It’s Saturday! Hopefully I made a lot of money yesterday, because this convention was insanely expensive. Anyway, James Wylder’s our guest poster today. Have a story! You like stories, don’t you?
This is a brand new short story set in the 10,000 Dawns universe. Its a fun, and continuing, series of sci-fi tales, so if you like it you can find more of it at jameswylder.com/10kd.
Thanks to Luther for letting me write this guest post! See you at C2E2 if you’re there. -James Wylder
A Magic Trick
by James Wylder
We’d burned through seven fuel cells just trying to turn our ship off to save power, a fact which I was trying very hard not to yell at the Captain about. The captain still wore her old coat from when she was in the Centro Marines, a long blue thing with a red tech-shoulderpad, and was finally moving to inspect our cargo as the Wind Fish clung to the side of the asteroid we’d finally landed on. Captain Nichols was smoking, which made her not only a bad role model for children, but also a danger to all of us since she could cause our ship to blow up accidentally at any time. I respected her a lot.
Nichols opened the first crate, and sifted through some generic supplies before lazily throwing the lid back on, then moved to the next which was filled with gold bars. Finally she opened the third crate, which wasn’t actually the last crate, but spoilers: it’s the important one. Inside was a gray box, maybe the size of a thick copy of one of those books that’s too long for me to pay attention to like “War and Peace” or “Jane Eyre.” It had a standard data cord port on one side of it, and the letter “A” painted on a different side. Not printed, hand painted. I didn’t even know how to hand write a letter A if you paid me and put a gun to my head for maximum motivation, but Mars had been doing weird stuff since their revolution.
Desi nudged me in the shoulder, “That’s how we’re making bank this trip, you know.” I squinted at the box. It looked more boring than that French book I’d tried to read about the guy eating a piece of cake.
“What is it?” She shrugged.
“Some sort of Martian computer program, military grade. Its supposed to be worth a fortune, or at least that’s what our sources tell us. The Index is willing to pay heavily to get one of these things, the Librarian wants it for something special. Or, at least that’s what the rumors say. He might just not want other people to have it.” Either made sense, really. Captain Nichols spun the box around in her hands, puffing away.
“Don’t we like, hate the Index?” I asked.
“Well sure, but they’re offering enough money in this case the Olympian Senate agreed to let us take it on. They get a cut, of course.”
“Should we plug it in, see if it works?” Jackson asked. Nichols’ cigarette flopped down in her lip.
“Are you crazy? This is a military AI system. You plug this thing in there’s no telling the havoc it will cause.” Jackson looked at the box wearily. She looked at the thing like it was a spirit trapped in a magical ward of salt and bones. From what I knew about these things, she wasn’t even that wrong. Then again I didn’t actually know that much. We were cave-women in space.
“Megan,”she said to me, “get back to the cockpit and check if we’re being tracked.” I yawned, nodded, and started walking over there. I think she still wanted me to salute, but this wasn’t the military. The Valkyries were the best pirates in the solar system, along with every other group that called themselves the best pirates in the solar system, so it was a big tie. I’d joined up at fifteen, mainly because I couldn’t stand school. Living on Titan is frankly better than 90% of the Rim, since we have a corrupt poor government as opposed to no government, but schooling there is so boring. I had to read so many big novels, just because it was the cheapest lesson plan data package our teacher could get. Now I was twenty, and whether or not ship life suited me, I was doing it. There were just the five of us on the Wind Fish, me, the Cap, Desi, Jackson, and Elodie. Elodie was just on here on loan till we got a new mechanic cause our regular one had turned a proton redirector the wrong way and blown herself up leaving only her shoes and socks up the ankles.
Jackson had taken the shoes.
I slid the door to the cockpit open, rubbing my eyes with the other hand, and slid it back shut, only to turn and see a teenage girl spinning around in the pilot’s chair, with a towering cyborg standing next to her. Naturally, this was unexpected. My first thought was “Stowaways!” But that was impossible: there wasn’t any cargo, and we’d stripped the ship down to the barest weight we could before launch. The cockpit only had one way in and out, and the door made enough noise that any of us would have heard someone sneak in regardless. They had appeared inside the ship out of nowhere. There was no way they could get have gotten in, mass simply popping into unoccupied space like a rabbit out of a hat.
“Graelyn, could you stop spinning?” The cyborg asked, “It’s giving me a headache.” The girl stopped, and glanced over at me, grinning.
“We’ve got company.” She said. The cyborg turned, and jovially waved. He had no visible skin, just an outer carapace made of what looked like video screens that curved around his form. He also wore a blue trenchcoat, and what looked like one of those old Admiral’s hats you see in Napoleonic War Dramas. The girl was wearing high top sneakers, a matching blue skirt and blazer,and a white shirt and black tie. She had a pin of a cat, and one of a half-sun, half moon on her lapel.
“What the hell.” I said.
“Shh.” Graelyn said. “I’m Graelyn Scythes, this is–”
“Archimedes Von Ahnerabe.”
“And we’re here to stop you from dying.”
“And take your stuff.”
“Well, I was going to leave that part off till later.” My jaw was loose, and I wished I had a cigarette like the Captain now just so I could let it drop out of my mouth dramatically.
“CAP!” I yelled, and the crew stormed up behind me. The door slid open, and the four of them stood with weapons drawn. The Cap had a gun, as did Jackson, Desi had a vibro-Ax, and Elodie had grabbed a large wrench. Her purple clothes were still stained with grease from the engine room. The girl in the chair sighed, and raised her hands.
“I surrender.” She said with more than a hint of boredom. Arch was just watching her, and she raised her eyebrows and tucked in her lips and he raised his hands to.
“How’d you get on my ship?” The Captain demanded.
“We cut our way in.”
“We’d get signaled if there was a hull breach.”
“Would you get signaled if there was a stealth ship coming in on an attack vector, like, presently?” The Captain leveled the gun.
“Oh not at all. We just want the box. Turns out the people you stole it from aren’t too happy about it though…” The Cap gestured at us to keep our weapons on the pair, and ran to a console, she fiddled with some equipment.
“Nothing on scanners…” She adjusted a few things. “Shit. The girl’s right, the ship’s bouncing data back at us to tell us it isn’t there, but the timing’s off a fraction of a second.” Cap slammed her fist on the console, which was totally unnecessary.
“Elodie, how long till you can get us up in the air?” I tried really hard to not correct her on the ship not being able to get into “the air” in deep space. Elodie blew out a breath.
“Not before they reach us.” The girl in the chair kicked her legs.
“So let’s make a deal. I save you from the Martians, you let me keep the box.” The Captain’s eyes bulged, she was furious.
“That box is worth more than your life.”
“Is it worth more than yours? Martians aren’t exactly kind towards thieves of high grade military tech. I’ll let you decide. No rush.” The time till the Martian ship intercepted us ticked down on a monitor dramatically. They stared off. Graelyn smirked. The Captain conceded.
“Fine. What do you need to do?” Graelyn hopped up.
“You guys just stay in here, I’ll do to the rest.” She slid out of the chair, and Arch followed her. Closing the door, they covered up the window by hanging Arch’s hat on it. There was a noise, and then nothing. When we finally decided to open the door, the cargo hold was empty.
“I don’t understand.” Jackson sputtered, as the sound of the Martian ship docking with us clanged through the hull.
The Martian Captain, who corrected us into saying they were from “Geru Ghara” not Mars every time they said the word, led two squads of Martian troops into the hold. A group of troops held us at gunpoint, while the rest searched the ship, opening every panel. I’d just tidied a lot of those panels, so it was a bit frustrating, like someone dumping out your trash on the floor after they entered your house.
“This is an unusual ship.” The Martian captain finally said. Her left eyebrow had a thick scar through it. She wore all black, aside from a red scarf and a red tech-shoulderpad. Her long coat also had red and yellow stenciling, but I wasn’t sure that counted. You don’t get off for wearing a shirt with tiny green frog on it on St. Patrick’s Day after all.
“Its an old Centro Sleeper Ship. They used to send them throughout the system before drives got fast enough it wasn’t necessary, you’d freeze the crew and-”
“Yes, I know how they worked. But this is a stealth model.”
“There are more of them in service still than you’d think on the Rim, they don’t break down. I heard the Van Winkle and the Red King are both still–”
“Yes, yes… That’s not what I wondered.” The Martian captain pulled up a hologram on a handheld projector. Ironically, it was still branded with a “Centro Systems” Logo.
“This ship was tracked after it assaulted a Geru Gharian cargo vessel, stealing its most valuable cargo.” Our Captain shrugged.
“Clearly, it was a different Sleeper Ship.” The Martian Captain nodded, and put the hologram away.
“Did you fight in the war for Geru Gharian Independance, Captain Nichols?”
“The giant blue coat gave it away, huh?”
“Quite. So you served Centro?”
“If you think you’re going to trump up some charges on me just because I fought for Centro Systems, you’ve got another thing coming. After how the war ended I couldn’t keep fighting for them, so I came out here on the rim making an honest living hauling cargo.” Well, that was all true aside from the honest cargo bit, and the honest living bit. The Martian Captain’s eyes looked distant.
“I can respect that. Geru Ghara had hoped we’d all be able to work together after the war ended…”
“Clearly the Rim’s idea’s of independence are different than Mars’.”
“Geru Ghara.” She said, more faintly. “The war is past us now.”
“Yes. There’s no way you could have unloaded all of this cargo. Your ship has no way to drop or vent its cargo hold into vacuum without killing the crew. A terrible and massively unsafe design flaw, certainly, but it proves you’re innocent. I’d watch out Captain, someone is trying to sully your good name.”
“Captain Hara.” A man yelled from the other side of the ship. “We have Centro ships inbound, we need to take off immediately.” Hara looked down at the five of them.
“It’s been a pleasure. I wish you all the best, and I hope you find the freedom you seek.” She gestured with her hand, and her troops shuffled back into their ship as quickly as they’d barged in. I hurried up, and ran to the scanners, watching them flee from the group of much larger Centro vessels on their tail. Spoilers, they got away. Good for them. Annoyingly for us, a Centro ship split off to check us out.
I won’t bore you, it went about the same.
That wasn’t the end of it though. If it had been, I might have been able to square it all away with excuses, like only hearing half a joke and assuming it would have been funny. But, as we got the ship ready, we all headed into either the engine room or the cockpit and as I opened the door into the cargo hold after getting pre-flight ready, all the boxes but one were back. You know which one was gone. I called for the rest of the crew, and we marveled for a moment, running our hands along what felt like a magic trick.
“Look, there’s a note.” Elodie said, and we ran over.
“Have fun stealing stuff, see you in the future. Love, Dawn.”
“Who the hell is Dawn?” Jackson asked.
“More what what the hell is it.” I added. The Captain took the note and pocketed it.
“We didn’t get the prize, but we still have a small fortune in other supplies here. Let’s get it back to base.”
“We’re gunna burn a powerpack just lifting off of this rock, you’ll be spending that small fortune in powerpacks just from this trip alone.” I said, and instantly regretted it. The Captain’s face lit up red, then softened, and she laughed.
“That’s life on the Rim, Megan. Get used to it.” And walked off.
I stood stunned, “I was born here! Cap, Cap! I was actually born here you know? You’re the one who moved here!” But no one was listening. There was work to be done now, and the stars were beckoning for us once again. I got a cup of coffee, and got to work.
I began to power the ship up to lift us off, burning up a powerpack, and felt her breath on my cheek. She was leaning over the back of my chair, her tie hanging down onto my shoulder.
“It’s not like anyone will believe you,” Graelyn said, “so do you want to know how we did it?” I nodded, not turning around. I half wondered if she’d slit my throat.
“There’s another you, in another life, who did this same thing. And another one, and another one. And I can cut between the air you breathe, and step through into those worlds, through time, through space, through your existence. I’ve seen this dawn before. We’re inter-reality travellers, Dawn. We’re here and there.” The hair on the back of my neck stood up.”
“You’re being really creepy.”
“Oh, uh, sorry.” She said awkwardly, as if she hadn’t realized standing behind someone whispering in their ear after sneaking up on them was creepy. I spun around in the chair in time to catch a flash of white light, and what looked like a white disk shrinking into nothing. I wasn’t sure if I’d dreamed that, or what, but my top concern was more important than any sort of cosmological bullcrap.
Graelyn Scythes had stolen my coffee.