Half an hour later, Brant stood on the bridge of the Kestrel, 78 standing beside her, Toh at the helm. Only Toh strictly needed to be in there – the spacefaring races had all learned quickly that centralizing major ship functions on the bridge only invited the enemy to target the bridge and paralyze the ship, so modern ship design always spread command stations throughout the vessel. The central display showed Slokkran's ship, a bumpy little thing bristling with probes or sensors of some kind – psychic amplifiers, if Federation intel hit its guess. Slokkran was still aboard, tied up with his gunner in the now-empty cargo hold. This had been Brant's idea of mercy, but really, her crew had taken everything they could quickly make off with, leaving Slokkran's ship unarmed, undermanned, and underpowered in the midst of a slug nebula – between this and straight execution, there was little more than semantic difference.
"Engines ready, captain. Awaiting your mark," Toh said, his massive, craggy frame hunched over the pilot's console.
Brant nodded. "Sounds good." She reached down to her captain's chair and pushed a button on the arm rest. "Bridge to all hands, outstanding work. We are engaging FTL drive and jumping to a beacon at the outer edge of the Tefinix Cloud. Depending on irregularities in the Cloud, we'll be in jump state for ten to twelve hours; in addition to your assigned responsibilities with our newly-acquired resources, you are all ordered to get a minimum of six hours rest before we reach the beacon. Brace for jump in ten seconds." She released the button and took a seat. Entering jump state always made her light-headed, and she'd earned at least a minute off her feet. 78 put a hand on the back of the chair to support himself, and she heard stabilizers in his legs click into place. "Ensign Toh, take us out of here."
The rockman manipulated several switches and throttles, the visual display switched off, and with a glimmer and a flash, the Kestrel winked out of material reality and into the ephemeral weirdness of the jump state. Brant felt a surge of vertigo; by the time a minute later that she was seeing straight again, Slokkran and his vessel were several million miles away, and finally she felt the adrenaline of the past hour die down. She slumped in her chair and exhaled.
"We're still alive," she muttered.
78 nodded, his upper body swaying slightly but his legs firmly in place. "Yes. Captain Brant…apologies. Statements about Captain Andrews…about his memory…strictly fabrications, part of ruse to distract slugs, not intended to…"
"Mr. 78," she interjected. She craned her head up to look at his face screen and smiled. "Give me some credit. We both knew what was up, and if anyone needs to apologize for their part in the ruse, commander, it's me. You said some things you didn't mean, and I beat the crap out of you. I think you got it worse. Now, let's hit the infirmary, get some caffeine, and…"
Something clicked a few times in 78's head. "Of course. Subterfuge was apparent to captain." A few more clicks. Brant had come to associate these with anxiety. "Apologies. Important. Must note: present circumstances, recent success in dangerous engagement without casualties or ship damage…must emphasize…even dying, Captain Andrews' judgment was superlative. Captain Brant…honors his memory."
Brant stood up. She and 78 had served under Andrews for the worst parts of the Rebellion, starting as ensigns and working their way up, all the way through to their current ill-fated mission. They had been confidants, and there had been times where she would have hugged the stupid cyborg and then punched him in the gut for saying something so sweet, so sappy, so sincere. But she was the captain now, she had to keep reminding herself. 78 was the only person left on-board and damn near the only person left on this side of the pearly gates who truly cared about her and whom she truly cared about, but a captain simply did not make a habit of hugging a commander.
She put a hand on his shoulder. That's appropriate, right? "Mr. 78, I mean to have more than a little bit of whiskey in that caffeine, and if you getting me all misty-eyed now, then we're both going to be goners in a little while. All's forgiven, and…thank you." She waited. Had her voice quivered a little at the end there? Probably not. "All right, let's go see how bad I messed you up. Ensign Toh, the bridge is yours."
78 still had a noticeable limp as they walked out together, but guilty as Brant felt for hurting him, she doubted her hands and feet alone could do him any damage that their infirmary couldn't clear up. It wasn't the most advanced medbay available in the fleet – if it was, she'd still have binocular vision – but it did the job. They'd both get dusted off, checked for infections from the dank slug ship, and maybe get an anti-stress drug or two to clear out the mental gunk from the standoff.
The medbay door slid open as they approached, and 78 muttered some static in disapproval. The room looked like some cheap outer-system sick-house, the walls battered and singed, bottles of medication, painkiller, and sterilizing fluid left out with no visible order. Brant always felt like the light fixtures should be flickering and sparks shooting out of the electronics to complete the image, but 78 would never tolerate that – despite dingy appearances, the medbay was always kept in perfect working order.
78's distaste was not over the dinginess, of course. It was over the towering green insectoid leaning over an auto-doc console.
"Have you killed before, Katherine?" the console's soothing, compassionate voice was asking. "Often, even a seasoned soldier never quite gets used to the act of killing another, no matter how justified or routine. I'd like to talk to you about…"
"For the last time, set psych profile to mantis, and load patient profile Katarek," Katarek hissed into the console.
"I'm sorry, this medbay unit does not have psych profile info for requested species, 'manatees'. Can we back to the subject at hand, Katherine?"
Katarek screeched and grabbed the console in her pincers, shaking it back and forth amid a torrent of sparks.
"You seem to have a lot of rage, Katherine. Do you want to talk about -" The voice cut out as Katarek ripped the console loose and threw it across the room. The chunk of machinery flew at the captain and commander, smashing into the wall just to the right of the door. 78 hit the deck, covering his head with his arms; Brant just stood there, leveling an unimpressed look at Katarek.
"Ah…oh, captain," Katarek said, finally noticing them. The mantis face, all bug eyes and twitching mandibles, never displayed any emotions Brant had learned to read, but their body language was as familiar as their faces were alien. She held herself up to her full seven-foot height, holding her pincers out to her sides as she slowly stepped forward – a challenge, making herself appear large and moving with cautious aggression. Brant sighed, locking eyes with the mantis like she always did and walking forward like she always did, quickly enough to show some aggression and slowly enough to show confidence.
"I'm going to go ahead and assume you don't have your repair kit on hand, Kat," Brant said, friendly but firm. She took a multitool off her belt and held it out. "Not a problem. You can borrow mine."
Katarek looked at the tool, her mandibles twitching, then at 78, just picking himself off the floor. She turned back to Brant. "Captain, if I may, the commander is much better at…"
"You may not, Katarek," said Brant with a smile. "You break it, you fix it. What's the problem, anyway?"
Katarek thrust her face an inch from Brant's, her mandibles unfolding around her gaping mouth as she screeched, flecking spittle into Brant's face. Brant was used to such behavior from Katarek and she usually stood her ground calmly, but her nerves had worn her down today and she responded in the only other acceptable form: screaming right back at her. After a few seconds of howling in each other's faces, Kat broke off abruptly, snatched up the multitool, and skittered off to pick up the console she'd thrown. She was giggling.
"I know I've said it, but our people need to work harder on diplomacy. You're bulbous, awkward things, but I've served engi, rock, and slug in my time, and only with you vicious little primates have I felt any rapport, any klaakthek – erm, hard to translate. Mantisness, I suppose? Mantisity?"
"Recommended translation: crazed, insatiable brutality," 78 said.
Katarek gathered up the console and looked at 78. He didn't move, but Brant heard the stabilizers click again and lock his legs into place. "Good translation. You see, even the engi have their uses. If you need a dictionary, for instance, or repairs for a biowaste treatment unit."
"Or software troubleshooting for defective psychiatric unit," 78 said. "Error. Surely pathetic engi incapable of such complex task as fixing machine to tend to sophisticated mantis mind. Implicit offer retracted."
Brant rolled her eyes. 78 could have fixed the unit in a minute, she was sure, especially because it was probably him who screwed it up in the first place to spite her. It was always something with those two – they were less at each other's throats and more hocking spitballs at each other from across the figurative room, but it was still a morale issue she might have to deal with.
While Kat got to fitting the console back in place, Brant and 78 walked up to the remaining two auto-docs. Each had a screen and console overlooking a flat bed with torn, dirty padding and a menacing tangle of scanners, scalpels, syringes, and other apparatuses on metal arms suspended above it. Brant lay down on one of these while the scanners swung down and started to work, slowly passing over her whole body.
"That was good work over there, Kat," Brant said. "Get anything good for yourself?"
"Pah!" the mantis spat. She had the console back on its rigging and was trying to figure out the various bits and wires that had to fit back in place. "Nothing. They horded only useless machinery, foul rations, and the most insipid melodramas – no spoils worth taking, not that I could find quickly." She grumbled something unintelligible; Brant caught enough to guess it had to do with the other species' pitiful concept of entertainment. She liked movies and usually checked for any worth taking if they captured a ship, particular for her favorites: gladiator dramas from Klaant-Tak-Prethu, the works of the mantis visionary Hapatakrakat the War-Seer, and a genre from nuclear-age Earth called "kung fu" that Brant had never heard of. "It's fine. I'm still working through the works of the human male, Tarantino. That should satisfy me until we die or defeat a foe with better taste."
"Good to hear," Brant said. She looked at the screen next to her bed, watching as it identified various bruises on her and diagnosed her for a few different contaminants, activating the medical nanobots in her system and directing them in treatment. As usual, she felt little but a vague tingling as the bots worked their wonders.
The door swung open just as she was getting settled, a faint green glow washing into the room as Ahabzara strolled in. Like most zoltan, he was thin, bordering on emaciated; though they were slightly taller than your average human and though their skin pulsed with ethereal power, the species looked more fragile than anything. Ahab offset that impression slightly with his swagger and his coat, a sleeveless trench coat lined with fluorescent filaments and bioluminescent furs that glittered and shone with the currents that ran through his body.
"Captain, I wished to express my pride and delight at the success of your mission," Ahab said, bowing slightly to Brant. "You do great credit to your Federation, and I am honored as always to be in your humble service."
Really, Brant should have taken 78's advice and forced Ahab to wear a standard uniform instead of that ostentatious thing, which he had almost certainly stolen from a dead zoltan diplomat, but there it was. Though a breach in regulation, the coat was a constant reminder that Ahab, polite, courteous Ahab, Ahab who always remembered everyone's birthday, was anything but a soldier of the Federation fleet.
"You're sweet, Ahab," Brant said, lying back down. "Though while we're on the subject, what the hell happened back there with the Mark IIs?"
"I am running a full diagnostic right now to determine the exact nature of the problem. I had heard that there were security issues in this model, and I had assessed and resolved eight possible exploits. It seems the slugs knew of a ninth. A full analysis will be in my report." He shrugged. "I am humbled, but I am confident that they will perform in the future."
"I'm sure it they will, Ahab, but honestly – and I mean no offense to your former livelihood – wouldn't this be exactly the kind of thing a pirate weapons engineer would have made it his business to know?"
If the accusation or the reminder of his past registered any reaction with Ahab, he didn't show it. He just looked at her, his luminous green eyes remained cheerful. "I understand how you may think so, but indeed no. Slugs may indulge in such frivolous subterfuge, but we preferred brute force aboard the Prelate. My specialties lay in incendiary and ion weaponry – seldom does an organic crew require more than a firebomb in its life support and medical systems to offer surrender."
Brant looked over at 78. His auto-doc, set to engi anatomy, was worrying at his chassis with a variety of tools and buffers. He looked back at her, his face blinking yellow for mild concern.
"Well ok then," Brant said. "Send me the report on the Mark IIs and on the installation of the new weaponry within three hours."
"Sir," the zoltan said, bowing and leaving the room.
Katarek watched him leave. She was almost done with the repairs, matching one of the last few wires on her unit to its dangling mate and reconnecting them, but for a moment she forgot about all that. "That prissy fop was a pirate?"
"Six years as chief gunner with a zoltan pirate crew," 78 said.
"And I think he was acting captain for at least a year. Little green dude knows a thing or two," Brant said.
"He doesn't intimidate, though," Katarek said. "That's half the game in piracy. What's a zoltan supposed to do, glow really bright until he hurts your eyes?"
"Apparently, he's supposed to set your life support and med system on fire, presumably from behind the safety of a hard shield," Brant said. "I grew up on a Fed colony, and we had a saying about pirates. If mantis raiders ever came to town, they'd bombard you from orbit, butcher your friends and family indiscriminately, and then sell you into slavery on some desolate mining asteroid. If zoltan raiders attacked, on the other hand, they'd bombard you from orbit, butcher your friends and family indiscriminately, sell you into slavery on some desolate mining asteroid, and then write a nice poem about the cruelty of the cosmos."
Katarek thought about that, then went back to her repairs. "A little long for a saying, isn't it?"
"The original is even longer. It's more of a drinking song, really." Brant cued up a few milligrams of soporifics on her auto doc. "I'm going to catch an hour of sleep. If this stuff doesn't wear off, one of you wake me."
"Agreeable suggestion. Shutting down primary consciousness for similar duration," 78 said.
The psych unit beeped to life, the screen flickering as Katarek fixed a few more connections back in place. "Hello. Please indicate patient name, species, and desired care."
"Katarek of the Kestrel-I, mantis, psych consultation."
"Loading mantis psych profile," the unit said. There was a pause as it loaded the psychological needs of the mantis species. When it started talking again, its voice was much harsher. "Katarek. It is has been 183 hours since our last discussion. Have you slaughtered many enemies since then?"
"Only two, psych unit, but good kills!"
"Excellent. I am delighted," the unit said with apparent sincerity. "Tell me of their deaths. Retell the battle in brutal detail for me."
The soporifics kicked in, and Charlotte Brant was borne off to sleep on a wind of drugs and recollected violence.