Green and purple lights flash a disorienting staccato pattern and there is a hellacious, piercing wail flooding every part of the ship. Both signal the imminent destruction of this ship and chances are that none of the niao on board have experienced this since their training days. In this chaos, I am getting stares but none of the niao I come across actually try and stand in my way. I am moving through the corvette as fast as I possibly can without losing Nailah. It is frustrating. Intellectually I know that no unaltered human, especially one underfed and untrained like Nailah, could possibly have my stamina. I’m just not used to having to worry about that. So Nailah’s huffing and puffing behind me is leaving me seething.
Eventually we make it to the lifeboats, even if I have to constantly harry her to keep running. There are four niao waiting at the escape port I’ve chosen. I don’t fancy sharing so I strike. Once they are dead or unconscious, I shepherd Nialah inside and follow. The lifeboats have manual controls and a simple navigational computer that does not link with the main computers of the corvette. My frying of the main computer proves the wisdom of that.
The ovoid lifeboat is tiny and cramped but designed for up to five people. There is a single pilot seat up front and four seats behind it, set perpendicular to the pilot’s seat in two sets of two facing each other. Nialah sinks down into one of them, still gasping for breath. I strap myself into the pilot’s seat and remind Nialah to strap in as well. The controls are similar to any other niao ship I’ve flown so it only takes a moment to familiarize myself with them. I grip the control-stick and hit the button that fires the lifeboat away from the corvette.
I quickly whip the lifeboat around so that it is aimed at the gate. The maneuver flings me hard against my restraints, to my surprise. I guess the artificial gravity in the boat isn’t that great. A moan from Nailah prompts me to look back at her. She is strapped in, to my relief. Otherwise, I might have just flung her head-first into the side of the boat. Despite the poor inertial compensators, I press the boat for all its worth, rocketing toward the gate. I think it actually may be faster than the Raven. Maybe I should be glad that junk is about to be atomized along with the corvette.
The lifeboat, probably because of its primitive computers, has an unusually wide viewport. So I watch the corvette as I fly toward the gate. Only a few other lifeboats have launched away from the corvette. I suppose a fair number of the crew were killed or disabled by me but I would have expected more boats than what I am seeing. It can’t be too much longer until the corvette scuttles itself. I try to keep the fact in proper context and scope but it does hearten me to see the crew of the corvette so unprepared and undisciplined. It has been sixteen years since the war with the Je’Techt ended and the current ranks of the niao are mostly untested under fire.
Just before I hit the gate, I get to witness the destruction of the corvette. It isn’t a spectacular explosion but rather a series of smaller explosions that end up breaking the spine of the ship. The corvette tears apart, leaving it in two pieces, which I imagine will eventually be caught up in the gravity of one of the astral objects in the star system. Several of the lifeboats are far enough away that they probably will survive the blast but a few are caught up in it. Then the lifeboat hits the gate and the star system disappears.
I lean back in the pilot’s seat and just stare upward for a moment. That was the most I’ve had to improvise in a while. Engaging the enemy on any terms but my own is something that should never happen. I clearly needed a reminder why acting on impulse is never a good idea. I check the time and am shocked. Two hours ago I was leaving the Crescent without a fuss. One of my worst lapses in judgment in years. Still, it wasn’t all bad. I did get to destroy a corvette and kill a bunch of niao in a way that should prove to be nearly impossible for the authorities on the Crescent to piece together.
Looking over the instruments, it seems that the little lifeboat should have more than enough power to get back to my Moonbase without an issue. Truly, the naios’ method of converting power from the sun may be as significant as their dimension-shifting gates. Judging on the speed of the of the Raven, the lifeboat should be able to reach my home system in about twelve hours. The hard part about that is that the boat doesn’t have sophisticated enough computers to be trusted to navigate the river on its own. Eventually it would crash into one of the river walls and ships that exit a river without a gate were usually never heard from again.
Not that it will take too much of my attention. I look over my shoulder at Nailah. She is slumped bonelessly in her seat. Her eyes meet mine when I turn though. “Are you alright?” The way her face contorts is all the answer I need. “Well, we did it. We escaped.” I say flatly. I should be able to put more levity in my voice but I’m not quite sure how to act with her. She knows me as jovial rogue Marcus Cato but Cato wasn’t the type of person to do the things I just did. Neither in temperament nor ability. My actions are closer to what Hachimantaro is capable of, though he would have dumped Nailah a long time ago. Why didn’t I do that again?
“That’s good,” Nialah says. “I mean my whole life is in shambles and I’m a fugitive that will probably be killed on sight. But I’m not dead for the moment.” She twirls a finger in the air. “Hooray.”
I frown and take a quick glance to make sure the boat is on course. “I’m not quite sure why you are so upset,” I say. “Was life as a convict-slave so great?”
Venom fills her eyes. “It was my life. I only had two more years on my sentence left.” She drops her head back and the venom is replaced by anguish. “I worked so hard to make every single extra fraction of a credit I could. Two more years and I would have had enough to buy a ticket back home. Now that plan is…” She simulates an explosion.
A creeping feeling that I’m not used to spreads through my body. Guilt. Not an emotion I often feel. It’s rare for a human to escape the convict cycle on the Crescent but not unheard of. She could have done it. I inserted myself into her life without her invitation and spoiled all of her plans. An apology is on the tip of my tongue but I can’t quite say it. Instead I ask, “So where is home?”
She turns toward me. “Boston,” she says cautiously. Something of what I am thinking must be reflected on my face because she continues, “I know that it was practically leveled eight years ago. My mother lives in Worcester now. I guess that is what I mean by home. She was also scrounging to get me a ticket home,” she adds miserably.
A sneaking suspicion enters my mind. “How did you come to be a convict?”
She confirms my notion by drawing herself up proudly and glaring at me. “My father was in the Sons of Liberty,” she says hotly. “He was killed during the Uprising.” Then the fire goes out of her eyes and her shoulders slump. “Fat lot of good it did. A few niao killed in return for the city of Boston. Old fool,” she mutters softly.
“Truly,” I say, thinking of the haphazard and ill-conceived attempt at driving the niao out of the northeastern part of America. The niao had handled it easily yet the Governor of East America had decided that humanity needed an object lesson. Since New Englanders had played a major role in the leadership of the Sons of Liberty, Boston was chosen to pay the price for their defiance.
“My father was a patriot!” Nailah snaps.
“I didn’t say he wasn’t,” I say. “Being a fool and a patriot are often two sides of the same coin. It’s admirable but a good way to convince yourself to do something contrary to your own well-being.”
The heat drains out of her. “I’m sorry,” she sighs. “I…don’t really like to talk about it.”
Understandable. I can guess the rest though. It isn’t uncommon for family member to pay the price for another’s crime. Nailah could have been convicted of not reporting seditious behavior or spreading an anti-niao message. It didn’t matter. Just so long as every human knew that his children or wife or parents or children could all suffer if they stepped out of line.
“It will be about twelve hours until we…” I want to say ‘get home’ but that’s not right. It’s not her home. It hits me like disruption wave that I had unconsciously decided to bring a guest to my home for the first time. I’m left fumbling for the words. “uh…until we…get to our destination.” I can tell she is confused with my stumbling. And probably the fact that I sound like a damn tour guide! Before she can open her mouth I hurriedly continue, “There won’t be much shifting during the flight.” Seriously? Maybe I’ve found a new profession. “So you can unbuckle and get up if you like. I don’t know what kind of amenities a niao lifeboat has but there is probably food and water somewhere.”
“Alright…” Nailah says, squinting at me. I turn away and face forward again. Clearly twelve hours of conversation is not in the playbook right now. So I do what I usually do when I have some free time and begin reading a history book. This time it is about the Haitian Revolution. There is some interesting information contained in the ebbs and flows of that conflict. I am seeing a common theme of the oppressed and vastly militarily inferior revolutionaries needing an ally that is relatively on par with their oppressors. The Je’Techt, if anything, seem worse that the niao. The nephilim, though, may be worth exploring…
Nailah interrupts me with the revelation that she found food and water under one of the seats. The water I accept gratefully but I spurn the ‘food.’ It seems to be the niao equivalent of a snack mix. Instead of dried fruit and nuts it seems to mostly be dried insects and seeds. Nailah shrugs and starts scarfing it down. I suppose she must have gotten used to eating anything she could get as a convict.
She drifts to the back and I refocus on my book. Even having to ‘look up’ from time to time to make sure that the lifeboat is on course, I reach the end of it in about eight hours. I lean back, digesting what I just read. The Haitian situation seems closer to my own than the French one. A snore interrupts me. I turn and look back at Nailah. She is flopped over the two seats, on her back, one arm and one leg dangling to the ground. Her head is lolling back and she is softly, gently but definitely snoring. I glare at her for a moment. I can understand her needing to sleep but why like that? Why not sitting or in the fetal position? Both would be considerably more comfortable and would probably eliminate the snoring.
I try to continue my train of thought on the uprising in Haiti but her damnable snoring continually disturbs me. What am I going to do with her? I can’t suggest she go to Worcester. By now, the niao authorities will have identified her. Soon enough a bounty hunter will have Nailah’s mother under surveillance. A better bet would be to place her some place on Earth far away from the eastern part of the old United States. Somewhere the niao don’t traffic as much, like the Balkans or Alaska. Would she stay, though? Humans’ desire for family can override all common sense. In five or ten years, would she start thinking that the niao had given up? That she was safe to go home?
A better bet might be Port Royal, that notorious nest of pirates, smugglers, outlaws and fugitives. It was hard living on Port Royal but it was one of the few places in the universe that a human could live free. I know of a few people I could turn her over to. If she needs a surrogate family, she would find it in spades among a pirate crew or some such. She also might get killed. Which would mean that she was no longer a problem for me. Sighing, I scrub a hand over my face. The meager, violent, short life of a pirate or hiding under an assumed identity on some remote part of Earth. With choices like that, I have to agree that I did her no favors intruding on her life like I did.
The river begins to narrow and get a little sinuous as we close in on the gate to my home system. Careful piloting consumes most of my attention until the lifeboat finally gates out. I glance behind me and see that Nailah is still asleep. Better to leave her that way. If by some mischance she ends up in the claws of the niao, at least she won’t be able to tell them anything about the system I live in. My mind connects with the net of Moonbase One and I broadcast the signal opening the hidden door on the moon. I guide the lifeboat into the hangar and set it down in the Raven’s old spot. I’ve become kind of fond of the little lifeboat. Perhaps I can think of something to do with it.
I stretch as I stand up. That seat is pretty cramped, though. I nearly smack my head on the roof of the boat as well. Maybe I’m not as fond of the boat as I thought. I reach down to shake Nailah awake but before I can touch her, her eyes snap open and she sits upright almost in a panic. “It’s alright,” I say, holding up my hands.
“Sorry,” Nailah mumbles, pushing her hair away from her face. “I didn’t realize I had fallen asleep.” She looks around. “Where are we?”
I reach over and pop open the door. Gesturing for her to follow me, I duck under the doorway and leap down into the hangar. “This is Moonbase One.”
Nailah snorts a laugh as she joins me. “What kind of dumbass name is that?”
I scowl at her. “I couldn’t think of…I wasn’t like…Whatever. This is where I live.”
Apparently ignoring my annoyance, Nailah surveys the hangar with her hands on her hips. “Wow. Whose ships are all of these?”
My eyes narrow. “They are mine. I am the only person who lives here.”
Her eyes go wide and her jaw goes a little slack. “How do you have all of these ships? Where even are we?”
I shrug almost helplessly. The amount of effort to explain of us this, even if I was inclined to, is just too enormous. This is why I never wanted anyone on my Moonbase! “It doesn’t matter, alright. I have them because I have them. Just follow me.” I start walking briskly toward the exit and she is forced to follow me.
The moment we enter the threshold of my home, Walter materializes. “Jesus fucking Christ!” Nailah screams, flinching backward so violently that she would have fallen if the now closed door wasn’t directly behind her.
“Sorry to startle you, young miss,” Walter says pleasantly. “I was not aware that the Master was bringing home a guest.”
“Neither was I,” I mutter, helping steady Nailah. “Walter is just the virtual avatar of my home computer. I should have warned you about him.”
“Terribly sorry to have discomfited you, ma’am.”
Nailah places a hand on the wall, as if to hold herself up. “This isn’t making any sense. A virtual avatar? Who are you?” Before I can think of an answer, Malice bounds into the room, sees Nailah, flips around and bolts back out of the room. “And what was that?”
“That,” I say, answering the easiest of her questions, “was a cat.”
“A cat,” she says flatly. “There are cats in space now.”
“Actually, a lot of pirate crews like to have a ship’s cat. They consider one a good luck charm.” Nailah stares at me blankly. “Look, don’t worry about it for now, okay? Wouldn’t you like to get cleaned up some?” I smile. “I have a human-style shower. The water raining down on you instead of shooting up at you.”
Her eyes soften. “A real shower,” she says in wonderment. Niao do have showers but they are designed to protect their crests from water pressure.
A complication hits me. “Are you wired?” I ask, tapping my head. “Can you use nets without a virtual interface?”
She shakes her head. “Father didn’t want me to have it until I was older. And my…employer didn’t see a need for it.”
That is actually kind of a relief for me. I hadn’t thought about the fact that nothing in my home is accessible without a net connection but I don’t think I want to give her full access to my home net. I could block her out of most sensitive things but it seems an unnecessary risk. “That’s fine,” I say. “Walter!”
“I am assigning you to Nailah. Take her to the shower and get it working for her, would you?” Nailah seems a little out of sorts. “Oh. Sorry. Walter why don’t you present yourself as something more suitable for a woman.”
“Of course.” Walter shifts into the shape of a rotund older woman, her greying hair done up in a bun.
“Is that better?” I ask.
“Uh, I guess…”
“Good,” I say, passing over the lukewarmness of her answer. “Walt…tina, I suppose. Waltina, please see Nailah to the bath.”
“Come along then, miss,” Waltina says in an almost comically high-pitched voice. She waddles quickly away and, with a last glance at me, Nailah follows her. I trail them at a more leisurely pace. The bathroom is on the far side of the main room, which is where I am headed. I watch Waltina and Nailah disappear into the bathroom and wait until I can hear the shower going. Then I summon Walter.
A copy of the avatar, in his normal form, appears before me. “Get those clothes of hers to the washer,” I command. “They were practically rags to begin with and our recent adventure did them no favors. Also set up the kitchen for me to make…khuushuur. Khuushuur sounds good.”
“Of course.” Walter bows and dissipates like a phantom. I summon my wardrobes out of the floor. Waltina will provide Nailah with a towel when she finishes her shower but I imagine she’ll want more than that until her own clothes are clean. But what of mine could she wear? While I consider, I pull on a grey sleeveless shirt and a pair of loose, black trousers.
I am still poking around when I hear the shower go off. With a sigh, I decide I am not going to do any better than what I have and order the wardrobes to return to the depths. I wait a couple of minutes and then knock on the door to the bathroom. I am answered by a surprised squeak and eventually a hesitant, “Yes?”
“Can I come in, Nailah? Are you covered up?”
“Um, my clothes are missing. I don’t know where they went.” She sounds a little panicked.
“It’s fine. Walter took them away to be washed. I have some extra clothing of my own you can wear in the meantime.”
“Uh…okay…” Assuming that is the go ahead to come in, I command the door to open. A wave of steam assaults me as the door opens. Nailah is beyond, slightly hunched into herself, white towel wrapped close around, wet black hair plastered to her head, olive skin glowing. Words die in my throat and I just dumbly shove the garments at her, making a conscious effort of will to keep my eyes locked on to hers. She adjusts her towel a little so that she can hold it with her armpits and then snags the clothes with one hand. “Thanks,” she says, her voice tight. I nod and step back out of the room, closing the door.
I wipe the remnants of the steam from my face and breathe out. Nailah had caught my eye the first time I met her but since then the situations we’d been in had drawn my attention elsewhere. Now, though, my heart is hammering in my chest. Of all the things that the Doctor tinkered with and enhanced and replaced, for some reason he had left my libido completely alone. Perhaps it was difficult to meddle with my brain chemistry in such a way but he didn’t turn me in a eunuch, metaphorically or physically, as common sense would dictate. The Doctor did have an odd romantic streak. I wonder at his wisdom though, considering what he was trying to make me. Sexual desire can corrupt a man more surely than lust for power or money.
I summon my overstuffed reading chair and hustle over to it. My bar ascends as well and I pour myself a snifter of brandy and flop down into the chair. Needing to distract myself, I pull up the latest in the bidding war for Roots. It finally seems to have tapered off and, surprisingly to me, the lead bidder is the pirate Black Flynn Oquendo. Black Flynn has been doing his best to create some sort of pirate coalition or something with him as the leader. I didn’t expect him to become a major player is something like this though. He must have ripped off more from that casino than I thought he did.
This leaves me with an interesting choice. I’d been thinking that the American Mafia would bid the most. I’m sure they could do interesting things to the niao Governor if they had possession of his son. They offered just a little less than Oquendo. I could give Roots to them anyway and make up some excuse. That might leave Hachimantaro on the outs with Black Flynn and his pirates though. I could just up the bid as the Exile King and deal him to the Mafia. I don’t like how associated Hachimantaro and Outremer are becoming though. Perhaps the Lindwyrm. I could also just sell him to Oquendo and see what happens.
The door to the bathroom opens and Nailah walks out, breaking me from my contemplation. It seems like the clothing I picked out for her is working alright. The black spandex leggings that end just below my knee are ankle-length on her. They are the only pants I could think of that would not slide right off of her. I also gave her a white, silk dress shirt with tails that hung nearly to her knees. She had rolled up the sleeves so they were pinned at the elbow.
I take a sip of my brandy, suddenly a little nervous. “Are those clothes going to be alright?”
Nailah rolls her shoulders and laughs. “They feel strange. I haven’t worn anything but the niao-provided crap in a long time.”
“Well…you look good.” I groan internally the moment the words are out of my mouth.
“Thanks,” she answers with a small smile, her gaze not quite meeting mine. The silence stretches after that. I desperately try and think of something to say and am saved when her stomach rumbles loudly.
I jump to my feet. “I’m going to go cook dinner.”