Authors: Tobias S. Buckell
“We look like passengers?” Grenada clambered over the door and dropped to the bulkhead ten feet below.
“End over end going to flush out our infiltrator?”
“Slow him down, force the passengers up into central for the head count.” She bit her lip and listened to the distant voice again. “My boys looking for the final few passengers. Once they fully round up, then you and me, we make we move.”
“Thanks for rearming me.”
“You want in?” Grenada tapped her ear.
Pepper shook his head. He had no capacity to network in. Yes Grenada and her friends, as well as any given passenger or crew on this ship could share and see information laid over the world, but a chipped optic nerve with a network connection could be hacked.
“You remain pure.” Grenada smiled. “No accessing the Ragalamina for you.”
“Satraps ruined that for me.” Pepper smiled back. Accessing the reams of data that could be laid over the world around him always tempted him, but Pepper didn’t trust it. Satrapic lamina was riddled
with back doors that let the Satraps hack into human beings and use them as neural puppets.
Even though Ragalamina protocols were human made—custom-rolled, open-sourced, and of fine pedigree—Pepper really, really, did not like allowing anything like that under his defenses.
“Fair enough,” Grenada said. “Even heavy encryption like battle Ragalamina could get break.”
“Your problem then.” He just hoped that if that did happen it wouldn’t become his problem in a hurry.
“So what now?”
Grenada sighed. “Marsden?” She shook her head, frustrated. “Two passengers yet. Marsden ain’t responding.”
“He might be hurt,” Pepper said. “You shouldn’t have sent him alone.”
When she looked at him he regretted it. Here on a tiny ship, with four others sworn to protect the ship, they would be close, a tight brotherhood. “We going.”
Grenada grabbed a rung and pulled herself up.
Pepper followed. “We’ll be walking toward the infiltrator, on their terms.”
She looked back down at him. “You think?”
They climbed four levels up. Pepper could feel sweat collecting in the small of his back. Not a whole lot of effort to climb this, usually, but he remained weaker than normal.
Grenada glanced over the edge, then rolled over it. “Clear.”
Pepper dropped down to the bulkhead with her, peering down into the dark. He pulled out the grenade launcher.
Grenada looked over. “That thing?”
He put a finger to his lips. Something shuffled a hundred feet below them in the dark. A scrape, a step, then a scrape, and then another step.
Grenada leaned over quickly with a UV penlight and painted the area as Pepper tensed. “It’s Marsden. We good.”
One of the men he’d seen back at the cargo bay pulled a limp body behind him by the feet, struggling with the heavy weight. He looked up and signaled. All good.
They clambered down and dropped to the next bulkhead.
“I off the battle lamina.” Marsden looked relieved to see Grenada. “Just like you had train us.”
Pepper raised an eyebrow. “You don’t trust lamina?”
Grenada cleared her throat. “Fifteen years ago, you once had speak in Capitol City and I went and listen. You said if we was using lamina, cut it off when stuff getting real strange. I train them the same.”
Marsden grunted and dropped the body by their feet. “You want strange: the man attack me.”
The heavy man still wore expensive silk pants. But a fleshy structure grew out of the neck and shoulder line: a series of black spikes.
Pepper reached out and tapped the growth with a boot. It disintegrated, bits falling through the grate and flaking off into the air.
Strange. The man’s body had started reshaping parts of itself.
“Don’t touch that.” Marsden moved up away from the body. He kept his distance from both Pepper and Grenada as well.
“Captain. That all the passengers, all the crew,” Grenada said. “Stand down.”
A rumbling rippled through the
as thrusters fired to cancel the spin. A defensive measure worked out between Grenada and the captain to make it hard for an infiltrator to move throughout the ship.
The heavy feeling of gravity lessened, and then lifted completely away.
“Okay. We bringing the body to medical.” Grenada grabbed the rail and hauled it up into the air between them.
“What about contamination?” Marsden still kept his distance.
“Whatever on its back all in the air now.” She kicked off down the rail with body in tow. “If the League want to kill this whole ship, they already done it. They trying for something else. This man, the specialist: first one off the ship. Now he dead. But why go through all that just to poison we all when they could have just blow the ship up?”
They moved into the ship’s hub: an empty core that the elevators ran “up” and “down” when under acceleration. Right now it looked like a half-mile-long tunnel with subway cars, lit by patches of emergency lights, that ran through the ship’s center. It depended on orientation and perception, and what the ship was doing.
No matter which way it felt, with a dead body it became a gloomy traverse. The three of them coasted down its center with the strange corpse.
Halfway through their journey the full complement of lights returned and one of the track cars zipped down the tube and matched their speed. Grenada pulled herself aboard through sliding doors. “Get in.”
The tunnel at the heart of the ship narrowed and they entered the drive cylinder: the engine and command center of the ship. They eventually got out, transferred to a spoke of a corridor, and floated their way down past a series of utility rooms.
Captain Canden met them in the sick bay, sterile lights gleaming off her shaved skull and large dark eyes that matched her skin. After studying Pepper she looked at Grenada. “He got armed.”
“We was infiltrated, and there ain’t none better. Better he packing than not.”
“Don’t like no stranger packing no gun on me ship,” Canden snapped. “Strip his ass down.”
“You just had to ask politely, that’s all.” Pepper pulled everything out, letting the weapons hang in the air in front of him.
Canden twitched and moved closer. She pushed the grenade launcher out of the way to stare him in the eye. “You a passenger to me, same as the diplomats. This a higgler ship, not some tool of the Dread Council. We independent, you hear? Don’t want no hassle.”
Pepper held his hands up. “No hassle.” On Canden’s turf, fair enough. He would go back to the passengers.
A good meal would put this behind him. The issue was dead, literally dead in the air behind him in the form of a corpse. Not his problem. Canden’s. And she had enough stress without some other variable.
He could behave.
“Good.” Canden smiled. They understood each other and she liked that. “Grenada, get him down to the hub, we keeping passengers there until we hit Chilo. Everyone in observation in case anything else funny happen. I ain’t jeopardizing that bonus the Dread Council offering.”
Grenada gave a curt nod.
Outside, skimming away from the sick bay, Grenada turned in midair. “She stress. Sorry.”
“It’s no problem,” Pepper said. “Her ship, her rules. I can abide.” Canden sounded like she’d made one too many wormhole transits out into dangerous League territory and back to Ragamuffin safety.
They hit the central area. Crew floated outside the doors, and they opened them for Pepper and Grenada.
He floated through—she hit the door frame and stopped in place. She handed him a small wrist bracelet. “Sorry,” she said as they shut the door on him. “Just a temporary thing.”
Outside the sounds of the door getting dogged shut clanged throughout the room. The wheel spun down and clicked on the outside.
“Welcome to lockdown,” said a man in an expensive silk dashiki nearby. His graying dreadlocks hovered in place by his cheeks. “The captain figures if anyone else is running around the ship, the sensors won’t be confused by us wandering around. I know you, see you at the Council meetings. Pepper, right? Mongoose command?”
“Yeah, but here, I’m Juan Smith.” Fifty other passengers clumped in various groups, many around the bar on the far side.
“Yeah. No one special or particular.” He sighed and kicked off toward the bar.
Fifty potential problems floated around in here with him. He had none of his favorite weapons. He just had to relax here. While Canden watched to see what would happen.
epper remembered the man in the silk dashiki with the orange and white arabesque patterns as Audley Sinclair, a minor member of the Dread Council. He hailed from an old line of higgler ships. Pepper remembered the call to prayer, the families bowing to the walls of the ship’s hull.
And no alcohol anywhere on his ship. Pepper distinctly remembered that.
Audley recognized Pepper and introduced him to the rest of the group that had tripped out through the DMZ to listen to the League’s pitch.
Deon, Milton, and Edburt all introduced themselves over drinks. They took over a table close to the bar once Canden had ratcheted the ship’s spin back up, as well as speed. Pepper could feel the dull background tremble through his feet as gravity returned.
Pepper had them bring him over a full dinner and a cheese platter. He ate and listened.
“Can’t believe that woman,” Sinclair groused. “Locking us all up in here.”
“Damn straight. As if we regular passengers.” Milton supplemented his grumbling with sips of rum.
“Council go hear about this, for sure.” Milton folded his arms and sniffed. “Next time we take some military, show some muscle to the League. And then we ain’t go put up with no higgler ship captain pushing we all around.”
Milton, Edburt, and Sinclair all agreed, and Deon just smiled. “You all full of it. Ain’t no gunship going out the DMZ and you know it. We don’t need provocation.”
“Damn League needs to know we aren’t pushovers,” Edburt said as Pepper ripped through a steak with a plastic knife on the constant edge of almost breaking. He had to saw and saw to cut pieces of steak off.
Deon sighed. “They know it. Or they wouldn’t have call us up to go see that planet.”
They all looked at Pepper, who froze with a large chunk of cheese
halfway to his mouth. Sinclair nodded. “He in the Dread Council, he go hear about it.”
Pepper looked at Sinclair like the man was a bug. But then, this would be a way to hear more about the planet. “Keep that to yourselves: to everyone else but you all in here, I’m Juan Smith.”
Sitting near someone going incognito, but powerful within in the council, made the others sit up. No doubt seeing ways they might be able to get into his graces and work their way up the hallways of power in the council.
League or Ragamuffin, Pepper hated politicians.
He picked up the steak, ripped a piece off, and started chewing. They all stared until Deon cleared his throat.
Pepper swallowed. “So what’d you see out there?” He ripped off another piece.
Sinclair took the lead. “League found something off in a side loop on the wormhole network. Huge archeological find: whole new race and civilization never seen.”
“Wiped out,” Milton added. “It was this whole planet knocked completely off its orbit. By moonlets thrown at it from a gas giant, asteroids from a nearby belt. Possibly even some nuclear hits to round out the destruction on the surface. Complete xenocide. The surface now is stripped clean, airless, and completely cratered.”
“But that’s not the coup de grâce,” Deon said. “The final killing blow? All that energy kicked the planet out close enough to pass near the sun, where a solar flare scorched the surface clean for emphasis. That the League even noticed anything had once existed on the planet was a miracle.”
“Talk about salting the fields after destroying someone,” Edburt said.
“And this was recent, maybe five hundred years ago,” Milton added. “Whoever was able to do all that, they probably still exist. It wasn’t the Satrapy, even they didn’t have that kind of destructive power. And none of the other aliens around the Forty-Eight worlds could do it either.”
Pepper looked at the plate he held. “You eating that sandwich?”
Milton looked distressed that Pepper hadn’t shown enough awe. He frowned, but pushed the plate over. “You’re pretty hungry.”
Pepper shrugged. “So the League asks us out?”
“They’re freaked out and invite us in because they think, maybe if they show us troublesome New Anegadans how dangerous the universe is we’ll agree to joining the League.”
“They put an offer on the table?” Pepper asked, before finishing the last of the cheese and then scarfing Milton’s sandwich.
“Hand over any aliens we’re protecting, any wormhole manipulation technology and research, and we could be federalized under their charter with some self rule. We would hand over any military ships to them, but keep our police forces. Same bullshit deal they always want.”
Deon nodded. “But looking down on that planet, knowing what could be out there, you think twice.”