We found Guhle in the cockpit, as it was evening and thus his shift in the pilot’s chair. Not that there was much he could do, of course. With the ion storm likely still raging around us, taking a shift in the pilot’s chair was really just a mild form of exile, while the rest of the crew was down in the lounge or asleep in their bunks.
Although, exile at this stage was likely a reprieve. While I had spent the majority of my efforts avoiding the rest of the crew, it did not mean that I had been oblivious of the steadily growing tension aboard the ship. For a time, it seemed as though the chance to relax in the common room and socialize without taking time away from critical duties was a relief. Most everyone found time to be in good spirits, at least they were by the time I got out of the medical bay. Maybe things had been tense following Mearr’s attack on me.
Regardless, as the weeks wore on, the crew had grown steadily more and more frustrated with one another’s company. Whereas before, Sys and Em would swap stories of technical minutiae, or Mearr and Gator would face off in some alien board game, by now, everyone sullenly kept to themselves. And when they had to spend time together or found themselves spending time together, it was in a grumpy sulk.
Because of this, I thought, a shift in the pilot’s seat might be a quiet reprieve. A chance to collect your thoughts and otherwise escape the maddening cabin fever that was steadily gripping the crew.
I didn’t want to be here, though. Guhle and I had made it very clear, months before, that we no longer had anything to say to each other. That he had saved me from Mearr’s attack was a point in his favor, but it was easily attributed to some sense of responsibility or honor or any number of other obligations.
Maybe he even felt sorry for me. But that wouldn’t bridge the gap that had come between our friendship. I couldn’t think of anything that would.
He spun around in his chair to face us, lowering the book he had been reading to let it rest in his lap. It was one that I had read weeks before, I noticed. A mostly internal matter, where little happened to the character, but his personality was such that he was able to make an emotional roller coaster out of every little thing. On one occasion, he had soliloquized about the inherent futility of life while sitting on the toilet and discovering that he had used up the last roll of toilet paper.
I hadn’t much cared for it. But I finished it anyway, because I lived in fear of running out of reading material.
“Gator,” he said curtly. “Are we through the storm at last?”
I noticed his omission of my presence. But I gritted my teeth and kept any resentment I felt to myself.
“Hardly,” said Gator. “Though I cannot say that it would be easy for me to tell. I assume the storm’s distortion of the Dreaming would herald our departure from its midst. But there is no guarantee. At some point, we are simply going to have to open the windows and see what is out there.”
GUL nodded as though he understood. Then he pointed a finger threateningly at a button on the console. “We could take a look right now,” he said.
If he were a human, I might have assumed that he’d have a manic grin on his face. Something either teasing or taunting, depending on his disposition at the time. As Guhle was not a human, but an avian species with little variance in his facial expressions, I instead had to watch an eerie contrast of stoicism and playfulness.
“Not now, Guhle,” said Gator, and I thought I could hear a touch of fear in his voice. Was he worried about Guhle’s mental stability, as he seemed to be worried about everyone else’s? “There’s something we need to talk about.”
“Go right ahead, then,” said Guhle, propping up his feet on a nearby console. “I’m not stopping you.”
Gator hesitated. Was he beginning to second-guess his plan? But a moment later he barreled forward. “The Farseers have tranicium ore onboard.”
Guhle’s eyebrows shot up, but he didn’t speak. There was no outcry or declaration of intent. Just that slight arching of his expression that indicated surprise, or curiosity, or any number of other emotions that would be so much easier to differentiate on a human face.
“They have it contained in a glass chamber deep within their deck territory,” Gator said, continuing uncertainty. “No doubt it is the primary cargo we have been contracted to deliver.”
“No doubt,” said Guhle, still betraying no sign of what he was thinking.
“I think it may be disrupting my ability to enter the Dreaming,” said Gator. “That might be why I was unable to see the ion storm approaching.”
Guhle held up a hand at that, cutting off any further comment from Gator. He swung his legs off of the console and leaned forward onto his knees.
“Let me get this straight,” he said, steepling his fingers. “You’re the ex-oh of this ship. You manage our daily assignments. You guide our navigation. You’re the captain’s right-hand man, and you had no idea this stuff was aboard our ship?”
“No,” said Gator, stiffening noticeably.
Guhle leaned back and now I could read the expression on his face. Surprise. He blew out his breath in a rush as though he had just been punched in the gut.
“So all that talk at the start of the trip,” he said, searching for the words even as he spoke them. “About us being better off not knowing about the cargo…all that bullshit. You didn’t even know yourself?”
“I knew it was high-security Imperium property,” said Gator. “I figured we were transporting experimental weaponry or some other device that the Farseers didn’t want drifting through the transit nodes. Hell, it could have been any number of other unstable compounds.”
“But it’s not,” said Guhle. “It’s tranicium ore.”
“Fuck,” said Guhle, wiping his face with his hands. They dragged across his forehead and eyes before wrapping their grip around his rounded beak. “You’re sure?”
“Hatchling and I both saw them,” said Gator. “With our own eyes.”
Guhle looked over at me for the first time. In his eyes I saw neither hate nor suspicion, just a curiosity. And perhaps, a little mistrust.
“Do you even know what tranicum ore looks like, hatchling?”
“No,” I said, and then went on before Guhle had a chance to mock me or Gator had a chance to fret. “But I did see piles of rocks pulsating with a violet light and stored in an enormous glass chamber. Does that describe your precious ore?”
Guhle nodded. “That’ll do for a description, yeah.” Then he looked back up at Gator. “Shit, Gator. I’m guessing the captain knew already?”
“That is the deepest part of this betrayal,” said Gator. “The captain knew and did not tell me. He did not tell anyone.”
“That is a problem,” said Guhle, leaning over his knees again. “Though I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. A galactic government that recently secured new mining interests on an important border colony wants to contract a realspace freighter to ferry unknown goods to the nearest starport, under armed guard? Not much room for guessing, though I suppose we all just didn’t want to think about it.”
“What’s the big deal?” I said at last, tired of the two of them dancing around the subject like scared kittens.
Guhle looked up at me. He seemed deflated. Hollow.
“Superstition, mostly,” he said. “Though there are some very real practical concerns that come with transporting tranicium ore.”
“Pirates, for one,” said Gator.
Guhle nodded. “It’s valuable stuff. Fortunately, we’re on a fairly long route, with no obvious waystations between our destinations. It’d probably cost too much for a pirate group to make a raid out this far. Though it’s still possible that they could strike us when we’re near the planetary systems.”
“That’s why the Farseers sent those scouts,” I said, suddenly piecing it together. “They were guarding us against pirate raids.”
“Most likely,” said Guhle. “That’s actually our one saving grace, as far as external threat is concerned. We’re under contract with the Farseers. Any attack or raid they’ve likely seen coming, and provided some defense for us.”
Guhle shook his head and stretched his back. “Probably not. They’re just couriers. Granted, they’re capable in a fight, but they aren’t equipped to repel a boarding party or anything like that. Besides, this is a much more precious cargo than to be entrusted in the hands of so few.”
Gator turned to me. “More likely is that one of the Prophets in the high council has devoted his entire Dreaming attention to our journey. He has foreseen any and all eventualities and watched our path for dangers. It could be that he even saw this present ion storm. In any case, his visions will have guided the Farseer leaders to provide sufficient defenses for us. Perhaps they even chose the time and path so as to be free of any dangers. We cannot know for sure.”
“But why do we have to carry this stuff at all?” I said. “Why not just load it onto a battlecruiser and cart it from place to place?”
Guhle ticked up a handful of fingers. “First, tranicium ore is highly unstable in its raw form. Carrying it aboard your vessel while warping through space causes it to explode. Violently. Surefire way to get your ship destroyed.”
“It is one of the reasons that we contract for realspace flights,” said Gator. “Most larger vessels will have some sort of scanning technology to check their hull and interior for any straggling raw ore. We lack such devices.”
“What’re the other reasons?” I said.
“Nostalgia, mostly,” said Gator with a shrug. “The captain likes the feeling of sailing across a sea of stars. Which is why this lockdown is affecting him so, I imagine.”
“No, I meant…about the ore.”
“Right,” said Guhle, ticking up his fingers again to continue his countdown. “Second, even when refined, tranicium fuel is difficult to transport. Carrying it through warpspace causes it to instantly evaporate. Damned tricky to get something from point A to point B when it disappears en route. So that leaves realspace transport.”
“Like us,” Gator said. I think he was just looking for someway to contribute, as his nerves were likely shot to hell.
“Right,” I said. “But why not put it on a realspace battlecruiser, or at least something with guns.”
“Coupla reasons,” said Guhle. “But the main one is that it’s too expensive.”
I arched a disbelieving eyebrow. “Seems to me like losing your entire cargo of tranicium fuel would be more expensive.”
“That’s true,” said Guhle with a laugh. “Which is why most governments do exactly that. But you have to understand, battlecruisers and other warships are designed to be highly efficient in battle. Filling up empty spaces on your warship with raw tranicium ore or even the refined stuff is only going to get in the way, diminishing your ship’s effectiveness. So you have to strike a balance between volume of ore transported and efficiency of the crew when you get attacked — and you will get attacked. There’s no reason for a warship to be traveling through interplanetary realspace these days. Not unless they’re carrying volatile materials that can’t move through the warp.”
“Not to mention the cost of all those crew,” said Gator. “Trust me, our two handfuls are not cheap. Imagine trying to feed and manage a couple hundred — or more — individual crewmembers for months, or years, while you remain on alert for potential attacks. And then you have to pay them for all that work time during which they did almost nothing to earn overtime pay.”
“But it’d still be worth it if the fuel came through, right?” I said. “Otherwise, why transport the stuff at all?”
“Why indeed?” said Guhle with a twinkle in his eye. “That’s why most governments will build refineries and transit nodes on top of their ore mines. Centralize the entire system. But that lacks flexibility. And good luck trying to get your cruisers and battleships back to the refueling station once you’ve flung them halfway around the galaxy. Unless you’re only going to transport ships between ore-rich planetary systems. Then you might have a stable infrastructure.”
“Some governments do exactly that,” said Gator, though I probably could have figured that out for myself.
“What the Farseer Imperium has done is work out an elegant solution,” said Guhle. “And it’s giving them a tremendous edge over their rivals because it’s one that only they can employ.”
“Us?” I ventured.
“Exactly, though there is an added component.”
“The Dreaming,” said Gator solemnly.
Guhle nodded. “With the Farseer’s ability to see into the future, or at the very least track eventualities that equate to estimating the future, they can contract cheap transport vessels, optimized for realspace transportation, to carry their ore to otherwise unreachable territories. Every single one of their planets can have a transit node, because they can safely, reliably, and inexpensively provide those nodes with fuel. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but this is clearly why they’re winning every war they fight.”
“What, you mean the ability to predict your enemy’s strategy wasn’t enough?” I said dryly.
Guhle shrugged. “It’s a combination of factors, I’ll grant you, but this efficiency of infrastructure is a significant one. The only way an enemy would be able to counteract it would be by developing an entirely new form of faster-than-light travel. And there’ve been people working on that for years. Long before the destruction of your Earth.”
That was a surprise to me. Though not as big of a surprise as the arrival of battlecruisers had been to my ancestors. We had barely gotten to the edges of our solar system with unmanned probes before interstellar warlords had arrived, scooped up a representative sample of our species, and blown our homeworld to hell and back.
I had been to the Sol system once in my life. Seen the thin asteroid belt between Mars and Venus that had once been Earth. It hadn’t meant much to me, though I can understand why it means so much to some of my people. It was a ruin, yes, but it was the only connection we had to a better time. A time when we were united, and dominant. Or at least, when we thought we were.
“So, what’s the big deal about us transporting the stuff if we’re protected by the Farseers’ visions?” I said.
Guhle breathed in carefully and exhaled before speaking. “Again, superstition mostly. While it’s true that, in theory, the Farseers have already protected us from whatever future dangers are coming our way, I’ve heard more than one ghost story about those who transport tranicium ore.”
“It is a strange substance that we still do not fully understand,” said Gator.
“And it’s always a good idea to have just a little bit of fear around things you don’t understand,” said Guhle.
That explained a lot, I thought. Over the years, I’d heard all manner of social and psychological philosophies bandied about. There was the dogmatic isolationism of my upbringing, the liberal open-mindedness of multicultural education and certain planetary media groups, the sectarian clan-mindset of the various orbital city gangs I had run across, and dozens more that I could only remember on the fringes of my mind. But Guhle’s was a blunt truth that I had never heard directly. Sure, I had been raised by people who believed it, but they never called it what it was, or said it the way Guhle was saying it now.
I suddenly had a new reason to fear and avoid Guhle. And it had nothing to do with who he was, simply his association with my past.
Guhle sighed, bringing my attention back to the present. “We should probably talk to the others,” he said. “I don’t want to, but it’d be better for them to hear about it from us, and get it worked out of their system before we have to-”
A bang echoed against the ship’s walls, cutting off the end of whatever Guhle was about to say. Flying into motion, Guhle spun around to face the console and adjusted the ship’s speed.
“Collision,” he reported automatically. “Cutting thrusters and stabilizing position.”
Gator grasped hold of a nearby chair, steadying himself for any future hits. I had fallen to the floor.
Everything was still for a long moment until Gator spoke.
“Open the shields,” he said. “We need to see what is out there.”
Guhle reached forward and entered the command. Slowly, the heavy lead plating slid away from the viewport, revealing the starry landscape beyond.
At least, that’s what it should have revealed. Either that, or a raging ionic storm. Instead, our eyes were greeted by ragged metal plating and broken weapon emplacements. A cross-section of deck plating could be seen through sheared outer armor. Lights flickered inside the hollow space.
“Reverse thrusters,” said Gator, stepping down to stand behind Guhle.
Guhle adjusted our course and we began to drift backward.
I stepped down gingerly to join Gator at his side. “What is it?” I said.
As the object shrank in our viewscreen, the answer became more and more apparent.
“A battlecruiser,” said Guhle.
Gator nodded. “Farseer design, as well.”
The image in the viewscreen told a tale of battle and destruction. An enormous vessel, shorn in two and ragged around the edges. Holes blasted through the armor plating and minimal power apparent in its lighting. It was clearly inoperable.
Guhle turned halfway around in his chair, not quite looking at us and not quite looking at the decimated battlecruiser as he spoke. “I’m just going to hope that this isn’t the protection the Farseers sent to help us.”