Day 49. 188 pages, 88,788 words.
“How badly might this have gone for us if those guys hadn’t been the worst bounty hunters in the central colonies?” Skell mused.
Drago looked into his drink. They were sitting on opposite sides of a small lounge setting inside what was apparently an executive escape pod built into the Captain’s quarters. Drago hadn’t known there was such a thing, but he had to admit it was nice. A smoked-glass-partitioned section within the pod fixture was apparently a steam room, but Çrom – to Drago’s mingled relief and regret – had not asked him if he wished to partake. The drink was more than enough for him anyway, for the moment. It was a Black Morkhus, and it was a big one. The sort of size that usually meant you wouldn’t be going back on duty for a couple of shifts.
Not that that was going to be a problem, since Doctor Mays had given him his rest-heal-no-stress-go-home-toot-toot-olé marching orders barely an hour ago. At least he’d had time to send his report.
“Do you think it’s reasonable to assume the Halfmoon has better bounty hunters at his disposal, and that they’re after us?” he replied to the Captain’s philosophical question. “Wouldn’t they have been here, if the throne had been able to secure their services?”
“Well, we’ve only been in the air for a month or so,” Skell replied. “Give us time to collect more worthy foes. Dool was clearly rash. Let the others bide their time. Meanwhile, I call this a pretty successful shakedown for the ship and crew.”
Drago sipped his Morhkus appreciatively. “Sure,” he said. “Good test of our maintenance guys and their ability to replace busted hull plating.”
“It was for an excellent cause.”
“It could have gone really badly for us if Dool and his buddies hadn’t been incompetent,” Drago agreed. “And it probably does pay to prepare for the possibility that there might be longer games being played behind us.”
“As long as they’re behind us,” Skell said, as Drago had known he would.
“Am I ever likely to find out what was on that Fergie computer core that was so important?”
“Of course,” Çrom said in a wounded tone. He had a glass of his own in his hand – that awful Corps-issue half-malt he seemed to like. “It was orders.”
“We get our orders from the sharks now?”
“The sort that can’t come through official AstroCorps command channels, yes.”
“And am I ever likely to find out what those orders are?”
“Now what could I possibly have done to make you so cynical, Brutan?” Çrom objected. Drago just looked at him flatly. “Of course you will. If you don’t want to wait until the officers’ briefing – which was mostly delayed because of your spectacular collection of owwies and boo-boos in the first place, I might add – I can tell you now. We’re headed to The Warm.”
“The Warm,” Drago drew a blank for a moment, then frowned. “Wait, the giant alien cock-popsicle full of weird conspiracy loons and researchers and hippies?”
“There’s also a large Fergunakil population there,” Skell said, “where apparently we will get another set of orders. And before you complain about how convoluted it all is, we’re also meeting up with a Fleet contact and probably also taking on some more crew.”
“Anyone I know?”
“Maybe. Sure as heck isn’t anyone I know, though. Mostly below-deck types. I guess we’ll see when we get there. Always need some extra hands, and we didn’t exactly cruise out of Pestoria Geo with a bursting crew compliment. Can’t crew a ship entirely with ables, you know.”
“It’s never been adequately explained to me why not,” Drago remarked.
Çrom sipped his drink. “I think the prevailing opinion is that if we start using too many ables, the entire human race will just collapse onto the nearest planet and begin throwing poop and masturbating furiously,” he said, “although that opinion may be coloured by too many Molren having been asked. Still, you have to admit that if we all just sat back and let the clones go out and swashbuckle their way around the galaxy, it’d be embarrassing. And the Molren would never let us hear the – hey, isn’t that against doctor’s orders?”
Barducci had pulled out his organiser. “I’m just taking another look at the new manifest,” he said, “those strays you brought aboard.”
“Oh, right,” Skell grinned. “Nice enough bunch, once they’d had a wash.”
“Mm,” Drago swiped through the list. “And they weren’t the original owners of the Nope, Leftovers?”
“No,” Skell replied. “The ship seemed to have been commissioned and put together mostly-legitimately. While Dool’s crew did take the prisoners under pretty dubious circumstances, it was more opportunistic-acquisition and proactive-salvage than outright piracy. The Nope, Leftovers had been part of the Black Honey Wings long before the prisoners were brought aboard. There won’t be any lasting repercussions about us crashing them into each other.”
Drago nodded. As if legal repercussions were something that bothered Çrom Skelliglyph. Ever.
Most of the newcomers were civilians, although there were a couple of non-Corps military and varying shades of Corps Sci. Many of them had actually considered themselves more passengers than prisoners, using the Black Honey Wings as a transport and seemingly not aware that Dool had changed the terms of their agreement. They’d happily signed off on the Noro’s secret op in return for getting where they were going quietly. They didn’t appear too fussed about how long it took, or even that it might never have happened at all under Captain Nak Dool.
These sorts of things weren’t uncommon.
“So we’re a taxi service,” he concluded.
“Yeah,” Çrom grunted. “Comes with the territory when you’re running a modular. Cargo, personnel, occasional muscle-flexing on dumbler borders … ”
Skell grinned. “Next time steal something bigger.”
Drago gave a dutiful chuckle. “You know how easily we could’ve taken the Black Honey Wings?” he pointed out, still reading the manifest.
“Brute. I wouldn’t be seen dead on a ship that ugly.”
There had been some debate as to whether or not the prisoners should share the fate of the rest of the Black Honey Wings crew, but they really did seem to have no idea of Dool’s mission. Easy enough to establish with a bit of gentle cross-examination and a look at some of the logs Segunda and the team had managed to chip out of the Black Honey Wings‘s computer before the ship was finally destroyed. There wasn’t much, but what was there was difficult to fake and way beyond the expertise – not to mention the intricacy – of Dool’s clowns.
In the end, although Drago still wanted to have a chat with a few of them, he was quite satisfied that there were no double-blind infiltrator bounty hunters among them. He was reasonably sure that these poor schlubs were nothing more than what they seemed – schlubs.
“Military, military, medical – nice, xenosurgeon – medical … what the Hell is a horticultural mood analyst?”
“Damned if I know,” Skell replied. “The lead analyst – there are three of them – is a fellow named … Marsden? Mandon?” he pulled out his own pad, consulted the list, tapped it. “This guy. Mandon Muir. He said they were on their way to Gordon’s Crater.”
“We’re not travelling anywhere near Gordon’s Crater,” Barducci said. “Unless our new Fergunakil overlords tell us to.”
“Now now. Anyway, since their alternative was to wait in that barely-airtight spar segment wondering if AstroCorps Rep and Rec was going to get to them before the Fergies – or if neither of the above would come at all – I guess they’re not too fussed about the fact that they’re unlikely to get to Gordon’s Crater anytime soon. It’s not like Dool was getting them anywhere either, and he had them sleeping in a room with a dozen close friends.”
“I also suspect they don’t know where they are or where Gordon’s Crater is,” Drago smiled forbearingly. “I didn’t get more than a look at them all when we came aboard, but I’m pretty sure from this report that they’re dosing with something. I know the signs. I just haven’t figured out what their poison is yet.”
“No contraband in their luggage?” Skell raised his eyebrows. “Nothing of a ‘happy horticulture’ nature?”
Drago shook his head. “What luggage?”
“Right. Darn shame,” Çrom chuckled, then lowered the pad. “On a scale of one to Numb,” he asked seriously, “how much bad shit are you leaving between the lines here in order to spare me the burden of guilt?”
Drago realised Çrom must be reading his report. “Six,” he said. The part of him that still wondered if the second Noro bucky had been pregnant – he hadn’t mentioned that on the official record – compelled him to add, “maybe seven.”
“Not bad for our first major engagement,” Skell said enthusiastically. “Not counting our launch, I mean.”
“You don’t need to sound so happy about it.”
“I’m sorry,” Çrom said, seeming genuinely contrite. He looked down at his pad. “I’m sorry, Brute.”
“I’m not going to be around to protect you from this mission forever, Skell.”
“Are you kidding? Brute, you’ll bury us all,” Çrom thumped the arm of his couch. “Lord knows I’m not going to do my own shovelling,” he grew sober again. “Seriously, Drago. I won’t say this is as bad as it’s going to get. You remember what happened last time I said things couldn’t get any worse.”
“Things got worse.”
Crom pointed at him with his drink-hand, sloshing the nasty whiskey a little. “Correct. But I will say, when things do get as bad as they’re going to get, when we’re there on the big razor blade of the universe, dancing while the toes fly, it’s going to be you and me. To the end, Brute.”
“Yeah,” Drago drumbled.
Skell leaned forward and pointed at him again, quite intently. “Yeah.”
“How about you? How’d you go?”
“Oh, you know. I got off surprisingly easily.”
Drago smiled sadly. “Only had to shoot four people?”
Skell raised his glass.