(First chapter of this space-opera is HERE.)
(Warning and Thoughts post on this chapter HERE.)
Level 4 Darkspace
European Stellar Union Jurisdiction
Amsel Warren, near the FGP border
The smell of nine different species of flowers filled Miva’s nostrils as she sat in the freighter’s garden and watched Hichik playing among the gathered greenery. He explored with precision, wings held tight against his lightweight body armor as he wound under the woody branches of shrubs, neck stretched out so he could nose the bases of grasses, herbs and other plants for beetles, rodents or other small creatures. He was very sad to find none, though he had been in ship gardens before and should have known that they were almost always devoid of pests. After making several circuits of the garden he settled for licking the nectar out of a patch of orange daylilies, ignoring the displaced bees that buzzed around his head.
Miva felt like him, a stranger wandering a new land and finding none of what she expected, surrounded by people who seemed extremely disconcerted that she was even there. It shouldn’t have surprised her how strange Terran culture was. After all, Dankar and Terra effectively had nothing in common except for their DNA, and both had thousands of years of cultural history, from numerous nations, that they had writ large on hundreds of colonies for even more complexity. Imperial Intelligence Cultural Training had given her a solid grasp of the basics needed for interaction, but that still left the majority of Terran history and culture as a giant mystery.
Guenièvre, Gwen, had tried to help with that, but she herself only had the vague familiarity with her culture that any citizen did. That was enough to function as a Terran, but not enough to teach a complete outsider what it meant to BE a Terran: who they were, where they came from, what their history was. What Terra was. Things that Gwen understood without thinking about it, such as who the Jews were, what a cow was, and what the Greeks and Romans had to do with half the stories her people told, all baffled Miva even after several hours of research.
Miva happily would have avoided it all, but much of it was necessary if she was to figure out where the beliefs put forward in Gwen’s holy scriptures fit into the reality of Terra. Only after she understood that could she then compare those beliefs to the reality of Dankar.
Gwen’s solution was to take Miva to Earth, where the reality of ancient cultures and Terran history, geography and symbol still existed in their purest forms. Miva could have chartered a fast passenger liner just for the two of them, but Gwen had insisted on doing it her way and Miva had not come to take charge of the woman’s life. That meant a somewhat slower journey aboard a freighter running the standard trade routes, with Gwen working as an extra crewmember to cover part of her passage and Miva riding along as a paid passenger.
Gwen’s work schedule meant that the two had much less time to talk than they would have if they were both passengers on a liner. Miva hated that, but Gwen had remarked that it would give Miva more time to talk with other Terrans on the freighter.
As an Ankadian in Terran space, Miva was unsure of that. Most of the other crewmen vanished as soon as they figured out where she was from. Like Hichik with the bees she had little concern that they might cause her trouble. Diplomatic immunity took care of that. However, the fact that no one was going to cause her trouble was not the same as them teaching her about their people.
Nobody wanted to be around someone from a race with the reputation of stomping Terrans into the ground.
Miva sighed and whistled Hichik onto her arm as a nearby door whispered open. She glanced at the person entering and saw a pale male face with brown hair and features that were most likely European. The accent on the English would tell her more if she could get the man to talk, though she still had to ask for origins half the time.
“Hello,” she said, settling on the simplest greeting.
“Hi there,” the man responded, his eyes going from her face straight to Hichik sitting on her shoulder. “I knew we had an Ankadian on board, but I didn’t know you had a kerchax with you. I’ve never seen one with his own vac armor before.”
Miva glanced at Hichik. His little helmet, retracted in an elegant clamshell arrangement while he had been exploring, had snapped shut again, sealing him in pitch black nadaptic plating that made him look like a little robot. He wasn’t particularly fond of living in his armor, but she kept him in it when outside the cabin onboard a ship for the same reason she kept herself in hers.
“Any kerchax you met was probably a pet. Hichik works for a living.”
Miva checked the man’s equipment while she was talking, noting that his red vacuum armor was a standard design in good repair, the kind that any career spacer would own, and that he had no weapons that she could see.
The man approached within armlength, standard Terran social distance, then twisted off a glove and held out his hand for Hichik to sniff. The intrusion into her personal space didn’t bother Miva, but it was an unusual act for a Terran spacer as most were somewhat touchy about people coming close unasked. It probably meant he came from a more relaxed culture, wherever that was.
Hichik had no cultural inhibitions either and stretched forward to sniff the proffered hand, his helmet parting and pulling back as he did.
“Ahh, a gray one. Cave kerchax?”
“You do know kerchaxes.”
“We have a ton of them over in the Hope Alliance. Came in with the Mrin.”
Miva nodded. The Mrin Republic had had solid relations with the Ankadian Empire for many decades before the Kir Tenz Paradisium invaded them. In that time kerchaxes had become popular pets there, and it made sense that they had transferred to the Hope Alliance when the Terran polity took the remaining Mrin colonies on as a protectorate.
Hichik finished his inspection of the man’s fingers and let his helmet snap shut again. The man put his glove back on and held his hand out to Miva.
“Garret Harman, Engineering Officer.”
“Mivatharek ArKalak, Neralenian Gar.”
She shook his hand.
“Ar…Kalak? Wasn’t that the name of the Warlord who just invaded the ESU?”
“I’m his daughter.”
“Oh wow. I… “ He tilted his head slightly and gaped for a moment. “I have no idea what to say to that.”
“There really isn’t much to say. He was wrong, it is forgiven, it is over.”
He stared at her hard for a long moment, like he was struggling not to ask something. Miva felt another cultural collision coming on.
“You don’t want to talk about it,” he said.
“We Dankarans are a talkative people, but this is a family issue, and we don’t talk about family issues with people we have just met.”
Garrett studied her.
“You did bring it up, though.”
Miva tensed again, flattening her ears back.
“Okay,” he said. “I won’t ask about your giant, glaring family issue. However, you have to agree to have lunch with me and answer all my other questions about who you are, where you come from and what you’re doing here. After all, I have to make sure you aren’t planning another invasion.”
He said it with a smile. A very honest smile. Honest enough that she decided to have lunch with him rather than punch him.
“So, I wonder, about you, not your family, why you told me right up front that you think your dad messed up, but then looked like you were gonna hit me when I mentioned it.”
Miva winced at the fact that Garrett had noticed her flare of anger.
“How did you know?” she asked. “Most of your people can’t read me.”
“My best friend is Mrin. Everything about her is written on her ears. Yours aren’t as long, but they move the same.”
Miva nodded. She had often wondered if the Mrin and Dankarans got along so well because they understood each other’s expressions. She pushed the food around on her plate, steak from the frozen supplies and fresh tomatoes and corn from the aquaponics gardens, and pondered her answer to the first question.
“My people are complicated,” she said. “Even though I know, by the Teachings, that my family is responsible for great evils, when you, someone outside the family, speak against us, my first reaction is to defend our honor. Honor is very important for my people, and if my family loses theirs, the whole house could be destroyed. So, even if I know that someone in the house must be punished for something, my desire is that it be handled inside, where it can be fixed quietly without destroying our standing. If it becomes something for the world outside the family, then there is no telling where we might end.”
“But you still talked about it. Is that usual for one of your people?”
Miva took a bite of steak and chewed on it. Analyzing her own culture was hard. Garrett waited and ate his own meal.
“I think it is because I am a Neralenian. We are sworn to the Empire, not to our families, so it is my duty to consider how my father’s actions affect all the Ankadarul, and not just our house. I’ve been trained to think that way for fifteen years. My brothers and sisters would never have condemned my father’s actions to you, unless they considered you an equal and an ally, and then they would only do so in very quiet conversations.”
Garrett looked like he was thinking about what she had said. She ate some more and fed a few bits to Hichik while he pondered his next question.
“So, the Ankadian Empire consists of the Empress and the Warlords, right?”
“The Kavan Durr and the council of Rakash Durrs,” Miva corrected. “Kavan Durr Beregtola does not have absolute power like your word “emperor” seems to say. She can crush any one Rakash Durr if she wants to, but the council can also remove her with cause.”
Garrett listened, then continued.
“So, one Kavan Durr, surrounded by a bunch of Rakash Durrs. And all those Rakash Durrs are all about their own honor, rather than the empire. Is that right?”
Miva swallowed the corn in her mouth with difficulty. What he had said was unpleasant, but mostly true.
“Yes, you could say that,” she said. “But there are those, like my father now, who think of the whole empire before they make a major decision. There are not as many as I would like, but HarRukora, HarKallan, ArPirik and ArTenegel are all very powerful men with strong families behind them, and their opinions are respected in the council. All of those families supported peace with the ESU, and held their forces back even when Kavan Durr Maktelag told them to join in. Their refusal kept back almost half the Rakash Durrs on the Council.”
Garrett pondered that for a moment, then blanched.
“You mean the war with the ESU was only half the warlords?”
Miva nodded, then smiled a wide smile that showed off her canines.
“Yes, Garrett Harman. The ESU still exists because there were men of the Ankadarul who said no. Aihay does not lack ears among my people, even today.”
Garrett leaned back in his seat and nodded appreciatively.
“Thank God.” He thought for a moment about what she had said, then asked another question. “So what happens now for your people? Now that the war is shut down?”
“Now we go back to posturing, skirmishing with the Targani and your FGP, and trying to maintain our borders against the Kir-Tenz. And my family joins the ranks of those that the Kavan Durr has won to her side with her great faith and mercy.”
“You say “faith”. I want to know more…”
“Gator! I’ve been looking all over for you.”
Miva looked toward the door of the mess and saw a slender, tan-furred Mrin woman with long auburn hair approaching their table. She slid a tray onto the table and settled into the seat next to both of them.
“Mivatharek ArKalak, this is Teska Jzakaneth,” Garrett said. “Teska, this is Miva.”
“You’re the Ankadian. Warlord’s daughter.”
“You knew that?” Garrett asked.
“Of course. I always know who our passengers are. You should meet the workfare.”
Garrett eyed his friend.
“The temp? She works life support and aquaponics third watch, so I haven’t had the chance. Who is she?”
“The stellar who sent this lady’s father back home.”
“Kozi!? That’s Crazy Kozi, the woman who beat the Ankadians back three times?”
“Four, now,” Miva said.
Garrett looked between the two women, then pushed back in his seat.
“Wow. She was catching fish when I saw her. Didn’t recognize her at all.”
“She is like that,” Miva said. “It is very strange for us that we were beaten by a farmer’s daughter. It helps that her father was also a great warrior before he was a farmer.”
“You don’t have an honor pact to kill her, do you?” Garrett asked. “Is that why you’re here?”
Miva narrowed her eyes at him and pinned her ears back. Teska punched him in the shoulder.
Garrett held up his hands.
“I don’t know what I just did, but I’m sorry.”
Miva made herself relax, leaning back in her chair like Garrett.
“It was nothing. You didn’t mean to offend. Just… my family would never do anything to harm Guenièvre Kozietulski. We owe her a great debt of honor. She spoke for my father when no one else would.”
Garrett looked at her in confusion.
“Guenièvre wrote the letter, Gator,” Teska said.
“Oh, that was the same person…”
“He’s a little slow,” Teska said to Miva.
Garrett ignored her.
“I just saw the court video. We didn’t get any reports with it. That’s amazing.”
“Very. But we should change the subject before you put your foot in it again.”
“Not the battle logs again. We’ve been over them a hundred times. There’s nothing fishy.”
“Fishy?” Miva asked.
“Stinky,” Garrett said. “Something that seems wrong. We pulled the logs from a battle to look for anything weird and found nothing.”
He glared at Teska.
“So this is ship business?” Miva asked. “Perhaps I should go?”
Teska looked her over, gauging her.
“Tess, she’s right. It’s ship business.”
Teska held up a hand to stop Garrett and met Miva’s gaze.
“You’re a Neralenian, right? An Imperial agent?”
“Another correct translation is that I’m a nun.”
Teska smirked at her.
“I’ll go with agent. I’d like your opinion on this issue. You might know something we don’t.”
Miva got curious.
“Alright. Nothing confidential?”
“Nothing that would embarrass anyone, unless we find what I think is there, in which case it would be criminal, not confidential.”
Miva perked up at the word “criminal”.
Teska smiled triumphantly at Garrett and outlined the pirate attack to Miva, including the torpedoes that failed to target the freighter and their miraculous escape. Later reports had confirmed that they were the only freighter out of the convoy of ten that made it away.
“And you think these pirates were the Lost?” Miva asked.
“Definitely,” Teska said.
“Hmmm.” Miva thought for a moment. “I’ve dealt with the Lost before. Just a few agents, not their ships. They function as the piracy arm of the Kir-Tenz, even if the Kir-Tenz disavow all knowledge of that. Technically they are a separate entity, but if the Kir-Tenz want something done in another polity without being attached to it, they have the Lost do it for them. This includes most of the smuggling that the Kir-Tenz arrange for. If a ship is smuggling for the Kir-Tenz, either directly or through a Lost agent, then they obviously don’t want their own pirates interfering, so the smuggler gets an identifier to use in emergencies.”
Miva paused, turning the situation over a little more in her mind. “If this is true in your case, it would explain why your ship wasn’t attacked. The proof would obviously be the presence of Kir-Tenz contraband or a Kir-Tenz identifier in the computers.”
“We checked the battle log,” Teska said. “No signals were sent apart from tightbeam to other freighters and the escorts.”
“It’s not a signal,” Miva said. “Those are hard hide. It’s probably some type of paint. Either right on the hull, or laced into the plasma shield.”
“But we looked for that,” Garrett said. “There were no commands to alter the shield or the nadaptic surface.”
“Did you check the automatic executions attached to all your emergency actions? Also, did you do a diagnostic of your shield form under battle conditions?”
“No,” Teska said with a grim expression on her face. “I’ll go do those right now.”
Miva sat in the chair of her cabin five hours later reading the Terran scriptures for the fifth time through. The Bible had similarities to the Teachings, but other documents and scriptures held by other religions also did. It had happened before, on Dankar. All of them had been investigated, none had proven true. The Ankadarul had also found similar religions on other worlds, some of which they had conquered, and other which they had only met.
Some of the most notable examples were the scriptures, songs, really, of the Perthrain Tethri and some of the scriptures of the Thellik Clan of the Targani. The Arillain also had a few, though it was only one sect according to the one expedition. The Kir-Tenz had pretended to, but all their “ancient scriptures” were things they had made up to deceive the Ankadarul. It hadn’t worked.
The Terran scriptures were more consistent than most, and seemed to have more parallels with the Teachings than any others she had read about, but she still didn’t know where they fit on Terra. That also didn’t answer the important question. Kai was Kai, the Creator. If there were similar religions on other worlds, that was to be expected. The important question was whether or not the Terran scriptures were a fulfillment of the Teachings.
That was what Miva had to find.
A knock on the door interrupted her. She told it to open and Teska entered with Garrett.
Miva perked her ears and focused them on Teska, an unspoken question.
Teska nodded in response.
“Found a repeating signal in the shield form when cargo pods are ejected under battle conditions. Also when the engines are redlined. Only shows up on the combat shield, and you would have to be looking for it, but it definitely doesn’t belong there.”
“That sounds like a smuggler code, then.” Miva closed her copy of the Teachings and put her tablet in standby so she could give the two spacers her full attention. “What are you going to do now?”
“You said the other proof would be contraband, right?” Teska said. “We’re going to find it.”
“The code is given to someone who smuggles for the Kir-Tenz. Do you have any suspects?”
“The Captain,” Garrett said. “He controls the ship, and there’s something off about him.”
Miva remembered Captain Jørgensen’s eyes on her when she had arrived on the ship. His lust had been guarded, well hidden, but she had caught his glances when he thought she wasn’t looking. Hichik’s own helmet camera had caught more. Kerchaxes tended to be very protective, and excelled at spotting predatory intent toward their owners.
“Most men are lustful,” Miva said. “But there was something more to his looks. But lust is not criminal. Not in any culture I know.”
“It’s not the lust,” Garrett said. “It’s just… something off.”
“He could just be a perverted man,” Miva said.
“He’s the Captain. If someone is smuggling, he is the most likely culprit,” Miva finished. “How will you investigate him?”
“We thought you might be able to help with that,” Teska said. “Can your kerchax track?”
“Of course.” Miva whistled and Hichik uncurled from her bunk. “I will need the man’s scent, though.”
Jørgensen’s scent was acquired by giving Miva a tour of the operations room. While Miva walked the stations, Hichik acted like an overly friendly dog, gathering big nosefulls of air from the face, hands and suits of the various officers. Miva apologized loudly when he climbed up on the arm of the Captain’s chair to say hello, and carried him out in her hands.
“Did he get it?” Teska asked.
Miva flashed a picture of Jørgensen’s face to the display in Hichik’s helmet and whistled a command. He chirped a response, leapt out of her hands, and vanished midair.
“Active camouflage,” Garrett remarked.
“No. Metamaterial lightbending, copied from the ESU.”
“Do we have to follow him?” Teska asked.
“No. I can keep an eye on him from anywhere. He will find all the places your Captain has been on his own. If he needs to get into someplace locked I will send a code request to your suit, though he is very good at getting into secure places.”
“I have to ask you for some work stories, sometime,” Teska said. “I imagine you have some interesting ones.”
“I get to be there for that conversation,” Garrett said.
“We may have time for it. It could take several days for Hichik to search a ship this size.”
Miva was buried in her research again two days later when Hichik sent a request for direct guidance. He had found someplace he didn’t know how to get into.
She picked up her helmet off the desk and locked it on, shutting herself in darkness for the seconds it took to boot up. Checks started scrolling down the display on the inside of the armored visor, then the world appeared again, this time overlaid with data.
Miva called up Hichik’s link request and initiated a full sensory connect, essentially putting herself in his armor.
He was in a duct, surrounded by reflective walls on four sides with tunnel behind and a grate ahead, structured so it couldn’t be seen through. Most of the vents in the ship had standard grates with concentric dispersion vaning, easy to see through or slip a camera probe through, so this one was odd.
Miva told Hichik to hold still while she examined the grate closure. Most of the vents in the ship had a standard maintenance closure, with a press switch release on the outside and a magnetic release on the inside for maintenance bots. This one did not, which explained why the magnetic tool on Hichik’s paw glove hadn’t opened it for him.
Magnetic resonance imaging showed no metal where a switch would have been, but it did pick up four threaded fasteners, one at each corner.
Screws. Most ships didn’t use very many of those.
Miva wondered where this strange grate was located. Reviewing the previous footage showed Hichik trotting down a hallway, air tracking, until he came to a standard grate.
He went up the wall and popped the grate, negotiated his way through a series of ducts, found the scent again in the middle of an air distribution center without getting caught in any of the fans, then went down another duct, through several open airlocks and finally reached the strange grate he was looking at now. At some point he had started moving very differently, using his thrusters as well as his paws.
Miva checked the gravity readout on his suit sensors. Zero gees. He was in the core of the ship.
The fact that he had covered that much distance through the ducts meant that, whatever was in this room, it was a strong source of the captain’s scent. The fact that it was in the core meant that it was not part of the captain’s cabin or any of the normal living spaces where he might have spent his time.
Miva asked Hichik how strong the scent was.
He responded with five, the strongest rating he had. He usually reserved that rating for how strong a smell was when he was sitting on the person or thing making it.
Miva next asked for a list of the scents coming from the room.
Hichik went through a list of symbols that represented scents he was trained to recognize and selected the ones he was smelling. There was no blood, but he tagged several other body fluids, providing a list that pointed strongly to one activity.
It was possible that she had just found a room that the Captain kept for illicit rendezvous with crewmembers. On an Ankadian ship the smell of sexual activity and the extreme secrecy of opaque, manually-secured grates would have indicated something like that. However, judging from the cultural studies she had read on Terrans, such secrecy was not required among them for anything consensual. On a freighter, off duty personnel, the Captain included, could do what they pleased. The Tara Lane, registered under an FGP corporation, almost certainly operated under that moral tradition.
That meant something non-consensual, or otherwise illegal, was much more likely.
Miva decided she had found something that Teska and Garrett would want to investigate personally.
She told Hichik to mark the place with a beacon and then commed them.
It took four hours for the two officers to come off duty. Shortly before that time came Gwen stopped by and asked how Miva’s day was going. Miva explained the situation with the Captain while she stroked Hichik, presently out of his armor relaxing in her lap and kerring.
“You’re investigating the Captain?”
Miva nodded and scratched Hichik behind one long, feather tufted ear, relaxing some herself as his kerring became louder and vibrated through her.
Gwen leaned toward her.
“What do you think is in the room?”
Miva studied Hichik’s feathers closely, losing herself in the dark and light gray mottling that helped his wild cousins blend into stone walls underground.
“I would rather not think about it. Such thoughts do not make for a happy mind.”
Miva continued to watch Hichik, but she could feel Gwen studying her.
“You’ve found rooms like this before?”
“I find secrets. I do not always like the secrets I find. Many I would rather forget. That happens more often whenever the Kir-Tenz are involved.”
Miva looked up and met Gwen’s questing gaze.
“The world is a very dark place, sometimes.”
“I would say often.” Gwen leaned back and stared at Hichik.
“Would you like something to drink?” Miva asked.
“Sure. Alcoholic?”Gwen looked at the minifridge built into the wall of Miva’s quarters.
“If you like. I paid the steward to stock my quarters with haxwine before we left. It’s always good after a long day.”
“Haxwine would be great.”
Miva set Hichik on her desk and fetched two small bottles from the fridge, handing one to Gwen. She then sat back in her chair and flipped the top on her own drink, taking a long pull. She had had better from her family’s own lands, but the sweet, smoky, vibrant flavor of fermented inhaxahni berries was a hard one to mess up. She could feel tension leaving as the cold liquid went to work. Hichik asked to be picked up again but Miva ignored him and he curled up on her tablet.
Instead she watched Gwen study the green glass bottle in her own hand, turning it over slowly several times. She could tell Gwen was rolling thoughts over in her head.
“What have you found so far in your reading?” Gwen asked, glancing at the books covering the desk.
“Parallels. Similarities. I still don’t understand half of your text, but the moral code is definitely the same.”
“Just the Law?”
“Just the law?” Miva raised an eyebrow. “The moral code of a teaching is very important. It’s one of the ways the scholars quickly rule out manufactured teachings. Things that do not come from Kai always pervert morality in some way. Usually it’s by focusing on justice to the exclusion of mercy, but some examples advocate a false mercy that excludes justice. The Teachings of my people point to Kai as providing a way to have both, a mercy that actually fulfills justice rather than subverting it. If the law is not the same, then whatever solution a teaching puts forward cannot be a fulfilment of our Teachings, as it would not fulfill the same law. The fact that the law in your text seems to be a close match to ours is a good thing. The societal strictures for the people of Israel are different, but the central moral codes are the same.”
Gwen popped the top on her drink and drank.
“Thank you,” she said after a long pull. “Shira sent me several cases of this stuff, but that was two years ago. I think I’ve developed a taste for it.”
“Do you have a response to what I just said?”
Gwen looked down at the bottle in her hand, then smiled up at Miva.
“I’m sorry. I just want you to see what I see, and I’m impatient for it. There is a lot more to God than the Law.”
Miva pondered that, then nodded.
“I agree. I suppose as an Imperial agent I get too used to dealing with it. I am tired of thinking about law all the time.”
“Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden…”
Miva did a quick search of her memory.
“Matthew eleven, verse twenty-eight.”
Gwen nodded and took a sip of her drink.
“I find your people’s teachings intriguing, but I cannot abandon the teachings of my people for them. I know that Kai has spoken to my people. Whatever I find must be the answer he promised to us, not something else.”
Gwen nodded, then reached over and gave Miva’s shoulder a squeeze.
“I know that, and I pray every night that you’ll see that this is the answer he promised you.”
She held Miva’s gaze, then stood up with her drink and made to leave.
“Thanks again for the drink. Maybe with this I won’t just fall asleep when I get to my room.”
When she opened the door Teska and Garrett were standing outside it.
“Ah, you two are here for your investigation?”
Garrett stuck out his hand.
“Garret Harman. It’s an honor to meet you, Lieutenant-Major Kozietulski.”
Gwen stepped back slightly.
“Oh. I’m retired. It’s just Gwen now. But thank you.”
She transferred her drink to her other hand and shook hands with the man.
Miva waved them in.
Garrett came in around Gwen but Teska stayed at the door looking at her.
“Miva told you what we’re investigating?”
“Would you join us?” Teska asked. “It might help to have another witness.”
Gwen looked at the woman for a long moment, then shook her head.
“I’ve been working for sixteen hours and I’m feeling it. Besides, whatever’s going on, I’m not sure I want to be involved.”
“Alright,” Teska said, and stepped aside.
Gwen went out with a final wave at Miva.
Teska came in and stood next to Garrett.
“So, are you ready?”
“In a moment,” Miva said and started getting herself and her kerchax back into armor.
Finding the place where Hichik had left his marker beacon took half an hour, as the room was not listed on the ship’s maintenance schematics. When they finally located it, it turned out to be a small prefab cabin retrofitted into the aft drive section of the ship and hidden behind a false wall. Garrett was the one who spotted the false wall when he realized that one of the engine maintenance passages was a good five meters shorter than the matching passages running between the other drives.
Gwen commed while they were figuring out how to get in and asked them where they were. Miva told her before continuing a careful examination with magnetic resonance, ultrasound and x-ray.
“There are at least three sensors connected to it,” Miva said when she was finished. “Getting it open should be easy, but if we don’t disconnect the sensors we might set off a self-destruct. We’ll warn the Captain at the least.”
“We don’t want that,” Teska said. “We’ll take as long as we need to get this done right.”
Garrett looked at the careful fit of the false wall. There was no crack of any kind.
“This is a lot of trouble to go to. I wonder what he’s smuggling.”
Miva glanced at him but said nothing.
“Nothing good,” Teska said.
Gwen floated up the passage a moment later wearing the light ESU powered armor that served as her vac suit. She locked onto the wall next to them and looked around.
“Did I miss anything?”
Miva shook her head without looking away from the wall.
“Weren’t you going to sleep?” Teska asked.
“Haxwine and sleep don’t mix,” Gwen replied.
Miva snorted and started a closer examination of one of the buried sensors. From the side of the wall that she was on she couldn’t tell whether it was a continuous transmission circuit or not. If it was, then killing it would immediately alert the computer it was attached to that someone was messing with the wall. If it was not continuous transmission, but instead had to send a signal once it detected a breach, then destroying it could prevent it from alerting any security system.
She whistled to Hichik and told him to find his way back to the grate while the others chatted. Starting from much closer this time he was able to make it back into position in the duct in a few minutes.
Miva switched into sensory connect mode with Hichik’s armor and located the screws once more, then told Hichik to grab the grate and hold on and activated the laser on the back of his armor.
Four precise shots severed the screws and Hichik crawled into the room clutching the grate in one paw.
Miva immediately looked around the darkened room in case there were internal cameras that might spot the moving grate. She saw none but still told Hichik to glue the vent back in place. His armor had a glue applicator for such occasions.
With the vent restored she had him do a slow circuit of the room while sticking to the walls. Close inspection showed no cameras or other internal sensors.
Satisfied that her friend was not about to be discovered she examined the contents of the room: several large crates, a computer station attached to one wall with a smooth black device attached next to it, a zero-gee bed with a compression web attached to the opposite wall, an enclosed shower stall with a microgravity generator underneath in one corner and a minifridge with a microwave in the other. The bed looked like it could probably reconfigure into a chair facing the computer.
Miva told Hichik to move closer to the cabin door. A moment of examination confirmed that it had no sensors on it. The hinges indicated that it would open in. She had Hichik open it, a feat that meant he had to anchor his hind feet to the cabin wall next to the latch while he worked the handle with his front feet. With the door open he moved through to the fake wall, which was set half a meter away from the wall of the cabin.
It only took a moment for Miva to locate the wires heading back to the box of the security system, making her question about the sensor moot. She had Hichik connect directly to the security system and the hacking suite in her armor’s computer quickly broke into it. As soon as she had control she switched off the protections and released the nanoseal around the edges.
Miva pulled the wall open and the others went quiet.
“This is what I do for a living,” she said.
Once inside the cabin Miva whistled Hichik onto her shoulder and did another careful scan for any embedded explosive devices. She found nothing except what looked like a Faraday cage embedded in the plastic material forming the cabin walls. The signal blocking made sense as yet another way to keep the room hidden.
“I don’t think there is anything here that will blow us up if we make a misstep.”
“That’s a relief,” Garrett said.
“Can we see what’s in the crates?” Teska asked.
Miva glanced at the crates.
“I’ll check them first.”
After a moment she determined that the crates were just crates, reinforced plastic with a faint metallic content to add some protection for the contents, and pulled off the lid to look in one.
Holographic data disks, each roughly palm sized and about a centimeter thick, able to contain incredible amounts of data and deliver it at unimaginable speeds.
She looked to the black oblong device hanging on the wall next to the computer terminal and recognized it as a reader for the disks. Underneath the reader she saw a small shining disk hanging on a peg, attached to the reader by a long cable.
A star connector, for linking into the most common form of nervous system splice in the Terran Sphere.
She nodded to Teska.
“The crates are safe, I think. This one has holodisks in it. The thing on the wall is a sensory rig for playing them. I’ve seen ones like it before.”
“Why a sensory rig hidden away in here?” Gwen asked.
Teska said nothing as she quietly took inventory of the crates in the room.
Miva also stayed silent as she moved to the computer. Trying to access it told her it was locked biometrically, a hard thing to get past without the Captain himself present. She searched around the outside and found an optical line running into it. She pulled a splicing kit out of an armored pouch on her thigh and patched into the line.
It took a full minute and some direct oversight, but her suit computer was able to break into the computer through the open line and unlock it from the inside. Before she looked at the contents she checked what the incoming line was for.
Camera feeds, from all over the ship.
Camera feeds showing the inside of people’s cabins.
Miva switched the computer on and looked for recently viewed files. After a moment she located a number of videos that had been watched multiple times in the last few weeks. She opened one with her cabin number on it and saw what she expected: herself in the shower.
“Oh my God!” Garrett said.
Miva glanced behind her and saw Garrett looking pointedly at the wall opposite the computer. She felt a flush of embarassment but quashed it.
“I’ll step outside and let you ladies do the investigation,” Garrett said.
“No,” Miva said. “You take the crates out one at a time and move them out of this section. They are probably evidence and should be kept safe.”
Garrett agreed and began shifting the crates out of the cabin.
Gwen cursed softly in French when she saw what was on the screen. “This is terrible. I apologize for my people.”
“It’s not your fault, and it will probably get worse than this,” Miva said.
Teska took over the computer from Miva and quickly checked through the other videos, finding ones for herself, Jennifer and most of the other female crewmembers. The silence around her became deeper with each new violation she found.
Miva left Teska to examine the computer and checked on the sensory rig, finding that it already had a disk loaded in. She did not want to see what she was certain she was going to see, but the procedures she was trained in demanded that she confirm the contents.
Miva took her helmet off, unlocked her armor’s nerve connector from the black nadaptic connection disk on the back of her neck, and hooked the sensory rig into her nervous system via the star connector attached to it. Although it was designed for the standard nervous system connection used by Terrans, called a star connection because it looked like a segmented compass rose set in an obsidian disk two centimeters across, Miva’s nadaptic connector linked to it just fine by mimicking the lower-bandwidth Terran design.
She felt the loss as the sensory data her armor had been feeding into her nervous system vanished. She pressed the power button on the sensory rig and a warm tingle covered her body for an instant as it booted up.
As soon as the rig finished booting and loaded the disk inside a display appeared on the top listing the contents by name. Miva saw folders named after regions of the Terran Sphere, the Ankadian Empire, the Perthrain Federation and the Kir-Tenz Paradisium. She opened the folder for one of the FGS/Kir-Tenz border sectors in the Terran Sphere and saw more folders named with dates. Inside those were numbered files. Each file had a list of tags attached to it indicating specifics about the contents, starting with what looked like names.
Miva picked one at random, steeled herself, and pressed play.
The cabin vanished, replaced by a cold white room, and gravity returned. However, when she tried to look around, she couldn’t, as her own body had vanished, replaced by the sensations of someone else’s. She was just along for the ride.
The air was cold, very cold, and she could smell sweat and fear in the air. Ahead she heard a whimper, and as she lowered her head she saw a young woman in gray vac armor with FGP military markings on it strapped to an angled table. The young woman’s eyes, her wide green eyes, were locked on Miva and filled with fear. Tears filled those eyes and ran down her cheeks. Miva felt her own heart twist in sympathy. She wanted to look at the restraints, to see how to release them, but the owner of her sight only had eyes for the terror on the young woman’s face.
Miva felt her hand grip the hilt of a knife and her thumb flick the power switch. A faint hum filled the room. The knife came up and she saw that it was a short sonic utility-blade, the kind that could cut through fullerene fabric. Used right it could strip the plates off a suit of vac armor piece by piece.
Miva felt the growing pressure of physical arousal as she started forward.
She killed the connection and ripped the star connector off her neck. The cabin reappeared around her and she was back in her own body again. Nausea surged up in her stomach and she fought to not throw up.
“What was it?” Teska asked, watching Miva with a dead expression.
Miva took several deep breaths and tried to put herself back together before answering. It took her a moment to find the words in English.
“Rape,” she said at last. “Kir-Tenz pirate filth.”
She stepped away from the sensory rig and looked around the rest of the room to pull herself further into her immediate surroundings. She saw Gwen watching her quietly.
“Are you alright?” Gwen asked.
“I’ve seen it before,” Miva said.
“I don’t know how your people treat this, but for my people, smuggling this gekat is a capital offense.”
“I know we don’t execute for it, but I also know that it’s very illegal,” Gwen said. “People usually go to jail for this.”
Miva looked back at the sensory rig and saw Teska searching through the list of files. She stopped on one, stared at it for a long moment, then turned and propelled herself out of the room. Garrett was just coming in again and she shot past him without saying a word.
“What’s going on?” he asked as he watched her go.
Miva looked at the screen and saw that Teska had been looking at the recently viewed files list. The one she had selected only had a number as its name, like all the others, so Miva checked the tags instead to see what was in it.
“Teska Jzakaneth” headed the list of phrases.
Teska didn’t know what emotion she was feeling as she navigated the passageways at speed. If she had been in control of it, she probably would have called it rage, but at that moment the emotion itself was in charge, and it wasn’t the kind for self-examination. Passageways passed without notice, familiar faces stared unrecognized. Teska launched up into the gravity of the living sections without pause and powered through the halls to the operations room with long strides. The door slid open as she approached and a few heads glanced up from consoles.
Captain Jørgensen glanced at her with a quick head to toe, pausing at key points, and looked back to the front of the room, resuming his study of the main plot.
He had no helmet on.
Teska opened her mouth.
“You fat filthy piece of slime!”
Jørgensen turned her way and she continued speaking, vile horrible words pouring out of her in a terrible, calculated flood. Most of what she said she didn’t even hear, but Jørgensen heard, and his face showed first surprise, then horror, then a growing rage in response.
He rose from his chair and turned to her full on, his face contorted. Ugly. Hateful.
Teska’s head exploded with the slap, even through her helmet.
For a moment her world whirled. She stumbled back, her tail lashing until she found her balance.
Then she was on him. Right cross, uppercut, instep stomp, right cross again.
He fell back across his chair, dazed by three doses of fullerene knuckles right to his head. She folded the fingers on her right hand into a half-fist and lunged in to crumple his throat with her middle knuckles.
Something slammed into her side and threw her down.
A heavy weight fell on her a moment later. Powered limbs folded her into a wrestling hold and pinned her to the floor.
Someone yelled in her ear. She couldn’t tell what they were saying. She didn’t care. She kicked at the weight, tried to flip it off her, almost bit at the gauntlet pressed against her armored chest.
“Knock it off, Jzakaneth!” a woman yelled.
Teska struggled harder. The women were the worst.
“Teska, calm down!”
Garrett appeared in her field of vision, lying down on the floor in front of her.
She knew Garrett. She could trust Garrett.
“He’s going to jail, Tess. You don’t need to do anything!”
She stared straight into Garrett’s eyes, trying to process what he was saying as he continued talking.
Slowly sense returned. She was in the operations room. People were yelling all around her. The arms belongs to someone in powered armor.
Actual powered armor. She wasn’t going to win a wrestling match with that.
“I’m okay,” she said at last, her voice a croak. Her throat hurt like she had been screaming.
“Can I let you go?” the woman holding her asked.
Gwen. The big name ESU stellar.
“I won’t do anything.”
Gwen loosened her hold.
At the same moment an alarm blared and the lights in the operations room flashed to red.
“Code three fire in main drive, section 14,” The computer announced on loudspeakers and suit comms. “Code three fire in main drive, section 14. Damage control teams report to section 14 immediately.”
“Miva!” Gwen yelled. The weight bounced off Teska and the big woman ran out of the operations room.
Teska watched her run, saw others run out after her. She relaxed onto the deck. Other people would handle the problem. She was exhausted.
The fire registered in her brain.
“The disks! He’s burning the disks!”
Garrett shook his head.
“It should be okay. I moved it all to another section. He wouldn’t blow the ship up while he’s on it. Come on. Sit up.”
The laser pulse caught Garrett in the back left shoulder and exploded out through the front into the deck. His eyes went wide with shock and he collapsed. Teska looked up as Jørgensen approached with a heavy beam pistol in his right hand.
Before she could react he shot her in the cheek and she felt the electromagnetic agony of a stun shot explode through her head. Her world went black for an instant, her ears rang and her muscles went limp. When her vision came back she couldn’t see well out of her left eye and her right eye wouldn’t focus.
Someone grabbed the rescue-handle on the back of her armor and pulled her up into a choke hold to drag her by the neck. It had to be Jørgensen but she couldn’t get her eyes to move right. She couldn’t think straight, either. A pressure against her right temple had to be the barrel of his gun.
“I am leaving this ship and no one is stopping me,” he yelled to everyone remaining in the operations room.
No, she thought. No. Not again. Never again!
She struggled weakly, trying to drag his arm away from her throat as he pulled her backward toward the emergency elevator running to the shuttle bay. He pulled his gun hand back and smashed her in the face with the spine of the pistol, jogging her head and making it even harder to think.
She lost ground, heard the elevator doors open behind her.
“We’ll have plenty of time to talk about whether or not I’m man enough to have you while we look for my employers, Jakaneth”
She elbowed him weakly in the side and he pressed the muzzle of the gun to her temple.
“Do it, pig,” she said, struggling to get the words out.
He laughed and dragged her the rest of the way onto the elevator.
The doors started to close.
No. Please God, no! Please!
The door stopped, opened.
“What…” Jørgensen said, then yelled and started shaking his gun hand.
Teska barely made out a faint distortion clinging to his arm. Then the powercell ejected from the gun.
Twin lightning bolts connected Jorgensen’s head to a point in the air four meters outside the elevator and one and a half meters above the deck, flickering with a rapid-fire crackle for a full three seconds.
When the lightning vanished the man collapsed and Teska fell against the inside of the elevator. Miva appeared out of thin air a moment later, her right fist still aimed at Jørgensen and displaying the extended prongs of the electrolaser built into her gauntlet. Miva whistled and Hichik appeared inside the elevator and leapt up onto her shoulder.
Teska leaned against the side of the elevator and watched as Miva approached and nudged the fallen man with her boot. He groaned and looked up at her and Miva stared down at him without lifting her opaque visor.
“Arson aboard a spacecraft, assault, attempted manslaughter, attempted kidnapping, attempted murder, plus several thousand counts of smuggling and illegal surveillance.” Miva reeled off the list of his crimes with a cold voice, precise and impassive. “You, Captain Jørgensen, are going away for a long time, and I am looking forward to it.”