Authors: Colin Alexander
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
I had just finished my day meal in the ship’s mess. Srihani custom is two meals a day, a large one in midmorning, which is the day meal and then a smaller night meal about the time we would have supper. I dumped my utensils and plates into the hopper, turned around and smacked right into a Srihani named Kolgorinn. The meal had been a stew. Kolgorinn had a large tureen of it and the contact caused him to fumble it. He grabbed for it twice as it hung in midair, but his efforts only batted it from side to side. The stew splashed all over Kolgorinn, and a considerable area of the floor besides. The Srihani stood there dripping sticky stuff while ripples of laughter ran around the room.
“You dolt,” he hissed. “You can clean up this mess and then bring me my meal in the bunkroom.”
Under other circumstances, I would have been very apologetic and cleaned it up, whether I was asked or not. Kolgorinn, however, took the most pleasure in baiting me. He was a large, ugly Srihani with hints of Neanderthal lineage in his face. Only a servant would bring a meal to someone in their sleeping quarters. I had no intention of allowing Kolgorinn to put me in that position. Besides, I’d had as much shit from him as I was going to take.
“Do it yourself,” I said. Then I blew him a kiss and turned around to leave.
The roar that followed was only partially Kolgorinn’s rage. From the rest of the room came the same kind of cheer crowds use to greet the start of a game. I had been planning to create a public scene with one of the bullies for some time, but I’d intended to rig it so that I’d be able to handle the consequences. When Kolgorinn baited me, I had planned to be flip and leave him standing there. Unfortunately, I went beyond that. What I had done was the local equivalent of the Italian salute and, coupled with the phrase, it implied something obscene done with one’s mother. I’d just challenged Kolgorinn to a fight, no two ways about it. That was my first mistake. My second was that in focusing on Kolgorinn, I’d forgotten where the door was. I had thought it was behind me, which was why I turned around. In fact, it was past Kolgorinn.
I turned back to find myself confronting one very angry Srihani. He was a real behemoth. I’d have loved to have him for a nose tackle on our defense. He was also directly between me and the exit from the mess. When I didn’t move immediately, he did. He charged me, arms out to grab me with his outsized hands. I ducked, spun and slipped by him, a maneuver with which I’d had much practice.
Clutching air instead of me, he lost his balance, stumbled and sprawled forward on hands and knees. I was past him, but immediately I saw that the accomplishment was worthless. There are very few large, open areas on a starship that aren’t meant for cargo. This is especially true on a warship. Either Srihani don’t like congregating in groups or the crew are, like submariners, a selected population. Regardless, the mess was one of those few areas and it had been quite full. When the fight started, the crew spread out to give us room. The result was two rows of crew standing in front of the exit. They were obviously eager to watch a fight and I doubted they would step aside to let me out. If I had tried, they would probably have tossed me back at Kolgorinn.
The time I took to make that assessment cost me a chance to kick him while he was down. He was back on his feet, looking a bit more wary, as I faced him again.
This time he advanced on me deliberately, the way a boxer works to cut down the space his opponent can work in. Once he had closed the gap between us, he struck out with a series of rights and lefts. There was no finesse to his attack, just brute force, but there was a lot of force. I was able to block the punches, giving ground as I did so, but I had no opportunity to counterpunch.
Usually, if you block a punch with a hard blow against the inside or outside of your opponent’s arm, you’ll create an opening for yourself. Most people aren’t ready for that to happen and that split second, while they are realizing what you’ve done, is enough time to step in and hit them. Even if there’s no chance at first, the blows against the punching arms will weaken them. Neither seemed to be happening with Kolgorinn. The punches kept coming in closely spaced flurries and it was all I could do to keep him off of me. The barrage effectively prevented me from attacking him and, sooner or later, one of those pile drivers was going to plaster me against a wall.
Trying to trade punches wasn’t going to be the solution. With that in mind, I stepped back deeply when he threw his next right, just leaving a soft left-handed block to guard my face. I had stepped too far away for him to reach me with the punch, which gave me the time I wanted. It was too far even for his long arm, but my leg was longer than his arm. My weight shifted to the forward foot and I brought the right leg back around in a roundhouse kick. It was a gorgeous kick, if I do say so myself. It connected solidly with his upper chest, knocking him backward several paces. But he didn’t go down. He spat on the floor between us and checked the motion in his shoulder. I was astonished. I could swear there had been a crack when the kick landed, but he just seemed to shrug it off. Maybe he was high, or maybe he was too stupid to know he’d been hurt, it didn’t matter. How was I going to put him down? Conceivably, I could have tried repeating the performance on his head, but frankly, I had better chances of going back to Dallas and playing football.
That was when Angel yelled, “Hey, Danny, here!”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him toss something to me. I grabbed it by reflex, without really seeing what it was. It turned out to be a knife. Actually, knife is too mild a term. The thing was called a dushuku, a weapon with a six-inch blade of incredibly hard alloy. Driven by enough force, a dushuku could punch through steel plate. Rooted along the spine of the blade was a row of flexible barbs. On the way in, they would lie down flat along the blade. When it was pulled back, though, they would splay out against resistance. You could rip a sizable chunk out of a body with a single thrust.
The sight of the dushuku stopped Kolgorinn in his tracks. It stopped me, too. Angel, doubtless, would have rushed in and converted him into beef stew without a second thought. I wasn’t Angel, however, and despite the situation, I could not blithely knife an unarmed man (or Srihani). Unfortunately, my hesitation was read by someone in the crowd as an invitation to make it an even fight. While I dithered with my conscience, another dushuku was thrown to Kolgorinn. The crowd roared its approval. With blades out, they were assured that blood would be shed. I wasn’t nearly so happy.
Angel had meant well, but he had really put me at a disadvantage. Hand to hand, I had enough training to have some chance, albeit a slim one. I had no practice at all in using a knife.
Kolgorinn slashed back and forth twice at my face, to which I responded by backing up and using my blade to make him keep a respectable distance. Running away wasn’t going to work for the long term, however. After his next swipe went past my nose, I decided to try one of my own. I stepped in and struck out with a backhand slash at his head. It never got close. Kolgorinn blocked it with his knife arm and, at the blow, I couldn’t hold the dushuku. It was gone. I was almost gone too a split second later as he thrust straight at my head. Only a quick duck saved me. It left me unarmed though, and I saw in Kolgorinn none of the hesitation I had displayed earlier. With a broad grin, he changed his grip to hold the dushuku like a dagger and raised it over his head to deliver a blow.
There is a fancy way to block that kind of attack. You step in with your right foot while bringing your right arm up to guard your head. As the crossed forearms crack together, his coming down and yours going up, you step to his side, pivoting ninety degrees. That allows your left arm to come up under, and inside, of his arm and grab his wrist to pull the knife down. It’s a showy move and my instructors had always told me that moves like that were fine for tournaments and movies, but not for the street.
What can I say? We were on a starship anyway, not a street. All I know is that I saw his arm start down and I moved. The block and spin were perfect. I caught the inside of his wrist and yanked down. It needed almost no effort. It hadn’t registered on him that I was no longer in front of him; he was still trying to drive the dushuku through my block. Mostly by his own effort, but its path altered by my grip, the blade arced down and buried itself in his lower abdomen. By reflex, he recoiled, far too strongly for me to keep hold of him. He had never let go of the dushuku, however, and as he pulled back, the barbed spines converted a deep stab wound into a partial disembowelment. Blood flew everywhere, splattering the floor and some of the bystanders. Kolgorinn looked at the blade with disbelief. Then he toppled forward onto it.
I was just starting to feel sick, when a shout cut through the buzz of the surrounding crew.
“All right! Neither one of you moves!”
I looked in the direction of the shout, and found the executive officer, Gerangi, standing with a drawn blaster. That was odd, I thought, since I was certain that he’d been among those watching from the beginning. It was also unnecessary to order Kolgorinn not to move. He was quite dead when they turned him over, the dushuku driven deep into his chest.
“Hvath, notify the Captain,” Gerangi ordered. “You there,” he indicated a group of watchers, “see that this mess is cleaned up. You,” and now the blaster was dead center on my chest, “are under arrest. Come with me.”
My mind was a blur as I walked through the corridors ahead of Gerangi’s weapon. Why hadn’t he intervened earlier? Why had he said nothing about Angel or the one who had tossed Kolgorinn the other dushuku? There was no ready answer to either question. When we reached the central corridor leading to the bridge, he gestured me into a small compartment and locked the door behind me. I could only think that, having had their jollies, they were going to dump me out the air lock and call it even.
They did not let me brood for long. A door slid open in the sidewall and an armed guard came through. With his blaster, he indicated that I should go out through the door. I did, although with considerable jitters, and found myself in a conference room, for which the other was an anteroom. Most of the room was taken up by a doughnut-shaped table that was split into four equal quadrants. Carvalho, Gerangi and two other officers sat at one quadrant. The guard placed me at the section opposite them and then stood behind me.
Gerangi spoke first, addressing Carvalho. “I have requested a Captain’s Court for the examination of crew-member Danny a Troy. I charge that, on a ship operating under Fleet discipline, he has violated the Fleet regulations regarding fighting with another member of the crew and has further violated the regulations by causing the death of a member of the crew.” He touched the table in front of him and the wall behind him converted to a screen displaying the relevant regulations.
I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. We were on a pirate vessel, yet they were going to try me for a violation of Fleet regulations!
Carvalho took his time before replying. He was a big beefy Srihani with a jet-black goatee that he fingered while he thought. I’d never spoken with him since joining the ship, in fact, I had rarely seen him, but it was hard to believe that this was a novel experience for him. Still, I could think of no reason for him to be putting on a show. When he finally spoke, it hardly seemed worth the wait.
“Do you have evidence to support these charges?” he asked Gerangi.
“I have no personal knowledge of the events,” Gerangi replied. “However, several members of the crew were witnesses, although they had no opportunity to intervene.”
Liar, I thought. His comment about the rest of the crew being unable to do anything really brought my blood to a boil. I almost jumped up to protest. Almost, but not quite. On some level in my mind, the regulations displayed on the far wall registered and I saw what they were doing. If Gerangi had seen the fight, he would have been required to act to stop it, or be equally guilty. The other crew members, not being officers, were off the hook as witnesses if the captain accepted that they were unable to stop it. Gerangi was inventing a fiction to clear himself and the rest of the crew. Any thought of protest died stillborn. I slumped back in the chair to await the inevitable.
What happened next, however, was just as amazing. Gerangi brought one of the crew in, sat him down at an empty quadrant, and asked him to describe what he had seen. Listening to him, I wondered if I had been hallucinating. My memory and his coincided up to the fall of the stew. According to him, Kolgorinn had then sworn he would kill me and drew the dushuku to carry out the threat. I had managed to throw him, causing him to land on the knife. I waited for Gerangi to laugh, but he didn’t. With complete seriousness, he thanked the crew member and brought in another one. The second repeated an identical story. Two more of the crew performed in the same way before Carvalho called a halt.
“I think it is quite clear what happened,” he said. I was glad he was so clear. I was starting to feel confused. “I find that, in fact, it was Kolgorinn a Travanna who caused the fight and attacked with intent to kill. As he is already dead, no further action is necessary. Let the record show that this conclusion is consistent with, and reached according to, Fleet regulations governing conduct of the crew.”
I felt like I was gasping for air, but whether from happiness at the conclusion or in bewilderment at the charade, I don’t know. Why would a pirate ship pretend to operate under Fleet regulations? The reality, of course, was that discipline wasn’t maintained on pirate ships, so here the officers had rigged the official account so that the outcome fit the regulations. Had Kolgorinn emerged the winner, would the crew simply have reversed the character roles in the story?
Carvalho was not quite done, however. “Member of the crew, Danny a Troy,” he called out.
“Yes sir.” I stood up. Whether that fit the protocol I had no idea, but it seemed reasonable. In the event, no one protested.
“Although there has been no finding against you, custom holds that you are responsible for any incidental duties performed by the member of the crew you killed. No regulation covers this, it is custom only, so I must ask you if you are agreeable.”