Day 42. 160 pages, 75,287 words.
The ship was quieter now, the freefall tumble of her main body and the launching of the escape pods finally trumping the blatting of the basic hygiene alarms and the wandering janitorials. Plus, they’d already been in this direction a couple of times, more or less, and Çrom decided it wasn’t worth the wasted minutes to change their route in accordance with time-honoured infiltration and avoidance methods. Soon they were back down on the recycling level and working their way around to the sealed cabins.
“Right,” Çrom said, when they stopped at the first door that Melvix estimated should open on the secure area. It didn’t look any different from this side, but he could see where the wall panels had been replaced and were slightly open at the seams. There would be metaflux plating underneath – a near-certain hunch that he idly confirmed by tugging at a panel near the door frame. Hey, it never hurt to check. They might have been as lazy about this as they had been with everything else on this ugly, ugly ship. “Door’s locked, obviously.”
“Should be simple enough to find the command clearance,” Blue said, stepping up and leaning over the access panel. “These are cells, and cells are meant to be difficult to open from the outside, but only impossible from the inside.”
“You’d know, Blue,” Gunton said in a tone of fond reminiscence.
“I didn’t hear you complaining,” Blue grinned and glanced sidelong at Gunton, the delicate red wings of her ears dipping and then flaring deliberately. She brought three hands up to the panel and worked at furious speed for a few seconds. “Captain,” she said.
“If you’re thinking they didn’t bother customising this ship since they acquired it, and you want the default executive override codes for standard modulars, just let me know when you want me to enter them,” Çrom said.
“Captain,” Blue said, her tone chiding. “Don’t you trust me?”
“With my life, Persephone,” Çrom said extravagantly. “But sooner or later this mission will be over, and you’ll be off into the grey with the Holy Grail of thieves who like to rip off lazy, incompetent AstroCorps crews.”
“AstroCorps pays me to rip off their lazy and incompetent,” Blue retorted, her fingers still a blur. “It helps thin out their numbers.”
“Some of my best friends are lazy and incompetent.”
“Why am I not surprised…” Blue murmured, “but fine, enter it now,” she leaned back from the panel.
Çrom stepped up, studied the mechanism for a moment, then tapped it five times. “There you go.”
“Are you serious?” Blue squinted. “That’s the kind of thing an idiot would have on his-”
“It’s a default code,” Çrom said. “How complex do you want it to be?” he examined his fingernails. “It is, however, dependent on the AstroCorps Modular Payload database,” he went on, “and is keyed to executive officer DNA from the record, synchronised every time the ship runs into a synth or docks with an official vehicle of the Corps. It won’t do you any good until you make Captain. Which, last time I checked, might be a long wait for you.”
“You’re hilarious,” Blue grunted, and resumed tapping at the panel.
“Handsome, too,” Çrom agreed.
The door opened to reveal twelve – no, fifteen – humans in what looked like a grid of four crew cabins with the interior walls removed. It was a wide-open space with beds in the middle, but nowhere had been out of range of the exploding recycling chutes. There had only been four of them – one for each renovated cabin – but this part of the crew quarters was very close indeed to the recycling plant.
“You poor, stinking sons of bitches,” Constable said.
The humans displayed a variety of light chemical burns, and a whole lot of nausea and the other delightful things that happened when you got sprayed with rancid acidic sewage. Even without this coating of misery, they were clearly prisoners.
“Good Lord, what have these monsters done to you?” Çrom exclaimed in outrage. Melvix picked at the hole Nak Dool had gored in his shirt, the Molran equivalent of choking on laughter. “Come on, my friends. Captain Çrom Skelliglyph of the A-Mod 400. We’re getting you out of here.”
The prisoners didn’t argue, and none of them seemed too badly injured to need help as they shuffled out. One of them, a tangle-haired woman in the stained remains of an AstroCorps Sciences uniform, stopped at Çrom’s side in the doorway.
“They made us eat Fergunakil,” she said.
“Us too,” Çrom said.
“Too much oil,” Blue remarked.
“To the dock,” Çrom said, “the clock is ticking and the subluminal drive is approaching parameter-breach as we speak. Melvix, this is everyone. Everyone, Melvix.”
“You’re determined to make these people my responsibility,” Melvix said, “aren’t you?”
“These people are my responsibility,” Çrom said, squinting nobly into the middle-distance because it seemed appropriate to the moment. He turned, smiled, and patted Melvix on the upper shoulders. “It’s called delegating.”
They herded the retching, stumbling, unspeakably stank-up prisoners through the ship and back to the docking area. They stayed on the same level. Çrom made a brief and low-pressure attempt to question them, and managed to establish that they’d been aboard a small non-Corps private transport from Aquilar to a variety of somewhere-elses. The transport had been too badly damaged to integrate into the Black Honey Wings, and too big to dock internally, but the prisoners were unaware of what had happened to it. Çrom guessed that it, and its official crew, had been left in deep space to die.
Clearly, Dool and his little army had been trying to figure out whether their prisoners were worth anything to anyone.
The Corps Sci woman – not technically full-Corps, but Academy trained and evidently graduated from at least some preliminary compulsory units before moving into whatever balloon-head specialty stream she’d chosen – was named Marley Gazzoon. She was the only remotely non-civilian prisoner in the bunch as far as Çrom could make out through the sludge and the hunching, but she was pretty stunned by the treatment they’d undergone. She seemed to have come into space thinking it would be nice. Like living in the sky, only darker.
Gazzoon did, however, have a good idea for blowing the docks and separating the Nope, Leftovers from the remains of the Chrys spar.
“These sections,” she pointed as they passed by, “have been converted into additional security barriers. Shut down boarders from the opposite dock, have a clear space to … to shoot them.”
“I remember thinking the same thing,” Çrom agreed. “Unfortunately they took all the guns with them when they abandoned ship,” he looked down. “Apart from the guns we took,” he added, “and none of them are big enough to blast this modular off its spar.”
“But they used hull plating,” Gazzoon pointed, “with its backing layers removed to make it easier to cut and fix in place.”
“Yes,” Çrom said, then stopped. “Yes.”
“Captain?” Melvix said.
“Look at it, Melvix,” Çrom pointed. “Those murder-holes are just sheets of that reversible polymer stuff, same as the brig. With its back-plating off. Super-tough from this side, but they can shoot through from the other side,” he grinned as he saw it dawn on the Molran.
“Loosen them in their fittings and reverse their molecular directionality, and they’ll push through the surrounding hull until the polymer overheats,” Melvix said. “And when it overheats it shuts down.”
“And more importantly,” Çrom concluded, “it’ll do so right down in the guts of the docking mechanism where it will definitely set off the emergency disengagement charges.”
“Provided they haven’t taken the initiative of reconfiguring them,” Blue said.
Çrom grinned. “Only one way to find out.”