“I’ll go,” I said. “I’m not afraid of an empty hull, and I’ve always wanted to see a tribe ship.” I looked down at Cotter, who, without his armor, was an inch shorter than I was in mine. “If you’re too scared, I can bring back some pictures for you.”
Cotter shot me a nasty look. “There’s a difference between brave and suicidal,” he snapped. “And I don’t see how going in there has anything to do with ship security.”
“I’ll throw in an explorer’s bonus,” Caldswell offered. “One thousand to each of you for every hour you’re inside.”
I whistled. Caldswell must really want something, because that was no small amount of cash. The same thought must have gone through Cotter’s mind, because his shoulders slumped in resignation. “Fine,” he said. “But first sign of trouble and I’m out.”
“Fair enough,” Caldswell said.
Cotter left to get his armor, but I stayed on the bridge, watching the tribe ship fill up the screen as we got closer. When Caldswell looked at me again, I smiled. It was time to do a little pushing.
“If I may ask, sir, why are you so keen on this?”
The captain folded his hands in his lap. “Just wondering what a dead tribe ship is doing this far out of its territory,” he said. “These are Reaper’s hunting grounds, but that’s one of Stoneclaw’s ships. Stoneclaw’s hunting grounds are three days’ jump from here, so you can see my interest.” He shrugged. “It pays to be curious on occasion, and this is odd enough that I’m willing to take the gamble.”
“How do you know so much about xith’cal?” I asked. “Did Hyrek tell you?”
“God, no,” the captain said. “Hyrek keeps his secrets tight. No, I used to fight xith’cal when I was in the Republic Starfleet. Did raids to free slaves on occasion.”
So Caldswell had been in the Terran Republic Starfleet. I filed that away for later use. “Slave raids, huh? Is that why Reaper’s so angry at you?”
“One of the many reasons,” Caldswell said, turning back to the rapidly approaching tribe ship. “Enough nosing, Morris. Get down to the cargo bay. We’ll be close enough for you to hop over in a few minutes.”
“Yes sir,” I said, flipping my visor down so he wouldn’t see my grin.
I jogged down the hall toward the cargo bay to start getting ready for a spacewalk, but as I turned into the lounge, Rupert’s look stopped me cold. He glanced pointedly at the kitchen and stood up, leaving his ledger on the couch beside Ren. I followed a second later, confused. Rupert walked behind the bar and leaned on the counter. I followed suit, taking off my helmet so I could hear him without the com chatter in my ear.
“What is it?” I whispered, leaning in close so he could hear my lowered voice.
Rupert’s face was perfectly neutral. To anyone else, he probably looked bored, but after trying so hard to break his bluff during our poker games, I knew his expressions better than I knew my own, and I could see from the tight set of his jaw that he was not happy. Very not happy.
“I don’t like this,” he said. He was looking at Ren, but his voice was pitched for my ears. The tremble in it was angry, but since he wasn’t meeting my eyes, I couldn’t tell if that anger was at me or for me. “This isn’t your job.”
I shrugged. “It’s my job to do what the captain orders.”
“The captain,” Rupert started, then stopped, his jaw clenching tighter as he tried to find the right words. “Caldswell values his crew,” he said at last. “But sometimes he values other things more. He thinks in terms of end goals and acceptable losses.”
Most soldiers did, but there was something in Rupert’s words that warned me that Caldswell’s idea of an acceptable loss went a bit beyond what I was used to. I started to tell him I could take care of myself, but then Rupert actually looked at me, and the intensity of his expression stole the words off my tongue.
“You leave at the first sign of trouble,” he said, his whole body taut as he leaned toward me. “Promise me, Devi. The first sign.”
“First sign,” I repeated, bumping his arm gently with my own. “I’ll come back just fine. Promise.”
He nodded and stood up. “Be careful,” he murmured as I put my helmet back on.
“Always am,” I said, lifting my visor to flash him a smile before I started down the cargo bay steps.
Cotter was suited up by the time I made it down to the bay, and he didn’t look happy about it. Despite Rupert’s warning, though, I was getting sort of excited. I’ve always liked exploring, and after being cooped up for days with mysteries I couldn’t solve, a chance to prove myself to Caldswell combined with poking around a ghost ship sounded pretty good to me.
While Basil was getting us closer, Mabel came out to help Cotter and me patch our video feeds through to the bridge so the others could watch the exploration.
“How do you stand seeing all the way around your head all the time?” Basil cried once my feed was running. “It’s making me dizzy just looking.”
“Guess my eyes are more advanced than yours,” I said, glancing down at the text that had started scrolling across the bottom of my vision. “You see that, Cotter?”
“I see it,” he grumbled.
The text was courtesy of Hyrek, who had agreed to watch and translate the xith’cal writing for us since no one else on the ship could read it.
“I hope you’re charging a fat translation fee,” I said.
You are the mercenary, Hyrek wrote. I am the loyal crew member who does as his captain orders. Now, remember, stay away from anything that looks like this.
The bottom of my screen filled with squiggles.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Slaughter Room” would be the closest translation, Hyrek replied. Wouldn’t want to offend your delicate sensibilities.
Cotter made a strangled sound, and I rolled my eyes. “Let’s get moving.”
“Ready for pressure release.” Nova’s dreamy voice floated over my speakers. “Locking down.”
There was a loud boom as the blast doors closed over the engine room and the door to the lounge. I stood impatiently, tapping my foot as I waited for the Fool’s vents to rescue what air they could. At last, when the atmosphere had dropped to nearly nothing, the new cargo doors rolled open, and Cotter and I stood facing the freezing blackness of space.
Basil had managed to get us right up beside one of the tribe ship’s flight bays. The gravity had vanished with the air, and since I was the only one with thrusters, it was my job to pull Cotter out of the cargo bay and across the ten-foot gap between the Glorious Fool and the xith’cal ship. Fortunately, the floors were metal, and Cotter’s suit wasn’t so cheap that the boots lacked magnets, so once we were down we could both walk more or less as normal.
Going into the bay was like floating into an enormous cave in the side of an even more enormous cliff. It was pitch-black inside and so large that our suit lights barely made a dent in the darkness. The bay Hyrek had chosen for our entry was the biggest of all the ones we’d seen on this side of the tribe ship. From the shape, I’d guessed it was meant for supply freighters, a theory that was supported by the bank of shipping containers strapped to the back wall.
Cannon ammunition, Hyrek typed before I could ask.
“Guess they didn’t get a chance to pack,” I said, turning my light over the hundreds of containers.
“I don’t think they had much of a chance to do anything.” Caldswell’s voice was deep in my ear. “Their ships are still in the bays.”
The bay looked empty to me, but then Cotter whistled and pointed up. I raised my head and gasped. A half-dozen ships hung suspended from the ceiling above us. They were long-haul fighters, twice the size of the Fool, and though, as Nova always pointed out, there was no up or down in space and thus no way one could fall on me unless something pushed it, I moved to the wall anyway.
Cotter followed suit, and we hugged the line of crates until we reached a set of doors big enough to drive a tank through. There was a little red light glowing on the panel beside them, the first light I’d seen other than our own since we’d arrived.
That’s the lock, Hyrek said. Press the red button.
I obeyed, hitting the glowing square hard with my finger. Something below us rumbled, and the door began to grind open.
“Some lock,” I said, grinning.
Airlock, not door lock. The words looked just like all the others, but I could almost feel Hyrek’s testiness running through the letters. Tribe ships have no need for locks. Xith’cal who poke their snouts where they shouldn’t don’t last long.
“Good to know,” I said, stepping inside the airlock and waving for Cotter to follow. He came grudgingly, but he came. I hit the button on the other side as soon as we were both in, and the door to the hanger rumbled back into place. Though it didn’t seem possible, it was even darker inside the airlock than it had been in the bay, but I could hear vents hissing overhead, filling the vacuum with atmosphere.
“There’s some power, at least,” I said, turning my headlamp toward the sound of blowing air.
“Gravity, too,” Cotter said, settling more comfortably into his suit.
He was right. I turned off my magnets as I settled onto the floor under my own weight. The gravity was light, but it was definitely there, and in a few seconds, the air was as well.
My suit told me when the oxygen levels outside were acceptable, but I kept it sealed anyway. Humans and xith’cal can breathe the same air, but xith’cal prefer a good deal more arsenic in theirs. It wouldn’t kill me immediately, but I had no interest in breathing poison, and since my suit could last sixteen hours before I needed to worry about my air supply, I saw no reason to.
Eventually the vents finished, and the door behind us, the one leading farther into the ship, opened with a creak, only to stick almost immediately. The crack was still enough for us to squeeze through, though Cotter was a tight fit. He cursed all the way, but even though he stuck to King’s Tongue, Caldswell still snapped at him for it. Some things don’t need translation.
The door let out into a large open space. Like the airlock, it was solid dark, but this room was so huge neither our lights nor my suit’s night vision could penetrate to the end of it. We could see the floor, though, and what we saw there didn’t make any sense.
“What the hell is that?” Cotter said, adding his light to mine.
I had no idea. It looked like a popped balloon. The thing shone iridescent purple in our floodlights, its edges reflecting rainbow pearlescence. It lay flat as a tarp on the ground, its surface wrinkled, like it was deflated. Beneath it, flat streamers peeled off in all directions like jellyfish tentacles. It was ripped in places, and there was something dark and sticky on the ground around it. Blood, I was willing to bet. Whatever this thing was, it had been alive once, and it had died a violent death.
“It’s a lelgis,” Caldswell said calmly.
I wasn’t nearly as collected. I leaned down with a startled gasp, staring at the dead thing in horrified fascination. I’d never seen a lelgis, living or dead. Most people hadn’t. The Terrans had discovered them seventy years ago when they’d just appeared out of nowhere with an enormous fleet and demanded tribute. There’d been a brief war, and then some agreement had been struck and the lelgis had pretty much kept to themselves ever since. They were supposed to be enormous and look like whale squids, but the thing on the ground couldn’t have been much larger than me, even with the tentacles, and it was definitely closer to a jellyfish than a squid. Briefly, I wondered how it had moved around in life. Those flimsy tentacles didn’t look anywhere near strong enough to hold that large, bulbous body.