The planet that Black Flynn Oquendo chose to rendezvous on is really quite lovely. The atmosphere is breathable and there are vast tracts of forest. The planet has much more surface land than Earth, to the point where the oceans look more like inland seas. It would be a fantastic place to go to ground as outlaw. Except, of course, the very things that made it so nice were the same things that undoubtedly had it high up on potential niao colonies. In fact, it was a little surprising that it wasn’t already a colony. But there were a whole host of things that could be holding up development. A disease, a particularly trenchant local predator, magnetic fields interfering with equipment, squabbles over who actually laid claim to the star system.
One annoying problem was that the fools who put in the gate placed it nearly three days from the planet even at Psychopomp’s superlative speed. More annoying still, Oquendo’s ship, the Glorious Purpose, hadn’t gated into the system until two days after mine had. He had beamed me a message expressing his sincere apology for making me wait. I don’t care what his excuse is, it was completely unprofessional. If this was some kind of power play, it was childish. At least now I’d have an excuse for the next time Hachimantaro spurned him on a deal. I would have left already if it hadn’t taken me three days to reach the planet.
I do prefer to deal with him on planet, though. The Glorious Purpose was a destroyer and I could have landed Psychopomp inside its hangar easily. I wouldn’t have relished that. Here, he’ll have to send down a landing craft. Psycopomp was small enough to enter atmosphere, his destoyer was not. Still, wasting a whole week on selling Roots was not exactly what I had planned. Less so, spending it with a woman I barely knew. It isn’t as though the Psychopomp is overflowing with diversions for Nailah while I spend my time diving into the net and reading. She finished her own book on the first day after we entered the system. When she started talking with Roots, I decided that I needed to quit leaving her to her own devices. Which lead me to the idea of teaching Nailah how to fly.
“Good,” I say. “Now bring it around seventy degrees and fire the cannons the moment you hit that mark.” Nailah, sweat trickling down her face, does her best to comply. She is operating the Psychopomp with the manual controls, something I almost never do but had installed for emergencies. The cannons fire a second later than ideal but they are on target. I nod. “Not bad.” Truly. When I started this, I hadn’t expected Nailah to catch on nearly so quickly. She had a good spatial awareness and was growing adept at juggling the myriad instruments informing her of the state of the ship and the space around it.
“Thanks,” Nialah says, breathing heavily. I’ve been shouting commands at her as fast as she could do them for the last thirty minutes and for the last ten she managed to reach a very good rhythm. I’m hesitant to stop but I noticed that the Glorious Purpose is finally getting close.
I point that out to Nailah and ask. “How long, would you say, until that ship reaches the planet?”
Nailah thinks for a moment. “An hour?”
“Close,” I say. “A big ship like that needs a little while to halt its inertia. They’ll slow down as the come closer to the planet. Still, I think it is about time we head down.”
“Okay,” Nailah says with a hint of dejection.
I have to smile. “Do you want to try entering an atmosphere?”
Her eyes light up. “Can I?”
“Sure. Go ahead and turn Psychopomp toward the planet and head in. When you get close the computer will warn you that you are about to enter an atmosphere. Then it will orient the ship for the best angle of entry. You could override that but I wouldn’t suggest it. Hit the atmosphere wrong and the ship could break up or we might experience a really unpleasant heat death.”
“It’s fine,” I laugh. “Just let the computer do its thing and hang on. Gravity will grab ahold of this ship and we’ll start moving real fast. The computer knows what it’s doing, though.” And if it something goes wrong, I can always seize control of the Psychopomp as quickly as thought.
“Okay.” Nailah takes a deep breath and exhales. “Let’s do this.” She sends the ship toward the planet and, soon enough, a warning blares that we are coming close to an atmosphere. With the high-quality artificial gravity in the Psychopomp, I can’t really feel the ship orient itself but the instruments confirm that we entering in the classic ‘belly-flop’ position. A little longer and the ship starts trembling and bucking enough that we can feel it. Nailah makes a noise of discontent and looks at me questioningly.
“We’re fine,” I say. “There is a lot of drag entering this planet but Pomp can handle it. Nothing to do but wait.” Another few moments and we hit the cloud-line and then we’re through it and looking with our own eyes at the great dark greens of the forests and the bright blues of the inland seas.”
Nailah gasps. “Oh my god. It’s beautiful.” I have to agree. It’s like a giant, unspoiled, primeval Earth. What an amazing colony world this would make for humans. It’s slightly colder than Earth and the gravity is approximately one-hundred and seventeen percent of Earth’s. Slight discomforts but it might well have been another explanation of the niao not settling down here yet. They would, though. The galaxy is so vast it can seem endless but at times it felt like it was filling up so rapidly that humans, even if we ever got out from underneath the dominion of the niao, would find no room left.
I scan through the viewport and point out a clearing on one of the sea coasts. "Take us down there."
"Really?" Nailah says, looking shocked.
"Sure. Just take it slow." Nailah reorients back to the command console and gooses the Psychopomp forward a little. She turns the ship toward the clearing and starts puttering forward, perhaps taking my advice about taking it slow a little too literal.
"It feels different," Nailah says. "The Pomp isn't responding as well."
"That's just the air drag. There is friction down here that there isn't in space. Keep going. You're doing fine."
"Okay." She doesn't sound convinced but she continues drifting forward slowly.
"Start to push Pomp down now," I say, after I realize she is heading forward but not losing altitude.
"Right. Sorry." The Psychopomp jerks down and then back up a little and the down again. "Sorry. Damn it."
"It's fine." Her slow herky jerky flight eventually has us poised over the clearing. With the small problem of being twenty meters from the ground.
"Start to circle around the clearing," I say. "Dip a little lower with each pass until you are about a meter from the ground." Nailah nods nervously and starts to circle, losing altitude in starts and stops until she is very close to the ground. "Good, be careful now, though--"
Before I can finish the sentence, Nailah drops again, straight into the ground, nose first. Since I am standing behind the pilot's seat, I am thrown hard to the left wall. Nailah is rocked against her restraints. I pick myself up and roll my left shoulder. It seems to be fine. Nailah stares out the viewport in complete horror. Then her head drops and smacks into the control console and she groans allowed. I can't help but laugh.
Her head snaps up. "Oh my god. I'm so sorry. I don't know how that happened!"
"You nosed into the ground it what happened," I say. "I should have warned
you sooner to stop circling."
"Is the—do you think the Pomp is alright?" she asks nervously.
"It will take more than that to hurt Psychopomp." I examine the feeds
Psychopomp is sending me to confirm that what I am saying isn't bluster. There is no structural damage. The paint might be a little chipped. It wouldn't do to have Black Flynn see such a shoddy landing job though. I take command of the ship, drift up, spin around and settle it into a much smoother landing. Hopefully covering the earth Nailah's landing tore up.
I pop open the door of the ship and head down. We are near the equator so it is warm outside. The air is crisp and I take a deep breath. The smell of fresh water is in the air. Nailah comes down beside me and says, "Wow." She looks up at the sky and spins around slowly. "It has been a long time since I've been, you know, outside like this."
Her statement makes sense considering that humans weren't usually let outside the city on the Crescent. However..."I thought you grew up in Boston?"
Nailah's face takes on a tinge of sadness. "I did but my father used to take me and my brother to national parks in Maine and Vermont. I really miss that."
"Hmm." I look around. There is the beginnings of a forest maybe half a kilometer away from where we landed the ship and a beach about a half klick in the other direction. "This is a very nice spot. Could you imagine having a house here?"
Nailah giggles and swipes at the hair the blows into her face from a sudden gust of wind. "That would be insane." After a pause, Nailah bites her bottom lip and then asks, "Do you think it would be alright if I, um, went and checked out that forest a little bit?"
I raise an eyebrow at her. "I'm not your master, Nailah." In fact, that isn't a bad idea. I have no desire for Oquendo to know that I have a woman with me. I was going to have her hole up in the Psycopomp but the forest would do just fine. I glance over there for a moment. The trees seem pretty similar to Earth trees. A trunk with fern-like leaves. There was no telling with life though. Who knew what kind of affect those trees or other flora might have on human physiology? "Be careful," I say. "I would avoid touching too many things if I were you. There's also no way to know what kind of fauna live in there. I could send a spider-drone along to protect you."
Nailah cants her head a little and grins. "I don't know what that is but I think I'll be fine. But thanks for the offer." She bounces on her heels a couple of times. "I'm going to go, I think."
"Alright." Nailah hesitates for a second more and then strides off toward the forest. "Nailah?" I say, before she can get to far. She spins back to me. "If you come back and see another ship or any other people around here, stay in the tree-line."
Despite her obvious confusion, Nailah says, "Sure. I guess." I watch her leave and then I lean against the Psychopomp, watching the sky.
About an hour and a half later, a shuttle appears in the sky, headed straight for my position. I head into the Psychopomp and gather up Roots. When I push him out of the ship, he stumbles to his knees and looks around. "Where are we? Are we back on Earth?"
"Seriously? How long did you live on Earth?" I ask snidely.
"I was preoccupied with things other than the countryside," he says back. I smirk. Interesting that he is finally showing a little backbone. That probably won't fly so well with Black Flynn and the gang.
The shuttle touches down, ending our conversation. Roots perks his head up, seeing the shuttle. I can understand. The personnel carrier is of state-of-the-art niao style and technology. It would be easy to believe his father is in there and much harder to believe it belonged to some upjumped human pirate. That was part of the lore of Black Flynn, however. He had somehow managed to steal Glorious Purpose directly from the shipyard that built it. That gave him a brand new, cutting edge destroyer when most of the rest of the pirates in the galaxy were making due with salvaged corvettes and gunboats. He and I were probably the two of the only humans in the galaxy who could claim to be the original captains of our vessels.
A ramp extends from the shuttle to the ground and I get my first glimpse of Black Flynn Oquendo in the flesh. The man has always appropriated the manner of the apocryphal European pirate of the Age of Sail and his dress certainly reflects that. His trousers and shirt are billowy and dark blue; his boots and gloves are black. He is wearing a black half-cape over his left shoulder. Like many human outlaws, he has a disrupter pistol on one hip and a ballistic Earth-style pistol on the other.
Oquendo has dark skin and dark eyes. A smile is on his lips and in his manner. I've heard tell, though, that he can order a cold-blooded execution with that same smile and a jaunty wave. His hair is long and curly, worn loose but not covering his ears enough to block the glittering ruby studs in both lobes. He also has a rakish mustache, waxed so the tips point up and out. Black Flynn spreads his arms when he reaches the bottom of the ramp and says, "Hachimantaro!" Every vowel is elongated.
"Captain Oquendo," I greet him, considerably more coolly.
Apparently taking no notice of my tone, Flynn strides up to me and snatches my hand, pumping it vigorously. "It is a true honor to meet you. You're one of the best. One of the originals," he says in English. Despite his European affectations, I can tell by his accent that he is from the southwest part of North America.
I glance beyond him and see two more people exiting the shuttle. One is a slight black woman in a black bodysuit not too dissimilar from my own. Her head is shaved bald and she has a scar lancing across her face from the corner of her mouth, through her nose and above her left eye. Draema, called the Dumb by some though never within her hearing. Next to her is Breaker Von, a burly white man with shaggy auburn hair and a wild beard. Black Flynn's bodyguards.
"I don't consider myself the original of anyone," I say dismissively.
Black Flynn laughs. "Dios mio, you are exactly the way I thought you would be!" He takes a step back and looks up at my ship. After a moment, he shakes his head and gives out a long whistle. "And this is the famous Psychopomp. Psychopomp. Am I saying that right?" I nod. "The ship all bad little niao have nightmares of. Fantastic. Where did you get it?"
"I wasn't aware we were here to discuss my ship," I say, crossing my arms. "I thought we were here to do a deal."
Flynn glances back at his bodyguards. "What did I tell you about this guy? Always serious. The most serious outlaw in the galaxy. Where is the fun in that?" He closes his eyes, as if in mourning and then sighs. "You are right though." His gaze tracks to Roots. "We are here to deal with this little maricon." He squats down next to Roots. "The runaway." He asks in niaospeak, "What are you running from?"
Roots' eyes are as big as they can be. "Who are you?"
Flynn's smile is unpleasant. "I am Captain Oquendo, of the Glorious Purpose. There are some who call me Black Flynn."
Roots blinks slowly. "I think I've heard of you. You stole a ship, right?"
I can tell by Flynn's face that he is angered by this tepid response. "You will call me Captain Oquendo when you talk to me."
Roots looks to me. For help, I suppose, though I've no idea why. When I give him nothing, he turns back to Flynn. "I cannot pronounce that."
Flynn grabs Roots by the neck and pulls him close. "You will learn, cabron."
"Oquendo," I interject. "If you want to teach him how to parrot your name back to you, fine. I don't have any interest in watching you do it, though. You're request to meet here has already cost me a week of my time."
Flynn lets go of Roots throat and wipes his hand on his hip like he just touched something dirty. "Quite right." Then he calls out, "Von!" The giant stalks over to Roots and grabs him by the arm hard enough for the niao to cry out. Then he drags him back to the shuttle. "Your money has been transferred into the accounts you specified," Flynn says. I nod. Hachimantaro's reputation is such that only the most desperate or foolish would dare to cheat me out of payment. "I did have a reason for dragging you out here, though, my friend. I wish to show you something. Would you do me the honor?" He gestures toward his shuttle.
This takes me aback and my initial impulse is to decline. However, Flynn has also piqued my curiosity. What could he want to show me on a primeval planet such as this? It has also been interesting meeting Flynn. I have mostly dismissed him but his steady rise means I might eventually have to deal with him. Besides, what could he do to me? He'd have to have a lot more than his pet bodyguards to pose a real threat to me. I surreptitiously survey the forest to see if I can spot Nailah. There is no sign of her. It hits me that if I turn him down, I’ll have to sit in the Psychopomp until he leaves. Which would be an odd thing to do.
I shrug. "Fine, Oquendo, but make this quick."
Flynn smiles wide. "You are a king among men, Hachimantaro." I fall into step with him and we ascend the ramp to his shuttle. There are no surprises waiting inside, just two rows of benches in an fairly unadorned and restrained interior. I wonder if Flynn changed it from the original niao design or stole the ship before they could spruce it up. Breaker Von and Roots are sitting along the far wall and Draema is in the pilot's seat. I decide to remain standing, stationed at one of the small viewports in the passenger areas.
Flynn says a few quiet words to Draema and then the shuttle lifts off. Draema is steady at the controls so it is easy to keep my feet. I try to spot Nailah as we pass over the forest but either she is still deep exploring the forest or she is very good at hiding. Or she is hurt or dead. A sudden desire to go look for her hits me and the feeling perturbs me. She was the one who decided to go out there.
We are only in the air about ten minutes before the shuttle sets down again. "You are going to like this," Flynn says, gesturing like a little boy for me to follow. I walk down the ramp with him and find that we are at the edge of a cliff, looking down into a wide and deep valley. There is a river running through it. The land is mostly free of trees and looks green and fertile. We are on a relatively sharp embankment but the other side of the valley is comprised of gentle, forested hills. I have to admit, it strikes me as the kind of place a wandering tribe of ancient men would delightedly settle down in.
I show none of this on my face. "What am I looking at?" I ask uninterestedly.
"What are you looking at?" Flynn slaps his forehead. "Paradise, my friend. Look at it! I call it Flynn's Valley and it will be the first settlement of my new nation."
"What in the world are you talking about?" I ask, willing my face to remain devoid of emotion.
Flynn takes a couple of steps and spins, flinging his arms out wide. "I am talking about a new nation for humans. A new planet. Earth is a lost cause. Port Royal is barely livable. Flynn's World will be a heaven in comparison. Why do you think I am trying to put together a republic of independent humans? You think I want to organize pirates so that we can steal and scrounge a little more effectively? There is no future in that. But pirates have ships. Ships I desperately need to defend my new colony. We would have to stay hidden at first but eventually..." Flynn's hands curl into fists. "Eventually, we will have enough power to declare this a free planet of humans. We could make an alliance with Port Royal, maybe even make a push to free Earth. A human empire, Hachimantaro. Think of it!"
"A human empire..." I scoff, not impressed. "With you as Emperor, I suppose?"
Flynn frowns. "Well, why not? We would need strong, decisive leadership. I don't mean to be a tyrant, though. You would be a leader, Hachimantaro. A new noble for a new world."
"Is that what you promised the others?" I want to laugh but I manage to hold it back.
"We are the best suited!" Flynn exclaims. "Anyone who can endure and thrive as a ship captain in this universe is a born leader." A born ruthless survivor, more like. Thinking of the pirates I know, a few might make good civilian leaders but most would be beyond terrible. Not that it matters in the least because this all a fallacy.
"I don't want to be a leader, Oquendo. Why do you think I operate on my own? Good luck with your world, Black Emperor, but it's not for me."
Barely contained fury washes over Flynn's face. He swallows it back with obvious difficulty. "I...appreciate your point, Hachimantaro, but it is a little more complicated than that. You are one of the most respected figures among human outlaws. Certain, powerful captains are turning away from me because they believe that if you are not on board, then I am not legitimate."
"You are trying to unite people whose only similarity is violent independence. It's one of the many reasons this won't work."
"It will work!" Flynn snaps. "I have Glorious Purpose, Desmadre, Black Kat, Little Miss Priss, Gonzaga, Goeman, Big Boss, Hungry Ghost, Sayf Allah al-Maslul, Bhandava. Who has ever assembled such a force? If I had Birdshot, Chantillary, Unperson along with Psychopomp we would have the seed of a true human armada. If we just unite, we could do the impossible."
I am finally a little impressed. I never would have imagined he could get the cooperation of some of those people. However..."If you think Shentza or the Lunatic give a damn what I think, you are mistaken. They will go their own way, always, same as me. You should be happy to have assembled who you have."
Flynn rakes a hand through his hair. "It is not that simple." He flings a hand toward the south. "I am not stupid. Psychopomp is not a niao ship. It is a human ship. The only human ship. You take down merchant ships with crews in the hundreds with just that damn sword on your back. You have technology unavailable anywhere else. I need it."
I give him a baleful glare. "Psychopomp may be its own design but it is derivative of niao technology. I use a variety of skills and tactics in my work but no tech you could not find elsewhere. Sorry to disappoint you, Oquendo, but I do not have some magic technology to keep you from being annihilated by the niao once they decide you are more a threat than a nuisance."
Flynn's shoulders slump and he brushes past me, ascending the ramp into the shuttle. I follow him up. As soon as I am aboard, the shuttle takes off. It goes straight up and then moves toward the valley a little before coming to a stop. I glance at Flynn with my eyebrows raised in question. That is when I notice Breaker Von charging at me.
My hand goes to the sword on my back. Von is quicker than he looks though and grabs the hilt of my sword, keeping it sheathed. I snap an elbow into his sternum and feel a satisfying crack. Draema dives at me from the other side but I counter by bringing my knee up into her chin, snapping her mouth closed and undoubtedly costing her some teeth. For a split second, however, I am tied up on both sides. Flynn reaches out and grabs my face with one gloved hand, palm covering my mouth. Before I can do anything, my world goes white.
When I can see again, Von is sitting, holding his chest and gasping for air while Dreama is curled into a ball, cradling her face. I must be on my knees because Flynn is looming over me. I see sparks electricity coming from the hand he grabbed me with, now a fist at his side. "A little present I got especially for you, Hatchet Man," Flynn mocks. "That blast was designed specifically to scramble the mind of anyone who has their brain wired. I figured you would have your brains wired to the max, cabron." He squats down in front of me. I know I should attack him but when I try to punch him, my leg spasms wildly instead.
"What did you do to me?" I ask. The way Flynn's face contorts in confusion suggests that I might be speaking gibberish, however.
Flynn laughs. "This thing really did a number on you, didn't it? Hijo de puta. Adios." Flynn stands, rears back and kicks me, sending me flying out the shuttle door.