An Impossible Price, pt. 3

My Sword & Laser Anthology retreat is over, so I'm back and posting again. Sorry for going away, but I really needed to get my head around that piece!

He handed the tablet back to Dana and opened the inner door of the delivery compartment built into the apartment bulkhead next to the door. Inside he found a substrate module enclosed in plastic, but with no label, just a note. He plucked the note from the packaging and scanned it.

A gift for you and your A.R.U.W.D. - MS

He grimaced. “It’s from Sobol.”

“Isn’t she the one who saved your life?”

“Yeah, don’t get me wrong, I haven’t forgotten about that. But she’s also the one holding the strings that were attached to that save, and I don’t know how many of those there are yet.”

He owed Madeline Sobol big time for getting him off of Haruna, a potentially lethal and uninhabited junkyard world. She’d granted him use of a ship, an act of charity that seemed destined to plague him with hidden costs. Receiving more gifts on top of that sounded warning bells in his mind.

“What does it do?”

“No idea. I’ll have to get it analyzed before I install it. Looks too small to be a vocalization module. Too bad, it’d be easier to deal with him if he could talk.” He could talk to the small bot with no problem, but Aru lacked the ability to speak in return. He communicated visually by outputting text to nearby displays.

An Impossible Price, pt. 2

Dana gave a half-smile and grabbed a couple of breakfast bars, tossed one to him. “Sorry, I’ve been swamped. There’s nothing better.”

“No problem,” he said, the breakfast bar package torn half-open. “It’s better than I’ve had in a while.”

She studied him while they ate. “So how bad is it?” she asked, voice carefully neutral, between bites.

His stomach roiled a little. Felt like his intestines were knotting. “It’s …”

He wanted to say “It’s not that bad,” but the words died on his tongue. “It’s … a lot.” Her eyebrows rose. “Upwards of five hundred thousand.”

It was a curious and disquieting sight. He’d always of ‘watching the blood drain out of her face’ to be little more than a phrase that writers, or maybe morticians, used when they needed to be poetic. He’d never actually seen it happen in front of him.

“It’s really bad, I know,” he said quickly, “but I’ve analyzed it carefully—I had little else to do for most of the trip home—and with Aru’s help, I figure—”

“Aru?”

“He’s an autonomous bot, helps me control the ship. He’s part of the deal. It’s a long story. With his help, I figure—”

Dana wasn’t listening, but she wasn’t exploding with rage, either. She had a distant look in her eyes, calculating. Hope rose in Corwin’s chest; this was exactly what he’d hoped to see. Dana worked in interstellar trade logistics, and he could almost see estimates and predictions running behind her eyes. “I’m going to have to meet this Aru,” she said finally. “Go over the numbers. I assume he has more specifics than you do?”

Corwin nodded and took his tablet out of his pocket. He started to hand it over, then noticed a message alert awaiting his response. “A package was delivered to the Night Star's hangar. I had it rerouted to your apartment.” No sooner had he read Aru’s message than the door chime sounded, and a glance at the door confirmed that the delivery had been made. Curious; he hadn’t been expecting anything.

An Impossible Price - pt. 1

The hatch sealed shut behind him, cutting off the stream of shrill verbal abuse being hurled at him. Corwin angrily left the habitation block and hailed transit back to his ship.

“How did it go?” The message popped up on his tablet as he returned to the hangar. Aru, his constant companion in the weeks since he’d found himself captaining the Night Star to regain his former life.

“Not as well as I’d hoped,” he replied, trying not to let his own anger into his voice, “but pretty much like I expected. She’s beyond pissed.”

“The captain’s cabin is prepared, or will you be taking rooms on the station?”

“No, I’ll stay here. I’m deep enough in debt.” Interorbital Regula Station had been home for the last several years, but living in orbit, while convenient in some respects, was far more expensive than living surface-side, especially in the hotels. “Besides, she just needs time to process. I’ll give her some space and go back later. It’ll be fine.”

Later turned into the next day; he was asleep almost before his head hit the pillow in his cabin. The next morning he made the return trek.

He palmed the indicator, sounding an alert in the apartment he shared. A minute or so later, the door snapped open, and there she was; Dana. Tall and beautiful, rich brown hair and guarded eyes. Well, it’s better than the flame throwers they were last night, he told himself. His lips were a stolid set line and he nodded at her.

She stood aside to let him in. The place was tiny, but felt like a palace next to the cramped quarters aboard the Night Star.

“Where’d you sleep? Have you eaten yet?”

That was encouraging; he’d half-expected more yelling, but her words, while a little sullen, sounded far more calm than last night. “Went back to the ship. No, I haven’t eaten.”

Homecoming - Day 11

“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.

Homecoming - Day 10

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.”

Homecoming - Day 8 & 9

I wrote a bit yesterday but it wasn't enough to post, so I've merged it with this into a slightly longer post for today.

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.