“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.