Çrom Skelliglyph strolled onto the bridge as they once again ended communication with the furious – or pretending-very-convincingly-to-be-furious – Captain Dool. The Captain of the A-Mod 400 was crisp-uniformed and bright-eyed, and at least wasn’t holding a cocktail in his hand like he had been last time they’d had a ship-to-ship contact situation.
“Captain,” W’Tan said, rising to her feet and looking down on the smiling, youthful human. “I trust that if we are about to take part in a diplomatic incident, all the relevant information will be forthcoming before I have to write my report.”
“If we’re all sitting around and writing reports once this is all over, it won’t have been much of an incident,” the Captain said, “will it?” he dropped into the command chair and glanced up at the towering Molran.
“Official protocol requires the Captain to come to the bridge immediately at the onset of potentially hostile situations,” W’Tan said, “and since we were not informed of an anticipated rendezvous here, this seemed to meet those criteria.”
“You were doing fine,” Skell told his tight-nostrilled XO. “Besides, you joined this crew on the understanding that you’d be getting more hands-on command experience to add to your Corps credentials.”
“In this specific case, a mere Commander addressing a Captain was sufficient to cause at the very least a fabricated pretext for offense,” W’Tan said, “which might have been avoided had we known there was a Noro Metak buccaneer on board.”
“Heck, if I’d known there was a Noro on board I would have taken a shuttle over there,” Skell replied. “They always have the most fantastically-stocked kitchens.”
“The Black Honey Wings is hailing us again,” Segunda announced.
“And their mini-whorl guns are touching black,” Barducci added, watching his external close-ups as a row of four ports along the starship’s spindly arm opened to admit the rounded snouts of her Godfire cannons.
“Fine, put him back on,” Skell sighed, tapping at his console distractedly. He looked up as the Noro’s great grey-brown mottled face reappeared. “Howi,” he greeted his fellow Captain.
Here we go, Drago thought, readying his usual assortment of battle command shortcuts.
“You are Captain?” Dool demanded.
“You see this, Captain?” the huge Noro snarled, lifting a necklace out of his armour between a pair of thick, gnarled fingers. He rattled the little white squares strung along it. “These are human teeth.”
Skell leaned forward for a closer look at his monitor. “Really? If they’re human teeth, you must be about four feet tall and sitting really close to the video transmitter,” he settled back again. “No, from the size and shape of them, I’d say some huckster sold you a necklace of Foggle tiles at a second-rate Chrysanthemum bazaar.”
Dool glared down at the necklace with his tiny red eyes, then dropped it back into the wide neck of his uniform and shifted back to an angry bellow. “Your crew lack diplomacy!”
“Aw,” Skell said with wide-eyed sincerity. “You gonna cry?”
“I – what did you say?”
“Don’t shit in my lap and tell me it’s a napkin,” Skell snapped. “I was listening to our recent conversations and if you’re even remotely offended by any of it, then you ought to put a bag on your nose.”
Put a bag … ? Drago marvelled as Captain Dool spluttered impotently. Barducci glanced across at W’Tan. The Commander had taken her usual station, and she returned his look with one of distinct not-a-God-damn-clue-ness. Where does he even get these insults from? he wondered, turning back to study the screen where Dool was visibly swelling. And how do they always work?
“I was not offended!” Dool roared. “It would take more than a grodl and an odlakka to offend me! But I demand respect!”
Odlakka, at least, was a Noro word Barducci was familiar with. It had been one of the first words they had learned, actually, from what appeared to be the most widely-spoken Noro language. It meant long monkey. The Noros had been as amused to learn humans were descended from apes as the humans had been to discover the Noro Metak had evolved from some type of extra-terrestrial bovidae.
“And you thought flashing your scary necklace of Foggle tiles was the best way to get our respect?”
“Stop saying they are Foggle tiles!”
“Respect is earned, Captain Dool,” Skell said. “I gather you are unwilling to release your suppressor-lock on us before we establish our AstroCorps mandate. Even if that means risking all sorts of unpleasantness.”
“There will be no unpleasantness unless you start it,” Dool growled in some semblance of a conciliatory tone. “If your tags check out, we will part with respect and we shall each continue our missions.”
Çrom, meanwhile, had idly tapped out a message and swept it discreetly across to Barducci’s station, all under the guise of being insultingly inattentive to the Noro Metak Captain.
– – – How hard can they hit us with those guns before we take them down? – – –
Barducci blinked at the message before tapping a reply. – – – Are you serious? Our mini-whorls aren’t even pointing at them. They could take us apart before we got ourselves turned around. – – –
“How about you release us from your illegal suppressor,” Çrom was saying, “and then we’ll transmit our identity and mission profile?”
“You will run.”
“You think we can activate our relative drive – this close to your ship – before you can reactivate your suppressor? Captain, I appreciate the compliment, but we’re not that slick.”
– – – What about with the light ordnance? – – – Çrom’s next message flashed.
Drago shook his head. – – – All that would achieve would be that it’d get that big bastard over there legitimately pissed at us. – – –
“Nothing is guaranteed, between the stars,” Dool replied. “You may have tricks.”
“Oh, we most assuredly have tricks, Captain Dool. But what if I give you my word that we will not run – that we will give you the information you require freely, when we are no longer being coerced? AstroCorps do not take kindly to being intimidated. It is a matter of policy.”
– – – What about a dark flounder right down each of those gun ports? You can flick them their way using the catchers on the far side of the ship, they won’t see a thing. – – –
– – – Yeah, good idea – – – Drago tapped furiously. – – – While I’m performing miracles of unguided freeform marksmanship, how about I put a toffee in an airlock and then decompress it so it shoots right up Dool’s pee-hole? – – –
Skell glanced across at Drago’s console, eyebrows raised, before going back to his own tapping. – – – If you think that’ll help… – – –
“Your word does have meaning here, Captain,” Dool was careful to point out, “but trust is also earned.”
“The whole point of the AstroCorps institution is inherent trust,” Skell said, patting his chest. “Trust in the AstroCorps uniform, built up over centuries.”
– – – How are the subluminal engines? – – – Çrom’s next question appeared on Drago’s console a moment later. Drago felt his stomach turn over.
– – – What can I tell you that will stop you from giving the order I think you’re about to give? – – –
“None of that trust applies automatically to anyone who just says they are AstroCorps,” the Noro was insisting. “And if AstroCorps do not take kindly to being intimidated, they take even less kindly to being stolen from.”
Skell grinned. – – – Just tell me when the flounders are thirty seconds out. – – –
“I appreciate that viewpoint, Captain, I do – but I cannot, as an officer of AstroCorps, show any sign of weakness or capitulation under duress from an external armed force. If you had arrived here and simply made peaceful contact with us, I would not be in this particular bind. And naturally once you remove your suppression, we will all be the best of friends again. But I cannot oblige you in these circumstances. You understand the precedent it would set, if all of these symbols meant nothing and a starship had free rein to prey upon any vessel smaller than it.”
“We are not here to undermine the very fabric of interstellar commerce!” Dool exclaimed. “We are attempting to establish the credentials of a suspected criminal, and releasing our suppressor is a tactical risk we cannot take given how likely it is that a starship thief would simply take the opportunity to flee into soft-space!”
Skell and Dool reparteed on around the point, the Noro once again growing increasingly frustrated and shouty even as his self-control slipped and his vocabulary grew paradoxically larger, shedding the ‘simple, short-tempered buccaneer’ act in favour of ‘shrewd, short-tempered tactician’. Barducci, in the meantime, sweated and adjusted the emergency catchers to throw completely dark explosive charges, rather than to catch incoming debris. Without any of the guidance or correction systems that would make the flounders clearly visible to the Black Honey Wings’s defences, and actively blind the Black Honey Wings‘s own catchers … it was like building four robotic trebuchets, then firing them all perfectly the first time and getting a set of one-foot-across rocks into a set of gaps that couldn’t be more than three or four feet across between each mini-whorl gun and its port. From a distance of almost a mile.
The computer helped considerably, of course, but the Black Honey Wings wasn’t big enough to have a synthetic intelligence on board and so the A-Mod 400’s computer still needed to be told a lot of things. All in all, that might have been for the best. A pair of synth nodes chattering to each other would probably have brought this whole thing to an end by now.
Finally, though, he was ready and the catchers whipped gently and undetectably along the hull, flinging the tiny dark-grey warheads across the intervening space. He waited, and then flicked across the note he’d previously keyed up.
– – – Thirty seconds. Whether they actually hit anything, I want on the official record, is not something I want to bet our lives on. – – –
Skell sighed dramatically. “You’ve convinced me, Captain Dool. If you will swear on your honour to uphold the dignity and respect of AstroCorps, I believe we can bend this once and send you our official mission tags and idents, while pretending we are just sitting here of our own free will.”
“Very good, Captain Skelliglyph! You do your people much credit.”
“Stand by,” Çrom gave Segunda a nod.
“Comms deactivated, Captain,” Segunda reported.
“Very good, Mister Segunda,” Skell turned towards Drago. “Chief Tactical Officer Barducci,” he went on in the same pleasant tone, “ramming speed.”