Fetu drew a weapon and blasted toward the rear of the cargo hold. A shriek went up as Khopesh and the others jumped to their feet and ran toward it. Fetu shot twice more, calling out whisper-words with each blast.
“Woah,” Dactyl said, grabbing its hand. Fetu barely glanced at Dactyl before flinging him to the side and firing again.
“Cease fire,” Khopesh yelled. Fetu held the blaster aloft and stared at her with a puzzled expression. She threw her hands up. “Why are you firing a weapon inside the ship?”
There was a murmur of whisper-words from the corner of the hold and Dactyl groaned. “Oh not again,” he said, crawling toward the sound. He reached behind a stack of crates and pulled out one of the pink workers from Fortunato-7. The creature flailed around, trying to get behind Dactyl. Its hands trembled and its bulbous pink body flapped around like pudding, then settled as it stood still.
“A vermin has stowed away,” Fetu said. “Infestations must be eradicated before — ”
“Okay,” Dactyl said, rising to his feet. “Stop.” He set the worker on the ground and it instantly scampered behind him, peering around Dactyl’s left leg. “This little guy is a person, just like you or me.” Fetu gave him a look of pure incredulity. “What’s his name?”
Fetu burst out laughing. It was an odd mix of guttural noise and high-pitched echoes.
“What’s so funny?” Dactyl said.
Fetu replaced the weapon in its belt and glanced around. “What is your chair’s name?” it asked, pointing.
“Alison,” Dactyl said with a shrug.
Fetu raised its eyebrows, while Khopesh rolled her eyes. “Seriously?” she asked. “You named your chair?”
Dactyl scowled. “You didn’t?”
Khopesh stared blankly at him, then turned to Chirwa. After a moment, he shrugged. “Are you serious?” she cried. “What?”
“Emma,” Chirwa said quietly.
“My point,” Fetu said, “is that most chairs do not have names.”
“No,” Khopesh said loudly, and glared at Chirwa. “They do not.”
Fetu gestured to the pink worker. “And this … ” — he said a whisper-word — “does not have a name either.” The creature said a whisper-word back, quietly, still cowering behind Dactyl.
Dactyl turned to look down at the creature. It looked up with fearful eyes. He looked at Fetu again. “That word you called him.” Fetu said it again, and Dactyl narrowed his eyes. “Sounds like ‘Hess’.” He smiled at it. “I’m gonna call you Hess.” It looked from Dactyl to Fetu, then over to Khopesh and then Chirwa.
“This is absurd,” Fetu said. “The … workers of Fortunato-7 do not experience — ”
“I’ve heard what you think,” Dactyl said, and patted the top of Hess’s head. “I don’t know why you hate this guy so much, but you will not harm him while you’re on this ship.” He pointed accusingly at Fetu. “Got it?”
Fetu stared at him. “Yes,” it said. “I ‘got it’.”
Dactyl jerked his head toward Hess. “Tell him he’s safe.”
Fetu closed its eyes and nodded. Without looking at Hess, it said a stream of whisper-words. Hess nervously listened, then looked up at Dactyl with a warm expression.
Fetu crossed to the dining nook and sat on the floor. Khopesh approached and displayed the controls for the table. Fetu bowed to her and sat, produced a notebook, and began scribbling in it.
Dactyl knelt down and smiled at Hess. He pointed a finger. “Hess,” he said. The creature’s eyes darted around nervously, landing frequently on Fetu. “Hess,” Dactyl said again, touching him between his big eyes and tiny mouth.
Hess said a whisper-word that approached the name Dactyl had given it. “Right,” Dactyl said. “Hess!” He put a thumb to his own chest. “Dactyl.”
“Ess,” Hess said again.
Dactyl smiled and shook his head. “You are Hess,” he said. “I am Dactyl.” He pointed to Hess. “Hess.” Then to himself. “Dactyl.”
“Dac,” Chirwa said.
“Yeah,” he replied, still smiling at Hess.
“Just start with Dac.” Chirwa sat back at the control panel and scanned their course files. “Take it one syllable at a time.”
He pointed to his chest. “Dac.”
Hess made an odd face. “Ac,” he declared.
Dactyl smiled. “Close enough,” he said.
Dactyl released the carbonator on a canister of Cherry Nitrous and poured it into two tumblers. Hess watched with eager eyes as the red liquid splashed into the hard plastic cup. “Cherry Nitrous,” Dactyl said, holding the canister up and gesturing with his left hand.
“Erry I-russ,” Hess said, smiling.
“Cherry,” Dactyl tried, dragging it out.
“Erry,” Hess said, eyes curled in concentration.
Dactyl looked around and shook his head.
Chirwa sighed and walked over to the countertop. He held up the hard plastic tumbler. “Cup,” he said.
“Cup,” Hess spat back. “Cup, cup!” It reached out with all three hands.
Chirwa raised an eyebrow and looked at Dactyl. “If I didn’t know better,” he said, “I’d think he’s developed a chemical addiction.”
“Whatever,” Dactyl said, and took the cup. He handed it to Hess, who poured it vertically into its mouth, gulping it away in seconds. With closed eyes, Hess lolled its body back and forth a couple of times and made a hissing-purr sound.
It placed the tumbler on the countertop and said “Cup!”
Dactyl smiled. “Later,” he said, and patted Hess on the top of the head.
“Disgraceful,” Fetu said from the dining table. It had made the spot an office of sorts, writing in its notebook for much of the time they spent flying toward the Nimbus system. Chirwa once asked what Fetu was writing, only to receive a curt answer about corporate records.
“Oh shush,” Dactyl said, walking toward the navigation station. He paused and held his own cup toward Fetu. “Do you want some?”
Fetu gave a weak chuckle. “No thank you,” it said. “This ‘beverage’ corrodes the insides and rots the mind.”
“Not like this nutritious health food we’re transporting,” Chirwa said, jerking a thumb toward the entrance to the cargo hold.
Fetu blinked at him. “The products we are delivering have been certified — ”
“Fecal fornication,” Khopesh cried from her seat at the main control bank. She turned to face them. “You wanna be a drug dealer, fine.” She spread her hands. “But don’t give us a bunch of crap about how safe they are.” She rose, walked to Dactyl, and took the cup from him. “And don’t chastise our crew with lectures about their drink of choice.” She took a sip of Cherry Nitrous and immediately spat it onto the floor. “My mouth!” she yelled. She barely managed to get the cup back into Dactyl’s hand before she collapsed and spat twice more onto the floor. “What is in that garbage?”
Chirwa laughed and retrieved a towel. He dropped it onto the floor and Khopesh moved it around to soak up the mess. “Weren’t you just requesting an end to lectures about dietary choices?”
Khopesh heaved with a hand over her mouth and stood up. She gave the towel a few more wipes with her foot, then kicked it toward the laundry nook. “That was before I tasted it,” she said.
“How have you never had this before?” Dactyl asked, and took a swig.
“Cup,” Hess said. Dactyl patted him on the head.
“I don’t know,” Khopesh said. “I’ve never liked sweet things, so I figured it wasn’t my jam.” She scowled at the drink in his hand. “I didn’t expect it to be so … acidic.”
Dactyl sat down at the nav station and took another swig. “More for me,” he said.
He loaded up the spaceship game and scanned his list of contacts. “No one around,” he said to Hess, who peered up at the screens with wide eyes. “Just you and me.”
“Oo an ee,” Hess said.
Dactyl smiled. “That’s right,” he said, and launched a small solo vessel into the void of space. “Let’s go find some raiders to fight.” He paused and pulled out a folder from his file drawer. He laid out three maps and produced a marker. He numbered them and showed them to Hess. “One,” he said, handing him the first and pointing to the numeral. “Two,” he said, passing the second and pointing to it as well. “Three.”
Hess stared at the pages and looked up at Dactyl. After a moment, it held up the first map. “On,” it said. “Oo,” it chirped, lifting the second. Then, with a grin, it held up the third. “Ee.”
“Three,” Dactyl said slowly.
Hess hesitated. “Ree,” it said, straining to produce the digraph.
Dactyl smiled. “Close enough,” he said. He looked at the nav screen for the game and held his hand out. “Gimme map two,” he said.
“Oo!” Hess cried, and put the second map into his hand.
“Yes!” Dactyl said. “Hi five.”
Hess stared at his hand. It reached up slowly, took the second map back, and put it into Dactyl’s open palm. He laughed and set the map down. Then he took Hess’ middle hand and held it up. He awkwardly shuffled it toward his left palm and connected them. “Hi five,” he said again.
“I hive,” Hess said.
Dactyl nodded, and dropped his hand. Then he swung it up again and said “Hi five!” Hess pushed his middle hand out and they slapped.
“Yes!” Dactyl said. He ignited the FTL boosters and his ship took into a neighboring system.
“Ess!” Hess said with a grin. It studied the names on the first and third maps. After a moment, it walked toward Fetu. Its stride was timid and slow, testing the space between them for danger. As it got within earshot, it said a few whisper-words.
Fetu gave a harsh guffaw and waved its hand, then said a single whisper-word back.
Hess didn’t have eyebrows, but the top of its head folded in on its eyes to produce a kind of scowl. It said another stream of whisper-words and gestured twice to Dactyl as it spoke. Fetu shook its head and responded with a few more whisper-words. They continued the exchange for a moment, Fetu’s harsh tone eventually softening. Then Hess said one last string of words and Fetu froze. It narrowed its eyes and pulled its antennae back over its head. Then it removed a device from its belt and tossed it onto the floor. Hess made a joyful sound and scooped it up.
It returned to Dactyl’s area and sat on the floor. It pressed the device to the first page and it beeped. Then the word “Andromeda” issued from the gadget.
Dactyl looked down and smiled. He glanced over to Khopesh and Chirwa, who nodded with intrigue.
“It reads words on the page?” Khopesh asked Fetu.
“Yes,” Fetu said, and continued writing.
“Andromeda,” the device said again. Fetu hissed a string of whisper-words and Hess replied with one. When it pressed the device again, it said “Andromeda” much more quietly. Hess moved the device to a different spot. “Cassiopeia,” the device reported. It repeated this process four times for each name, and continued around the map.
One hour later, Dactyl was sweating as the virtual missiles flew around the screen. “They’re getting away,” he cried. “We gotta follow them into Canis Major.” He held his hand out. “Gimme map two.”
Hess handed him a page. “Ree,” it said, looking up hesitantly.
Dactyl froze and took the page back. He held it up and scanned the names. “Holy crap,” he said. “You’re right. It is map three.” He gazed at Hess with something like wonder. “Where is Triangulum?” he asked.
Hess instantly pushed the first map toward him. “On,” it said with a grin.
“Hess!” Dactyl cried. He wrapped his arms around the creature’s squishy body and squeezed. He plated a kiss on his head and nuzzled into him. “I love this guy.” He let go and sat back, then watched as Hess lolled itself back and forth, emitting the hiss-purr sound.
Khopesh tapped some lights on the main controls and sighed. “Okay, crew,” she said. “We better turn in. Tomorrow we reach the Nimbus System.” She activated the holographic viewscreen and a cluster of planets floated into view.
“Should be an interesting day,” Chirwa said.
Dactyl was fixated on his virtual space battle. “I gotta finish this,” he said.
Khopesh approached the station. “We need you sharp tomorrow,” she said. “You need sleep.” She glanced down at Hess, who was feebly waving the remaining map page at her, scowling, as if to move her back. She chuckled. “Is he your bodyguard now?”
Hess hopped back and pointed to Dactyl. “Ee an oo.”
Dactyl glanced back at him. “Yeah,” he said. “Me and you.” He put up a hand. “Hi five.”
Hess tapped his hand and waved the page at Khopesh again.
She held up her hands in surrender. “Okay,” she said. “I’m going.” She stepped back. “Don’t hurt me.”
Hess watched her go and said “Ee an oo” again quietly.
After wiping out two swarms of Zentreli warships, Dactyl yawned and headed toward the crew quarters. He pulled off his cap and ruffled his hair. “See you tomorrow,” he said to Hess. Then he paused and looked back. Hess was standing to the side of the nav station. It glanced at Fetu, who was stretched along the side wall across from the cargo hold. Dactyl scanned the room and thought for a moment. “Uhh,” he said finally. “You wanna sleep in my bunk?”
Hess blinked at him.
Dactyl put a hand out and waved toward himself. “C’mon,” he said. “This way.”
Hess gave a little smile and trotted toward him. They entered the dark room, where Khopesh lay asleep on the bottom left bed. Dactyl moved slowly to the top bunk and pulled Hess up after him. They nestled together, Dactyl wrapping one arm around Hess’ soft body. He gave a relaxed sigh and looked over to see Chirwa, reading with a tiny light over his page, give Dactyl an intrigued grin.
Dactyl glanced at Hess, then back at Chirwa. He half-shrugged, as best he could in his cozy position. Chirwa gave an approving shrug of his own and returned to the page.
“Ee an oo,” Hess said softly as he drifted off to sleep.
“Here goes,” Khopesh said, and pulled the Obsidian out of hyperdrive. They coasted into the edge of the Nimbus system; the four largest planets were barely visible in the distance.
Suddenly two cream-colored forms appeared on either edge of the viewscreens. “Hello, Obsidian,” a woman’s voice said, soothing and deep, through the ship comms. “Welcome to Nimbus.”
“Uh,” Khopesh said, and sent the signal into ambient comms so the others could hear. “Thank you?” She muted her mic and tilted her head toward Chirwa. “How do they know it’s us?”
Chirwa was peering at the glass of the viewscreen. “I don’t know,” he said. “But am I crazy, or is there some kind of film on the screen?” He wiped a gloved finger against the glass.
“Huh,” Khopesh said. “Now that you mention it …”
“I am Qin-7,” the voice said. “I am authorized to provide you with everything you need during your stay in our system.”
“Great,” Khopesh said, and shook her head a little. She unmuted herself and said “great” again.
“We are ready to refuel your vessel,” Qin said. “Please prepare your fuel hatch.”
“Huh?” Khopesh exchanged confusion with Chirwa. “You’re going to refuel us?”
“As you make your way to Nimbus X,” Qin said, “our Companion Scouts are happy to refuel your vessel.” There was a pause. “You are currently flying at 27% fuel capacity, are you not?”
“How do you know that?” Chirwa asked.
“We take care to learn everything possible about our valued contract employees,” she said. “Please prepare your fuel hatch.”
“Hey,” Khopesh said. “Why aren’t the thrusters working?”
“We have prepared a guided navigation route directly to Nimbus X,” the voice said. “For now, you need only sit back and enjoy the ride.”
Chirwa muted himself and looked at Dactyl and Fetu. They were behind the control seats, gazing at the planets slowly drawing closer. “Quite a velvet glove on this iron fist,” he said.
Fetu gave a chuckle. “You have no idea,” it said.
“Ac,” Hess said, and tugged on Dactyl’s pant leg. It held up its hands.
“Oh,” Dactyl said. “Yeah. Sorry.” He picked Hess up and planted it on a clear spot of the control panel. It gazed around the viewscreens with awe.
Khopesh tapped buttons on the panel. “Fuel hatch is ready,” she said.
“Thank you,” Qin said. A gentle clack rang out as the Companion Scout attached itself to their fuel system. On the datascreen, their nitrogen tank level began to rise. “Estimated transit time to Nimbus X is three minutes, twenty-six seconds.” She paused. “Can we provide you with anything else during your approach? Would you like some nourishment?” A list of foods and drinks appeared on the datascreen.
“Grilled zarkot?” Khopesh asked. “What the hell is that?”
“A delicacy from Nimbus G,” Fetu said. “I expect you would have trouble digesting it.”
Dactyl leaned over to Khopesh’s mic. “We need some Cherry Nitrous,” he said loudly.
“Certainly,” Qin said. “How much would you like?”
Dactyl smiled. “Three koku,” he said.
Chirwa rolled his eyes. “Ten litres,” he said, glaring at Dactyl.
“Twenty,” Dactyl called out, grinning at Chirwa.
“I’ll send thirty,” Qin said. “Just to be safe.” She paused. “Anything else?”
“No thanks,” Khopesh said, scowling at Dactyl.
“What?” he asked, hands spread. “They offered.”
“Culinary offerings are one of the most prized benefits of Nimbus business arrangements,” Fetu said, sitting at the dining table.
“Ha,” Dactyl said, and thrust his chin at Khopesh.
“But,” it said, “I don’t blame your companions for avoiding their foodstuffs.”
Dactyl looked at him. “Why not?”
Khopesh pulled her head back as she noticed a glare from Hess. “Can I help you with something?” she asked.
Hess raised a finger on its middle hand and waved it from Dactyl to himself. “Ee an oo,” it said. Dactyl giggled silently and held his hand up.
“That’s right,” he said, staring at Khopesh. “Hi five, buddy.”
Their eyes still locked on Khopesh, they slapped palms.
She shook her head. “You guys are weird.”
A loud noise echoed off the hull and sucked into the airlock. Hess gave a yelp and jumped onto the floor. It hissed a stream of whisper-words. Fetu rolled its eyes and responded with several others. “The vermin believes we’re under attack,” it said. “I explained it’s just the poison delivery.”
Dactyl paused, then shouted: “Hey!” He turned to face Fetu. “Cherry Nitrous is a legal beverage, authorized for sale in the Common Market Systems.” He turned and began suiting up to retrieve the package from the airlock.
“Sixty-four percent of them,” Fetu said, and smoothed its antennae.
“Refuel complete,” Qin said. Khopesh looked at the fuel tank indicator and nodded at the full reading.
“Thank you,” she said. Dactyl went into the airlock and lit his indicator on the control panel. Khopesh activated the airlock and pulled the camera onto the main screen. They watched Dactyl float toward the outer hatch. He opened it and guided a floating cylinder — nearly as large as him — into the airlock, then closed the hatch. He set the tank against the ground and flipped the indicator again. Khopesh deactivated the lock and Dactyl sank to the floor.
He emerged from the airlock pushing the cylinder on a tiny platform of rolling spheres. Hess stared at it while Dactyl removed the suit. It said a few whisper-words in the form of a question.
Dactyl put a hand on the top of the tank and beamed. “Cup!” he said.
Hess’s eyes went wide and moved slowly to Dactyl. It bolted to the kitchen and grabbed a plastic tumbler and held it toward Dactyl. Instead, he seized the creature and put its mouth to the nozzle and pushed a valve on the tank’s rim. They heard a gushing noise as Hess guzzled it down, waving all three hands with glee. Dactyl placed him on the ground, moved his own mouth into position, and served himself a burst.
“Cup!” Hess chirped, and hugged Dactyl’s leg.
“That’s right,” Dactyl said. “Cup all day every day.” He shot contemptuous looks at each of the others in turn.
“Estimated transit time to Nimbus X is two minutes,” Qin said.
Dactyl wheeled the Nitrous tank into the kitchen, playfully pushing Hess away. “Later,” he said.
Khopesh muted their comms. “I know these ‘Companion Ships’ can take care of us if need be,” she said to Chirwa. “And obviously they jacked our controls right away.” She gestured at the control clutch, adjusting itself automatically. “But I expected warships when we showed up. Big guns pointed at us.” Chirwa shrugged. She peered at the Companion Scouts. “Seems a little lax.”
“No need for big guns,” Fetu said, rising and approaching them. “If you have enough small guns.”
“What do you mean?” Chirwa asked.
Fetu leaned forward and unmuted the mics. “Qin,” it said. “This is Fetu, from Zonite Production Facility JR-23.”
“Yes, commander,” Qin said. “Good to speak with you again.”
“My companions wish to observe your nanone security matrix in action.”
“I am happy to assist you with that,” Qin said. Khopesh and Chirwa exchanged odd looks. “Would you like to provide a target?”
Fetu looked at Khopesh. “If you release a waste cube, they will demonstrate.”
She glanced at Chirwa, who shrugged. “Okay,” she said, and tapped the waste expulsion activator.
Dactyl returned to the bridge, with Hess on his shoulder. “Demonstrate what?” he asked.
Seconds later a dense cube of compressed foodstuff and debris floated into view and stopped in the center of their viewscreen.
“How are they doing that?” Chirwa asked. “How is it just floating there?”
Strings of green laser beams, each slightly longer than the cube, appeared on all sides of the compressed waste. They passed through the cube, dicing it into tiny bits, and then vanished. The shredded pieces were sucked together, then flattened. A pair of dark clouds oozed from the tiny nugget, and all three were absorbed into the Companion Scout craft on their left.
“What the hell was that?” Chirwa said.
“Nanobot drone swarms,” Fetu said. “Thousands of tiny autonomous microdroids sliced your garbage apart, then extracted the carbon and silicon.”
“Are they planning to use it?” Chirwa asked.
“Oh yes,” Fetu said. “The flattened refuse will be made into munitions.”
Chirwa nodded and gestured to the viewscreen. “So the film on this glass …”
Fetu nodded and sat back down at the dining table. “Indeed,” it said, producing its journal. “A cloud of defense microdrones surrounds everything that enters the system.” It began writing.
“Woah,” Dactyl said. “That’s hardcore.”
“Quite,” Fetu said, and smoothed its antennae. “The Companion Scouts,” it said, waving toward the side of the ship, “are just delivering fuel.” It paused and waved toward the kitchen. “And ‘beverages’.”
“Damn,” Khopesh said. “Good thing we’re friendly with them.”
Fetu nodded. “For now,” it said.
Chirwa moved his head a little. “Sorry, what?”
“Rest assured,” Fetu said, pointing with its pen. “If the rulers of Nimbus X want you dead, you will die.”
This concludes Part 4. Read Part 5 here.