Day 28. 64 pages, 30,229 words.
I feel like I should be putting a content notification on this story. Oh well. Read with caution, this is your first and last general upsetting content warning.
Happy Gretchen was a Blaran to give other Blaren a bad name. She rather relished it, in a strange way. It was liberating. To be exactly that which others believed you to be … to take the slurs they used and become all of those things and so much more, so much worse … it absolved you of the effort and heartache of trying to be your idealised self.
Happy Gretchen had strangled her idealised self many years ago. Her idealised self had really been holding her back.
“Show me,” she said, striding along the underbelly of the weapon-scarred freighter. Her aides, and the wide-eyed little waskon who was her ostensible business partner, scurried to keep up.
She was heavily – nay, monstrously – augmented, with skeletal and muscular enhancements that brought her close to aki’Drednanth size and shape. And considerably greater than aki’Drednanth strength: she had fought, under controlled conditions and with hefty assurances of mutual respect, with several of the huge beasts – and had come out on top. It was whispered, she knew, that she had actually killed one of her opponents, or at least sent her soul back to the ice to await reincarnation according to the worshipful Fleet stories. This wasn’t true. Happy Gretchen was not actually insane, and she wouldn’t kill an aki’Drednanth if one of the big bitches asked her to.
But still, it was a useful fiction. And she had stood toe-to-toe with respectable warriors of the revered species, on no fewer than three separate occasions, and pounded each of them into the deck until great yellow tusks clattered across the metal and slushy grey-black blood steamed and burned on her massive fists. None of them had felt desperate enough to unleash their telepathic ordnance on her, but she had definitely won those matches. It was also whispered that the huge metal plates over which the skin of her head was stretched somehow protected her from the aki’Drednanth’s powers, but she knew that wasn’t true. Her skull plates and corresponding internal armour might protect her vital organs from anything short of heavy enforcer fire, but they couldn’t stop an aki’Drednanth’s mind.
Aside from her size and mass, she was basically unaltered from the Molranoid norm. But there was so much size and mass, that was easy to forget when you looked at her.
“The – the provenance of the pods are unknown, although there is some evidence and some grounds for educated, um,” the waskon – she supposed he’d want to be called a Blaran, even though with his silly spikes and his histrionic red biolume lenses he looked like he was trying to be a Nak-Li-Naegn more than a Blaran, but at least he didn’t stink like a Nak-Li-Naegn – trotted up alongside her and ushered her pointlessly into the freighter’s hold. She nudged past him, not really intending the slight but unable to prevent it since he’d left her very little room to mount the ramp. “But they are all still operational,” he continued, while she loped up alongside the cargo, “and they are ancient.”
Most of the sleeper pods were still covered in storage sheaths, but the red-eyed corsair had unwrapped a few of them to show them off. Happy Gretchen waved a lower arm to the rest, and her aides hurried forward and began busily removing the covers. They did, at a glance, all appear to be intact and operational, but there were several strange discrepancies. They weren’t standard Fleet pods, that was for sure. And that meant either they were very bad forgeries and the corsair was terribly close to dying with all four of his arms rammed up him … or they were indeed ancient.
“It looks like a fragment of a sleeper-set,” one of her aides said. “An arc, possibly belonging to a family or a – a – an institution of some kind. They – it looks genuine, masata-Gretchen. Incomplete, but genuine.”
Happy Gretchen turned to study the man, whose arms, anus and life would remain intact for the immediate future. He looked appropriately cognisant of this fact. “Where is the rest of the set?” she asked.
“I did not acquire it,” he replied apologetically. “The sets were all broken up and scattered long before I learned of them, and – I believe many of them ended up with historians and researchers … I understand quite a few were purchased by Fergunakil schools. They do a brisk illicit trade in rare meats.”
Happy Gretchen snorted deeply. “Rare meats,” she said, poking at one of the pods and the indistinct blob of Molranoid inside. “These would be practically water soluble if you tried to wake them up now,” she eyed the corsair, who looked like he was trying to speak but didn’t quite dare. “Still, the sharks are a market force to be reckoned with,” she went on. “Could you not have sold these pods to them?”
“These I set aside for you specifically – a symbol of my crew’s esteem,” the corsair practically bowed. “As to the missing pods … our communications did make it clear that we had only a partial set to offer you, masata-Gretchen.”
“Don’t call me that,” she said idly. “We are not in business and your tongue soils the title,” she waved a hand to silence his babbled apologies. “What would I want with forty pod-bound Bonshooni?” she demanded. “They make an interesting display, but you’re charging livestock prices for an art installation. This is foolish, and I know you are no fool to have come here with an insult on your breath.”
“These pods are … irregular,” he squeaked. “They are all children, put down for their sleep before their First Primes began. Studies have shown that-”
“Yes,” she silenced him again, “they may be resilient enough, have the pre-Prime hormones and nutrients to survive awakening, and to endure the brutal series of boosters and fortifying treatments they would require immediately afterwards, to heal,” the corsair was nodding eagerly. “That is by no means a certain process, though,” she said, “and it is a difficult one, demanding considerable resources,” she waited for him to speak, but this time he wisely refrained. “And even if the theories are correct, and I dedicate all of that effort and expense … if they are as old as the pods look, then there will be nothing but thraba mash left between their ears.”
“That is true,” the corsair said – wise, again. “Sleepers this age – and while I would not stake my reputation on it, I have consulted Twin Species design specialists who have sworn these pods came from the Bonshoo herself – well, there is no way their nervous systems would have survived. Basic autonomic functions only. And infertile.”
“The Bonshoo,” Happy Gretchen said, making no secret of her scepticism but not quite able to bring herself to scoff. Her aides – specialists in their own rights, and far more trustworthy than anyone this cheap carnival freak might bring to bear on the question – were looking cautiously surprised at what they were seeing. A couple of them looked downright stunned. “Well it’s just as well you’re not staking your reputation on any outlandish claims, Captain,” he wilted slightly in relief at hearing the courteous honorific. “But you’re yet to explain to me what exactly I can do with forty brain-dead and neutered children who may or may not have walked upon the fabled Fleet homeworld.”
“I – we thought – perhaps the novelty of it would amuse you…”
“Ah, the novelty,” Happy Gretchen nodded slowly. “And your communication mentioned that perhaps this novelty would be worth fifty crates of root-stock bio-mines?” the corsair braced himself, but to his credit nodded with full confidence. “Fifty crates for forty pods,” she said, “and that does not cover the additional cost I would incur in waking all of them up properly. And by ‘properly’, I mean ‘vegetative but at least more or less solid’.”
“I have several competing analyses that seem to agree the cost of the materials and procedures would not set you back more than a single additional crate,” the red-eyed corsair said. “I could not broker that trade myself but I could put you in touch with – although of course there is no need, your network of connections is far more extensive than mine…”
“What do you say to thirty crates, Captain?” Happy Gretchen asked.
“Forty?” he countered with admirable nerve.
“How about thirty-five?” Happy Gretchen asked pleasantly. “And I will throw in tickets to Bunzo’s for you and your entire crew.”
The corsair blinked his silly glowing eyes. “Bunzo’s … Bunzo’s went haywire five years-”
“Yes, and I have tickets,” she said patiently. “For you, and your entire crew.”
Finally comprehension dawned. “Thirty crates is a very generous offer,” he said, and this time there was no doubt about it – he really did bow.
“Excellent,” Happy Gretchen said, and snapped enormous reinforced fingers at her aides. They hurriedly began separating off the first sleeper pod. “I will provide lodgings for your crew while we wait.”
“Yes,” she swung and descended the ramp, then turned to give the quivering corsair a huge metallic grin. “We will wake up one of these precious ancients, and you will be the first lucky customer to experience the novelty,” she said. “If you should fail to achieve satisfaction, I will be forced to conclude the merchandise is faulty … and you, and thirty-nine of your crewmembers, will take its place, while your remaining shipmates fly away with thirty crates of root-stock bio-mines as agreed.”
“I – I – we-” the wretched corsair burbled.
“Our communications did make it clear that the price and the risk of doing business with me were proportional to the potential rewards,” Happy Gretchen said, “did they not? And if they didn’t, surely your other little waskon friends warned you,” she let her grin widen, and enjoyed the sheer horror on the corsair’s face as he watched it happen. Her mouth, and the skin and musculature around it, was altered to run almost the full breadth of her skull plates. If she wanted to, she could disarticulate her jaw and bite off a lesser Blaran’s head – at the lower shoulders. “Say ‘yes, masata-Gretchen’.”
“Yes, masata-Gretchen,” the corsair said woodenly.
“Very good,” she gave her aides a final nod, and turned again to stride away from the freighter. “Welcome to the Happyface cho’gule.”