Ida North was halfway down the 72nd shipping lane and halfway through a bottle of questionable wine when the call came in. Usually, she preferred to quality-check her maps in a quiet haze, watching the ship's location marker slowly make its way across the paths of mathematics that she had coursed over the last month. It was a slow process, and the best company was a box of meri'saat sweets and a bottle of booze. Communications were off, the lights were down and Pilvi, the ship's assistant, was in stand-by. All she wanted was to wrap up the logistics before she visited the cartographers' guild.
Ida cursed. She sat on a small bunk, propped up on a smattering of pillows. It was a utilitarian but fun habit to buy a pillow when she finished a map. It made a comfortable nest amidst the gray hull of her ship. On the wall opposite the bunk was the map. She liked classical colors. Yellows, reds. No fancy holo-maps with drawings all over them. If the math worked, the map worked. Flair wasn't her business.
The communications console buzzed angrily down the hall and Ida huffed.
It had been a long month, so what if she'd forgotten to turn off the comms? She would just let it ring out, because frankly she could not be bothered to rise. Her limbs felt like lead. Part of her blamed the questionable wine's questionable nature. Someone could have slipped something in there, after all the wine had been a gift.
The clan leader who ran the joint at the end of Lane 72 had tossed her way in thanks for map exclusivity. It wouldn't remain exclusive forever, of course, but long enough for the clansmen to make bank. Ida would make bank too, of course. Shipping would fully resume for the first time in two centuries, completing Delta Loop. In the end, everyone benefited, but especially her. Cartography was good business.
Still, the comms buzzed.
So close! All Ida had to do was check the map, then veer back into known territory to hit up the nearest guild stronghold for payment.
But the comms rang, and rang, and rang some more, and with Pilvi in stand-by, the message system wouldn't kick in. Finally it stopped. Ida picked up her glass again and took another swig. Finally, quiet.
Mid-sip, another call came in.
She stood in a flurry, setting the glass down with deliberate care and walked to the console. She ducked into its recesses. The navigation and computer area was largely unused, by her at least. Switches, buttons and displays covered the walls and low ceiling. Outside the ship, blackness. Lanes were always black until you made a stop in real space, only then could you see the stars again.
Deep breaths. Just tell them to bugger off and be done with it. She pressed the key for voice only.
"Yes?" She shot the word with little effort to hide her displeasure.
"Captain North?" A man's voice cut through the static. The feedback meant the call was being routed through an unmapped lane. There was no shortage of work for one such as her.
"She's not here."
"North, don't be cheeky."
"She went out for a piss, didn't come back, can I take a message?"
"Turn your video on, North."
"North, even if she were here, is not in suitable attire for video and you're really going to have to leave a message if you want any hope at acquiring her resplendent services, okay?"
"You took the words right out of my mouth. See you..." Ida cut off the call. But the static persisted. She hit the button again and again. It wasn't sticky, something else was going on.
"I didn't want to do this," the voice said.
Reaching over the dash of the comms console, Ida flicked open a cover and snapped a switch. Pilvi's wake up call. He wouldn't be happy, but she didn't want him to miss the fun.
Without warning, the lights popped out. Ida yelped, the inborn fear of the void twisting her stomach into a knot. An instant later they came back. And so did the screen. Ida frantically pulled her shirt and jacket over chest as much as she could. She hadn't been lying when she said she wasn't ready for a video call. A dark face, obscured by static feedback from uncharted lanes, stared. The obfuscated outline of a hat. The broad-rimmed kind, not the little caps of a Commonwealth uniform. Small favors, she told herself, that it wasn't the Commonwealth. Thanks, anonymous higher cause.
"That," said the voice.
"Get out of my machine," Ida spat, her voice still startled sounding.
"Tell your ship's AI to drive me out."
Ida couldn't tell if the comment was facetious. She had no ship AI. Pilvi's duties usually included business that the ship AI would take care of, so she hadn't ever needed one. But ship AI did not sleep and recharge. Pilvi would have been useful right about now, but the machine was still waking up.
Ida hoped the surge hadn't fried his little brain. Until he arrived though, she kept her frown firmly fixed on the screen.
"Don't piss me off," Ida bluffed.
"Don't piss us off," the man said. "You can see the power we have, even from this distance."
Ida pressed the disconnect button again. It wasn't working. She tried a couple more switches, and nothing. By not having a ship AI, it insured that the various vital systems in the ship were not networked. She hoped that the mystery jerk only had reigns on her nav and comms, and not things like gravity and life support. She flickered a switch, annoyed.
"Yeah? Well you have my attention, stop with the theatrics and give me my damn ship back."
"I'm glad you're ready to listen," the man said. "You're being hired on as of this moment to complete a delivery."
"Do I look like a damned mailman?" Ida snapped. "This is a cartography ship, and has always been such, I'll have you kn..."
"We know about the arms trafficking."
Ida snapped her jaw shut. He was bluffing. He had to be.
"From the outer reaches of Sol, to what was once uncharted areas. You helped stock a revolution, Rivaldi's, if I'm reading this correctly."
The silence hung between them. After a moment, Ida said, "If you're not Systems, then..."
"Then I must be Rivaldi's best chum? You know things aren't so one sided."
"Then why hold it over my head, eh? Why not just do the usual and offer a fat chunk of change? Most clients aren't...weren't...such insufferable showboaters."
"So you admit it," the man said quietly, as if to himself. "Captain North, I have an axe above your neck. Your anti-Commonwealth activities would interest them greatly, but I'm willing to keep hush if you comply. But if you'd rather be pursued by the galaxy's largest acting military, then just let me know..."
"Why me? Why not find another ship?" Ida had slumped onto the stool bolted to the nav capsule's floor at this point. She held her shirts together with clenched fists.
"You'll need to do some mapping. As I'm sure you know, that's a fairly short list."
"But there is a list," Ida protested. "You could have asked others."
A pause. The static smile. "What makes you think we already haven't?"
Ida knew better than to show any more weakness than she already had. This wasn't the time to go all avenging-angel over what possibly could have been the deaths or oustings of her colleagues. Resigned, she simply said: "You realize I don't have much room for cargo aboard this boat."
She swore she'd caught the obfuscated figure wink through the interference. "No problem there, Captain. It's small."
Shit. The most dangerous things came in small packages. Little boxes had never brought anything but trouble, engagement rings replaced by pacts of peril. Shotgun elopements to a lousy days, dangerous chases, to perhaps even death itself.
The man was speaking. "I've sent the pickup point to your computer. Come right away, if you please, whatever it is you're doing can wait."
Ida glared. "I've almost finished a very lucrative contract. If you expect me to drop that job and come running just because you've asserted your apparent manly dominance, you'd better pay me in double what the guild owes me."
"We'll see." The screen hissed, engulfed in a miasma of static.
Behind Ida, the sound of plastic fingers tapping on the wall. "What's going on?" Pilvi asked. The lights flickered, and Idea jumped again. The computers hissed and beeped as they rebooted.
Ida stood to face her robot, who'd pulled his hand away from the wall, as if the surge could somehow break through his systems' ray shielding field via touch. Every once in a while, though she knew he was plastic and hydraulics, metal and little more, Ida caught him in a weirdly human moment.
Pilvi was a half a foot shorter than her, slim of stature, white limbed and elegant. His face, which was capable of projecting three-dimensional images, was blank. Many robots of his make and model projected the face of a human, a little something for the animal brains of their masters to latch on to. But Pilvi had always preferred blankness, or a basic line face. He'd never elucidated why, but Ida respected the need for all beings, even metal machines, to have their secrets.
"Move aside," Pilvi gestured with one hand. "Let me make sure he's out." As usual, the machine had caught up to the situation fast. He sat on the stool, posture perfect, and typed away on the computer. "You know, this would be faster if you'd let me integrate into the ship."
"Nah," Ida said. This discussion was not a new occurrence. "I like you just the way you are."
Pilvi made a sighing sound that Ida could never quite interpret. "Well, he's gone, and we're no worse for wear. So, what's your twisted arm gotten us into this time?"
"I see the coordinates. That makes sense. So much for getting out of the business."
Ida ducked out of the command capsule. "This is why I should always turn my damn phone off. Even a hundred thousand miles away from the nearest person someone always wants to bother me."
"So, should I set a course to..." Pilvi turned from the console and looked around. The communications capsule was deserted. The sound of a hatch closing; Ida had already locked herself in her bunk.
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