There was no funeral. In keeping with her wishes, Katarek's body was jettisoned out of an airlock, with no one but Brant herself in attendance. The tens of billions of mantis in the galaxy had as many customs and philosophies as Brant's people, but they were generally an unsentimental species, with Katarek no exception. After Mickelson's funeral, Katarek had made it clear that she didn't want anyone messing with her inanimate remains, saying anything sappy, or generally making a scene. The crew had gathered in the recreation room, toasted her memory with the preferred intoxicants of their species, and then gotten back to work. They had to.
They were in jump for ten hours, and between treating her arm and helping 78 check the ship for any further sabotage, Brant had had only a few hours to sleep, and she needed what she could get. She woke an hour before their expected ETA at the long-range hub, and she promptly made her way down to the weapons room.
Ahab and 78 were sitting together. Ahab was stark naked, fussing with a needle and thread over the wreck of his ostentatious coat. There was nothing uncomfortable about this; since ascending beyond strictly biological forms, the Zoltan anatomy had become very sparse, devoid of hair, pores, sex organs, or any other noteworthy feature, leaving only the frail, glowing notion of a humanoid body. He had a holoscreen up on his weapons' console, but he wasn't looking at it. He and 78 were both watching the vid projecting on the wall instead.
"What the hell are those?" Brant asked as she looked closer at the projection. A single mantis stood in the middle of a large sandy ring, surrounded by fifty brutish, knobby creatures, half-covered in spiky quills and the other half dripping with mucus and slime. Hideous growths of flesh bulged out of their chests and crotches. Some had awkward shrouds of cloth draped over their shoulders or stitched into what could only loosely be called “pants.”
78 thrummed with laughter. “Must understand. ‘Deathsong of Chaka Harakat,’ filmed over two hundred standard years ago. Contact with human race by mantis race still very sparse – humanity still only a rumored threat at edge of mantis space. Little reliable information on anatomy or culture.”
Brant raised her eyebrows. “Those are humans?”
“Stage automata built to resemble humans, at least. Or what most mantis thought humans looked like,” Ahab said. Brant looked closer and realized the clubs bore some faint resemblance to old plasma rifle designs, and the portrayal suddenly brought to mind modern human stereotypes.
“I find this highly offensive. Why in God’s name are we considered the ‘slimy race’ over the slugs? There is no justice in the universe.”
“’Slimy’ less than optimal word choice. Human species more accurately considered…” 78 looked around at Ahab for help. “Drippy?”
“I would say greasy, more than anything,” Ahab said. “Or just generally wet.”
“Come on! But the slugs…” Brant started.
“Slug epidermis constantly secretes light layer of mucus, yes. Human eye secretes discharge in response to emotional duress, human nose secretes mucus in response to nasal infection and cold atmosphere, human skin secretes oil and perspiration constantly,” 78 said, counting the different discharges off on his metal fingers. “Tastefully omitting all solid and liquid wastes, digestive system regurgitation, and reproductive processes.”
“What can you expect of an organic race from a water planet, though? I say, relish in the vast variety of life in the cosmos, however greasy some of it is,” Ahab said.
The mantis had gotten very busy on the screen, butchering the “humans” as they charged left and right, each exploding with blood and viscera like a burst melon at every glancing blow from the mantis.
“Ahh – I do see what she liked about this,” Ahab said, putting his stitching aside and pausing the vid. “Though I suspect you did not come to enjoy a gladiator drama, captain.”
“Well…if it’s for Kat, then maybe. But for now, no. We’re getting to the long-range hub, and I wanted to see what you’ve learned from the captives so far.”
“Oh, nothing at all. I have not asked them so much as their full names yet,” Ahab said. He turned in his chair to face the holoscreen behind him, and Brant noted it was a live feed of their cell in the brig. The two male prisoners were lying on their cots, one with a load of gauze over his eyes and one clutching painfully at a bandage over his stomach. McRee was pacing back and forth in front of the bars.
Brant did not bother to note that she’d told him to prep them for interrogation. He would not so brazenly ignore an order, especially one right up his alley like this. She just waited for him to go on.
“They are clearly well-trained, and I’m sure they’ve been trained to resist interrogation. If we press them immediately, they will think we need the information they have immediately, and they will resist that much harder. No, I think they will be more pliant if we let them languish for a bit. Let them think we don’t care.”
“But…do need information immediately,” 78 said. “Need to know who sent them, what they know about us, whether they know what it is we’re carrying,”
Brant thought of the heavily-encrypted intel packet they were carrying back to Federation command and thought Because I’d sure like to know.
“Much of that we can infer or learn at the hub. If there is no bounty posted for us, then we know our cargo is important enough that the Rebels do not want anyone else getting hold of it,” Ahab said. “Which in turn means our friends in the brig are likely trusted operatives, not mere rank and file. All the more reason to employ advanced techniques – you note how only the female was fully treated in our medbay?” He pointed at McRee.
“I do. The others are stabilized as ordered, correct?” Brant asked.
“Stabilized, but still in bad shape. I am providing the female with medical supplies and rations for her comrades, and as planned, she has been quite diligent in changing bandages and administering all necessary care. You see, your species takes care of its young for many years, and your bodies evolved to compensate you for the effort with emotional dividends. It is in your nature to develop attachments to those you nurture closely.” The zoltan eyed the screen and smiled one of his more disconcerting smiles. “I can work with that.”
“Ahab, you are a scary little dude,” Brant said. “But do what you have to. I’m going aboard the hub in force, just in case things get dicey. The ship’s yours until we get back.”
“Very good, captain.” Ahab held the coat up to his face to inspect the stitch he’d just completed, and he clucked disapprovingly. “If you happen to find a tailor…oh, never mind. I shall persevere.”
“Hang in there, big guy,” Brant said. “8, you’re with me.”
The engi followed her out, and they walked briskly down the corridor together.
“How are you doing?” Brant asked quietly.
78’s face blinked blue and red. “Fine. Refreshing familiarity with shield systems. Allocating grief processes to background until I can spare processing power to fully address.”
Once, Brant might have thought about how inhuman and detached this sounded, but she knew better now. “Yeah, me too. Can’t afford to slow down yet. What’s our intel on the Tefinix hub?”
“Sparse. Tefinix Cloud has dangerous reputation and few habitable worlds, but for those merchant nations that do operate here, the Hub is the only civilized outpost on this side of the nebula. It is slug-operated and primarily caters to trade and military vessels crossing the Cloud.”
“Which means it caters mainly to rough costumers.”
“Accurate assessment. Chance to encounter cheerful folk with ships full of pastries and baby animals: near zero. Hub operators have decent reputations, at least.”
“They’re slugs. That means they’ll be honest about how they’re going to screw us in any deal we make.”
“Essentially. And they’ll shoot us in front instead of back if negotiations collapse.”
The bridge door slid open at their approach. Brant sat in the captain’s chair and 78 braced himself behind her. Toh sat ahead of them, his wounds packed with ceramic bandages. He was talking to Karl, who was sitting there in the only other chair in the room.
That would be Brant’s chair.
“There’s a lot of overlap between our theologies and yours, but that’s one place where we differ,” Toh was saying.
“So no afterlife at all?” Karl asked. Toh had glanced up briefly at the captain, but Karl couldn’t see the door and had apparently no idea they’d entered.
“If the Shaper plans to reward the righteous in death, then he hasn’t said anything about it. Righteousness is its own reward; anyone who can’t see that is never going to achieve it anyway.”
“Old Job couldn’t have said it any better,” Brant said. Karl started a little at her voice, then stood and faced them.
“Hello, captain. Commander. Uh…I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you. We’re managing,” Brant said.
“Condolences appreciated. Mission continues,” 78 said. His face glittered green very briefly; Brant doubted anyone else would have noticed, much less that anyone else would have taken it as a sign of mischief. “Side note – protocol under this command does not require crew to stand at attention when captain enters the bridge.”
“Oh. Uh…thanks for telling me.” Karl sat back down.
“Protocol does, however, require that you get out of my goddam chair,” Brant added. Karl stood so fast he nearly tripped.
“I…I didn’t realize…”
“At ease,” Brant said, taking her seat. “I’ll just assume you were warming it up for me. Now stay here, we’re going to need you in a few minutes.”
“We’re approaching the hub, captain,” said Toh.
“Brace for transition,” she said over the intercom, realizing that everyone was in the room with her but Ahab and the prisoners.
The ship entered reality again, and without the interference of the nebula, the ship’s digital telescopes came fully online for the first time in at least a week. The ship’s aft display showed only the Cloud, a vast violet expanse of gas and storms. Charlotte, the colonial girl who wanted to see the vastness of the universe, couldn’t help but think how beautiful it was. Captain Brant of the Federation knew that the beauty was hiding pirates, attack drones, and a whole fracking fleet of Rebel cruisers in steady pursuit.
The view from the front was much emptier. Stars by the million in the distance and one bright sun in the foreground, with any attendant planets too distant to spot immediately.
“Hub on screen,” Toh said, and they zoomed in much further to a bulbous slug space station, all purple domes and antennae sticking out like quills. It looked pretty much like Brant would have expected, except for one detail. “Shaper…looks like we’re late for a party.”
Whether floating nearby or docked, at least a hundred fifty ships were crowded around the hub. Brant noted cargo ships, mass transit jets, and one or two luxury yachts.
Brant turned to 78. “I thought you said this place didn’t see much traffic.”
“Very strange…” The engi’s face blinked with confused static. “Very strange. Mostly civilian craft, minimal shielding and armament...suicide to cross nebula so poorly equipped.”
Karl stroked his chin a little as he studied the visual. “God, it must stink in there.” He looked around at the stares of the others. “What? Little station like that, not used to much traffic, and probably a damp slug atmosphere at that – the life support systems must be straining just to provide enough air for everyone, never mind filtering it.”
“Well, think pleasant-smelling thoughts, then, because we’re going aboard. Toh?”
“Hailing them now, captain. How should I identify us?”
“Probably not a great idea to advertise we’re Federation right off the bat, not if we’re trying to see if there’s a bounty on us. 8, any ideas?”
The engi whirred in thought. “Tell them we’re lesser mercantile house. Federation sometimes sold decommissioned craft to houses looking for well-equipped transports.” The engi glanced at Karl. “Merchant husband and wife, and eclectic alien crew.”
“Uh…well, ok,” Karl said, slightly confused. “I mean…I did some acting in elementary school. Let’s give it a shot.”
Brant nodded to Toh. “Go with it. Call us House…” She searched her mind, but only one thing came. “…Katarexis.”
An audio channel opened with a crackle. A female voice, sounding bored as can be, came on over the speakers.
“Yes?” This was far enough from the usual protocol that it caught Brant off-balance. “What is it?”
“We…seek audience with the hub director,” Brant said.
“We’re…oh, frack my soul, here’s your information. House ‘Katarexis’? I have never heard of it,” the voice said. Brant would guess she was talking to a zoltan. She’d never heard any other race stoop to a phrase as stupid as “frack my soul.”
“No? Oh, heck,” Brant said. “Big time socialites like you, I’m sure you’re up on all the lesser houses. We must have made it up, then.”
A long-suffering sigh came out of the speaker. “My apologies, my lady. What service can we provide for you?”
“We’re here to trade for munitions and intelligence. Scan us all you like – you’ll see we’ve got goods for trade, and then some. Or is there some backwater bumpkin convention going on, and we need an invitation?”
There was a brief pause. “Ah, indeed no, your scans check out. Ignore the crowd – refugees, mostly. I think you will find us amenable to some very agreeable commerce. You may come aboard.”
“Excellent. Give us half an hour to get our ship in order.” Brant closed the channel and stood. “All right – we’re a scrappy, down-on-our luck merchant family with servants. Let’s get a wardrobe change with that in mind, and meet at the shuttle in twenty minutes.”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” Toh said. He reached up to the Federation insignia affixed to his shoulder, the only ornament or clothing that he wore, and took it off. “K. I’m good.”
78 clucked. “No imagination,” he whirred as he turned and shuffled off the bridge.
“Captain, uh…” Karl began.
She looked him up and down. He was wearing a dirty white shirt and stained beige pants; he had a few other clothes taken from Mickelson’s old belongings, but none any better than this. He could use a shave, but she didn’t object to a little stubble. Besides… “Well, we’re going for scrappy. You’re fine.”
Half an hour later, the Kestrel shuttle attached itself to the assigned docking gate, and the crew stood ready to board. Brant had swapped her uniform for nondescript trousers and blouse with a long brown coat; nothing fancy, but then a merchant family that bought used Federal craft wouldn’t be fancy. She’d taken off her eye patch and put on dark glasses, in case there was someone hunting for a one-eyed captain. 78 had put on a nice sash of platinum links and covered his claws with fitted gloves of white velvet.
The airlock opened, and Brant fought off a momentary urge to wretch as a brutal smell attacked them. Thick, warm, and wet, the air stank of sweat, sewage, mildew, and an aggressively fruity antiseptic that only accented and worsened the reek. Karl gagged.
“God damn!” he said. “Yeah. Told you so.”
A zoltan was approaching the airlock, walking uncertainly and glowing an ugly brownish-green. Next to the zoltan walked a heavily-armed rock and a mantis in heavily dented armor.
“You are the merchant family, then?” asked the zoltan. Again, something about the voice suggested a woman to Brant; while the species had long since abandoned sex, they had not entirely eschewed gender.
“We are the Lord and Lady Katarexis,” Brant said. She patted Karl on the back affectionately. “Plus entourage.”
“And, uh, who might you be?” Karl asked.
Brant looked over at 78 with a disapproving look. The engi whined quietly, then reached over and slapped Karl upside the head.
“Speak when spoken to, servitor,” 78 said. He whispered none-too-quietly to Brant. “Really, dear: too indulgent with the help.”
Brant rolled her eye, hidden behind her shades. “And who might you be?” she asked.
“Zaramabra, Senior Assistant to the hub director,” said the zoltan, who looked thoroughly unamused by the exchange. “This way, please. Keep your weapons away, and avoid any speech or action which could be construed as aggressive. Ozzog is happy to talk to you, but the situation on the hub is somewhat brittle at the moment.”
Toh and the rock bodyguard exchanged silent glares, and the mantis sized up the group.
“Very good. A question, though,” 78 said. “You called this a refugee situation. If possible to ask…”
The zoltan’s head swayed a bit as she looked back at 78. Brant heard a bit of a drunken slur as she spoke this time. “Can you imagine what Ozzog would do to me, master engi, if I started giving perfectly saleable information away to his clients for free? This way, if you please.”
The escort led them through the corridors of the station. Armed guards patrolled regularly, and occasionally Brant caught views through open hatches of crowded tent cities filling up cargo bays. She’d expected a refugee situation, but nothing like this.
God. What had the Rebels done?
They arrived finally at a heavy blast door. The zoltan waved at a panel next to the door, and it slid open to reveal a dimly lit, richly appointed lounge. A number of well-cushioned booths lined the wall to their left, with an ornate bar carved out of hard, red fungus – the highest of high end slug carpentry. A thin white mist hung in the air around their ankles, partly to help keep the climate optimal for slugs but mostly for ambience. The air had not even a faint note of the crowds outside, instead smelling faintly of pickles for some reason.
On instinct, Brant immediately took stock of their surroundings. The only exit was through the blast door, and they were slightly outnumbered in the room. An engi stood behind the bar in an apron, cleaning a row of elegant drug pipes. Three rocks sat in an extra-large booth, designed for their race, eyeing the new arrivals suspiciously. A bearded man with small, dark glasses sat with a mantis female decked in jewelry, arguing in hushed tones over a data slate. And alone in the middle of the room sat a slug, his skin dry and wrinkled with age, swirling a hand in a small bowl of brown nutrient liquid. The bodyguards led them up to the slug’s table, and the slug slowly shifted his attention up to them.
“Thank you, Mabra,” said the slug. “I am Ozzog. Whom should I be addressssing?”
Brant stepped forward and extended a hand. “Ozzog, I am Elizia of House Katarexis, and this is my husband, KE-198. I hope we may arrive at some mutually beneficial trade.”
“Ahhh. That would be nice. I am very old, though, and I have lost my taste for petty deceits and dissembling. You cannot possibly think a telepath would accept such a fiction.”
“Of course not,” Brant said. “But it did get us to the trading table with armed protection.”
“Ah. Ssso it did,” Ozzog said approvingly. “Mabra, some drinks for us, species appropriate, of course. Something for yourself too, yes, there’s a good girl. Now how may humble Ozzog be of assisssstance?”
Brant eyed the Zoltan slouching over to the bar, but Toh was already staring her down closely. She turned back to the slug. “We are plotting a course though the Rebel cordon in the Magna Sector. We need armaments and information on their forces. We can pay richly with scrap and supplies.”
“I would be delighted to help you for a modest fee, captain. Ah, bless you, Mabra.” The zoltan had returned with a tray of drinks and a long, slender drug pipe. She started passing glasses to everyone but the slug. “Unfortunately, what you ask is impossible.”
Brant looked around the bar suspiciously. There was only the one human, the one arguing with the mantis, but she supposed the Rebels could have struck a bargain. “Oh? And why is that?”
“Even that information will cost you,” Ozzog said. “In fact, since it is clear you have been in the Cloud for quite some time and are very far out of the loop at present, I recommend you consider my flat rate intelligence package rather than negotiate piecemeal for individual scraps of information. Mabra?”
The zoltan took a data slate off the table, pushed at it, and presented it to Brant. She looked it over quizzically before handing it to 78.
“So you want food? We can do that, but these numbers…”
“I have several dozen ships docked in this hub which lack sufficient fuel, armament, or resolve to traverse the Cloud as you have, and as such we have many hundreds of refugees. There is high supply and low demand for ship equipment, but nourishment and medicine are other matters entirely. Judging by your looks, your stores are well-stocked. Shall you admit you can afford my price comfortably, or must we dicker? Oh, wait – forgive my bluntness again, but were you the ones who killed Slokkran?”
That certainly was blunt, especially for a slug. 78 and Brant looked at each other, and Karl and Toh eyed the rest of the room. The zoltan, meanwhile, inhaled deeply of the drug pipe. “Why would you ask such a thing?” Brant asked.
Mabra slowly exhaled a stream of drug vapor over Ozzog’s head and torso, and the slug luxuriated in the cloud. “Ohhh my…that is nicccce. Ah….as I sssaid, I dislike dodges and vagaries, and when I asssk a question, I prefer an ansswer. But if it will facilitate an honest ressponsse: I have sscanned your ship and matched the ssignature on ssseveral of your weapons to systems that Slokkran had in his inventory. Slokkran was like a ssson to me. I mentored him. I worked with him. He had negotiated a prosperous reproductive arrangement with my daughter.” Mabra blew another puff of smoke onto Ozzog’s body, and the slug again wiggled with delight. Brant found it obscene in the extreme. “And now I hear that his ship was found blown to pieces in the Cloud. Did you kill him?”
“Did business with him a week ago,” 78 said. “News to us that he is dead.”
“Yeah, we just robbed him and left him defenseless in a bad part of space,” said Brant, figuring it’d be better to err on the side of honesty rather than have the slug assume something worse or pluck the truth from her mind. “We didn’t actually kill him, if that makes things better.”
“I’m afraid it doess not. There is now a blood vendetta between us, and honor requires me to charge you an additional 10% on all of our transactions.”
Brant narrowed her eye. “5%.”
Brant gave the slug a cautious, sidelong glare. “Done,” she said.
“Excellent,” Ozzog declared. He reached over and tapped the data slate, and the final bill went up accordingly. Brant passed it to 78 to peruse. “Let us start fresh then. I know more about your actual identities then you may suspect, but there are gaps in what I’ve heard and what I can read. Forgive me – I never remember the rules of propriety with your species, but I simply must ask: are you actually screwing the engi?”
Brant smirked. 78’s screen flashed slightly red at the suggestion as he passed her the slate; Brant wondered if that was a reaction native to the engi or if 78 had learned it from humans. “That information would cost you, Ozzog. Do we continue with the bargain as we’ve struck it, or must we dicker further?”
Ozzog laughed aloud. “Indeed! Ah, I like you, Captain Brant. Yes, yes, we have had some visitors asking after a Federation captain of your description, so your identity is not hard to surmise. We have not been notified to post any sort of bounty, and those Rebels who ask after you and your crew invariably pretend to be your comrades; they think I am an absolute idiot, I swear. I must wonder what it is you have on them to inspire such a secretive and determined manhunt, but I will not ask. I should think that your pursuers would go even so far as the Magna Sector to hunt you down.”
“Why wouldn’t they? The Magna Sector is all Rebels; they’ve used it as a staging ground for their cordon around the Federation core worlds,” Brant said. Toh nudged her, and she realized that everyone in the room was staring at them now. “What? What’s happened?”
“My apologies, captain. My guests are no doubt simply surprised to hear you spout such ignorance of current events. Alas that news is so hard to come by in the Cloud,” Ozzog said. “The Magna Sector is abandoned.”
Brant’s heart leapt for a moment. That could mean hope. It could mean a hole in the Rebel blockade and a change in the Federation’s fortunes. But the dozens of ship outside, the thousands crammed into this station, told her there was something more sinister afoot.
“Abandoned?” 78 asked.
“Oh I’m sure there were those who could not leave. Some of them may yet be alive. But all who could leave have left – the Rebels consolidating inward toward your beloved Federation, and civilians fleeing in any other direction. They say that, uh…” Ozzog reached across the table and gently took the data slate away.
Brant narrowed her eye. “Yes?”
Ozzog leaned across the table to Brant. She could smell the medicinal stink of drug vapor around him. “You must understand that I am a sensible trader. The sort of stories coming out of the Sector of late...if not for their consistency, their frequency, and the evidence of my own eyes, I would never stoop to pawn such old sailor nonsense off as actual news. But…they say that ancient evil has stirred in the abyss. They say that demons swim in the void, devouring ships and choking the life from innocents a mere glance. They say…”
Karl burst out laughing. Brant stood up angrily, 78 following quickly.
“Oh, no no. I will not be made a fool of,” Brant threatened, shoving a finger in Ozzog’s face. “If you think I’m trading good supplies for stories of space monsters, you’ve got another thing coming.”
“Shall I lie, then? What reason for the flight of an entire sector would you find more agreeable, hm?” Ozzog asked, indignant. “Do you not think I reacted the same, the first time I heard the stories? But what can I think, when ship after terrified ship comes with the same harrowing tale on their lips?”
Toh sat utterly still. He spoke for the first time in that exchange, and even in his uninflected voice, Brant could clearly hear terror. “What…do they call this evil?”
The table of rocks in the corner turned and stared intently at Toh. The largest of them spoke. “You know what they are called, brother.”
Ozzog’s rock bodyguard nodded. “If you keep to scripture, then you know what is written.”
“Oh, Shaper…” Toh muttered.
Mabra sipped at a tall glass of a thick, white zoltan intoxicant, a drink with the consistency of concrete. “Another hit, sir?” she asked with a more pronounced slur.
“Oh, I think it’s that sort of night, yes,” said Ozzog. “I’ve heard this sermon before. Shall you favor us with it, master rock?”
“Toh? What are they talking about?” Brant asked.
“Our scriptures…they say that a long time ago, before any of our people had learned space travel, the galaxy was ruled by the crystal folk. The Shaper and Preserver favored them more than any other creature, but they made war without end against each other. He gave them reason, and language, and the use of tools, but each blessing they used in the service of war. Finally, he gave them his greatest blessing, the secrets of the jump drive, but still they failed to find the Peaceful Way and put an end to their violence…so…he gave the keys of the cosmos over to the Breaker and Destroyer, who unlocked the nine doors of the abyss…and out of the abyss, he summoned the Lanius.”
Karl was still snickering a little, but as he looked around the room and saw the looks on everyone’s faces, he shut right up.
“I do not believe that,” Ozzog said flatly. “I follow galactic events enough to say that we all probably deserve to be devoured by hungry avenging angels, but it pushes credulity. I fervently hope that a superior explanation for these phenomena emerges soon.”
Brant…sat there. This was certainly a change in the winds, and that was about all she could augur from it. “Thoughts, 8?”
“Oh, lots,” 78 said. “Not many of use. Except…Rebel presence in sector has advanced into Federation space?” Ozzog nodded. “Something troubling is happening in sector – that much is clear. But…time runs short.”
Toh’s eyes went wider and hotter than Brant had ever seen. Brant had a feeling she knew what was going through his head.
She turned to Ozzog. “I want to talk to some of your refugees, and I want the most up-to-date information you have. Charts, conditions, anything you have…” She swallowed, in which time she realized that every other sound in the room had gone quiet. “I don’t care if it’s the end of the universe and we’ve got to fight through demons of mythology. We’re getting to Federation space, and we’re getting there now.”