Read an Excerpt
LIEUTENANT MARION “MOPS” Adamopoulos, commander of the Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation team on the EMCS Pufferfish, switched off the translation of a nineteenth-century human history textbook she’d been reading and focused her attention on the alert icon on her monocle. “Go ahead.”
“Incoming message from Commander Danube. The Pufferfish has received a distress call from a Nusuran cargo vessel. All hands should prepare for battle and report to the nearest acceleration chamber. A-ring jump in nineteen minutes.”
The words of her personal AI unit, Doc, came from the directional speakers of her comm unit, secured in the bulky collar of her one-piece uniform. Doc himself existed primarily as code etched invisibly into the layers of memory crystal that formed Mops’ green-tinted monocle.
“What’s the status on the rest of the team?”
“JG Monroe is in his quarters. Technician Kumar is working to repair a cracked sewage relay on deck L. I’ve relayed the commander’s instructions to them both. Technician Mozart is in the brig.”
“Of course she is.” Mops stretched, grimacing at the popping of her left shoulder. There was no pain, but the sound and sensation made her cringe. The joint had started acting up two years ago, like machinery past its warranty.
She left her small quarters and hurried toward the center of the Pufferfish. The ship was built like an oversized torpedo, with three elongated weapons pods protruding like outriggers spread equidistant around the hull. The brig was near the aft engines. “How many times is this?”
“This is Crewman Mozart’s fourth incarceration since she was transferred to your SHS team. It’s her eighth during her one-year service with the Earth Mercenary Corps. Three more incidents, and she’ll break the EMC disciplinary record.”
She greeted several of the crew on her way to the central lifts. Doc automatically tagged them with their name and rank, not that Mops needed the assistance. After more than a decade aboard the Pufferfish, she knew them all. “Why wasn’t I notified when it happened?”
“You were off duty. Commander Danube is recommending Technician Mozart be expelled from service.”
“I’m not ready to give up on her.” Mops hurried into the first available lift, joining Sergeant Claus from infantry. She nodded a greeting as the doors closed and the lift shot downward.
“Where you off to, smoothie?” asked Claus. Mops outranked him, but relations between the soldiers and the noncombat crew tended toward the informal, and she’d known Claus for most of her life. His rebirth had been a year after Mops’ own. After Mops, he was one of the oldest humans on the ship.
It was easy to recognize the soldiers, not only by the unit insignia on the right shoulder of their uniforms, but from the scars they accumulated over the years. The left side of Claus’ face was a mess of scar tissue from a flamethrower attack two years back. An old plasma burn striped his right cheek.
The only smooth-skinned humans on an EMC ship were either shipboard maintenance or brand-new recruits. Mops had a few small scars from her life before the Krakau cured her, but those were all hidden beneath her uniform. Nor would anyone mistake the faint lines around her eyes and mouth for battle scars.
“I need to take care of a mess in the brig,” she said.
Claus snorted. “That mess wouldn’t happen to be named Mozart, would it? I hear she picked a fight with a Glacidae this time.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that child. She’s not happy in SHS, but you know infantry won’t take her. Danube wants to send her back to Earth.”
“Ouch.” He pursed his lips, crinkling his ragged blond mustache. “Give me combat drops any day over trying to survive a planet overrun by ferals. You know if she has enough saved up for passage to one of the stations? Humans can make decent money working security.”
“I doubt it. She’s not big on long-term planning.” Or short-term planning, for that matter. “What’s the word on this distress call?”
“Command crew doesn’t tell us grunts anything. We go where they send us and shoot what they tell us.” Claus clapped her arm as the lift came to a halt. “Good luck with Wolf, Lieutenant.”
Mops hurried down the corridor to the heavy brown door labeled Brig and Backup Emergency/Acceleration Shelter in Human.
The door unlocked with a heavy clunk. Inside was a narrow rectangular hallway with eight transparent doors, four to each side. A larger door on the end led to the control room. Two guards approached to greet her.
“Morning, Lieutenant,” said Private Williams, an older man with a permanent smirk, courtesy of a dark knife scar across his cheek. “Come to claim your janitor?”
“It was either that or make her walk the plank.” Mops’ quip was met with blank looks from both guards, who were apparently unfamiliar with old human pirate stories. She sighed and tried a different conversation opener. “How’s your garden coming along?”
Calling Williams’ Earth mosses and lichen a “garden” was stretching things, but given how few plants could survive life on an EMC cruiser, he’d done an amazing job keeping his little collection alive.
“I can’t get the letharia to thrive. It’s not strong enough for the A-ring jumps.”
“That’s the yellow one with the tufts and branches, right?”
“They’re supposed to be green, but ship’s lighting isn’t right.” His expression brightened. “The caloplaca’s doing great, though. If it keeps spreading, I’ll need to pick up some new rocks.”
Mops chuckled and approached the only occupied cell.
Glowing letters in the wide, glassy door labeled it Cell 6. “Doc, how long until we jump?”
A narrow cot strained to hold Technician Wolfgang Mozart’s bulk. The guards had stripped Wolf of her equipment and harness, leaving her black jumpsuit bare and baggy. A short blue service stripe on her upper right sleeve marked her time in the EMC, just as the two short and one long red Lieutenant stripes on Mops’ denoted her twelve years.
Wolf’s sleeves were pushed back to the elbows, exposing the tattoo of an Earth wolf on her left forearm. She flexed her muscles, and the reactive inks animated the wolf’s jowls, making it bare its teeth in challenge. “I was just doing my job. The Glacidae should be in here, not me. They’re the one who started giving me crap.”
Mops folded her arms and said nothing. Anticipating her next request, Doc pulled up the incident report details on her monocle.
The cot creaked as Wolf sat up and ran thick fingers through her dark, sweat-spiked hair. She looked Mops up and down, probably trying to assess how much trouble she was in. “I mean that literally, you know. I was busting my ass trying to clear a jam in their toilet. The next thing I know, they’re shooting shit-pellets in my direction.”
“That wasn’t excrement. Technician Gromgimsidalgak was expelling unfertilized eggs.”
“Whatever. It was like a machine gun from their ass.”
“I’m sure Grom was as unhappy about it as you were.” The ship’s four Glacidae crew normally spent a few days in Medical during this phase of their reproductive cycles. It must have snuck up on Grom this time. “Williams, I need Wolf released and her gear returned.”
Williams hesitated. “She assaulted a member of the crew. I’m not supposed to release her—”
“Unless there’s an overriding operational need, and someone supervises her conduct,” Mops interrupted. “My team’s short-staffed and we’re about to jump. If we’re going into battle,
I need Wolf on duty, not napping in the brig. I’ll babysit her myself.”
“Yes, sir.” Williams ducked into the command room to fetch Wolf’s equipment while the other guard—Tzu—unlocked the cell.
“It wasn’t just eggs, you know.” Wolf held up her hands. Black scabs dotted her palms. “These are from Grom’s stingers.”
“You threw the first punch.” Mops chuckled. “And not a very good one, from the sound of it. At least not a good enough punch to keep Grom down.”
“There’s one other citation from Security’s report,” said Doc, pulling it up on Mops’ monocle and highlighting a passage near the end.
Mops groaned. “Of all the asinine . . . The rest of the galaxy already thinks of us as barely sentient animals, Wolf. You can’t go around threatening to eat people’s faces!”
Wolf sagged back in her cot. “I’ll apologize, all right? I didn’t know they were . . . what do you call that? Eggstrating? I’ll bring Grom one of those methane slushees from the mess. The thing put up a hell of a fight for their size. I can respect that.” She shook her hand in mock pain.
The cell door slid open, just as a ten-minute countdown popped up in the corner of Mops’ monocle. “Move ass, Technician. We’ve got a jump coming up.”
Wolf’s belongings were standard issue. Where the guards and soldiers carried sidearms and ammo and restraints in their equipment harnesses, SHS personnel were loaded down with an array of hand tools and cleaning supplies, from high-pressure canisters of disinfectants, paints, and sealants to more specialized items like ultraviolet lighting for spotting shed Glacidae spines.
Wolf brought her monocle to her left eye socket. It jumped into place with a faint click, secured by the magnets implanted beneath the skin.
“Do you want to be sent back to Earth?” Mops asked in a low voice.
“And miss the chance to scrape slime from the water circ filters in the captain’s quarters every week?” Wolf asked bitterly.
“You need to grow the hell up, Technician. I know you’re unhappy here, but you can’t solve every problem by punching it.”
“Course not.” Wolf tightened the last of her harness straps.
“That’s why we have blasters and batons.”
Four egg-shaped indentations slid open in the back wall of the cell as Tzu converted the interior to a jump chamber. Tzu and Williams stepped through the doorway.
Mops gave Wolf a weary shove. “Hook yourself in. We’ll sort the rest out after the mission.”
Mops settled into the last vacant pod and raised her hands. The attachment points locked into matching mechanisms on her harness and tightened her into place. “Doc, what’s the status on the rest of the team?”
“Monroe and Kumar are both secure in acceleration chambers B-11 and D-4, respectively.”
Mops relaxed, letting the gelatinous padding of the acceleration pod mold itself to her body. Like practically everything else, the pod, the gel, and the acceleration rings were Krakau inventions. Technically, even humanity was a Krakau invention. They were the ones who’d figured out how to restore the feral remnants of humanity. To reconstruct Earth culture and a Human language.
“This distress call, you think it’s pirates?” asked Wolf.
“They’re Nusurans,” said Tzu. “Probably started fooling around, got distracted, and crashed into an asteroid.”
While she waited, Mops had Doc call up the ever-growing backlog of repairs, inspections, routine maintenance, and emergency cleanups assigned to her team. A backlog that was about to get even longer. With every A-ring jump, there were always a handful of people who suddenly lost the contents of their stomachs. The lucky ones lost said contents through their mouths.
Mops had never been able to fully wrap her brain around A-ring technology. The Krakau had developed it a hundred and fifty years ago, opening the galaxy to interstellar travel and communication. From the reading she’d done, the rings were similar in some respects to old human jet engine technology. Where a jet engine compressed and accelerated airflow, A-rings gravitationally compressed space itself. Essentially, they pinched the universe, then shot the ship through like a pellet from a space-time slingshot.
The Pufferfish carried thirty A-rings. From a distance, they looked like an enormous white hose coiled around the bow. Each ring could be launched and expanded to allow the ship to pass through. The rings were only a meter or so deep, but the Pufferfish would traverse the equivalent of hundreds of kilometers in that single relativistic meter.
A hundred kilometers was nothing in interstellar terms. What mattered was the acceleration the ship gained in the process. As the A-ring disintegrated from the amount of energy being channeled, it sent the ship ahead at many times the speed of light.
Human scientists had believed light speed was an absolute limit. Of course, human science also used to believe meat transformed into maggots, the Earth was the center of the universe, and cholera could be treated with a tobacco smoke enema.
Mops had once written to the Technological Advancement Council, asking about relativity and the light speed barrier. The rather brusque reply explained that light speed was an absolute barrier. Any object traveling at the speed of light would be instantly destroyed. Which was why they used the A-rings to skip past that barrier and accelerate directly to faster-than-light speed.
It had been a remarkably unilluminating response.
The countdown approached zero. Mops closed her eyes, exhaled hard, and tightened her core as she felt herself slammed hard against the back of her pod. Inertial manipulation and the loopholes of relativity kept the crew from being instantly transformed into lumps of bloody jam, but technology could only do so much.
Three things happened more-or-less simultaneously. The Pufferfish leaped through interstellar space, thumbing its nose at primitive human science. The A-ring disintegrated in a flash of light and radiation. And everyone on board passed the hell out.