“Engage FTL boosters,” Dactyl said into his headset. He locked his pale green eyes on the monitor and grinned. “Prepare for supernova warp.”
“Shut up,” Khopesh said, barely turning her head toward the navigator’s console. She brushed some black hair to the side and gazed at the empty space lolling past their viewscreens. “Use the text chat.”
“Hang on,” Dactyl said again, and clicked a button on the gaming display to mute himself. “We can’t,” he said toward the command station. “It takes too long and if I take my hands off the controls for one second — ”
“No one cares,” Khopesh said. She shifted in the worn red leather seat. “I don’t want to hear your bulchening about that dumb game.” She tapped the quantum sonar button again, and a weak glow radiated away from the Obsidian. Nothing. Light years full of nothing, she thought.
Dactyl took a swig of Cherry Nitrous and unmuted himself. “I’m back,” he said quietly. “Sorry, I gotta keep it down.” He clacked some buttons and nodded. “Yeah, we’ve got a Zentreli armada coming in fr — holy crap!” He jerked his head back and forward again as he let out an angry breath. “Dude,” he said to Chirwa, standing three inches from his chair. “Don’t do that.”
Chirwa stirred a bowl of ramen with wooden chopsticks and shook his head. “You’re so weird,” he said.
Dactyl grinned and flexed his fingers on the controls. “What?”
“You’re playing a video game,” Chirwa said, twirling some noodles onto his sticks.
“Yeah,” Dactyl said, firing lasers at the enemy attack ship.
“Where you control a spaceship.” He ate the noodles.
“Yeah.” Dactyl fired more lasers.
“You’re on a spaceship,” Chirwa said, pushing his shoulders up.
Dactyl rolled his eyes. “I’m on a boring spaceship,” he said, gesturing to the screen. “This lets me fight raiders and blow stuff up.”
Chirwa gestured with a gloved hand to the navigation console. The input array was covered by a sheaf of papers scribbled with notes about the game. “I assume we’re still on course?” he asked.
Dactyl waved a hand. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Gorf will let me know if anything goes wrong.” He tilted his head back and spoke to the air. “Won’t ya, Gorf?”
“Yes, Dactyl,” a drab robotic voice said from behind the walls of the Obsidian.
“I’ll always feel bad that we let him name you, Gorf,” Chirwa said.
“It’s okay,” the voice intoned again. “The universe contains many less appealing names.”
Chirwa sat beside Khopesh in the empty command seat and slurped noodles. “Anything good up here?” he said around the food.
Khopesh shook her head slowly. “Nope,” she said, dragging out the N. She dipped two fingers into Chirwa’s bowl and snagged a few noodles.
“Hey,” he chirped, batting at her hand with his chopsticks.
She laughed and ate, then froze as the alarm klaxon began wailing. “Crap,” she said, sitting up.
“Finally,” Dactyl said, shoving his gaming papers into a folder.
“Alert level four,” Gorf announced. Chirwa cursed and twisted a mechanism on the edge of the bowl. Slivers of wood came together to make a seal over the ramen and he pushed it onto a spot beside the command console. The bowl stuck itself onto the metal surface and Chirwa tucked the chopsticks into the chest pocket of his orange-and-black vest.
Khopesh hit buttons on the console and scowled. “What do we got, Gorf?” she asked.
“Two small craft,” the voice said. “Their firepower is around 80% of our own.”
“Evasion,” Khopesh said.
Dactyl threw his hands up. “Oh come on,” he said. “Can’t we fight back for once in our — ”
“Shut the hell up,” Khopesh said, slapping buttons and typing things into the command console. “We’re not risking our lives to take on alien pirates just because you’re bored.” She swung her head around to fire ice at Dactyl. “Set a course for the nearest Alfa Stop.”
Dactyl sighed and manipulated the digital maps splayed out before him. “Fine,” he said quietly.
Something hit the Obsidian and the room shook. “How did they sneak up on us like that?” Khopesh asked.
“Probably riding an asteroid,” Chirwa said. “We used to do that on the Czolgosz.” He rotated some indicators and tapped buttons. “Keep out of sight until you’re ready to pounce.”
“But I was spamming the sonar,” Khopesh said.
He shrugged and brought up the turret array. “Sub-light EMP distractors,” he said. “They’re getting cheap.” He peered into the array and tried to lock onto the attackers. “Damn, they’re fast.”
“It’s about four minutes to the Alfa Stop,” Dactyl said.
“We can make that,” Khopesh said, and glanced at Chirwa. “Can we spare some juice for the boosters?”
He shrugged. “Might as well,” he said. “I doubt I can lock ‘em.” He fired a few times, but shook his head as the shots went astray.
Khopesh fed energy from the turrets into the booster engines and they picked up speed.
“Alert level three,” Gorf said.
“Fine,” Khopesh said, and let out a breath. She glanced at Chirwa’s turret array and watched the attack ships get smaller.
“Okay,” Dactyl said, taking a swig of Cherry Nitrous. “Forget the excitement factor.”
“I already did,” Khopesh said, sitting back in her chair. She idly flicked the Enemy Distance Indicator through various measurement systems.
“What about our pride?” Dactyl asked. “Isn’t it worse to live on our knees than — ”
Khopesh stood up. “Seriously,” she said, spreading her hands to the side. The green neoprene flexed and she tensed her fingers. “You have got to grow up.”
Chirwa turned to face Dactyl. “It’s just your ego,” he said. “Sun-Tzu could not have been more clear.” He uncovered his ramen and stirred it while he recited: “‘To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.’” He smiled and ate a clump of noodles.
“Alert level two,” Gorf said.
Dactyl turned back to his game. “Or,” he said, “maybe you two are just scared.”
Khopesh drew back a hand, but Chirwa pinched the cuff of her glove with his chopsticks. She glared at him but he just shook his head. Staring at his sticks — still clenching the fabric of her glove — she opened her mouth and drew in a long, slow breath, then let it go through clenched teeth. She yanked her hand free and sank back into the chair. She jammed headbuds into her ears and tapped the screen in front of her until loud angry industrial drums filled her brain.
The Alfa Stop was dead, even for an unpopulated spiral arm subsector. It was a testament to barely-adorned utilitarian design. Grey walls of random metals, rectangular fluorescent lights bolted at regular intervals. Khopesh ran security protocols on the Obsidian and passed Chirwa as he surveyed the impact marks on the hull.
“I’m gonna gas up,” she said, and walked into the station’s central chamber. In a cantina to the left, three haulers of various species — one tentacled, one amphibian, and one quasigaseous — argued at the bar. A service droid moved furtively behind the counter, replacing plastic cups and jugs from a washing machine below.
She walked toward the commodity office, where a humanoid robot clerk from The WalAzon Network glanced up. It tapped away some bits from the double-faced display and gave an awkward mechanical smile. As Khopesh neared the desk, their language beacons synched and beeped.
“Good day,” the clerk said in a voice dripping with Customer Service™. “How may I help you?” It gestured to a white metallic chair across the desk.
“We got diamonds,” Khopesh said, sitting.
The clerk tapped some buttons and a price matrix appeared on the display. Red numbers swarmed across it. Khopesh sighed. Two months’ salary for a tiny chip back home, she thought. Out here we can’t give away a truckload.
With raised eyebrows, the clerk smiled. “The current exchange rate — ”
“Yeah,” Khopesh said, cutting it off. “I can read.” She sighed. “Three pounds for nitrogen.”
The clerk tapped more buttons and a confirmation screen appeared with the details. “We will deliver seven canisters of liquid nitrogen to your vessel in Hangar Bay … ?”
“Two,” Khopesh said. She suddenly noticed a burly ankylopod warehouse lifter just behind the counter. It rose to its feet and scurried into the back area.
“Two,” the clerk confirmed. “Please activate — ” Khopesh pulled off a glove and pushed a thumb to the screen. It beeped and she replaced the glove and stood up. “Thank you for shopping with WalAzon,” the clerk said.
“Thank you for the illuminating philosophical exchange,” Khopesh said, walking away.
Chirwa and Dactyl were in the bar, sitting with a floating convocube in a spacious booth. The table was black mica rock, surrounded by a semicircle of deep blue cushions. Dactyl clutched a canister of Cherry Nitrous; Chirwa sipped something green out of a clear clay jug.
“I don’t see why we can’t,” Dactyl said as Khopesh came into earshot.
“Woah woah woah,” Khopesh said, raising her hands to the group. “What are you agreeing to? That’s not how this works.”
Dactyl gave her a look. “Well, it could,” he said, gesturing to himself and Chirwa. “If we both vote yes.”
Chirwa rolled his eyes. “Only if consensus breaks down.”
The convocube rotated its sensors among them. “I’m deeply confused,” it said.
“The VK Obsidian makes decisions based on consensus,” Chirwa said, laying out a hand. “If we can’t reach one, it’s a majority vote.”
“That seems needlessly elongated,” the convocube said.
“Yeah,” Khopesh said with a weak chuckle. “Not like Josef III. He just waves his hand and boom! Four million counter-revolutionaries purged.” She snapped her fingers.
“Surely,” the convocube said, “there are other options beyond autocracy and absolute diffusal of authority.”
Khopesh peered at the faint red lights pulsing through the convocube. I hate these things, she thought. No face, no connection. “What are my associates attempting to agree to?” she asked, sliding in beside Chirwa. He passed her the jug and she drank.
“I represent an interest on Nimbus X,” the convocube said. Khopesh froze and slowly put the jug down. She glanced at Dactyl, who flashed a sloppy grin, then at Chirwa, who shrugged. “I suspect you are familiar with this location.”
“We’ve heard of it,” Khopesh said, collapsing her hands and leaning forward. “What’s the job?”
The convocube rotated its sensors toward the bar, then sent out a sonar pulse and paused. Khopesh glanced around. “Narcotics,” the cube said. “Coordinates for pickup will be provided upon confirmation of the vessel.”
“You have your own farms.” Khopesh said. “And factories for synthetics.”
The convocube jostled itself in the air. Such a dumb gesture, Khopesh thought. I don’t know which idiot programmer decided that was a shrug, but it looks like it’s sneezing. “These particular items are newly developed and outside the Nimbus sphere of influence.”
“Tesseract of influence, more like,” Chirwa said, and drank.
“An amusing riposte,” the cube said without mirth. “Regardless, it is a shipment we cannot acquire through our standard lines of acquisition.”
Khopesh grunted. “Why do you have to talk like that?” she asked, and flung a hand up. “You got a hundred languages in there, but somehow you missed ‘Normal Speaker of English’.”
“Someone’s watching the bag,” Dactyl said with a raised eyebrow. “Aren’t they?”
The cube paused. “There are indications that rogue elements may be aware of the sensitive nature of this transaction.”
“Fecal fornication,” Khopesh said with a sigh. “Why can’t you just say ‘yes’?”
“A most unpleasant image,” the cube said. “I apologize for the displeasure my verbosity has caused.” The red pulse along the erratic grooves of the cube shifted to a mint green. “Alas, it is beyond my own control.”
“Whatever,” Khopesh said with a dismissive gesture. “How many koku are we talking about?”
“The shipment consists of 0.7 cubic metres, which comes to …” It cycled through several colors.
“Forty,” Dactyl said, and drank.
“38.9 koku,” the convocube said, and returned to green.
“We would need to dump the fertilizer first,” Chirwa said, glancing at Khopesh, who was tapping a finger on the table.
She nodded. “Yeah.”
Dactyl pulled off his black cap, ran a hand through his dirty brown hair, and replaced the cap. “Where’s the pickup?” he asked.
“They won’t tell us,” Khopesh said. “Until they … ” She rotated a hand. “Until we say yes and they make sure our ship is big enough.”
“And,” Chirwa said, raising a finger, “commit to the Internality Pact.”
Dactyl peered at him. “The what?”
Chirwa leaned back in the booth and shook his head, glancing up. “It’s a vow of silence,” he said. “Nobody does business with the Nimbus systems until they agree to it.” He drank from the jug. “It prevents you from talking about anything you do or see while working for them.”
Khopesh looked at the cube. “Is that true?”
The cube dipped its top edge forward. “In essence,” it said. “The Nimbus Internality Pact is often the first portion of a long and mutually beneficial series of exchanges between parties.”
Dactyl laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “Or a way to keep people silent after the drop until the assassins can snuff them out.”
The cube fixed its sensors on him. “The Nimbus Judicial Equilibrium Forces are employed only in extreme circumstances,” it said. “In the past four galactic rotations — ”
“Oh, shut up,” Khopesh said. “Why us?” She gestured to the hangar. “There are three hundred outfits in this sector that can haul drugs for you.”
The cube turned olive. “You are efficient and agile,” it said. “You evaded our inquisition droids with ease.”
Dactyl hit the table and pointed at it. “That was you,” he said with a grin. “You sent the pirates.”
“They were not pirates,” the cube said. “At no point did they pose an actual threat to your vehicle.”
“You just said our decision-making is inefficient,” Chirwa said.
“In many systems,” the cube said, “outward activity and internal procedure are not identical in form or function.”
Khopesh leaned back in the booth. “So,” she said, “you’re not expecting us to fight.”
The cube shook itself back and forth. “Combat is highly discouraged during transport,” it said. “Those wishing to interrupt your conveyance will have access to weapons far beyond your capacity for retaliation.”
“So,” Khopesh said, touching a finger with her thumb for each point. “We get in, get the stuff, get out, get to Nimbus, drop it off.”
“Sounds easy enough,” Dactyl said.
“This conveyance will be extremely dangerous,” the cube said. “My employer does not expect you all to live.”
“What?” Chirwa said.
“But those who do will receive four hundred Athurian ingots to split between them.”
A frozen moment landed on the table. Khopesh thought about her sister. Chirwa’s mind shot back to the cadmium mines and the Back Foot Crew. Dactyl, as always, thought of his mother.
Khopesh blinked and shook her head a little. “We’ll need a moment to discuss it,” she said.
“Of course,” the convocube said, softening to a sky blue. “Take your time.” It glanced its sensors toward the haulers at the bar. “To allay suspicion,” it said, “I shall feign a survey for the Ranford Group among the patrons of this establishment.” It floated away.
“We’re doing this,” Dactyl said. “Right?”
Chirwa shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. He sat back, folded his hands in his lap, and closed his eyes. He took a slow breath and let it out. “What do you think, K?” he asked.
Khopesh had her head down on the table, black hair radiating across her hands. Naima needs this, she thought. If there’s a chance this could pay off, I gotta try. For her. “I don’t like it,” she said, and sat up. “Too risky.”
“What are you talking about?” Dactyl said, spreading his hands. “You heard him talk about how easily we bounced on their assassin bots.”
Chirwa rolled his eyes. “I also heard it mention that one of us is going to die.”
Khopesh put her head back and closed her eyes. Those goddamned machines, she thought. If I have to watch one more bored technician sterilize an abscessed injection site in her arm, I’m gonna kill somebody. “It’s too dangerous,” she said, and tried to get the image of Naima out of her head. Strapped down on the bed, her stomach eating itself. The disgusting food, the revolting bedpans, the cold steel of the barely-functional MedBots. Sorry, Naima, you’ll have to hold on. A few more fertilizer shipments and I can get you a private room, at least. “I vote no.”
“I vote yes three times,” Dactyl said.
Chirwa smiled. “You only get one vote,” he said. A moment passed as he stared at the table.
Dactyl drained his Cherry Nitrous. “Have either of you ever seen an Arthurian Ingot?” he asked, setting the canister down with a clank. Chirwa and Khopesh shook their heads.
“I know some people back home who could really use that money,” Chirwa said.
Khopesh shook her head. I’m sorry, Naima, she thought. “If we die, we can’t help anybody.” I know you’re in pain. I promised to get help, and I will. She sighed. Just not right now. “We can’t trust these Nimbus scumbags anyway,” she said. I’ll find some other way. “Even if we deliver the package, they could double-cross us.” She’s probably crying right now, vomiting into a filthy aluminum cylinder. Waiting for me to show up with some good news.
Chirwa tilted his head. “They always pay their debts,” he said. “Whatever else people say, they’re known for that, at least.”
Khopesh put her head down again, trying to block the tears. “I don’t want to take the risk,” she said. Please forgive me, Naima. Maybe later I can find something to hijack or … Her thoughts fizzled into darkness. She drew an angry breath and forced her face into stone and sat up. “Let’s just dump this fertilizer and find something to bring back home.”
Chirwa looked at her with sad eyes. “You could get your sister a real doctor,” he said.
Khopesh glanced at him and cursed. She looked at her hands.
“What’s wrong with your sister?” Dactyl asked. Chirwa glanced at him, closed his eyes, and shook his head slowly.
Khopesh watched the tears fall onto the table.
Dactyl looked around. Chirwa’s eyes were still closed. He breathed.
“Yeah,” Khopesh said finally. “Okay.”