I wrote this one quite a while back and never posted the completed work here; apologies!
“Aru, tell me something. Why did I accept this job again?” Corwin asked his tiny mechanical co-pilot. The Autonomous Remote Unit Waste Disposal robot was his sole companion on the antique wreck of a ship they were flying. Lacking any sort of capacity for vocal communication, it instead sent a text reply to his console display.
“To pay off your debt to Ms. Sobol,” the text helpfully read.
“Ahh, right, thanks for that cheery thought.”
Madeline Sobol had been head of civilian security on the junk yard world of Haruna, a hostile wasteland of a planet with no food, no potable water, and no human inhabitants. Aru had, like all other robots on the planet, been programmed to offer what assistance it was capable of offering to humans stranded and in life-threatening danger. Luckily for Corwin, Aru had controlled a variety of chassis, one of which had been instrumental in getting him to a wrecked ship containing food. Maybe more importantly, it had equipment for communications with the people in orbit.
They were almost a week out from Haruna now, in a ship that Aru’s maintenance chassis had been able to repair barely enough to be space-worthy.
Corwin sat, head in hands, pulling his hair. “Argh!” he grunted, sitting up straighter. “Aru, this is a disaster. Dana’s going to kill me. I might have been better off staying on Haruna.”
“You’d have died on Haruna.”
“Yeah, well, it would probably have been less painful than facing Dana is going to be. Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t have a choice, did I? Of course I didn’t,” he answered himself before the little bot could display a response. “I needed to get off Haruna to survive, and to get off Haruna, I needed the ship.”
“I feel I should point out that we have had this exact conversation before. Several times, in fact,” the bot commented.
“And we’ll probably have it many more times before this sluggish bucket of bolts gets us anywhere civilized,” Corwin said. “I just haven’t decided whether to be frustrated with or grateful for how slow the trip is.”
“I suggest frustration,” the bot sent back. “I’m picking up active sensors reflecting off our hull.”
He frowned, mouth twisting as he considered the possibilities. “Keep track of them. Keep me up to date on what’s happening.” Could be a patrol, which was fine. Maybe better than fine. They might be able to help speed his ship up a bit, help finish some of the most critical repairs they desperately needed. But there were darker possibilities, ones he’d rather not contemplate. He pushed himself up from the console and grabbed a com tablet so Aru could communicate with him wherever he went in the ship.
“Switching to console, Aru. I’m going to check over the ship again, see if we missed anything.”
“My inventory of the ship is complete.”
“Your inventory doesn’t include hiding places in case this takes a bad turn.”
“If you say so.”
Ordinarily Corwin would be happy to defer to Aru on matters like this; the bot had been over every cubic centimeter of the vessel with a variety of maintenance units back on Haruna trying to get it to fly, after all. But Corwin had chosen the old rust-bucket for a reason. It was an antique, and antiques were his passion and his specialty.
The Night Star, as someone previously had named her, was a good 345 years old or so at his best estimate. She was a cargo freighter, smallish by today’s standards, and a very popular design of her time. Ships like her had sailed the space ways ferrying cargoes, legitimate and otherwise, for well over a dozen decades before their popularity began to wain. For a time, they’d had quite the reputation as a smuggler’s best friend.
They were all but unknown now, but Corwin had recognized the design pretty quickly once he got a good look at her, and had chosen her without hesitation. Corwin had chosen the ship for her age, not for her reputation as a smuggler’s ship, but if he was right about her, Night Star might just save his life even in her sad current state.
“I’ve confirmed another vessel in the area. Initial analysis suggests it is moving in our direction.”
“Keep an eye on it, Aru.” The odds of running into another ship after a week of travel were … well, Corwin couldn’t have said for sure, but they were astronomical. Even at the slow speeds they were enduring, they’d still covered considerable distance from Haruna’s system.
He pulled on a mask; the cargo bay had been low on Aru’s priority repair list, and he didn’t want to find out the hard way that there was nothing to breathe back there. The bot had ensured everything was sealed, but that wouldn’t be much help if weak spots had broken into new breaches since they’d gotten underway.
He flipped on the cargo bay’s lighting and opened the hatch. It looked much like it had on Haruna’s surface, if somewhat better lit than he remembered; a large, cavernous space, still dim even with the lighting, and empty save for a few scrounged parts Aru had loaded and the bot’s repair chassis. The arrangement of the bay’s bulkheads had stuck in his head, though, and he made his way over the deck to a particular area, avoiding loose or missing access panels and exposed wiring as he went.
“Trajectory confirmed. Vessel is approaching at high speed and slowing for interception.”
Corwin’s heart sank. He’d better have been right about this ship.
His mind raced with all the thoughts a novice pilot’s brain immediately latches onto and won’t let go of when faced with an unknown ship in the middle of nowhere approaching quickly. He had visions of being boarded by a heavily armed pirate crew and spaced, or having his ship blown out from under him before he had a chance to do anything about it. The Night Star was in bad enough shape that he half-expected the latter to happen even without help from an outside force, so he quickly found himself fighting down the urge to panic.
A quick inspection turned up no sign of what he was looking for. No great shock, he thought. If a quick inspection was all it took to uncover smuggling compartments, they’d be worthless.
“I told you,” his portable display read. “There were no hidden compartments detected.”
“I wouldn’t expect them to,” he said.
A more careful inspection showed exactly what he’d hoped to find, based on his study of the ship class’ history; a series of tiny physical latches all down a rounded corner bulkhead’s edge. The physical nature of the latches made electronic detection impossible, there being no electronics to detect, and the latches themselves were so fine they looked like nothing so much as random scratches from collisions with cargo being loaded and unloaded.
You’d never find them if you didn’t know where to look, and these days not many did. There were precious few law enforcement types around who’d ever seen one of these in operation; Corwin himself would never have known without his access to the archives of the Tau Ceti Institute of Galactic History.
The panel popped open after a few moments of manipulation, but stuck. With a grunt fueled by intense relief, he shoved it open with an ear-rending shriek of protest from the rusty metal.
“Gotcha,” he said, partly to the compartment hatch and partly to Aru.
A sensor package mounted on Aru’s large chassis swiveled toward the compartment. The text updated moments later. “That compartment may not be safe.”
“What’d your scan pick up?”
“Very little. It needs a full diagnostic inspection. The total lack of electronic feedback systems leaves me little I can tell you. It’s literally just a hole in the wall. It may not be environmentally sealed. A hull breach could be fatal, and if the inner door isn’t air tight, it would not have to be a breach of the compartment itself.”
“So I’m probably okay as long as we maintain our air?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“But that’s what’s going to matter if our visitors are hostile.”
The bot had little he could say to that.
“Speaking of our visitors—”
“Their trajectory and speed are both changing. It’s too early to say with certainty, but—”
“But they could be angling in for boarding maneuvers.”
“Is there any extra air on board?”
“Some, but it’s for emergency use.”
Corwin stared blankly at the tablet for a moment. “Aru, what do you think this is?”
“… of course. Forward storage compartment.”
He wasted no time in sprinting for the forward compartment. “How long until they intercept?”
“Since I don’t know that that’s what they intend to do, I can’t say precisely. If they continue as they are now, no more than 20 standard minutes.”
He took his eyes off the tablet and focused on sprinting through the ship, charging through the hatch into the forward storage compartment less than a minute later. Inside were various bits and pieces stacked neatly by Aru’s various repair chassis. He grabbed an air cannister and looked around for a mask.
“Aru? I’m not finding a mask.”
“I’m afraid there aren’t any on board.”
He sputtered a bit and swallowed, throat suddenly a bit dry. “None?”
Straight from the hose then. He glanced at the time; 18 minutes, at best. Food and water, then. He had no idea how long he might have to spend in there.
“Remind me to refit this bucket of bolts with an escape pod, Aru,” he said. It would take up to two, but unfortunately they were missing. He backtracked to the ship’s galley and grabbed a deep pan, tossing the air canister into it. He set the tablet on a counter and began grabbing every container he could lay hands on that would seal and started filling them with water, or with food grabbed from the ship’s stores.
When he had gathered enough to last several days, he paused and grabbed several other containers that he could seal; he’d noticed that there were no bathroom facilities in the compartment. Then he grabbed the tablet and blanched.
“Alert! Advance boarding craft detected! ETA 5 minutes!” Aru had been trying to get his attention—for 6 minutes.
“Alert! Corwin, get to your compartment! They’re cutting through the hull!”
“Where are they coming through?”
“Oh s—” he started to say and growled with frustration and hesitation. That would put them right between him and the safety of the cargo bay and its hidden compartment. “ETA for the bigger ship to arrive?”
“12 standard minutes.”
“Where are the boarders?”
“I can’t help you with that, I’m afraid. This craft has no internal sensors that would help me locate them.”
Corwin fought down a rising tide of panic. He grabbed his supplies and peeked out into the central corridor of the ship. Nothing moved, but a loud metallic clang reached him, followed by voices and footsteps from further down. They were on board.
He ducked back inside. It was too far to rush to the cargo bay; he was stuck. His mind flashed around for a solution to the problem. There were two ways into the galley; via the corridor and through the small space that passed as a dining room or mess hall. Places to hide were few and far between. He wouldn’t fit into the cupboards so he had to make do with ducking behind the island counter that separated the two rooms.
“I’m stuck in the galley, Aru,” he whispered under his breath, hoping the tablet’s audio pickup would catch his words. He hurriedly set about turning the display’s brightness way down. “I’m going to have to hope they head for the front of the ship quickly.”
Footsteps rang down the corridor, and to his relief, they were moving pretty fast. He held still as a statue when the door slid open. He held his breath for several long seconds, then heard the footsteps move on further into the ship. He kept low and moved to the doorway in time to see the backs of the boarders disappear into the cockpit. He glanced back further down; another several figures were moving into various parts of the ship. He didn’t see anyone by the hatch to the cargo bay; at least not yet.
“Ah hell, I’m caught anyway,” he said, and marched out into the corridor. He moved with a purpose, footfalls ringing in the passage just like those of the boarders.
Every instinct screamed at him to move slowly and carefully, to avoid making noise. He forced himself to ignore that instinct; there were few things life as an office researcher could teach about stealthy movement, but one of those few things is that people ignore the familiar and expected. Please, please assume I’m one of you, he thought to himself as he approached the cargo bay hatch. Or better still, don’t hear me at all. That’d work for me, too.
He had his hand on the hatch lever when he heard the sound of boots nearby; someone was coming. He panicked, jammed the lever down and bolted into the cargo bay, then silently cursed himself as the muffled sound of voices reached him.
He was frozen with indecision; if he ran for the hiding space, his supplies would be sure to make noise. On the other hand, noise was the least of his problems if they saw him because he was too slow.
Must move, now! he thought, and raced for the hidden compartment. He hurled himself inside and wrestled the door closed; it made far more sound than he had in his rush, but once it closed with a satisfying thump, he breathed a sigh of relief anyway.
He double-checked that the hatch was secure; it closed and locked fast, and was heavy enough that it wouldn’t sound any more hollow than any other bulkhead on board. He was just settling back to choose something to eat out of his supplies.
“Maybe they heard me, Aru; I’ll be shocked if they didn’t, but they’ll have a hell of a time finding me.”
“They will have help shortly. The larger ship is still on course.”
“Wonderful, thanks for that,” he sighed. He felt better in the hidden compartment, but couldn’t stay there for long. “Aru, what do we know about these guys so far?” He realized he currently knew very little. He didn’t even know their motives, he’d just instinctively, almost intuitively thought they were hostile.
“They’re being very methodical in their search of the ship,” the bot responded. “I’ve overheard several conversations concerning the location of several specific objects they’re seeking.”
That caught his attention; the researcher in him pounced on the obvious questions. “Specific objects? Why would they be searching this ship for them? What could they know about the ship? How could they have found out?”
A wash of new sound caught his attention; the boarders were in the cargo bay. “Why’d they wait so long to search the bay?” he whispered.
“Unknown. One of the intruders is of the opinion that the items they’re looking for are more likely to be found in personal quarters than in the cargo bay. Several of the others disagree, but went along with it.”
They were methodical in their search of the bay, as well. There was little Corwin could deduce from the sounds; the bulkhead hatch was too thick to hear any detail, but Aru fed him updates from the maintenance chassis parked outside. As the only visible piece of cargo on the ship, they were giving it a great deal of attention.
He ate his meal—some sort of dehydrated pasta dish, not dissimilar from the cafeteria foods he ate at work, he reflected—and thought about what Aru had told him, mostly to keep himself calm. If they were looking for something specific, they knew the ship and how to find it. That meant they knew it should have someone on board. They’d be watching for him.
Cold sweat ran down his back as he realized just how lucky he’d been with his gambit to reach the cargo bay.
Madeline. How could these guys, whoever they were, have found out about him and his ship quickly enough to catch him en route? It had to have been Madeline Sobol. She’d helped him out of a jam, but the cost he’d had to pay had shown him very clearly that she was a shady character at best.
“Aru,” he said, then stopped. Aru belonged to her. His stomach sank as a tendril of doubt wrapped itself around his mind. When he’d first met Aru, he hadn’t had much use for bots, but their experiences since then had transformed distrust into friendship. Irrational friendship, he’d occasionally thought. Maybe ill-advised friendship.
He needed information, and Aru was his only link. He’d have to risk it. “Aru,” he said again, spotting the “Yes?” the bot had displayed on his tablet while he’d paused. “Has there been any tampering with the ship’s systems?”
“Negative, with the exception of the repairs I conducted.”
“Has the ship tried to establish any kind of datalink with us?”
“It is not yet within range.”
“When they’re within range, can you send a request for information to their computer?”
The bot seemed to hesitate. “Affirmative. But risky.”
“How much more at risk can we be?” He couldn’t ask Aru directly if Sobol was manipulating or controlling him in some way, but maybe he could find something in these people’s files about how they’d learned where the Night Star was going to be.
“What information do you want to request?”
“Well, not request, as such …” He was falling back on the lingo he used at Tau Ceti. Keep it together, they haven’t got me yet. They were unnervingly close though, to judge by the sounds of searching out in the cargo bay. “Sorry, Aru. Can you access their communication logs for the past couple of weeks?”
“I will do my best.”
“Thanks, Aru.” And I hope you’re on my side, he didn’t add.
With little else to do, he settled in with his tablet and interfaced it to the various data stores he had about his person, built into his clothing for the most part. May as well get a little work in, he thought. It was futile; it sounded like they were tearing Aru’s chassis apart out there. Maybe they were looking for the bot’s central operating unit.
“Rendezvous with the larger ship in approximately 1 minute, 30 seconds,” Aru informed him. He gave a shuddery breath. “Any idea what to expect?”
“More of the same, only with better detection equipment,” Aru said. If text on a screen could ever said to be emotive, then this read as apologetic.
“Well then. It was good to know you, however briefly. I guess bots aren’t all bad.”
“It’s been fun,” Aru admitted.
A strident female voice rang out from every speaker on board the ship. “Attention unidentified vessel. Attention unauthorized boarders of the registered trade vessel Night Star. The Night Star, its cargo and its crew are under our protection. Stand down and prepare to be boarded.”
Corwin’s breath caught in his throat. Protection? He wasn’t sure whether to be elated or more frightened. The ship shuddered faintly as it connected with the other, then all sound stopped. He pressed his ear to the bulkhead, catching the faint sounds of conversation. Their noisy search was over.
“Attention boarders of the Night Star. You have 5 minutes to evacuate the ship and return to your own, now that they have docked. Failure to comply will carry … consequences.”
“Is that Sobol?” Corwin asked in a whisper. The voice was certainly familiar, though he was hearing it through the bulkhead. He couldn’t be sure.
“99.8% match to Madeline Sobol’s voice,” Aru confirmed. Then he popped up an exterior view of the action from an aft-facing camera.
The vessel attached to the Night Star was big, but the small ship approaching from behind was fast, and what it lacked in size it made up for in bristling weaponry. “That’s what she uses for security? That must be military grade!”
“Negative, though it is only one short step below military grade,” Aru corrected. On the display, Sobol’s ship fired a warning shot. It was invisible to the naked eye, and to the camera, but the Night Star’s computer responded immediately with telemetry on the missile volley, painting them with markers and noting course, velocity and acceleration for each.
Corwin realized the cargo bay was silent, and had been for several minutes. He felt the deck lurch under him and saw the larger ship start to drift free of the Night Star. “They’re going for it, Aru!” And indeed, they accelerated sharply, quickly leaving the field of view of the aft camera.
The camera’s image was abruptly replaced by Sobol’s coldly beautiful face. “Captain, so good to see you again, and in one piece,” she said with what almost seemed like genuine warmth.
“And just in the nick of time,” Corwin agreed.
“Well, I couldn’t sit by and let my investment be threatened, could I?” she asked. “How did you keep them from finding you? I got here as fast as I could after getting the A.R.U. bot’s signal, but I had feared we were too late.”
“I’ve come across this class of ship before in the course of my work. I know the layout better than they did,” he said. He was loathe to give up the secret of the hidden compartments to her. She might have saved his life just now—possibly, anyway—but he was still smarting over the debt he owed. He stayed where he was, unwilling even to leave the compartment lest she see where it was over the feed.
“That’s such a relief to hear, Captain Koell. It was an expensive trip to get here as fast as we did, but thanks to your ingenuity, it was worth it.” He cringed a little at the mention of the expense.
“In fact, I’ll tell you what. Since it was in the interest of protecting my investments that we’re here, I’ll keep the expense of losing those missiles off of your debt to us, and only charge you a percentage of the fuel cost to get here. That shouldn’t put too much of an additional burden on you, don’t you think?” Her smile seemed sincere. Her gaze was like a sharpened spike.
He smiled a sick little smile. “Always a pleasure doing business with you, Ms. Sobol.”
“Do try not to get into any more trouble on the way home, Captain,” she said with a smile of her own. “And do let me know when you arrive; I have some work you’ll find fascinating, and it will help you pay off your debt a little bit quicker. You’d like that, right?”
“Of course,” he said, though he suspected they had different ideas about what constituted interesting work. “I’ll contact you once I’m home.”
“Excellent. Until next time then.”
The connection was cut. Aru threw up an alert. “Captain,” he began. “I did as you requested. I negotiated with the other ship’s computer while we were interfaced, and I have the files you asked for.”
Corwin stared at the deck for a moment, then nodded, reading Aru’s words. “That’s great, Aru, thanks.” He spent a few minutes pouring over them, looking for anything useful His researcher’s eye caught a pattern in the ship’s flight log; whoever they were and whatever they were up to, they spent a lot of time in the same general region of space, and if his grasp of the navigation coordinates was correct, it was a region focused closely around Haruna, the world he and Aru had just escaped from.
“Son of a …” he breathed.
“Problem?” Aru asked.
He had no idea if Aru had digested the contents of the files, or even cared what was in them. “Just … trying to make sense of it all, Aru,” he said. He felt bad for lying, but until he was sure, he had to reserve his trust. “Let’s just get home.”
He was weeks late coming home from the bar, had a sketchy new boss, a group of possible new enemies, a friend he couldn’t trust, and had gotten a brand new grand chasm of debt he’d be lucky to ever climb out of. Dana was going to kill him.