent.
They can hear hushed mutterings on the other end, but nothing that’s clear enough to understand.
Then the com turns off completely.
Wei looks up at Henry with concerned eyes.
Henry shrugs his shoulders.
“Do you think--” Wei starts.
The Aurelius jolts suddenly, jostling Wei, Henry, and Ek. They each grab hold of the ship and hold tight when suddenly the motion stops and the ship is steadier than it has ever felt.
“Blasters?” Ek whimpers.
Henry shakes his head. “No, it was too quick and gentle. My bet is that it’s a tractor beam.”
Wei looks at the nav computer.
“They aren’t going to tow us anywhere. Not with the auto-pilot still set for wherever.”
The com lights up.
“We’ve got you locked, pretties,” the pirate says. “Kindly turn off your engine so we can board you more efficiently.”
Wei shrugs at Henry. She mutes the com.
“Honesty is the best policy here?” she asks.
“What do we have to lose?”
“Our lives. Our jobs. Our organs,” Ek chants.
“Even pirates are just businessmen, Ek,” she says. “They’re profit-minded, and thereby at least vaguely reasonable.”
Ek rocks back and forth, clutching his knees to his chest.
Wei unmutes the com.
“Hello again, spider. We actually can’t turn the ship off. There’s some kind of malfunction with the auto-pilot,” she says. “We aren’t controlling anything, here, now, and we’d sure hate to waste your time and limited resources.”
Garbled, digitized laughter rattles the com.
“Oh, of course,” the pirate says, choking on residual chuckles. “We’ll just let you go then, seeing that you sound so trustworthy. We wouldn’t want to waste any time on an empty ship.”
“We are well-versed in sarcasm over here,” Wei responds. “If you have to see for yourself, come aboard. There’s a mess of empty containers, and one businessman you can put in your mid-level executive branch.”
“You know, you’re kind of fun,” the pirate says. “If we didn’t have to probably kill you and your crew, I really think we’d have been friends.”
“That’s comforting,” Wei answers.
She switches off the com.
“We are engaging our docking arm,” the pirate adds. “We’ll see you in a minute.”
Ek pops up from his seat and begins pacing.
“What do we do? What do we do?” he repeats.
Henry Saito jumps up from his chair.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a Wei,” he says.
“You already used that one.”
“I know,” Henry smirks. “Give me your guns.”
Wei peers at him.
“Trust me,” he says.
Wei unbuckles her holster belt and hands them over to Henry. Henry removes his own, and gathers the belts in his hand. He sprints down the main corridor to the crew quarters, and tosses the guns and holsters into the vending robot’s replicator compartment.
“Let’s hope they aren’t hungry,” he says, re-entering the cockpit.
“I’m not sure this is a good plan,” Wei says. “Or a plan at all.”
“There’s only so much space on this boat,” Henry asserts. “If they don’t want us near the controls, engine, or cargo, there’s only one place to stow us.”
“And if they take us captive on their ship?” Ek asks.
“Then we rely on your winning personality to talk us out of certain doom,” Wei barks.
A loud clunk resonates from rear of the ship. They stare at the cargo bay doors, tiny and distant at the ship’s stern. Two metal slabs slip in between the doors, and moving in opposite directions, grind and torque, sliding the doors apart. White light fills the cargo bay. Wei walks toward it. Henry follows her closely.
“What are you doing?” Ek demands.
“Better to show ourselves than make them look,” Wei replies. “First impressions.”
Ek reluctantly follows behind Henry.
Soon, four silhouettes appear amid the light, then five. And six. The shapes of pirates come into definition one-by-one as they file into the cargo bay and look around. The last pirate through directs the others, pointing to the containers, to the lockers, to the engine room, and then toward the cockpit.
As Wei approaches the cargo bay doorway, she raises her hands. Henry follows suit. Then Ek, holding his tablet above his head.
“Welcome to the Aurelius,” Wei says. “How can we be of service?”
The lead pirate looks at her and smiles. His teeth are yellowed, save for the three titanium implants on the top row.
“Where’s the cargo?” he asks. “It’s not smart of you to hide it from us.”
“Like I said over the com, there isn’t any,” Wei replies. “If you want to kidnap us, get in line because this malfunctioning ship got us first.”
The pirate scowls. Three of his men approach him and shake their heads. They didn’t find anything. He points again around the cargo bay, at its ceiling and floor, and the men step back and continue searching. A fourth man marches back in from the engine room.
“The inhibitor is in place and functioning,” he says. “They won’t be going anywhere.”
“Good,” the lead pirate says. “Now help the rest of them search.”
The lead pirate turns back to face Wei, Henry and Ek. He smiles again, and then ins his vest with his hands.
“This is a Polo, miss,” the pirate continues. “You don’t go joyriding in a Polo. Why don’t you just tell us where the cargo is and we can be on our way. After we rape and murder you, of course.”
Ek steps forward, still holding his tablet over his head.
“She’s telling the truth, sir,” he says. “We’re on this ship precisely to investigate what happened to its cargo, and it launched with us onboard, but we haven’t the slightest idea where we’re going.”
“Nice suit,” the pirate replies. “I’ve always wanted one.”
He steps forward and grabs Ek’s lapel, rolling the fabric between his thumb and forefinger.
“Yes. Very nice,” he continues. “By the looks of you, you’re the one in charge.”
The pirate holds his laser pistol under Ek’s chin.
“Now, we’re going to have a chat with you about rectifying this misunderstanding about the cargo.”
“Grist, Wyzern, lock the other two in the crew quarters,” the pirate says. “Take a look around while you’re in there too. Might not be the mother lode, but they could’ve hidden a cloaking device or something in there.”
Two space pirates with wild hair and wild eyes push past Ek and their leader, and advance on Wei and Henry. Without a fight, the pirates take Wei and Henry by their wrists and stick their pistol barrels into the smalls of their backs. Wei winces as the man turns her and flings her into the crew quarters. She stumbles across the doorway and crashes onto the bed.
“I like you right there,” her captor, Grist, says. “Maybe get comfortable.”
The other pirate, Wyzern, shoves Henry in next, tossing him up against the vending robot. Henry deflects off the machine and falls to the floor.
Seething, he says, “Don’t threaten her. It’s not worth it.”
Wyzern whips Henry with the butt of his pistol.
“Shut up,” Wyzern growls.
Grist and Wyzern toss Wei off one of the beds, and flip the mattresses. They open the personnel lockers, and shoot out the kickplate safe. They find nothing. Satisfied, they gaze down at Wei and Henry, huddled side-by-side on the quarters’ floor.
“Nothing,” Grist says.
“That’s what we told you earlier,” Henry replies. “You should work on your listening skills.”
Wyzern whips him again with the butt of his pistol. Henry reels in pain and falls over onto his side clutching his head.
“Stop,” Wei yells.
The lead pirate enters the crew quarters, and holsters his blaster.
“Boys?” he leads.
Wyzern speaks up first: “Captain Devlin, the room’s clear. Nothing worth our trouble.”
“Then we’ll just have to see what our businessman friend reveals when we speak with him at length.” Devlin’s snarling lip as he says “at length” clarifies more than a direct threat could.
“Ek doesn’t know anything either,” Wei says.
Wyzern raises his pistol over her.
“Don’t,” Devlin barks.
Wyzern lowers his weapon.
“If nothing else, we’ll have her to trade,” Devlin continues. “She’ll bring a few hundred credits before our comrades break her.”
Wyzern smiles. Then Grist.
“As for your pal in the suit,” Devlin says. “He may find himself very motivated to talk, very soon. You just enjoy a little down time in here, you won’t be alone for long.”
The lead pirate smirks, turns and walks toward the door. He taps Wyzern on the shoulder, and points to the doorway. His pirate lackey cradles his weapon and stands at the doorway, keeping watch. Devlin leans in to Grist, mutters something they can’t hear, and then Grist takes position next to Wyzern, watching the door.
Devlin smiles and waves at Wei, and the still reeling Henry, turns and then disappears beyond their view.
Grist leans through the doorway. “You wanna know what he said to me?”
“I’m certain that I really don’t,” Wei snarls.
“He said that if you cause trouble, we kill him, and I get the first run at you,” Grist growls.
“Better benefits than UST offers, I suppose,” Wei quips.
Grist smirks and reaches across his body for the door control. The door slides closed with a gentle hush.
Wei turns toward Henry and taps him on the shoulder.
“Are you alright?”
He rubs his head and nods. “I’ll be fine, but is now a good time to gloat?”
Wei stares at him curiously.
Henry winks, and nods toward the vending robot. “I told you to trust me.”