ʞ / Stories / Spirals /

Parlay

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

As always, she’s the first one to wake. Something in her brain has learned, after all these eventful years, to recognize that particularly traumatic sensation and jump-start the process of getting her back on her feet, a useful instinct when your crew might want to take advantage of your repose. She rubs her eyes, wincing at the faint, telltale migraine.

She unbuckles herself from her crash couch, instinctively taking note of the G-forces and adjusting her motions appropriately, so she doesn’t reach for a door handle and accidentally smack herself in the face like some idiot groundlubber. The human body doesn’t really like it when gravity routinely changes intensity and direction, but it’s amazing what a lifetime wandering the stars can get you used to.

She hooks her sidearm to her belt and clambers up the ladder out of her cabin. Or more accurately, jumps up it — they’re accelerating slowly enough to skip most of the rungs all together.

She makes her way through the narrow hallway to the nerve center of the ship, unlocking the hatch with a particularly complex key on her belt. The lock measures the patterns of the teeth, the varying electrical conductivity across the blade, and the data bits encoded in its primitive read-only memory before chirping and sliding the bolt back.

The man who installed the lock swore up and down that the keys were uncopyable. She didn’t believe him for a minute, which was why she threw him out the airlock once she’d made sure everything worked right.

The little Chanjesu woman sitting at the head of the ship’s command board swivels to face her, her eyes unblinking, her smile manic. “Good morning, Lady an Medani!” she exclaims, chipper as ever. “I am pleased to report the Sikena achieved a successful one-point-eight-nine-three-parsec jump to the outskirts of the Ketxar Hąnidze system exactly forty minutes and nine seconds ago.” She beams. “I have navigated us to a safe orbit at ten dvetta from the ninth planet in the system. We are at low burn to adjust velocity for our next jump, and I have deployed the solar panels to recharge our batteries, which stand at one third capacity and rising.”

“Good job, good job,” Isara murmurs distantly, gazing at the radar. “Rouse the crew, will you? Seems we piqued someone’s interest.”

“At once, my captain!”

Isara straps herself into a crash couch as the eerie little woman disappears into the hallway to bang on doors. No matter how long you work with a Watcher there’s just no getting used to them. Something about how they talk, how they act doesn’t feel human anymore. Not after the first few hundred jumps, anyway.

She turns her attention back to the radar screen. The blip is mid-sized and closing range. It’ll be in missile range in ten, pulse range in twenty. Isara cracks her knuckles. “Bold,” she murmurs. “Ain't been on this end of things in a while.”

She glances up instinctively at the sound of footsteps. A scantily-clad girl blinks sleepily at her, rubbing her eyes. “Hiii, cap-tain,” she murmurs in halting Nikeri.

Isara pats her on the backside. “Come here and keep your captain company, love,” she calls. Giggling, the girl flops over onto the crash couch, rests her head in Isara’s lap. “What’s your name, again?”

“Tachadze, miss cap-tain,” the girl replies, gazing up at her.

“Ta-sh… sha… ze?” Isara rolls her eyes and gives up on pronouncing it. “I’m just gonna call you Tasha, ’kay?”

“Mmkay.”

“Shadvi!” Isara kicks off against the floor, turning her seat to face the entrance. The burly man ducks through the porthole.

“S’up, cap’n?” he asks, yawning and wiping sleep from his eyes.

“Got a bogey on radar. Man weapons, will ya?”

“Shiit, ain’tcha gonna give us time to wake up first?” Shadvi takes a seat facing a bank of consoles and controls. “Awful early to go hunting, ain’t it?”

“Ain’t us doing the hunting, kid.” Isara idly ruffles Tachadze’s hair. “Fucker’s tracking us.”

“No shit?” Shadvi flicks a few switches. “How stupid are they?”

“They’re about to find out.” Isara leans forward, gazing at the radar, and turns a knob to switch on the visual spectrum feeds. The ship is just barely visible as a dot in the distance. “Shit, they’re on one hell of a burn.”

“Yeah!” Zakale leans over her shoulder, staring intently at the radar screen. “If they’re burning that hard on a civvie drive, I’m the queen of Isheda!”

Shadvi narrows his eyes. “You don’t think—”

“No way!” Zakale blurts out, shaking her head. “Nuh-uh. No way they’d be this far out in the system. They’re too busy shooting at each other.”

“We’ll find out soon enough.” Isara casually reaches up and wraps her fist around Zakale’s left breast, squeezing tightly. “Zaki, what have I told you about lurking over me like this?”

“Ow! Ow ow ow! Yes, cap’n, sorry, cap’n, won’t — ow! — happen again, cap’n!”

“Thank you.” Isara releases her. “Now go be a good girl and man your station.”

She gazes pensively at the screens, paging from readout to readout, as the C&C slowly fills with her sleepy crew. The dot on the cameras is almost the size of a dġemadze seed when Dakani yanks the headphones out of her ears and swivels to face Isara.

“Cap’n! They’re on radio.”

Isara gestures. “On MC1.”

The speakers around the deck crackle for moment, then: “—repeat, this is IASC Plunging Dagger of Exquisite Vengeance calling unidentified Nikeri vessel, you are ordered to make contact or—”

Shadvi whistles. “Ordered, now?”

“Who the koshir karani does this punk think she is!?” Zakale blurts out, her expression incredulous.

“What I want to know is why she’s speaking Nikeri,” Isara murmurs. She unhooks a headset and places it over her ears. “Nikeri ship Sikena to… whoever the fuck you are,” she replies levelly, adjusting the microphone slightly. “We read ya. Explain.”

“Nikeri vessel Sikena!” comes the immediate reply. “You are trespassing in sovereign space! On behalf of the International Alliance of Sejada, pursuant to the Piracy Prevention Act of Winter 224, you are ordered to surrender yourselves to law enforcement immediately or be destroyed.”

Isara blinks.

“I’m sorry,” she replies, keying the transmitter again. “Who precisely am I speakin’ to?”

“You have the honor of speaking to Space Force Wing Commander Cegżeri Xišąkso Nakcile of the Republic of Sęrkari, sworn peace officer of the International Alliance Homespace Patrol, and commander of the IASC Plunging Dagger of Exquisite Vengeance,” comes the response, and Isara can’t help but picture the commander puffing up her chest as she rants. “Does that answer your question, pirate scum?”

“‘The International Alliance?’” Isara blurts out. “Blazing suns, the Reds sure got y’all spooked, ain’t they?” She snorts. “Can ya believe it, Zaki? The Sejadans have finally stopped shooting each other!”

“And all it took was a massive invasion of the entire region by an alien superpower intent on enslavin’ us all,” Zakale exclaims, clapping her hands. “Gosh, here’s t’ the miracle of racial harmony!”

“Oh don’t worry, I’m sure they haven’t done anything crazy like calling off the weekly pogroms,” Isara returns, still holding down the transmit key. “What else would they do with all their time?”

The commander’s voice is a snarl. “Prepare to be boarded, pirate scum. Plunging Dagger ou—”

Isara waves a finger. “Not so fast, now, Commander Shega-whatever! Since you’ve been so kind as t’introduce yourself, allow me to return the courtesy.” She smirks. “I am Isara an Medani me Sikena, Pirate Queen of the Golden Reach, Terror of the Takasari Territories — et cetera. I’m sure you’ve heard of me.”

There’s a brief pause. Then: “Your head will be a fine ornament for my desk, pirate. Plunging Dagger out.”

“Ooh, they just hit us with EMP!” exclaims Zakale. “That’s so cute. And it looks like they’re charging railguns.”

Isara rolls her eyes. “I ain’t one to waste good ammo, but… Shadvi, be a dear and take out their guns before they get a chance to use them?”

“Aye-aye, ma’am!” Shadvi twists a key plugged into the panel. “Shots away!”

“What kind of fucking numbnuts waits to close range until they start charging their cannons, anyway?” Zakale mutters. “Who trains these clowns — impact! We have impact!” She pumps her fist. “Enemy railguns down, cap’n! Ooh, they’re launching missiles, the feisty little things!”

Isara rests her chin on her palm as she gazes at the telemetry screens. She absently straps the sleepy concubine in her lap into the crash couch as the hail of bogeys draws closer to the blue line denoting point defense range. Then they cross it, and blink out of existence one by one.

“How many PD rounds do we have left?”

“Twenty-two hundred, cap’n!”

Isara does the math in her head, then nods decisively. “Close range. Spin up a pinch field and get ready to take out their drives. We’re boarding this bitch.” She grins. “Dakani! Put me on MC0.”

“Aye-aye, cap’n!”

Isara taps the transmit key. “Ahoy, mateys! Listen up; this is your cap’n speaking! I know y’all’s real restless after two damn weeks in transit — and boy do I got some good news for you. Suit up and prepare to board!”

There’s a raucous cheer from the hallway. Isara releases the key and sits back, eyeing the telemetry. This is just too easy. It’s like… what’s that thing the Reds always say? Like taking bai due from a pien şai. Whatever the fuck a pien şai is.

“Burn in five. Burn in four. Burn in three.” Dakani’s eyes are glued to the screen as she speaks into her microphone. “Burn in two. Burn in one. Burn away!”

Gravity suddenly changes directions and crushes Isara against her seat, winding her. The girl in her lap lets out a yelp of alarm, emitting a string of profanities in Chanjazi. Isara grins. “I’ve missed this!”

The G-forces lessen suddenly. “Intercept locked!” Satta yells. “Those idiots are still closing! They’re deploying chaff!”

“They think they’ll beat us in CQB,” snickers Zakale.

Isara claps her hands. “Alright, mateys, you know the drill. Chaff screen for our missiles! Target engines, PD guns!”

“Bombs away!” Shadvi calls out.

For a few hectic moments the battlefield is filled with shells and debris. PD rounds slam into decoys, hulls, and missiles as the two ships close in on each other. But the Dagger’s targeting computers are no match for the Sikena’s. The patrol ship can’t get a single missile through her point defense screen. To its credit, it manages to take down ten of the Sikena’s missiles, but three slip through, and three is all it takes.

The plumes of ionized gas blasting from the Dagger’s arcjets disappear as the missiles strike home, the ship listing noticeably from the impact. Which isn’t particularly impressive. There’s no fireball, no shockwave, just a brief white flash as the missiles’ gas payload rips apart the turrets and then expands away into nothing, lightly scorching the side of the ship as it does so. The hail of gunfire falters, and only two missiles of the Sikena’s next volley fall to point defence before four more hit their targets, shredding the remaining guns.

The entire battle is over in the space of three seconds. The Dagger is helpless, adrift in space.

Isara pumps her fists. “All decks, prepare damage reports!” She yanks off the headset. “Satta, match trajectory. I want to meet this Commander face to face.”

Tachadze nervously lifts her head to look around. “Did… did we win?” she asks, eyes wide.

Isara pats her on the cheek. “We won, Tasha dear.”

Tachadze grins. “Cool!” she proclaims, snuggling up against the captain. “That was fun!”