Cover-Up, Part 2 – Astra Nullius

Cover-Up, Part 1 - Astra Nullius
Such People In It – 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

Nyx didn’t need the warning lights on her console to know that they were in trouble. She could tell from the vibration of the deck beneath her feet that Sera was giving all the power she could to the ion rocket and the smaller, weaker chemical thrusters. They were traveling in a straight line away from any known planets, out into empty space. Sera couldn’t engage the FTL drive with another ship on their tail.

They could turn around and head back towards Drake-371, to see if their pursuer would follow them. Best case scenario, their enemy wanted to avoid attention as much as they did. Worst case, their enemy had more friends on the planetoid. It made sense–who else would have caught up with them so quickly, except someone who knew their movements and was waiting for them to leave?

“Um,” Weyland said, “there’s a light.”

“Ignore the lights.” Sera had to yell to be heard across the bridge over the rising hum of machinery rattling itself loose from its bolts. “I’ve got everything under control.”

“This is not what under control looks like,” Nyx told her.

“This light, I think it’s important,” Weyland said.

“Ignore the lights! The lights don’t matter. I can deal with this.” Sera’s fingers danced across her console, diverting power here, adding it there. Nyx’s screen began to flash a message about oxygen levels.

“You can’t turn power off to the life support systems,” she told Sera.

“Only temporarily! Only the carbon dioxide scrubbers. We’ve got plenty of air. Don’t worry about it.”

The whole ship was shaking violently now as amateur welds and cheap bolts strained against the massive force of forward thrust. The diagram on Nyx’s screen showed two points of light drifting further apart, one hovering at the very edge of the circle that marked a safely empty space around the Benevolence. The enemy ship was falling back at last. Their attackers couldn’t match this speed, or maybe they just weren’t stupid enough to try.

“I’m going to do something about this light,” Weyland said, reaching for the console in front of him.

His finger hit the screen a fraction of a second before Sera could yell, “Don’t touch anything!”

The flashing warnings shrank into the bottom corner of Nyx’s screen, replaced by an image of a stranger’s face. She had the dark blue-green skin and hairless head of an Eridani, but she wasn’t wearing a military uniform. What Nyx could see of her outfit looked very much like a shabby suit, cut to fit around the gills on either side of her wide neck.

She spoke low and fast, like a woman who was afraid of getting cut off if she didn’t get his message across quickly. Her English was crisp, unfiltered by a translator. “I must apologize for the hostilities. Some of my colleagues argued that it was the only way to get your attention, but I believe that this conflict can be resolved nonviolently. We are prepared to pay you for your cargo, although I am afraid we cannot match its assessed value.”

“I’m turning off power to the com systems,” Sera said.

“No, you aren’t. And if you don’t turn life support back on, I’m shutting off your access to the system.”

Nyx turned back to the stranger, who was wringing her webbed hands anxiously. Someone offscreen was saying, “You have to begin a message by hailing the other ship with your name and rank. We talked about this.”

“But I haven’t got a–fine, I’ll do it, just give me a moment, would you kindly?” The Eridani took a deep breath, squared her shoulders in a poor approximation of proper posture, and said, “This is Professor Po Nonnus, of the Turris Eburnea. I have contacted you in order to negotiate a trade for the cargo you are carrying.”

Nyx cupped her chin in her palm and used her upturned fingers to hide her smile. She did look a bit like a professor, although she’d heard of pirates in stranger getups. “This is Captain Nyx Dysart of the Benevolence. I’m afraid you haven’t given me much reason to place my trust in you right now. Why were you shooting at my ship?”

Professor Nonnus was elbowed half out of the frame by a human woman. She was young, with light hair pulled back in a sensible bun, and there was fury in every line of her face. “It’s the only language these bandits understand!” she told the professor. “Don’t give them the chance to get away with such precious cargo. Stick to the plan–disable the ship, and take what’s ours!”

“It isn’t ours,” said the professor. “It belongs to the people. Please, Captain Dysart, I beg you–even if you care nothing for art, maybe we can pay a fair price for one or two of the pieces.”

Nyx sat back in her chair and considered the screen for a long moment. “One moment, if you please, professor.” She stood and went over to Weyland’s station, bending close to his ear so her words wouldn’t be audible over the cacophony on the bridge. “Keep the conversation going. Don’t let Sera touch the life support systems.”

“Ok,” said Weyland. “Um, how am I supposed to do that?”

But Nyx had already turned away. The door to the bridge was stuck closed, something crucial rattled loose in its circuitry. She kicked at one side of it until it slammed into its groove in the wall, then squeezed through the gap.

A slurry of liquid covered the floor of Weyland’s lab, clumps of green algae floating in a thin pink substrate. The fake panel Sera had installed was close to the floor. It was easy to find; the vats in front of it had rolled away. Nyx went through Weyland’s drawers until she found a screwdriver, then crouched in front of the false wall. This close to the floor, she realized that the liquid had a smell, something between mildew and raw meat. She breathed through her mouth and concentrated on opening the panel.

The crates had been jostled, but their metal sides were still intact. Nyx dragged one out, laid it on Weyland’s workbench, and popped the clasps that held the lid closed.

Inside were rows of palm-sized cardboard boxes, all of them unlabelled. Nyx opened one and shook the contents into her hand. Each pill was smooth and hard, with nothing stamped on their white circular faces. She pressed down on one with her nail, expecting it to chip, but it held firm. They weren’t as fragile as Buddy had claimed after all.

She dug down through the layers, letting boxes spill onto the countertop, and pulled out another box from further down in the pile. The pills in this one looked the same, but there was a slight grittiness to their surfaces. Nyx pinched a bit off of one, examined the crumbled white residue, then brought her fingertip to her tongue.

Salt tablets. She’d heard of the trick before, although she’d never had reason to try it herself: a layer of goods that seemed legitimate, and then the real cargo underneath.

But why put the drugs on top, and the salt below? You couldn’t fool a customs agent that way. But maybe you could fool a smuggler into thinking that they were transporting a load of party drugs while you hid the real cargo underneath.

Nyx scooped pill boxes out of the crate by the armful, dumping them on the floor. Five layers deep, she found what she was looking for: a smooth-sided metal case, lightweight but not empty.

She pulled it out, set it on the counter, and opened it. There was a layer of foam wrapping; she lifted this carefully, because whatever this cargo was, someone had gone to great lengths to keep it safe.

Nyx stared at the contents. Then she replaced the foam wrapping and pulled out her com screen. “Weyland, keep the professor on the line. Sera, maintain our current speed, but don’t use the FTL drive even if you’re at a safe place to do so. Unplug Jianyu from the guns and send him back here.”

There was a burst of confused voices from the bridge. Nyx ignored them and went back to work excavating the crates. By the time Jianyu made it to the lab, she had opened another crate and found the same sort of case within. The contents were exactly what she expected.

Jianyu stepped into the room. “You wanted me here, captain?”

“I needed your informed opinion.” Nyx took one of the items out of the case and held it up. “Do you recognize this?”

Jianyu’s cheeks turned a darker shade of green. “Um, not that specific picture, no. But the… general anatomy… appears to be correct.”

Nyx held up another square of canvas. She knew enough about Eridani anatomy to recognize that the green-skinned figure in repose in the center of the painting was female. “I think I’ve seen this one before.”

“It’s a very famous painting. A rough translation of the title might be The Luncheon in the Pond. But the original was destroyed in the crackdown on obscene materials. May I?” Nyx handed the canvas over, and he took it carefully. “This is a very good replica. Look, the paint’s even cracking here. A good printer might be able to recreate the brush strokes, but the aging effect is incredible.”

“How much would this be worth, if it were the real thing?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know, Captain. But if I had to guess–millions of credits, at least. If you could find a buyer for it. I mean, I’m sure you could, but I don’t know anything about the art market.”

Millions of credits, for only one painting. And it wasn’t just one; each crate held dozens of pieces, and there were ten total crates stowed away. For that price, Nyx could take her time learning about the art market. For that price, she could split the profits evenly between the crew and still have enough money to retrofit the ship for a long-distance journey.

But it was art. It was a sliver of cultural history that one of the galaxy’s many warring governments had tried to censor, and it wasn’t hers to take.

Jianyu said, “If it’s real, we should give it to the professor.”

“Millions of credits,” Nyx said, softly. “Just think about it.”

“I am thinking about it,” said Jianyu. “I’m thinking about how wonderful it’s going to be when the Eridani government stops destroying everything it can get its hands on, and how happy people are going to be that these priceless artifacts were kept by someone who wants to put them on display again.”

“Always running toward the fire,” Nyx said.

“Every time, Captain.”

“I’ll tell Sera to turn the ship around.”

Sera

Professor Nonnus grabbed Captain Dysart’s arm. Sera reached for her gun, but the professor was only moving in for an enthusiastic handshake. “I can’t thank you enough,” she said. “To see so many irreplaceable works of art stashed away by some private buyer–well, I believe the world would be poorer for it, and I’m glad you feel the same way.”

“Never did agree with those obscenity laws,” said Captain Dysart.

“And I can’t apologize enough, captain,” said the young woman, who’d boarded the ship with several other crew members to complete the handoff. In person, she was pale and soft-figured, with dark makeup and a daringly asymmetric outfit that screamed art student.

The captain turned to her and clasped her hand with more than customary enthusiasm. “I can’t fault a woman for having passion. What brought you all the way out here?”

“I was completing a dissertation on Luncheon in the Pond when the obscenity laws were passed. For years, I thought the painting had been destroyed. To learn that it still, existing, and then to realize it might be lost forever–I’m afraid I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

“I would be delighted to show you the painting. But the room it was stored in is a mess–perhaps, my own quarters would suffice?”

Sera said, “No, we have to go now.”

“It would be an honor to finally see it in person,” said the student, as the captain’s hand slid around to the small of her back.

Sera scrubbed her knuckles across her jaw. “Captain. I’m serious. The people who hired us will be monitoring our progress, and they will realize something’s off. Our two ships need to head in opposite directions as fast as possible, and engage the FTL drives as soon as it’s safe.”

Captain Dysart sighed. “Are you absolutely sure, Sera?”

“Completely. Sorry, captain. You made your choice.”

In less than an hour, the two ships were far enough away from each other to use their FTL drives safely. Sera punched in the command to start the process, and watched Jianyu’s eyes lose focus as he ran through the complex calculations that would keep them traveling safely through the folds of space and time that the drive created. In front of her, the light of the stars smeared and blurred. She slumped back in her chair, suddenly exhausted. She balled her hands into fists to stop her fingers from shaking. Flying fast was a thrill like no other, but the adrenaline rush never lasted.

Captain Dysart said. “It’s a mess in the lab. You should help clean it up.” She sounded more tense than usual; she must have been angry that she’d been tricked.

Sera sighed, stood up, and made her way to the lab. Pill boxes were scattered everywhere, and some had fallen to the floor, where the liquid that had leaked out of Weyland’s vats was turning the cardboard into mush. Sera sighed and got down on her knees to start the process of sorting out the mess. Her trousers were soaked through almost immediately.

The intercom chimed. “Call for you from Drake-371,” Weyland told her. “Should I put it through to your com screen?”

“Stall for as long as you can,” Sera told him. She looked around the room, suddenly frantic. How was she going to explain how she’d lost the cargo? If she was lucky, Buddy might only come after the captain, and leave the rest of the crew in peace.

Jianyu walked into the lab. “Thought you might want some help in here.”

“Perfect,” said Sera, as inspiration dawned. “I need you to punch me in the face.”

Jianyu said, “What? No. Why would I do that?”

Sera grabbed his arm. “Listen, the people who hired us for this job, they’re not going to like losing this cargo. If they find out we just gave it away, they’ll come after us. They’ll want the full value back. And if we can’t pay, things are going to get very nasty for everyone on this crew who likes having both their eyes and a full set of toenails.”

“They wouldn’t,” Jianyu said.

“They would,” said Sera, “and they’re on the line waiting to talk to me right now. So you can convince the captain to turn around and take those paintings back from her new friends, or you can punch me in the face and I’ll make up a story about how hard we fought to keep the cargo.”

“Will that work?”

“I don’t know,” said Sera. “I’ll willing to give it a try.”

“Okay,” said Jianyu. He cupped her jaw with one hand, bracing her head. “Where should I hit you?”

Sera looked up at her friend’s face. She forgot sometimes how big Jianyu was, and that his wide shoulders and round waist were thick with more muscle than fat. He didn’t carry himself like a man who could really hurt someone. “Anywhere on the bottom half of the face. Avoid the eyes, please.”

“Sorry,” said Jianyu, and hit her.

There was a moment of pure pain, so intense that it was impossible to remember even the fear of disappointing Buddy. Jianyu kept her from falling, and Sera came to with his hands on her shoulders, holding her up. She put her fingers to her mouth, winced, and pulled them back.

“You split my lip,” she said. The words came out slurred. She thought she could already feel the swelling starting.

“Was that what you wanted?” Jianyu asked.

“It’s perfect.” Sera took her com screen out of her pocket. “Stand back. I want it to look like it’s just me in here.”

Jianyu retreated to the corner of the room. Sera hit the intercom. “Put Buddy through now”

Buddy’s face was fuzzed and distorted. It was possible to communicate with a ship travelling faster than light, but the signal never came through clean. “What’s happening out there?” he asked. “I heard someone picked you up on their sensors with another ship in pursuit.”

“I’m sorry, Buddy. I gave it everything I had, but they caught up to us.” When she spoke, she felt blood trickling down her chin. Perfect. “They trashed the ship. Found the fake panel.” Sera flipped the com screen around and panned the camera across the best scene of destruction she could find: the toppled vats and the pill boxes scattered across the floor.

Buddy growled. Sera flipped the com screen back around. He said, “They left the pills. Those assholes knew what they were looking for.”

“You’ve got a leak in your organization, Buddy. Sorry you had to find out this way.” It wasn’t technically a lie. The academics must have found out that the paintings were being moved from someone in the know. “I could bring the pills back. They’ve got some value, right?”

“Cheap factory trash. Toss them out the airlock.”

“If there’s anything I can do–”

“Oh, I’ll be expecting repayment for the value of the cargo in full.”

Sera winced. She didn’t have that kind of money; the whole ship wasn’t worth that kind of money. “What was in the boxes?” she asked, playing dumb. “I mean, the guys who did this, they were total professionals.” Lying came easy enough, and with the distance of the com screen between them, she was sure she was almost. “What were we really carrying?”

“A bunch of paper with paint on it. I don’t know, it’s all grey to me. But valuable paper.”

“You could have told me, Buddy,” Sera said. “I thought this was just a normal run.”

Buddy growled. “And what would that have changed, besides giving you even more temptation to steal from me? I don’t pay you to talk, I pay you to get the job done. And since you can’t even do that for me, turn that sad collection of scrap metal you call a ship around, and you can start paying off your debt by selling it for parts.”

“Ok, Buddy. I’ll start heading back now.” The door opened with a squeal of metal on metal as something that had been shaken loose in the mechanism protested. Sera ended the call and stuffed the com screen back into her pocket.

Jianyu

Weyland stood in the doorway, examining at the wreckage in his lab. His expression, as ever, was impassive. He looked at Sera. “You’re bleeding.”

“All part of my brilliant plan,” said Sera.

Jianyu realized that he had blood on his knuckles. He scrubbed them against the fabric of his trousers. If Weyland noticed, he didn’t say anything. “Are we still delivering these pills?”

“Nope,” said Sera. “Anyway, it turns out most of them are salt tablets.”

“Good,” said Weyland. “I could use more salt.”

The artificial gravity stuttered. For a moment Jianyu felt as though he was being pressed into the floor. Weyland grabbed for the doorway to stabilize himself, and Sera grunted as if she had just shouldered an invisible weight. The pressure receded, and the liquid on the floor began to rise in thick droplets before gravity kicked back on at its normal not-quite-planetary pull.

“I should probably… help clean this up.” Jianyu’s stomach churned as he looked around the room. It was a lot of work, and all he wanted to do was lie down and let someone else do it.

“I need to fix the artificial gravity,” Sera said. She looked at Jianyu. “I could use some help.”

Jianyu followed her. When the door to the lab had shut behind them, Sera put a hand on his arm. She was the one with the split lip, but she was looking at him as if he were the one who needed medical attention. “Maybe you should get some rest,” she said. “You’re looking green around the gills. Or, you know, not green. Whatever’s not supposed to be going on in your general gill area, you’ve got that.”

Now that he was away from the smell of the ruined lab, his nausea was beginning to fade again. “I’d rather get some work done,” he said, and almost convinced himself that he meant it.

Sera retrieved her tool kit from her room and changed into a dry pair of pants and her customary cargo vest while Jianyu pulled out his com screen and assessed the ship’s damage. He’d spent some time reprogramming the interface that engineers had used on the original Benevolence; for weeks after the initial attack, he’d seen nothing but emergency alerts warning him about parts the ship no longer had. The engines were working well, and the bulk of the life support systems had been spared, but some of the smaller mechanical parts of the ship had been jarred loose by the shots and the madcap flight that had followed.

“I notice you’re not turning the ship around,” he said.

“I’m not an idiot,” Sera said. “I’ve got better things to do with the rest of my life than being Buddy’s indentured servant.”

He showed Sera the problem spots on his com screen. They walked down the narrow corridors aft of the Benevolence, where the hum of the FTL drive was a low, persistent rumble.

Sera stopped at a wall panel, took a screwdriver from one of the many pockets on her dingy green vest, and began to unscrew the thin sheet of metal that hid the inner workings of the Benevolence. “So, how’d you end up working for a dog?” Jianyu asked her as she worked.

Sera shifted the panel aside, propped it up against the wall, and considered the tangle of mechanical parts and wires within. “I was doing odd jobs for a while before someone introduced me to Buddy. He likes pilots who can do their own repairs, and who know when tolerance limits are more of a suggestion.” She made a few quick movements inside the wall, then pulled a metal object loose and held it up to the light to inspect it. Gravity shifted for a second, then settled. “He was already making a name for himself in Minervan space, but he wanted to do business outside it. Minervan territories were too spread out to maintain a real economy, and most residents weren’t in the market for luxuries back then.”

Jianyu had heard stories about the fall of the Coalition, although he hadn’t been around to witness it firsthand. Three of the species that had once been allied–humans, Eridani, and Falacerians–had become more reactionary and more insular as the political situation deteriorated. Centaurians had always struggled to understand statecraft, and so they had fallen back on their queens’ opinions, and their queens only cared for their own hives.

Minervans had had it worst of all. They had no centralized government, no shared language, no culture or even body structure in common. They were tolerated as unfortunate invalids in Centaurian hives and treated as second-class citizens in Falacerian society, provided they had the appropriate bodies. The human and Eridani governments, too busy ramping up aggression with each other to pay attention to Minervan rights, had let discrimination slide into outright cruelty. And so refugees all across known space had suddenly found themselves thrown together in hard-to-reach systems and undesirable planets, making the best of a bad lot. They hadn’t been the only ones left to fend for themselves. Dozens of sentient species had lived in the vast stretch of known space, building businesses that depended on peace and prosperity. And then of course there were those rare few like Jianyu with more than one species in their genetic code, products of the Coalition with no obvious place outside it.

He didn’t know why Sera had ended up so far outside human-occupied space when the Coalition crumbled. He had a feeling she didn’t want to tell that story just yet.

“So if we’d sold those paintings, how would you have spent your millions of credits?” he asked instead.

Sera smacked the metal object against her thigh, then held it up to the light again. “I’d just keep traveling. I’d buy a nicer ship than this one, though. Something somebody’s still making parts for. Fabrication can only get you so far.”

“You wouldn’t want to settle down? No planets in mind for a future home?”

Sera pulled a wire cutter out of one of her breast pockets, sliced two of the wires on the broken part, and began the process of two of the ends together. “I don’t like to stick around in one place for too long. Makes me feel itchy. Plus, Buddy would find me eventually, and I’d either die or waste all my money paying off bounty hunters.”

She put the piece of machinery back inside the wall and fiddled with the wiring again. Gravity smacked him down into the deck, then returned to its customary pull. Sera thumped the wall with her hand. “Piece of shit,” she said, with evident affection.

“And that’s it?” Jianyu asked.

“Sure,” said Sera. “Unless you have another secondary coupling with a thirty-three-millimeter filament in the power coil. Either this one keeps working until another one turns up on the market, or we’re going to have to get used to floating.”

Jianyu looked around at the walls, each filled with a hundred parts that could break at any time.

“I can fix a ship, but I can’t fix a navigator,” Sera told him. “So stop pretending you don’t need a break, ok?”

Jianyu started to say that he was fine, he didn’t need a rest, and the look on Sera’s face told him he wasn’t fine at all.

Lying on his narrow bed, in the strange mental landscape between wakefulness and sleep, Jianyu imagined that he could feel the Benevolence around him like it was an extension of his own body. When he breathed, the carbon dioxide scrubbers worked; when he twitched his fingers, a door slid open. And all through the ship there were wires stretched out like neurons, sparking with electricity back and forth between every connected part. He slept fitfully, dreaming of a ship adrift in space, transmitting a message he couldn’t understand.

🚀

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Cover-Up, Part 1 - Astra Nullius
Such People In It – Astra Nullius

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