Try not to kill anyone.
The order the captain sent Crank before they landed on La’zuun.
Kind of rude, if you asked him. There was no trying involved. Killing just happened, and he shouldn’t be blamed. Folks—and even machinery—should be more careful about getting on his bad side. It probably didn’t help he owned a pair of bad sides. One worse than the other.
The Gypsy Moth—that big, beautiful ship that he loved and hated in equal measure—landed without any intervention from him. Everything ran on automated sequences with only a little input from anyone. A crew of tolerable folk manned the actual controls and general upkeep of the ship’s reactors. Since being made chief of engineering, Crank oversaw things for the most part. Barking out orders, keeping lazy shits in line.
Someone a few EC years ago—short for Earth Calendar, the regulated unit of time most human-run ships opted to use—had called Crank a conductor in the grand symphony that was space travel. He punched the fellow for making his job sound emasculating.
A lot had changed since then.
The ship finished landing with almost nary a jostle, the port they parked at a pit stop on the pleasure and vice planet of La’zuun. While the Gypsy Moth replenished, the captain and crew would conduct business. Flesh, vice, and goods. La’zuun appealed to a broad range of needs.
Crank would also be wrangling. He needed to ensure they topped up supplies—just common sense to always have a full hold, given the distance between planets with actual ports. Never knew when a streak drive might fail or an emergency strike. Mixed in the shipment there were also some parts needed for repairs. The problem with space ships? No sooner was one thing fixed than something else broke down. The real work in engineering wasn’t the actual flying of the damned ship. Say hello to the glorified mechanics.
Who ran the ship.
Don’t let those captains and lieutenants sitting in chairs giving orders fool you. Without a functioning ship, they were nothing.
Solanz approached, a virtual clipboard floating alongside her. She did so love her lists.
“Whatever it is, figure it out.” He planted his hands on his hips.
“You can do it.”
She went to open her mouth, and he grew quiet. Deadly. “I put you in charge. Can’t you handle it?” The words had a hum to them, the result of him activating the FOZ protocol. Standing for Friends Only Zone, it was a small field projected from his wrist comm. It prevented eavesdropping, and lip reading.
“Thought you should know, the city is in an uproar.”
“When isn’t it having a meltdown of some kind?” Busy planets always had a drama acting out.
“Somebody important has gone missing.”
“Still don’t care.” He really didn’t.
“Thought you should know since that will make them watch the cargo a little more closely.”
Given its rarity, the Gaia Federation—which was the stupid name the humans chose when they decided they needed one formal government for their species—had forbidden its dissemination beyond Earth’s galaxy. So, of course, it became a hot commodity.
Some people thought his metal arm was the only thing that set him apart. His metal arm was only the visible part of it.
They hummed inside him, repairing him when needed, keeping him strong. Alive.
Bastards. Sometimes a man didn’t want to live. Stupid so-called friends never gave him a choice.
The machinery lowering the ramp creaked with a little more grinding of metal than he liked. He barked, “Have maintenance check the gears on that door.” Keeping things in tiptop shape was crucial given the amount of time spent in space. Out there, the slightest pinprick of a hole could quickly balloon into a catastrophe.
Clunk. The ramp finished extending, the door opened, and he reached for his sidearm. His hand hit empty air. No gun strapped there. Not since the last incident. Captain’s orders.
Fucking ensign should have known better than to sneak up on him.
The lack of weapon almost brought a hint of anxiety. He breathed through it. Kept himself calm and focused.
There was no threat. No enemy looking to remove him. But just in case, he’d hidden his arm earlier. Ordered his nanotechnology—via the chip melded into his brain—to camouflage his metal arm. It wasn’t hard. Just involved pulling out a huge chunk of synthetic flesh. The bots in his hand went nuts.
The lump got absorbed and immediately broken down and reformed, spreading in a layer over the framework of his arm. The titanium steel rods wound with wires to simulate nerves and tubing of lubricant, a new kind of blood. The limb itself worked better than any ol’ arm. The fingers were stronger, more dexterous. The whole arm was an improvement over the old.
Not everyone forgave. Which meant layering skin over his metal parts. Hiding his greatness.
It bothered him. However, he’d heard of cyborgs being taken. Not all of them, though. The regular kind that were truly flesh and machine were left alone. Only those with the nanobots ever seemed to disappear.
A documented five hundred and thirteen missing. Never heard from again. Crank had been keeping track, especially as their number dwindled. Asking questions. Even of himself. His bots weren’t talking.
Someone was hunting them, and of late, he’d had dreams. A planet with a massive pool of glowing light, the motes in it dancing and talking. Until a shadow came over it. A beam of fire. Then nothing...
Dreams are for pussies. Cyborgs didn’t dream.
Crank stomped down the ramp, his heavy boots sticking to the ground despite its light gravity.
Hands tucked behind his back, he barked out orders. “Hull squad, surface check.” Six people, a mix of men and women, jogged down the ramp in pairs, goggles on. A tank was strapped to the back of one with a wand in hand while another carried the patching polymer. They’d repair any damage on the hull, the first layer of defense for a ship.
“Fueling crew, get your butts moving.” The bellow brought forth the twins, Demetrii and Jemetraa, their gray hair tucked under caps. The fine skeins of the living metal filaments crowning their heads were in high demand with traders. But anyone who thought to grab the duo DJ would find themselves regretting it. They might be dumbasses, but they were Crank’s dumbasses.
The pair scurried off to refuel, and a pair of burly ensigns followed to protect them.
Why the fuel? While the Gypsy Moth had the technology to renew their energy core over time, it could be a long process and deadly if they needed too much power at once and found themselves running dry. Dual sources were the smart way to go.
Crank kept belting out orders. Not really necessary. Like any well-oiled machine, his staff knew their jobs. He didn’t tolerate any laggards.
Nor did he like strangers near his ship.
A quarter of the loading done, a squad of soldiers appeared, spilling out of a land cruiser.
He expanded the range of the FOZ protocol, keeping his expression gruff as he commanded, “Everyone keep working.” Times like these, a wireless option like the ancient cyborgs used would have been useful. But technology to scramble those signals had been created and let loose, like a plague. Now to use it was like inviting certain death. It fried a cyborg’s brain.
And that was how the rumors started.
The port soldiers approached the loading bay doors of the ship. Crank grumbled as he stomped in their direction.
“What do you want?” he barked. No point in being pleasant. He could tell he’d hate the guy in charge. And the one to the left of him. As for the other two…give him a few more seconds and he’d dislike them, too. “All our papers are in order. The merchandise has been paid for.”
The lead soldier had a gangly three-legged walk, his sinuous shape slinking forward. Ugly fucker with his sallow yellow face pinched, his black orbs bobbing on stalks by his chin, his mouth higher up on his head, a gaping black maw lined in sharp teeth. One of his four arms extended. “Open it.”
“Like fuck.” Crank strode forward and stood in front of the box.
“Move aside, human. This is La’zuun business.”
“Don’t care about your business. This”—he pointed to the ship—“is my business.”
“I have orders to search your cargo.”
“Regardless, we have orders to search again.”
Crank didn’t immediately tell the fellow what he thought of those orders. That would come. He leaned against the hull of his ship and multi-tasked. He gestured to Solanz with his head. No need for words. She knew to check their special cargo was taken care of. To the soldier, he said, “What are you looking for?”
The bobbing eyes stopped and fixed him with a stare. “Have you seen a female?”
The soldier straightened, his thick whiskers shivering in excitement. Crank drawled, “Seeing a few right now. There and there.” He pointed to female crewmembers and even a planet-side dockhand.
Soldier Whiskers bristled. “I am speaking of a particular female. Have you seen this person?” The soldier flashed an image, the hologram appearing in the air above his palm, displaying a woman, her skin white as snow, long hair the bright green of summer, eyes huge and emerald, the makeup super ornate with loops and glitter. Add in a jewel in the side of her nose, strung with a filigree of chains that wound up to her ear. Attractive if you liked fey-looking women.
He didn’t. Nor had he seen her. Crank shook his head. “Nope.” Even if he had, he wouldn’t have said shit.
“We are searching the boxes,” Whiskers stated.
A reasonable request that Crank could easily agree to. After all, it wouldn’t hurt for Whiskers to pop them open and take a peek. It was what Crank had planned to do soon as they were loaded. Always a good idea to check the merchandise.
But agreeing seemed too fucking cooperative and Crank wasn’t really a cooperating kind of guy.
“You ain’t searching my property. You see that there ship?” He gestured to the Gypsy Moth. “It is chartered under the Gaia Federation, which is a part of the Commonwealth.” Which was the ruling galactic body that kind of ran the universe. Kind of. Not all civilizations and organizations had agreed to sign on to having a governing force. But La’zuun was one of the planets that belonged, which was why Crank smiled. “Without a warrant, you have no legal jurisdiction to step on board.”
Whiskers twitched, and he also began to protest, something along the lines of, “…be forced to arrest you for impeding…” Blah. Blah.
Guess which option he preferred?
Sorry, Captain. Turns out I can’t obey your last order. Crank flexed his fist, ready to swing, only the soldier’s attention was drawn to a commotion over by the trains.
Shouts and running. Crank held his punch. Apparently, he didn’t need it after all. Shame.
“Don’t hold your breath about it,” Crank muttered in reply. He spent a moment watching the last of the boxes emerging from the warehouse, ready for loading. Almost done and not a moment too soon. His gut said they might be taking off in a hurry.
He liked schedules. They could be packed with enough things that a man didn’t have time for thinking.
In the distance, outside a warehouse, he noticed a blur. A distortion in the very air.
Turning, he headed into the ship. Eyed all the huge crates. “Zane.” No need to bellow, his voice carried.
“Yes, sir.” The young ensign, new to the crew, saluted him. Academy habits took a while to break.
“Do I look like a fuckin’ ‘sir’ to you, Zane?”
“No, s—. I mean, no, Crank.”
Chief Engineer. Bah. Sir, double fucking bah. His name was Crank, even if he’d been born Craig Abrams.
Everyone he worked with was expected to use his name. Not some bogus fucking title. Yet, for some reason, the damned blockheads who worked with him had this habit of being respectful to the point of ridiculousness.
Their time in space near the reactor cores had obviously addled what little wits they had left.
Crank tapped the merchandise. “Open up these boxes. Check them against our manifest and keep an eye open for a stowaway.”
“What do we do if we find one?” Ensign Zane asked.