She looked up. The woman officer raised an eyebrow. “Are you well?”
Tabitha hesitated then nodded. She wasn’t well, but she didn’t think it would help to tell that to this woman.
“Good.” The officer nodded to the Gen-D soldiers. “I am Chief Captain Talia Zenzoff of the E.L.S. Passagarde. Please come with me, we have much to discuss.” She moved back through the double doors into a small antechamber. Opposite the doors was a large room with screens, computers access panels, and a small crowd of officers. An empty command chair sat perched slightly above the rest of the room.
To Tabitha’s left, between the main ingresses of the antechamber, was a single door emblazoned with the Earth League’s seal. Zenzoff led Tabitha through this door into a small but impressively appointed office. The walls were covered in a fine, burgundy, velvety material. Soft Light emanated along the tops of the walls. Hanging on the wall were pictures featuring the chief captain with various official looking people in and out of uniform, and not a few letters of commendation. In the center of the office there was a desk, which looked to be actual wood – an extreme luxury.
Zenzoff saw Tabitha’s reaction and smiled with cold pride. “Yes, it’s a family heirloom. For four and a half centuries my family has commanded ships of the Earth League’s fleet. The desk was carved from trees found on our ancestral estate before Earth was evacuated.” She moved around the desk and sat in a high-backed chair. She indicated Tabitha should sit in one of the smaller chairs.
After a moment Zenzoff held up a datapad. “I’ve been reading your files. Trying to see what motivated the pirates to come for you.”
Tabitha caught a glimpse of the contents, wondering what information they kept on her. The heading read “Tabitha Kronopolos.” Unconsciously, she looked down at the name on her ill-fitting borrowed uniform, which also said “Kronopolos.” She felt a chill.
Zenzoff appeared not to notice. “You are a xenobiologist, specialized with research in arthropod analogs, yes?”
Xenobiologist? Someone who studies non-earth life specializing in arthropods? Like bugs? Tabitha barely knew the vocabulary. She almost looked again at the name tag on her uniform. “Kronopolos.” The same name on the uniform and the datapad. None of that made any sense. They had sensors and triggers to show who was revived. They wouldn’t be misled by the name printed on her uniform.
Yet CC Zenzoff seemed to be under the impression that her real name was Tabitha Kronopolos. So what did that mean? Someone was intent on deceiving a ship full of government, or else there was a major error in the records. She doubted the latter. So who was doing the deceiving?
She only had two solid truths right now. First, Neva Genzi had helped her, even killed for her, and been compassionate when she had gotten freaked out. Second, the officers on this ship weren’t telling her anything and didn’t like Neva at all.
That was the information she based her decision to lie on. “Yes, that’s me. What about it?”
Zenzoff raised an eyebrow. “I am not sure what pirates would want with a studier of bugs.” She didn’t wait for Tabitha to respond to that. “Did she hurt you?”
Tabitha finally sat down in the chair on her side of the desk. “Who?”
“The witch. The one who kidnapped you.”
Kidnapped? “Neva? She protected me from the pirates.”
Zenzoff snorted. “Unlikely. Are you in league with her?”
This conversation was growing more strange by the moment. “What? No? I mean… I don’t understand what you’re saying. Where is she? Why did the lieutenant imprison her?”
“She is a demon. She will meet a demon’s fate.”
“But she helped me.”
“Ms. Kronopolos, I am in command of this ship. That means I decide the fate of everyone on it. That witch will be destroyed. It is now your place to question this. Nor is it your place to withhold information from me.”
The direction of this conversation worried Tabitha. That last sentence sealed her decision. She wasn’t really withholding information – okay, she was withholding her real identity and career path. But now she wanted to make sure she didn’t say anything remotely helpful to this woman. Tabitha was a guest passenger on this ship, and it was rude to speak to her this way.
Zenzoff continued. “Why would outlaws want to capture you?”
Tabitha shrugged. She didn’t know. That much was true. And she wasn’t going to theorize about it now.
“You’re not rich. Nor is your family. And none of you are important.”
Tabitha wondered briefly if Zenzoff was intentionally insulting or if it just came with the job. She decided to move from simply not speaking the truth to complete fabrication. “Mommy and Daddy used to have magistrates to dinner a lot. Daddy said all kinds of things like liking ‘being behind the scenes.’ I never listened to the conversations anyway. I wanted to learn more about bugs. Did you know the caretas spider of Zel 2 can eat 6 times its own mass in an afternoon?”
Zenzoff paused and regarded Tabitha coolly. Of course, everything in her manner seemed cold. Still, this gaze seemed to lower the temperature of the room a couple degrees. Tabitha wondered if she’d made a mistake and was now in real trouble.
At last the officer spoke. “I see.” She stood. “We have quarters prepared for you. I will have someone escort you.” She came around the desk and opened the door.
In the antechamber she pushed some buttons on her wrist computer, then stood watching the bridge through the large double doors. Seconds later a man jogged up and saluted the chief captain, relaxing when Zenzoff returned his salute.
Zenzoff stepped close to him and spoke to him in low tone Tabitha couldn’t overhear. Then, out loud, she said, “Lieutenant, this is our guest, Tabitha Kronopolos. Ms. Kronopolos, this is Lt. Osterman. He will escort you to quarters you can use. If you have any needs, contact him. Good day.” Zenzoff bowed her head slightly, then turned and proceeded to the command chair on the bridge.
Dirk was tall, but not exaggeratedly so like Schwartz had been. He had short black hair that hinted it might curl if allowed to grow longer. He was fit and broad-shouldered, but not particularly muscled. Sharp green eyes twinkled over his dimpled cheeks.
He looked like a hero from a romantic comedy.
He bowed. “Ms. Kronopolos, may I call you Tabitha?”
“You may, Lieutenant.”
“Please, call me Dirk.”
“Is it your name or just what you want to be called?” Somewhere in Tabitha’s head she was a little confused. She was possibly in danger, she was lying to the commanding officer of the ship she was going to be on for weeks yet, and she decided to flirt. That was more than a little weird. She went with it anyway.
Dirk laughed lightly. “It is my given name. I suppose you can call me anything you want.”
Tabitha smiled. “I think Dirk will do.”
Dirk nodded as he led her from the antechamber. “Your things are still in cargo, and it may be some time before they are accessible. In the meantime, we should be able to supply clothes and whatever else you may need. But since you don’t need to unpack, would you prefer to rest or would a meal suit you better?”
Food! Tabitha hadn’t thought of it for some time, but as if it had been prompted, her stomach rumbled slightly. “I think I’d like to eat, but can I take this space suit off first?”
“Very good. This way then.” He held out his arm. Tabitha laughed at the archaic gesture, but she placed her hand on his arm anyway and walked with him.
The restaurant was dimly lit. A sign outside said “OC” in lights. The door was being manned by a multi-limbed alien. It had a large cucumber shaped body out of which a dozen thinck, mult-jointed limbs protruded in all directions. It spoke clipped but precise Galactic with a human accent and showed them to a table.
The OC outside stood for Officer’s Club – though the designation was a meaningless name. It had begun as an officer’s club, but it had opened up to enlisted and the civilian contractors on ship.
Dirk looked across the table at the girl he’d been assigned to liaison for. She had wavy blond hair that came down to her chin. She probably hated her hair but it was actually quite attractive and set off her green eyes. No, she wasn’t the most ravishing woman he’d met, but she was pretty enough.
Shortly after being seated and starting to look over the menu Dirk excused himself for a moment and stood up. He had been here plenty of times, so he already knew what he was going to order.
He made his way to the far side of the restaurant near the restrooms and found someone who would fit into the plan he had made.
Groogs were both hairy and scaly in varying patches on their body. In fact, the pattern of the patches was the way most humans managed to distinguish one groog from another. No one had come up with a satisfactory evolutionary reason for this skin type, though a disease in the ancient past was one likely explanation. Groogs were, however, immensely strong. They were bipedal humanoids who actually seemed to match humans in height. Although they were skinny, their muscles were dense, and an average groog was much stronger than an average human.
Which made it perfect that one was in the club.
He approached the groog and punched him in the shoulder. The groog turned and punched him back, also in the shoulder. “What you need, human?” he asked.
“I’m trying to impress a girl,” Dirk explained. “I’ll give you fifty chips to threaten her and then let me beat you in a fight.”
The groog opened his mouth and breathed heavily, his species’ equivalent to laughter. “You funny.” He scratched a scaly patch on one arm. “Make it hundred. I don’t feel like fight.”
Dirk shook his head. “For a hundred I could get a gang. 60, tops.”
“90, and I bring friend.”
“90 for two of you? He a groog too?”
The groog nodded.
“Fine, it’s a deal.” Dirk described what Tabitha looked like. “When she comes this way, make up some offense, make it believable.”
The groog laughed again. “Hokay.”
Dirk returned to the table and sat across from Tabitha. “So, what is it you do?” he asked.
Tabitha blushed slightly, just a touch of pink coming to her cheeks and ears. “I’m a xenobiologist. I study arthropod analogs.”
Dirk wasn’t sure what arthropods were, and Tabitha must have seen his confusion, because she explained. “Things that look and act like bugs.”
“Oh,” said Dirk. But then he remembered he was supposed to be charming. And a monosyllabic answer wouldn’t cut it. “That’s interesting.”
“Yup.” A long pause.
Tabitha broke the silence. “Why was Neva sent to the brig?”
Dirk stopped suddenly as he took a sip of his drink. The question was so sincere. She really didn’t know. Which kind of threw everything he was supposed to be doing out the window. She wasn’t going to tell him anything he didn’t already know. It was possible Chief Captain Zenzoff was right and Tabitha was hiding something. But whatever it was, it didn’t have anything to do with their prisoner.
“You mean the witch?”
Tabitha looked even more confused.
He felt a sudden sympathy. “You’ve never heard of Q’Dari?”
Tabitha shook her head. “What’s that?”
“They’re a group of people. They supposedly have psychic powers. And they’re very dangerous. Out to topple governments. Anarchists, you see.” He suddenly wondered if he’d been wrong and this woman was practicing some sort of emotional manipulation on him. He thought for a moment about it. No, he was revealing more than he needed to, but he hadn’t said anything unclassified yet, and his reasons were sound enough.
Tabitha spoke slowly. “And you think Neva is one of these… kuhdaree?”
“Q’Dari,” Dirk corrected. “And she’s a well documented Q’Dari. Always seems to get away though. She’s one of the most wanted women in the galaxy.”
“But that doesn’t make sense. She was kind to me, and helped me.”
Dirk shrugged. “Maybe she was trying to gain your trust so she could use you.”
Tabitha clearly wasn’t convinced. “I can’t think of what she’d use me for. She defended me when pirates attacked. She kept me out of danger.”
Dirk shrugged again. “Maybe she was confused,” he said.
Finally their food arrived. The OC’s cooking was hardly legendary, but it was orders of magnitude better than rations, and probably even slightly above typical civilian fare. Dirk took hold of his knife and fork.
But then Tabitha stood. “I need to freshen up,” she explained. Dirk nodded. “Can you find the restroom?”
“I’ll manage,” she said with a smile.
“Alright. I’ll wait here then.” He winked.
Tabitha blushed light pink again and moved off.
Dirk only waited for her to go a few paces before he stood up to covertly follow her. If the groog was true to his word he would be watching, and would step in.
The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry, and this one did too. Before Tabitha even got close she stepped on a tendril extending from a table on her way. Dirk saw everything in horrific detail before he could get close. The tendril belonged to a plant like alien called a yyr. The yyr had a lot of vine-like tendrils that tended to be sensitive and thick, strong tentacles that looked like they were covered in bark. The yyr were also short of temper and long on grievances.
The yyr stood quickly, knocking its chair over and pushing the table a foot away as it roared.
Dirk was a protocol specialist. He carried in his head the basic cultural morays of about two hundred different species from around the galaxy. With all that, he’d still never figured out how yyr vocalized. Not being an expert on alien anatomy, he’d never figured out where they had a mouth. Yyr were definitely capable of yelling though. And the volume coming from this one proved that.
Dirk wasn’t sure why there was a yyr even aboard the Passagarde but he knew this wasn’t good. His mind raced trying to find a way to gracefully exit this situation without violence. Fortunately, he managed to stand in between the alien and Tabitha, who was backing away in a panic before violence occurred.
He was still standing there when the violence started.
“Look, this was an accide…”
The yyr interrupted him with a tentacle to the side of his head, which knocked him to the floor.
Dirk was a protocol officer, true, but he didn’t shy from action, and he realized that it was already too late for diplomacy. He managed to roll from the next attack and move in close, and he punched the alien in its trunk, or… body… whatever you wanted to call it. He yelled out as the punch did more hurt to his fist than his opponent.
Another blow from the alien knocked him back.
Confused and disoriented, Tabitha wasn’t sure what was going on. She’d felt something under her foot, then something loud, and Dirk was pushing her back.
As she got her head together she looked to see Dirk getting the tar beaten out of him. “Stop it!” she shouted.
“Interesting.” The voice was growly and low. It gurgled slightly. And it was immediately behind her. She turned to see a tall figure, its skin a patchwork of fur and scales. Its wide mouth was open and it was breathing heavy. Another one almost identical in appearance was slightly behind it.
Nervous, Tabitha asked, “What?”
The alien pointed at Dirk, who was dropping onto a table. “Human pay us threaten you. He scare us off. You impressed.”
“What?” she said again. This time it was less that she understood and more that she was processing it all.
The alien’s companion spoke up. “Maybe he find another. Impress woman twice.” Both aliens’ mouths opened wide with more heavy breathing.
Dirk was hit in the hip by a branch-like tentacle. A loud crack announced something major was broken. Tabitha wasn’t sure she believed this was staged.