The deep murmur of the drives at warp seeped through the whole of the Shenandoah. An Aquamarine-class Casimir drive was a lot of power for a ship the Shenandoah’s size, but the display in the engine room was, as usual, all-clear each time Chace or Tiik checked it. The wreck of the Thracian Days was a day-and-a-half from Camus at blue-speed, meaning that the Shenandoah could do it in roughly thirty hours—nine hundred credit black-work was worth the rush.
Twenty-odd hours in, Nicoline walked into the bridge from the mess, wearing animal-print cling-pants meant as pyjamas but serviceably clean and a white tank. Kai sat at the helm—a high-backed chair facing the main window which had in its domain the helm proper, throttle, and countless displays and switches, not to mention a steering-trigger below the console marked “COILGUN”—and the hatch down to the engine room was propped open.
“Any red lights at Systems?” she asked of Kai as she sat down at a four-screen, three-keyboard computer complex. The lower keyboards were at either side of the primary English-language one, and occupied by esoteric special characters useful presumably to her, but no one else.
“No ma’am. Smooth journey. Why?”
“Updating some things, wanted to make sure they’re going through. How long were you guys without?”
“Henry quit about a month ago.”
“Not too bad. I’d have said two weeks—he must’ve been good.”
“God knows I don’t understand code, but he worked like a maniac.”
“That’s ‘cause he kept the O.S. the ship came with, modifying it as he went. It’s nothing like the original anymore—brilliant, really—but it’s still got the limitations of a job done straight-and-square. For white or blue that’s fine but black-crews tend to need custom jobs. When I have a day or two free I’ll see what I can build.”
Tiik, from the engine room, laughed. “Sounds like Henry. He was at least blue, if not white, at heart.”
Chuckling, Kai noted, “He married. Ain’t black.”
Chace strode in next, wrapped in a shimmercloth robe. “Nicoline! Glad your sleep’s adjusted—you’ve been missing your tour of the ship.”
“Two minutes,” she muttered, doubling the speed at which she was typing and tapping at the screens.
“Solid,” he said, and headed back to quarters.
When he returned, changed into cling-pants of a more formal brown and a loose sleeveless shirt, Nicoline stretched against the back of the chair, leaning to look at him upside-down. “Strong Men’s Club?” Kai was also bare-armed.
“Dang right.” Chace looked at her arms, in the last stages of losing their tan to life aboard a starship. The muscles were defined, but softly, her shoulders smooth. “You’ll get there.”
She sat up straight and cracked her knuckles. “Mhmm. I used to be there, but I haven’t crewed in a while. What’s first?”
Chace waved his arm in a grand sweep at their surroundings. “The bridge,” he began with a mocking smile. “Kai “Bullethawk” Marcos at the helm, operations man.”
“No one in my life has called me that.”
“I know but we’re going to start. You remind me of one.”
Chace looked at Nicoline, an eyebrow raised. “Not I,” she answered.
“Damn. Fine.” He sighed. “Helm, operations seat, systems,” he said, nodding to each station in turn. The operations seat was a backless swivel-chair surrounded on three sides by consoles of several heights, staggered so that none blocked another, each covered in displays and gauges measuring every aspect of the ship from temperature to speed to gravitational forces affecting it—presently none, at warp. The front console also contained several hologram projectors, most for Kai when he was seated there but one, larger, pointed at the window, to overlay important information to the pilot. “Kai and the Captain alternate helm and ops pretty randomly, but in action she always pilots. No one really messes with systems other than yourself.”
He led her down the hatch, descending with practiced ease. There was no ladder, only a single rung in the hatch that separated the two rooms, after clearing which Chace scaled down the side of one of the two towering engines. Halfway down, Nicoline put her hand against something sharp and gasped, moving instinctively away from the offending handhold and missing her step. She fell almost three meters, but the low gravity softened her fall into Tiik’s arms, who’d lunged beneath her.
“You’re good,” Tiik reassured as she righted her new crew-mate. “All good. Upright and full-ahead.”
Chace took her by the wrist and opened her hand. “Sorry ‘bout that.” Tiik tossed him a cleanser and he sprayed it on Nicoline’s fingers. It solidified into a murky-grey membrane, mottled red where it bonded with Nicoline’s blood. He pulled it off in one sharp jerk; she winced.
The cut had coagulated under the cleansing nano-membrane. It ran across the insides of the fingers on her left hand, but was neither broad nor deep. “It’ll be fine,” Nicoline said after brief examination.
“Agreed. Anyway”—again he swept his arms about—“engines.” Built into each of the looming engines was a status console; the floor of the room was covered by a thick blue-and-black patterned rug, which between the two consoles was worn thin. The engines each took up one side of the room, taking a feed from a long, half-meter-high storage deck under the cargo bay by way of two huge ducts each. “Those are me. Chace Isherwood.” He bowed, hand on his chest.
The engines terminated just shy of the fore, leaving room for a huge complex of wiring and hoses, some extending up, some back along the fuel ducts, and others down. That system seemed to be run from a console more like Nicoline’s than the engine panels, a seat with three screens and a number of gauges arranged before it, though only one keyboard. Chace pointed to it next, then Tiik. “Tiik Mural. Kai said no nicknames, sorry.”—“Damn,” Tiik groused—“Tiik’s smarter than me so she watches the drives. Drive is quantum shit, for warp, engines are for luminal speeds. Know how warp works?”
“Let’s hear it.”
“Things with mass can’t travel faster than light, but if we accelerate spacetime around them, they will in a relative sense not be moving, and old Einstein remains satisfied. So we make a bubble outside the ship that moves subluminally, while we are supposedly completely still. Something about relativity, in there … somewhere.”
“Right.” He cocked his head. “Well, good enough. Corollary: see that port?” He nodded to a heavily secured hatch in the floor by the drive console.
“Don’t open it.”
Tiik explained, “Drive’s down there. All this”—she indicated the conduit complex again—“manages it damn well. If it ever needs opening, everyone suits up and goes to the other end of the cargo bay, and I go in in a heavy-ass specialized suit that has to be jettisoned afterwards.”
Chace laughed. “Don’t worry—if it has to be opened out in the depths like this, we’re already broken, so it won’t matter much.”
“Oh that helped. Thanks, Chace.”
“Anytime!” He nodded to the shallow storage deck. “Down there’s fuel. You can go down there if you want to, but it smells. Also there’s black-holds there if you need to stow something deep and quiet. If anyone asks, there’s no black-holds there.”
Chace pointed then to a pleather covering over a joint in one of the engines, with handholds bolted on just by it. “My seat. Anyone can use it but no one else seems to want to.” It looked like it could be used to sit up, back against the wall of the engine, or recline, lying cradled in the joint.
“Because it’s awful, Chace,” Tiik opined. “It’s in no way comfortable.”
“All alone, then. S’okay, I’m used to it.” He ran his tongue between his teeth. “Well, back up!”
Nicoline looked up at the hatch, six meters up. “Seriously?”
Chace leapt up to the handhold by his ‘seat.’ In low gravity, his movements were feline, sleeker than he’d moved in Sevilla. “Yup!” He rose up the side in short order.
Nicoline tried the same jump, coming just short. The second time, she took a two-step run, and made it. From there, moving carefully, she gained the hatch.
Chace cocked his head towards the quarters and mess; Nicoline followed.
On their way into the mess they passed Quirke, who bowed her head warmly but said nothing.
The mess was through only a short passage from the bridge; a galley where the crew cooked, or at the least heated up prepackaged food, the lift from the cargo hold, and a round table built into the ship seating seven, in case of guests. Chace explained that it was rare to see more than two of the crew eating together because of the irregularity of the watches. The sides of the mess had panoramic windows overseeing the hold, and a row of floor panels along either side of the table was transparent as well.
Quarters were a series of small rooms off a corridor that ran back from the mess, though Nicoline had slept in them for some weeks now so the tour passed over them.
Meanwhile, Quirke clambered down the hatch to join Tiik in the engine room. “Captain,” Tiik greeted her.
“What brings you here?”
Quirke stopped before she reached the floor, sidling into Chace’s seat. Tiik chuckled. “The therapy seat?”
“It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable enough to do soul-searching, right?” Quirke stretched out, lying down along the engine, her head resting in the pleather. She looked around. “Is there a pillow?”
“Nope. I think his hair cushions it for him.”
The two grinned. “What’s up, Captain?”
“You’re … fairly well in charge of morale, right?”
“Oh.” Tiik clicked a few final buttons on the drive console, and spun her seat to face Quirke. “I see what we’re talking about.”
The captain nodded.
Tiik returned the nod. Neither spoke.
Quirke sighed. “Did I screw up, Tiik?”
“You can be honest.”
“A little.” Quirke looked over at her, an eyebrow raised. “A moderate amount. Worse things have happened.”
“Have I done worse?”
Tiik closed her eyes to reflect. “Hmm … probably.”
Quirke nodded. “I don’t know that that reassures me.”
“We like you, Captain. We trust you. But you can be closed-off; it bothers some of us. Now we know it’s ‘cause you consider yourself alone, like we can’t help you. After three and a half years that hurts a little. I get that we weren’t there, but, like you told Gavin, it’s not a problem to rely on people.”
“I get that. I wish … damn.” She licked her lips. “I wish I’d been less of a bitch. I do rely on you guys; I love you. Anything but the war, I go to you with.”
“You go to me with.”
“Ah.” She drew in a long breath. “Is that why Nicoline was surprised I have friends?”
“Shit. I thought I covered”—
“You did your best.”
Tiik chuckled. “I guess even I’m guilty of assuming you don’t have much social grace.”
“I don’t, much. Apparently noticing that was all I had for today.”
“You made it through dinner,” Tiik encouraged. “That cheese was not up to the standard set by the kebab; we really didn’t miss much.”
“Were you eating cheese during that argument?”
“Well not for long—it was pretty mediocre cheese.”
A smile crept across Quirke’s face that soon led her and Tiik to spasms of laugher.
Chest heaving, Tiik asked, “Did you and Bledsoe really swap cargo?”
Quirke tried to stop laughing, but couldn’t. “How—ha, hah—how’d you know?”
“Your scarf, mostly. And the eye-sex.”
“Dammit!” The captain’s face became grave again. “I liked that scarf.” The corners of her mouth tightened; soon she lost the façade and laughed again, uproariously. “Can’t get it back now, can I?”
A speaker overhead clicked on, and Kai’s voice sounded through the ship. “Half-hour out. I’d suit up.”
Quirke stirred, letting herself fall to the floor and then walking to Tiik’s console. She tapped the intercom. “Tiik, Nicoline, and I away. I aim to show Nic the ropes.”
“Acknowledged,” came the reply from Kai.
The speaker clicked on and off staccato, interrupted by snippets of “hate this”— and—“patience.” The bout with the intercom ended in Chace and Nicoline acknowledging.
As Quirke ascended, Tiik called after her, “Captain!”
She paused. “Mm?”
“As ‘morale officer’ I’d advise: address it. Not now, of course, and not in detail, but a word or two next time we’re all in the mess would mean a lot to Chace and Kai, I think.”
“Thanks. ‘Haps I will.”
“Yeah. I grew up on a freighter.”
“Right,” Tiik conceded to Nicoline, “sorry”
“Don’t be; friendly concern.”
The Shenandoah’s EVA suits were light flexplate, charcoal bronze in color, with a swell behind the shoulders and upper back for the rebreathing system and main thruster, and external mag-ports for guns and tools. The palms and heels had magnets as well, for stability, and the heels each had weak auxiliary thrusters capable of no more than a brief burst to accomplish tight maneuvers.
When all three were suited up except for helmets, Quirke addressed them. “Nicoline, have you done a salvage before?”
“Right. Here’s the way: when a salvage needs doing, it’s not because faeries took the crew to dance among the stars. Families want the bodies back, depending on the voyage investors may want part of their stakes back, there’s almost always data to bring back. This crew was burned. Won’t be pretty.” She raised her eyebrows, tacking a question mark onto the statement.
“Good. So, we open the doors, breach the Thracian Days. Looks of it, she’s already got a breach—we’ll likely start there. First step is to search the ship room by room. This is contract work, so we’re filming. Every room you enter, look it over thoroughly so your cam gets it. Focus on damage, for the port’s logs, and valuables. If you want something, ferret with your eyes—don’t move your head. Don’t make it obvious you’re leaving something out, make sure to glance over it, but don’t play it up. First sweep you don’t touch anything, just look, guns out for safety.”
“Meanwhile, Kai and Chace are figuring out the best way to unload. They’ll tell us breach or bay and position the Shenandoah; second sweep, we assemble the bodies and personal effects. We don’t search them, we don’t rearrange more than we have to. We film everything here. If something gets ‘left on the ship,’ it’s ship or public items, never personal. Third sweep, cargo and ship’s goods. Cameras off here.”
“Really? They’ll just—let us?”
“Fifty more credits and I’d have filmed the whole thing; told him that. He knows who he hired.”
“During the third sweep, Chace’ll come over; he and I’ll start loading the Shen’ while you guys finish the gathering. Then I do a fourth sweep while you all load and seal, and we go. Only then, shipboard, does anything go missing. Disputes go to the first to set eyes on the item—if we don’t know, they go to most useful during the salvage. Don’t take more than three percent of the volume or five percent of the value. Good?”
The trio donned their helmets. “Pressure tight?” Tiik checked.
Each activated their suit’s pressure regulation system. Three low hisses confirmed pressure-tight.
Three deep breaths, done with comms on to confirm.
Quirke opened a heavily stocked gun hold and handed out pistols to the three of them, stopping at Nicoline. “Fired a gun?”
“Switch above the trigger’s the safety. It’s on now. Means safe. First sweep, safety off; keep it on subsequently. It fires a laser, so there’s no recoil, and you can’t see the beam except in a few odd instances. Track your shots by the dot at the other end, yours’ll be red. It’ll shoot about three hundred yards, but at two it starts to lose its fang.”
Nicoline clipped the gun to one of the mag-ports. Tiik added to the captain’s lesson, “Comms are always on, because otherwise we won’t be warned if you get violently murdered. Sound might carry in the ship, might not. Better careful.”
“Atmo’s gone,” Kai’s voice noted over the comm. “Burned or leaked. So comms are it for sound.”
Quirke gave each of them a handful of magnetic clamps in varying sizes, a cutting torch, and some plastic explosive. “The forces acting on the Thracian Days are near-zero, so be careful with the bombing. Too much in one spot’ll send us all spinning.”
“Makes it a lot harder,” Chace clarified, voice crackling over the comm system. Nicoline nodded.
Over the comm, Kai asked, “Checked?”
“Steady and waiting,” Quirke replied, voice sharp. “Clear to exit?”
“Clear. Open ‘er up.”
The EVA station was located by the cargo bay’s airlock exit, opposite and smaller than its wide loading doors. Quirke punched the VACUUM button and the door behind them closed and sealed. The lock depressurized, jolting the crew, and Quirke hit the EXT. button. The door before them split open, overlooking the wreck of the Thracian Days. The scouting ship had foundered in a debris field stretching kilometers in either direction, mostly of meteoroids smaller than the beetlelike Days, which currently had its underside to them. The Days was roughly two-thirds the size of the Shenandoah, somewhat more oblong, and its hull was breached along the starboard side under the prow. It looked like a dead insect on its back, hollowed by fire and void.
“Last check,” Quirke said. Comms good?”
“Good,” said each crew member in turn.
“Perfect. Kai, what’re we looking at? Drives intact?”
“Drives good, no leak. Starboard luminal engine had a severe fuel fire; most of the interior’s at least partly oxidized. I don’t see any accumulations of accelerant so it looks like everything that was loose burned out, but there is fuel in some of the cells and a fair amount of exposed electrical filament, so step light.”
“Life support’s running, but doesn’t have any gas to pump. Systems are on, but most of the lights and consoles are damaged.”
“Right. Careful with flammable goods, any gases. Complement?”
“Four. Rations, sensors, looks like survey launches, light armament.”
“Closer, if you would?”
“On it.” Kai gave the ship a small thrust. The Thracian Days loomed closer, soon only a stone’s throw away.
The movement stopped. “Holding.”
Quirke nodded. “Cross.”
The crew pushed off from the airlock, needing no thrust in zero-gravity, simply aiming their jumps straight at the Days. In the silence of open space the crossing felt longer than it was; after five or ten seconds they drew near the breach. Each leaned back and eased on the thrust to counter their momentum and slow for contact with the wreck. The heavy thunk of the suits hitting the hull was all the louder for being the only sound any of the crew could hear.
“Contact,” Quirke confirmed. She eased along the breach, examining it. “Breach’ll take us all securely, but it’s no good for unloading.”
“We’ll circle,” Kai replied.
“Good. Lights on, film on.”
Tiik and Nicoline complied, and sounded off.
The breach was, in spots, wide enough for the crew to crawl through with ease. When they were all assembled in the starboard engine room, Tiik said, “Pistols,” drawing her own and flicking the safety off.
“Drawn,” Quirke said after following suit.
Nicoline hefted hers in her hand, testing the fit in her suit’s glove, before she took the safety off. “Drawn.”
The engine room was lightless save the crew’s lamp-beams. The stark white light illuminated a charred corpse, one hand still grasping a handle beneath the engine console. Stiffly he hung, reaching out towards the crew with a spanner. Behind him, the engine gaped open like a tunnel. “Fuck,” Tiik whispered, only for the comms to amplify it.
“Film thorough,” Quirke reminded. “Tiik, document the damage. Nicoline and I’ll look for crew and goods.”
“Done.” Tiik strode to the engine in a single, arcing, step that carried her three or four meters.
Quirke and Nicoline split up, Quirke heading up a ladder in the wall of the engine room, Nicoline through a port into the drive room. In tense silence, they swept their rooms, leading with their pistols and casting their heads in every direction at entry and exit. “Clear” after every room was all to be heard, save occasional bumps that echoed through each suit and over comms.
The ship wasn’t massive, and sweeping it took no more than a quarter-hour. Tiik, in following the damage, wound up by the life-support system one room over from Quirke, while Nicoline ended in the cargo bay. “The rest of the bodies are in here,” Nicoline related. “The fire didn’t come in; they sealed it off and waited.”
“Oxygen loss,” Chace murmured. “Easier ’n fire. Christ.”
“Status of the ship’s goods?”
“Three survey drifters here, plus spare rations. Should I … close their eyes?”
“Best to,” Kai answered. “Void’s in them now, can’t let it out.”
She approached one, and tried. In the heavily regulated microbial environment of starcraft, the few things allowed ship-side that could have decomposed the scouts had died with them. Their skin was leathery, and the blood vessels in their too-open eyes were black, their pupils tiny pinpricks in starry dead irises.
The corpse’s hand was wrapped around a communicator. One eyelid tore under Nicoline’s fingers instead of shutting. The other didn’t move. “They won’t close. Dead too long.”
“Bad omen,” Kai observed.
“Shut up, Kai,” Tiik snapped. “Batshit superstition in the 26th century, Christ.”
“No, he’s right,” Nicoline said. “We should cover their eyes before we take them aboard.”
“You heard her,” Quirke declared. “Would you do it yourself, since you found them? Or would you rather I …?”
“I found them. I should.”
Quirke’s silent nod was implied. “Cameras off. We’ll be down to help you carry them.”
“I like you,” Kai’s voice added.
Shenandoah’s cargo door, wide open, dwarfed the Thracian Days’ loading port. Chace was just setting down in the Days to start loading when Kai spoke over the comm from ops. “Don’t stop whatever you’re doing but listen carefully.”
“Go on,” Quirke bade him.
“We may have company.”
“Opposite the Days from us. I’m not sure, but there was an anomalous movement from a meteoroid. I don’t think it was ‘cause of us, I think it was a careless watcher in the bramble.”
“Right. Act naturally, keep moving the cargo, but safeties off now.”
Over the crew’s confirmations, Kai said, “I’m doing a cold sense to see if I can spot—there!”
“They must’ve realized their mistake and said ‘fuck it.’ They’re coming, below the center of the Days. Five.”
Quirke pushed a crate in her arms aside and pulled out her pistol. “Draw! How’re they armed?”
“Can’t tell, one”—Kai’s answer was made irrelevant. Two pirates, running along the bottom of the Days’ hull, leapt across—aided by thrusters—into the Shenandoah’s cargo bay, overlooking Quirke and Chace. Both sides opened fire.
“Two here,” Chace cried. The walls he and Quirke were using for cover glowed intermittently with faint red or green dots, but the hull of the Thracian Days held to the small-arms fire. Quirke scored a couple of hits, but none solid.
The reason a combat-potential EVA suit—an EVAD suit—like the pirates and the Shenandoah’s crew wore was metallic was to dissipate laser light at side-on angles. A glancing blow tended not to puncture a good suit; only a dead-on hit would. The two raiders lunged for either side of the bay and sheltered behind the doors to avoid such a risk.
An engagement like this was typically not fought to death, but to tactical victory. Life was not considered worth sacrificing over skirmishes in the depth, so a raid over cargo would typically be had out until one side had a couple of EVA suit breaches—requiring them to enter a pressurized environment within minutes or risk death—was disarmed, or was outmaneuvered or outnumbered, although death of course did happen.
“I’m at the breach!” Tiik called. “None here.”
“Coming for you two,” Nicoline sounded from the drive room.
“Nicoline, turn around,” shouted Kai. “Three under between you and Tiik, I think they’re trying to breach!”
“On it,” Tiik said.
“No,” Kai corrected. “You try going out and flanking.”
“Right,” she said.
“Nicoline,” Kai continued, “I need you to hold them after they breach. Try not to let them up”—the Thracian Days shuddered. To Kai, watching the streaking heat signatures of laser and thruster and warm body from the bridge of the Shenandoah over a thermal display, it looked like the underside of the Days’ hull glowed white, sending streaks of heat out into the black of space and a single white-hot beam up into the ship.
To Nicoline it looked like a huge needle punctured the floor, sending three layers of hull, wiring, and flooring rebounding off the insides of the room adjacent to her. She leapt for the doorway and put her shoulder against it, leaning only her right arm and head out to watch the breach. A small black cylinder drifted up through the rupture in the hull, but Nicoline simply turned on her visor’s light filter. Smoke and ultra-bright light flashed from the grenade, to disorient, but Nicoline was shielded. It did confuse her vision, minimally, but she had no trouble discerning the form that shot up through the gap.
Her first shot went just wide, but startled the pirate, who reversed thrust. Retreating, the first invader bumped into the second, who scrambled down out of the way. She landed a hit as the form fled, but couldn’t see its effect.
In a moment, Nicoline was dueling with three rifles that alternated clearing the breach to take wild shots in her direction.
She faintly registered Quirke’s voice calling “One down” over the comm.
Tiik’s voice came through, louder. “Nic, forward!” and Nicoline charged shoulder-first into the room, to find the breach vacant. Looking out, she saw two of the forms crouching on the hull—upside-down from her perspective—exchanging fire along the underside of the Days. She grabbed the cylinder, found the activation switch and re-armed it, and tossed it through the breach.
Kai came in over comms. “They’ve scattered, Nic. Take the one two points towards the Shen, Tiik’s got the other two.”
Nicoline jumped through the breach, but didn’t account for the sudden inversion of perspective and found herself drifting away from the hull, spinning carelessly amidst the smoke. A charcoal-bronze target.
The first shuddering silent impact was on her shoulder, slowing her rotation subtly. Her suit registered no breach, and she finally put her thrusters on. Another shot glanced against her leg, harmless.
Instead of turning, she cleared the smoke and overlooked the battle—underlooked, from her and the Days’ perspective—seeing Tiik firing on two pirates, one of whose suits was leaking from the forearm. The third was tracking her, firing once per second, but with frenetic aim that suggested the flasher grenade had told. She took time to sight the hovering figure that bore the gun and squeezed two shots that took it in the throat.
The first breached the suit, and the second apparently caught one of the gas-regulation tubes that kept its atmosphere breathable. It must have been the oxygen, because it ignited. The suit’s plates crackled and split as the fire, near-infinitely hotter than the cold stillness outside, raced through its ventilation system, spilling through a new breach every second. She heard nothing as the death and the raider met in that fire, but the pirates would. Comms on.
Absurdly, the pirate’s final shot hit her squarely in the chest. This time her suit ruptured. Heat and air rushed out through that small burned hole to fill the limitless void, unsated as always.
The material beneath the plating of such a suit was made to cling to itself as it was stretched, so that when the pressure of space got in, it would mend itself as best it could as the pressure differential pulled at it. This was why a breach was not necessarily fatal; often gaps would be stopped entirely. Weakly, some air still escaped, but stopped enough that retreat could save a life.
Helmet blaring at her, Nicoline coughed, “I’m hit. One down.”
She found herself hyperventilating in the tight suit, hyperaware of her sweat and the tear and the growing coldness of the recycled air. She could hear voices on her comm, but nothing registered except the tear in her suit and the void, and across it the smoke of a fire that had already burned all its fuel and died noiselessly in front of her.
Dimly, she saw the glittering arc of another EVA suit streak towards her. Behind it, someone took aim down a rifle, but from the red glow that lit that gunner’s chest it seemed enough lasers to have solid momentum struck and knocked the shot off.
The suit reached Nicoline. From it, Tiik spoke—“Trust me,” she said, and stuck plastic explosive over the tear in Nicoline’s suit.
The raiders withdrew, leaving behind the blackened husk of an EVA suit and the raider whose suit was split wide open at the sternum. She—the barrage of lasers had penetrated even her shirt—drifted, gaze fixed not at the cavity in her chest but at her gun, which had missed its final mark.
“I think,” Kai said, a half-hour later in the cargo bay. “they wanted to wait ’til you were all moving cargo—hands occupied, vulnerable, caught between ships. With their numbers and rifles, they’d‘ve won that fight. One must’ve braked too late and struck a meteoroid, altering its path enough for me to notice.”
“I’d have liked to go after them,” Quirke followed, “but we had Nicoline and the Thracian Days to think about.”
“How’s she holding up?” Tiik asked.
“She’s in her quarters. Physically she’s fine. To have her first kill be … that, she’ll need some time to get over. Good thinking Tiik, the charge to seal her suit. Held well. We’ll be needing to fix the suit out of this job’s pay, though.”
“Kai,” Chace posed, “were you filming?”
“I recorded the thermal I was using. It gets the point across.”
“That’ll do,” Quirke agreed. “Chace, please get those”—the bodies, all six, were stowed in the floor of the bay, in a compartment that would close over them—“covered up. Let’s the rest of us load the goods and leave.”—
—“this goddamned wreck,” Chace added. “On it.”
“If the burned one still has eyes,” said Kai, “leave them open. Nicoline would want to close them.”
“Right. Well, she’ll bind them.”
Quirke had no sooner put her helmet back on when the crew froze, her mid-step. “No,” she said.
Chace hung his head, then picked up and threw a spanner across the bay, studying the way it hung and fell in the low gravity. “No way,” he agreed. “No fuckass way, this in the same day.”
“You saw the spanner,” Kai said. “Fuckass way.”
“I’ll get Nicoline,” Tiik sighed.
The crew hurried into the lift that carried them up to the mess. Chace scrambled down into the engine room, Kai and Quirke stayed at the bridge, and Tiik walked down to quarters. “Nicoline?” She knocked on #5. “Nic? Awake?”
“We were just passed by a ship at warp; you’re needed on the bridge.”
“Fucking tits!” After a few seconds, the door opened. Nicoline’s eyes were red-raw, and she had on a robe over an athletic bra and shorts.. “How do you even know?”
“Did you get a weird feeling a minute ago, like your shadow saw something you didn’t?”
“Mm … sort of?”
“When we’re passed close enough at warp, spacetime around us dilates, depending on our proximity to the warp bubble. Now, we shouldn’t notice this. Relative to us, time is moving forward at the same speed, and the distortion to space is so slight that there’s no sensor in the galaxy that can detect it directly.” She shrugged. “But we do. There’s a way to be sure—the dilation radiates, so it’s weaker further from the source. Throw something way away from you. It’ll either speed up or slow down more than it should.”
“You can see that?”
“Not always, sometimes it takes a scanner, but”—
“IN HERE,” Kai’s voice called from the bridge.
“Shit,” Tiik said, and took off.
When the crew had assembled, Kai pointed to a number he’d projected on the window. “Its speed.”
The display read 93c.
“Funny, Kai,” Tiik spat without mirth.
“I watched him do the math,” Quirke responded.
Nicoline leaned in to Tiik. “Isn’t that … too fast?”
“It is. Let me see that, Kai.” She strode to his display.
After a few seconds’ study, she nodded, eyes wide. “The time between our feeling it and our sensors picking it up, and the time it remained in our sensor range, both verify it. That cocksucker is going ninety-fucking-three times the speed of light.”
The crew blinked, regarding the pale blue number on the window in silence.
“I don’t know of a ship that’s broken fifty-two,” Chace said at last.
“There isn’t a ship that’s broken fifty-two,” Quirke confirmed.
“Could it be … debris of some kind?”
Kai regarded Nicoline for a moment, thinking, but it was Tiik who answered her. “An object actually traveling faster-than-light has no mass. If objects even can.” She shrugged. “Anyway, if we picked it up,”—
“Oh,” Nicoline said, softly. “Then it’s manipulating spacetime, like we do.”
“So what do we do?” Kai inquired of the room at large. “It’s not properly our issue, but…”
“I’m curious as all hell,” Chace finished. Kai nodded agreement.
“It didn’t follow passing etiquette, either,” added the captain.
Tiik chuckled. “If you went that fast, would you?”
Quirke deliberated for a moment. The crew watched her in silence. “It didn’t follow etiquette. It’s on the border between unclaimed and newly-claimed space, acting strangely. Existing strangely. At its speed, a drive malfunction is possible, so there’s reasonable concern. Law’s on our side if we go after it.”
“We can’t catch it,” Nicoline said.
“No,” Chace answered, “but if it’s a drive malfunction it could suddenly quit and strand the crew. Or worse.”
“We have the Days,” Tiik added.
Kai countered. “It’ll lie”
Tiik looked to Quirke again. “Two to two, law’s with either course. What do you say?”
After almost a minute, Quirke gave a nod. “Stations.” The crew obeyed.
From the helm, Quirke commanded, “Power down the bay except the compartment with the dead. Halve the lights. Bring shields on, at one-quarter.”
The lights in the cockpit dimmed. Below, Tiik called up, “Drive’s purring like a … a large cat of some kind. Could’ve left it at purring.”
“Course plotted,” Kai followed-up. “Its speed dropped to eighty-five, maybe it saw us?”
“Or maybe a broken drive’s running out of fuel,” spoke Tiik.
“Away,” declared the captain.
There again was the murmur of the drive.
“We recognize that this is absurd, right?” Nicoline asked from as deep within the systems chair as she could nestle. “Pirates and then—uh—this, in one day?”
Kai answered her. “I once knew a man who was shot on his birthday three years running. Admittedly that was more likely in the Service than out, but, even so.” He rolled his shoulders. “Things happen. Besides, in a couple more hours it’ll be tomorrow and we won’t be any closer to this ghost ship.”
“What happened to him?”
“His body was our candle-holder for the last three days of the siege on Kaleis. Very festive.”
“Oh, that’s reassuring.”
“Speaking of reassurance,” Kai went on, “is it comforting to know where you’ll go when you die?”
“Hmm? Oh, ‘the void?’” She said ‘the void’ with sardonic reverence.
“It’s touched you, now. Got a hold. I thought you respected void-walker traditions?”
“I do,” Nicoline affirmed. “But we all go there when we die. It’s not some mystic force, it’s just emptiness. Us and the void, all there is.”
“No Heaven?” Chace called from the engine room over comms.
Down there, he and Tiik played cards in the low light, glancing at the engine and drive readouts now and then.
Echoed over comm, Nicoline responded, “God made all this universe for a few people on one planet?”
“When you played with dolls, you gave them all backstories, right?”
“I played with code,” she said. “Pure reason.”
Kai scoffed. “‘Course you did.”
“Code isn’t pure reason,” Chace replied, arranging his hand. “Code is letters that stand for pure reason. Computer decides what it means.”
“Are we the computer or the code in that analogy?”
“We’re the letters,” Chace said, spreading his cards before him. “Gin.”
“Fuck,” Kai swore over the comm. “Good combo.”
Tiik laughed. “He’s been sitting on that gin for most of their talk, for dramatic effect.”
Kai began, “I still respect—something’s dropped out of warp a meg ahead.”
Quirke said “Drop out.” just as Tiik asked, “Speed Demon?”
“I’d imag—” His voice went low. “Holy shit.”
Chace looked up, “What?”
“What in hell is that,” came Nicoline’s voice over Kai’s line.
Tiik spoke up. “You all best put that on our screen.”
“You asked for it,” Kai said.
Onto the engine- and drive-screens a scanner image flickered. It was a mag-scan readout, a display of a vessel or object detected by its electromagnetic field. It was fuzzy, as the scanner narrowed down what was field and what was starship, but it was nothing like any vessel ever seen in occupied space.
Seven cylinders about the breadth of a person with their elbows out to their sides wrapped like tentacles about a central almost-sphere, beetle-like similarly to the Days only smaller and less sleek. The tentacles came to a point at one end, coiling partway around the sphere and trailing off on the opposite side, making the vessel resemble a cephalopodic comet and trail.
“Nope,” Chace said, simply. “I’d rather not, let’s don’t.”