Patrick Mazzu & Kyle Schreiber
Buffalo, New York
The bow of the Indwell drifted towards Ergo Station’s wide docking terminal. After traveling thirteen lightyears through an uncharted expanse, IP and Captain Castor Vale received a communication from two furloughed crewmembers: Zere and Redmon. Stopovers at a place like Ergo were not ideal, but the Indwell needed all-hands-on-deck before it delivered its cargo to the disreputable hide lord, Sicsin Tamerlane.
“Lorelei, initiate the docking sequence,” IP said.
“One option I see involves docking via the cargo hold. Would you like to try that one?” Lorelei replied in a synthesized voice.
IP let out a sigh as she rose from her navigation chair. She needed to walk off her annoyance with Lorelei and began to pace the flight deck. The cargo hold wasn’t just one option, it was the only option.
“Yes, Lorelei,” IP groaned in frustration.
“Why don’t you just fly the damned ship?” Castor asked.
“Hey, Lorelei isn’t—”
“I’m sorry I don’t understand. Is there something else I can help you with?” Lorelei said.
“No, Lorelei…” IP rubbed her temples. “She isn’t perfect, I know. But once I tweak her command-and-action database she’ll be smooth sailing.”
Castor snickered, “I’m going to get ready. I don’t want to spend more time here than we have to.”
Ergo Station. Most ports began as simple stop-and-go fueling hubs. Then profiteers realized there was value in transforming waystations into pit stops for the wicked. Under the station’s giant solar dome was the U-shaped promenade, a neon bazaar where merchants pawned off their gilded trinkets and trifles; conmen lurked the walkway, hoping to sell their ruse to uninitiated travelers. If one could ignore the aggressive peddlers, temptation would greet them a second time as they passed by the carnal delights of the Astro-Lounge, one of the many institutions designed to collect loose credits from blue-balled patrons. Castor didn’t know in which seedy establishment he would find Zere and Redmon, but he knew he would have to ignore every one of his pent-up desires if their voyage was to remain on schedule.
“Should you really be the one taking a trek on the promenade?” IP asked.
“Yeah, yeah…I shouldn’t be long.”
As Castor disembarked from the ship, IP placed her hand on the switch that controlled the sliding door. She watched as her captain walked through the airlock and into the station’s terminal.
“And don’t forget to review Sicsin’s hides; I’d like to avoid upsetting him with a bad exchange.”
“I’ll get Grae on it.”
“I need the cargo reviewed, not ‘reviewed.’ You know as well as I do: Grae isn’t going to check the haul with the same detail.”
She shot Castor an unamused glare as he set off to find Zere and Redmon. She had better things to do with her time than to check an order, even if it was for a scoundrel as dangerous as Sicsin.
IP ignored Castor’s commands, at least for the moment, and began implementing new subroutines for Lorelei’s ship-wide expansion. Others saw her obsession with tinkering as nothing more than play, laziness at worst. This earned her the nickname Idle Pilot—IP for short. She wanted to make life simpler by developing an AI program that responded to verbal commands throughout the Indwell.
To retrofit the entire ship, IP had to connect Lorelei’s mainframe to the communication relays in each of the ship’s five compartments. Recircuiting cables was a tedious task, but she enjoyed it—lugging around the bulky spools of wire was a different story.
Lorelei’s expansion started in the flight deck and worked her way through the elongated ship chronologically. The galley was small and proved to be a quick installation; the max capacity was five, though it regularly seated eight members. IP lugged her coil into the galley and connected it to the ration dispensary. The vending machine already had a basic virtual assistant, which the crew referred to as Fodder because the rations it dispensed were dry and tasteless. She accessed Fodder, asking it to delete its program from the dispensary. Fodder questioned the command saying, “If you delete my interface, the crew is expected to starve. To continue with interface deletion please confirm it on the touch screen to ensure your command was not misheard.” IP confirmed Fodder’s removal and scrubbed the AI from the vending system, allowing IP to marry Lorelei to the dispensary.
As she worked her way through the crew cabins, she stopped outside of cabin six where she found Grae cleaning his rifle. He shot a curious eye at her and returned to assembling his firearm. IP continued to lay cable in the rest of the narrow cabins, connecting the AI to each bunk relay, meticulously double checking her work along the way.
Two compartments were left: the mainstay and cargo hold. Lorelei was set up in nearly the entire ship. The most critical compartment was the mainstay, which housed the Indwell’s most necessary controls, from data storage to propulsion systems. With the mainstay done, the ship was optimized for improved communication and function.
IP made her way to the cargo hold, the ship’s final compartment. Her project was almost done. Grinning, she rolled the giant spool of cable into the hold. With the excitement of upgrading her brainchild, she almost forgot to review Sicsin’s requisition, but Lorelei’s upgrade was nearly completed so she told herself that Sicsin’s cargo could wait.
The cargo hold’s panel was an older model and required a different type of connection than the rest of the ship. She opened the panel and began to strip wires to fit the older model. IP sorted twelve varicolored wires into a specific order before jamming them into a round connector. Once the wires were in place, she crimped the connector and attached the cable to the intercom system, establishing a connection between Lorelei and hold’s intercom.
While IP silently reveled in the success of expanding Lorelei’s functions, she heard a metallic thud echo from Aisle 1 on the far side of the cargo hold.
“Grae?” she shouted.
There was no answer.
“Grae, is that you?” she shouted again.
She readied one of her two sidearms and aimed it towards the noise. The airlock was sealed shut and the alert systems did not indicate the presence of an intruder. This meant whatever was on the ship had been there before they docked. She inched closer to the noise’s origin, adjusting her aim as she peaked around the storage aisles.
IP arrived at Aisle 1 where the most valuable cargo aboard the Indwell was stored, Sicsin’s requisition. She heard the three bio-cradles before she saw them. Pressurized hisses emanated from the elliptical vats. Each cradle had a large membranous window that stopped about three-fourths of the way down. The remaining fourth was a base that supplied power to the cradle which allowed it to maintain hides autonomously.
An ominous light radiated from the cradle’s base. Barely visible in the otherwise dark tank was a woman’s body suspended in gelatinous ichor. The fluid not only protected the body from harmful impact, much like the dampening shields that protected the Indwell from attacks, but it also preserved the hide’s youth.
The woman’s skull was covered by a hideous apparatus, leaving tufts of curly hair sticking out. The device linked her nervous system to the cradle’s base. A liquid ventilator protruded out of her mouth, allowing her to breathe through the oxygen-rich ichor. She was wearing a form-fitting jumpsuit that did not leave much to the imagination. Her lifeless gaze was frozen on IP. Despite the ugly mess of tubes, wires, and goo, IP fixated on the hide’s eyes and soft complexion. They radiated in the light. IP wasn’t the jealous type, but she had always wanted natural curls like the hide.
Of all the components that made up the cradle, the umbilical tendrils revealed the alien craftsmanship of the machine. The strange cables attached to her navel reached outward; fibers on the leaf-like tips collected necessary nutrients from the ichor to maintain the hide’s health.
As IP’s eyes drifted to the second of three chambers, she noticed the protective membrane had been ripped open, causing the ropy, blue preservatives inside to flow out of the chamber and drip through the steel-grated floors of the cargo bay. The liquid ventilator had been discarded a few feet from the cradle. She immediately pointed her gun up and down the aisle in search of the hide. There was nothing in her line of sight except a trail of ichor.
She quickly inspected the last cradle to determine how many tenants may be wandering the Indwell. Luckily, the third was intact, only one hide had been occupied. She followed the trail to the opposite end of Aisle 1 to determine where the occupied hide had gone.
A thud echoed through the chamber, only this time it carried with it a distant splashing sound. IP’s aim snapped towards Aisle 3. As she approached the aisle, she closed in on the sound yet again.
Legs were sticking out from the center aisle near the airlock which was across from the doorway to the inner decks. She quickened her pace to discover a man covered in the same ropey spillage from the empty cradle. IP aimed her pistol at the stranger with an unwavering grip and focused eyes; she reached for her shoulder radio to notify the crew.
“TEN-LU, I repeat, TEN-LU.”
“I’ll be back as soon as I can. Zere and Redmon got mixed up with some rabble-rousers at the astro-lounge. Grae, get down there, now!” Castor shouted.
“Already en route,” Grae hastily replied.
“Don’t believe a word it says; we’ll let Sicsin sort out its true identity when we reach Outpost II,” Castor said.
The radio returned to silence and IP redirected her full attention to the man on the floor. He looked at her with pleading eyes, eyes that begged for mercy and prayed for answers.
“Choose your next words carefully,” IP demanded, “I don’t enjoy killing so don’t give me a reason to.”
The man’s mouth opened but stomach bile, not words, spewed onto the bay floor. He caught his breath and replied in a low, hoarse voice.
“Wo-wo-woah…you can’t just kill me! Let me go and we’ll never come back. I promise.”
The man vomited a second time.
“We? You’re the only one here.” The tenant’s eyes widened as he processed the presumed deaths of his team.
“Why would you kill them? They were innocent! Look, I don’t know how I ended up in this part of whatever compound we stumbled upon, but we were just looking for…I don’t remember what we were looking for,” Dr. Acre’s distress put a strain on his voice.
“I can promise you that you’re all alone. No one else migrated here. You must have been cut off from your team. You may as well save your hide by answering a few questions for me. What will it be: the truth or a spacewalk?”
IP charged her weapon, intimidating the sludge-covered tenant.
“Okay, okay, okay.” The man raised a weak hand to hold her trigger finger. “What do you want?”
‘I want to know who you are and the location of the artifact.”
“Dr. Wayne Acres. I knew this dig had its own dangers, but I—”
“And the artifact?”
“Is this some sort of mind game? How long have you been following me? You know where it is…”
IP paused a second to reflect on Castor’s precaution: “Don’t believe a word it says.”
“Can you tell me where my team is?”
“I told you, there is no team, you’re alone.”
IP sat on a nearby crate and let out a sigh. The noise didn’t express relief or stress but something in between the two feelings. Grae had arrived during her interrogation but proved to be less than helpful; the only assistance he provided was an intimidating glare while he lit a synthetic cigar. She clicked her radio to check on Castor.
A crackle of white noise came through her receiver.
An unfamiliar, male voice responded, “As soon as you open the door, I would be more than pleased to solve your dilemma.”
IP was reluctant to respond. The Indwell’s communication frequency was encrypted.
“Identify yourself,” IP said.
“You’re lucky I don’t take offense to that; then again, I can’t be worth committing to memory if you could so easily double-deal me.”
“If you want this conversation to continue, you will identify yourself.”
“Hah, it’s been a lightyear or two. Tell me, have you ever wondered what happened to your dear friend Morfran Amon?”
IP was never good with names yet the voice sounded familiar. She turned to Grae. He shook his head firmly as he exhaled a cloud of vapor.
“Your captain didn’t remember me either. That explains our effortless attempt to preclude his participation in this deal. Now, I don’t hold grudges, but I think it’s only fair that amends are due to even the score. Since your captain is no longer able to set things right himself, I will place that responsibility in your hands. Perhaps you and I could even overlook our murky past and partner up.”
“What do you want?” IP asked.
“Well, my ship’s cognitive sensors detected an anomaly in Ergo Station’s census. You see, there was a sudden jump in the number of consciousnesses at the station—an increase of one to be exact. And yes, we double-checked. No new ships, births, or malfunctions. This anomaly led us to your charming ship. The only reasonable interpretation would involve the presence of a tenant onboard the Indwell. Wouldn’t you agree?”
IP bit her tongue. She didn’t want to further involve Morfran in the Indwell’s affairs. She hoped to divert his train of thought by peppering reality with pretense.
“There was a tenant onboard, but it escaped onto Ergo Station. That’s why Castor’s off ship. We have a requisition to fill, but I’d be willing to part with its cradle if you’ll let us secure the tenant without interruption.”
“Ah, yes. That would be a most prosperous trade…If I believed your inventive story. I know the tenant is still on board, likely in an arm’s reach, I’m sure. I know your Captain wasn’t searching for the tenant but rather for crewmates who were getting plastered at Sinner’s Sun. We are capable of opening the airlock ourselves if necessary, but I propose you act as a proper host and see us in. We’ll just take the cradle and the tenant, and free up some cargo space for you.”
IP experienced many losses while aboard the Indwell; she was enraged that Castor, Zere, and Redmon had now been added to her list of grievances. As a freelance transport, forming bonds with crewmates wasn’t typically encouraged, but Castor was of a different mind. Contracts didn’t usually provide a dossier of associates to avoid or collaborate with. Every mission was a wild card; it could be an easy way to fill the coffers or a path to great loss.
Castor captained the Indwell for nearly twenty years, inheriting the original Indwell from his predecessor, since then he has captained four different iterations of the Indwell and guided twenty-eight crew members during his career. Many crewmen either found a reason to leave or died before they had the chance to.
Morfran Amon’s involvement in their delivery added an unneeded level of stress to an already-demanding mission. IP and Grae were the only crew members on the ship unless you counted Lorelei, which IP usually did. However, Lorelei wasn’t autonomous and could only help by way of a command. As acting captain, IP needed to determine how she was to deal with Morfran. What would Castor do? She thought.
Morfran’s crew sounded well-equipped. For all she knew, casting off from Ergo Station meant the destruction of the Indwell and being lost to Sable’s Void, the vacuum of space. She felt the need to confront Morfran. She thought to herself for a few long seconds before answering.
“I’ll open the airlock.”
IP didn’t open the door immediately. Instead, she turned to Dr. Acres saying, “Do you think you can walk?”
“I don’t think there’s much in me, to be honest.”
The doctor attempted to raise himself off the ground, but his body quivered and collapsed. IP cocked her head in deep thought.
“He’s dead weight,” Grae muttered.
“Grae, help me get him away from the airlock.” Grae and IP each grabbed one of Dr. Acre’s arms and lugged him to the other end of the aisle. IP’s head turned to Dr. Acres, “Look, you’re either going to work with us or hand yourself over to Morfran, and I promise you’ll find much better company with us than him.”
IP unholstered her Frontier-41 revolvers. They sat behind cover, waiting for the access command to be given.
“Lorelei, open the cargo bay door.”
“Sensors indicate that opening the door will permit men with ill intentions to enter the craft. Are you sure you would like to open the airlock?”
“Yes, open the airlock!”
When the door slid open, a man traipsed into the cargo bay, followed by five men with surly faces. The leading man, who IP and Grae assumed was Morfran, looked deceivingly stand-up for a privateer. He was wearing black suit pants emphasized by a violet vest over a lavender button up. He walked into the ship, tapping his shock cane against the floors. The cane had a silver knob and black shaft; the end was covered in thin one inch silver prongs charged with an electrical current.
The marauders were adorned in battle-worn garb that juxtaposed Morfran’s elegant appearance. They carried themselves with ill-repute, the kind of attitude seen in inhabitants from backwater planets. Their menacing eyes emblazoned with the opportunity of plundering whatever valuables they could carry.
Morfran sauntered down the center aisle of the cargo bay passing his brutish men as they sacked the shelves for valuable cargo. The rapid but refined thud of Morfran’s cane punctuated the pauses between crashing cargo being thrown about the cargo bay. Suddenly, the cacophony of chaos was silenced as Morfran stepped into the gummy spillage left behind by Dr. Acres’ mechanical womb. He kneeled down to examine the slimy residue with his fingers.
“I see you didn’t bother to clean up for your guests,” Morfran said. His gaze returned to IP as he rubbed his thumbs against two ichor-covered fingers.
IP emerged with her pistol pointed at Morfran, and Grae followed behind. She motioned the tenant to approach slowly. When the newly occupied hide came into sight, the privateers greeted the tenant with eyes peering down their sights. “Composure, now…remember who you represent.” Morfran commanded his marauders at ease with a gentle wave of his hand, attempting to calm the actions of any loose trigger fingers.
Grae charged his energy weapons and kept his sight steady on Morfran.
“Your reputation doesn’t depict a crew of fools. Nonetheless I can see you aren’t interested in chatting. Such a shame…hand over the tenant,” Morfran said.
Two marauders walked down the trashed center aisle to apprehend Dr. Acres. As they closed in on the tenant, blaster fire zipped down the aisle from the airlock, stalling the abduction. Castor, followed by Zere and Redmon, flanked the trespassers.
“I’m not surprised you’re back…there’s a reason they call this ship the Indwell, but this ship set you free a long time ago, Morfran.” Castor said with a gun aimed at the privateer.
Morfran exhaled an irritated sigh as the rest of the Indwell surrounded his position. He pondered his next move, rubbing his pointed chin beneath the dim overhead lighting.
The marauders took aim at Castor, Zere, and Redmon as the two sides looked at each other in anticipation finding themselves in a standoff.
“You’re the one who’s surrounded, not me,” Castor said.
“Ah, yes. That appears to be true, which begs the question: would you please excuse yourself? Your dear first mate and I were in the midst of a delicate transaction and you’re creating quite the commotion.”
Castor stood steadfast to protect his ship, crew, and cargo. He squinted at Morfran and grimaced.
Morfran began to raise his commanding hand, but it froze in reluctance.
Castor’s crew readied their aim as Morfran’s hand rose halfway. He quickly raised his hand in a mocking manner, ordering his crew to lower their weapons.
Rolling his eyes, Morfran raised his hand once again to let his soldiers bask in the adrenaline of battle.
In an instant, gunfire volleyed between the privateers and the Indwell’s crew. Castor, Zere, and Redmon found cover behind stacked containers near the airlock. The trio retaliated with corrosive blasts. Gunfire from the marauders focused on Castor’s position. A sharp shot fired from a gun hidden in a slew of containers hit Zere, dissolving his chest in a flash of energy. Zere’s remains fell to the ground.
IP and Grae joined the fray from behind cover. Meanwhile, Dr. Acres cowered from the sounds of ions and lasers colliding with his cover.
Bursts of energy zipped by like shooting stars, and scattered rounds marred the inner hull. One of Morfran’s men tossed a frag grenade. Seconds later an explosion rattled the Indwell, causing the shelf walls to shift and topple onto Redmon, his remains buried under the wreckage.
Castor motioned to Grae to flank Morfran through the collapsed shelves. A precise shot from Morfran maneuvered through the misshapen cargo and hit Grae in the sternum, leaving only a charred corpse behind.
Missed shots from energized weapons cut deep into the walls and ceiling causing an overhead light to swing spastically back and forth. Through smoke and flashes of light, IP saw Morfran vanish into the darkness. Castor Vale fended off the approaching soldiers with a technique he learned from his military service on Nayon.
Castor tumbled and shot at marauders inching closer and closer to his position. Marauders crashed to the floor around Morfran who shielded himself behind an enclosure of crates. Two marauders were left, but Morfran wasn’t scared by any means; he was strategic and foresaw an unfortunate demise for his remaining soldiers. He gripped his cane firmly in his left hand. In his right, he held his prized pistol recovered from the body of his late mentor, High-reeve Ora MaCayleigh.
The weapon energized. All Morfran needed was a clear shot at Castor.
Suddenly, a shot flew over Castor’s head, causing him to fall backwards onto a piece of blaster-warped metal, his side skewered by his own ship. The MaCayleigh pistol never left its target unscathed. Morfran laughed to himself, stroking his prowess as IP mowed down his remaining henchmen.
With Morfran as the last-standing trespasser, IP motioned Dr. Acres to follow her down Aisle 7 to Castor’s aid.
IP dragged Castor into the aisle and propped her wounded captain up against a crooked shelving unit.
“I-If…” Castor began, breathing heavily, “IP…if I don’t pull through, the Indwell’s yours. You’ve earned it…”
“It’s nothing…” IP said in an anxious tone. “Remember when we met on Caloreth?” she continued.
Castor nodded slowly.
“The renowned Castor Vale,” IP professed in a mocking tone, “in distress yet piloting through the violent Mallo Belt, saving a dozen asylum-seekers.”
“Hah…” Castor remarked as he faded out of consciousness.
IP studied his wound, looking for the best way to remove the warped metal. She couldn’t afford to take her time to patch him up properly. She searched the area for something to treat him with. The medical kiosk was located on the far side of the cargo bay. She couldn’t abandon Castor or Dr. Acres.
IP turned Castor on his side and gripped the metal stuck in his abdomen. She yanked the spike out. Blood gushed. She scooped a handful of preservatives from Dr. Acres arm. IP applied the transparent sludge to both sides of Castor’s wound which she hoped would place his wound in stasis, protecting him from infection and blood loss.
The Captain’s brown eyes rolled to the back of his head. The rush of alien ichor circulated through his cardiovascular system, causing him to blackout. IP checked his pulse—he was still alive. She was relieved until she heard Morfran’s triumphant laughter resonate through the bay. IP surveyed her surroundings, but she could not see him anywhere. The swinging overhead light slowed to a steady sway, creating a strobe-like effect in the hold. Morfran approached the crew and appeared to be teleporting through the ship as his visibility shifted between the light and dark.
“So, I’ve noticed you go by IP now. Such a shame, I always thought your real name had a certain allure to it. It really rolls off the tongue— “
“Not. Another. Word.”
IP cocked her weapon and aimed directly at Morfran’s ego-filled head, “Well, at least you’re dressed for death.”
Morfran sneered, steadily creeping towards IP, Dr. Acres, and the unconscious Castor Vale.
“Pull that trigger,” Morfran said, “My handler will hunt you through the myriad of solar systems that make up this galaxy.”
“If you knew who our client was, you wouldn’t be so quick to threaten me.” IP said.
“I’ll spare you in exchange for the tenant and the remaining hides. After all, I’m not greedy. The rest of the cargo is yours to keep. These are my terms and it will be the only condition I’ll lobby with. Take it or leave it.”
Morfran holstered his MaCayleigh pistol. Then, he took his right hand and grabbed the cane that was gripped tightly in his left. His shock cane was almost as distinctive as his famed pistol; however, the cane didn’t carry a unique history like the MaCayleigh pistol. Pulses of electricity jumped from prod to prod as Morfran glared with intimidation.
“So…?” Morfran Amon raised the cane high above his head and violently swung down, knocking IP’s pistols from her grip. IP retaliated with a sucker punch to Morfran’s left cheek.
“Dear me, a different one from the bunch.”
“Our payload isn’t up for negotiation,” IP said.
IP tossed her hair into a tight ponytail before raising her fists, implying she was ready to fight for the Indwell and its contents.
Morfran chuckled to himself before accepting the challenge. He set his cane atop a cargo container.
“I don’t usually partake in such savagery, but it doesn’t mean I’m opposed to it.”
He raised his fists, bobbing his left with a taunting sway, all the while his striking right lay dormant ready to swing. IP swung first, landing a blow across his face. Stunned, Morfran couldn’t believe it, and then she struck again with an even harder right hook. Blood spewed from Morfran’s now crooked nose. For a third time, IP swung, but she was blocked. Morfran smacked her hard with his dominant left. Dazed, IP fell back. She was hit several more times. He unleashed a fury of blows striking IP’s head. Morfran swung his right; she dodged, and countered by kneeing the privateer in the abdomen, causing him to stumble back as he gasped for air.
Castor’s eyes fluttered as he began to regain consciousness. He heard indistinguishable grunts from the ongoing brawl between IP and Morfran. He attempted to lift his head but was too weak, falling back into a daze.
Morfran delivered a head butt shattering IP’s nose. Her eyes welled with tears, but she knew she had the strength within to defeat her opponent.
The two exchanged fists and elbows until Morfran grappled IP and tossed her to the floor.
Morfran straightened out his beaten outfit and wiped his bloody face. He perked up to the sound of a shuffle near him. He quickly unholstered his pistol and aimed it at the tenant who was attempting a futile escape. Dr. Acres was frozen as Morfran swaggered towards him. He grabbed the cowering tenant by the neck like a dog. Dr. Acres flailed his arms and legs, attempting to escape his assailant’s grip to no avail.
“Now, now. Don’t squirm. It’ll be easier if you just follow my lead.” Morfran said.
Morfran began to hum a victorious melody as he led his prize to locate his cane before exiting the Indwell.
A hellish warrior cry echoed from behind as his beloved cane came flying towards him. The electric prongs scraped his face, etching grooved wounds into his right side. the cane surged, leaving behind a souvenir from their clash—white electrical scars spread across Morfran’s face like branching tree roots.
Morfran screamed in agony, releasing his grip of the tenant. The tenant limped over to IP. Morfran backpedaled, trying to address his wound. IP gave chase to the privateer who was now stumbling through the wreckage of the cargo bay attempting to find the airlock.
Castor, who had now fully regained consciousness, watched the fray from afar. He attempted to limp towards IP’s position to help detain Morfran, but the ichor coursing through his veins continued to cripple him with fatigue. He lowered himself to the floor to alleviate delirium brought on by the ichor.
As Morfran meandered through battle debris, he struggled to find a clear path. IP followed closely behind him. Rubble blocked the aisle, causing the wounded privateer to be sandwiched between an open container and IP. With nowhere to escape, Morfran was forced into an uncomfortable shipment, crammed between narrow racks of oxygen canisters and medical tubing.
IP sealed the container, locking Morfran inside.
“Lorelei, eject the container on my position,” ordered IP.
Lorelei activated the gantry crane which moved horizontally across the hold’s ceiling until it locked onto the container. The crane descended vertically to pick the container up and placed it in the airlock. The airlock sealed itself and depressurized its contents. As the airlock floor swung open, Morfran’s crate floated into the void of space. IP’s aim shifted back to Dr. Acres.
Dr. Acres stood there with the same bewildered look she first found him with. IP motioned to Acres using her gun to move deeper into the ship. IP followed Dr. Acres, with her gun to his back, down the cylindrical corridors of the Indwell.
“What are you going to do with me?” Dr. Acres asked.
“For now, you’ll be staying in one of the empty cabins until we arrive at the next port. From there, you’re on your own, Doc.”
“And my destination?”
“Your new life.”
“What do you mean new life…am I a prisoner?”
Inhibited memories flashed through Dr. Acres’ mind as IP led him down a hallway to an empty cabin. He visualized his excavation team and the ancient wonder hidden beneath the Horn of Africa which, by his logic, seemed to be the cause of his current plight. Dr. Acres’ last memory before the Indwell was that of an advanced architecture forgotten beneath a pillar tomb in Miandi, Somalia. The bizarre amphitheater had a unique, bimetal wall that formed a semicircle. On the face of the wall were meticulous impressions that could not be engraved by primitive tools, or even modern-day tools for that matter. A light flashed behind the symbols in waves, almost like a pulse. There were thousands of fingerprint-like symbols, each one unique arrangement of swirls and dashes.
The center of the semicircle wall had a square pillar, believed to be the lower half of the stone pillar discovered on the surface. However, the pillar’s base was made out of the same strange metal that the subterranean structure had been composed of rather than the stone bricks of the pillar above ground.
Bones from the distant past were strewn about the cavern floor; superstition rattled locals hired to assist with the excavation, leading others to believe the discovery was a bad omen. Colleagues, fellow archeologists, knew, if anything, this was a good omen. This discovery would bring accolades and grants for future endeavors. So, they began documenting and examining the alien structure. Dr. Acres, mesmerized by the incomparable markings, touched the symbols with elation. He recalled a tingling sensation rush through his palm, then his recollection came to an abrupt halt.
Dr. Acres snapped back to the present when IP nudged him into his small cabin.
“Our dock date is 225 GY,’” Lorelei said.
IP was visibly irritated by Lorelei’s incompetence and Dr. Acres’ persistence.
“You have to tell me something. Why won’t you help me?”
“Sometimes an explanation makes things worse. No matter what I tell you, it won’t change the course of your fate.”
It was all strange to him. Dr. Acres wished his new reality was a dream and that he had only discovered a mirage induced from the scorching dry heat of Somalia. The fantasy he hoped was true, that a dream state fabricated his experience at Ergo Station, dissipated into disillusionment. The frustrated archeologist clenched his hands into a tight fist and browsed his five by eight-foot cabin.
“Lorelei, lock Cabin 4 and limit all voice commands to Castor and myself.
“Acknowledged. Cabin 4 has been sealed and voice signatures have been filtered, master navigator.”
Dr. Acres paced back-and-forth in the small room, processing the day’s course of events. A port-hole in his room offered clarity two-fold. This new life IP mentioned was to be experienced in the vastness of space. Large space vessels docked and undocked from the large station outside his window. He stared at the wonder that was Ergo Station. He noticed a stranger staring back at him—a reflection.
At first, he imagined the body must be a younger version of himself, but it didn’t resemble the body he had inherited from his parents. The man in the port-hole mimicked even the slightest of movements and facial contortions. As Dr. Acres’ hands reached to touch his face, the man did the same; his skin was never tanned by suns, never bathed in the gallium lakes of Beor’Bashan. The soft flesh reminded him of his newborn grandchild who he feared he would never hold again. He theorized that his muscle weakness was a symptom of atrophy, but he later learned that his mind had to relearn how to send messages to his body. The realization of having a new life was a heavy burden; he felt forced to forget his family and career, for he knew not how many stars were between earth and himself. He laid down on his cot, falling asleep as thoughts raced with an eternity of unknowns.
In the hallway outside of Cabin 4, Castor hobbled behind IP, placing a comforting grip on her shoulder as they made their way towards the flight deck.
“The tenant mentioned a planet I hadn’t heard of. He called it Somalia.”
IP shook her head yes.
“I’ve never heard of such a place.”
“He didn’t say much, but he did faintly describe the petroglyph he activated. I think the artifact that brought him is in a completely different system, it may not even be in this galaxy,” IP said.
“It’s a big galaxy, I wouldn’t be so quick to validate the tenant’s story. Have you forgotten what happened to us the last time we crossed paths with a tenant—what we’ve lost today?”
“You don’t need to remind me. I’m still grieving for Maisie and Bannon just as you are. Maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to prejudge him. Don’t we owe him a chance to prove himself? We can’t hand him over, not yet.”
Castor’s face contorted at the idea of crossing Sicsin.
“Maisie…Bannon…Zere…Redmon…Grae. How many more do we have to lose? I’m the captain and we’re going to settle our debt with Sicsin and move past this hide business.”
“Don’t try to pull rank on me. He has a name…Dr. Wayne Acres. He had a life before he showed up in our cargo hold.”
“There’s no way in hell.”
“We owe it to the dead to make sure he’s not dangerous. What were their deaths for if not to free an innocent man?”
“Well, we could use a doctor…”
“Actually, I think he’s some sort of academic.”
“Oh, right…even better…”
Though Castor was the ranking officer aboard the Indwell, their relationship was more similar to an ornery couple. And like any couple there was always one half that caved. He couldn’t argue with IP’s humanitarian logic which spared Dr. Acres from certain anguish. Castor silently agreed yet he couldn’t help but to be wary of Dr. Acres. After all, you never truly know what kind of person has taken up residence within a hide. He had an infinite number of reservations surrounding the true identity of Dr. Acres. He may be a member of the Ascendant Party, or worse yet, a hide jacker sent to locate and collect cradles. He could be anyone, Castor thought.
“I know you’re upset. I’m not saying he’s going to walk the ship freely, but I think once we’ve had a chance to feel him out, he’ll fit in just fine. You didn’t see him when I found him. He’s either one hell of an actor or he’s truly lost. Plus, you know what Sicsin does with unidentified tenants. I would feel worse having delivered the doctor to an excruciating death than trusting him and dying for it,” IP said.
“You won’t feel anything when we’re dead.”
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take and that’s the end of it.”
“And what of Sicsin?” Castor said.
“That’s your problem. I’m just the navigator.”
Castor mulled over the tragedy that befell his crew and ship. He believed he could cushion their problem by convincing Sicsin the Indwell was targeted by a rival syndicate.
“The blaster marks in our cargo bay may be enough to convince him that one of the hides was stolen and that we managed to save two of them. I’ll pump a few more shots near Acres’ cradle and we can blame Morfran.
“You think he’ll go for that?”
“We’ll find out soon enough. We’ve already been delayed long enough; let’s get this hunk of metal on the move.”
IP found her chair on the flight deck.
“Lorelei, shove off and set a course for Genesse, Outpost II.”
As the aft thrusters pushed the Indwell further from Ergo Station, the ship drifted deeper into the darkness of space. Lorelei propelled the ship forward at thruster speed, and the Indwell gradually passed the threshold of lightspeed.
“Lorelei, what is our ETA?”
The AI replied, “You will reach your destination in twenty-six lightyears.”
The ship travelled the uncharted void at lightspeed, making its way to Sicsin’s rendezvous point on the ocean moon, Genesse.
“I noticed you upped Lorelei’s commands beyond the flight deck…master navigator?”
“Ha-ha, wait until you hear what she calls you…”