Captain Brant looked at her data slate again, then back at the weapons. A bead of sweat ran down her from her forehead despite the cold, clinging damp of the slug ship. The cargo hold of Slokkran's vessel functioned as his store room, with shimmering, well-maintained weapons materials lining arranged neatly by variety, strength, and condition. She needed to make up her mind, and quickly, or she knew that indecision would cost her. Nobody drove a harder bargain than a slug, especially when this one could literally feel her indecision and the desperation behind it.
She scratched at the scars where her left eye used to be, then fidgeted with the patch. Damn it, she needed to get a hold of herself. "Thoughts, 8?" she asked.
Commander 78 nodded, the servo motors in his neck whirring just audibly. "Ion and laser systems both outdated and in need of replacement. Suitable upgrades in arms dealer's stock, but barter material on Kestrel sufficient only for purchase of one system." The engi looked over at Slokkran. The slug was softer, smaller, and more jovial than the slugs who flanked him, two silent, muscular bodyguards, but something in the way he carried himself warned Brant that he was the most dangerous one in the room. "Curious. Is term 'arms dealer' considered pejorative?"
"Not at all," Slokkran said. "It isss important for one to take pride in one'ss profession." Like all slug speech, the words entered Brant's mind directly, never passing her ears. It had always seemed strange how slugs all seemed to have the same speech impediment when they didn't even technically have speech.
"And that was a summary, Commander. I was looking for advice."
"Entering Rebel space within the month; current laser batteries insufficient against Rebel-model shields, current engine output insufficient to flee engagements. Need upgrades to all weapons systems to survive – cannot choose. Perhaps desperate circumstances justify expansion of moral parameters." The engi commander's face screen glittered mischievously."Enthusiastically recommend sale of engineer Katarek into especially demeaning, ruinous form of slavery in exchange for weaponry. Acceptable?"
Slokkran drew back. "I hope that my honored guesssts do not suggest that humble Ssslokkran deals in ssslaves!" he cried, deeply hurt. "If, on the other hand, my honored guessts were to negotiate for this 'Katarek' to work as a, say, 'voluntary labor consultant', and to extend this service contract for an indefinite term, then gentle Slokkran's conscience could rest easy."
Brant frowned at 78. "We are not selling Katarek into slavery."
78 did not seem to hear. "Certain to fetch high price. Mantis female, extensive experience with close quarters combat and shielding systems. Knowledgeable of FTL ships and outer sector pirate culture. At high end of top quartile of sexual attractiveness. Certainly worth both systems, and we get worse end of deal" he insisted.
"We are not selling Katarek into slavery," Brant said.
"And top quartile? I think that's an exaggeation," Ensign Toh said in his slow, creaking voice over their earpieces. He was at the helm on the Kestrel in their absence, listening through an open channel with orders to act if the trade went poorly.
"Slokkran places great faith in your appraisal, master engi, but the labor conssultant market is sssaturated with mantis lately. You give me the mantis and the metals that you offered earlier in exchange for both sssystems, and you may boassst that you got the better of shrewd Slokkran in your trade."
"There, happy? We can't even get a good deal for her," Brant said.
"Indeed. Worth a try," 78 said, a hint of disappointment in his voice synthesizer.
"I'm sure we can work something out, though," Brant said. She turned away from the weapons on the wall to face the slug and his guards fully. She bowed lightly – this tactic hadn't worked the last five times, so she had to at least put on a good show if there was any shot. "Gracious Slokkran, as captain of a Federation vessel, I am authorized to extend to you a Federal bond of up to one million credits, to be paid out to you with interest over a period of…"
The slug captain held up one frail yellow arm to interrupt her. "Regretful Slokkran must remind the beautiful Federation captain of three things." He sounded a lot more mocking to her than regretful. "First, that he is a weapons merchant of dubiouss legitimacy and unlikely to receive funding from your prestigiouss and legally sstringent government. Second, that businesses of such dubiouss legitimacy as mine, even run by ssuch upstanding merchants as piouss Slokkran, must insist on full payment upfront. And third…"His tone grew smug and vicious; if the slug had a recognizable mouth, she'd have wanted to beat the idiot grin off his face. "…third, that your Federation is dead. It is a stinking corpse beset with scavengers, and you are just a bit of its putrefying remains." The slug burbled and swayed, luxuriating in its insult. "Yes, the excreta of your simian bowels carry more value than the grandest promise from your treasurers."
Brant clenched her teeth. Her first instinct was to reach for her pistol and turn the pompous slug into so much pompous confetti, and judging by the angry flickering of 78's face screen, his reaction was similar. It was two on three, though, and 78 had never been much in a fight besides. It would not be reasonable to start a fight they couldn't hope to win, she knew that. She had to try to find a peaceful solution.
"These putrefying remains have two laser batteries and an ion array armed, charged, and ready to fire at my mark. Asshole Slokkran would be wise to moderate his speech," Captain Brant growled. Reasonable solutions had never been her strong suit, as the patch over her eye could attest.
The slug captain nodded without fear, acknowledging, dismissing. 78's screen flickered again. "Captain, the slug vessel's shields and armament are more advanced than we had predicted," he whispered.
Brant turned to 78 with a withering glare…and a wink. 78 shut up promptly, whirring slightly in concern. Things were apparently going to get dicey. There had always been a chance that things would go south, but they'd planned several contingencies, each shakier than the last: they'd try honest barter, then they'd try to grease the wheels with a threat or two, and if things got really bad from there, they'd have Katarek and Ensign Toh teleport over and clean up the mess. No one but Katarek liked this option very much – the slugs could telepathically sense the Kestrel's whole crew, and they'd be accordingly impossible to surprise.
"It is still my intention, Slokkran, that we resolve this peacefully and fairly. We will offer you the scrap metals and the parts that we offered originally, as stated, in exchange for both…"
"Beneficent Slokkran is certain that our negotiations will resolve peacefully, have no fear. The Federation-ssstandard Mark II batteries on your vessel are fine weapons indeed. Valuable now, and sure to become rare now that your Federation is but a dissgusting corpsssse. They will likely increase in value even further, then, as the security issues in their design are lossst to memory."
This comment was apparently a signal. The bodyguards hefted their pistols, one aimed squarely on Brant and the other on 78. Before she could decide whether to submit, negotiate, or go down in a blaze of glory, a bit of clarifying bad news came over the earpiece.
"Captain, this is Ahabzara," said the weapons engineer, his voice serene as ever despite the blaring klaxons in the background. "Laser batteries have gone offline, and the console does not respond to my commands. Initial diagnostics suggest that the slug vessel is exploiting a heretofore unknown security flaw in the batteries to remotely disrupt the system."
"That's some good diagnosing, Ahab, really great. Stand by for more bad news," Brant said. She and 78 had raised their hands, and the slug guards had approached them. "I suppose this is the part where you give us your demands?"
Toh came on over the earpiece. "Bridge to Away Team. Setting auto-pilot, and making way to transporter. Forming rescue team and boarding slug vessel in three minutes. Keep them occupied."
"So cooperative! Excellent! I believe that your time on your corpse-fly ship has given you great experience in surrendering to superior foes, so triumphant Slokkran should not be surprised. The radiant captain and her industrious commander will of course draw their sidearms and place them, slowly, on the ground, where they will of course proceed to kneel down with their hands behind their heads."
78 groaned. "Further advice, Captain: delegate future diplomatic operations to other, calmer officers."
Brant had a lot to say to this as she and her first officer laid down their arms and knelt down as ordered. First on this list "I'll delegate my foot into your ass," followed by "Oh, God, we're gonna' die, we're gonna' die, oh my God," neither of which were becoming of a Federation officer. She might also have said that things were still going according to plan, but she tried to avoid even thinking this; the Federation had never understood the exact limits of slug telepathy, but she didn't want to give the game up too soon if they really could read minds. She focused on the "We're all gonna' die" line of thinking.
"N-noted, Mr. 78," she stammered. Her training kicked in automatically, ordering her lungs to take long, deep breaths and suppressing the onset of panic, but she knew she'd need a convincing performance to fool this crowd. She focused, keeping her breaths short and irregular, letting her lower jaw shake. "M-m-merciful Slokkran, please, oh God, please don't kill us."
While she barely understood the slugs' psychic talents, she understood their ideas of mercy very well. Captain Andrews used to say that you should throw yourself on a plasma flare before you throw yourself on a slug's mercy. At least the flare would kill you quickly.
"Captain, you honor me in your supplication, and Slokkran's heart is moved. And master engi, you must not be so hard on your commanding officer – if I had the ability to render your craft helpless while its officers were in my custody, surely you realize that this was my intention from the beginning. Ohh." The slug swished side to side, gurgling a great deal, before sliding forward to the two of them. "Oh, yes. Cunning Slokkran intends to profit richly from this, but have no fear, sweet captain – I will simply accept a small offering from you, and then leave you to go on your way in peace, yes?"
She bowed vigorously, purposely hitting her forward against the cold, moist deck as she did so – the pain, she hoped, would add one more bit of static to keep her mind hard to read. "Oh, thank you, thank you. You…you are gracious, and beautiful, and…and…" She inched forward, gently taking one of Slokkran's spindly arms and kissing the many-digited protuberance that she guessed was the slug version of a hand. "Name it, name the offering, oh, thank you…" As planned, the experience was disgusting enough to bring tears to her eyes. The illusion was complete.
"Shields to Away Team, I have set the system to automatic, and currently en route to transport room. Beaming aboard with Ensign Toh in two minutes," Katarek's clicking, hissing voice whispered into Brant's earpiece.
78 stared on disapprovingly, betraying no emotion at all. "Surely bad business, though. If arms dealer robs customers, future customers less eager to do business."
"Even Slokkran's most trusting customers, present company excluded, maintain healthy caution. Even his most idiotic patrons, present company excluded, realize that he must replenish his stock somehow. Besides…" He took his hand away from Brant and gently brushed the side of her face; it was like having a loving caress from a rotten chicken wing. He continued as if speaking to a child. "Your vessel bears the colors of your government, infirm and incontinent in its deathbed, and it is poorly equipped at that. Do I let you leave, knowing that some other will surely show less mercy and profit as a result, profit off of what belong justly to fortunate Slokkran? Any captain with half a nerve net would do the same and worse. Now, Captain Brant…may I call you Charlotte?"
She ground her teeth. This piece of garbage thinks that…but no, she had to stay in character, she couldn't afford to get carried away with angry thoughts. "Of course, great Slokkran. Please, name what you want, and will…"
"We will gratefully accept the gift of your Mark IIs, along with your ion array, ten units of jump-grade engine fuel, and the crates of raw materials mentioned earlier. We will inspect those for quality, of course," Slokkran said. "Ahhh. And your beautiful mantis engineer, this 'Katarek.' Yes, that will be quite enough."
78 whirred and clicked. "No. No. Too much. No. Not enough fuel to pay ransom and safely leave slug space, only offensive weapons, need scrap for other purposes, no." It was hard to hear emotion in an engi's voice, but she'd been in enough scrapes with 78 to hear the fear there now. She hoped the slugs didn't miss it, either.
"Away Team, we are in B-corridor, approaching the transporter. Await our arrival in one minute," Katarek said. She paused, then said louder, "Assuming the rest of the boarding team can be bothered to show a little hustle!"
" Away Team, I'm running as fast as I damn well can. Hang in there," Toh said, noticeably aggravated.
Brant pretended she wasn't hearing any of this. "They're going to kill us, you idiot! Just do it!" she screamed at 78. In point of fact, the slugs were going to kill them anyway. Slokkran didn't want to blow up the Kestrel when he could get it dismantled by hand and given to him piece by pristine, market-condition piece, but it would be bad business to let the crippled ship slink away to die elsewhere and become some other captain's bounty of scrap. Best case scenario, Brant and her crew would be allowed to return to the Kestrel only to find their bridge and life support systems bombarded with ion charges until they'd all suffocated. Worst case, the slugs would order them off the ship one by one and sell them to slavers.
"And I must note, of course, that I have ordered my gunner to open fire if any of your crew so much as sets foot in your transporter room. My people are well-armed and combat trained, and Slokkran, whose heart bleeds, would hate for your valiant crew to die in some ill-thought-out last stand," Slokkran said. "What a terrible waste that would be. Yes, Charlotte my sweet, the two you have entering your teleporter would be wisely ordered to stand down and prepare the tribute instead."
For just a moment, Brant didn't have to fake the panic. She had to think, she had to collect her thoughts…
"Um…" she said. She raised her hand to her earpiece, as if it hadn't been on this whole time. She congratulated herself on how realistically she was making her hand shake with fear, telling herself it was still all an act. "Uh, Toh, Katarek…stand down. They're watching you, and they're going to wreck the ship if you try come over."
There was a pause. "So what's the plan?" Toh asked.
"There is no fracking plan!" No plan yet, she told herself. She just had to think, there had to be some way of this…but she'd need to distract the slugs so they wouldn't monitor those thoughts too closely.
"Oh, don't tell me we're just going to belly-up like this. Not to fracking slugs!" Katarek whined.
"That is the plan exactly," 78 said. "Captain Brant demonstrates exceptional leadership and astonishing control of emotions under stress as usual. Mm. No. Sarcastic. Captain humiliates herself, throws self at slugs like wounded baby animal. Disgusting." Again, the emotions were subtle, barely there, but this was as hateful as she'd ever heard the engi sound. It hurt, even when mitigated by his next statement: "It is like Sheratan IV all over again. Disgraceful. Humiliating."
"Oh, such hate! Oh, you mustn't be so hard on each other, particularly not when patient Slokkran awaits his tribute," Slokkran said.
That was a good sign. The slug had missed the hidden message. Sheratan IV had been near her finest fracking hour, outgunned and outmanned by a Rebel bomber, but forcing their surrender regardless in a brutal melee after setting nearly the whole bomber on fire. That had been where she'd lost the eye. 78 still had faith in her, then, and he wanted the others to keep it, too. She couldn't let them down, but damn it she needed time to think!
She turned off the two-way communicator in her ear. She got up from her knees, slowly, the guard inching forward with his pistol forward in a warning stance. Then she rounded on Commander 78 and punched him in the face, just to the left of his face screen where there was still a bit of supple organic tissue. The servos in his neck squealed as his head swung to the side, and in the moment of distraction she grabbed the engi by the shoulders and slammed him to the floor face-down.
"Sheratan IV was not my goddamn fault, you damn idiot robot!" Brant screamed. The guards kept their pistols trained on them, but there was a look of satisfaction on the slugs' face. Slokkran chortled and slapped his arms together like a seal, and she hoped that they would focus enough on this physical conflict to leave her some privacy in her mind.
They had no weapons. 78 was the only one who might feasibly be able to block out their remote interference, but there was no way to get him back to the ship, bad odds he could even get the lasers online, and worse odds that they would win the ensuing fight with their well-armed foe.
"Ever since Andrews gave me the command instead of you, you've been on my fracking back every single minute!" she shouted, kicking the engi in the chest.
So a gunfight was out. They could grab their pistols and try to make a stand here, but she and the feeble cyborg were no match for two trained, armed guards, and she guessed Slokkran was no pushover himself. A straight fight there and then was not a viable option.
78 pushed himself up at looked up at Brant. She hoped the jerking movement of his neck was part of the act, not actual damage she'd caused him. "Captain Andrews conferred command to you while bleeding out and suffocating from lung failure. Present circumstances confirm suspicions that his decision was not made in his usual good judgment. Captain Charlotte Brant is disgrace to Federation, disgrace to Captain Andrews' memory, disgrace to her crew, and... "
Brant cried out in anger that was only half feigned, kicking the Engi again in the chest and flipping him onto his back.
The only option they had, really, was to get reinforcements. Toh and Katarek were dynamite fighters, and even if only one of them could get on board, that would turn the fight to their favor. But the slugs were watching – they couldn't actually see what was happening on the Kestrel, Brant knew that much about their gifts, but they could at least sense lifeforms and feel where they were. How could they sneak a boarder into the transporter against detection like that?
"And you? You think you'd have done a better job, you little metal monkey? You have no soul and you have no heart, and the crew would have mutinied and eaten you alive!" She straddled the prone commander, pulling him up by the shoulders to look her in the face. "You're just a brain, that's all. Just a stupid metal brain, and that's just not enough to win a fight, is it?"
78's breath was ragged and labored, and he made no attempt to resist her. "Andrews…should have left you in a stasis pod…and left you adrift."
Of course. She almost kissed the stupid cyborg. It was so simple.
"Slokkran does so enjoy this little drama, but if we could move things along…"
Brant pushed 78 to the ground and stood up. "Of course." She reactivated her communicator, opening a channel to Toh and Katarek. "Ensign, this is Captain Brant. Katarek is not on this line, and I need you to listen very carefully."
There was a pause. "Actually, captain, I'm pretty sure Katarek is still…"
"That's right, she's not on this line. Do not do anything to make her suspicious – she is part of the price that Slokkran is demanding," Brant said.
"Captain, I think your communicator may be malfunctioning. Katarek is right here with me and she can clearly hear…"
"It's a ploy, you moron!" Katarek hissed.
"I need you two to decouple the laser and ion systems, and ready them for transport to our coordinates on the slug vessel along with all available scrap materials. I have promised Slokkran 200 units, so make sure to gather everything available, including the materials we found in the Hierophant sector."
A pause. Katarek came in over the line, sounding satisfied. "Oh, those materials will be there, captain. Count on it."
"After she'd helped you load the material, subdue Katarek and prepare her for transport. Catch her off guard and knock her out, but do not kill her, repeat, do not kill her. They want her alive. Place her and all materials for transport in the cargo bay; I'll be giving Slokkran those coordinates for his teleporter. You have ten minutes. Brant, out."
And then they got to waiting. It was going to be a hard ten minutes keeping her plan off her mind, but she'd managed so far. She walked over to 78, willing to beat on him some more – either they'd be at their medbay soon or they'd be dead anyway – before Slokkran spoke up.
"You're thinking of your mantis woman," the slug said. "Ah. You are thinking she will emerge from her alleged submission and tear us apart, rescuing you and your carrion ship. It must be odd, Slokkran supposes, for a Federation vessel to be placing its hopes on a mantis, but such are the times. Inform your ensign that he is to kill the mantis instead."
Brant didn't move. That was her ace in the hole, that was the only chance she'd had and it was gone. It wasn't really a problem anyway, her life signs would have to be masked anyway, but she couldn't think like that – Katarek had been her last chance, and if she acted like she'd just blown it, it would be a sufficient cover for thinking about it.
"Toh, new orders," she eventually said, trying to sound defeated. "Kill Katarek."
"Captain?" Toh asked.
"Are you deaf, ensign? Kill the mantis. Don't you dare get all bold and try to bluff them, either. They can feel our life signs."
"Roger," Katarek said. "I humbly submit to my violent and surely deserved end. I only regret that…damn it, Toh, it's still a ruse! Put the chair down!"
Brant turned off her communicator. Within a few moments, Slokkran reared up, massaging himself with his spindly arms as he cooed disgustingly. "Oh, the Mantis female! Yes, yes, the heart rate slows, slows…the brain waves grow fainter and fainter…and ah! Ah! Ahaha!" He giggled. "Oh, my. My condolences, master engi, sweet Charlotte. No doubt the galaxy is colder, uglier place for dear Katarek's loss. Let us conclude our business quickly so that you may conduct whatever funerary services the departed would have best appreciated, yes?"
"Of course, gracious Slokkran," Brant said. "Away Team to Weapons. Ahab, report to the cargo hold to assist ensign Toh."
The minutes passed. 78 righted himself and stood next to Brant, a pace or two further than before. Brant tried to keep herself focused on the situation instead of the plan, but if her mind wondered to tragic Katarek and the now-faint possibility of her rescuing them, what could be suspicious about that?
The first few boxes of scrap material began materializing soon, as quickly as Slokkran's transporter could recharge. Some crates contained mostly in-tact ship pieces, some with the recognizable purple of a slug cruiser's hull and some with the standard orange of the rebel fleet. Others contained raw materials melted down into ingots and haphazardly piled up. Some crates were sealed and some were open and overflowing – despite Toh's constant efforts, the fight to keep their raw materials organized was a losing battle.
"Ahab's bringing the first Mark II over now, captain. Give it a few minutes," Toh said.
"A few minutes on the first laser battery, captain," Brant announced. "If you like, I can forward you a catalog of the scrap you've received. It…hasn't been updated very recently, but…"
"You expect Slokkran to believe that this pile of garbage is properly catalogued? Thank you, dear Charlotte, but I would sooner have my own men take inventory." Slokkran drew his own pistol at that, nudging at the guard to his right. The guard slithered off among the crates, shooting open the sealed ones and briefly checking the contents of each. "A bother that the nebula disrupts our sensors and makes this examination such a chore, but life is toil, yes?"
"Indeed. Life is toil," 78 said.
"I'm glad you agree, master engi. And indeed, it is the opinion of luminous Slokkran that…"
The guard shot open one of the crates, and a cry pierced the air like a steel beam falling into a high-grade trash grinder. The guard's pistol fired twice more, apparently too little to stop whatever it was he'd found. There was another sound like an enormous sponge, a sponge with the capacity to scream in agony, falling into that same high-grade trash grinder.
Brant felt the guard die, felt its psychic death cry peel across her mind, and she thought that as good a signal as any. She dove into 78, knocking him over and dragging him behind a nearby missile tube for cover.
"You really didn't see that coming, dumbass?" Brant called out. "We found up that stasis pod adrift in the Hierophant sector. It's a piece of crap, hardly even fit for scrap, but it still submerges the occupant's life signs."
"Wrathful Slokkran will have your spinal column for a back scratcher, wretched carrion captain, he will snack on your eyes and bath in your fluids, damnable thing!" Slokkran cried. He and his guard stalked after them into the maze of crates and systems lying in the cargo hold, but a skittering shadow they saw for a moment gave them pause.
"We will see, arms dealer," 78 said. "I am Commander HR-XPC-78 of the Harbat Hive. Tactical expertise rated as A-1-Plus, intelligence quotient rated in high 300s, awarded highest possible honors from Exenu Hive mentorium. Every single outcome of this engagement, anticipated; every move you could make, foreseen and countered. My mind is a more dangerous weapon than any you have ever trucked with."
"Oh? We think so highly of ourselves, don't we, master engi? And yet you forget – it is my mind which is superior. For I can feel your very essence, as I can your mantis friend's; she surprised my foolish guard, but she will not surprise us again. We are ready for you, Federation pustules! Strike, if you dare, and die!" Slokkran announced.
The engi then noticed a chunk of metal lying on the ground nearby. He grabbed it and threw it at a beam lens a few yards away. It made quite a noise; the slugs looked over, just for a split second, but that was all Katarek, creeping closer and closer and waiting for a chance, had needed. The green insectoid skittered out the darkness on four limbs, quick as a phantom, dodging left and right with serpentine grace as the slugs realized their mistake. The bodyguard may have been well-trained and Slokkran might have been a devious, dangerous creature, but that didn't matter. Katarek was a pissed off mantis, and nothing is scarier than that.
Her jagged pincers came down on the guard and locked, pinning him in place as she drove her horizontal jaws into his face, teeth like saw blades ripping into the slug's soft, invertebrate flesh. Slokkran attempted to back off to get a better shot, but she swung the guard at him with tremendous force, knocking him flat. She leapt onto the guard's body and loomed over Slokkran, pinned down underneath.
"For record: Commander HR-XPC-78 failed out of the Exenu Hive mentorium," 78 said as he and Brant stepped out of hiding. "That was stupid trick by stupid engi, and you fell completely for it. Idiot. Ha ha ha."
"So…new deal," Brant announced. "I want you to get up very, very slowly, Slokkran. I want you to call off your gunner, give us back control of our weapons…and then I was hoping you could help us out with some weapons."