Like I said, taking a bit of a break and trying to get more of this written. I won’t post two chapters this weekend, just the one.
There’s a couple of mini-references here, and I haven’t gone through and edited it for waffle and over-referencing and to add humour yet. I don’t want to overdo the jokes anyway. But some of it, I think, is important so I’ll probably keep it. I was debating whether to say very much about Molran-Blaran segregation, but I think I’ll keep the little hints I’ve put here, so there’s room to do a bit more exploration of discrimination and bigotry throughout the book.
Anyway, enjoy. Haven’t read this part to Wump and Toop yet, so don’t have any editorial feedback.
The ACS Conch
Galana stood in the rain next to the manically grinning human, looking up at the ship with what must have been a doubtful expression on her face.
In that moment, in the dark and foggy Grand Boënne night, she had a disturbingly vivid glimpse of the future.
It wasn’t anything in particular. It wasn’t a prophecy or a vision. It didn’t tell her anything specific or useful about what was to come. But she knew that this scene – Hartigan and Fen, human and Molran standing together, her looking dubious and him grinning like a madman – was playing itself out for the first time, and would play out again many, many times before they were done.
She didn’t know whether their mission would succeed. But she knew at least one member of the crew was going to have a good time.
“Well?” Hartigan asked.
“It’s a very nice ship,” Galana said. “Where is the rest of it?”
The AstroCorps Starship Conch was a long, slender needle of a ship, all sweeping curves and dynamic fins. She had jets and thrusters but no sign of any proper engines, let alone machinery for faster-than-light movement. There were a couple of big gleaming fixtures with armour plating that Galana didn’t recognise, but they weren’t propulsion or guns. She couldn’t see any weapons placements at all, for that matter. The vessel looked just about big enough to carry six crewmembers, although the Fergunakil would be a challenge.
Big enough to carry them, but not for anyone to live in for more than a month, let alone fifty years.
“She’s up in high orbit,” Hartigan answered her, still grinning. “This is just the command deck and the computer core, she detaches and acts as a landing shuttle, don’t y’know. We call her the Nella,” his smile faded slightly, but remained … fond? Nostalgic? Galana wasn’t good at alien facial expressions. “Named for my wife.”
“Lolita Nella Hartigan,” Galana said.
“Ah,” Hartigan nodded. “In the file, I expect.”
“Her parents were keen on the idea of ancient literature but not big on the actual reading part of it,” Hartigan said. “She used her second name.”
“I regret that we did not have the opportunity to meet,” Galana said. Hartigan glanced at her. “Her death was mentioned in your file too,” she reminded him.
“Ah,” he repeated, a little humour returning to his voice. “The whole ‘getting my crew killed’ thing, what?”
“I apologise for my wording,” Galana said. “It was intended to provoke a response from patrolman Buck Spunko, in continuation of the game you were playing. It was poor judgement on my part ‑ ”
“It’s alright,” Hartigan said, and turned to look up at her frankly. “I think you judged it perfectly. You’re … not like other Molren.”
Galana lifted her ears and glanced down at him. “How many other Molren do you know?”
“Well, that’s kind of the thing,” he replied. “Up until now, I thought I only knew one.”
“You know, because you’re all kind of same-y.”
“I get it. Very clever.”
Hartigan waved a hand. “Shall we go? Or do you want to enjoy the bracing Grand Boënne dampness a while longer?”
“We have no time to waste,” Galana said, and pulled her cases from the skimmer. “Why did you not just dock with the Porticon when we exchanged mission data?”
“Oh, I’ve been down here for a couple of weeks, taking care of some things,” Hartigan said vaguely. “Please, allow me to take your-” he stopped as Galana set one of the cases on the wet pavement for him, and he struggled to lift it two-handed for a few seconds before giving up with a chuckle. “Well that just weighs a bally ton, doesn’t it?”
“It’s mostly research equipment and data cubes,” she said, lifting the case in her lower left hand again. “I appreciate the offer, though.”
“Anytime,” at a touch of a device Hartigan was wearing around his wrist, a boarding ramp extended from the Nella‘s undercarriage. “Anyway,” he went on, “we had political reasons for not docking.”
“My – well, he was my Executive Officer, if you can call us a Captain and XO when it’s just the two of us footling around in space,” Hartigan explained, “but I guess you’re the XO now, so that’s the end of it. You’ll want to sort that whole mess out, by the way.”
Galana frowned down at the human. He was, she estimated, above average size for a human of the Grand Boënne Dominion, but that still left him a head and one set of shoulders shorter than she was, even with his dark hair styled up the way it was. He returned her look blandly, before starting towards the ramp. She followed, carrying her cases. Behind them, the skimmer closed up and rolled away slowly on autodrive. “What do you mean?” she asked. She hadn’t anticipated having to replace an existing crew. According to Hartigan’s file, he was flying alone.
“He’s going to want something to do,” Hartigan replied. “He’ll be our Blaran crewmember, after all, and since they’re not allowed to be officers on proper AstroCorps missions … ”
Ah. Galana nodded to herself. Right. “I had not secured a Blaran crewmember for the mission yet,” she admitted, “so this is a stroke of luck.”
“Isn’t it just, by jingo,” Hartigan agreed cheerfully.
“I assume he is Academy qualified with a non-Corps rating ‑ ” she said.
Hartigan, who had stopped at the top of the ramp to welcome her aboard with an extravagant bow, waved a dismissive hand. “Yes yes, he’s got all that and a bag of krunklets. Centuries of experience, and doesn’t get all bent out of shape about not being allowed to wear the stripes, either. But docking with a Worldship is a bridge too far, if you follow.”
Galana didn’t follow, not really, but she accepted that Blaren – descended from the same root as her own species, but culturally very different – had a … special relationship with the Fleet. And now, sadly, with AstroCorps as well. “I hope this mission will help us all to understand one another better,” she said, “and work together more effectively in the future.”
“I can see we’re going to have brilliant speech-making contests,” Hartigan remarked. “The months in soft-space will just fly by.”
The Nella was positively luxurious for a shuttle, and powered up smoothly and quietly even as the ramp sealed behind them.
“Good morning, Basil,” the ship’s computer said in a warm voice that Galana guessed was a synthesised human female. “Good morning, Commander Fen. Welcome aboard.”
“Thank you,” Galana said politely. It never hurt to be courteous with ship computer systems. Some of them had feelings. “Machine mind?” she inquired.
“No,” Hartigan said, “the Conch doesn’t link up with the big machines. She’s an … independent system. SynEsDyne prototype, one of their last. You saw the big armoured extensions on the hull out there?” Galana nodded. “Those are the synaptic difference engines. When the Conch is separated, the computer comes with us. When we’re connected with the main vessel, she integrates the rest of the systems. But she doesn’t play well with other artificial brains.”
“That might be an advantage in unknown interstellar territory,” Galana allowed.
“It’s certainly an advantage when flying with a Fergie,” Hartigan led the way forward onto the spacious command deck. “You may not need to sleep, but I do.”
Galana looked around, and nodded in approval. There were stations for Captain, Executive Officer, and four other posts that would be customisable for tactical, communications, sciences and engineering control. There was no separate helm but she guessed that the Captain would insist on piloting. It was a good setup.
The Nella sliced up through the clouds effortlessly, and by the time Galana had familiarised herself with the XO station they had cleared Grand Boënnia Orbital Control and were speeding through the black towards the ship. By the time she’d run through the basics and performed a couple of test commands – with the surprisingly helpful computer’s assistance – they were there.
“Seven decks,” Hartigan proudly listed the starship’s features as they approached. “Detachable command and landing shuttle, as you’ve seen. Quin-torus cumulative relative field generator,” at this, he gestured at the five heavy arcs of armour plating the Conch‘s back like overlapping scales. “Fully-integrated nutrient and OxyGen crystal core chambers. High-yield webscoop power plant and twin Nova-Bridnak energy cells. Megadyne albedo shielding. Modular rail cannon and pulse turrets designed by none other than AstroCorps Special Weapons Division.”
AstroCorps SWD, Galana thought with a little shiver. It was a part of AstroCorps she could have lived without, but the sad fact was you couldn’t have a spacefaring military without weapons. Special Weapons Division was new, even by AstroCorps standards, but they’d already earned a dark reputation. And a grim nickname.
The officers and mentors at the Academy called them the Monsters.
“And of course,” Hartigan was concluding, “plenty of hold space ready to be converted into a big old Fergunakil tank.”
“She’s a better ship than I could have dared hope,” Galana said sincerely. Hartigan glanced back at her and she added, “I’m not being snide. AstroCorps can’t field a long-range armed and armoured research vessel of this quality from their own yards. I would never have gotten a warship. The Conch … she’s perfect, Captain.”
“I rather think so,” Hartigan agreed.
“One does one’s best,” the computer added modestly.
Hartigan tapped at the controls, sending the Nella curving smoothly around to connect with the sleek bulk of the starship.
“So … your Blaran XO,” Galana said hesitantly, “he’s just been sitting up here in orbit, guarding the drive and life support and – and weapons segments of the Conch?”
“Yes, let’s say that’s what he’s been doing,” Hartigan said easily.
“What is his name?” Galana hadn’t been able to find any information on the command systems, which to be fair weren’t officially signed over to her as Executive Officer yet. “I should familiarise myself with his files, if we are to work together.”
“Scrutarius,” Hartigan replied with a stroke of his moustache. “I should imagine there’s a file.”
“Scrutarius?” Galana felt her ears drop. “Not … you don’t mean Devlin Scrutarius?”
Hartigan beamed. “You’ve heard of him!” he exclaimed. “Oh, he’ll be so pleased.”