“Alright, people, let’s all settle down.”
Gator, who I had learned served as both navigator and executive officer, was leading introductions the day before our freighter was scheduled to launch. So far as I knew, I was the only new member of the crew, but apparently the navigator was one of those sticklers for ceremony.
“This is Jack, he’ll be our new deckhand. Captain wants you to make him feel welcome and help him get acquainted with the ship. At least as best as you can before we launch tomorrow. Don’t feel too bad, Jack, if you’ve still got some questions before we leave. You’ll have plenty of time to figure things out on our trip to Velann II. Any questions?”
I looked around the cabin at my crew mates. There were six of them, not including myself. The navigator stood near the gangplank, imperiously towering over the rest of us, who were mostly seated. He — or maybe she, it’s always been difficult for me to determine gender among aliens — was one of the Farseers, and consequently wore an intimidating array of mechanized armor components to reinforce his otherwise weak physique.
In the bench beside the navigator sat Em the large, white, furry mechanic, complete with her leather apron filled with manual tools — wrenches, levers, bolt drivers, and the like. I still had not realized at the time how zealously she took her job.
Across the cabin from Em, and seated closest to myself, was Ghule. Despite his gaunt, beaked visage, I had come to find his appearance exceedingly common. Functional overalls worn over a plain t-shirt made him look almost mundane in his demeanor.
On the other side of the vulture-like alien, just inside the passageway that led to the cockpit, Mearr and Sys stood side-by-side.
The feline had the cocky saunter of a pilot smeared all over him, in the way he leaned against the bulkhead, and the bored smirk he held on his face that said he had already heard all of this before. I found myself beginning to boil on the inside as if the man’s impatience was directed at me personally.
Beside Mearr, in a position somewhere between sitting and standing, lurked Sys with a hollow expression. Its dark, chitinous skin made it blend in with the bulkhead behind it — the lighting on Bessie was less than what I would have liked — which made me have to glance twice before I managed to distinguish it from the background wall plating.
I turned my gaze away as soon as it became clear that Sys had turned its attention toward me.
As I swept my vision back across the room, I suddenly noticed a figure I had missed on my initial scan. Way down at the end of one of the halls, bustling back and forth, in and out of sight, was a thin, pale, bony-looking creature. Its cheeks were hollow caves, its eyes overshadowed by a prominent brow that left them looking like empty sockets. It scuttled back and forth as if rolling on some device, but then I noticed its four multi-jointed, crablike legs.
It seemed a frightening creature to have aboard, especially when I noticed the large knives and other sharp implements hanging from around its neck. I took a deep breath and turned away before it noticed me — or before I had time to give second thoughts to this job.
To my left, Ghule rose a hand to get the navigator’s attention.
“What’s the cargo?” he said when Gator turned his attention to him.
I heard the navigator take a deep breath before replying. “Classified. But that’s still probably something we should talk about.”
“Uh-oh,” said Mearr. Everyone turned to look at the feline pilot. “You know what that means? Passengers. Always does.”
Guhle was the first to look back up at Gator, but everyone else soon followed his lead. “Well?” he said.
Gator did the Farseer equivalent of clearing his throat before pressing on. “Well, yes. We are getting passengers. But not the kind that you think,” he added quickly. “And they’re not the principle cargo.”
Mearr started a low growl in the back of his throat. A similar thrumming began coming out of Sys. Guhle just glared.
Em, however, looked around the room with an open-mouthed puppy grin and asked, “What’s the big deal? I think it’s fun when we meet new people.”
“Thank you, Em,” said Gator. “But these aren’t the fun kind of people. They’re Farseer couriers.”
Everyone went still.
I only knew a little about the Farseers. They had only taken control of the Migo system within the last decade , so I hadn’t grown up in their territory the way some of the newer migrants to the orbital zone had. And it had been a year before I saw my first examples of the species in person, standing tall in their mechanized armor.
From what I know, Farseers have three eyes, and this somehow allows them to see the future or the present, but not both. And not all of it, either, just…more than most species.
It’s that clairvoyance that’s allowed them to maintain such a large and stable empire. They can see things that might happen or that are happening and are better able to plan a response. Add to that little trick one of the most systematically organized bureaucracies in the galaxy — again, from what I know of such things — and I suppose it’s no surprise that they are seldom attacked and have never been successfully invaded.
Thing is, highly successful bureaucracies like these tend to come with really strict limitations. And the stick-up-your-ass officials to keep it going.
In other words, not the kind of people you wanted to have around if you’re a free-wheeling freighter crew.
“What’s the deal, Gator?” said Guhle. “I mean, we’ve never had any trouble with the officials before. And Farseers? They know there’s no danger to their cargo. Even if we were going to steal it, they’d know about it. They can keep an eye on us from lightyears away, right?”
“So the stories say,” said Gator. Though I wondered at his uncertainty, seeing as he was a Farseer himself.
“So why the couriers?”
“It’s policy. Can’t argue with it. But the pay’s good, so Captain thought it was worth it.”
Mearr let a quiet hiss slip out of his mouth and flattened his ears against his head.
“That’s all you need to know for now,” said Gator, turning toward Mearr and cutting off whatever the pilot was about to say. “Understood?”
Nobody said anything, so Gator continued.
“Let’s hear a systems report, then. We need to be prepped for departure at 0-hour. Doesn’t give us a lot of time, so I want to make sure everything’s running smooth. Em? How’s the engine look?”
Em shrugged. “Fine by me, Gator. I tweaked a few things for this trip to see if I can cut down on pressure retention in the systemic valves, but other than that, should be as smooth a ride as last time. I’ll just keep an eye on them as we go.”
“Ok, good work. Sys, how’s our network holding up?”
Sys let out a series of buzzes and clicks before speaking in a common language. “It’d be nice to have another server to shunt subroutines to when I need more active memory, but it should serve for this trip. I don’t know if you’ve seen anything on the charts to indicate otherwise, but last I checked, this route was a quiet one.”
Gator nodded, tapping away at a few projection screens on his armor. “No, no. Nothing new on the charts. I’ll check them again before we leave, though. Of course.”
“Of course,” said Sys. “Then we should be fine. Like I said.”
“Alright. And I’m sorry about the servers. That’s on the Captain’s list for after this trip. He’s looking at a double-ex vee one-twelve to replace the one-oh-nine. But we’ll see what they have in the Velann system when we get there.”
I had no idea what any of the things they were referring to meant, but I had worked with various installation crews over the years, so I knew the average size of a double-ex vee series network server. Let’s just say it took more than one Brakkine to get it in place. I assume that means it’s powerful.
Mearr’s reaction confirmed my assumptions.
“Whew,” she whistled. “This really is a big payoff. Alright. Maybe I can put up with a few visitors for the trip. If they stay out of my way.”
“Well, Mearr, we won’t be making the trip at all if what I hear about your renovation in the cockpit is true. Are you and Sys going to have that done by departure time?”
“What time did you say we’re leaving again?”
“Zero-hour,” said Guhle, with a noticeable edge to his voice.
“Right. So that gives us…” Mearr counted out time on his fingers. “About ten hours? Sure. We can fly then.”
“Will I have anywhere to sit?” said Guhle with a bitter laugh.
“Ah, now that’s asking for luxury, Co. I can’t guarantee that.”
Guhle passed a hand in front of his face, resting it on his beak while Gator continued the conversation.
“I don’t think Cap is going to be pleased that you’ve torn out his equipment-”
“We didn’t tear it out. It’s all intact.”
“-without permission or a discernible reason.” Gator’s fingers clicked as he rapped them against his arm impatiently.
“Like Sys said, we’re hoping to improve network integration so she and I can fly the ship better. No harm in that, is there?”
I noticed Guhle stiffen slightly at the mention of Sys and Mearr flying the ship.
“Depends on if it works or not,” said Gator simply.
For some reason, this seemed to shut Mearr up. Apparently everyone took that as an end to the discussion, with an understanding that the work would get done sooner rather than later.
“Gator,” said Em. “Where is Cap? I haven’t seen him all day.”
“The Captain is finalizing the arrangement between our crew and the Farseer Imperium. Contract details, mostly. Nothing major. But it will keep him overnight.”
“So he’ll be scuttling on in with our visitors, I take it?” said Mearr, apparently regaining the confidence to speak.
“That is correct,” said Gator. “And he trusts everything will be in its proper place by then.”
“We got the message, Gator. Thanks. Sys and I are heading back to work now.”
Sys and Mearr sauntered off, heads already bent together in conversation.
“Alright,” said Gator, looking through a few projection screens on his armor. “Let’s see, that takes care of network systems, navigation, engines, what else is there? Oh, right.” Looking up, Gator motioned toward the hall leading to the room with the horrific multi-legged creature. “Will someone go get Chief for me? We need to check on our food supplies.”
“Why don’t you just call him on the intercom?” asked Em.
“You know he never responds to that. And I don’t want to bellow down the hall.”
Em, apparently, had no such reservations. “Chief! Gator needs you.”
At first, it didn’t seem like anyone would respond, but then a small, bronze box scuttled down the hall from the room with the creature and plopped itself on the table in the middle of the lounge.
I leaned over to Guhle. “Is that…?”
“Automator,” said Guhle, holding a hand up to shield his beak. “Yeah. Damn annoying too, more often than not.”
Gator looked down from his imperious height at the meter-tall bronze automator sitting on the table and almost seemed to sigh. “Tic-Toc, where’s Chief?”
The bronze box unfolded two spindly legs and two crooked arms, raising itself up off of the tabletop to stand a half-meter higher as a head shaped like a pair of binoculars rose out of the top. It bent one of its crooked arms in a haphazard salute as it stood to attention before Gator.
“The most glorious royal mastermind of botanical delights is unable to report, mister waymaker. He has sent me in his stead.”
“See what I mean?” said Guhle, in what had to be the closest approximation of a growl the avian could muster.
Looking around the room, I noticed that Mearr and Sys had already slipped away, and even the enthusiastic Em seemed to be subdued by the little automator.
“Did he say why he couldn’t come out?” said Gator, tapping his fingers against his forearm. Click-clack. Click-clack. Click-clack.
“The perpetually awe-inspiring wizard of wondrous pastries has indicated to me that he is managing the consolidation of his storehouses. He should be done soon.”
“Wonderful,” said Gator, before being cut off by the little bot.
“However, oh wayward wanderer of stars, the eternally impressive-”
“Tic-Toc!” bellowed Gator, overloading his suit’s voicebox and causing a static screech to come out at the end. His next words were uttered with more care. “I just need to know if we have enough food for the trip yet. Or do I need to order the Brakkine to deliver more?”
“Oh,” said the automator. “No. We’re good.”
“Thank you,” said Gator, before waving his hand in a “shoo” motion to dismiss the bot.
Guhle stood up from the bench with a sigh. “I should probably go and make sure those two stay on task. Otherwise we’ll never get out of here with the cockpit looking the way it does.”
Em also wandered off. Presumably toward the engine room.
Leaving me with Gator.