Welling leaned back, his weariness evident in every movement. “We have no food. Our farming dome blew out a couple of months after our first crop. We think it was a micrometeorite. We have food synthesizers, but there’s always some loss every time material passes through.”
Carnifor growled, “We already figured out that much. Tell us something we don’t know.”
Lannetay cut off Carnifor before his rant gained momentum. “First off, why’d you take Hyanto? If you knew we were coming, why’d you let us in? You could have stopped us from getting this far. You could also have taken our weapons.”
Welling nibbled on a fingernail. Lannetay wondered how much of the man’s calm was real, and how much affected.
“We took the boy – Hyanto, I guess – to get attention. You see, we’d contacted the four nearest colonies, and none will help us out. Typical of Wanti policies. But with the Herlorwian governor’s son taken, maybe he will do something about our problem.”
Goofball shifted further to one side, giving himself a better angle if someone attacked. “A Wanti governor helping a non-affiliated colony? More likely shoot you.”
“I get it.” Olthan snapped his fingers. “On my family’s farm a pile of bugs would take power cells. We’d find the cell, feed the bugs, and everyone’s happy.”
“Why would you feed the bugs?” Carnifor wondered aloud.
Olthan shrugged. “They’s cute.”
Lannetay turned back to Welling. “What you did wasn’t cute.”
“No, but you’re here because you care. We didn’t rip Hyanto out of your arms because we had no plans of keeping him. We simply need food to tide us over until we get our dome fixed and the next crop harvested.”
Carnifor planted his hands on his hips. “You have two thousand colonists. We couldn’t feed fifty, much less all of them.”
“You have stores of material for your resequencer.” Welling speared Carnifor with his gaze. “That would help for the short run. You have a cargo ship, according to the wake you left in the solar wind. You could bring more biological material and synthesizer supplies to extend our ability to feed ourselves. You could bring us seeds or young plants that will help us recover faster.”
Lannetay smouldered. “Why would we do that for a colony that kidnaps helpless infants?”
“Because we’re letting you go.” Welling waved to the suite’s door. “With the baby. Nobody will hinder you in any way.”
Carnifor and Lannetay exchanged a skeptical look. “Why would you do that?”
“You listened. That’s all we wanted. Wrantiban is too far away to help us, even if they were willing to do so. Neighboring colonies didn’t even answer our requests. If you show up in a colony’s sky they might listen to you.”
Lannetay headed to the door, with Carnifor following her lead. Goofball and Olthan came along, but backwards, to keep watch on Welling. The man stayed seated.
Bill, has anyone tried anything funny since we left?
No, Lannetay. Even Goofball has been unnaturally serious.
I meant like trying to board the ship or shoot it down, Lannetay snapped.
Nothing. I’m orbiting the colony five klicks out, per condition Tan. They’re not even scanning me, much less targeting the ship.
The four shipmates exited the suite. Six colonists came to attention, rifles at a reasonable approximation of “order arms.” Carnifor sniffed his derision while Olthan kept watch with his hand on the butt of his sidearm.
The crew from William Placard hustled to a drop shaft and stepped in. Moments later they emerged on ground floor. The newly-conscious clerk – and his holographic animals – glared at the group as they made their way out of the building. The domes and passages back to their infiltration point remained nearly deserted. The only people they saw were standing watch at every single airlock along the way.
“Ready to leave?” Lannetay clutched the child closely as they closed the inner hatch of their entry point.
Everyone nodded and switched on their support belts in turn. Hyanto would be covered by Lannetay’s equipment. Goofball pressed a control, and pressure in the lock dropped. When the indicator on the outer hatch glowed green, the fighter pilot activated the mechanism.
“Okay, let’s double-time it.” Carnifor nearly bolted onto the flinty surface of the planet.
Bill, we’re clear, Lannetay sent.
Pickup in thirty seconds, Bill replied.
A faint, high-pitched shriek made its way past the weak force field holding in the crew’s breathable air. Olthan unerringly glanced in the direction of the William Placard.The others followed his gaze to watch the hemispherical cargo ship descend.
The landing was anything but smooth. The jar of the cargo vessel hitting the surface translated through the ground and into the feet of the four. Nice job, Lannetay quipped. Only about six or seven more of those and we’ll have to replace the ship – again.
As long as I’m with you. A ship’s Core could never duplicate Bill’s sarcasm.
“Break any of the landing struts, Bill?” Carnifor asked.
“Just the one I was going to use on you, Carny.”
Carnifor scowled. “Can’t you get your ship to respect me, Lannetay?”
The ship’s boarding ramp lowered as Lannetay approached. “I can barely get him to listen to me.How could I convince him to respect you?”
“I just gotta be me,” Bill said. “Get aboard so we can put this dust pile behind us.”
Olthan knocked grit off his boots and came up the ramp backwards, hand still on his sidearm. “We’re aboard. Close up and lift off.”
The ramp lifted. Air pressure built and their support belt’s force fields contracted. After a brief itching sensation on their skin, the fields switched off.
“Did Olthan say that without his accent?” Carnifor asked Lannetay.
“I didn’t notice. Did he?”
Bill sent to Lannetay, He does that now and again. When he’s stressed he switches to “Marine” mode. Probably doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.
“Bill? Get us out of here,” Carnifor ordered.
“We’re already two klicks in the air.” Bill’s voice clearly held humor. “If you can call it ‘air.’ I wouldn’t want to breathe it.”
“You’ll never have to.” Lannetay glanced around to make sure everyone was okay. She handed the baby to L-T then sprinted toward the control room.
Caught off-guard by Lannetay’s sudden movement, Carnifor paused for a second before following.
The hatch opened as Lannetay approached. She dove for her seat as Carnifor arrived.
“Why bother running here?” Carnifor asked. “You can control the ship from anywhere, and if the Core malfunctions –”
“Artificial Intelligence,” Bill interrupted.
“– you couldn’t control it here either.”
“Habit,” Lannetay replied. “And training.” She brought up a holo of the star system, followed by another which showed the nearest ten stars. Pulsing red dots indicated where colonies were located, and status information for each scrolled along side them.
“Not much difference between habit and training,” Carnifor said. “Where are we going?”
“Bill, set course for Herlorwis. Push the engines just a bit.” Bill added a yellow line connecting Cayn and Herlorwis.
“Aye, sir,” Bill said. “Will do, Captain Lannetay.”
Then the baby woke up and informed everybody within half of a light year he was unhappy.
L-T’s yell, “Lannetay,” was barely heard over the child’s shrieking.
Lannetay scowled. “Bill, push her more than just a bit.” She stood and exited the control room to see if L-T needed help with the baby. The hatch closed behind her. She grimaced as the child’s tantrum reached a new level. Maybe Carnifor’s idea of staying in the control cabin was smarter.
As she entered the main room Olthan shrugged to himself and broke into a jog along the perimeter track. Goofball plopped himself into a chair before it was fully formed to accept him. Marc called up a game of three-dimensional chess already in progress. He sat, waiting for L-T to join him.
Hyanto continued to scream, but L-T sat and bounced the strident baby to calm him. The infant’s flailing arms flew through the insubstantial hologram.
“Lannetay, could you take him?” L-T’s expression bordered on panic.
“No, you’re doing fine.”
L-T scowled and shifted Hyanto to his left shoulder. He made a move while the infant’s frustration reached a new crescendo.
He just made a dumb move, Bill. I think L-T is going to lose this one.
He is distracted.
Lannetay grimaced at the baby’s objections. Can you mute that noise?
Funny – Carny asked me the same thing.
You know he hates being called that.
Yes, Bill sent. That’s why I do it. ThoughI know spying isn’t something you like, Lannetay, I think you should be aware of this conversation I’m having with Carnifor.
Lannetay sighed. Give me a seat, Bill, and I’ll listen in.
Bill grew a recliner right in the middle of Olthan’s track. The Marine swerved around it and continued on. Bill relayed what he and Carnifor were discussing.
That shrieking kid is going to make this a long sixteen days. Carnifor observed.
You cut our trip back to only a week? How?Carnifor didn’t sound like he believed Bill.
Your Admiral Choergatan gave Lannetay a good ship with lots of . . . enhancements. I’m not sure I should say more.
You’d better, Bill, or I’ll tell Lannetay you let this one slip.
Lannetay interrupted the overheard dialog. Why are you having me hear a private conversation between you two, Bill?
He needs to know, Bill sent. But you need to know that he knows. Let me play you the rest.
Lannetay wasn’t too wild about eavesdropping, but trusted Bill’s judgement on this. Proceed.
The “overheard” conversation continued with Bill saying, What do you suppose a fighter pilot is going to do aboard a cargo ship? Why would Admiral Choergatan put a foot soldier aboard? Is there a reason a street kid from Atlanta – who became a Navy officer – is part of this crew?
Carnifor didn’t respond for at least a half-minute.
Admirals don’t do anything without a reason, Carny. Mostly they have two reasons, if not more.
Bill told Lannetay, That’s pretty much it.
Lannetay pondered while another silence stretched, then she stood and went back to the control room. After dropping the sound dampening field she said, “We’re turning around, Carnifor. Bill, take us back to Cayn.”
If you're wondering more about these characters, their origins are detailed in Ebony Sea: Origins. If you appreciate this story, please share on social media, and consider supporting the author's ability to continue writing by purchasing the Origins story and leaving a review at the link above.