Pandora’s Crew

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New York Times bestselling authors Paula Goodlett and Gorg Huff are happy to bring you a new book in a new series, in a whole new universe. You will be familiar with Gorg and Paula from their books in Eric Flint’s 1632 Ring of Fire series, The Kremlin Games, The Viennese Waltz, The Volga Rules and The Alexander Inheritance. And now they welcome you to the StarWings Universe.

The Pamplona sector—long cut off from Old Earth by war, politics, and the vagaries of jump—is slowly, too slowly to notice, slipping into a space-going dark age. Technology and science are being suppressed. The powers that be intend to remain in charge and are too busy sticking their knives in each other’s backs to notice that the short term advantage of demonizing aliens, artificial brains, and genetic engineering are far outweighed by the long term stagnation their paranoia and propaganda is fostering.

The artificial brain ship Pandora, her captain, Danny Gold, Checkgok, a Parthian neuter female, John, Jenny, the professors and the odds and sods they pick up as crew don’t know it either. At least not at first. They are just trying to get by. But the evidence mounts, and they are forced to make some hard decisions.

“Revolutions, Mr. Dickinson, come into this world like bastard children—half improvised and half compromised.” – Attributed to pre-space statesman Benjamin Franklin.

Location: Concordia Station, Free Space
Standard Date: 01 16 630

Danny Gold settled into the bar stool and waited for the robo-tender to roll over. He was wearing ship’s slops. No one would know he was the captain save for the captain’s interface cap he wore. And the cap was worn and old. Still, he was an attractive man, so handsome as to be almost pretty, with golden hair and striking green eyes, and a body that put one in mind of a dancer or martial artist.

He looked around. About half the augmented reality emitters were out in this bar, and on a station they weren’t kept dark to conserve energy. The half-real atmosphere was due to lack of repair and it gave the bar a drab, worn feel. As you moved through the low power fields, the bar flipped from richly decorated to bare walls and back again. The drab, worn feel was strengthened by the plastic of the bar. It was yellowing from age and scratched, even though the duraplast was as hard as iron.

“Parthian Banger.” Danny didn’t know if there was such a drink as a Parthian Banger, but he liked to give the robot bartenders a hard time. The robo-tender would usually look at him, confusion in its sensors, and ask what the drink was. Danny would then describe some alcoholic concoction and get his drink for free. The robo-tenders were built that way.

Not this time.

After a couple of moments and a lot of arm waving, the robo-tender put a wide glass filled with greenish goop with red and black specks on top in front of him.

Ain’t that just the way my luck has been running, Danny thought sardonically, then passed over the station credit chips for his drink and took a cautious sip. It probably wouldn’t actually be poisonous. The robo-tenders were programmed with basic species’ profiles, and there weren’t all that many space-going species to begin with. Still, accidents did happen. But Danny wasn’t worried. He had a greater tolerance for drugs and poisons than most people. Which made it especially hard to get drunk. In this case, the green goop tasted like something somewhere between avocado and mango. The specks on the top were peppers of some sort. Hot peppers.

Danny gasped. He waved his hand. “Water!”

It felt like five minutes of fiery hell in his mouth, but was probably less than thirty seconds before the water got to him. Danny gulped it down. “What the hell is that?”

It was probably Danny’s imagination, but the robo-tender seemed to be quite satisfied as it answered. “The Parthian Banger is an aphrodisiac for Parthians. It is made by blending aspercodo from Darvin Six, powdered jalapeño originally from Old Earth and crushed fog bugs from Paradise in the Heaven system.”

Weird, Danny thought. Just weird. Parthians didn’t mate, except for the breeding caste and breeding was all they did. The breeding caste never left the home system, so why would Parthian spacers need an aphrodisiac? The Parthians didn’t have their own interstellar capable ships. They bought them, and even the smallest hyper-capable ships were expensive, so the Parthians didn’t have much of a presence outside their home system.

Danny had never actually met a Parthian, but had seen images of them, and analyses of their culture—if you could call it that. They were hive creatures, according to the research from . . . Danny called up a file in his internal data base. The scholarly papers were funded by the Cordoba-Jackson clan. Which made sense, since the Cordoba-Jacksons ran that corner of the Cordoba Combine. Parthians were not made for independent thought or action. They had bones that merged into shells and spiky porcupine-like hair, no heads, just eyestalks and mouth-hands. From a human perspective, they were remarkably ugly.

Danny shuddered just thinking about them. “Glass of milk.” The cool white liquid would act as a chaser for the way-too-spicy drink. With the chaser ready, he gulped down the evil brew. Danny’s biggest flaw was also his biggest virtue. He was stubborn about following his own rules. If he bought a drink, he drank it. The milk followed the Parthian Banger as quickly as he could manage.

Danny might have broken his rule, just this once, if he had known the consequences of his actions . . . or maybe not. In any case, the robo-tender, through malice or a lack of programming, declined to mention the effects of the drink.

“Gimme a Paguly Stroke,” Danny ordered.

He got the robotic confusion he was hoping for. “A Paguly Stroke,” Danny explained, making it up as he went along, “is two shots of New Kentucky Bourbon and a shot of thon juice.” Danny turned his head and slipped into the field of an emitter. The robotic arms of the bartender took on flesh. When the robo-tender passed him his free drink, Danny sipped it and thought about how he got into this mess. Was it when I diverted to find the jump point? No. I was in trouble before Casa Verde station.

Danny ordered another drink. This time he had to pay for it. Then, giving up getting drunk as a bad job, he stood up and left the bar. As he was leaving, Danny sniffed. There was a faint scent that wasn’t part of the normal bar aroma. Danny’s sense of smell was enhanced by genetic modification. It was more discerning than a normal’s, and that let him categorize and discount known smells. This smell was kind of spicy and didn’t fit what he would expect from a station bar. Also, he couldn’t place where it was coming from.

∞∞∞

Checkgok was not one of those Parthians who took being away from the clan as license for perversion. When the scent reached it, Checkgok did its best to avoid the stimulus. Checkgok was—by the standards of its race—a fairly handsome neuter female. Its body was shaped sort of like a flattened oval, covered with spikes a bit thicker than hair and not quite as thick as a porcupine’s spines. The spikes were longer and thicker on top of its body. It had no head. The eyestalks and the mouth-hand protruded directly from the front of its body, the eyes going up and the mouth down. Both were flexible and in constant motion. Like all Parthians, it walked—scuttled—on its fore and aft legs, using the center pair as heavy object manipulators. Its mouth doubled as a hand for delicate manipulation.

Checkgok’s eyestalks swiveled and extended, searching. Scent isn’t a great way to locate something, especially in a space station. Checkgok made the obvious guess about where the scent was coming from. It must be the group of Parthians who crewed the Fly Catcher. Probably the captain and first mate. The captain was a neuter female and the first mate a neuter male. Both were—in Checkgok’s opinion—reprehensible . . . individuals . . . who had, more than once before, attempted to subvert Checkgok’s loyalty to clan.

Its guess was quite wrong. Its attempt to avoid the captain and—especially—the first mate, led it to run right into Danny Gold. Checkgok weighed just over three hundred pounds and was—depending on its stance—from three to six feet tall. It was moving fast at the moment, which put its body low.

Danny fell on it.

Going from three foot scuttle to a six foot extension was reflexive. Given the circumstances, Checkgok couldn’t help it. Its spiky, hair-like protrusions would not have punctured a Parthian, female or male, neuter or not.

Unfortunately, human skin is rather less resistant than Parthian cartilage. Now blood was involved, which carried all sorts of implications in Parthian society. It wasn’t that much blood; the punctures weren’t deep. The amount was not nearly as important as the mere fact that blood was spilled.

Besides, Checkgok wasn’t thinking too clearly, what with the pheromones coursing through its system. Checkgok got a full load of pheromones when Danny fell on it.

It was as high as a paper kite.

∞∞∞

The incident in the station corridor might have ended with no more than a few scrapes, but Kesskox, the captain of the Fly Catcher, had just about given up on persuading Checkgok to see reason. Checkgok was an excellent merchant in terms of calculating what might be of value at the next port, but unwilling to see the advantages of a bit of extra on the side. It was also—in Kesskox’s view—a supercilious snob with delusions of grandeur. Kesskox, like just about every Parthian on the station, scented the pheromones. It took her a while to find the source.

She arrived in time to witness the last of Checkgok’s semi-coherent rambling apology and offer of . . . kothkoke.

The human was trying to wave the whole thing off. “No harm done. Right. You’re apologizing. I accept.”

Captain Kesskox shook with laughter, her eyestalks twisting. “And you sneer at us. That one doesn’t even have the right equipment.” She chittered a laugh, realizing that she had Checkgok just where she wanted it. Checkgok offered kothkoke as apology and the human accepted it. “Did I hear correctly? You have sworn kothkoke to this monkey? What will your high and mighty clan think of this?” She chittered again. She couldn’t help it and didn’t feel like trying. Though more resistant, Captain Kesskox was a bit tipsy on Danny’s scent  herself. Unknown to anyone, milk acted as a booster for the intoxicating effect. Checkgok, having gotten a full dose—a pheromone bath—was quite drunk. “A slime toad would be better than you, you perverted, dishonorable cheskek.” While cheskek, if directly translated into English, might well be taken as a compliment since it meant something close to “individualist,” to a Parthian it was a deadly insult. On a par with suggesting that a human preferred sex with the corpses of babies of their own gender and that they ate the corpse afterward.

It was also, even in Captain Kesskox’s own estimation, altogether too close to the truth—which just made it hurt worse. She screamed and attacked.

“Oh shit,” the monkey said. Somehow it had wandered into the path of conflict.

Checkgok leapt. Checkgok was a lot faster than Kesskox expected and clearly not going to let its monkey be harmed. Using forelimbs, middle-limbs and hind-limbs, it moved itself toward Kesskox while moving the monkey out of her reach. Checkgok weighed a touch over three hundred pounds. Captain Kesskox doubted that the monkey weighed half that. The monkey ended up against the far wall and Captain Kesskox was suddenly faced with a very angry bookkeeper.

Location: Concordia Station Infirmary

Danny woke in a white room, one in considerably better repair than the bar. The emitters were all operating here, and he was getting feedback on heart rate, oxi content of the air, and a host of other data points that together announced “infirmary.”

“You have a mild concussion.”

Danny looked blearily toward the voice. The . . . doctor? Yes, she must be a doctor. White coat. Medical PDA in hand. Yep. Doctor. Tall, blond, female. Smith, the nametag said.

“Which is less than you deserve,” added another voice.

Danny winced. That had to be the voice of station security. Station security sounded the same all over the galaxy. He peeked in the direction of the last voice. Yep. Station security.

“What did I do?” Danny asked plaintively.

The station security officer sneered at him. “Aside from advertising yourself as a Parthian sex toy, starting a riot and a diplomatic incident? I haven’t a clue. Have you started a war we should know about?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Danny insisted, not for the first time in dealing with station security. In this instance, it was even true.

“Did you or did you not consume a Parthian Banger?”

“What’s a Parthian Banger?”

The doctor snickered wickedly. “You are, apparently. Though from what I understand, you’re under-equipped for the endeavor.”

The cop gave the doctor a dirty look, then returned her attention to Danny. “All right. You want to tell me what happened after you left the bar?”

Danny considered. He really couldn’t see what he had done that was illegal. On the other hand, cops tended to find incriminating evidence in just about anything. He almost asked for a lawyer. Then he remembered the state of his finances. He was the next best thing to dead broke. He was broke, aside from his ship, and the ship was in hock to SMOG Savings and Loan in the Drake Combine. Which was why he was at the unaligned, very much gray market, Concordia Station.

And on Concordia Station, if you desired an attorney and could not afford one, you were shit out of luck. Danny was surprised to learn that Concordia Station had lawyers at all. Or cops, for that matter.

Danny struggled to sit up. He decided to try and play the cooperative innocent. “I was walking along the corridor when this Parthian came scooting around the corner. We ran into each other and I tripped and landed on it. It was an accident, Officer. It, ah . . . stood up, I guess, and banged me against the ceiling. Hurt like the dickens. Then it went back down and let me off. I was a bit scratched by its spines, but not too bad.” Danny creased his forehead, thinking. “It apologized and it said a bunch of stuff in Parthian. Well, I accepted its apology and was about to be on my way when this other Parthian showed up. They started arguing. At least, I think they were arguing.”

Danny paused, trying to remember. “It was about half in trade and half in their clicks and whistles. That’s the last thing I remember before I woke up here.”

The cop was looking at him like he was a perp running a scam, but the doc was trying hard not to laugh. Danny didn’t have a clue what was going on.

Location: Concordia Station Security Cells

Security Officer Janis Marten looked at the bug in front of her. It was the first Parthian she ever saw in person, and well, it just looked like a big, furry bug.  “So what exactly is your story?”

Station security put both Checkgok and Captain Kesskox in pheromone free cells. However, they didn’t feel it necessary to wait for the effects of the pheromones to wear off before questioning them.

Captain Kesskox, still a bit drunk, chittered more laughter and waved its midlegs. Might as well. Any hope the captain nourished of blackmailing Checkgok was gone. Now there was a public record.

“Checkgok has sworn itself to the human. After all its protestations of loyalty to its clan and devotion to duty, it has betrayed clan and the whole Parthian race. I expel it from my ship.” Kesskox did it out of spite, mostly.

Just wait until she got back to home world and spread this story.

∞∞∞

Janis left the cell and went next door. She pulled up a seat and started to question the other bug. “You’re sworn to Danny Gold? Is that right?”

Checkgok waved a midlimb and Janis tried not to flinch. That arm . . . leg . . . whatever it was . . . looked like it could squash her like a . . . well, bug.  “Mischance. I blooded him. It was an accident.”

Janis finished taking it all down. “Captain Kesskox says you’re a traitor to your clan and it’s throwing you off the ship.”

Janis wasn’t quite sure what the clicks and whistles meant, but it didn’t sound to her like Checkgok admired Kesskox.

Checkgok eventually calmed a bit. “That squekket.” It waved its two center arms. “It throws me off, it loses the cargo, tell it that. The cargo belongs to Clan Zheck and I am the representative of the clan.”

Janis peered over at it. “Ah . . . that’s not what the captain is claiming.”

Checkgok’s eyestalks waved and its mouth-hand scrunched up in an expression Janis couldn’t interpret. “Over two-thirds of the cargo on the Fly Catcher belongs to my clan. I have control of it until it is returned to my clan, unless I willingly abandon it or die. Only then does Captain Pervert have access to it. The fool has ruined itself.”

“So the cargo belongs to you?”

“To my clan.”

“Can you prove that?”

Checkgok’s eyestalks reared back at the question, in what Janis guessed might signal feeling affronted. “Yes, of course. Check the contracts. They are on record in the station files. The Fly Catcher is leased to Clan Zheck. The cargo is Clan Zheck cargo. The cargo that is not Clan Zheck is not actually authorized to be there. Captain Kesskox calls it ‘off-the-books’ cargo.”

“Oh, really?”

There was, Checkgok noted, an interesting gleam in the security officer’s expression. Checkgok was unsure what the expression meant. This was its first trip away from the home world. It had made trades in dozens of human systems, primarily by developing an encyclopedic knowledge of what was wanted where.

Trade was not new to the clan or to Checkgok, but the cutthroat practices of the outworlds were not what Checkgok was used to. Checkgok lifted its left midleg and scratched an itchy spine hair. “May I have access to the net? So that I can show you the pertinent contracts?” Checkgok would watch the reactions of this monkey and perhaps learn a bit more about reading the species. Doing so would keep Checkgok’s thoughts away from its disgrace and the consequences.

Janis motioned Checkgok over to the computer. “Oh, yes. Please do.”

They went through the contracts together. For a fairly large sum of money, Fly Catcher and crew was leased—in total—to the Clan Zheck. The trade goods were provided by the Clan. A manifest was included.

The bug pointed at an entry. “When we left the home world we went to Green World, a monkey world.”

Officer Marten glared at it. “Watch your mouth.”

“Excuse me?” Checkgok looked at its mouth. Parthian eyes were arranged in such a way that it could indeed do so. It was sometimes necessary, though it seemed rather pointless at the moment. Checkgok thought it was being polite. The security officer apparently disagreed.

The officer glared a bit more. “I was talking about that ‘monkey world’ crack.”

“Crack? What is crack?” Checkgok was fairly sure she wasn’t talking about a crack as in a break.

The monkey looked at it. Strangely. “You really don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?”

Officer Marten sighed. “Let me give you some language lessons. Monkey is a derogatory term—an insult—when applied to a human.” The security guard moved its shoulders up and down. “Not a real bad one, I’ll grant you. It would be like calling you a . . . Well, I don’t know what your equivalent would be. Something from your world that is related to your people a ways back, but didn’t evolve intelligence, or at least not much.”

Checkgok considered. “Like a kikikes?”

“Got me. I don’t know anything about your home world’s fauna.”

“Got you? What is got you? I don’t have you.”

Janis bared its teeth at Checkgok. “It’s an expression. It means you’ve asked a question I don’t know the answer to.”

Checkgok was beginning to understand. “Then, ‘watch your mouth’ is another expression?” It swiveled the eye stalk it was using to watch its mouth back to looking at the station officer.

“Yes. It’s a warning to be careful of what you’re saying.”

Checkgok nodded its mouth. It didn’t have a head to nod. “ ‘Crack.’ Is that an expression?”

Janis nodded. “Yep. A crack is an insult.”

Things were beginning to come clear. Checkgok now knew why the captain and crew encouraged it to speak in a certain way and leave the “in person” dealings with humans to the first mate. The “useful idioms” it was taught were insurance to prevent humans from wanting to deal with Checkgok directly. That—in turn—was to allow them to skim a bit on every deal. They really were cheskek, concerned with themselves rather than their clans.

Checkgok knew what to do now. Apologies were always acceptable. It knew that much.

Location: Concordia Station Infirmary

Doc Smith grinned when she removed the bandages. Danny wondered why until he saw himself in the mirror. “Oh, shit. What the hell happened? Doc, what is this?”

There was a set of spots on his chest. Red ones, blue ones, black ones and green ones in a distorted galaxy pattern. “What about these dots? I wasn’t that drunk.”

Doc Smith’s voice was a bit strained. Like she was trying not to laugh. “I was a bit worried about that myself, so I took a couple of samples and did some reading. It doesn’t appear to be harmful. The Parthian’s spines have a resin on them that acts like ink. You got an instant tattoo. Removing it would be cosmetic. Not covered by station insurance.”

Danny groaned. Part of the station fee when docking a ship was basic medical insurance for accident or injury suffered by crewmen on the station. Very basic insurance. It covered emergency treatment and that was all. It was there so the station wouldn’t get stuck with the medical expenses of indigent spacers.

Which was altogether too close to what Danny was these days, except for the Pandora.

Artificial brains have both advantages and disadvantages in comparison to standard computer systems. The neural net structure of the artificial brains more closely resembles the natural systems and this structure allows them something close to creativity. However, they have to be individually manufactured and trained. They cannot as yet be mass-produced in any meaningful sense. A single program will not run the same on two artificial brains because the brains are different. Instead, extensive use of simulated reality systems must be used to teach them the way a child or a pet is taught and conditioned.

Standard processors are cheaper both to manufacture and to program and, within their limits, they can be faster. However, in spite of the advances in both software and hardware, they lack that certain something. They don’t grow and they don’t learn.

Introduction to A Case for the Artificial Brain by Gerhard Schmitz, Phd.
Standard Date March 22, 625

Location: Pandora, In orbit off Concordia station
Standard Date: 01 16 630

Deep in the core of her artificial mind, Pan heaved a gargantuan sigh and opened a channel to the port, requesting information on the condition of Danny Gold. It was not a voice request, but a transmission in binary code from the ship Pandora to the station’s managing computer. It carried standard authorizations, and the answer came back the same way with the medical report, the police report, the insurance report.

Pan’s brain was very large, but most of it was dedicated to hyper transits. After that, a lot of it was dedicated to shipboard maintenance. Only a very small percentage was dedicated to human-style intelligence. The effect of that was to make her very bright in some ways, but not very bright in others. She was not particularly creative but was very quick and had a perfect memory.

Since Danny had been involved in a fight with one or more Parthians, she researched Parthians in general and the ones involved in the altercation in particular. Sometimes—in fact, a lot of the time—hard work makes a good substitute for creativity. Pan was built for hard work.

By the time Danny was allowed phone calls, Pan had collected a great deal of information. Not everything. She had not been able to gather much on the content and ownership of the Fly Catcher’s holds because the Fly Catcher’s cargo became a matter of an ongoing investigation even while she was requesting information.

Location: Medical Bay, Concordia Station

“Captain, what exactly did the Parthian Checkgok say to you?” came over Danny’s internal comm while he lay on the med couch.

That wasn’t what Danny was expecting to hear from Pan. He was expecting yet another lecture on the obligations of his abilities. “I don’t know. Which one was Checkgok? The one I tripped over?”

“Yes, Captain.” Danny could hear the long-suffering tone in Pan’s voice. “The one you tripped over.”

“It apologized and said some stuff in their clicks and whistles.” Danny sent Pan the recording. This was weird. What’s got Pan’s wings in a knot, he wondered. “Are we being sued or something?”

“Are there witnesses?”

Now Danny was getting worried. “Hold on.” He opened his eyes and saw the latest security officer, this one a guy. “Do you know what the Parthian said to me? The one I tripped over?”

Doc Smith cracked up. “It married you.”

“It did not marry him.” The cop gave the doctor a hard look, then sighed and turned back to Danny. “Look, Parthians are an alien species. They have their own customs and laws. The neuters aren’t supposed to get . . . ah . . . excited.”

The doctor cracked up again.

Danny’s head was banging. He sent Pan a signal to switch from a personal  call to a call to the med room. “Look, Officer. I have a headache and spots on my chest. Would you mind explaining what is going on to my ship?”

Danny didn’t listen after that. The Parthian Banger wasn’t the only alcohol he drank that afternoon. He would learn later that Checkgok offered itself to his clan in recompense for the injury and insult it inadvertently offered. Further, that in accepting the apology, he accepted the service. It was called kothkoke and had things in common with both adoption and marriage. What was still under question was the effect it had on the ownership and control of the goods that Checkgok possessed in trust for its clan.

Location: Virtual Courtroom, Concordia Station

“Former clan!” Captain Kesskox, in her cell, rose to her full height in rage. “It has abandoned its clan. It has no rights to the goods of that clan. It is dead to them.”

“Not according to the customs of Zheck.”

The voice from the wall startled Kesskox because it didn’t match any of the humans on the screens. It dropped a few inches. “Who is that?”

Magistrate Stella Jones was going through her notes as the preliminary hearing progressed. She looked up over the half-moon shaped eyeglasses that even Kesskox knew were unnecessary to humans in this day and age. “It’s the Pandora. The starship of Captain Gold, the recipient of . . . what is the word . . . of Checkgok’s kothkoke.” Stella imagined that she was making a hash of the clicks and whistles of the Parthian, but at this point she didn’t much care.

The hearing, instigated by Pandora on behalf of her captain, was to determine whether a restraining order was to be issued to prevent the Fly Catcher from leaving the station while still in possession of goods that Pandora argued were now under the legal control—if not ownership—of Captain Gold.

“Ship? Ships cannot be heard in court.” Captain Kesskox gestured with her right eye stalk.

Magistrate Jones had no idea what the gesture meant. She didn’t care very much about that, either. Stella Jones stared at the obviously irritated—and increasingly irritating—bug. “They can here.”

It was true that artificial brains were not allowed to instigate suits in Drake space or very often in Cordoba space. But out here on the fringe, they had to maintain a fairly open policy. Station law had long since granted legal entity status to artificial brain ships. It was necessary. They were often the only sober member of the ship’s company. Concordia Station was sometimes a bit on the rowdy side.

Not that Stella was all that thrilled with the Pandora at the moment. She got notice of the requested hold during dinner. Couldn’t the darn ship have waited a couple of hours? The Fly Catcher’s captain was in lockup, after all, along with this Checkgok character and Captain Gold.

“What do you have, Pandora?” Stella asked.

“Nothing not available in station files.” The ship’s response sounded a bit . . . snotty, Stella decided. “The Zheck clan offers kothkoke as much as a token of trust, or test of the recipient’s honor, as a payment of debt. They sometimes intentionally offer kothkoke when the clan member to be adopted out has a continuing obligation to the clan. When that happens, the receiving clan—in this case Captain Gold—has a decision to make. Does he honor the obligations of the adoptee to the Zheck clan or ignore those obligations? If the obligations are ignored, then the clan knows never to deal with that clan again. If they are honored, Clan Zheck generally develops a relationship of trust with the adopting clan.”

Captain Kesskox dropped in shock. It was clear she realized where this was going. “The human is not a Clan. Kothkoke is invalid. Not a legitimate act, simply a disgrace.”

“Well?” Stella Jones quirked an eyebrow.

“Captain Gold is from Cybrant Five,” Pandora informed the court. “A member of the Gold Family, more properly rendered as ‘the Gold Line.’ He is a licensed breeder with unlimited reproductive rights on Cybrant Five, where fewer than one in a hundred people are fully licensed.”

Danny Gold groaned. As well he should, thought Stella. Cybrant Five was not famous for its respect for other cultures or other people in general. The registered lines were self-proclaimed supermen. Supermen that most of the rest of humanity despised for their arrogance. On the other hand, Stella admitted, if superior was looks, Danny Gold was certainly superior. Tall, but only a little above average height, literally golden blond, with skin just a shade lighter than the hair, green eyes with flecks of gold as well. Muscles without being muscle bound, and, even hungover, physical grace that gave every motion a smooth flow.

“Captain Gold is as close as it is possible for a human to get to the definition of a clan or hive. Under Parthian law, he would be considered a new clan.”

“Clans are based on females.” Captain Kesskox’s voice was strident and insistent.

“Not always.” Merchant Checkgok was looking at the screen to Danny Gold’s cell intently. “There are two Zheck ancestor clans that started from males.”

“You admit that?” Captain Kesskox swiveled both eyestalks to focus on the screen showing the Zheck merchant.

“Zheck clan is proud of all its ancestor clans.” Checkgok turned one eye to the screen to Kesskox’s cell for a moment, then turned it back to Danny Gold.

“Where does that leave us?” The judge looked at the screen showing Captain Kesskox.

It left Kesskox in a terrible bind, and she knew it. “The human has not acknowledged Checkgok’s prior obligations.”

“Nor is there any need to,” the Pandora’s voice came again from the wall. Rather quickly, the judge thought. “Until and unless Captain Gold officially renounces them, Checkgok—and through it, Captain Gold—has control over the Zheck goods.”

Stella Jones noted Danny Gold’s start at that. Apparently the Pandora wasn’t telling her captain what was going on until she had things set up.

“Just what are Checkgok’s obligations to its clan?”

There was a short pause. “No. Pan, we may be a little skint, but we ain’t thieves. If we can do what the bug needs us to and it’s a fair deal, we will. If we can’t, we’ll give it back to the Zheck clan . . . along with its goods.”

That sounded good, though Stella wasn’t sure that a Cybrant Gold Line could be trusted, considering the Cybrant System’s reputation.

Checkgok apparently had no such reservations. It lowered itself all the way until its body was touching the floor. Kesskox was hissing and clicking. The translation program was rendering the clicks and whistles as a series of expletives, most of which made no sense at all.

“Fine.” Gold waved his hands in the air. “Let the bug tell me that.” Pause. “Yes, I trust you, but you don’t know everything and you should have warned me.”

Stella snorted. She knew several ships like the Pandora. They showed a marked tendency to treat their crews—even their owners—more like children or pets than like bosses. “All right. Enough. For the moment neither ship is allowed to leave station while in possession of the goods in question. After this gets resolved, I’ll determine which ship has the rights to the cargo. Two things.” Stella lifted two fingers and glared into the screens. “I’m going to want an official decision one way or the other from you, Captain Gold, whether Zheck custom requires it or not. And if you decide you’re keeping Merchant Checkgok, you pay its fines.”

Danny’s face paled. Pandora chuckled. Checkgok grinned. Well, its eyestalks slid past one another in what the translation program interpreted as a grin.

∞∞∞

Over the next week or so, Stella had two questions to answer. “How much of the Fly Catcher’s cargo belonged to Clan Zheck?” and, “Who was Clan Zheck’s on-station rep?”

In the first case, she decided that the on-the-books cargo was clearly Clan Zheck’s. The off-the-books cargo, whether it should be there or not, and notwithstanding how it was obtained, was the property of the ship Fly Catcher and its crew.

In the second case, she determined that Clan Zheck’s cargo was under the control of Checkgok, and Checkgok could dispose of the cargo as it saw fit.

That cargo, by agreement between Captain Danny Gold and Merchant Checkgok as a representative of Clan Zheck, was transferred to the Pandora. Stella insisted on a contract between Captain Gold and Checkgok, with Checkgok acting as agent for Clan Zheck.

While Stella was working that out, other ships arrived and departed: several independents, two Drake owned freighters, and a Cordoba courier taking an unofficial shortcut.  The story of Danny Gold and the Parthian Banger—or of Danny Gold, the Parthian Banger—was quite popular and would eventually spread to the wider universe.

Location: Concordia Station Hotel

Checkgok watched the screen with its left eyestalk as it looked around the room with its right. The monkey—no, it should say human even in its own mind—the human bed was gone, replaced with a nest pad that would support its body in rest position. But the pad was across the small room from the console and for now Checkgok needed to use the console, as strange as that was proving. The consoles on the Fly Catcher were modified to make them more usable by Parthian mouth-hands.

Its mouth-hand missed the proper key, and the space around the station appeared on the screen. There were three ships docked. The Pandora, a large barrel-shaped mass with poles and lines sticking out, the Fly Catcher, the same basic shape but smaller, with only two sets of sails and a sweep mounted on the bow, and another merchantman like the Pandora, but larger, with four sets of sails and fore and aft sweeps.

As much as Checkgok despised the Fly Catcher and all aboard it, Checkgok missed it because it was the closest thing to Parthia—to home—that it was likely to see any time soon. Everything here was strange, alien, not suited to real people.

But Checkgok had its duty. It could take comfort in that. It was, at least temporarily, a worker of the Gold Clan. In spite of its discomfort with the notion of an artificial mind, it found the right key and contacted its new clan’s clan home, the Pandora.

When Pandora answered, Checkgok asked, “Tell me of the Gold Clan and its needs.”

There was no noticeable pause. Checkgok wasn’t expecting one. “Danny Gold is the product of genetic engineering and intensive culling. He was intended to be . . . I guess the closest analogy would be one of your breeders, the ones that control the clan and produce the offspring.”

Checkgok interrupted. “Controls the clans? Breeders don’t control the clans. Granted, their role is vital, but so are all the other jobs. From the nurses who take care of the spawn to fighters, crafters, merchants, and all the other necessary jobs that keep a clan healthy.”

“But who makes the decisions for the clans?”

“That depends on the decision. What foods are to be fed to the spawn of a clan is decided by the nurses. Where to build a clan home or other structure by architects. As an example, I make the decisions on what to buy and sell for Clan Zheck on this trading mission. That is why I asked what Clan Gold needs, so that I might best assess where my talents and training might be put to use for the Gold Clan.”

“Who decided that you would go on this mission?”

Now Checkgok thought he understood the question. “The Zheck clan council appointed me, on the advice of the clan’s master trader.”

“And who chose the council?”

Maybe Checkgok didn’t understand. “In the Zheck clan, new members of the council are nominated by their . . .” Checkgok paused and looked for an English word that would fit the meaning. “. . . department seems closest, though not quite right. It has some of the flavor of caste, as well. A council member is nominated by the department it comes from and is accepted by the council. Other clans have other ways of selecting, and how it is done can be affected by circumstances.”

“In that case, I am not sure if there is a good Parthian analogy for what Danny Gold is. His progenitors were trying to create superior people, whose natural role would be to rule other humans. However, Captain Gold rejected that role.”

“Who was right, Captain Gold or his progenitors?” Checkgok asked. Among Parthians, respect of the views of the clan elders was automatic, but it was now a member of Gold Clan. And in Gold Clan, Danny Gold was the whole clan, save for Checkgok and, perhaps, the Pandora. Though to Checkgok’s mind, the Pandora, as a machine—a ship—was more clan home than clan member.

“I have no firm opinion on the matter. The main issue that Captain Gold objected to in his genetic modifications was the lack of empathy. He was designed to understand what others felt, without feeling what they felt. The idea was to make him capable of manipulating normal people, but prevent what his designers considered the weakness that would allow others to play on his feelings. He, on his own, concluded that the lack of conscience was not an advantage—or at least not an advantage that he wanted. So he has built a set of rules of fairness that he follows religiously. Sometimes to his detriment. He can’t empathize with the pain and loss that others feel, but he can usually figure out what they are feeling. He uses that analytical imitation empathy to live and work in human society.”

As Checkgok listened to that, it realized that the designers designed Danny Gold to be a cheskek. But Captain Gold realized that in spite of his lack of a moral center, he needed one, so he built one out of rules. In spite of itself, Checkgok felt sympathy for the poor, crippled human who was trying to create a conscience out of intellect. “The clan then must help Captain Gold to deal with his mental deformities.”

They spoke some more, and Checkgok determined that its best role on the Pandora would be the same as its role on the Fly Catcher.  It would, with luck, return to Parthia with holds full of useful goods and a mind full of new knowledge of the wider universe.

The Cordoba Spaceforce is a department of the Cordoba Combine. Its members are combine employees; however, like all military forces throughout history, the Spaceforce and their exspatios have developed a subculture with their own political and cultural norms.

The Armed Forces of the Pamplona Sector, Part 3

Location: CSFS James Bond, Cordoba Space
Standard Date: 01 18 630

Lieutenant Commander Tanya Cordoba-Davis took the steps leading to the bridge two at a time. It wasn’t hard. The Double O7 was running at point seven gee to conserve H. The hatch to the bridge was open. Tanya grabbed a handhold and entered the bridge at the sedate, stately pace suitable for the executive officer on a Cordoba Spaceforce warship.

Commander Lars Hedlund looked up and lifted an eyebrow. “Running in the corridors again, XO?” He was about average in height, with straight black hair and brown skin. There was just a touch of epicanthic fold to his eyes, which were a startling green.

“Aye, Skipper,” Tanya said, automatically using her anatomical control to suppress the blush. The skipper wouldn’t care, but it was a habit by now.

“Is it the genetic mods or is there something to be excited about?” He was referring to the genetic mods that gave Tanya higher than normal energy levels. Tanya could stay up and fully operational for upwards of seventy-two standard hours, more if she needed to. She averaged three and a half hours a night of sleep and was stronger than an unmodified human. The skipper had some mods, but he wasn’t a Cordoba connection and his parents, while stockholders, weren’t overly wealthy.

“Well, the rear B sail runner is back up to full readiness. And Cook says we are having Morland lambfish with asparagus and hollandaise sauce for dinner.”  Tanya glanced at the main display that was showing the star field with an overlay of the ship routes and icons for the known jump points in the Aegean Cluster. She gave Lieutenant Christine Sanders who had the watch a nod, then turned back to the skipper.

“So it’s the genetic mods.”

Now it was Tanya’s turn to lift an eyebrow.

The skipper continued. “You can eat helping after helping of Cook’s hollandaise without worrying about it going to your gut. I just look at it and gain five pounds.”

“With all due respect, Skipper, I have never seen you just look at Cook’s asparagus and hollandaise.”

“XOs who point out their skipper’s lack of character have short and grisly careers, Tanya.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Tanya said, but in her case it wasn’t true, and they both knew it. Tanya was a Cordoba-Davis, a grand stockholder in her own right.  While another officer might find her career on the rocks because she was too open about criticizing her seniors, Tanya wouldn’t. That fact had made her very reticent about acknowledging Commander Lars Hedlund’s character flaws until she got to know him. She didn’t want to trade on her family name and tended to bend over backwards to avoid it. That was something that the skipper and her personal aide were working on correcting lately.

“Christine, you have the con,” Commander Hedlund said. He hooked his thumb at the bridge hatch, and Tanya followed him out.

∞∞∞

A few minutes later, in the captain’s cabin, Tanya sat in the chair across from his and looked at the picture of James Bond behind the skipper’s desk. The old movie series and the books they were based on were the basis of the ship’s name. In the centuries since the loss of Earth, the distinction between fictional heroes like James Bond and real ones like Audie Murphy were blurred. Only scholars knew or cared, and even scholars weren’t sure in cases like Hector and Agamemnon.

This was a small room compared to what might be seen on a station or a planet, four meters by six, with a bed that was, at the moment, folded up into the wall. Hero-class cruisers were light on amenities.

The skipper’s face grew pensive. “I know you don’t like to trade on your family, Tanya, but I’m hearing some pretty troubling rumors.”

“About what, Skipper?”

“A possible shakeup on the Board.”  Board, in this case, referred to the Board of Directors of the Cordoba Combine. The Cordoba Combine was effectively the government of much of the Pamplona Sector. It was run by a board of directors who were selected by the stockholders. Once the board was selected, it appointed the combine officers and officials. Election of board members happened when a board member retired or died and—very occasionally—when enough people with enough stock asked for a general stockholders’ meeting. There were rumbles over the past two and a half standard years that there was going to be such a request, with the requisite proxies filed, but nothing had happened yet.

“My mother doesn’t think so, Skipper, but Dad is less confident. Isabella insists that nothing is going to happen, but she is so focused on the family investments that I don’t think she pays much more attention to politics than I do.” Tanya’s sister Isabella went into the family business with a will and was her mother’s fair-haired girl.

“Pay some attention, Tanya. When we hit port, send some letters. The fleet needs to know what’s going on.”

“The Admiralty . . .” Tanya started, but the skipper shook his head. Tanya’s father was one of the Admiralty Board, one of what the fleet referred to as stockholder admirals. Grand stockholders who went to the academy, then shot up the ranks, often with no experience at all on warships and who effectively controlled the spaceforce. They were the standard connection between the military and the civilian oversight, and the fact that the skipper didn’t seem to trust them was worrying.

The skipper shook his head again. “Nothing against your father, Tanya. I respect him, and his work in the appropriations office has done good things for the spaceforce. Still, the stockholder admirals are holding back. At least, that’s what I’m hearing from the space-going admirals. The Drakes are fishing in a number of places and the stockholders don’t want to hear about it.”

The Drake Combine was the other major player in the Pamplona Sector. It was actually larger than the Cordoba Combine, but more dispersed, and that meant that its spaceforce needed to cover more territory, be in more places at once. The advantage of the Cordoba Combine’s internal jump routes was all that kept the Drakes at bay.

The Drakes were usually forced to go farther and send orders farther to coordinate. That let the Cordoba Combine get ships into position to respond to Drake incursions more quickly, and that was crucial in the recent battle of Conner Chain.

“Do you really—” Tanya stopped herself. She knew the skipper was worried about the Drakes making a try for control of the Pamplona Sector. For that matter, Tanya was worried about it. The last of the trade wars was forty-three standard years ago, when the Drake and Cordoba Combines defeated the Ferguson Group and divided up its routes.

“Yes, I do. Because I don’t think the Drake’s pseudo-royalty system is stable. They need to fight us or they will come apart from internal dissension.”

Location: DSFS Brass Hind, Drake Space

Standard Date: 01 18 630

Flash mist rolled from the vap into Third Officer Rosalyn Flatt’s mouth and throat, then into her lungs, and the world became more intense. Colors were brighter and sounds crisper. The scratch on her quarter’s wall stood out in high relief. Rosalyn could feel the wings flapping as a vibration in the grav intensity.  There was a hiccup, and she checked the readouts. That was a catch in amidships C wing. It was cycling fine, then it would skip a cycle. The comp was running slow. It always did when she was flashing.   She was in her quarters and used her interface to hook into the computer. The captain was off duty and Second Officer Andrew Watson had the watch.

Flash, a derivative of the thon plant, was a powerful euphoric and moderately powerful hallucinogen. It acted by increasing synaptic sensitivity and shortening synaptic response time. Depending on personal body chemistry, a user might feel ghostly touches, hear voices, have false memories, see things, or all of the above. To the observer, the flash user shows signs of delusional paranoia, but flash generally made the user feel capable, sharp, and clear. The world became more intense and connections, especially threats, that were obscure became obvious. People on flash also had response times that were as much as fifty percent faster than when not using. There were, in fact, recorded cases where the use of flash led to new and innovative solutions.

Along with her noting of the hiccup in amidships C, Rosalyn realized that First Officer Jason Smythe was out to get her. It wasn’t just that he was always watching her. That was a common response of men and more than a few women since she had turned thirteen. Her five foot two inch body was shapely and supple. She stretched now, like a cat, enjoying the feel of muscles across muscles, sliding smoothly beneath her warm tan skin.

No, there was something else about Jason Smythe. He wasn’t after a roll in the sheets. He was out to destroy her, not just to get laid. He resented her intelligence and her ability. Her mere existence proved his inferiority and he couldn’t stand that. In a moment of flash clarity, she knew that she had to get him before he got her.

∞∞∞

Sir Jason Smythe looked on as Rating First Tom Tucker used his interface to control the bot that was on the hull, working on the amidships C wing. There was a valve that was sticking as the magnetic bearing weakened on the back stroke, if the timing hit just wrong. In space, magnetic bearings were standard. Anything else tended to vacuum-weld parts. In this case, the magnetic field was weaker than it should have been and out of balance, so the rotator shifted to touch the cup. It wasn’t much of a touch, but at a hundred rotations a second it was enough to cause a flutter and over time would wear away the joint and cause worse problems.

“Watch that,” Jason said. The crew was sloppy and he had to keep an eye on them. He’d been tempted to do the repair himself, but that wasn’t an officer’s job.

Tucker muttered something that Jason chose not to hear and made an adjustment. Jason was a belted knight in the Drake Combine, which was more social rank than anyone else on this tub.  Even Captain Hickam was only an esquire. That gave Jason a special responsibility to make sure that the lower orders were kept on their toes.

He thought about Rosalyn Flatt. The third officer was a cute little number, blond and blue eyed, just the way he liked them, and he figured that with a little more pressure she would yield readily enough. It wasn’t like she had any other options, him being who he was, and her being a half-caste and born on the wrong side of the blanket to boot.

“Caste” had nothing to do with ancient India or any other Earth nation. But for generations the upper echelons of the Drake Combine had been availing themselves of genetic mods. While still fertile with normal humans, they were—Jason was convinced—clearly superior. Yes, a few more “accidental” touches and Rosalyn would get the message. But these things needed to be done carefully.

That was half the fun.

“All right, Tucker. Bring in the droid and see that it’s put in the queue for maintenance.”

Three Hours Later

Rosalyn took a last hit of flash and headed for the bridge. The Brass Ass had a long, narrow structure, little more than girders separating three sail nodes. The hull held atmosphere from bow to stern, but not much more. It had algae tanks for oxygen, but no other hydroponics. It carried the food the crew ate and would off load waste when they got back to a port. The waste was valuable feedstocks for the hydroponics of many stations. The three sail nodes held the sail rigging and the quarters for the crew. The bridge was in the forward section of the ship, a design decision that had much to do with status and little to do with practicality. With the Hind underway, Rosalyn had to climb in a full standard gravity from her quarters in the stern sail nodule to the bridge located in the bow nodule. Rosalyn was in good shape and it wasn’t that hard for her, but it was irritating that Captain Hickam insisted that she report to the bridge for her watch, rather than simply having her use the interface in her quarters.

Suddenly, in another moment of flash clarity, Rosalyn knew that Smythe was responsible for that, as well as the rest of the hassles she put up with. It was all part of his desire to kick dirt on her, to keep her from realizing that it was she, not he, who was superior.

And there he was, the slimy bastard. Standing on the landing of the midship node, waiting with a smirk on his face. What was he doing here anyway? His quarters were in the forward nodule.

Another moment of clarity. He was going to touch her. She could feel it even before she reached him. His slimy paws on her hips, on her ass, on her . . . Rosalyn. She slowed and his grin widened. And it was just all too much.

She sped back up. As she was starting to pass him and he was reaching for her, she struck.

Absent the flash, his reflexes would have been measurably faster than hers. But she was flying and, besides, his reflexes weren’t that much faster.

∞∞∞

Jason Smythe was expecting to grab a quick feel as Rosalyn passed him on the ladder. The last thing he expected was a blow to his diaphragm before he even touched her. It took him by surprise, and for a moment he was stunned.

Then he reacted. He tried at first for a restraining hold and a nerve pinch, but she was faster than he realized. She got out of the way of his grasping hands and hit him in the nose. It was supposed to be a killing blow, but he managed to shift his head enough so that the angle was off and the blow just smashed his nose to the side. Blood sprayed the landing and covered his lower face.

Now he was furious. He bellowed in pain and rage. He didn’t know or care why she struck. The uppity bitch was going to pay.

∞∞∞

Second Officer Andrew Watson was coming down the ladder to return to his quarters. He wasn’t supposed to, but he usually left the bridge at the end of his shift even if Rosalyn wasn’t there yet. The captain would be drunk in his quarters by then and that asshole Smythe would never notice. He heard the bellow and leapt down the ladder. What he saw was Rosalyn, who was five foot two, fighting Smythe, who was six foot four. What he assumed was that Smythe got impatient and decided that with his social rank he could rape her without consequences. Andrew wasn’t going to stand for that. He went for the big man.

∞∞∞

Smythe sensed the help arriving and backed away to give Andrew room. Then the stupid bastard came at him. Smythe was incapable of imagining why Andrew would be attacking him. It never even occurred to him that Andrew might think Smythe was in the wrong. That left just one option. Mutiny. It was a coordinated attack. He swung Andrew between himself and Rosalyn, and opened his interface.

“Mutiny!” He dumped Andrew and Rosalyn’s IDs into the interface with shoot on sight orders attached. The ship’s computer, an intelligent system but not an artificial brain, had a set of protocols for mutiny, but there were fail-safes built in. As long as the captain was alive, only he could officially declare mutiny.

∞∞∞

Captain Hickam was alive. He wasn’t even unconscious. He was just very drunk. He was looking at the image of his wife and trying not to imagine what she was doing while he was out here.

The alert was transmitted to him and so was the second one, when Andrew Watson accused Smythe of attempted rape. Hickam was drunk and confused and put a hold on any action by the ship’s automatics while he thought things through.

∞∞∞

Rosalyn was on fire. Between the flash and the adrenaline, the world around her was slowed. She stepped back and let Andrew fight Smythe. She got on her interface and called Lieutenant Quinton Williams, the commander of the ten-man exspatio force on the Brass Ass.  He was a crook from way back, but a smart crook, and he had no loyalty at all to the Drake Combine.

∞∞∞

Quinton Williams’ link came alive with Rosalyn’s data dump, and he had a decision to make. He didn’t really trust Rosalyn, but he had wanted out of the Drake Spaceforce almost since the day he joined. He quickly came to realize that even for someone who served well and faithfully, first lieutenant was about as high as someone not titled could go. And it was almost impossible to get a title for service to the Combine, even if it was the stock scenario in holo cubes.

Fuck it, he thought. Let’s kick some ass.

He got on the link and started giving orders.

∞∞∞

Back on the landing at midship node, Smythe blocked a blow by Andrew, who missed a beat due to the shock at the accusation of mutiny. Andrew was strong and fast, even reasonably bright, but he wasn’t that much of a multitasker. He had excellent reflexes and was better trained in martial arts than Smythe ever bothered to become, but for vital seconds he was running on pure reflex. His higher functions were distracted by the fact that somehow he was on the wrong side of a mutiny.

It cost him. He was in the wrong position to respond to Smythe’s elbow strike and was unable to avoid it.

It grazed his right temple and he never even saw the throat strike that crushed his larynx and, minutes later, would end his life. He hit Smythe twice more, crippling blows, but he was already dead when they landed.

Absent an emergency tracheotomy, which Rosalyn didn’t provide. She decided that he was much more useful as a martyr than as competition for command.

Instead of making any effort to save Andrew, Rosalyn used the time Andrew was distracting Smythe to try to find a weapon. It was surprisingly difficult. The Brass Ass wasn’t a frigate from the first age of sail, with belaying pins everywhere. It was a jump-capable spaceship that used drones for much of the work. Lines were tied down, but they were tied down by computer clamps that were hidden behind wall panels. Where was a monkey wrench when you needed one?

As it turned out, she didn’t need one. Andrew’s last blow brought Smythe to one knee, facing away from her. Rosalyn spun, bringing her right boot heel to the back of Smythe’s neck just between the skull and the top vertebrae.  It wasn’t a killing blow, but it did render him unconscious.

That was good, because Rosalyn realized that she didn’t want to kill Smythe until she was sure she had the captain. The Drake Combine didn’t trust its spaceforce, especially the enlisted ranks, so command devolved to the highest surviving commissioned officer, but not the enlisted personnel. That meant that Rosalyn needed to be the ranking commissioned officer.

She ran through the list even as she dragged the unconscious Smythe to the nearest airlock. Captain Hickam, drunk in his quarters . . . he would need to die last. First Officer Smythe, now in an airlock. Second Officer Watson—she looked at Andrew—Second Officer Watson was dead. Quinton Williams was an officer, but exspatio, not spaceforce. The engineering officer, John Boyle, was a warrant officer, not commissioned, so as the computer saw things, not in line of command.

Rosalyn opened up a comm channel to Williams. “Quinton, I can’t do the deed,” she sent, careful of the words even on the secure channel. “Smythe killed Watson and he’s unconscious in airlock 2C.” She paused. She must be extra careful here. “You know the programming in the ship’s comp. You know the protocols.”

What she was referring to was the fact that the person who killed the captain—or, for that matter, any officer—could not be placed in that slot. Someone else would have to kill Hickam, and she would have to arrest and court martial that person. Either that, or hold them for trial as soon as they got back to a Drake base. In fact, it would be better if she could get to the computer without having killed anyone, at least before she assumed command.

The ship’s computer was a large computer and extensively programmed with a lot of protocols, but it wasn’t an artificial brain, so it lacked the consciousness to realize that she was running the mutiny. As long as she didn’t actually kill anyone and arrested those who had, it would treat her as a loyal little Drake minion. Especially since she was from a good family.

∞∞∞

Williams considered. He did understand the protocols, and the smart move would be to have Downing do it. But Quinton Williams was, in his way, an honorable man. He couldn’t, when all was said and done, put one of his men in that sort of jeopardy. If it was to be done, he would have to do it. Nodding his head sharply, he headed for the captain’s quarters.

He used his interface to announce himself and the captain’s hatch opened.

“What the hell is going on, Williams?” Captain Hickam asked.

“It’s all rather complicated, sir,” Quinton said. “It started when Lieutenant Commander Smythe decided to have his way with Lieutenant Flatt.” Williams was speaking to the recorders and the expert system as much as to the captain. After all, what Hickam thought was about to become completely irrelevant. He was walking across the captain’s cabin even as he spoke.

Captain Hickam shook his head in befuddled disappointment. “I hope she isn’t expecting me to do anything to Smythe. His family is very important on New Florida.”

“No, Captain,” Williams said calmly. “No one is expecting you to take any action.”  By the time he finished the sentence, he was standing right next to the captain, who nodded in drunken relief.

Quinton Williams, in a carefully measured strike, hit the captain in the side of the head. It was a touch too measured. The captain was stunned, but not unconscious. Quinton hit him again, a bit harder. He then pulled the necklace from the captain’s neck and stuck it in his pocket. Everyone—well, all the officers anyway—knew about the captain’s pendant and the private rutters that it held. This would be his insurance. Rosalyn would want it.

Quinton lifted the captain in a fireman’s carry and headed for the 1B airlock. Then he sent Downing instructions.

∞∞∞

Joe Downing got the orders and headed for the 2C airlock. He passed Lieutenant Flatt on the ladder, but he didn’t know what was going on.

Spaceforce uniforms in the Drake combine were white with blue and gold trim. It made blood easy to see and identify. Exspatio uniforms were black with gold and red trim. They didn’t show blood hardly at all. Both uniforms were based on the old heavy spacesuits, so they had fabric folds at the shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles, and wrists to mimic the air containment folds of the old heavy suits.  But that made no impression on Joe, in comparison to the blood spatter that marked the body and right side of the lieutenant’s suit.

Joe reached the airlock and, against Lt. William’s orders, looked in. His orders were to cycle the airlock without looking, but Joe wasn’t as dumb as people thought. He looked and wished he hadn’t. If he had cycled the airlock without looking, he would just be obeying orders and he wouldn’t be at fault for anything except for failing to check. Now, cycling the airlock would be murder . . . and he almost didn’t do it. But while the LT would take care of him if he obeyed the orders, there was no way that Spaceforce bastard Smythe would protect him if he didn’t. Joe pushed the button and the lock cycled, sending Lieutenant Commander Sir Jason Smythe, belted knight of the Drake Combine, sailing gently into the void. The cycled lock had very little air left in it when the outer door opened, so it was only a gentle shove that lasted until he got far enough out to be picked up by the wings.

By that time, Captain Hickam was in space as well, and Lieutenant JG Rosalyn Flatt reported to the captain’s cabin and found him gone.

∞∞∞

On her own authority, Rosalyn used ship systems to determine the locations of Captain Hickam and First Officer Smythe. She also reported the death of Andrew Watson to the ship’s computer, making a full and truthful report of the incidents leading to this situation. Well, almost full. She failed to mention her communications to Quinton Williams, and when asked she honestly responded that she told no one to harm Captain Hickam, First Officer Smythe, or Second Officer Watson.

She hadn’t, not in so many words.

Given the emergency, she took command and ordered the arrest of Quinton Williams and Joe Downing.

Rosalyn now owned her own ship. But Rosalyn was no sheep of a trader and the Brass was no cargo ship. No. Rosalyn would hunt merchants.