Next Time, Without the Oops
*Mea culpa, mea culpa. I thought I had another Friday to go before my turn. (This is the oops from the title) That being the case, dear readers, I shall snippet a thing upon which I am currently working. The good news is the words are flowing again, after about eleven months (Wee Dave will hit the year mark next month about this time). Unfortunately, they aren’t flowing nearly quickly enough for this starved writer. So, without further ado, a currently unnamed space opera that has caught my imagination.
“Nandi, when you get back to the ship, I need you to get to my console, and submit a genetic sample. Right after you execute the program listed under Tellexia, in the main computer. Two Els in Tellexia, mind.” Her boss’s voice was deadly calm, though his bearded face still bore his usual lopsided grin.
Anceton Mar Aich always said it was important to put restless natives – “revolting” was how he usually phrased it – at their ease when trying to sell them beads and trinkets. Even if those trinkets were programmable plastic tools that could take a monomolecular edge. Basic equipment for, well, practically anybody from a civilized system, but precious rare out past the Frontier, which was where the crew of the freelance light freighter Toldurian Sunset operated.
“Boss?” Anandia Zarresch looked up from where she was demonstrating the finer uses of one of those same polytools to a local. Shondo Bellich, the engineer who kept the Sunset running in, well, as good a shape as the parts they could afford allowed, called them wogs, but Nandi though Bellich was a snob about some things. More than some, really.
She’d been quietly using the pry-bar setting to open the ridiculous, ancient-styled wooden crate. She wasn’t certain quite where he found them, but Ance always insisted they use containers made of actual wood for the shipments. It cut down on the volume of goods they could transport, meaning narrower profit margins, and – more personally – meant that she worked harder carting things on and off the Sunset. She didn’t mind the callouses on her hands, but the sore muscles the day after were annoying.
“Anandia Chessandi Zarresch, listen to me now as you’ve never listened before.” Nandi’s scalp tightened at his tone. “In a moment, when I give you the signal, you will beat what is known as a hasty retreat. You will return to the Toldurian Sunset as fast as your shapely legs will carry you.” His grin never faltered, but Nandi sensed him coiling like a spring. No, more like one of the smart missiles they carried to deal with pirates or the two-bit “naval forces” they occasionally encountered outside the Frontier of Known Space. The last time they’d fired a shot in anger was before Nandi hired on, but Bellich and Mierann Lightfall, their purser, had told her stories after a few drinks that had put her hair on end. Much like her captain’s current attitude, as it happened.
“Nandi, read back,” Ance didn’t – quite: his voice was too quiet – snap at her. The read back was one of the first orders she’d learned to obey when she came aboard. Bellich – deep in his cups on shore leave – had told her it came from the captain’s naval experience. Though he’d flat refused to go further about which navy Ance served in, and the look in Ance’s eyes the one time she’d asked had dissuaded her from returning to the subject.
“Run home, aye,” Nandi said, her mouth responding while her mind was still occupied with trying to figure out why Ance was behaving so strangely. “Run Tellexia, aye. Two Els, aye. Bleed a drop, aye. Skipper, what about-”
“I’ll be right behind you, Girl-child,” his grin slid into a genuine smile, one full of a warmth she’d seldom seen in his face before. “Now, GO!” Ance roared and drew his personal polytool from its hard case on his belt. He whipped his hand to one side, and a flat black length of diamond-hard, magna-stabilized duroplast extended a meter past his clenched fist.
At the captain’s shout, all eyes in the verdant, little clearing focused on him. Including Nandi’s. All those eyes saw Anceton Mar Aich drive the polytool through the metal chestguard of the robed man in front of him. Nandi saw some kind of primitive firearm drop from the stricken man’s long, enshrouding sleeve in the frozen instant it took everyone’s stunned minds to catch up to reality. Amiable smiles turned to ugly snarls as the other men in the clearing reached for weapons.
Ance spun, wrenching the blade from his first victim, the monomolecular edge on the non-reflective blade slicing out the side of the man’s chest in a spray of gore. That same inhumanly sharp edge caught the throat of the man who began reaching for Nandi, opening his neck and splashing red, red blood across her face.
The warm, sick spray on her cheek jerked Nandi out of her stupor, and as the men in the clearing converged on her captain, she followed orders. She threw the prybar-configured polytool at the man to her right and jerked left. While not particularly heavy, the rigid device caught in his feet as the bearded local lunged for her with the heavy-bladed knife in his grip. A snarl of rage suffused his face as he collapsed to the dirt, but Nandi felt no satisfaction. After all, these men were trying to kill her.
She dodged through the press to the raucous sounds of what seemed a pitched battle. Metal belled and men’s voices raised in shouts of anger and shrieks of pain pursued her out of the clearing and into the forest canopy. Behind her, the small thunderclaps of chemical propellants sounded, and angry projectiles whined to smack into the heavy tree boles around which she dodged.
Curiously, she couldn’t hear the previously heavy forest noise she’d noted while she unloaded the crate of polytools. Avians and mammal or reptile analogues may well have been scared off by the sounds of battle still raging behind her. For all she could tell, they might be all around her. All she heard was the spiteful cracks of subsonic slugs burying themselves in the native hardwoods, and her own labored breathing.
Nandi gave no thought to stealth, trusting in speed and superior nutrition. Even if the locals were in hot pursuit, the men she fled were shorter than her by at least a hand, and burdened with heavy arms and armor.
Though her lungs burned, it seemed no time at all before she burst out of the brilliant green canopy. Nandi dashed across the open verge to the still-open cargo hatch of the [ship’s name], forgetting in her haste to worry about the light pulse gun Ance had rigged as a sort of automatic guard beast.
The artificial light in the cargo hold seemed dim after the brilliant light of the local star, and Nandi stumbled as the familiar space seemed somehow alien. She caught herself as Bellich and Mierann looked up in surprise from where they had the spare grav lift opened up trying to run down the niggling fault in the blasted thing’s left arm.
“Nandi?” Mierann’s alto voice, roughened by years of shod use and sipping straight Moxan whiskey, sharpened with alarm as she took in Nandi’s condition. “Where’s Ance?”
“Girl-” Bellich started, in his still-pronounced Mendin accent, despite having left Mendis Secunda when he was younger than Nandi was now.
Nandi choked back a sob, and shook her head as she pelted past them, vaulting over the grav lift’s splayed innards.
“No time: orders!” She tossed over her shoulder as she swarmed up the ladder to the crew spaces. The engineering bay flashed past on her right, and then the galley on her left. She spun quickly up and around the half level ramp leading to their quarters, and then up again into the bridge. The wraparound viewports let in the light, and she had to squint against it.
Ance had been the last one in the pilot’s bucket, and he’d left the screens down. He said once he preferred to see a new world in all its natural glory. She said his eyes were just getting old. He’d grinned at her riposte, especially since she still hadn’t been speaking much then. It had been barely a month since he’d plucked her out of the creche for war orphans on Azmillah Three.
Unlike the cargo hold, which usually smelled of whatever they were carrying, and the engineering spaces, which smelled of lubricants, solvents and parts, the bridge usually smelled mostly of nothing much. Usually. Now, it seemed to smell of Ance, as well as Mierann’s shod, the mild, aromatic stimulant she’d developed a taste for while fighting with the Loyalists in the Sovenad Uprising.
Nandi slid into the pilot’s crash seat and quickly pulled up the interface. The ship’s computer projected it against the inside of the viewports. With the screens down, it autocorrected to eyesearing levels competing with the solar glare. A half-formed notion to dial up the screens flitted across the front of her mind, but Ance’s command chased it away. Besides, she knew what to do with her eyes closed.
Ance and Mierann usually used an induction headset when at the conn. The complex of sensors and atomic level circuitry translated thought directly into deed, but required more training than Nandi had. She was working at it, but it was a slow and frustrating process. Especially in moments of high stress, she was relegated to pulling up the manual control boards.
Her fingers slid across the glassy surface of the nearly perfect crystal boards, until the low grade grav field powered up, giving a sense of response to working with the flat controls. A few deft swipes brought up a command prompt so simple, the monks at the creche would have recognized it. With one hand, Nandi typed out “Tellexia” as Ance told her, while the other hand jabbed the control to bring up the gene-lock pad. The little pad slid out of a recess in the console, and Nandi jammed the pad of her left thumb into the spongy material. She steeled herself for the sting of the needle, and held her hand in place for the brief moment the device needed to get a sufficient sample.
Whatever Nandi thought she was expecting, it certainly wasn’t the warm baritone voice that announced over the ship speakers, “welcome aboard, Captain Zarresch. Your gene-print has been accepted, and per Anceton Mar Hrinkosah’s directions, the control and ownership of the Teldurian Sunset are yours. All hands, batten down and strap in for emergency lift. We’re running hot!”
Nandi heard muffled curses from below as Mierann and Bellich scrambled to find some place safer to lift than a parts-strewn cargo hold. She jerked the crash harness around herself, settling the five-point latch between her breasts just in time for a surge of power from the Sunset’s engines.
The roar of the sublight drive thrust her back into the bucket, and elicited another round of curses from below. The Sunset kicked upward, then boosted damn near vertical into the clear blue sky of the uncharted planet which would forever be her friend’s grave.