Arachne’s Webs

Jenny Starchild and her artificial brain ship Arachne are spinning political webs that will tie the Alliance together and bring down the Drake and Cordoba Combines. Or, if her weaving fails, see themselves executed and their human and alien allies enslaved or murdered.

Formats: mobi, epub, rtf, pdf,

$5.99

The only thing keeping Jenny Starchild alive is her interface with the Arachne, an artificial brain that keeps Jenny’s organs operating and controls a warship. But the situation also makes her powerful, and she knows what she’s going to do with her life. She is going to weave a new star nation out of the materials she has at hand:

A strand of compassion here, a strand of fierce pride there. The love of community of the alien Parthians woven together with human individuality. The computing and reasoning abilities of artificial brains woven together with the genetically engineered Cybrants.

It’s going to take all of Jenny’s exuberance and all of Arachne‘s powers, not to mention some luck. But if they can weave this new nation, then billions of people—humans and other sorts of people—will have life, liberty, and a chance to pursue their own happiness in their own way.

On the other hand, if Jenny, Arachne, and her human and Parthian allies fail in the task, they’re probably all going to be destroyed—and so might whole star systems.

“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best.”
― Otto von Bismarck

Location: Gok Station
Standard Date: 03 30 632

Janis Tecumseh leaned forward in the plush chair the vid station installed just for her. “What you really need to do is take Canova,” Janis said. She used her interface to call up a graphic of the jump routes around Parthia and Canova, which went out as a background to their chat.

“But that would be an act of war against the Canova System! And the Cordoba Combine has outlawed intersystem wars.” The reporter, Tokljkap, a neuter male of the Jkap clan, with expressive eyestalks and—to Parthians—a soothing voice, was clearly shocked at the suggestion.

This was an interview on a popular news feed, and Janis was getting paid for it, so she was having a ball. She smiled a toothy smile. “The Canova System committed an act of war against your system when they put that fort in Parthian space. And that was also a violation of Cordoba rules. So you are perfectly within your rights to retaliate and—”

“No! The Cordoba regulations are quite clear. Multisystem polities are against the rules. That, after all, is why the Canova system didn’t take over Parthia.”

“But they were getting ready to replace the council of clans, weren’t they?” That was something Clan Gold learned after they got to Parthia. The Canova government was threatening to replace the council of clans with a human government if Parthia didn’t see reason.

“They wouldn’t have done it,” Tokljkap insisted. “It was just a bargaining ploy.”

“How do you know?”

“We have our sources,” Tokljkap said. “Even before the fort was destroyed, they were trying to get enough of the clans to join them to form a Parthian government to replace the one we have. They were afraid that if they installed a human government over a system of Parthians, then the Cordobas wouldn’t accept it as a separate polity.”

“Well, that’s your answer then. Install a human government over Canova after we kick their butts for you.”

“But how could we trust a human government?” Tokljkap shot back in what it clearly considered to be a barbed question. “Humans are lacking in honor, after all.”

Janis laughed. “Well, you probably wouldn’t want me in charge, I’ll grant you that. But what about Clan Danny Gold? Didn’t they come back twice now? And aren’t they including adopted members from your clans?” Janis wasn’t actually pushing an agenda. She didn’t care that much about Parthian politics as long as she could buy and sell here. She was just arguing for the fun of arguing. “For that matter,” she continued, “there’s the new Starchild Clan with little Jenny in charge of it. She has her own ship too, and it’s a warship, if a small one. I understand that the council of clans is trying to determine whether to acknowledge it as a new clan right now.”

Janis enjoyed the way Tokljkap’s mouth-hand scrunched up at the reminder of that. Tokljkap wasn’t fanatically anti-human, but it was no great fan of the human race—or its obscene system of reproduction. It was a proponent of the “close the jump and throw all the humans out” faction of public opinion.

✽✽✽

Jenny Starchild laughed and clapped her hands as she watched Janis playing with the reporter. She was twelve, almost thirteen, and the captain of her own ship. Healthy and well fed, but still slim, with olive skin and brown eyes, Jenny was still learning her interface, as natural as it was. She was the ship Arachne, and—at the same time—she was not quite a teenager yet. She felt her body and Arachne’s body, all at once and all mixed together. She had more control over her body, both her bodies, than she ever had before, but no one could tell any of that by looking at her.

Now that interface kicked in, providing information and correlating facts without Jenny having to ask. The political situation, the military situation, all brought to mind as Janis spoke on the broadcast.

It was grim.

All the way back to ancient history on Old Earth, if a sniveling little weakling that the Powers-That-Were had been casually knocking about somehow managed to win the first battle in a new conflict, they suddenly took on the status of Might-Be-A-Real-Threat. More often than not, that meant the weakling with delusions of grandeur was going to be hammered flat, maybe even exterminated.

Carthago delenda est. That ancient Roman phrase might soon become Parthia delenda est, translated into the galaxy’s multitude of tongues.

Blowing the fort put the cat amongst the canaries, like Mom used to say, thought Jenny. The council of clans had to approve their actions or reject Danny’s clan after they had accepted it. But everyone was worried—even scared—about what the Jackson-Cordobas were going to do. Also, for the bug on the street, there was considerable confusion about where the Jackson-Cordobas left off and the Cordoba Combine began. Tanya was a big help about that since she was a Cordoba-Davis. She was in a good position to clarify that while the Jackson-Cordobas, like the Cordoba-Davises, were affiliated with the Cordoba Combine, they didn’t set—or always follow—Cordoba policy.

The strange thing was that Jenny, with Arachne tied in to sort out the stuff, was following the whole mess. She understood the big issues involved and was rapidly coming to understand the clan politics that were influencing the decision-making process.

Suddenly, Jenny had an idea. She ran it through Arachne, and realized that it would work. At least, she thought it would work. The Kiik clan was related to the Kiig clan and allied with the faction that was opposed to including yet another human clan in the Parthian council of clans.

It was a reasonable concern. Humans were all breeders. If all those breeders were their own clans, they would rapidly swamp the Parthian clans. But Parthian clans didn’t consist of a single breeder pair, or even a single “queen” and a bunch of drones. The Zheck clan, for instance, had fifteen female breeders and twenty-two male breeders.

There was no particular reason that a human clan had to stay wholly human. In fact, neither of the human clans were wholly human. They both had Parthian workers. But they could have Parthian breeders too.

That was what was brought to mind by the article about the Kiik clan. The Kiik had been hit by the recent upheavals again and again. They were a very old clan and very prestigious, but over the last three years they were forced to sell off over half their workers. The news was in one of the gossip blogs, which reported that the Kiik were looking for an alliance. They were going to sell a breeding pair.

Meanwhile, the acceptance or rejection of the Starchild Clan was turning into a referendum on the fleet’s taking out the fort. It was all very complicated . . . and yet it all fit together. If she could get the Kiik on their side, it would shift maybe fifty votes. And fifty votes would make the difference.

Jenny didn’t call Rosita Stuard or Sara Electrum for advice. She didn’t even ask Tanya Cordoba-Davis, her captain who was on board the Arachne. They were humans and the people that mattered for this were Parthians. Jenny called Kiiggaak, the Parthian trader that Goldgok trained. She also got on the shipnet and got her Parthians into the discussion.

“I don’t know, Breeder Starchild,” Kiiggaak said. It knew the human breeder female only slightly. She was in the outsystem for most of the time it worked for the Gold clan. But it knew Startak moderately well. “The Kiik are much more conservative than my own clan. And besides, your ship isn’t large enough for breeding Parthians.”

Parthians didn’t lay eggs. They deposited tadpoles, small aquatic animals that each lived in their own pool and were fed by workers as they grew. After a few years, they started to grow legs and became amphibious, then a few years later they became wholly land animals, about the time they reached physical maturity. But they needed fairly large pools and you couldn’t put them in the same pool because the brainless little monsters would try to eat each other. They didn’t even start to become civilized until they reached the amphibious stage, and you couldn’t manage the hundreds of them that a breeding pair produced on a spaceship. It wasn’t even easy on a space station. The point was, it all took a lot of room and the Arachne wasn’t even vaguely equipped for housing a breeding pair and its offspring.

“Well, for now, they would stay on Parthia. We’d need to buy some land on Parthia to house that part of the clan, or maybe get some space on Gok Station.” Jenny considered. “Maybe we could build our own station. You know that I—ah, we—own a share of the ore from the mining bots, and our escort fee is going to be a lot more than we expected. So we can buy space. The new breeders would not be overcrowded.”

Kiiggaak dipped its left eyestalk in consideration. It was an affectation that Jenny found amusing, since it was one Kiiggaak picked up from Goldkgok, but she didn’t crack a smile. “I will broach the matter.”

Jenny knew that there was a major difference in status between simply being forced to sell breeders to another clan and contributing breeders to a new clan, one that hadn’t yet been accepted by the council or had only recently been included. The first was a public admission that the clan had fallen on hard times. The second was the duty of an elder clan. Or—the way Jenny thought of it—the second let them be all snooty about it. Jenny figured there was a good chance the Kiik would go for it.

It wasn’t a whole plan, but it might get the Parthians off the pot. Get them to take action against Canova. And they must take Canova if they were going to have any chance of survival at all. It was the doorway to the Parthian System.

Location: Parthia, Council of Clans, Private Room
Standard Date: 03 30 632

Danny sat down in the newly installed human chair in the small room off the main council of clans meeting hall. He looked around at the Parthians. He was used to them by now. The alien race, like humans, were shaped by their biology. Parthians, like ants or bees, had breeders and non-breeders. If a non-breeder died, it was a loss to the clan, but a breeder’s death could mean the death of the clan. And it had been that way from before the alien species developed intelligence. The difference affected them on an emotional, more than an intellectual, level. They didn’t decide to put the clan first any more, or any less, than a mother decides to love her child. That didn’t make them saints. They were subject to the same sorts of unthinking prejudices that humans were. But they were people, damn it. Human or not, ugly as sin or not, they were people.

They were ugly, so ugly as to go beyond ugly to just weird. They had flat ovoid bodies, six limbs, with the set in the middle being lifting arms. The four on the corners held up an ovoid body covered in spines. They had no head, but the front of the ovoid had two eyes on flexible eyestalks that moved almost constantly, and a mouth-hand—also on a flexible stalk—which the Parthians used for eating and fine manipulation. On either side of the eyestalks were the breathing and speaking holes, almost invisible in the forest of spines.

And unless a solution was found, they were all going to die. Die down to the last tadpole in the last birthing pool . . . and maybe take the humans in the Pamplona Sector with them.

These particular Parthians were the executive cabinet of the council of clans. He was here, as was Zhecktitick, the Zheck representative to the council. It was Zhecktitick who asked Danny about the jump routes, which struck Danny as odd. It was like having your own lawyer questioning you in court, not the prosecutor. It was an example of how Parthians thought differently than humans. Among Parthians the basic assumption was that you would want to cooperate, not cover your ass.

So Danny cooperated. “No,” he answered. “I was unable to find another route into Parthian space. But if we take the ships we have here and search the outsystem, we will almost certainly find something sooner or later.”

“How long?” asked Zhecktitick.

“There’s no way of telling.” Danny looked around the room to see Parthians from the most powerful alliances in the system. “Maybe weeks, maybe years.”

“So for the foreseeable future, Canova is still the gateway.”

Danny nodded to Zhecktitick. “Ferguson can be bypassed, through a fairly long normal space flight, and the other route out of Canova offers other options. But as long as Canova is sitting there blocking the route, the Jackson Cordoba Trading Company still has control of Parthia’s access to the rest of space.

“And it’s worse than that. If you don’t take and hold Canova, the Jackson-Cordobas—or the Cordoba Combine itself—will come in here and kill you all.”

The eyestalks in the room wobbled in total incomprehension. Danny might as well have been saying that the sun was going to spit out candy canes dipped in chocolate icing.

Location: Pandora and Net

Standard Date: 03 30 632

While Danny was speaking to the council, Goldfax used its interface to link with the Pandora and have her call a friend in its former clan, the Kiig, on Gkok Station. “Kiigsik, I see you managed to avoid the guk fields after all.”

Kiigsik, the neuter male hydraulics specialist with a poorly controlled right eyestalk and a wicked sense of humor, hissed at Goldfax over the comm. “For a while it looked like I might not, but the ores from your clan’s asteroid saved the day. We’ve been making—” It paused. “—well, I shouldn’t say what we’ve been making, but you probably have some on your ship by now.” What he was talking about were the new shield missile bodies. The shield missiles, invented by the Pandora’s crew, used a superconducting filament to generate a magnetic field similar to the magnetic wings of a jump ship. They were brand new and the secret weapon of the Parthians and their allies. There was a short pause, as though Kiigsik was trying to decide how rude it could be.

Goldfax guessed what it wanted to ask and because it was proud of the abilities that its interface added, it said, “Yes, I have the interface.” Interfaces weren’t new to humans. Humans had been using them for centuries to allow more effective control of robotic devices. But they were new to Parthians. “I can slip into the operating system of Pandora’s shuttle and become almost one with the ship. It’s like nothing you have ever experienced.”

From the way Kiigsik’s mouth-hand moved, it wasn’t buying, “I don’t know. I’m not sure I would want a machine controlling my eyestalks.” It lifted its eyestalks with its left held straight and its right wobbling about lazily. “My right might not work quite right, but it’s mine.”

“Well, maybe you’re right,” Goldfax played along. “After all, I’m not sure your nervous system should be trusted with a wing controller. Who knows where the wing might go.” Wing controllers controlled the position and movement of the hundred kilometer, and sometimes longer, magnitogravational wings that propelled deep space ships and allowed them to jump.

Kiigsik’s mouth-hand made a rude gesture, and Goldfax laughed.

For the next hour or so they exchanged gossip and Goldfax tried to explain the unexplainable. It was like trying to explain pathing to a human. But at the very least, it left Kiigsik with something to think about.

The idea of teamwork was integral to the Parthian character and the interfaces allowed teamwork with a level of intimacy that was previously unattainable, yet they were profoundly uncomfortable with the notion of devices implanted into their brains.

It quickly became clear that enough Parthians liked the idea that if it was an individual choice, Doctor Schmitz would be able to spend the rest of his life installing them in willing patients.

But Parthians weren’t humans. Decisions like that were always subject to the combined will of the clan. So far, most of the clans were still trying to make up their minds.

It was in the midst of all this that Warchief’s captain, Janis Tecumseh, got offered a fee for agreeing to appear on a major news commentator’s blog.

Location: Parthian Outsystem

Standard Date: 04 01 632

Captain Andri Jackson slipped on the captain’s cap with its leads and sank into the shipnet. She let the data flow into her mind and felt the Fortune Find shift its fields and slip from one point of space to another, three light weeks closer to Parthia.

Her ship wasn’t a scout ship. She and her ship were the victims of the Canova government’s need for a scouting foray into Parthia. It wasn’t as though the Canova government had its own ships. They insisted on seizing the Fortune Find, and went to the extremity of putting a member of the System Defense Force aboard her.

Andri looked over at the officious little snot. “Well, you happy with what you’re seeing there, Skippy?”

“Not particularly, Captain, but at least we know,” Lieutenant Commander Keeghan Espinosa said. “What are you getting from insystem?”

Andri looked to her comm tech. “What do you have, Steve?”

“It’s early to tell yet, Skipper, but I don’t think they are all that fond of Canova or the Jackson-Cordobas.” The uncertainty wasn’t because of the time delay for the signals from insystem to reach them. It was because of the mass of data that Steve was having to sort through. The signals from insystem weren’t, for the most part, encrypted. The problem was just sorting through hundreds of news shows and general commentaries.

The bridge crew continued to listen as the Fortune Find drifted away from the jump under minimal power. It took several hours to make the loop and get headed back toward the jump. During that time they were spotted, but there were no ships in position to do anything about it.

They did see Janis Tecumseh’s interview, which was enough to make Espinosa go a little pale. But it was clear that the Parthians had not yet decided what to do.

Location: Parthia, Kiik Clan Council Room

Standard Date: 04 01 632

“What?” Kiiksook bleated. “You can’t seriously be considering this.” The room was comfortably lit, with translucent cloths diffusing the electric lights and filling the space with multi-colored light. There was a slight breeze from the fans, just enough to accent the Parthian pathing sense.

The this Kiiksook was bleating about was the proposal to sell two of their breeders to the Starchild clan, relayed to them by Kiiggaak of the Kiig clan. It wasn’t the notion of selling two of their breeders that upset Kiiksook. Both biology and culture said that was perfectly fine. It was the notion of selling those two breeders to a human clan. It was rather like a paterfamilias arranging a good match for his daughter, then finding that the prospective groom was a cannibal. And even at that, Kiiksook’s concern wasn’t mostly about the two breeders, but that the sale would connect the Kiik clan to the human clan. That clan members, even breeders, would be sacrificed for the good of the clan was expected.

“Yes, I can. And so should the whole council,” said Kiikesk, her eyestalks counter-rotating to take in the whole space and the council sitting comfortably on their nests.

“Why?”

“Because if we don’t take a hand, we will be ruled by the humans. If we do, Kiik clan will be a parent to one of the primary clans on Canova 2.”

“There are no—” Kiiksook stopped and stared in shock at the senior clan mother of the Kiik. She was still a breeder, though by now she was unlikely to bear any more young. She was over eighty Parthian years old. Older than most female breeders ever got. And she had studied Parthian history since before her first breeding. “You really think so?” Now it was Kiiksook’s turn to scan the chamber but it was looking for the council’s reaction as Kiikesk explained her position.

“The stations were supposed to provide more space. Room for more breeders and for tadpole ponds. And they would have, if the humans hadn’t shown up. Moreover, Canova 2 is a whole world. It’s a small world, and mostly covered in oceans, but still has more room than a hundred stations. More than a thousand, or ten thousand.” Parthia had been overcrowded for centuries before they encountered the humans with their jump-capable ships, and still was.

Again her eyestalks circled the room. “If Parthia is to control its own destiny, it must own Canova.”

The reason for that last statement was that the only known jump route out of Parthian space was through the Canova System. The Jackson-Cordoba Trading Company had, until recently, successfully isolated Parthia from the wider universe, primarily by its control of the Canova System.

“Then wouldn’t the Gold Clan be—”

“No.” Her mouth-hand twisted in emphasis. “First, because the Gold Clan isn’t offering to buy breeders. And second, because I think it will actually work better if we are allied with the child clan rather than the parent clan. It will make us the co-parent with the Gold Clan and produce a more stable alliance. Also, there is the matter of money. The adoption fee that the Star Clan is offering is twice what the next best offer is.”

Kiiksook again scanned the council, catching subtle shifts in eyestalks and mouth-hands that indicated at least grudging assent. “You’re probably right, Eldest Mother. You usually are.” It spread its mid-arms as though dropping the matter at her feet. “But you get to tell the breeders that they are joining the Starchild clan, not one of the old established Parthian clans.”

✽✽✽

Kiikeska looked at her grandmother, the senior breeder of her clan, and wasn’t at all sure how she was supposed to feel. Nor was she sure what she was feeling. She was young. She just finished her first breeding cycle two years ago, and her male was a trade from the Siij Clan who she’d known all her life. It was a comfortable relationship, and she was glad that it would be maintained.

On the other hand . . . the humans? They used machines inserted in their brains! And the things she’d heard about their breeding practices!

Oh, what should she do?

Well, no. That wasn’t really a question at all.

She didn’t have any choice.

The clan council decided and it was settled. All she could do was make the best of it. She twisted one eyestalk to look at Kiiksiijkegk. He was looking at Grandmother Kiikesk with curiosity more than anything else.

Maybe it wouldn’t be all that bad. They wouldn’t be the senior breeders. Jenny Starchild would be the primary, but they would be the senior Parthian breeders of the new clan. “How will this work, Grandmother?” she asked. “We will be the senior Parthian breeders, but not the senior breeders of the clan.”

“To a great extent, that will depend on you,” Grandmother said. “New clans always have new customs. And even here, we breeders have more status than real power. It will be the council that decides. But I expect you will be on the council.”

“Could we make that part of the agreement?” Kiiksiijkegk asked.

“We can ask, but with what they are paying I doubt the clan council would refuse the deal even if the Star Clan were to put you to work in the guk fields.” Then she laughed at their stiffened eyestalks. “Don’t worry. I doubt they are buying you for that. Besides, the Star Clan has no guk fields.”

“They have no pond either!” Kiikeska complained.

“I understand they are planning on buying some.” The old female breeder’s eyestalks took them both in. “I will arrange a comm call so that you can discuss arrangements with your new clan.”

✽✽✽

Jenny was shocked at how quickly the Kiik decided, and at least a bit surprised that the decision went her way.

But if Jenny was surprised, the Parthian bug on the street was in shock. The council of clans voted three days later, and the Star Clan became a recognized clan of Parthia.

✽✽✽

Jenny looked at the bridge screen. It showed Kiikeska and Kiiksiijkegk, the young breeder pair. She could tell they were nervous by the way their eyestalks bounced about. “For right now, you will only visit the Arachne. You’ll be staying on Parthia until we settle things in Canova,” she explained to the nervous young Parthians. “But I am going to make it my business to make sure you have large, comfortable breeding ponds. Meanwhile, tell me about yourselves.”

The three teenagers, for that is what they were, chatted about politics and romance, Parthian and human versions of each. They talked about plans, hopes, and dreams, and what it would take to make a clan a family. The Parthians didn’t want to have machines in their brains, not yet, and Jenny didn’t push the matter. She figured they would get used to the idea better if she didn’t push too hard. At least, she herself did better if people let her get used to new ideas.

“To secure peace is to prepare for war.”
-Carl von Clausewitz

Location: Parthia, Council of Clans, Meeting Chamber
Standard Date: 04 04 632

Danny was getting comfortable in this room. He’d certainly been here often enough lately. He looked around the large chamber with its Parthian pads arranged in elevated rows like the seating in a stadium. The pads were mostly occupied, but as usual, the council was letting Clan Zheck do the questioning. Danny looked back to Zhecktitick and waited.

“You took three ships in the council’s name, Captain Gold,” Zhecktitick said. “Now the question of who owns those ships has been brought up by Conrad Jackson-Cordoba. He claims that they are privately owned by the Jackson-Cordoba Trading Company and in no way connected with the Canova government. He assures us of that, both as a representative of the JCTC and as a commissioner of the government of Canova.”

Parthians didn’t have faces but by now Danny was quite good at reading their eyestalks and mouth-hands. The sardonic tilt of Zhecktitick’s eyestalks was subtle, but still quite visible to him.

“What were they saying before we arrived?” Danny asked.

“Unfortunately, before you arrived, they didn’t say. And we were in no position to ask.”

Danny smiled. “You know, it’s against the Combine regulations for privately owned ships to carry arms. Even round shot is against the rules. Lasers and nukes are strictly forbidden.”

In this situation a decent—but by no means unassailable—case could be made for the seizure of the ships. There was also the issue of armaments. If it was illegal for the Jackson-Cordoba ships to be running around armed, it was equally illegal for the Pan, the Arachne, and the Warchief to be going armed.

Which, when you put it all together, meant that the way the Cordoba Combine would react depended on the balance of force and the balance of political influence. Conrad Jackson-Cordoba had more political influence, but Danny and company had more force, at least locally. Of course, none of that mattered if the Combine decided that Parthia was a threat before they got their defenses in place. A few hundred well placed rocks and the Parthian species would be extinct. Danny knew himself to be a cold blooded SOB, but he wasn’t okay with genocide.

“I recommend that the council of clans order the three ships searched for contraband. If they have it, then either they are Canova auxiliaries or pirates. Considering that pirates are subject to trial and execution, I suspect that they will decide to admit to being Canova auxiliaries. And in either case, they are legitimate prizes of war.”

“Assuming they become legitimate prizes, who gets them?” Zhecktitick asked.

“Well, we—Clan Gold, Clan Starchild, and Captain Tecumseh of Skull System—took them, so they’re ours. We could each keep one of them, but we’ve decided that it would be better if Parthia bought them into the Parthian Spaceforce.”

“We don’t have a spaceforce. The space stations are owned by individual clans.” Zhecktitick pointed out the owner clans with its eyestalks. “And so are the shuttles and small ships that move from the planet’s surface to nearspace. Even the Fly Catcher and the other ships that our clans own a share of are owned by individual clans, not the council.”

“Yes, I can see how that was true.” Danny didn’t have eyestalks, so he couldn’t do the Parthian trick of keeping one eye on the speaker while the other assessed the audience. He had to alternate. He looked around the chamber, then back at Zhecktitick. “But I think it’s going to have to change.”

“We—” Zhecktitick’s eyestalks took in the council. “The council is not exactly a government, not in the human sense. Each clan is its own government. The council of clans is more of a court for deciding disputes between clans.”

“I know. That’s how it has been. But it’s going to have to change, at least a little. Partly because some of your clans are now human and we tend to be a bit more fractious. But also because you are going to have to take action as a planetary system against Canova.”

“Yes. We have agreed that is necessary, but the question of who gets the ships and who pays for them is the issue at hand. We don’t have a structure for a system government, and many of our clans simply couldn’t afford to contribute to such a body.”

“Have you talked to Professora Stuard?”

“Yes, we have, and she has been fairly helpful. She recommends that the council of clans must receive workers loaned to it by other clans. We considered making a spaceforce clan . . .” It shifted eye stalks. “. . . even considered making the Jenny Starchild clan the spaceforce clan, but Professora Stuard seemed to think that such a clan might end up ruling all the other clans. So what she wants to do is have us temporarily adopt workers from other clans who, after a term of service, will be returned to their parent clan. She recommended that Tanya Cordoba-Davis be borrowed from Clan Starchild for the duration of our conflict with Canova System and that the crews of the other ships be loaned from other clans.”

“That sounds like a good plan,” Danny agreed. “I would recommend that all the people loaned to the council for this be provided with interfaces. They are necessary for the effective fighting of ships, especially ships that don’t have artificial brains or have smaller brains.”

“That leaves the question of what to do with Canova after we take it . . . ?”

“That’s going to take some time to figure out,” Danny said, “and I’m not sure we have the time. We should go ahead and take Canova System before they have time to bring in a fleet. We can worry about what we are going to do with it after we’ve got it.”

Location: Fly Catcher, Parthia Outsystem

Standard Date: 04 10 632

Captain Zheckess, formerly Kesskox, sipped the Banger as she watched the robot miners loading the ship’s boat. They were loading ingots of pure magnesium, and there were close to a hundred thousand of the one ton ingots. This trip was going to make the Zheck and their partner clans a fortune, and as the captain of the Fly Catcher, Zheckess was in for a nice piece of that. That was, she knew, a thoroughly reprehensible attitude among Parthians, but at this point she almost didn’t care anymore.

“How soon will we be loaded?” she asked her first mate, Zheckok. “I want to get back with the reports of the current status of the mining bots as fast as we can. The human professor seemed to think it was important.”

“It only made fifteen copies, Captain. Then it ran out of galatium.”

“Fifteen manager brains, but thirty-two bots.”

“So what? They are all on this asteroid, and it’s going to be fifty years before it’s mined out.”

“You want them to go crazy and take over the universe?”

Zheckok snorted, then his eyestalks lowered. “Skipper, what about the interfaces?”

Zheckess felt her mouth-hand start to scrunch, but held it in place by force of will. It was mostly an emotional reaction, anyway. She knew that the interfaces didn’t hurt the humans who had them. “I think we are going to have to accept them if we want to keep the ship. I talked to Startak. It’s comfortable with its interface, happy even, and it said that interfaces make it easier to find jumps. I think it must be right. Certainly, we’ve never found any.”

“I’ll talk to the crew, Skipper, but I don’t like it and I think a lot of them are going to like it even less.”

“Honestly, I don’t like it either. And you know that prig Goldgok hasn’t gotten an interface yet. You know it’s just going to say it’s one more perversion.”

“That almost makes me like the idea, Skipper. I hate that self-righteous prig. I really do.”

Location: Pandora, Parthian orbit

Standard Date: 04 10 632

Danny Gold waved to John Gabriel and mimed drinking, then turned back to the screen. “Where are we going to get the troops?” He knew that the delays had been unavoidable, but every day since they took out the fort two and a half weeks ago, the word of what happened had been spreading.

And sooner than anyone on Parthia wanted, the Cordoba Combine—or at the very least, the Jackson-Cordobas—were going to react.

Zhecktitick’s eyestalks shifted in the Parthian equivalent of a smile. “We have over nine billion Parthians in the system in a multitude of clans.” Zhecktitick’s smile got a bit sardonic. “And those clans are not always in accord. Frankly, Captain Gold, your arrival almost precipitated a war between the Zheck and the Gok clans. We have no shortage of troops, though few of them have any great experience in space warfare.”

“Fine.” Danny sat at the bar in the Pan’s lounge and sipped his coffee. “Then we are going to need to use Bangers.”

Zhecktitick’s mouth-hand scrunched up, but it nodded its eyestalks. “I understand the necessity, but it would be better for all if you humans were to do the drinking of them.”

Danny lifted his coffee cup in toast. He still hated the things, but they didn’t hurt him and between them, the crews of the ships could drink enough Bangers to make the converted holds comfortable for the Parthians. “So we can have a force to occupy the space station, and the fort along the Ferguson jump route. I don’t want to leave that in the hands of the JCTC.”

“Nor does the council of clans,” Zhecktitick agreed. “However, at the moment we have a shortage of humans we can trust. There is you and your crew and, of course, we trust Jenny Starchild. But much of the council is less than comfortable with Janis Tecumseh. Some of the miners seem trustworthy, but they have all had to make accommodations with the Jackson-Cordobas, so a large part of the council is leery of giving them any authority.”

“Not to mention that a bunch of deep space miners aren’t going to want to get involved in this at all.” Danny grinned.

“We’re going to have to recruit heavily from the population of Canova, and the council of clans is not happy about the notion of letting humans know the effect that Parthian Bangers have on our people.”

“It’s too late to worry about that. They know on Concordia Station, so they know on the gray lanes. If they don’t know on Drakar and New Argentina yet, it’s just a matter of time.”

“But it’s embarrassing.” Zhecktitick’s eyestalks drooped a bit at that admission. Danny’s introduction to the Parthians was through a Parthian Banger, an alcoholic drink he thought he was making up to confuse the autotender at a bar on Concordia Station. The drink was harmless to humans, though highly spiced. But it caused Parthian neuters to get horny. And Parthian neuters weren’t supposed to get horny. It was considered perversion. The Bangers, however, also caused the Parthians—and humans, for that matter—to exude a scent that Parthians needed for their mental health. Its lack made them feel alone and threatened, to the extent that they often became suicidal or homicidal if they spent long enough without it.

Danny snorted, then brought the conversation back to the matter at hand. “How long to gather the forces? We can have quarters ready in a week. They won’t be comfortable, but they will be livable, at least for the time it will take to get to Canova insystem.” The Pandora, Arachne, and Warchief retook the Parthia System from the Jackson-Cordoba Trading Company only weeks ago and the council of clans agreed to take the conflict to the JCTC by taking control of the Canova System. They didn’t have much choice if they were going to have any say in their own destiny.

“We will have the troops gathered before you have the quarters ready. What about the interfaces?”

“Have you folks made up your minds about those?” Danny asked.

“Not exactly. But the reports from Startak, Starvokx and Goldfax have been highly positive, so there are more than enough Parthians to fill out the crews of all the ships. And we are aware that many of the soldier class personnel who will be occupying the Canova stations will need to be willing to have interfaces.”

“Fine. Doc Schmitz has a few hundred ready to be installed. They are general purpose interface systems and designed for crew on a ship. Jimmy Dugan says that exspatio have special interfaces to handle battle armor and heavy weapons, but the doc hasn’t made any of them. Shouldn’t matter, though. They will still allow communications.” Exspatio were shipboard troops, whether employed by a system government or the larger and more powerful trading combines.

They spent hours going over schedules and plans. Danny bought more Parthians for his crew, as did Jenny Starchild, and even Janis Tecumseh. For the captured prizes, there were the issues of the human crews, and who to replace them with. Danny’s crew were getting billets on the captured Jackson-Cordoba ships that Pandora, Arachne, and Warchief had taken. Chuck Givens was getting a ship, the Fesstok. Petra Allen was getting one and Robert Schmitz would be acting as her bosun, but that was the Gokness, formerly the Bonanegotia, which was going to be going back and forth between Parthia and Canova as soon as things got settled a little bit. The Fesstok and the Zheckgold, formerly the Bonafortuna and Bonoforumo, were going to spend a few weeks in Canova to make sure things were stable, then head out on trading runs. Parthia simply couldn’t afford to have all its ships tied up in system defense.

Unfortunately, Parthia never had a wingship industry. There still wasn’t, but the Pan and the Warchief brought a lot of shieldgold. The Warchief brought half completed wing spars. Now the Parthians could start building wingships of their own, but it was going to be years before the first Parthian-built wingship came off the line. So, for the next little while, the Parthians were going to need Danny’s little fleet, because it was all they had.

All this planning and supplying took time, but eventually they were ready.

Location: Fesstok, Parthian Orbit

Standard Date: 04 24 632

Chuck Givens, his shoes safely tucked into the zero g slots, saluted sharply as Conrad Jackson-Cordoba floated into the Fesstok. “Welcome aboard, Admiral.”

Chuck Givens was from an old line Cordoba Spaceforce family. His family had served in the Cordoba Combine Spaceforce since before the consolidation wars. It was true that Chuck was no longer Cordoba Spaceforce, and it was equally true that “Admiral” Jackson-Cordoba was a political admiral who provided cover for dumping Chuck on the beach after the Cordoba defeat at the hands of the Drake Combine in the gray route battle that killed most of the fleet Chuck was a part of back in 630.

But old habits die hard, and Jackson-Cordoba was wearing the uniform, so Chuck saluted.

“Thank you, Captain.” Conrad Jackson-Cordoba grabbed a handrail with his left hand and swung his feet to the deck, then saluted with his right. “I know you’re busy, but I’d like to speak to you once I am settled back into my quarters.”

✽✽✽

Conrad Jackson-Cordoba, still in uniform, walked into Captain Givens’ office which was attached to the captain’s stateroom. The Fesstok was underway again, so they had gravity. He examined the captain—brown hair starting to recede a little, solidly built, but with very little fat. Not much in the way of genetic upgrades, but a life of military discipline was expressed in that body.

“Thank you for seeing me, Captain Givens,” Conrad said with careful politeness. He had to convert this man back to the Cordoba cause if he were to get the Bonaventura back for the family. “I know the circumstances of our last meeting aren’t such as to endear me to you. And, considering how things worked out, I clearly made the wrong call.”

“I told the truth and I was beached for it.”

Conrad heard the bitterness and anger in Givens’ voice and knew he would have to be careful in how he played this. “I know that, and it was at least partly my fault.” Conrad looked down in shame. Sham shame, but Givens wouldn’t know that. Conrad was quite a good actor when he wanted to be. “In my defense, the decision to beach those of you who told the truth as well as Tanya Cordoba-Davis was not mine to make or dispute.” He looked at Givens earnestly and waited for the reluctant nod, which he got.

“As I am sure you know, the council of clans has officially expelled me from Parthia System. They did agree to my request that I be transported on the Bonafortuna, ah, Fesstok.”

From his expression, Chuck Givens was less than thrilled by the way things were going. But he really shouldn’t be. After all, he was now the captain of a massive spaceship. Rather more than a beached junior officer in the Cordoba Spaceforce had any right to expect. Granted, it was a civilian ship, and Givens was from an old-line spaceforce family with a long tradition of service. But Givens was apparently still pining for the Cordoba Spaceforce uniform.

Really, any expectations the man might have of reinstatement bordered on delusional. Still, it was a delusion Conrad thought he could use.

Givens must know about the super missiles that rumor said the Parthians were making. Conrad needed this man, both as a source of intel and as a potential escape route. “Please have a seat, Captain. There are some things you need to know.”

Once Givens was seated, Conrad said, “There are persistent rumors that the Parthians have a new super missile. Supposedly, those missiles took out the fort. And for all I know, they could have saved you all at the battle where Tanya lost her ship, if the Pandora had any at that time?” He watched Givens’ face and posture carefully as he delivered that piece of information.

✽✽✽

By now, Chuck knew a great deal about the shield missiles and he realized that they represented a true revolution in warfighting technology. He also knew—had learned in the last few days—that the Parthians had a shield missile industry up and running. There were at least a dozen clans involved in constructing the components. And they had thousands of shield missiles ready to go. They even had a couple of hundred of the small artificial brains to control the shield missiles.

For just a moment, Chuck thought Danny Gold might have saved them all.

But no. Chuck knew that the missile industry wasn’t started until after they lost the Jonesy.

Chuck had no idea what his face gave away in that fleeting moment.

He considered. The four freighters, the Pan, Arachne, and Warchief were all being equipped with the new missiles. They were also all going to have crews that were at least half Parthian. They were shifting crew around, clearly to make sure there wouldn’t be a cohesive group to form the core of a mutiny. Between that and the Parthians that were joining all the crews, everyone figured they were safe enough.

“I’ve heard those rumors, Admiral,” Chuck said. He didn’t elaborate and waited for Jackson-Cordoba’s next question.

What he got was, “I have something you should see.” Conrad pulled a chipfolio out of his pocket.

Chuck took it and used his slate to scan it for viruses or other destructive software, making no effort to conceal his checks. Conrad smiled as he watched, and Chuck was unsurprised when the chipfolio came up clean.

“This is a recording of a conversation I had with my cousin. Parts have been removed because they have to do with family and Cordoba Combine politics that you simply have no need to know, but I have tried to leave it as complete as I could.”

What followed was an audio-only recording of Tanya saying several things that left her loyalty to the Cordoba Combine—and even the human race—in question.

Conrad: “You’d sell out the human race to the bugs?”

Tanya: “Yes, I think I will.”

It has to be a fake, but even as Chuck thought it, he knew it wasn’t true. It was just the way the skipper would say it. “What’s this all about?”

“I think it’s pretty self-explanatory,” Conrad said. “There are nine billion bugs in the Parthian system, and maybe twenty billion people in the whole of the Pamplona sector. Add in the Cattans, and the aliens in the Pamplona sector almost outnumber the humans.” He held up a hand before Chuck could interrupt. “I know that the Cattans are unlikely to ally with anyone. That wasn’t my point. Tanya is pissed at the Cordoba Combine because the family wouldn’t let her keep playing soldier when it proved inconvenient. She’s thrown her lot in with the bugs, and the bugs have a truly massive industrial base. You’ve seen it while here in Parthia. Until now, the family was doing a good job of keeping them contained, but if they get loose they could carve the whole Cordoba Combine into chunks. And with the Drakes already in a war with us, the bugs could take over.”

“Do you really think they want to?”

“The bugs have no notion of individual rights,” Conrad said. “I’ve dealt with them for years. They consider us inherently immoral because we do believe in individuality. Do you want to live in a galaxy ruled by a hive mentality?”

Chuck looked at him. The man made some good points. Chuck didn’t speak Parthian. No human could really speak it; they didn’t have the voice boxes for it. And Parthians had some trouble with English and other human languages. But there were very good translation programs out there, and Chuck had listened to the discussions on the Parthian net about humans and the notion of human-Parthian clans. The term cheskek was common in those discussions, and it translated as “one who was interested in his own welfare,” or as “individualist.”

Chuck wasn’t some wild-eyed anarchist. He was from a military family and understood military discipline and putting the unit first. But he wasn’t some worker drone that had no thought but for the hive, either. Admiral Jackson-Cordoba might have a real point. Suddenly the shield missiles that were in the ship’s holds right now took on a new and ominous meaning.

Conrad didn’t push him for any sort of commitment. Not yet.

Location: Parthia, Council of Clans

Standard Date: 04 28 632

Danny walked into the petitioner’s area and lifted his arms for attention. It took a few minutes, but the discussions quieted and the speaker called on Danny.

“I think we are running out of time,” Danny told the council of clans. As a recognized clan, he could come before the council, though his clan was so small that he didn’t have a regular seat. “If we don’t get to Canova soon, they will bring in reinforcements.”

“From where?” called the representative for the Gok Clan.

“I don’t know,” Danny admitted. “It depends on what’s going on in the Parise-Ferguson chain. If the Cordoba Combine has pushed the Drakes out of the way, we could see a fleet of fifty ships coming through the jump.”

“Will that not be the case even after we take Canova?” The speaker, a Parthian from a clan that studied law, waved an eye stalk. “Honestly, Breeder, I am not being intentionally difficult, but translating clan law into human law so that we get something that makes sense is not easy. And you, yourself, have acknowledged that we must find legal justifications that the humans can accept, else we will have the whole of humanity ranged against us.”

Danny nodded. “I don’t disagree, Worker, but we may need to table the discussions until we get to Canova. We will need the cooperation of Canovan clans. If we don’t get that, no justification will suffice. And to get that, we must remove the muzzles of the Jackson-Cordoba’s flechette guns from their foreheads and—not to put too fine a point on it—replace them with our own.”

The bug waved an eyestalk again. “You know your own people. We, of course, don’t have foreheads and pointing a flechette gun at me would not change my opinion of legality.”

“What about a cannon pointed at your birthing ponds?”

Mouth-hands all around the chamber scrunched up at that.

“Very well, Breeder Gold. When do you want to leave?”

“As soon as possible. All the ships, including Fly Catcher, are ready now.”