Excerpt

Frying Pan Blues

Sol System – 2241

“How much longer till we reach Mars?”

Moss’s fare looked even more nervous than he had when he’d boarded back on Earth, and that was when they’d still had to slip past the ever-growing blockade encircling the planet. You’d think everything after that piloting miracle would have been anticlimactic. He didn’t know his fare’s real name, only that he was a scientist and that he was meeting a Nubran contact on Mars.

Mousy was a good description of the man, as he looked like a cat might leap on him at any moment. He kept staring at various news feeds as if they might give him a heads up on any felines that might be lurking.

Moss found the man’s nervousness rubbing off on him in all the wrong ways. After all, if he was so nervous about getting caught, maybe there was a good reason for it.

“Not long now, Doc,” said Moss, trying to reassure him. It was the least he could do. The easy, breezy days of the Party Bus were over, and the guy had paid far too well for Moss to confine him to his cabin.

The man looked back at him. “Can this ship go any faster?”

“Without one of your Nubran friends’ fancy super engines, this is the best we’re going to do.”

The Viaticus Rex could travel at four-fifths the speed of light—once you got clear of any interfering gravity wells. Even though Mars was almost as far from Earth as it could be right now, the trip was only going to take half an hour total. Yet this guy acted like even that wasn’t fast enough.

You just couldn’t please some people.

***

The Void, near Ramede space – 2550

“I think I need a catch phrase,” said Hel.

Moss raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Yeah. I’m getting a feel of what it’s like working for you, and I figure it would make sense to have a catch phrase or two for when we fall into familiar patterns.”

Moss smirked. The two were sitting back-to-back while they talked. “So, got any ideas?”

Hel cleared her throat. “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into. What do you think?”

Moss tried to adjust his wrists behind his back. The magnacuffs that bound the two together had been put on tight. “I’m pretty sure that one’s taken.”

“Sure, but Laurel and Hardy died centuries ago. It’s due for a revival.”

The hulking blue figure by the cockpit’s control panel finally spun around and growled at them. “Be quiet.”

“Sorry,” said Moss.

The Viaticus Rex II.I drifted dead in space near a brown dwarf star, out of fuel, leaving Maurice “Moss” Foote and his co-pilot Helena Lambinon in a bit of a bind. Being stranded in the Void, the vast buffer of territory between Nubra and Draxon space, was bad enough. Being so close to pirate space was worse. Sending out a distress signal from there was like ringing a dinner bell.

In the end, they’d had no choice. With no means to refuel and were operating on backup reserves, they had to hope a friendly trade ship would be passing by.

But that would require having good luck, something Moss often claimed he’d been born without.

So when a pirate ship sporting the colours of the Void Brotherhood had showed up, it wasn’t so much a sense of dread that he’d felt as it was resignation. He’d have been more surprised if it had been anyone else.

But Moss wasn’t going to go down without a fight. He’d handled raiding parties before. With a bit of luck, he’d strip the would-be pirates of anything useful and leave them stranded in his place. He and Hel had picked up their sidearms and taken up defensive positions near the main airlock, which was already being bypassed.

Then the hulking form of a Draxon drone had walked in, wearing an armoured EVA spacesuit, wielding a railgun so massive it had to be harnessed to him.

Moss had dropped his pistol and immediately surrendered.

Now they were here, handcuffed to one another back-to-back while the big dumb blue drone tried to figure out how his ship worked. But the Viaticus Rex II.I was no ordinary cargo ship. It had been cobbled together from several different ships—a chimera. It was spaceworthy, but crap in the resale department.

As a result, the drone wasn’t sure what to make of the controls, which seemed to belong to a long-range Elysian explorer, even though the bulk of the ship looked more like a Nubra transport. It didn’t help that Moss had locked down the controls before they’d left the cockpit. The drone carried a “does not compute” look on his blue hairless face that reassured Moss that there was no way in hell he was working alone.

“So, why did we surrender exactly?” Hel whispered, trying not to attract the pirate’s attention. “We had him outnumbered.”

“We had pulse guns,” said Moss. “He had a railgun. Our weapons are designed to kill the meat and leave the metal intact. His would punch through us, the ship, and probably any other ship in our path. That’s why he was wearing an EVA suit.”

“Ah,” said Hel. She’d been born on a long-lost generation ship, the Pegasi, and was still catching up with some aspects of modern technology. Moss could relate; it wasn’t that long ago that he’d had a similar shock to the system. “So, what do we do now? I assume you have a plan.”

“More like waiting for an opportunity,” said Moss.

“Well, that’s reassuring.”

The Draxon turned to them again. Hel shut her lips tight, as if that would convince him she hadn’t said anything. The drone stared at both of them, then settled on Hel. “Make the ship go.”

Moss felt indignant. “Hey, what makes you think she’s the one in charge?”

“Matrons always in charge,” the Draxon said. Even for a drone, his vocabulary pinged low on the IQ scale, and their adaptive translators picked up on that.

“Don’t fight it, Moss,” said Hel. “Some of us just radiate leadership.”

“You know, using humour as a defence mechanism is supposed to be my thing. Why are you so calm?”

Hel turned her head far enough that Moss could just make out a smile. “Opportunity knocks.”

The drone came over and freed Hel’s hands, but kept Moss bound where he was. Now that the pirate goon was firmly in control, he was wielding a pulse gun. He’d stored the railgun back by the primary airlock, along with his bulky armoured EVA suit.

“We need you to make the ship go.”

Hel rubbed her wrists. “Who’s we?”

“The worker caste rarely speaks in the singular,” said Moss. “But I guarnatee he has a buddy back on his ship.”

“You talk too much,” said the drone.

“I get that a lot.”

The drone turned back to Hel. “You make the ship go, we sell you to nice owners. You not help, you go with them.” He jerked his head back at Moss.

“Where’s he going?” Hel asked.

“Not nice owners.”

“Well, hard to refuse that offer,” said Hel. “Look, your main problem here is that you haven’t used the special key. We shut the computer down before you boarded. See that?” She pointed to a small metal box resting on the main dash. “Open it.”

The Draxon looked at her suspiciously, then pointed the gun at her. “You open.”

Hel raised her hands. “Sure thing.”

“No trick.”

“No trick, Tarzan.”

Hel went to the box and opened it up, showing him the contents. Moss knew what was inside, or at least what seemed to be inside. A small dashboard figurine in the shape of a woman in a pilot’s suit. You couldn’t see her face because she wore a tinted helmet.

“This needs to be mounted on the dashboard for the ship to work properly,” said Hel. “May I?”

The drone nodded, and Hel placed the figurine on the dash. It didn’t really matter where she put it, so long as it was close enough to access its systems.

Suddenly, the ship powered down and the Draxon raised his weapon. “Trick!”

Hel raised her hands. “No! No trick! It’s booting up, that’s all. Part of the process.”

“You make ship go or—” He never finished his threat because just then the lights came on and the control panels flickered back to life. It seemed like everything on board the ship was being accessed at a superfast rate, then stopped just as quickly.

Moss held his breath. He knew what was happening, and wondered how things would evolve from here. Hel’s move had been a Hail Mary pass, but as he looked at the scene around him, with him still tied up and Hel held at gunpoint, he had a good feeling about it.

A voice came over the speakers. “Wha… Where… wel…welcome, Commander.” The female voice was tinny and formal. “How may I help you?”

“We need you to make ship go,” said the drone, looking around for the source of the voice. He didn’t notice that the figurine’s head was now tracking his every move.

“Yes, Commander. Several subsystems require attention before the ship can be made operational. This ship is low on fuel.”

“We put fuel in,” said the Draxon drone, growing frustrated.

“Fuel reserves are at ten percent. Protectorate guidelines state that at least twenty-five percent is required for full operation.”

This confused the drone more, as well it should. It didn’t really make sense. At the same time, Protectorate bureaucracy certainly made it plausible.

Hel shrugged. “Don’t look at me. This ship is a chimera. It’s got all kinds of strange hiccups like that. You’re lucky she runs at all.”

The Draxon groaned and put a hand to his ear. “We need more fuel. Don’t know why. Ship says so.” He listened to the response and frowned. “We don’t know. We need help.”

Moss was actually starting to enjoy the show. When he’d first brought Hel on board, he’d had some reservations about how well she’d adapt, but right now she was doing an even better job than he would have in her position. Not that he’d ever admit it.

A few minutes later, a very short and round figure walked in holding a pulse rifle. He had no neck and his mouth was almost as wide as his face, which currently had a half-smoked cigar in it. A Hopat, definitely the brains of the outfit, though that was a pretty low bar.

“Come on, Tregas. How hard can this possibly be?”

Tregas pointed at the dashboard. “Ship says there is problems.”

The Hopat sighed. “Fine.” He spoke to the room in general. “Computer. Run diagnostics. Determine key malfunctions. Display on main terminal.”

“Displaying now.”

A large display popped up over the dashboard, showing a schematic of the ship and red circles over areas in need of repairs. The Hopat scrutinized it and sighed.

“This ship’s not worth it,” he said at last. “We should just take the prisoners and blow it up for target practice.”

The Draxon grinned at the idea. Blowing things up was clearly on his list of favourite activities.

“We’ll strip her for parts we can sell and—well, hello, what do we have here?” The Hopat leaned in and examined something on the display that clearly intrigued him. “Don’t think I know a masked smuggling compartment when I see one, eh?” He looked at Hel. “What’s inside?”

Hel was thrown off by this. She didn’t know the ship had a smuggling compartment, and for good reason. “I… I don’t know.”

The Hopat looked to his subordinate. “She’s the captain?”

“She is Matron.”

The Hopat rolled his eyes. “How many times have I told you it don’t work like that with other species? It ain’t about… Never mind. Computer, what is currently stored inside Reserve Node 42B?”

“There is no Reserve Node 42B on this ship,” the computer said.

The Hopat smiled. “See? Definitely hiding something there. You.” He pointed the pulse rifle at Moss. “What’s in the smuggling compartment?”

Moss kept his mouth shut. The Hopat turned to Hel and brushed his extra thumb down her cheek. “We’re going to find out one way or the other. The only question is how much you two are going to suffer in the meantime. Understand me?”

“Fine,” Moss growled. “It’s sherb.”

The Hopat frowned. “Sherb? Big deal. That’s recreational stuff. I got a stash of it on my ship.”

Moss shook his head. “Not like this, you don’t.”

“Some kind of exotic blend?”

“Like nothing you’ve ever seen. Made in Elysia. Banned in four out of the five Protectorate nations.”

“So, what kind of lock do you have on the compartment? Voice print? Biometrics? You better hope I don’t need your eyeball.” It was eerie how well Moss’s adaptive translator interpreted this guy’s threatening tones.

“Simple voice command. I can do it from here.”

“How much is there?”

“Half a ton. Vacuum packed.”

“Sounds good. We’ll take it.” He made it sound like they’d struck a bargain, though Moss was at a loss as to what he’d be getting out of it. “Tregas, bind the little lady to her captain again, would you?” He did so. “And if you would be so good as to unlock the compartment, please?”

Moss sighed. “Computer. Command override on Reserve Node 42B. Allow free access. Provide floor lighting between the cabin and the hatch.” The floor lit up with small lights that led to the main corridor and hung a left. “You don’t want to get lost,” Moss added.

The Hopat gave a wide and toothy grin. “Much obliged.”

The short Hopat and his large Draxon companion left the room. Hel and Moss waited as the clank of their boots on the metal floor grew more and more distant.

“They there yet?” Moss asked.

The voice over the speakers lost its computer-like quality and now sounded like a normal woman. “Almost.”

“Close enough.” Moss deactivated the magnacuffs and stood up. Hel looked at Moss in shock as he worked on her cuffs next.

“Wait, you could have done that at any time?”

“Not the first time I’ve been arrested. Little trick I got wired into my suit.”

“But why wait so long?”

“And do what? Go toe-to-toe with Blue Goliath or his rifle packing partner? I told you I was waiting for an opportunity. Which you kindly provided, thank you very much.”

“So, what’s really in Reserve Node 42B?” asked Hel.

“Didn’t you hear her?” Moss nodded toward the computer terminal. “There is no Reserve Node 42B.”

“They’re inside,” said the computer.

“Flush ’em.”

The hull echoed briefly with the sound of an airlock blowing open.

“There used to be something there,” said Moss. “But after this ship got Frankenstein’d, it became a secondary airlock. I’m guessing a little creative on-the-spot schematic redesign was going on behind the scenes?”

“You got it,” said the computer.

Moss grinned as he freed Hel and helped her to her feet. “Good to have you back, Violet. I’ve missed you.”

“I didn’t realize I’d gone anywhere.”