« Holy TerrorMy Skeletal Process »



  08:36:42 am, by Nic Wilson   , 6315 words  
Categories: Nexus


Friday Night Stories are written once a week, and updated on Friday. Recently, I've been doing serials, and this one, Nexus, began here, and continues below.

We were in the room I shared with Sam. Elle made some adjustments to it, so it didn?t look like civilized people live here, and turned the lights down to a shade above impenetrable darkness. Captain Diu?rnae was strapped into a chair Haley said she couldn?t break free from, but I?m not sure I believed her. I?d been standing in the corner of the room for twenty minutes, silent. I wanted to double that, but I really needed to pee.

?You have a scan, Haley?? She overlaid a 3D grid through my HUD, showing me Diu?rnae?s internal organ systems, blood flow, all in real time. ?Thanks, but I want the captain to know what we know, too, so make it a projection.?

Diu?rnae wanted to spit at me; that temporary helpfulness that came from getting shot had faded. The grid appeared on her body, layered over top of a loaner MedDiv smock. She didn?t look down, just glared as I pulled out my pistol and pressed it against her knee: ?For a start, what this tells me is I can shoot you in the leg with relatively little complication- which is peachy, because we don?t really have med-staff to help you if you start to bleed out. I just wanted to establish the parameters, here. I don?t want to hurt you, let alone kill you. But I want my people back more.?

She considered, then spat out, ?Why don?t you fist yourself with one of my fallen comrades??

?That can?t have translated right. Anyway, for now, I just want you to know that with the physiological scan, my ship?s AI is now running the chemistry for a virus genetically targeted to destroy your race. Not make them sick, not give you genital warts to end mitosis- the ability of your cells to divide, in case that translates funny- to rob your bodies of the capability to repair or even survive.?

?Haley, the molecule, if you would.? She projected a 3D simulation of a protein, that looked like the universe?s most deadly and exciting roller coaster. ?This is from the tubulin family of proteins. Our virus creates a compound that binds with tubulins, preventing them from being used in microtubule polymerization. End projection.?

I got into her face; if she hasn?t been emotionally off-balance, she could have bitten off my eyelids. ?If you hadn?t stolen all of my smartest science monkeys, I could probably give you a good ballpark of which organ system would fail first, for an estimated time till extinction, but suffice it to say it would be measured in days or hours, not weeks. It?s going to take another hour, maybe, to get all the chemistry right. Another hour to splice the genes into a microorganism able to secrete and release the spindle poison into your species? bodies. And then maybe a few more hours to grow a colony big enough to infect your species.?

I stood back up to my full height, leaving her eyes at about stomach level. ?I?ll let you in on a secret: my ship means nothing. A few hundred people? That?s an extended family- a small one. In the grand scheme of my people?s history, they won?t even recall my ship or its mission. But this is your whole society. And you need to face up to the fact that, at this moment, it isn?t a question of if you lose this fight, but how, and whether or not your species survives. Just think on that. Right now, I?ve got places to go, you know, people to see.?

The halls are empty. I try to pretend I?m on one of my late night walks, where most of the people still on relative Earth time are sleeping or at least shacked up. I don?t deceive myself very well.

The SciDiv labs are quiet, haunted by the silence of those who should be here. The intern SciDiv had been feuding with since Earth has put together a briefing. He?s sitting on SciDiv?s stool, and for the first time I can?t stop myself from facing the reality that my crew is gone, and Sam?

The intern had been thinking along the same lines, but not thinking hard enough to let the silence linger a few more minutes. ?Son of a bitch hated me. But he was right. These cocksmokers are scary intelligent.? He stared down at the desk, and only every other moment glanced quickly up to be sure he still had my attention. ?That thing you took out of her pocket, it?s a commbox, miniaturized. In a couple of weeks they reverse-engineered our most intricate tech and leapt it forward a half-dozen generations. And here?s the kicker: we did this.?

?Did what, exactly?? I ask.

He rubbed the bridge of his nose, and was able to make momentarily prolonged eye contact from behind his hand. ?The Meh-Teh aren?t trusting. They don?t want to communicate with each other. They travel together out of necessity, because there?s strength in numbers. But the spires, they?re highly nationalistic- each one considers the other cityships rivals at best- archnemeses at worst.?

?Like you and SciDiv.?

His gaze turned back to the desk. ?He?s intimidated by me. And I?m irritated to work under somebody so much dumber than I am- someone who got the post largely because he can work a room. Well, better than most of us lab geeks, anyway. But we forced the Meh-Teh work together, made them pool their resources and talent. Either we?ve started what will grow into a civil war, or initiated a new level of cooperation that is frankly terrifying, because for all intents and purposes we?re they?re bitches- your and Haley?s unconventional reversal to the contrary.?

?And what would you suggest??

His fingers played across the air as he selected a file to share. It was a diagram of the Fried Egg. ?At a minimum that you preempt all these good vibrations by blowing the shit out of their communications hub. Worst case scenario, you become Hitler in their history, an evil so great they rally against the specter of you for generations to come. Best case, you avert a conflict that would have destroyed their species and likely our shipmates.?

?So the worst case is only that I become Hitler? You really weren?t kidding about lacking people skills. But they?re holding our shipmates hostage. I?m not going to start a shooting war now- not until we?ve made a good faith attempt at getting them back.?

He spun around on SciDiv?s stool. ?It?s your dime; you want to use it to call the tooth fairy, that?s your decision.?

I wasn?t feeling patient, and he was pushing a pretty big button of mine. ?I?ve made it a point to ignore you, previously. You don?t want to become my business now. You want to go back to being a prick when we?ve got things resolved, I could care less, but you say one fucking syllable I perceive as impeding our goal, and I will put my considerable processing power into coming up with ways to make you wish I?d just brained you and been done with it. Are we clear, shitbird??

He pursed his lips, and spent a moment in faux contemplation, then said, ?As eighth time masturbating in one mourning ejaculate, sir.?

?You?re a disgusting little troll.?

?And easily the smartest SciOff you have left- and certainly the best polymath you could get stuck on a deserted ship with.?

?You?re not so much as fishing for a compliment as leaping onto the backs of every passing compliment, trying to nude-wrestle it ashore. How long until my virus is ready??

?Well, virology isn?t my strong suit, but the process is mostly automated. Getting a virus to colonize Meh-Teh cells and release a mitosis hyperinhibitor is kind of like kindergarten chemistry. The delivery mechanism is way more interesting; they vent industrial gases periodically from the spires- because it?s more resource efficient than trying to recycle them through a closed system like we do. We?ve got enough information on their designs from the Stalagmite that I?ve configured a nanite that could navigate its way back through these open vents then distribute the virus. It?s ugly, but it?s surprising how easy they made it, too.?

?I want to know as soon as it?s ready.? I went back to Diu?rnae, though not because I wanted to continue the interrogation- it was because I wanted to collapse on my bed with some bourbon, against sheets that maybe still smelled like Sam. I?d forgotten that was where we were holding her.

She was prepared for me. ?I think you?re bluffing,? she said. She stared into me, trying to read my reaction, but it gave me a moment to get back into character.

?Well I think your entire species is in the spires here. I think you boxed your home planet, and those spires are all that?s left. And I know you?re not going to risk extinction on a lousy hunch. But even if I?m bluffing about a virus, I have control of your ship. I can put it on a course for the nearest star, and just roast what, 30 million of your people at one time? A single, verbal command to my ship?s AI is all that takes. Something tells me they don?t let you be captain if you?re blasť about that level of genocide. Or I could double up, crash your spire into another spire on-world. And that?s just if I play this at the two-year old level of smashing things together. You haven?t even seen my A game.?

She bared her teeth at me, and I thought maybe I?d overplayed and she wasn?t going to talk any more, then she fell limp in the chair. ?They won?t negotiate. They could care less for my ship or its citizenry. They might decide to cut us out of the fleet even if we do come out of this alive. But even if you were to drop our ship on their heads, only the tower cities- spires you call them-you destroy would care. The rest will see it as fewer mouths to feed.?

I leaned against her chair, close enough she could have grabbed me; but I was fairly certain she was also distracted and vulnerable- she just needed a gentle touch. ?Then you need to give me leverage. Right now taking out two enemy ships makes more sense than destroying your civilization with bioweaponry- but that?s still messy. You need to convince me I?ve got a better option than genocide.?

?The spires don?t communicate. Haven?t for a hundred years. We move together, from planet to planet, because there?s deterrence in number. Several species have passed us by, simply because to do otherwise was dangerous. We let them go by peaceably; but you insisted we meet. We thought-? she stopped herself, and closed her eyes.

She swallowed, and when she opened her eyes again there was a softness I hadn?t seen in them before. ?On world, communications are carried out through a flat structure that is connected through small corridors to the towers. We also use it as a control tower, to coordinate tower city launches. Tower cities are unwieldy entering orbit- it?s a straight shot, because corrections require massive amounts of fuel and put enormous stresses on the structure. So coordination beforehand is a necessity. If you destroy the communications structure, you gain the high ground indefinitely- no ones going to launch blind. That should be leverage enough that even the captains will pay attention. Presumably you have a weapon capable of such destruction.? She caught herself, realizing that the only weapon we?d discussed was her ship. ?You can?t-?

I put up my hand. ?Don?t get the panties we confiscated from you in a bunch- we?re trying to avoid blowing up your ship, remember? We have? something that should be able to handle the comm center. Haley? Warm up the terraforming laser. If there?s a fuel reserve- generator or whatever- aim for that.?

?Understood, captain.?

?It talks?? Diu?rnae asked, unblinking.

?She. Haley identifies as female. She prefers having a gender, and I think it?d help you get off on the right foot if you go with that. But don?t you talk to your robot miners??

?They don?t have language, beyond coding. Programmers talk to them, but I don?t speak code. So no.?


?I don?t suppose I can have my clothes back.?

?Haley, you done with scans of the Meh-Teh body armor??

?Clothing is composed of a synthetic metallic borides and carbons, capable of deflecting or absorbing large amounts of kinetic energy or electromagnetic radiation.?

?But is it safe to give back to her??

?I have detected no secondary weapons systems in the armor.?

I lifted the armor off my dresser, where it had been since the SciDiv intern finished playing with it. It was designed to cover the arms from the elbow up, to the legs from the knee up. It ended in a throat protector, and seemed to have a seat for a helmet she hadn?t worn. ?I?m going to be the one who has to put you into this thing. I?m not unstrapping you from that chair, and I?m also not asking anyone else to do it- if I get killed for being trusting, that?s on me, but-?

?I wouldn?t ask you to risk anyone else,? she said, and it was gentler. We were back on her ship, and she was playing with me.

?I?m sorry for the intrusion, but it?s either this or you stay in the smock,? I lifted her loaned clothing.

?Why are you sorry??

?Put your feet on the edge of the chair, so I can slide it on you; there?s a difference between strip-searching an enemy and this.?

She did, then lowered herself expertly back into her armor. ?I know. This is more fun.?

I closed the torso plate over her. ?I?m spoken for.?

?I know,? she smiled. ?The scent of her permeates your cabin. She smells lovely. Was she taken??

She lowered herself back into the chair, and I lifted the smock over her head. She leaned in close, and licked my chin, then bit my lower lip and tugged on it; she let it loose when I cleared my throat. ?Lean back,? I told her, and when she did I sealed her neck behind the throat guard, limiting further head movement. Her arms were strapped in more or less the right position to fight into the arm slots, and I locked them in place, then her legs. It fit her snugly, but it reminded me of horror stories of medieval corsets. ?That looks less comfortable.?

?It?s custom-built to my proportions. It?s a second skin- and even makes sitting more enjoyable- particularly in your awful human chairs. Is ass-numbing fashionable in your species?? I smiled.

?I?m going to make the call now. You should remain quiet.? In part, I didn?t want her giving away the game- but I also didn?t want the other captains to suspect her of collaborating.

?I doubt they?ll answer. They didn?t respond to my hails.?

?They may not like communicating. But let?s give them something interesting to respond to. Haley??

?Terrforming laser will be prepared in five seconds. Laser is prepared, captain. Firing.? I fought the urge to pull up imagery of the laser landing on the planet below, or even reacting. ?The structure has been destroyed, captain.?

?Open a line to the commboxes, broadcasting across the different channels their commbox was using.?


?Meh-Teh captains. I?m reasonably assured each of you can hear me, so we?ll proceed on that assumption. It was a ballsy move, sending one of your ships to attack an unknown enemy with only rudimentary scans of them and their tech. Ballsy, but stupid.? I let that thought sink in. They had to know something went wrong when our shuttles reversed course, but the fact that we were broadcasting was a reversal in their fortunes. I gave them a moment to become properly worried. ?We?ve taken your flagship, the Stalagmite, though if you haven?t fucked up our commbox that will translate to whatever the hell you call it.?

?Rbe?kla?dyae,? Diu?rnae said, and shut up quick when I touched my pistol.

?We?re skipping the foreplay: I want my people back. We?ve developed a virus capable of ending your species forever. But since I?m a thorough bastard, I?m also considering dropping the Stalagmite on your heads in pieces. If I?m in a giving mood, it would only be from orbit, but since right now my mood is more murdersome, I?d probably take a quick tour around the galaxy; presumably that would be long enough to get up to a quarter of lightspeed. Detonation at the proper moment would turn that ship into ten thousand pieces of 10 kilogram shrapnel easy. My back of the envelope of that is 300 quintillion joules of energy, equal to the explosive power of 60 megatons of TNT.?

?That?s more powerful than any nuclear weapon humanity ever detonated, and more than enough to level even the largest of your spires. And that?s per 10 kilogram chunk- so multiply that by ten thousand. There may not be any planet left, let alone any of your race surviving. I?m commboxing over the math, just in case ?joules? translated as testicles or something.?

There?s a pause. I wonder if I?m going to have to give my dramatic speech a second take (although I could probably just have Haley broadcast a recording). Then there?s a click, click, clack out of the commbox. ?You, you wouldn?t eradicate our entire species over a few hundred people- who you?d also be killing in the process,? the voice is feminine, but all growl.

?I?d rather kill them than leave them behind. And don?t you idiots do even the most cursory digging into the people you attempt to murder? The raising of Dalaxia. That was me. I?m told that off-world broadcasts were nothing but screams of horrible pain for thirty-six hours. I did that to my own species, people who looked like me and I have natural biological biases towards not wanting to see cooked. Imagine what I?d be willing to do to you, who nature says I should smash with rocks because we both know we want the same resources. I burnt that fucking colony to the ground; not even the children escaped And when I returned to Earth, they pinned a goddamned medal on my chest for it. You have no idea what species you?re fucking with.?

?Now I have no desire to stay in your system beyond getting my people back. But if I you don?t start speaking in soothing tones about getting them back to me, I?ll have all the reason in your world to stay- at least until I?ve blotted your existence from the stars. Dalaxia. Unless your species hibernates with your heads in each others asses, you?ll have heard of it. Given that my people tell me your tech is super-impressive, I?ll give you exactly three minutes to dig up the history records- or in case you need chemistry to understand the time conversion, the duration of about 27 billion periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom with a resting temperature of absolute zero.?

Three minutes passed, and we were most of the way to a fourth. ?Seems like your people aren?t in a cooperative mood. This is your captain speaking. You?re fortunate we?ve got some very lazy cesium. If our cesium had been on the slope of the bell curve you?d already be inhabiting a crater.?

There was a long pause, then the same voice came over the box. ?We propose a peace. You may have your crewmen back.?

?And the women- don?t fuck around with me on semantics.?

?Of course. And we request a cease to any further hostilities between your species and ours. We only sought to defend ourselves. We did not intend-?

?In writing, Marvin. A peace treaty.?

Another captain broke in. ?We will not capitulate to-?

The first interrupted, ?We will sign whatever you need.?

?I will not be silenced, Kli?mli.?

?Shut up, Mla?ndon. We?re not going extinct to soothe your wounded ego. But captain, our priests will prepare a place for you in Hell.?

?Don?t waste their time. I?m still planning a deathbed conversion to get into one of the better afterlives- I just haven?t decided which, yet. Haley, block all further outgoing communication through the commbox.?

?Yes, captain.?

?But continue to record any incoming signals. Let me know if anything interesting develops.?

?Of course.?

There was a knock on my door, an honest to God fist pounding on it. And I only knew one fart old enough for that. It was MilSec. ?Care to join me in the hallway, son?? I did, reluctantly.

Elle was standing over his shoulder, hand hovering over her gun belt. But his staff lined the hall on either side of us; we were in the middle of their kill zone with nothing to do about it. ?Why don?t you keep an eye on the captain?? I asked her. She gave me a questioning look, but I nodded, and she slipped inside. I didn?t want her starting a gunfight we couldn?t win.

?Been monitoring outgoing communications. Impressed at the stones on you. Absolutely. But, see, here?s the thing, boyscout. The shuttles will eventually return your numbers to a larger percentage than mine, but right now I?ve got you outgunned six to one, maybe more; math has never been my strong point. And see, my orders are specific in this case; back on Oma, there were shades of gray, but this here stalemate, this is my color. So I?m taking command now, while I don?t have to kill civvies just to do my damn job. Ship, execute plan Klondike 5.?

Haley?s voice came over the comm. ?Voice identity confirmed. Captain I? have no discretion. I apologize.?

A second computerized voice came across the comms, male, military, but with a harder synthetic edge than Haley?s. ?Sir, I am analyzing the situation. Course of action determined, 78% chance of success. The terraforming laser can disable the Meh-Teh city-ships from orbit. Shuttles can then be flown to each city-ship, and explosives attached to the hull, here,? he shared an image, ?detonating the city-ship fuel reserves.?

?Seems pretty straight-forward,? MilSec said. ?What?s keeping that plan from a higher success chance??

?We don?t have complete data on their defensive capabilities. Our seizure of the Stalagmite would imply that they have not built suitable ship to ship offensive capabilities- but there is a possibility they have some kind of ground-based systems that could complicate the mission.?

?Still, those are perty sounding numbers. Get it done.?

?Yes, sir. Time to terraforming laser recharge will be twenty-eight minutes.?

?Excellent,? MilSec said, turning to me. ?Now I assume you disapprove, son. But here?s the rub: even if these go-rillas capitulate now, what?s to stop them from using their superior tech, and the lessons you just taught em, against the next ship? Hell, it?s likely to be another company ship, even, just flying by on a mining mission. Even if it ain?t, and it?s some fool colony, do you think we can just leave hostiles dug in, and planning??

?I?d rather abandon this entire pie-slice of space to them, than wipe them out.?

?That ain?t solving the problem, just ignoring it. What happens when inevitably, their pie slice ain?t big enough for them??

?Population size. They have maybe a couple billion. There are more people than that in North America. They?re going to lose the tech race, by sheer virtue of us having ten scientists to their one- maybe twenty, given the state of their males- unless they learn to play nicely with the neighbors. And if by the time that happens the Meh-Teh want to act like old men screaming about all these damned kids on their lawn, and go to war with the equivalent of slingshots, well, the universe will be poorer for their quick and unceremonious loss. But by the time that happens, you and I will microbial after-dinner farts in an entirely different part of space, with a whole new generation piloting this ship.?††

?Understand that this is only an academic discussion, boy. It?s done already.? I almost went for my pistol, anyway. He grabbed my arm, and squeezed it. ?Not worth it, son. Besides, when this nastiness is concluded, I?d prefer handing the ship back over to you, instead of that HR peckerhead.?

I went back into my room. Elle was talking quietly with Diu?rnae. ?Good cop?s going into retirement. MilSec?s taken the ship. After I negotiated terms with the Meh-Teh. So he?s going to slaughter them anyway. Trying to turn the ground-crew on MilSec is just asking for lots of dead idiots, but a smaller group, say 3 hardened idiots, sneaking in close before making a play? What I?m asking is if the pair of you are up for another suicide mission??

?Do you even have to ask?? Elle asked.

Diu?rnae glowered at both of us. ?I hate you both with a passion I usually reserve for men.?

?But I am a man.?

?Eh,? she shrugged.

I reached for one of Diu?rnae?s restraints. ?If I give you a gun, are you going to shoot us??

?If I did, I?d never make it off your ship. And my entire race would be wiped out.? I waited. ?No.? I unstrapped her left wrist, Elle her right.

?You want a rifle, or a pistol??

?My pistol, if you don?t mind. Packs a hell of a lot more oomph than your little plinkers.?

I pinged MilSec. ?Shit. He?s made it back to HR?s office, and it looks like he?s digging in- just in case.?

?Then we better hurry.? Elle was the first one out the door. I wasn?t thrilled by the prospect, but Diu?rnae was at my back as I followed her.

MilSec was confident. He didn?t have his goons keep me sealed in my cabin- hadn?t even put them up on alert. I almost thought we?d just be able to walk into HR and hash things out.

We were ambushed the moment we were on the bridge. Diu?rnae pulled me out of the line of fire; a shot still scorched its way through my left arm- all meat.

Elle laid down suppressing fire. It was a lousy ambush, with three of them flattened out on the floor in the open. They didn?t have time to set up cover, and probably found out too late that all of the consoles were bolted to the floor. ?Toss away your weapons.? Their training told them they shouldn?t- but we aren?t exactly the usual hostage-butchering enemy, either. ?I have all three of you dead to rights, and I mean dead. I don?t care what else might be waiting in the room, I can perforate the three of you without taking another step inside.?

There was a moment, where I think they tried to do the geometry in their heads, and then gave up, and threw their weapons forward. ?And you better not reneg- one of you morons reaches for a holdout and I will termite all of you.?

She looked back at me ?You want high, or low?? I lost my HUD map. ?Crap. MilSec just locked us out.? But we knew there were only a couple of places the rest of his staff officers could be holed up. ?High??

I glanced back at Diu?rnae. ?I think I?ll go sideways.?

?Ugh. I hate it when you go sideways.?

?I know. But it?s fun. And it usually works.?

?Except when it gets you shot.?

?That only sometimes happens.?

?Only most-times.?

?I?m going at 3- 2, 3!? I leap out from cover, and landed near the middle of the floor. At the same moment, Diu?rnae and Elle broke cover and fired. One of the MilOffs fired at me, but missed my eye by a few centimeters. I shot back, and hit her full through the helmet; she fell, and it tumbled off her.

The other two Offs dropped their weapons. It was three on two, and they were completely flanked- though I wasn?t in any condition to fire. I couldn?t move.

My eyes were locked on the face of the woman I shot. It was Elle.

Only it wasn?t- she wouldn?t have missed me. ?Set the weapons on the ground,? I said, ?and remove the helmets.? I spun around, in time to see one of the MilOffs reaching for a rifle. I aimed my pistol at her head. ?Helmet off.?††

I recognized her, one of the SciOff drones, missing an eye. My head got halfway through asking what the hell was going on here before I knew what was happening. There weren?t two separate freezer storage sections: our clone back-ups and MilSec were one and the same. Son of a bitch.

I tried the comms. ?MilSec? Your staff are down. It?s over.? I was pretty sure we?re still frozen out of the system; I wasn?t even sure he could hear me- but either way he, didn?t respond.

?What?s the plan?? Elle asked. She didn?t seem to recognize herself in the dead woman.

?I need you two to hold the bridge. Carefully- remember, we don?t have the med-staff to deal with injuries.? Or Elle?s clone back-up- though I guess so long as she didn?t need a transplant from the head she?d be okay.

I opened the door to HR?s office. It was dark. I heard it roll softly across the carpet as the doors closed behind me- only because it wasn?t the first time someone tried to use a shutting door to conceal trying to grenade me. I fired several shots into what looked like a darker shadow, and leapt over HR?s desk as it exploded.

I felt heat all around me, from fired shots and the grenade. I hit the bastard full across the chest, and we fell to the floor together. I felt the press of a pistol against my skull at the same moment I found his skull with mine. I felt his breath, heavy from the impact a moment before, then heard his voice.

?Lights up.? They came on. He was bleeding from the side, though I couldn?t be sure if it was grenade from his shrapnel or a wild shot that got him. ?Would you like to know why I haven?t aerated your skull, captain? This ship loves you, though maybe idolize would be the better term. But the normal AI will take over again, at some point. The military AI just isn?t designed for long-term viability. And if I shoot you, well, I have no doubt there?d be an accident with my storage chamber, and I?d die. Quietly snuffed out. Or maybe just a problem with the ventilation system in whatever room I?m in. But I think, our current situation notwithstanding, that you?re a reasonable man. It?s why you haven?t shot me, either.?

?I haven?t shot you because you?re an old fucking fool. You fired too many shots; your pistol?s charge is gone. I?m safer with it to my head than I would be in my shower.? He checked it, and I headbutted him in the nose. He rolled backward, and tried to raise his pistol to shoot, still not sure if it would even fire. I smacked him in the cheekbone with the butt of my pistol, and he fell. I got to my feet and stamped on his hand hard enough his pistol broke, along with a couple fingers.

He smiled at me through bloodied teeth. ?It wasn?t empty.?

?Only two things in this office were empty: my gun and your skull. Now I?ve got fifteen years on you, and more close-quarters combat training. You want I can keep smacking your wrinkled ass around an office I?ve bloodied up before, or you prefer to talk??

?How long you figure your little harem can keep the rest of my men at bay??

I kicked him right across the jaw; it was stupid, and if he?d been a year younger he probably would have exploited it, but he was an old man, too old for this shit. ?Long enough I didn?t mind wasting the moment to do that. Now, you?re getting back into your fridge, right goddamned now. Because I know your secret.? He laughed. ?Clones, of my fucking crew.? He stopped laughing.. ?Unless you want a full-scale, knock-down drag-out with the crew when they find out what you?ve done you sick fuck.?

He glared at me, but once it registered I wasn?t bluffing, he turned to the practical matter at hand. ?What do you plan to do with my men??

?That is the operative question.?

?This whole pile of shit ain?t their fault.?

?No. It?s yours- yours and the company?s.?

?It wouldn?t be right, to penalize them for our fuck-ups.?

?Fuck up? You were happy, moments ago, to put your little fuck-ups boots in our throats.?

?You know what I mean. I?ll bear the brunt of your anger, and crews?, if needs be. But I?m asking you, don?t hurt my boys.?

?Your ?boys? are just as gender-diverse as our crew, idiot.?

?Oh, don?t get all political corrective on me; it ain?t only men who can be boys.?

?You?re getting back in that fridge. I don?t know if you?re ever coming back out.?

It twisted him, just winning a battle, and not an easy one, only to have to cede the war. ?That?s? fair.?

?Give the goddamned command.?

?Ship, this is MilSec, standing down, ceding power to civilian authorities. Authorization Klamath 5. Repeating for MilOffs, we are standing down, and under command of the civvies. I?ll bury the next sumbitch fires a shot- self-defense or no. Lay down arms.?

?That goes for my crewmembers, as well. Cease hostilities. Fighting?s done.? MilSec looked to me; he wanted to say something, then thought better of it, saluted, and walked away.?

I stepped back onto the bridge. MilSec and his staff had already left. ?Follow him?? Elle asked.

?Just in case,? I told her, and she jogged after him. Diu?rnae looked at me, and for an instant there was tension. We were all alone, on my bridge. Her grip tightened on her pistol, every so slightly, then she holstered it. ?So where does that leave you??

?I lost control of my ship. There will be a mutiny, likely several dozen. Every female with ambition will seek to fight me for my post. And I?m not the young cub I was when I first rose to my rank. I?m dead me as surely as if you threw me into space.?

?I think you?re selling yourself short. But the way I see it, you?ve got two choices. You can go fight for your ship, or come with us, with full rights and privileges. You helped save my crew- admittedly after endangering them in the first place. But you can stay or go, makes no nevermind to me; wouldn?t be the first refugee we?ve taken on.?

?I?d rather claw my own heart out.?

?I figured. But the offer?s on the table. You want you can walk peaceably off my ship- right now. No strings.? She didn?t believe me. ?Haley? I want audible comms over the entire ship.? When I spoke again, it resonated throughout the entire place. ?This is the captain. I am releasing the captain of the Stalagmite to return to her vessel. She is under Haley?s supervision, and not to be accosted. Don?t test me on this, people. I?ve had a shitty day, and could use a punching bag for the next seven years.?

?Good enough,? she said, and left.


?I will monitor her egress, captain.?

?More than that. I want you closing and sealing doors along her way. There are likely to be some pissed off crew. No reason to make disobeying orders easy for them.?

?Yes, captain.?

?And Haley, MilSec?s freezer? Lock it down, and lose the registration code. Change his status to KIA. You and I are the only ones who know any different, Haley, and we both take it with us to our graves.?

?What about Lieutenant Templeton??

?I?ll tell her his freezer exploded. And if I say it a certain way, she?ll infer I had something to do with it.?

?A lie by connotation??

?Marginally better than murder.?

?I understand, captain.?

?Power down the planet-cracker.?


?And what?s the status on the shuttles, Haley??

?The first should be arriving at the spires momentarily.?

?Thanks, Haley,? I said, and collapsed into the captain?s chair on my empty bridge, before noticing a smell. ?It?s going to take forever to get the stink of sasquatch out of my ship.?

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