Author: Rachel Bach

“Sounds good to me, sir,” I said, reaching for my armor case. This next bit would be pure fun. I loved showing off my armor. “What would you like me to do for my demonstration? I can do any accuracy challenge you can think of, maneuvers, a strength test, whatever you want.”

“I don’t think we’ll need any of that,” the man said, turning off my handset and handing it back. “You’ve got the job.”

I blinked. “That’s it?” I blurted before I could stop myself.

The man shrugged. “Unless another decorated ex-Blackbird with her own suit of custom, high-end armor is waiting in my cargo bay, then yes. That’s it.” He held out his hand. “I’m Brian Caldswell, welcome to the Glorious Fool.”

I took his hand, head spinning. That was the fastest interview I’d ever had. “Fool?”

“The Glorious Fool,” Caldswell repeated, smiling like this was an old joke. “My ship.”

Weird name for a ship, but I didn’t give it much thought. I was too busy absorbing the fact that the short, stocky man in front of me was the cursed captain, Brian Caldswell. The man who went through security like tissue paper, and I was now in his hands.

“Thank you, sir,” I said before I found some way to ruin things.

The captain nodded. “We’ll get you a bunk when we’re ready to go. In the meanwhile, you can store your stuff behind the bar. No one will touch it.”

No one but me could touch my armor without getting ten thousand volts, but I kept my mouth shut about that and stowed my bags as directed. Honestly, I was still reeling. My brain couldn’t quite get around the idea that after years of fighting like a dog for every step up the ladder, I’d gotten what could well be the make or break job of my career with an interview that had taken less than five minutes.

While I was putting my things up, the captain walked over to the cargo bay door and shoved his head out. “Position’s filled!” he yelled, and then he shut the door.

I thought that was a bit harsh, but the captain seemed to have forgotten the other applicants entirely the moment he turned away. “I have to go take care of some business,” he said, walking past me toward the hall on the opposite side of the lounge. “Basil will get you settled. He’s my second, and you’ll obey him as you would me.”

“Yes sir,” I said, following him. “Who else do I follow?”

“Mabel, our engineer.” The captain wasn’t looking at me, but I caught his smile and gave myself a mental pat on the back. I’d impressed him. “But she won’t be here until later. For now, just worry about making Basil happy. You’ll find him on the bridge, straight ahead.”

He nodded down the hall toward a closed door at the opposite end. I noted it and then turned to face my new captain head-on. “Yes sir,” I said, bowing formally from the waist as was proper now that he was my superior. “It will be an honor to serve you, sir.”

The captain shook his head. “This is a Terran ship, Morris. We don’t do any of that bowing and scraping here. Just do your job, obey orders, don’t backtalk too much, and we’ll all be happy.”

“Yes sir,” I said, without the bow this time. Not bowing to a superior went against my training, but it was his ship. If he didn’t want me bowing, I was happy not to. Bowing to a Terran felt a little blasphemous.

The captain nodded and walked down the hall away from me, toward the engines. I watched him until he started down the spiral stairs to the lower levels and then turned toward the bridge as ordered. The hall ran down the ship like a backbone with the bridge as its head. Surprisingly, though the hall was reasonably clean, it was almost as patched as the ship’s hull.

The outside damage I could understand; pirates liked to take potshots, but the hall’s gray metal walls were peppered with blaster burns, bullet holes, even a few blast shadows from what I could only imagine were grenades. I’ve walked down worse, but not many, and only in war zones. Whatever had happened here had been serious, and I made a mental note to ask how the last security team had ended their tour.

The bridge door slid open the second I stepped up. I marched inside and stopped at parade rest just as I had back in my army days, glancing around for this Basil I was supposed to be taking orders from. What I saw confused me greatly.

The bridge itself was a perfectly normal three-layer setup and far less scarred than the hall had been, though there was still a bullet hole in the ceiling. At the top where I stood was the monitor deck and systems desk, both empty. Down a step was the captain’s chair, its leather seat and consoles worn nearly black from years of use. But at the bottom of the bridge, the seat at the ship’s nose where the pilot usually sat was gone. In its place was what looked like a nest of bright-colored fabric, and sitting in this nest was a very large bird wearing a headset.

I’d seen aeons before, but never in person, and certainly never this close. The ones I’d seen had been brightly colored, pink and blue and green and every other neon hue you’d expect from a giant alien bird. This one was brown as a common sparrow. Sitting in its nest, it looked like an overgrown fluffy stork with short chocolate and cream feathers layered over white down. Its neck was long as my arm, and the head at the top was crested with a ridge of rust-red feathers that bobbed back and forth as the aeon studied the projected star map in front of it. Its wings, which looked large enough to be useful, were folded at its sides, each one tipped with four tiny, clawlike fingers at the joint, but the bird wasn’t using them. Instead, it was tapping the ship’s flight handle impatiently with its long feet, the yellow talons clicking so fast on the padded grip I could barely follow them.

Despite being the most populous race in the galaxy, beating out even humans for sheer numbers, the aeons stuck to their Sevalis and their own kind. I’d heard they disliked the other races with a passion bordering on violent xenophobia, which was a waste, because they were supposed to be the best navigators in the universe. Once I got over my initial shock at seeing a large alien bird sitting in a literal pilot’s nest, that fact that Caldswell actually had an aeon to fly this hunk of junk ship was what astonished me the most.

The bird hadn’t noticed me yet, and I took a moment trying to decide if it was safer to call the thing sir or ma’am. Neither seemed good. I didn’t even know if aeons had the usual genders, actually. But since this was a Terran ship with no appreciation for proper hierarchy, I decided to risk dropping the honorific, just this once.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Are you Basil?”

The aeon’s head whipped around, and I found myself being glared at by a pair of yellow eyes as large as my fists with round, black pupils set in a flat face above a long, curving yellow beak that practically dripped with disapproval. “Oh goody,” it said. “A Paradoxian.”

The bird’s voice was more like a whistle than words, but I didn’t like the tone of it one bit. “That’s what you get when you advertise for a security team on Paradox,” I said, fighting the urge to cross my arms and glare.

The aeon arched a feathered eye ridge and then, in a flurry of flapping, launched itself into the air. It cleared the captain’s chair in one leap and landed right in front of me. Standing, the bird’s head was a foot higher than mine. Its yellow eyes gleamed as it set down, no doubt waiting for me to scramble out of the way. But I’d faced down much scarier things than overgrown chickens with bad attitudes, and I held my ground.

The bird looked disappointed. “My name is”—it gave a shrill whistle that faded into a chirp. “But your soft human palate couldn’t possibly manage that, so you may call me Basil. I’m the Glorious Fool’s navigator and Captain Caldswell’s second in command. You will address me as sir at all times.”

“Yes sir,” I said, hiding a smile. An officer with literal feathers to ruffle. This was going to be rich. “The captain said you would show me around.”

The bird heaved an exaggerated sigh and pushed past me. “Come along, monkey. And don’t touch anything.”

We spent the next hour going over a ship that should have taken ten minutes to walk through. The Fool had the fairly standard spacer setup of cargo bay, engine room, lounge, two levels of crew cabins, and a surprisingly nice infirmary (or not so surprising with as much action as this ship supposedly saw). The most interesting thing I noticed was that the damage I’d seen in the main hallway continued through most of the ship.

Hearing about trouble was one thing, but going by battle scars I’d say the Fool saw more action than my former crash team’s ship, which we routinely dropped on pirate camps. Everywhere I looked, things had been damaged and patched over. Even the out-of-the-way bulkheads were burned or scraped in some fashion, and more than a few still had bullets lodged in them. The floor was rubber coated for traction, but the coating was melted in several places from what looked like plasma blasts. We didn’t run into any other crew members, but that didn’t matter. In between boring me to tears with details of the ship’s mechanics, Basil took every opportunity to talk about them.

“As our engineer, Mabel is responsible for everything mechanical,” he said as we walked up the tiny spiral stair from the engine room. “You’ll obey her as you obey the captain or myself. Nova is our systems analyst. She helps me run the bridge. The two of you will be bunking together until I can talk some sense into the captain.”

His head swiveled to glare at me. “Honestly, if we weren’t short on room, I’d never have let it happen. A nice girl like Nova shouldn’t be exposed to Paradoxians. Sometimes I don’t think you people even understand words that don’t have to do with armor, fighting, and king worship.”

“We also talk about shooting, sir,” I said dryly. “And bird hunting.”

“Good thing for us then that you and that other idiot are the only of your barbaric kind here,” Basil snapped, feathers standing on end. “Though two is more than enough.” He pressed his wingtip to his head. “Moving on, and do try to remember this because I’m not telling you again, cleaning duty follows a standard rotation. The cook takes care of the lounge, but all other responsibilities are shared between the crew. You’ll be expected to contribute at least five hours a week or face a pay dock. In addition, our records require that you file daily reports…”

I tried not to let my eyes glaze over as I tuned him out. Normally, I am the perfect picture of the professional merc. I try not to swear because swearing is for grunts, not officers. I maintain decorum, I follow orders, I never drink on duty, and I do my job with a flair and efficiency designed to land me glowing reports. But after half an hour of listening to Basil squawk, my professional front was starting to crumble.

Even without the bird’s talk about cleaning rotations, the tour had been unappealing. The blast marks were exciting, true, but the rest of my duties sounded dull as, well, guard duty. I had a patrol path I was supposed to maintain during flight, hourly check-ins, report writing, inventory control, all the routine, mind-numbing idiocy that had led me to avoid guard jobs like the plague my whole career. Much as I’d grown to dislike crashing pirate camps over the last five years, the idea of hopping out of a drop ship on some remote moon and landing on a pirate’s head was starting to sound like heaven at the moment. When the bird turned us into the lounge and launched into a lecture on fire regulations again, I rolled my eyes to the ceiling and prayed to my king that all those dead security teams had actually died in combat and not from boredom.

Basil’s safety lecture was interrupted by the sound of someone coming up the cargo bay stairs. I looked over, hoping to see the captain or maybe my fellow security team member, anyone who could save me from the bird. But it wasn’t the captain or a merc, it was a girl. I placed her at about fourteen, maybe a little older. She was dark skinned with a cap of straight dark hair cut just above her shoulders and almond eyes that were almost too focused as they moved from me to Basil.