Cover-Up, Part 1 – Astra Nullius

Gone Before, Part 2 - Astra Nullius
Cover-Up, Part 2 - Astra Nullius

You’re reading a story in the Astra Nullius series. Not sure where to begin? Check the episode indexstart with the first story, or check out the people and places so you can jump in anywhere.

Nyx

Now and again, the crew played card games at the table in the old conference room that had become the Benevolence’s mess hall. Captain Dysart allowed it, on the condition that her crew only wagered with chore duties, not with money. She’d even play for a round or two herself before bowing out when the pot got too large.

It was something the Coalition would have frowned on, a captain gambling with her subordinates, but there was something she found charming about the game. Maybe it was because they played with real paper cards, the edges fuzzed with years of handling, like cowboys in a period piece. Maybe it was because even Weyland would come out of his lab and join the game. She could barely admit it to herself, but maybe it was because she just liked winning, and she’d been playing long enough to recognize how Sera had crimped the cards.

As the captain drew a card from the deck and Xrrt struggled to hold her hand in her smaller secondary forelimbs, Sera said, “So, this guy I know has a job. It’s easy work. Just transporting some cargo.”

Jianyu rolled his eyes. “You can just say smuggling.” His cards were completely enveloped in one giant green hand.

Sera put her fingers over the deck and made it look like she was only picking up one card. Nyx watched for the twitch that accompanied an extra card disappearing up Sera’s sleeve. She told herself that it was probably a good thing to have a pilot with quick reflexes. “It’s not technically smuggling. Not under a lot of legal codes.”

And that was the problem, wasn’t it? The messy end of the Coalition had turned the galaxy into a patchwork of provinces and disputed territories. Drawing a clear line through ever-changing space had never been easy at the best of times, and now, it was anyone’s guess what was illegal where. “What’s the product?” Nyx asked.

“Pharmaceuticals,” said Sera.

“Drugs,” said Jianyu.

“Of course, they have some recreational uses–”

“What’s the chemical?” Weyland asked.

“Um,” Sera said, “I don’t know. This guy doesn’t answer a lot of questions.”

Xrrt fumbled her hand again and sent cards fluttering across the tabletop. Jianyu pushed them back over to her. Nyx let her eyes drift over them, not really sneaking a peak, just making sure she had the same information as everyone else. Xrrt had two aces. Damn.

Nyx dragged her eyes back to her own cards, but not before she’d caught a glimpse of cardstock poking out of Weyland’s sleeve. The ship’s doctor was no card sharp, but he’d been learning from Sera.

“The pay’s good,” Sera said. “And the job’s an easy one, I promise. I go way back with the guy we’d be working with. He’s a man of his word. Ok, not technically a man, but he’s not a liar.”

“Honor among criminals,” said Jianyu.

“I’ll think about it,” Nyx said.

Jianyu found her later as she was sitting in her chair on the bridge, contemplating the stars. The ship didn’t need constant oversight to function when the FTL drive was running, but Nyx still gravitated to the bridge whenever she had a free moment. Years of duty had carved too deep a groove on her routine.

They were in transit between planets, still well within the core of mapped and populated space but light-years from the nearest inhabited planet. The drive pushed space around the ship, and the light with it, the cold starlight distorted and made strange by physics Nyx couldn’t begin to comprehend. From this vantage point, Nyx could imagine that nothing had changed at all in the last five years. To the naked eye, the universe looked exactly as it did when she was a captain with the Coalition.

She heard Jianyu’s heavy step on the metal deck. He stopped next to her, the position of a subordinate delivering a report. She shrugged a shoulder in acknowledgement, but didn’t turn to him.

“We don’t need to smuggle drugs,” Jianyu said. “There are other ways of making money.”

Nyx said, “It’s a good payout for an easy job. We need more easy jobs. And we need more money. The carbon dioxide scrubbers need to be replaced again.”

“So cut my pay,” Jianyu said. “I can handle it.”

“Absolutely not. I appreciate the offer, but I can’t accept it.”

“What if it’s addictive? What if someone takes it and dies? Wouldn’t that blood be on our hands?” Nyx had never heard her navigator raise his voice in anger, but she could hear the strain humming through him now. “There are other jobs out there. We don’t have to accept this one.”

Nyx held up a hand to forestall further objections. “I’ll ask Weyland to analyze the chemical before we ship out. If it’s too dangerous, we’ll call off the deal.”

Jianyu started to say something, but Nyx waved her hand and he stopped. She said, “Someone once told me, when you see a disaster, don’t look at the people running away. Look at who’s running to help. That’s something I’ve always appreciated about you, Jianyu. You’re always running toward the fire.”

“Thank you, captain.”

“I want to be one of those people. I’ve tried to be one for a very long time. But there’s always something burning.”

“I know, captain.”

Nyx closed her eyes. When she reopened them, the scene was the same as ever: the stars wavering by, the ship humming softly. She hadn’t realized back in the day that the Benevolence had a voice of its own, a near-subsonic murmur that came from the engines and the ventilation system and the water reclamation pipes. The bridge had always been busy then, the hallways always filled with the sounds of footsteps and conversations and laughter. It took a big crew to keep a Coalition exploration class vessel running. She hadn’t even known the names of all the people working under her. She’d hardly played card games with any of them, and now most of them were probably dead because she’d made the wrong call in a battle she hadn’t even known she was fighting.

“Someday I’d like to go back out there,” she said. “I wonder what we left undiscovered, when we turned back. How much more could we have seen if we’d kept going for five years, or ten, or more?” The galaxy was a big place, too big to cross in a lifetime even with a ship unconstrained by the speed limits of light. Known space was still only a fragment of one arm of the great spiral galaxy. Nyx had travelled only the smallest distance out into the darkness, and found no end of wonders; she had no reason to doubt that they continued. “Maybe someday I’ll find out.”

Jianyu was silent for a long time. Finally, he said, “You don’t think the Coalition is going to reform, do you?”

“I don’t know,” said Nyx. “Maybe it will. Maybe even in my lifetime. But that’s a long time to wait for something that might never happen.”

“You could do something about it,” Jianyu said. “Get involved with politics, maybe. You’ve still got connections.”

Nyx sighed. “I never was much of a politician. And even if I wanted to be one, I’d need money.”

Space shifted and stretched around the Benevolence. In the crystalline window, the stars were distorted into smears and flashes in the darkness.

“I’d go with you, Captain,” said Jianyu. “Whatever you choose.”

“I know you would,” Nyx said.

Sera

Drake-371 was a planetoid in the Procyon system, too small to even have its own atmosphere. It had been a base for mining once, and when the most desirable ores had been shipped out, some of the miners had stayed behind in the old tunnels. The rock had become a waypoint of sorts, an unofficial trading post.

Gravity was low in the tunnels, the air was stale, and most of the walls were roughly carved out of bare rock. Sera had been to half a hundred nearly identical outposts throughout the galaxy. The instant familiarity of the flickering artificial lights and the press of bodies in the narrow tunnels made her fingers itch. Every species that had been a part of the Coalition, and many that hadn’t, walked or loped or oozed through these halls. Sera wasn’t sure if any government had officially tried to claim Drake-371; fighting over it would probably burn more money than the whole planetoid was worth.

The crew made their way through the tunnels. Sera went first, following the map she’d been sent; then came the captain and Xrrt, an unlikely duo. The Procyon system was not technically at war with anyone, but humans and Centaurians rarely kept company these days, even in the territories they were not actively fighting over. Next came Weyland, and finally Jianyu, bending so low he was nearly bowing to avoid smashing his head into the low roof of the tunnel.

Sera’s contact was one she had worked with before, back in the bad old days, when she would fly with any crew that would take her without asking too many questions. She found the address, an alcove off a side tunnel, and rapped on the door. It was like any other in the tunnels, heavy steel beginning to rust at the edges, but there was a hinged flap at the very bottom large enough for a child to crawl through.

There was a scrabble of claws and an excited bark from inside the room. A man opened the door, one hand on the knob and the other cradling a plasma assault rifle. He was tall, with close-cut hair on his head and an unkempt blonde beard. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, and each forearm was wrapped in floral tattoos. Sera had worked with him before; she didn’t know his real name, nor did he know hers. He didn’t even know the identity she went by with the crew of the Benevolence. In the circles they shared, he was called Flowers.

“Hey,” he said, looking more than a little surprised to see her. The rest of the crew had come up behind her, crowding the doorway; he looked at them, and lowered his rifle so the muzzle pointed at the floor. “You got a new crew?”

“Yeah,” Sera said. “Been with them about a year now. Can we come in?”

Flowers backed away from the door. A dog, German Shepherd mixed with something else large and shaggy, bounded up and put its front paws on Sera’s chest. Its claws snagged in the fabric of her vest. Sera ruffled it behind the ears, carefully avoiding the sensitive lump where its skull and spine came together. “Hey, Buddy. Who’s a good boy?” she asked.

The dog said, “I am.” It spoke well for an animal with surgically modified vocal cords, but there was a distinctly canine growl to the words.

The crew made their way inside. The dog sniffed each crotch in turn, and did as best it could nosing at Xrrt’s abdomen. She bore the inspection politely, her clawed forelimbs folded across her thorax.

The captain knelt and offered her hand. The dog placed its paw in her palm. “I’m Captain Dysart,” she said. Sera sighed. She’d talked to the captain about coming up with a fake name. She’d told her not to wear her old uniform either, but that didn’t stop the captain from stepping off the ship in her old purple shirt.

The dog said, “You can call me Buddy.”

Buddy was a Minervan: a sentient species of fungus that could live within nearly any host body with a brain. They had been early and enthusiastic members of the Coalition, spreading peace throughout the galaxy before humans had made it as far as Proxima Centauri. They weren’t picky about where they chose to spread their spores, so long as the prospective host body wasn’t conscious and sentient. Once firmly rooted in an otherwise unoccupied brain, they preferred to be treated as members of their host species. Minervan politics had been strange enough even before the breakup of the Coalition; most Minervans thought of themselves as the species they inhabited, not as the extra bit of fungal tissue they happened to use for higher-level cognition.

Sera closed the door behind them. The apartment was a small one, more of a safehouse than a permanent residence, although there was a plush doggie bed against the far wall. In one corner, cheap aluminum crates were stacked almost as high as the ceiling. Flowers inclined his head towards them. “Think you’ve got enough room for these?”

Jianyu said, “There’s plenty of room in the cargo hold.”

Sera shook her head at him, and he shut his mouth, although he looked uncomfortable. Running with such a painfully honest crew had taken some getting used to. She examined the crates with a critical eye. “Weyland, there’s a hatch in your lab that leads to a small tunnel. I’ve never needed to use it because most of the wiring there goes to systems the ship doesn’t have anymore. I’m going to rip that out, stow all this in there, and install a fake panel on top of it. Any objections?”

“Can I use it when you’re done?” Weyland asked.

“Sure, whatever.”

“Hang on,” said Captain Dysart. “I want to know what exactly we’re transporting.”

Flowers glanced at Buddy. The dog inclined his head slightly. Flowers said, “The Coalition would have considered it a class E drug. Human customs agents should let you go with a warning if they catch you with it. Avoid Eridani agents. They’re cracking down on all euphorics.”

“Never did understand why the Eridani government hates fun,” said Sera. Jianyu rolled his eyes, but had the good sense to stay silent.

“Before we leave, I’d like my doctor to analyze a sample of these drugs,” said Captain Dysart. “If we decide this compound is safe, we’ll take the job.”

Flowers and Buddy exchanged an inscrutable glance. “Sure, whatever,” Flower said. “Just try not to shake the crates up too much. The pills are fragile.”

“Got a way of transporting these out of here?” Captain Dysart asked.

“I’ll have them delivered to your ship.” Flowers stuck out his hand, and the captain shook it. “Good doing business with you, Captain.”

The crew began to file out. Sera turned toward the door. Flowers moved forward, not quite blocking her path, but close enough that he could do so with just one more step. Jianyu saw the movement and hung back, frowning.

“I’ll just be a moment,” Sera told him. “Meet you back at the ship.” He left, and she elbowed the door shut after him.

“So that’s your new crew,” Buddy said. His voice, always rough around the edges, had a hint of growl in it. The room was cold, but Sera was sweating.

“Why does your captain wear a Coalition uniform?” Flowers asked.

“It’s kind of her thing,” Sera said. “They’re a bunch of weirdos, but the job’s going to get done. I promise.”

Buddy sat down. His tail thumped against the rock floor. Sera had heard that dogs wagged their tails one way when they were happy, and another when they were angry. She never could figure out which was which; where she’d grown up, there hadn’t been much extra room for animals. Buddy said, “I can make introductions, if you’re looking to move on.”

“I like the ship,” said Sera. It wasn’t technically a lie; she cursed the quirks of the Benevolence daily, but she’d been trained to work with Coalition technology, and for all its mechanical faults the ship felt like home.

“I hope it goes fast,” said Flowers. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this job.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Sera, and brushed her knuckles across the small of her back, where a trickle of sweat was tickling her skin.

Jianyu

    Jianyu unbuckled himself from his chair. His stomach twinged–partially from hunger, partially nerves. It wasn’t as if he’d never bent the law before, but the path they had charted was going to take them through patches of space where these pills were definitely illegal. Beyond the windows of the bridge, the stars seemed immobile in the sky; the Benevolence was moving through normal space and time, already thousands of miles away from the dock on Drake-371.

“We’ve got some time before I can even think about the FTL drive,” Sera said. “Go get some rest, or whatever.”

The FTL drive was the best way to travel between stars, the only known way to move matter faster than light; it folded the fabric of the universe around itself, contracting the space in front of the ship and expanding it in the ship’s wake. Five hundred years ago, mankind had stepped onto the surface of earth’s moon. Two hundred years later, the descendants of a crew that had set course for the stars stepped off their generation ship on an earthlike planet rotating around Proxima Centauri. The Centaurians were already members of the Coalition in good standing then, and eager to welcome another sentient species to the sky. They had taught humans to build FTL drives, shrinking travel time between the stars from centuries to weeks.

There was one unfortunate downside: the FTL drive had to be activated far away from other planetary bodies and ships, lest they be caught in the same folds of space and time, with disastrous consequences. Sera would use the ion rocket to take them a safe distance from Drake-371, then engage the drive.

“So, that guy with the tattoos is a crime boss or something, right?” said Jianyu.

“Nope,” said Sera, keeping her eyes on the screen in front of her. “Flowers is just hired muscle.”

“He knows you? You know, from before the Benevolence?” Jianyu had spent the last year teasing details out of Sera. At times she was expansive, even eager to brag. But sometimes he’d find a spot where she’d stop talking, or change the subject, or lie so outrageously that even he could pick up on it.

“Yeah, we go way back. Went on a few runs together.” Sera tapped the screen, making a minor adjustment. “It was easy to get work when the Coalition was first cracking up. Refugees going in every direction, and not enough agents to vet them all. Fake identities everywhere. And the Eridani government was a gold mine, cracking down on everything. Sex bots, drugs, porn, all that fun stuff. Good times. Great pay.”

“So what’s with the dog? Did you know him too?”

Sera glanced over at him. She’d been smiling as she spoke before, but now her expression was guarded. “Yeah. He’s my old boss. Kind of a big deal in certain circles.”

“And you used to pat your boss on the head and call him a good boy?”

“He’s used to being a dog,” said Sera. “He doesn’t want to be treated like a human.”

“So, what did you used to do for him? Play fetch, scoop his poop?” Jianyu asked.

Sera’s eyes were hard, the muscles around her mouth pulled tight. “I flew ships,” she said. “That’s what I’m good at.”

Jianyu took that as his cue to leave her alone. The nausea was fading now, leaving hunger in its wake. It would be hours until the crew’s next meal. The ship ket its own time, unconnected to the daily cycle of any particular planet, but he was pretty sure that the clock was turning towards the time they had marked as the late evening.

Weyland had food in his lab. Jianyu hoped he wouldn’t have to fish it out of a vat himself. It wasn’t that he was disgusted by the practice of growing meat from stem cells; it was just one of those things he preferred not to see up close. Those big bubbles of flesh floating in fluid were only technically tumors.

Weyland was still in the lab, reorganizing the equipment that Sera had pushed aside while she was working on the maintenance hatch. A vat of algae had been pushed against the fake panel she had installed, and Jianyu was working on bolting it to the floor. If you didn’t know where to look for the metal that wasn’t quite flush with the surrounding wall, you’d never know anything was behind them. Weyland had propped his com screen up on top of the vat so he’d have something to watch while he worked; it was playing one of the ancient two-dimensional movies he liked.

“Just looking for a snack,” Jianyu said.

Weyland gave a one-shouldered shrug. “There’s some meat in the fridge.”

Jianyu opened the refrigerator door. There was a selection of slices laid out on metal trays; some were shades of pink, others brownish-grey. “What’s this?”

“Just cut some slices off the chicken. And there’s this thing from Xrrt’s planet, it’s sort of related to grasshoppers.”

“Okay,” said Jianyu. “You should probably label these.”

“I have a system,” said Weyland.

There was always something not quite right about Weyland’s version of chicken; if it wasn’t stringy, it was mushy, no matter how you cooked it. Jianyu picked up one of the grey slices instead, and thanked his lucky stars that he had inherited his father’s tastebuds. The Eridani homeworld was rich in insect proteins.

The ship didn’t have a real kitchen, just a collection of hot plates in the lab.  Jianyu slapped the slab of grey meat into a pan and turned on the heat. The original Benevolence had had its own kitchen, and a mess hall big enough for fifty crew members to eat together at the same time, but that had been lost with the rest of the ship. They’d even had a head cook who was actually trained in the culinary arts, although of course she was a genetic engineer too.

Weyland said, “Do Minervans creep you out?”

Jianyu rubbed the back of his neck at the spot where a lump would be, if the fungus had taken root in his body. It wasn’t something you talked about on a Coalition ship, for the same reason you didn’t mention how weird it was that Falacerians could get inside your thoughts, but it was always a little unnerving to know that some of the bodies walking the halls were being piloted by a parasite. “I worked with some, and they were all right.”

“Ugh,” said Weyland. “Weren’t you worried about, you know, their spores?”

“Well, there were never any reported problems when they were part of the Coalition–”

The ship lurched suddenly, too fast for the artificial gravity to adjust. Jianyu slammed into the counter in front of him, and managed to twist just enough to avoid smacking his hand down on the hot plate. The pan bounced off the wall, oil splashing up over the lip, and a droplet stung his arm.

He turned, and found the lab in disarray. Most of the vats were bolted down and their lids clamped shut, but Weyland must not have finished securing the ones that Sera had moved out of the way. Two heavy metal barrels were on their sides with liquid spilling out of them. One was the algae tank. The other had something pink and glistening sliding out of the open end.

Weyland had been knocked down by one of the falling vats. He pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, then crumpled again as the artificial gravity stuttered off and then back on at what felt like twice a full G. Jianyu helped him to his feet, then hit the nearest intercom button. “What was that?”

“I don’t know, but I’m taking us far away from it as fast as fucking possible,” Sera replied. “Get to the bridge and strap in.”

Weyland reached for his com screen, sighed, and dropped it; the screen was dark.

“Can you walk?” Jianyu asked.

Weyland frowned. “I think so.”

The ship shook again, a jolt from behind that sent them both stumbling forward. There was a warning alarm going off, a shrill note over and over. Something was wrong with the artificial gravity: one moment they’d be almost floating, the next the system would drag them down so hard that Weyland needed to lean against Jianyu to stay standing.

Over the intercom, Sera said, “I think some asshole’s shooting at us.”

By the time they made it to the bridge, the rest of the crew was already there. The captain was in her chair on the dais, her hands clenched on the armrests. Xrrt was strapped into a specially modified harness for Centaurians. Jianyu shoved Weyland into a chair that had once belonged to the communications officer and ran to his spot beside Sera before their enemy could hit them again.

“Jianyu, take control of the guns.” Captain Dysart’s voice was crisp, unhurried; she always seemed most like herself at moments like this, when everything hung in the balance. “Try to slow them down while Sera gets us out of here.”

Jianyu fumbled for the neural connector and switched the mode from navigation to defense systems before sliding the end into the port on his temple. Navigation was a complex and delicate art, one that required every bit of consciousness; defense was less taxing, with only six guns to consider, and no need to worry if a shot missed its mark.

His awareness was split between each of the guns. Two small laser guns were mounted facing ahead of the ship, precise but limited in strength. Poised to fire broadside were twin plasma cannons, each large enough to pack a substantial punch. Two more plasma cannons were aimed at the rear, one on each side of the flared bowl of the ion rocket. The plasma cannons had been recent additions to the ship; the laser guns had originally been drills, not offensive weapons.

Sera sent the Benevolence into a spin to dodge another attack from their enemy. Jianyu concentrated on the side cannons, and managed to score a glancing blow with a burst of plasma as the strange ship tumbled past his field of view. It certainly didn’t look like any official vessel he’d ever seen before. It was almost as small and irregularly shaped as the Benevolence, and the plasma made its cheap shield flicker as it sizzled across the translucent force field.

Sera fired the rear chemical thrusters and began to feed extra power to the ion rocket. The ship receded to a silver dot in Jianyu’s field of vision. He concentrated all his attention on the rear plasma cannons, trying to keep the enemy in focus, and fired.

The strange craft jerked away from the incoming projectiles. Jianyu was sure they’d left it behind, but the dot began to grow again. What remained of the Benevolence could put on a good turn of speed, and their cargo wasn’t exactly heavy at the moment.

But the enemy was faster.

🚀

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Gone Before, Part 2 - Astra Nullius
Cover-Up, Part 2 - Astra Nullius

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