Monday, December 29, 2014

2: Say the Wind

"Oh shit, not them."
A transmission is coming in over the feed, read aloud by the ships AI. Unfortunately a virus got into it more than a week prior and the poor thing is still reading text in a high nasal tone. Sean thinks it sounds like an irritated accountant.
<Along all the walls. You said she was a cupcake. Nothing but can get out of here. Did you?>
A finger presses a button as eyes slide sideways, brow raising.
"What is that? Did the translator completely lose it?" This is Lieutenant Rof's first flight out with this particular survey ship, this particular crew, this particular job.
He had wanted a simple navigator focus, perhaps a little bargaining training thrown in. But you don't climb the ranks that way. In his mother's opinion. You don't hike to the top on a pilot's salary. So here he is, transferred out to the edge of nowhere on track to a Captain's rank, listening to nonsense on a second rate AI.
"No." Sean rubs a hand over her face and grimaces. "It's a distress call."
Watery blue eyes survey the ancient console doubtfully.  "You're kidding."
<Did you?>
The button is frowned down at, then poked and held as Sean leans in to the microphone, "Feeling the pine needles and soon."
Message delivered, she turns to the chattering display of characters and skims through it. Half of her brain processes navigation information while she explains simply, "Never thought I'd use Spamlish as much as I do. Turns out they're all along this route." She thwacks the top of the monitor with a gloved hand and it swish-fuzz-crickets until the screen resolves into something more coherent.
Pink lips purse and then she adds as an afterthought, "It's probably a trap."
"Spamlish? A trap?" The fresh-faced boy is from one of the prosperous inner coil planets, protected somewhat from the tides of Gyre and their resulting strangeness. Hopelessly out of his depth.
"Took it in highschool."
The ship's Captain is something of a jack of all trades.  You have to be when you're dancing carefully between this universe and Gyre space.
No one knows for sure what it is. The scientists call it Frivolate.
Everyone else calls it Gyre.
Coils of the stuff are laced through the universe. Some more dense than others. This particular twist of it marks the border of the Lear territory.
The one thing that's clear is you can't govern it, talk to it, channel it or even explain it.
One day you're doing a routine transfer. The next you and your entire ship are a carton of oranges. Or your skin is pink, or you all suddenly can only speak in clicks or your tongues melt into your jaw. Tools turn into parrots. Shoes become pogo sticks. Coffee starts to taste like pizza.
Or you're fine.
A roll of the dice. Some strange sense of humor combined with apparently infinite power. No explanation, no rationale.
It makes travelling through the stuff dangerous.
And very, very profitable for those who make it their profession.
Unfortunately those same people tend to be the ones carrying not entirely legal cargo. Thus the need for ships to monitor the borders, keep an eye on things.
"Brushed up a bit from an old textbook. S'not as complicated as it sounds really."
Sometimes when you have no idea what's happening it's best to just go along with it. "So what did you just say?"
"I think I told them we are monitoring their status."
Poke poke, twist. Sean twists out of a series of unclasped restraints and taps at a smaller screen. It's unusual to wear gloves while working the touchscreens, but Rof's never seen her remove them. Silver rank markings on her jumpsuit catch in the muted green lights of the cockpit as she leans sideways to peer at an ancillary display.
"Can you call up the last log on this sector? I'd like to see if anyone else has run into this one before. Name on her hull is..." Sean examines a grainy image. "C-H-O-P-A-R-D...W-A-T-C-H-E-S...AT...C-H-E-A-P...P-R-I-C-E."
"Oh! Ah, yes." The dark haired young man spins his own chair to face a line of faintly glowing screens. His own jumpsuit is free of all but the most basic brass circle. "But Captain, shouldn't we ask them for a proof of passage before we contact them?"
"And risk sending N.E.Z.E.R. into another virus? Poor thing already sounds like he's sick. The less we let them interface the better." She twists and shoots the poor kid a look. Barely on shift for an hour and he's earned her trademark appraising squint.
"But...the protocols say we need to verify any vessel coming through as having the correct permissions and preparations for Gyre-space." The look is wasted on the back of his head, fingers busily flicking over the screens.
She's already on to more important tasks. "They don't." Tap tap tap tap tap. "They appear unarmed at least."
Buzzed blond hair is just beginning to poke up through the pores of her scalp, detailed blue tattoos dancing through the peach fuzz. Swirls and coils of stars and amorphous shapes curl and twist over the curved surface, one long tentacle swooping down and hugging her right ear.
<Along all the walls. You said she was a cupcake. Nothing but can get out of here. Did you?>
"I heard you the first time!"
There are ten people on board and Sean is responsible for each and every one of them. Technically only five are needed at any one time, but people do need to sleep eventually, and someone has to wake up to take their place. Some ships have as many as twenty on leisurely shifts, more downtime than work.
This is not one of those vessels.
She could really use a cup of coffee.
"They don't?" If the Lieutenant keeps using that tone of shocked disapproval it's going to lose all its impact. He turns from his console to stare at her,  "But if they don't have P.o.P we have to detain them."
Silver eyes close slowly, then reopen. It's not as though she hasn't worked with younger idiots. Bordering on 35 and she feels like an old woman sometimes.
Her tone modulates to carefully even. The sort of voice you use when someone has dropped and broken the cookie jar but you know if you yell at them they're just going to start crying.
She's the adult here. She can handle broken glass.
"No. We don't. Is there anything in the feeds?"
"There, um, well..." Rof is clearly desperately fighting the urge to argue. It isn't that he enjoys calling the Captain's decisions into question, it's just that the academy's training is entirely strict and very effective.
He makes a frustrated, confused noise and turns stiffly back to his screens, finishes pulling up the more recent logs. "It says," he starts off in a tone of utmost professionalism that degrades quickly to uncertainty. "That last cycle another survey ship, Stellar Wind, made contact with... not this unlicensed vessel but another. NEW SHINY CAR NO MONEY UP FRONT. They made the routine call for purpose and proof and were in negotiations to allow the vessel to continue...." he glances over at the center console, soft downy eyebrows drawn together in a worried wrinkle. "Then the log stops making sense. Maybe a virus got into their transcription?"
She nods. "Probably. Where is that ship now?"
N.E.Z.E.R. starts up again droning nasally, <Along all the walls. You sai-> before getting abruptly cut off by a prodding black glove.
"It..." More scurrying fingers. He may be out of his depth with alien language and contact culture, but at least he's proficient at this.
"No record." That's never a fun log to pull up.
Sean slides back into her seat with a sigh, nodding slowly to herself, eyes distant.
"Could be they hadn't updated their departure info by the time we downloaded this log record at the last port."
She takes a deep breath of stale ship's air, lets it out again. "Still..."
Sean bites her lip. Moments later she's leaning forward, fingers flying. "Send out a probe. I want to see if there's any obvious damage. Find out if they're leaking fuel, air, or have any war wounds."
Rof looks around the cabin in the vain hope that another crewman has appeared, that she she isn't giving that order to him. Does he know how to send out a scanner? Sure he does, in theory, on a ship whose specs aren't ten years out of date.
But his counterpart in the even shift is still strapped to her bunk, and neither Dre in the engines nor Tween and Lee up on on the second level will be any good for this.
"Yes Sir." Well, it can't be that hard to figure out, right?
The Captain has clearly gone into one of her famous concentration zones. Eyes wide, fingers moving deftly. One hand rummages under the desk and pulls something out of a hook and loop pocket with a rrrrippp of noise. A leather bound book is pulled into her lap and leafed through blindly as she taps commands into the outdated computer system.
After a good five minutes of struggle the probe is eventually launched, a bit off-kilter.  It wobbles, stabilizes, and makes its way towards the other ship.
The Lieutenant flicks a switch, delicately shifts a joystick. "Looks like a standard I84H6 that someone's... modded?" He flicks the viewpoint up on on a main screen, points doubtfully. "Not like any mod I've seen before though."
Sean mumbles something unintelligible as she flips through hand-written scribbles.
"It looks like...ads?” Sure enough the grainy image of the ‘distressed’ ships hull comes into focus, plastered with images of crying children, wads of cash and rather, ahem, enhanced genitalia.
"Don't get too close," warned as she flips to another page, runs a finger over cramped handwriting.
“What happens if you get too close?” The young man’s voice has hiked up a bit in pitch, perhaps the result of nerves, or the intense concentration he’s now paying to the proximity readings on the little radio-controlled scanner. He is learning, however, and the probe keeps its distance.
“They do seem to be trailing something. I can’t tell yet if it’s a gas or liquid cloud. Coolant maybe? Frozen atmo? What do these things breathe?”
His first question is conveniently ignored before Sean comments, "Some of them look human."
Her book snaps closed and is tucked away as she turns to him. The operating and navigation center of the ship isn't particularly designed for spaciousness. Everything is crammed together as tightly as possible, which includes the operators. A bit of rustling and shifting and she's leaning over his shoulder.
Her eyes flick over his data readings, shift to the grainy footage of the sub par camera on the sensor. "Hmmmmm."
A month out on this surveyer after training on far more well-appointed academy cruisers and Rof still isn’t used to her doing that. A few weeks ago and he was still making funny eeping noises. Now he’s graduated all the way up to only flinching and sputtering for a second before he gets back on track.
“There’s, ah, um, no identification numbers on the hull, nothing except the customized ship name."
At least she's not one for touch. There's no pressure on his shoulder as she balances against the back of his chair. Rof's never even gotten so much as a handshake. Tween swears she's seen her hands and that they're just bone, no flesh at all.
Tween also believes the tooth fairy is a mouse who drives a tiny spaceship and has a penchant for cheeseburgers.
"Hrrrrrnnnn." Sean squints ineffectively at the image of the ship, lip curling.
This isn't a warship. They're not out to guard the borders by force. They're supposed to monitor and survey, not engage except through polite forced bits of red tape and information transmission. Still, they are equipped with a modest assortment of defensive and offensive weapons. If something untoward happened they'd at least be able to scramble and cry for help without being destroyed.
The U.I.C. 543 St. Vincent (commonly known as Edna) is a refurb. She should've been junked five years ago but she's been refitted and tuned and considered safe for operation. Over half the body and the N.E.Z.E.R. interface was salvaged from Sean's last ship. The Captain insisted. Even if it's had far too many logged hours she trusts the AI  implicitly. Better a rig she knows than something fresh off the dock. Especially this close to Gyre space.
Rof would have far preferred something fresh off the dock. “So, Captain, what should we do?”
She pushes back into her seat and tables gloved fingers, silent, clearly lost in thought.
Eventually he receives a, "Bring her back home," and a gesture at his display.
There’s a certain relief in the line of his shoulders as the Captain leans back, and the probe comes wobbling back with careful flicks of the joystick. “Yes sir.”
Sean pivots and presses a new button on the dash, "Lee, can you wake Staniel?"
There's a pause and then a fuzzed voice answers, "Now?"
Staniel is on even shift.
The next pause is a bit shorter before she gets a bemused, "Aye aye cap'n."
Sean snorts and leans back in her seat, scratching at the back of her neck.
The Lieutenant turns to Sean, sensor safely back in its dock. “You’re waking up your second?” Long fingers tap restlessly on his knee, brows knitted.  
A short nod as she rises and stretches. "Yup. Can't leave you alone up here."
“You’re leaving?” This is most certainly NOT in the protocols.
"I'll take a suit over. No risk to the ship that way."
“A risk to the Captain is a risk to the ship! We should request a cruiser to chaperone this, we should have already sent a request. This is incredibly irregular!” Well, it looks like the young Lieutenant Rof has reached his limit with ignoring common sense.
Her lips quirk as she looks down at him, green light playing over features that clearly haven't seen the sun in years. It makes her look a bit ghostly, but then again, Rof has had some time to get used to it. When she speaks her tone is subtly playful, warm. "You gonna report me Rof?"
There’s a long, apprehensive silence, and then slender shoulders square, chest puffing out as much as possible beneath the jumpsuit. “I certainly will, when we get back.” Despite the assertive tone those pale eyes certainly aren’t any less worried.
“And you will be coming back. Because you know what you’re doing. Right Captain?”
She grins, and then breaks into laughter. "Oh, no. None at all." Her eyes rise past him and she nods at the entering, bleary figure. It's not like the ship is all that big. Rolling out of a bunk and into the cockpit isn't really all that time consuming. "Taking a little walk Stan. Sorry to wake you."
Staniel isn’t really built for such small quarters either, though usually she moves with a bounding lightness that belies her size. All warm round curves is Stan, and quite self-satisfied about it. You would be too if you chose to spend half your expedition salary being pampered and treated at the salons and lounges so popular on the neighboring worlds.
“Another one?” This isn’t the pair's first time shipping out together, and Stan clearly has a handle on the Captain’s eccentricities that comes from long practice.
There's a silent dance of bodies as Sean makes way for the smaller figure, crouches in the doorway as Staniel slides into the pre-warmed seat. "Spammers out there, sending a distress call. Don't let N.E.Z.E.R. interface, there's a decent chance they're-"
“I know, I know, you think this is my first rodeo? Never did trust a Spammer.” pudgy hands flap in the taller woman’s direction. “Go go, worrywart, have your fun. I swear, you just get tired of being cooped up and look for excuses to get your face blown off. Out with you.”
Sean opens her mouth to retort, then purses her lips and gives Rof a 'what can you do?' face.
The Lieutenant blinks back and forth between the two, clearly more than mildly appalled. He hasn’t ever really had cause to interact with the even crew, besides the first meeting formalities, and clearly this level of familiarity between counterparts is throwing him off.
And don’t you try to drag him into it, he is a professional. He is not going to be making any faces back at you, Captain Sean. “Let it be known that I protest this course of action vehemently.”
Sean makes a stern face and nods, then looks at Staniel. "Make sure to write that down."
“Be nice.” Shot back as a mild admonishment, the secondary commander makes no move to write anything down, particularly since most records besides the Captain’s log book are digital.
She shakes her head, cracks her knuckles, and turns to the main console. A sympathetic aside is tossed to Rof. “She gets like this sometimes, catty woman. It’s best to ignore her when she’s all jazzed.”
"I heard that," is snapped back as the woman in question ducks out of sight and clangs up a ladder.
“You give sassy you get sassy back!” is called cheerfully after her.
It's not long before a tinny voice is crackling to life, <Esting, *#&esting-sssshhhh. This thing on? Hello? Froggy went a courtin' and he did ride!>
A deep, weary siiiigh and Staniel thumbs the microphone button. “We can hear you, understanding you is another thing entirely. I just woke up hon, give me a minute to get used to Crazy Sean.”
There's a series of familiar sounds. Rotating, metallic clangs, a deep Whooosh. Some more clangs. <Baby it's cold outside.>
“What did I just say?” The ribbing is goodnatured, and Staniel leans away from the mic to study the scrolling info panel in front of her.
A timid voice breaks into her scrutiny. “Secondary Captain Staniel?”
“Staniel or Stan. Staniel or Stan.” Intoned distractedly.
“Er. Staniel, is she like this often? She seemed so…”
<Looking good Edna.> There's a thump of glove to metal.
A snort “Stoic? Taciturn? Hard assed? Yeah, she is, usually.”  
Rof engages in a bloody internal debate. Does he really want to know? It certainly isn’t any of his business. Except if it affects his Captain’s decisions on the safety of her crew. Fine. Ugh.
A shrug, entirely unhelpful. “Does it matter? She’ll tell you if she wants you to know.”
Then, as if picking up on his concern, the plump woman swivels her chair to face him. “You’re worried her strange little mood swings put us in danger? Have her making risky decisions?”
The Lieutenant doesn’t say anything, but the uncomfortable look on his face is answer enough.
All humor fades from Staniel’s expression, and she regards the fresh-faced crewmember solemnly. “Listen carefully, I know where you’re coming from, goodness do I. I was spat out of the academy with as many shiny fancy rules as you. But those rules and protocols and concepts of common sense don’t work out here, no matter how much the central planets want to pretend they should.”
She turns to watch the grainy image of a suited figure on one of the ship hull cameras.
“Captain Sean knows more about these Gyre-borders than anyone else I've met in the service. I trust her with my life, and, more importantly, with her own. We’d be screwed without her. Remember that.”
And then the moment of seriousness passes, and she spins back towards the mic. “Alright Captain, you headed over or are you just lollygagging around out there?”  
<Halfway there already. Have you sent our would be mutineer to the brig yet?>
There is no brig. Or shower for that matter.
“Oh, I’m sure I’ll find time for that soon. You never know, we might need him when you get spammed half-way to the Eagle Nebula.”
<Hatch is in the right place.>
She should be using technical jargon, checking in with detail after detail.
Clearly Sean is used to breaking the rules.
Though some die harder than others.
Rof seems to be having some sort of quiet muttering fit. Perhaps that’s the sound of well-ingrained common sense dying. He’s still doing his job though, tracking the Captain’s bio-stats and suit readings.
Staniel on the other hand seems perfectly at ease. “You’ll have to tell me what these ones look like, it’s always so terribly interesting to see the evolution of a Gyre species.”
There's more rattling, clanking, clanging and whooshing. Sean's breathing is all they get for a tense moment or two as she disappears from the grainy footage and into the other ship.
The lights are flickering. Never a good sign.
Sean's heart is pounding loud enough that she's sure Staniel can hear it. Excited to leave the ship, yes. She's overjoyed to get out of that cramped little box. Thing is, she's still crammed into a space suit. And now she's on a potentially hostile vessel full of creatures she's only vaguely sure she can communicate with.
"Say the wind?" She steps closer to the interior door, peers through a standard porthole. Whatever these aliens are they've left their cannibalized ship roughly true to its original form.
<You said they were sending a distress call? That’s unusual.>
Staniel’s voice comes tinny and faint over the connection, but the suit and the empty hallway suddenly seem less isolated.
"Why do you think I'm over here? Rof fill her in would you?" Double gloved hands begin working on an inside rotating hatch as she checks a screen. Judging from the readout the pressure should be equalized. She doesn't want to kill anyone just by trying to get on board.
Static fades back to radio silence as the other two converse in the cockpit.
The door gives with a jerk and swings open.
"Say the wind?!" echoes loudly in her helmet, magnified by a tiny speaker mounted into the base of her collar.
Flickering lights greet the Captain as she steps forward onto a hard metal surface. She's been in the I84H6's before. The general layout comes back to her as she cautiously steps around the door.
Spare steel walls, rivets, overhead lights and very little in the way of decor.
Whatever jovial mood she was in has clearly faded into a terse professionalism. "I'm inside."
<Always seems like such a good idea at first, doesn’t it?>
"You leave enough people to die you start getting tired of it," snaps back without thought, words weighted with experience.
She pauses at the first body, laying prone across a doorway. Eyes open, staring into nothingness.
<Captain.> The title is layered with a knowing empathy. <That’s not what I meant and you know it.>
This batch of Spammers appears mostly human. Not too much dipping into the so called 'amazing' products they are normally hawking. The woman's chest is abnormally large, and she definitely looks like she's been taking some of the famous 'weight-nix' pills. Sean crouches to get a closer look.
A beat, then; <You found a casualty?>
The Captain is back on her feet, scanning across the hall. "Where did you say you saw that leak? Aft?"
Scrambling static, and Rof’s voice replaces Staniel’s. <Port aft, follow the main hallway to the first junction, then right.>
"If they've got any sense half the hatches are sealed. Hopefully I can get to it."
She follows Rof's advice, no longer taking her time. Whatever air is left in the vessel is quickly taking its leave. The sooner she can get to it the sooner she can try to re-pressurize and restore basic life support.
If a Spammer decides to take her down in the meantime it's their funeral.
<Be careful.>
Sean stops attempting to make contact with either party. She's on a mission. As she walks she fumbles at a pouch on the leg of her suit. Every EVA suit has several quick patches available for emergency ship repair. They're not rated for long term use but they're perfect for limping home to the nearest base.
Hopefully it's a small hole.
Down the hallway, right.
There's a focus that comes with high stress, high tension missions. Wide eyes, calculations, the pliable metal mesh patch in one hand, the sudden movement out of the corner of her eye.
Sean's heavy breathing is all they get back on the good ship Edna. That and the readouts of her suit. Simple information that makes it hard to glean details.
A muttered, <Gy-> and a THUD followed by panicked breath is definitely not the high point for the two monitoring the Captain's progress.
A thumb jams down on the transmitter button so fast the nail turns white. “Sean, Gyre help me if I have to come over there.”
<Get- Off- Trying-> gasp gasp gasp <-to help you!> Plastic sliding over plastic crackles through the speaker, a rough thump.
Rof looks entirely flabbergasted, eyes wide. “Should I tell Tween to deploy?”
“Give her a second.”
<Say the-> There's more scratching, plastic noises. Sean's breath suddenly ragged, <Say the WIND you Gyre-stricken->
An answering voice, barely audible, <All along the walls!>
<I KNOW!!!>
An eyeroll, and the plump woman relaxes back into her seat.
“There, you see?”
<NOW GET OFF OF ME and give me a- for Gyre's sake...>
The Captain takes a deep breath, releases it, starts over, calmer. <Away to dinner. Guaranteed low price.>
Her breathing fills the tiny room, slowly calming back to an even pace.
<Ten days... or your money back.>
<Yes yes, come on. At least you had the sense to put on a suit.>
“Making new friends with your sunny personality?”
<Don't you know it.> A pause mixes with the grating sound of the crease and slide of her spacesuit. <This one needs a whole extra room just for his Extra Large Package.>
“How terribly attractive. However are you keeping your hands off of him?”
<Sheer willpower.>
Sean finishes smoothing the edges of the patch over the tiny hole in the ship's hull. The motto from academy runs through her head as she does, 'Even the smallest puncture! Careless work loses lives!'
She's finally back to normal heartrate as she turns to the taller man. He has abnormally large lips and slightly bugged out eyes. Not the most comforting sort of mixture in the flickering light. "I'm going to need to do the other side too to be on the safe side. Should last you to the next port. Do you know how to-" She sighs as she takes in his blank look.
"Right. Alright lemme see here... How in the name of Lear do I explain to this idiot that he needs to check systems and see if they have enough oxygen left to get them home?"
A tut of irritation comes over the radio, and then the rustle of turning pages. <You know this would be so much easier if you took notes on the computer like a normal person. Where did you put the Spamlish dictionary? Near the front?>
"Page 46." It's less of a log and more of... a journal/notebook/Captains log/diary. Anything dishy is in code. Staniel assumes that's what all the gibberish spread through mundane notes and jottings is anyway. She's certainly tried to read it more than once. Shifts are long... and often boring.
It’s not like she doesn’t tell Sean she’s doing it either.
And it is RIGHT UNDER the dash.
<Page 46, page 46, ah!>
"Lose weight fast?"
"Nooooo, don't you start that now."
<Oxygen level safety. Nigerian prince money wad time sensitive.>
Sean repeats it.
Then again when he gives her a strange longing sort of stare.
"C'mon I'm not dinner I'm trying to help you." She grabs him and tugs him into the hallway. Not an easy task considering his bulk and her gloves. Thankfully he follows along. Stepping over the threshold and pointing brings his attention to his fallen crewmate.
Understanding flashes over his face as he echoes, "Time Sensitive!"
"I know right!? Better send him your Credit Information."
Spam jokes are always lost on the poor Spammers.
Either way it has the desired effect. Sean watches him take off towards what she thinks is the engineering bay. At the very least it's in a different direction than where she is now.
"Well. That's something anyway."
She sighs.
"Not sure there's much more I can do here. I'm gonna head out and patch the other side. Whatever did it was small at least."
The Captain begins picking her way back towards the open hatch, briefly pausing to look back down at the fallen Spammer. She's wearing a regulation jumpsuit with a brass circle on it, shiny buttons straining over her chest.
<You think someone else maybe took a pot-shot at them? Wouldn’t be the first time.>
"Too small for most of ours. Could be another Spammer maybe. Or debris."
The Captain pauses outside the hatch, heart suddenly caught in her throat.
Static, then the Lieutenant pipes up. <Captain? Your stats jumped again. Something wrong?>
She abruptly turns and steps through, pulling the door closed behind her. "Thought-" she starts, then slides neatly into, "Thought that big lug was coming after me. Just my imagination."
Back in the cockpit Staniel’s eyebrows inch upwards, but her voice is neutral over the com. <If anything gets hinky let us know.>
"Snake Eyes."
The next five minutes are a rather boring affair on Sean's end. The subtle puffs of air of her jet pack, fumbling for another patch, peeling and applying it.
Back in the cockpit screens scroll biometric readouts as they listen to her breathing.
"So are they headed back to wherever they go to when they’re gone?"
<Staniel? You wanna field that one?>
“Now you’re just being lazy.” She takes another glance at the screen and then turns to face Rof. Keeps the mic open. “Despite how chatty these guys are, they don’t tend to actually give you any useful information, and they aren’t exactly smart. Sure they sell their creepy, crappy wares to a bunch of schmucks, but then they disappear back into the currents of Gyre and it’s not like anyone particularly wants to follow them. At least no one from our system.”
A hand waves towards the display. “Some, like our lovely heroic Captain there, actually try to communicate with them, and from that we know they have their own worlds, somewhere. Hopefully this one had a base close enough that they can limp back there and resupply. None of our ports will accept a Spam ship.”
<Cruisers shoot on sight,> Sean adds glibly.
“But why?” There’s only so much insinuation and guesswork a poor academy graduate can take.
“Because they’re a virus, essentially. It could be you get off with a borked AI or a strange new hull decoration. Could be you start hankering for teeth whitening cream or light up backscratchers. Nobody quite knows how it works, this close to the Gyre.”
<Sometimes they'll take a whole ship.> Her voice is a bit brighter, less static-y. She's navigating back to the ship.
“But, then, why did we even stop?”
A snort. “I dunno Captain, why do you make crazy decisions?”
Sean opts not to answer as the telltale crank and whoosh announces her return via microphone.
Eventually clanging announces her return. She peers in through the squeezed doorway and wipes a bead of sweat from her forehead. "You wanna know why we stopped?" is directed squarely at Rof.
Well, he stood up to vaguely threatening direct questions before, no reason not to risk it again.
“Yes, Captain.”
She mulls that over for a moment, licking her lips. Her eyes appraise him, silver irises reflecting the green of the lights.
"You want the Truth or what I tell top brass?"
Rof flicks a look at Staniel, takes a breath and straightens in his seat. “I don’t ask questions because I want lies.”
That earns him a grin. The older woman shifts, takes a seat on the raised threshold and stretches out her back.
"I treat them like people Rof."
A moment then, "You grew up in gravity right? Lived in the suburbs, learned to drive a vehicle of some kind?"
The Lieutenant hesitates at this sudden change of subject, eventually nods slowly.
"You ever find someone stranded on the road? Pull over to help them out? Or maybe your ma or dad did when you were younger?"
“We weren’t supposed to, they might be pretending and try to rob you, particularly further into the cities.”
She nods. Thinks on that a moment.
"You ever break down?"
“A couple of times.” Where is this going?
"And then what? You waited for a repair vehicle?"
“Not always.” Hedging, maybe he can see where this is headed after all.
Sean nods. "Not easy, sitting on your ass, watching everyone drive by, knowing any of them could..." Another grin quirks fresh as she stands up, cracks her back again.
"Imagine if it wasn't just a matter of waiting Rof. Imagine suffocating, burning alive, watching all those cars driving by."
A hand waves, stalling all these ‘imagine ifs’ “Sure, right, put yourself in their place, I get it. But that’s imposing morals on a purely risk-reward situation. We saved, what, maybe one of their crew, that you saw? Yet by stopping, apparently, you risked this entire ship and everyone on it. How do you rationalize that?”
The second in command steals a look at her Captain’s expression and claps a soft hand down on Rof’s shoulder. “You think maybe you’re getting a bit too worked up right now? Leave the questions for later.”
“Worked up? She risked my life with that stunt!”
Sean shoots her own look at Staniel, paired with a soft smile. "Thanks for swinging shift. Go on back to bed, I'll take care of him."
The shorter woman rolls her eyes. “Take care of him, she says.” A moment later she’s grudgingly levering herself out of the pilot’s seat. “And you wonder why no one likes you.”
"Get me some coffee would you? And some for Rof too, if he wants it." The dance of bodies is well practiced as Sean slides back into her spot.
The Lieutenant in question remains stubbornly silent, arms crossed. Yes, he would like some coffee, no he does not appreciate being talked over. Yes he is a little concerned about what ‘taking care of’ entails.
"Oh shush I'm not going to bite your head off."
“Right, two coffees.” And Staniel is gone.
Sean sighs and rubs at the curling tattoos on her head. When she speaks all the bluster and fun and serious is gone. It's just a flat out admission, tired and honest.
"I was in a suit. No AI to get infected. Nothing I did could've hurt the ship. If I went down Staniel knows to leave me. We have an agreement."
Rof looks mildly horrified. “That’s terrible.”
Sean shrugs. "That's life."
"That's an unnecessary risk to help a species that will only go on to cause more damage." Rof rubs his head in frustration. Hair going all ruffled in different directions. "That ship, that crew, will go on to bother, to change more people. Because you let them go. That's on you."
A nod, accepting. No explanation.
“In essence you’ve hurt other people, our people, by helping them. How do you go on knowing that?” Hands gesture, an unknown sign language of frustration. “It’s not right.”
Another nod. She turns to the dash, pulls out her logbook and uncaps a pen. A page is creased back. She moves to jot something down, then stops.
The book closes gently on the pen and she sighs, stares down at the worn leather.
"I don't know how to explain it to you Lieutenant. You and most of the rest of the Inner Coil are of one opinion. I'm of another."
“I suppose I feel you owe more loyalty to your own than to another species that would ask for our help one minute and then turn on us given the chance.”
Sean flexes a hand, stares at the glove as it kinks and relaxes. "They were human. Most of them."
“Do you think the people they were would want you to propagate what happened to them?”
"Do you think they'd rather I let them die?"
She looks up at him, expression open, vulnerable in a way Rof has never seen her. Wrinkles, unevenly shaved head, pale eyebrows all seem suddenly more real, more Human.
It’s hard for Rof to decide if he’s more unsettled by the question or the Captain’s expression. In either case he pauses, answers more carefully. “I can’t speak for them, but I would rather end my life as myself rather than live as something that would harm things I care about.”
She nods, eyes flicking away.
"Did you know if you're Gyre-touched you lose some rights?"
The Lieutenant nods, the lesson still new to him, part of a balanced curriculum is learning the regulations. “Those who the Gyre have touched may react in unexpected and uncontrollable ways. Thus they must be more closely monitored and controlled so that they do not become a danger to those around them.”
"So you're on a ship, and you slip into a stream, lose your shielding and manage to make it back..."
She looks back up at him, lips pursed. Takes a deep breath in through her nose and lets it out.
The Captain turns away, back to the monitors.
"You can sit out this shift if you want Rof. I'll be fine."
A blink, processing. “Oh, you’re…” A glance to the constantly-gloved hands and the young man backtracks hastily. “I mean, well…”
She ignores the book on her lap, dances fingers over the screen. Captain mode has swept over her posture. Whoever she's been the last hour or so is gone.
At least this is something the Lieutenant seems more comfortable with. He brushes off an impeccable jumpsuit, collects his thoughts, and turns back to his screens. "Of course not, Captain, my shift isn't over and besides, who knows when you might decide to eject yourself out the nearest hatch and go asteroid jogging." It's an entirely mild, polite tone, no trace of irony.
"Resume course." A last look is spared for the stats on the screen as she opens a fresh digital file to document the encounter. "Incident number 59962 if you want to reference it in your report."
“Yes sir.” The survey vessel pulls away from the spammer ship, resumes its track along the edge of Gyre space until the other craft is left far behind.
Sean thumbs the forgotten mute button and immediately receives a droning, <Found the old coat. Result->
She hits it again, face a mask.
“What do they say?” Rof doesn’t turn from his work, fingers flickering carefully over the screens.
Silence stretches for a spate of seconds, a minute.
Eventually, terse. "I believe that was a thank you. We should be out of range soon."
“Ah.” An equally long pause before, “I suppose they’ll be making it back home then.”
"If they're lucky."
She continues typing.
Minutes pass in silence, untouched coffee cooling on the dash between them. With Staniel shooting her a meaningful look and then trundling off to bed.
Her next words burst forth suddenly, without warning.
"It was the Stellar Wind."
The same ship with no record from the logs.
Rof’s smooth movements stutter and freeze. “What?”
"They must've been infected. I've seen them in port before, saw their number by the hatch." She swallows, her own fingers suddenly still.
“So they used to be…” The thought remains unfinished.
Green light from the displays flickers over them.
Sean's aware of the rising taste of bile in her throat, burning at her eyes. She opens her mouth to speak, finds no words.
Rof slowly puts two and two together. “They were one of us. The spammer ship they met infected them.”
She nods.
“You knew that and you didn’t say anything until we left. Why?”
She sits on that for a minute. Then, "What would it have changed?"
“We could have….we could have sedated them. Taken them back in, tried to help them.” There’s a sort of fading idealism in that suggestion.
The Captain turns, looks at him, mournful.
Lieutenant Rof is still facing his console, staring past the screens, brows knit in concentration, trying to work through an acceptable course of action. “Though… no spaceport we went to would allow them in. We could have called a cruiser?”
Her voice is soft, almost a whisper.
"Shoot on sight."
Now he does turn to Sean, frown deeply entrenched on his features. “That’s not right, any more than letting them go is. There must be some other option.”
She stares at him for a long moment, silver on watery blue.
Eventually she turns back to her screen. Gloved hands pick up her logbook, pen and all, stow it under the dash.
"You think of one, you let me know."
The discomfited frown firms into a determined jut of his jaw. “I will.”