15th March, 2291
Keigh’s first feeling was that it was beautiful. The second was guilt, sudden and crushing. Perhaps the average seven year old could be forgiven for admiring such a costly spectacle, but she was hardly the average seven year old. She was entirely aware how many had died to create the image before her.
And it was all her fault.
“Drives at zero, hopper at… zero,” Vinga reported from Scanning. “She’s toast.”
That much was obvious. Explosions continued to punch flames through the stricken vessel’s blood-red hull; flames which faded instantly in the surrounding vacuum. The crippled ship was given an almost stately aura by the fires as it span slowly into the abyss of Helioshea’s gravity well.
“Keep delta off,” Hennis ordered from just behind Keigh, “We don’t want any ‘pedes jumping us.”
Keigh hardly heard him. She was still staring intently at her handiwork, trying not to consider the cost, or the implications. Suddenly she felt overwhelmingly tired. Another headache was forming in the front of her skull. She asked whether she could take a nap. The Voice said she could.
“I’m going for a nap,” she announced, too loudly. “Mr Hennis, you have the bridge.”
The bridge crew were well-trained and disciplined, but even so, Keigh could feel the wash of relief that swept the room. It was almost as powerful as the wave of fear that accompanied her every arrival.
Hennis cleared his throat. “What about the enemy, sir?”
Keigh afforded the trading junk one last glance as it continued its final convulsions. She listened as the Voice told her the words it wanted her to say.
”They can burn just as well without me.”
In her dreams, the Voice had a face. It was the face of her father.
They were walking, as they so often did, through an endless meadow. The air was thick with butterfly clouds and the scent of flowers.
“You did very well today,” her father said warmly. “I was so proud of you.”
“Thank you, Daddy,” Keigh said dutifully, hoping to hide how she felt, to screw up and force down her uncertainty. But she had never been able to fool her father, even when he had still been alive.
“What’s wrong, darling?” her father asked. He wasn’t looking at her, and he had a funny tone in his voice.
“Nothing!” she said, a little too quickly. “Nothing. It’s just… when I,… when I killed all those people-”
"Not people!” her father interrupted sharply. “Not people! The R’Dokken are nothing but animals. After what they’ve done to me. To us. We have to kill them; to keep everyone safe. To keep you safe. You know that.”
“Yes, Daddy. But… but none of them can laugh or run and play with their Mummy and Daddy anymore, and that’s because of me. Couldn’t we stop? Couldn’t we-“
Her father’s blow knocked her to the ground. Daffodils broke her fall, but her head was boiling with pain. She felt her father bend over her and grab the top of her t-shirt. Viciously, he wrenched to her feet. He raised his arm again, his face warped by fury. Keigh squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for the strike.
It felt that the moment stretched on forever; her father’s breath hot and ragged against her face.
Then he let her go.
Cautiously, she opened her eyes. He had stopped looking at her again; his attention was fixed in the distance.
“You have a lot to learn, and a long way to go”, he said, all anger, all emotion gone from his voice.
“I think you had better go on alone.”
“You requested assistance,” Flopsy announced in its dead, mechanical monotone.
Jessa gritted her teeth and forced her eyes to stare straight at the hated machine’s face.
“I did. We got a micro-breach in the cargo hold. I want the area clear of people, which leaves you on clean-up duty.”
The robot stood silent, pondering. Please, Jessa thought, please don’t wake Her to check.
“The alarms did not sound,” Flopsy eventually stated.
“I know that,” Jessa said, allowing a little irritation to creep into her voice, “You need to sort that out too.”
The machine considered another moment. Jessa tried not to let fear leak into her expression. She knew how risky this all was. Navbots were by no stretch of the imagination particularly smart (their mastery of equations of motion notwithstanding), but if Flopsy figured out the absurdity of the Chief Medical Officer directing it in routine maintenance, she might very well end up exceptionally dead in the near future.
There was a faint whine as the robot started its engine, swivelled on its tracks, and left the room. As it departed it nearly collided with Second Officer Harlan Summer. No, First Officer now, she corrected herself. Ever since what happened to Jaime.
Striding into the cramped rec-room, Harlan glanced at the vidcam in the corner of the room, nodding sharply as he watched it pan away to inspect the dilapidated pool table.
“Was that the one that did for Jaime?” he asked, jerking his thumb back at the departed navbot.
Jessa nodded. “You can tell by the fairings. There’s still a little dried blood there.”
Harlan didn’t reply. Instead he limped across to the table, and sat down opposite his wife, sighing slightly as he took the weight off his injured leg. Scooping the deck of cards from the metal table, he began to deal Woody for three. A game of cards to cover a coup d’etat. How twentieth century of them.
A moment later, they were joined by their co-conspirator Geiss. His face was filled with his trademark grin, born of arrogance and egotism; but Jessa caught his furtive glance at the vidcam as he swaggered in.
He sat and scooped up his cards in one fluid motion. Squinting at his cards, he sighed.
“Shit, Harlan. Six years on this wreck and you still can’t deal a decent fucking hand.”
Screwing up his face, he took another look at his cards.”Nope, still shit. So, who’s bidding?”
Jessa opened her mouth to answer, but Geiss’ raised finger stopped her. He was staring intently at the camera in the corner. As it looked away once more, he leapt from his seat, and slapped something small atop the surveillance device.
“How long do we…” another raised finger cut Harlan off. Geiss returned to the table, and fished around in his pocket. Eventually he retrieved three metallic discs, each a little larger than a coin, and several centimetres thick. Geiss proceeded to place the objects beneath each of their chairs. A sharp stamp on the floor set all three off vibrating fiercely, almost flipping themselves them off the deck with the force of their exertions.
“Right. We can talk now. But quietly.” Geiss said with a theatrical whisper, holding a finger to his lips and grinning with self-satisfaction.
“How long do we have?” Harlan repeated, trying to fix his attention on Geiss, the vidcam, and the convulsing discs all at the same time.
The first nodded at the second. “We’ve got a loop now; the three of us sat here playing cards. I can keep it on indefinitely, but the longer we are, the more suspicious it’ll look. The sound’ll help, though.”
“What sound?” Jessa asked, confused, “And what’s with the Amazing Dancing Pennies?”
“I was hoping you’d ask,” said Geiss, in a tone that made it clear that watch he actually meant was “I was hoping you’d notice how clever I am”. “The vidcam’s aren’t the only little trick up our good captain’s sleeve to keep us all in line. There’s the navvies, obviously. Which reminds me; you did get rid of Flopsy, I presume?”
Jessa nodded. Much as it made her sick to admit it, it had been a stroke of genius on Geiss’ part to order one of the external maintenance nanobots to self destruct, and cause a microscopic hull breach. Geiss had said the real problem had been ensuring that the breach was placed in a sufficiently awkward position to tie Flopsy up for long enough. Then, with Mopsy busy running calculations for the hop from Helioshea, and Cottontail guarding Keigh, they were safe enough. In theory, anyway.
“So what else is she using?” Harlan asked guardedly. Geiss flashed him the very smuggest of grins.
“Before the Kingfisher was refitted after first contact, she was just your common-or-garden orehauler. Juno to Proxima run.”
“Voynich ore?” Harlan asked, a strange look on his face. Geiss nodded, and reactivated his grin.
“So?” asked Jessa, “So what?”
“Voynich ore is ridiculously unstable. You kick it; it blows your foot off. Your foot if you’re lucky.”
“Can we just finish with Junior History of Geology and someone explain what the hell it is I’m missing?”
No grin this time, Geiss may have recognised how close he was coming to receiving a chair to the face. “If you want to transport vibration-sensitive unstable materials, you need to make damn sure the ship doesn’t have anything that might cause any tremors. And you’d have to come up with a way to make sure that if something does go off, you can track it down fucking fast.”
“This whole ship is wired with pressure sensors.”
Jessa was stunned. “Could they… could they actually pick up what we say?”
Geiss shrugged. “It would explain what happened to Jaime, wouldn’t it?”
It would indeed. From what Jessa could tell, Jaime had waited until security was at its lightest before punching out a guard and attempting to wreck the Navcore. The goon had definitely been unconscious, she had checked, and anyway she suspected that he had been in on the plan, and Jaime had just laid him out for the sake of deniability. Despite all that, She had found out, and Jaime had been summarily executed by Flopsy. Most of him was floating outside in the void, but it was possible that part of him remained aboard ship. There had been so many pieces.
“So how do these discs help?” asked Harlan.
“They’re pocket conversations,” announced Geiss proudly. “I took our voice-prints and used them to write a little theatre. Right now I’m explaining the gory details of the evening Jessa and I got busy when you were on night-duty last month. You’re not taking it well.””I would imagine not,” Harlan said icily.
Geiss shrugged in a distinctly unapologetic fashion.
“I needed something loud enough to cover us.” He winked at Jessa. “I considered the act itself, but the discs only have a running time of half an hour.”
“Very restrained. And you have our voice files; how disturbing.” Harlan glanced at his watch. “But perhaps we should move on. We gathered from your cryptic note that you might have something of a plan.”
“Indeed I do.” Geiss sat back and placed his hands behind his head. “Which one of you is up for a spacewalk?”
There is no such thing as a routine stop at a R’Dokken Starport, but the plan had been to approximate one as closely as possible.
The phrase “Starport” fitted the R’Dokken Starport rather better than the Terran equivalent. A gigantic sphere of water, several miles in diameter; kept in place by a thick husk of ice and the gravity of the port itself; a ball of buildings four miles across in the exact centre of the space-borne ocean.
“Pretty,” Jessa had observed on approach.
Gabe hadn’t heard. He was staring intently at the screen, as if trying to penetrate the ice with his gaze, to see what lay beneath.
“Halve our speed, Ryugi,” Gabe said from his chair. “We don’t want to come in too fast. Right?”
The question was aimed at Davis, the Kingfisher’s xenocol officer. A new breed of servicemen spawned from first contact eleven years ago, the XCO held responsibility for ensuring any encounter with the R’Dokken ran as smoothly as possible. Given the dearth of information on the aliens, Jessa always considered that Davis’ efforts were more or less just shots in the dark. With a water pistol.
Like many of his rank, Davis was a Diplomatic Core dropout, and as such was a war zone to conflicting superiority and inferiority complexes, a battle he concealed with blazing displays of arrogance and self-satisfaction.
“This installation is maintained by Kellarealm R’Dokken,” he said knowingly. His tone put Jessa in mind of one of the Navbots, only with a bigger nose. “The Kellarealm xenocs are as renowned for their bloodthirstiness as they are for their tapestries.”
Tapestries? What, was the guy reading from cue cards?
“If these ‘pedes are so trigger-happy, what makes XI think our people are still alive?” she asked her captain, making a subtle but noticeable display of ignoring Davis entirely.
Gabe shrugged. “I imagine Xenoc-Intel are just as clueless as we are. But Kellarealm won’t be too popular with us or their peers if Callum and his mob are delivered as tampered mail.”
Jessa didn’t like to think how the R’Dokken might “tamper” with somebody.
The Starport began to expand less quickly as the Kingfisher slackened pace. Even so, it was only a few moments before the ship was close enough for Jessa to make out the gaping maw of ice that granted access to the shadowed interior. Two colossal cannons flanked the ice-rimmed lake, their massive barrels swivelling ponderously as they tracked the human craft.
“We’re picking up a signal,” Gallagher reported from Comms. He cocked his head as he listened to the translator-mangled message. “It’s our flight path once we’re submerged. Plus a threat if we deviate.”
“The threat being?” Gabe asked.
Gallagher shrugged. “The usual.”
The captain grinned. “Dismemberment and consumption? It’s rapidly becoming cliché.”
He didn’t seem at all worried. Jessa, on the other hand, was quite convinced that they would never make it out alive.
“How does the defendant plead?” asked Cottontail in its precise, invariant voice. Keigh knew someone was supposed to say that, she had seen it in a really old film once. She wasn’t sure who was meant to say it, or why, but it had to be said when somebody was on trial.
The somebody today was Firstgrade Helm Officer Ryugi. The charge was mutiny (the Voice had had to tell her what the word “mutiny” meant, along with “charge”), and for such a serious crime, Keigh had made absolutely sure that everything was just the way it should be. Ryugi stood in a wooden frame, haphazardly assembled from various pieces of furniture once found in the crew quarters. The jury stood beside Judge Cottontail. Keigh had thought a jury should have more than one member, but The Voice had told her Mopsy would be fine on her own. Prosecutor Flopsy and the Council for the Defence (a short, balding technician named Styve) completed the tableau.
“Not guilty,” said Ryugi softly. Given the stakes, Keigh thought he was being very calm. If it were her, she might’ve cried.
“Prosecution?” asked Cottontail. Flopsy rumbled forward.
“I call my first witness: Fourthgrade Maintenance Operatives Velba and Chaig.”
Weren’t witnesses called one at a time? Keigh couldn’t remember; she suspected it didn’t matter.
Velba and Chaig walked onto the bridge, followed by a pair of security guards, ensuring they reached the stand.
From this point on, Keigh didn’t really know what to do. She let the Voice take control of the navbots completely, and simply tried to avoid watching. Putting on trials was fun, but the end part could be really upsetting.
“Gentlemen,” Flopsy intoned, “Are you loyal to the captain of the Kingfisher?” Both men nodded their assent.
That isn’t right, is it? thought Keigh, isn’t there supposed to be an oath or something? But the Voice ignored her, it just went on.
“You stand here today because one amongst the crew attempted to subvert that loyalty. Correct?”
More nods, and grunts of agreement.
“Who was the perpetrator of this crime?”
Chaig nodded at Ryugi.
“You fuck!” came the response. Mopsy moved between accusers and accused to prevent the latter from launching an attack on the former. Both Chaig and Velba were staring fixedly at the floor.
“We find the defendant guilty,” Mopsy said.
“With loyalty comes reward,” stated the judge. “Operatives, you are hereby granted access to your quarters once again.”
The two men didn’t seem satisfied by this. Keigh would have thought they’d be glad for a chance for a shower. No-one but the robots had been into the crew quarters since Keigh became captain, and a week of accumulated sweat and grime had made standing near anyone else a distinctly stinky experience.
“Firstgrade Helm Officer Ryugi,” Keigh found herself saying, “You have been found guilty of mutiny. The sentence is death. It is captain’s prerogative to choose the method of execution.”
Keigh didn’t understand why the Voice made her say such things, rather than just using the navbots. She hated doing it, and despite all the effort she made to hide it, the Voice knew it full well.
As she opened her mouth to pronounce sentence, Ryugi made a dash for freedom. Automatically, Chaig moved to block his path. All this accomplished was to provide Ryugi with a focus for his rage. A savage blow to the throat left Chaig writhing on the floor. Ryugi feinted left and leapt right to dodge Flopsy, and for a moment it seemed he would escape. What he intended to do once “free”, Keigh had no idea; she could observe and control everything on the ship, bow to stern. There was little chance of hiding, and none whatsoever of escape.
It didn’t matter. As Ryugi flashed past, Mopsy caught him a glancing, almost contemptuous blow across Ryugi’s temple with one huge fist. The effect was extraordinary, Ryugi simply crumpled into a ball, and fell. His limp form skidded a few centimetres across the bridge’s cold, metal floor before stopping. Blood trickled from his head.
Chaig was writhing on the floor, gasping desperately. The sight made Keigh feel sick, it reminded her too much of how her father died. She felt exhaustion looming once again. “I want to go to bed,” she stated. “Mr Summers, you have the bridge.”
Harlan was staring at Ryugi, who was slowly attempting to stand. It was clear from Harlan’s face that he wanted to help.
“Mr Summers?” she repeated. Harlan reluctantly shifted his gaze. “Yes, captain.”
Keigh turned to go.
“A moment please, captain,” said Cottontail, “You still need to pass sentence.”
Keigh stiffened. Perhaps she could just go. Perhaps she didn’t have to say anything. She could just go to bed and fall asleep and wait for everything to be different in the morning.
But she knew that wasn’t true. She forced herself to relate the words she was given by the Voice. When it was satisfied, she almost ran from the bridge. She only just got the door closed in time to block the scream as Flopsy folded Ryugi neatly in half.