Tag Archives: Sci Fi

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

I’ve been on a mini Bacigalupi streak recently – Wind Up Girl, Ship Breaker and now The Water Knife, a minor diversion into post-apocalyptic and dystopian misery which, to be honest, is a bit exhausting.

To start with the good The Water Knife is an efficiently well written and occasionally very immersive book, Baigalupi seldom drifts from the essentials of his characters and story telling and while the prose has flair to it there’s little that doesn’t also serve a purpose. So it’s readable, very readable.

The story is set in a water starved Southern and Mid-Western US where thirsty power blocs – California, Las Vegas, Colorado – vie for rights to the ever diminishing supplies under the decaying and largely indifferent gaze of the government back East. Throw in straggling hordes of refugees from the dried out state of Texas, narcos from the now formally declared Narco States, Chinese corporate interests and local gangs in Phoenix, the broad focus of the book, and you’ve got enough apocalyptic fodder to depress anyone. Which Paolo does, constantly.

There’s an ensemble cast of characters, all unified by their existence on the edge. On the edge of legality, criminality, their own societies, their own professions, morality. Bacigalupi’s world here is one with no interest in or time for the masses or the middle which, as far as an action driven plot goes, makes perfect sense. His perspective is one held just beyond the breaking point, his characters either spiralling towards it or long since submerged into a chaotic mess of cruelty and survivalist necessity. Which does work, for the most part, as I said this is a well written and eminently readable story. One which is set in a interesting world too, a compendium of human paranoias and fears about climate change, cultural decay and societal oblivion all brought to their pinnacles in one hellish, desertified landscape.

The one problem I found with that though was that his focus is a little bit too relentless. In Wind Up Girl, the first of his books that I read, things weren’t that much less extreme but in some characters at least he did allow a little humanity to survive. Even as it was shattered by another, similarly brutalised, world there were elements and characters which spoke to a remnant of recognisable humanity which wasn’t entirely despairing. With The Water Knife though there’s pretty much no redemption, no trace to be found of anything positive about our species and what minimal nods there are to a world beyond the extremities of the main characters are only ever given as a prop to demolish in the greater service of making everything worse.

I’m not saying this should be a book which offers hope mind, it obviously didn’t set out to be and grim as the reality he’s created is there’s not much scope for it. But even in the world Paolo builds there is evidence of something else, some ongoing collective struggle and sense of community existing within the horror. The shanties of the thirsty future aren’t just killing grounds, the streams of refugees aren’t solely comprised of those who’ve turned to obscene cruelty and violence as a basic state. Again though, as far as the story goes they exist only to further the main cast’s misery, to reinforce and, through suffering, prove their own descents into moral oblivion and incomprehension. There are hints that this is being presented as a comment on the US itself, a condemnation of the spirit of ultra-individualism in times of crisis which, maybe, wouldn’t be the same in other cultures. But if the relentless hopelessness is meant to push that line then it’s almost comically extreme. Pushed too far to make the point as anything short of a hammering horror story.

It’s a lack of balance which stops a good book from being a great one for me. The best exposures of human misery, in my experience, are the ones which don’t forget that there are humans in the story. The ones which don’t forget that, for most people, there is a desire towards community and a sense of security, even in situations which refuse to allow for it. That’s not to say there are happy endings or that some fantastical ‘good guys’ get their moment of victorious glory but there is some desire and, well, hope that things could be more normal. Something which Bacigalupi seems to revel in repeatedly smashing down as fodder for corruption.

On the generous side you could say that, given the issues of the books covers, like climate change, resource scarcity and societal decay an element of over the top grim-darkness is justified. Maybe that was an active choice for this story and, to be fair, in his YA Ship Breaker book there are hints of solidarity and (attempted) decency even amidst a similarly decaying world. With The Water Knife though it’s so completely, resolutely absent that it almost just feels like nihilism. Paolo has concluded that humanity will turn to cruelty without hesitation or even much resistance when circumstances demand it. All of humanity, more or less, with any hold outs falling quickly enough to be exceptions that prove the rule. A certain relish for violence, especially sexual violence, in this book (and The Wind Up Girl) doesn’t do much to dispel that notion. It’s evil all the way down here, with the only question being how long it takes any given character to descend, or be butchered before they can.

That said it’s still a good book, it’s still very well written and very strong in its intent and dystopian vision. Just as The Wind Up Girl was before it. When I circle back to his work though (and I will) it’d be nice, maybe even necessary, for him to allow for a view from the centre. Not one that’s any more upbeat or hopeful perhaps, but one where there are characters at least allowed to attempt decency without being knocked down with knowing disdain by a sense of absolute misery. Perhaps even allow a sense of agency for them, show that not everything, from society to family, is a flimsy front for inherent cruelty.

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Technical Error

Sergei shook his head, trying to rattle out the incessant thud of the Techno soundtrack that was, for no good reason, blasting out to shake the foundations of the warehouse. It didn’t work.

The building was full to capacity now, the stands erected around the walls heaving with stern faced government apparatchiks, some vaguely nodding along to the music, others taking long draws from red-embered cigarettes or swigging from glasses of vodka. He recognised a few of the faces present, Generals, politicians, even a strangely orange toned man who could, perhaps, have passed for that guy off of the TV, the bombastic American with the bad catch phrases. Although all he could see of him was a small strip of gaudy flesh and petulant looking eyes, framed by layers of luxuriant winter furs and an oversized ushanka. No matter, Sergei didn’t keep up with celebrity culture anyway so his interest was limited and his commander had told him not to look too closely into the crowd. He was here to work after all, not gawp.

A few metres from him his opponent for the day was limbering up on the opposite side of the ring, showily flexing his muscles for the audience. A pointless display given the exoskeleton he was wearing, a series of cables, metal plates and pistons that encased half of his body. It was technology that would do the work, not the man inside it, they were just there to make a token gesture towards thought and give a name for the records to list as winner or loser. He’d noticed that the American fighters always enjoyed their showmanship though. This one no less than the others, his back piece even had the stars and stripes emblazoned on it, an American Eagle engraved on his steel shoulder pad, a weak spot perhaps given the circuitry that might lay beneath.

For his part Sergei is more practical, his commander doesn’t appreciate showmanship, he appreciated winners so a small Russian flag decal on his shoulder was the only concession to style he wore. The rest of his suit was just a bulky mix of wiring and armour plating. More than the American had on his, a point to remember when the fight started.

There were a few more minutes of posturing to endure, as the Yankee, a compact man, slight but densely built, played to his small but vocal contingent of compatriots in the audience. Sergei just stared at him, content not to have to feign his already real indifference. The foreigner had a look of All-American healthiness about him, side-parted brown hair and energetic brown eyes drawn straight from a commercial. Still, not someone to underestimate, when these fights took place everyone sent their best. The stranger would, at least, be military but probably special forces too, or Navy Seals, or drawn from one of those unnamed divisions who lived and died without ever passing through the paper trails of military bureaucracy. Looking clean didn’t mean he wouldn’t fight dirty. But then so would Sergei.

Eventually the showboating ended and, as the mumbled conversations of the crowd came to a trickling end, the anthems started playing. The Star-Spangled Banner first, a concession to the visitors and silently endured by the largely Russian audience, although out of the corner of his eye Sergei could still see the orange skinned man nodding his head in a poor attempt to match the tune. Next his own anthem played, voices around the warehouse dutifully belting out or miming their way through in a necessary show of patriotic fervour. He kept his own mouth shut for the duration, he didn’t know the words after all and as long as he looked suitably intense nobody would challenge him for focusing on the fight ahead, not even President Putin, who was bound to be somewhere in the crowd.

Formalities over a bell rings and the crowd stirs itself into a frenzy, ready to see some blood spilt. The American explodes out of his corner, mechanically augmented fists launching straight into a flurry of blows aimed at Sergei’s head. They hurt, they send him reeling, staggering backwards towards a steel ring rope that offers no give. No matter, he expects to take hits and where they bounce off of his body armour the shock absorbers do their job, where they connect with flesh he feels the adrenaline rush warding off the pain. The visitor gets to have his way for a whole minute, long enough for him to show himself and his intentions, long enough for Sergei to read him and know how he’ll behave. Only once satisfied with his gleaned intel does he launch his counter attack, punches and kicks sending his opponent flying as the force of technologically amplified blows take their toll. His fists focus on the gaudy shoulder decorations, the eagle etched out in gold. With the suits they both wear it’s hard to guess if there’s anything important underneath, he knows where his own precious circuitry is concealed but not his opponents. It’s a good focal point though, it’s worth a try and with surprising ease the metal starts to buckle. He can see that his opponent feels it too as a look of shock washes over his face. A soldier shouldn’t be shocked, not in a fight like this, but his suit is letting him down Sergei guesses, showing signs of damage too early, too easily. Hardly cause for sympathy but he notes it nonetheless as he continues his onslaught.

Soon there are sparks, the audible groan of servos seizing up and the soon to be defeated enemy, or at least competitor, starts to collapse in on himself, his suit becoming little more than an encumbrance. It shouldn’t be this easy, it’s never this easy, but it is and there’s no point in second guessing it. Sergei takes a step back, fist raised to deliver a decisive blow to the American’s head, not a killing blow, not intentionally at least, but one to knock him out of the fight and avoid the ignominy of being stuck in an inert and broken suit. There’s laughter from the crowd although looking round with attempted subtlety he can see that the maybe-celebrity has revealed himself and is screaming with rage, hat thrown off, scarf slipped down. He’d heard that the man had gotten into politics, perhaps that explained the invite, another irrelevance though, Sergei didn’t watch the news much.

The final punch knocks the other fighter out, smoke starting to curl from his exosuit where circuits have fried themselves and motors burnt out. He’ll live, which is good, even if the crowd does prefer a more final ending. The American is stuck squatting, his jammed suit fixing him in position and his eyes closed as the dark fug of unconsciousness saves him from embarrassment. Sergei raises a fist in a minor show of celebration, although he doesn’t feel that it was much of a victory. Too easy, too quick, a poor competition and poor entertainment although no one can blame him for that. Casting an eye down he can see, to his amused surprise, a small plate screwed in to the rolled back metal of his fallen opponents shoulder pad – ‘Made in China’. It doesn’t explain much, he’s fought Chinese contestants before, their technology has never failed them but then he doesn’t pay much attention to the machinations of international trade and politics, there may be a game here played well beyond his pay grade.

His commander is in the ring too now, a heavy hand slapping imperceptibally on his plated back.

“Come on, time to shake hands.”

Sergei lets himself be led away to a hastily assembled line of dignitaries. Generals, politicians, well dressed others of undefined importance, and at the end of the line President Putin and the orange man. The latter still whispering with frustration in the ear of a nearby bodyguard whose expression remains a model of professional indifference.

The Russians in the line nod approvingly at him, or even smile. Even if the fight wasn’t the best they seem amused by it, happy to have observed a spectacle even if it wasn’t as impressive as the clashes they’re used to. Even Putin, when his turn comes seems to flash a half smile at him, not something that he’s ever seen before. Only the orange man, who to Sergei’s surprise is announced to him as the President of the USA by his whispering commander, breaks from the formal mood of satisfaction. He’s ranting, even as he shakes the victor’s hand with a limp grip. Sergei doesn’t react, he’s trained not to and by the sound of it the man doesn’t think he speaks English, unaware of his vague grasp of the language gained from a distant childhood spent consuming American films and TV.

“He didn’t really win, this result is all wrong.” Letting his hand go the American goes on, talking over his head to the assembled officials, some of whom seem to be suppressing smirks.

“I know our boys, they’re the best, it’s just that guy – I should have known when they told me his grandma was Canadian, I did know. I told them he wouldn’t fight right, I told them I knew about this fighting stuff, everyone knows that, just ask them, they say I’m the best coach there is. I could have been a fighter too, I was, I just don’t talk about it, I’m too modest, that’s what all of my friends say, but I could have beaten this guy. Look at him, he’s nothing, He’s weak, not like me, everyone knows I’m strong, and I’m an older guy but I could have gone ten rounds with him. And I’ll tell people that, tell them I would have won, and we’ll deal with that loser later. People believe me, they know how good I am, they won’t buy this because it’s just wrong, Vladimir, it’s just wrong wrong wrong.”

Sergei feels a hand pulling him away, his commander. He lets himself be led as the American’s bodyguard tries in vain to guide his ward away too, gently trying to lead him away from Putin and his cohort who seem to be struggling ever harder not to laugh. It doesn’t work, as the President stands his ground, stubbornly continuing his defence as a translator desperately tries to keep up converting it into mostly incomprehensible Russian. He’s glad to be taken away, back to the lockers where engineers start to swarm around him unscrewing his armour and plugging it into various computers for the post fight analysis. It’s only back here that he can relax a little, free of the obligations of being on show.

His commander is leaning against the wall watching the process, a cigarette slowly dying on his lips.

“Sir, permission to speak?”

The officer nods, rheumy eyes inattentive.

“Was that really the President of the USA?”

An engineer stifles a snigger.

“It was. Not impressed?”

“Do you think he noticed that his wig was falling off?”

His commander pauses for a second to stub the tail end of his cigarette out against the wall.

“I doubt it, he didn’t notice when he signed Texas over to us, he just kept telling people about how he could run faster than President Putin, if he wanted to. I don’t think he pays much attention.

Sergei nods and shakes off the last piece of his disassembled exosuit, glad as always that no one expects him to pay attention to politics.

For more from me you can check out my novel Crashed America (free on Kindle until 6/2/2017!) – available in paperback and digital formats. Or you can try any of my other work here – variously available as ebooks or paperbacks. 

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Platform 323 (Part Five)

This is, possibly, part on of an ongoing serialisation derived from something I’ve already written. The plan is to put a new part up every Tuesday so feel free to like it, or follow the blog, if you want to see more. You can find all parts here.

The crew were gathered in the mess hall. ‘Hall’ was, perhaps, being overly optimistic given that it only held 9, or 11 if a couple were willing to perch precariously on each others laps. Only Schneider wasn’t present as he continued his half hearted vigil in command but the cynical faces of the other 8 crew members was more than enough for Murat to face up to.

Again only Ecce seemed particularly interested in either him or the events unfolding around them, with the rest distracted by their own thoughts. Probably thoughts about desertion, better futures or maybe even mutiny, Murat mused. No matter, for now he still had at least a tenuous grip on them and if they could just somehow pull off this job then all would be forgiven. A rich, drunk pirate was a happy pirate after all – the first thing O’Shaw had taught him.

“Whatever’s on that ship it’s worth a lot. And we’re going to take it.”

Silence kept a grip on the room.

“Their captain, Kochelski, isn’t making things easy. She’s a rookie, trying to stare us down, thinks there’s nothing we can do, that we’ll just disappear if she threatens us enough. I know you and you know me, we’re not the sort to just give up are we?”

What was intended as a rousing tone came across as an earnest question. One quickly answered by an unseen voice who shouted out ‘Yes!’ in what Murat suspected was a poor impression of him.

“… no, we’re not… So we’re going to board them and take what we want, before anyone else shows up”

Again, what had seemed stirring and inspirational in his head came out as a rather limp request but at least no one shouted ‘no’ in reply, which was just about as close to a positive reaction as he’d expected. Although the voice of Murat’s inner survivalist did let out a blood curdling howl to itself, demanding to know what had happened to good old running away before he’d even gotten the vague order out of his mouth.

“so if you know how to fire a gun, get one and if you don’t learn to fast. We’re going in!”

Again silence. Murat nodded awkwardly and made a swift exit pausing briefly at the doorway as he tried to think of something better to say – although not for long as Ecce barged into the back of him and shunted him out into the hallway. Nodding again as she sped past him, her eyes full of crazed enthusiasm, he did his best to retain a look of detached cool, at least until she was out of sight and he could stumble into a cargo hold for a moment’s quiet reflection and dejection.

He’d had to say something, that much was obvious, the crew were barely there and they needed good, old fashioned leadership. Murat just wished he knew a form of leadership which didn’t rely so heavily on suicidal attacks on unknown enemies – but that was a narrow mindedness born of long and harsh experience. Back in his military days generals had routinely sent thousands of men over the top to near certain death for no better reason than the lack of any other ideas. ‘Strategy’ they’d called it and even when everyone died they’d always seemed happy enough with their efforts. Murat had hated them, the out of shape, smugly ponderous commanders who’d issued the orders before returning to HQ for a nice sit down and an evening of boozing and excess. Unfortunately he’d also paid too much attention to them and despite himself he couldn’t help but choose a pointless and ill-planned attack over endless patience or a bit of quiet reflection and a measured retreat. O’Shaw had tried to train him out of it and had gotten half way to getting the job done, if nothing else Murat now at least had the good sense to properly regret his bad decisions rather than fall back into the military mentality of half hearted grumbling and blithely accepting them.

But like those old generals he was trapped by his own need to be seen to be doing something. He could hear the crew shuffling out of the hall and heading off to grab their weapons. Their voices as they went were muffled by the steel door of the hold but it didn’t take much wild speculation to guess that they were complaining about him. Not that it would do them much good, they hadn’t argued the point and that meant they’d obey him and, if things didn’t go right, then they’d be far too dead to argue with him. And he’d be far too dead for them to blame. It wasn’t the most comforting of thoughts but he’d take whatever he could get.

It took Murat another twenty minutes to build up the will to leave the cargo hold. The crew had wandered off to prepare themselves in their own way, be it through illicit drink, checking their firearms or posing in front of mirrors trying to convince themselves that they really were mad, bad and dangerous to know. Or, in the case of the more sensible ones, writing wills and letters to loved ones in the hope that they’d find a way to their recipients if the whole thing went wrong. It was a familiar ritual to the ex-soldiers amongst them and a depressingly necessary one. Stopping at a wall panel Murat opened a channel to the command deck where Schneider was startled out of a hypnotic focus on his origami, his face sinking as he saw his Captain on the screen in front of him.

“Find Ling, get her to line us up with that ship and then get your stuff together for boarding.”

The look on Schneider’s face reinforced Murat’s opinion of the plan and it’s lack of merits but the eccentric American gave a nod of acceptance nonetheless.

“You got it chief, suicide mission it is.”

The screen went black before Murat could argue.

They had perhaps an hour to spare now. Ling, a former engineer from the Chinese power block who’d made good her escape after being sent on a covert transport mission not unlike the one they were about to try and ruin, would have to line them up. Nothing moved fast in space and for all the chaotic action to come the prelude was a painstaking process. Pilots in general were an irrelevance on a ship like this. Much as they tried to cultivate their own mythos and air of buccaneering cool their main job was to point and click, while the auto-pilot did the real work. It was space, after all, you could pretty much just point yourself in whatever direction you wanted to go and hit the accelerator. But when it came to the pirates and raiders the job required a different skill set. Boarding meant finding a section of the enemies hull that you could cut through. More importantly, an area that you could cut through without finding yourself walking into a fuel tank, waste processor or barracks on the other side. Going in at the wrong place could all too easily mean decompression, explosions and instant death not just for your own crew but the oppositions’ too. Salvagers called it a Lovers Death, two crews wiped out because someone had latched on an inch or two in the wrong direction. Murat had seen it, or at least the aftermatch, during his time with O’Shaw. His former captain had said nothing as they’d cut their own hole and looted both ships. Only when they’d been heading away had he aired his opinion – ‘better us than the salvagers’. Nobody liked the salvagers, or scavengers, as they were more usually known.

All of that had led him to find Ling. She was a genius, according to her. A prized asset of the Chinese state and therefore a legend in her own mind – a real pilot who could steer a cargo ship onto a penny without breaking a sweat. Murat suspected she was full of shit but she was good and even if it took a while she’d get them into the right place and then they’d cut. Ecce could do that, it’d keep her busy, plus when the rest of them went into the breech she’d have to be at least a few seconds behind dropping the cutting gear. Sentimentality on Murat’s part but the old soldiers, pirates and detritus that made up the rest of his crew would at least have some idea of what they were walking into, she was all too liable to try and be a hero. Coming last wouldn’t do her much good if things went wrong but a few seconds might save her if they could secure whatever part of the ship they found themselves on.

Another command tapped into the wall panel brought Ecce’s face onto the screen. She was in her quarters and looked at least momentarily embarrassed at the casual backdrop before snapping back into her usual enthusiastic formality. At a guess she’d been posing with her uniform and a pricey pistol she’d somehow found herself. Rookies from the quieter platforms tended to be like that, big on shiny guns, uniforms, gadgets and big on mirrors or any shiny surface they could find. Experience tended to beat that out of them, the rest of the crew by comparison would likely be sporting assault rifles more or less identical to the ones they’d had in the various armies, the de jure weapon of choice for piracy. After all you didn’t need to be flash to shoot someone but if you missed then having a weapon which could double as a hefty club was never a bad idea or, if you were lucky, the club bit could come first and any risk of hitting a bulk head and finding yourself seeing black for the few seconds before you brain shut down would be negated.

“Yes sir?”

“You can quit the posing, Ecce, time to get your hands dirty – you’re on cutting duty.”

“Yes sir! I’ll get to the docking tubes now!”

She fired off a salute and sprinted out of the room before Murat could even close the channel. He let out a weary sigh, there was something continually disconcerting over someone who would get equally enthusiastic whether you told them they’d won the lottery, were going into a situation where they were liable to die or even just spending half an hour with an oxyacetylene cutter. It was youthful naivete, he assumed, but he was damned if he could remember ever being like that and the rest of the crew seemed to view her with the same nervous confusion. If they were, for the most part, jaded and grizzled veterans then she was the over-excited puppy who somehow ended up at the head of the pack. She’d learn, he dimly hoped but it was hard to see excitement like that fading into the apathy of the career pirate. If she ever did end up with her own crew they’d either get very rich very quick or die their first time out. Either way it wasn’t a thought Murat cared to consider given that it’d involve her leaving the crew and there being absolutely no one left who showed him the slightest bit of respect.

For more from me you can check out my novel Crashed America – available in paperback and digital formats. Or you can try any of my other work here – variously available as ebooks or paperbacks. 

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Platform 323 (Part Four)

This is, possibly, part on of an ongoing serialisation derived from something I’ve already written. The plan is to put a new part up every Tuesday so feel free to like it, or follow the blog, if you want to see more. You can find all parts here.

“What’re they doing?”

“Sitting there. They know we’ve locked the missiles on.”

“No weapons charging up? No other ships on the scanners?”

“Nope, we’re all alone by the looks of things.”

Murat nodded and Schneider went back to his origami. He was a good worker, Schneider, generally drunk of course and rarely to be found working but when he did do something he mostly did it right. The fact that he spent most of his space time practising re-creating pornographic scenes out of carefully folded bits of paper was a side issue at worst. Plus he was undoubtedly talented at it. Like Murat he was ex-army, a deserter from North America where he’d spent most of his time taking pot shots at South Americans with a howitzer a few miles from the frontline. And now he was a casual Pirate, interested mostly in origami, drink and not having to put too much effort into anything.

“Ecce, get them on the screen, and look serious.”

Following his own advice Murat put on his best thousand yard stare. Appearances counted for a lot out here, unless you found yourself dealing with an old hand, in which case you could do the whole thing in a pair of boxers with your feet up. The younger captains however needed the image thing for pride’s sake if nothing else. Never did to be seen surrendering to someone who was busy scratching their arse and swigging from their morning coffee.

“Link established, captain.”

Of the square cabin that constituted The Kazamov‘s command centre half of one wall was dedicated to the main screen, two to desks for whatever crew members felt inclined to do any work and one to the narrow blast door which led to the rest of the ship. Only Ecce and Scheider were present, the former standing before one of the desks, tapping commands into a touchscreen embedded into the metal of a desk, the letter focused on his own pursuits on the other side of the room. The rest of the crew would either be legitimately busy or just staying out of the way to avoid having to do anything. They’d know the ship had shown up though, that would make a difference Murat hoped. None of them were incompetent by any means and their lack of faith in him aside they were capable enough of doing the job.

A face flickered onto the screen. She was young and official looking – both bad signs Murat quickly concluded as they stared at each other, each trying to look as indifferent as they possibly good.

“This is Captain Murat of The Kazamov, our weapons are locked on and your cargo is ours.”

“Captain Kochelski. Our cargo is ours, Captain, and I’m under strict orders not to hand it over to anyone, so I suppose you’ll have to come and get it. If you can.”

It was going to be one of those sorts of jobs. Boarding wasn’t an easy option, it seldom was, after all it took a good half an hour to line up the docking bay and then the same time over again to cut through their bulkhead. And unarmed or not a corporation ship would undoubtedly have a security team on board. Murat’s crew could fight, there was enough of the veteran deserter about them for that, but fighting your way onto a squat and claustrophobic ship was no small task. Someone would die, his or theirs.

“Or we could just destroy you and write this one off as a loss. Might even be enough scrap left over to cover our costs.”

“But not enough to save you when my superiors find out. We’re black-ops, captain, not just a supply ship – we disappear, people care. Think about it.”

The screen abruptly went black. The first round was over with an anti-climax. Familiar ground for Murat. Threats, counter threats and games of chicken made up far more of a pirates work than the actual fighting and looting ever did. Earth-siders, the more backwards Platformers, they all liked to talk in excited tones about the adrenaline fuelled adventures of swaggering privateers, raiders and Captains but the truth was far more mundane. His opposite on the unnamed Neftech ship was either a Rookie with a good line in bluffing or a bona fide graduate of some black-ops training program. If it was the former then she was good, this Kochelski. She hadn’t blinked, hadn’t over done it and hadn’t hinted for even an instant at bombastic false promises. She’d just said her piece, kept the same blank look on her face and cut the link. Black-ops behaviour. And that would make a difference. Kuzumo had said it was a covert, government related shipment, but that meant nothing. The corporations, the Earth-sider authorities, they were always smuggling something to or from the Platforms, guns, drugs, people; it was a routine activity and even if they didn’t make a song and dance about it they didn’t exactly go out of their way to keep it a secret. A certain amount of wastage was even expected, that’s how the Pirates made a living, not to mention the local bosses, smugglers, raiders and corrupt pseudo-officials who skimmed off of the top. But a genuine black-ops crew was something else entirely. They were vicious, efficient and generally unpleasant people. If she really was one of them then whatever was on that ship was important and therefore worth a lot. So why send it on an unarmed, un-escorted ship?

It took a nudge from Ecce for Murat to realise that he was still staring blankly at the dead screen.

“What next Captain?”

“Get the the crew together in the mess hall, we might have to board them. Schneider, drop the paper and keep your eyes glued to the scanners – make sure we don’t have any company.”

Ecce gave another brusk click of her heels and went off to gather up the scattered assortment that made up The Kazamov’s crew. Schneider grunted, glanced briefly at the screen in front of him and then went back to his paper folding. As close to a ‘yes sir’ as he ever gave.

For his part Murat left the command room not far behind Ecce and headed back to his cabin. Among his meagre belongings was the one useful thing he owned, a gauss gun. Not something you’d want to fire around the bulk heads but an impressively high end rarity given that half of the soldiers fighting on earth had reverted to AK47s looted from museums. It had never been fired in anger but it had the right look about it and the crew would need all the encouragement they could get if he had to ask them to go in.

Plus, once back in his quarters, he had a chance to slump down on his bed, drop his head into his hands and with a moan of exasperation, think about what the hell came next. He could run. That was always a smart choice, especially if his opposite was willing to stare him down. But you could only really get away with that if your crew was with you and his were mentally half way back to 323 and a new career already. So he could wait, for a while at least. He was experienced enough to know that Kochelski wouldn’t try to just fly by him, they both knew he’d have no choice but to fire if that happened and that might be enough to save face in front of his crew. He’d been telling the truth about the scrap value too, you could never be too sure what would happen when a ship decompressed, especially one with unknown cargo, but whatever was left would be something at least. It had been nine days already though and even if Murat had seen these situations drag on for weeks patience was wearing too thin to try that now. Eventually someone else would come along anyway, even if they were a bit off of the beaten path between Earth and the Lagrange Open Zone they weren’t so far out of the way as to be left completely alone. And signal jamming might be doing the job for now but sooner or later Kochelski would find a way through it.

Finally, and least attractively, he could board them. Run the risk of walking straight into a highly trained security detail and see who was quickest on the trigger. His people were good, if they chose to fight, but hers might be better. Again he found himself wishing that he’d never mentioned the no-drink policy. Back during his time in the trenches they’d always handed out vodka before a big attack, he’d never have gone over the top otherwise, which was perhaps why he’d abstained ever since. Sobriety might be scared but sobriety was also alive.

For more from me you can check out my novel Crashed America – available in paperback and digital formats. Or you can try any of my other work here – variously available as ebooks or paperbacks. 

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