The ridges on the back of my neck were prickling.
I checked the feed from the cargo bay. A dozen steel drums. All of them full. The bay was empty otherwise. Normally that would have irked me, but the promised payment from this one delivery was worth the wastefulness of a near-empty cargo bay. The drums and their contents were pre-approved to pass through every one of the near-hundred checkpoints that we were about to encounter. It would not have been worth the risk of being stopped at every checkpoint for a full reckoning of our cargo if we were carrying our usual assortment of items—living, non-living, legal…not-so-legal.
We had obtained the means of shielding certain sections of engineering and the crew quarters. Cargo, I was happy to be transparent about. But there were things aboard my ship that I needed to hide. And I couldn’t expect the crew to remove every questionable item. Our chief engineer would have disembarked if we didn’t fly with a sufficient supply of his favorite snack, mokkie-bars. Getting caught with mokkie-bars was a risk worth taking to have an engineer onboard with incomparable talent applied over a hundred and thirteen years of experience.
As we approached our destination, I glanced up at the main display.
“All clear so far, Captain. I’m keeping the speed under the limit—“
“Not too far under, pilot,” I warned. “Or we’ll get in trouble for that too.”
The pilot acknowledged, sharing the secondary display of the ship’s status, which typically only she and the navigator monitored, to the main display, which everyone could see.
It was good thinking. We had just entered the Narebunk system. It would be worth it to have all sets of eyes on the ship’s functions until we had delivered our package and tiptoed back out of the system.
Over the next several hours, we floated past the first sixty checkpoints. I noticed the crew on the bridge growing more and more tense. Those who perspired wiped their damp brows often. The bridge took on a floral scent and a hazy orange hue from those who emitted chemicals at the sign of impending danger. Whenever one of the oval-shaped checkpoint vessels came into view, the crew stiffened. And when our ship passed beyond the jurisdiction of that particular vessel, the crew would allow themselves a slight release of that stiffness.
We spoke little. All our communications were being monitored, even in the personal quarters. Barring an emergency, there would be no need to speak. No need to risk saying something that might be construed as an insult.
Certain members of the crew had been put into stasis prior to our entering the system. They volunteered, knowing they were saving me from having to give an unpleasant order. They spoke among themselves and three of them volunteered to go into stasis, just in case we incurred any penalties. Telepaths were not forbidden in the Narebunk system, so long as their senses were disabled. I probably would have ordered them to stay behind at Vahniare Station, but I was glad to have them on the ship, just in case we needed them.
If only they had been awake, they could have warned us.
“They are definitely on an intercept course, Captain.”
I released the breath I’d been holding.
“How long before they reach us?”
We had only just contacted planetary customs to report our arrival.
Our navigator swiveled his chair around and gazed at me. “The system authorities…?”
“Probably won’t help us,” I said with a shake of my head. He was young and new to our crew. And he obviously had never been in the Narebunk before. “But I’ve submitted the request.”
The cargo in our hold was still in our possession and was therefore still our responsibility. If the ship heading towards us meant us harm, the Narebunk would not intervene until the cargo was in their possession.
But their authorities were still reviewing all the documentation I’d submitted.
“Maybe they’ll leave us be,” my first office said in her typical calm tone. But I heard the nervous resonance just beneath that calm.
I crossed my arms. That prickling I’d been feeling earlier, it spread down my spine, down the entire length of my tail.
“Maybe they’re friendly pirates,” the pilot offered.
I had a decision to make.
“We can’t activate shields,” I said. “We don’t have permission yet.”
Our shields were our only chance. Based on the speed of what was most certainly a pirate ship, we would never be able to outrun them, even if they stopped chasing us at the system’s borders, which they likely would not.
“Minus the cargo, we don’t have anything valuable onboard,” my first officer said, her voice now fully resonant. “They must have seen that on their scans.”
I nodded. Something felt off.
We had dealt with pirates before. Of course, they all operated differently. But the ones who remained silent, tended to be the ones who came out of nowhere. Pirates who made themselves known to their quarry from a distance, as these pirates were doing, usually announced threats and offered bribes. They typically aimed to gain without the need to expend any more energy than they had to, which was good for whoever they were attacking. It meant there need be no harm, no death, no taking of prisoners.
Suddenly an alarm sounded. Sharp red lights flashed at the helm. The pilot began to take evasive maneuvers. The rest of us went to our crash seats and strapped ourselves in.
At my chair, I checked on the status of my request—an original, and a dozen follow-ups—to activate our shields without penalty, to defend ourselves from piracy. And my request for intervention from orbital crime prevention, so we would not be victims of piracy. As well as my request for expediting delivery of our cargo, so that we would not be targets for piracy.
Dealing with bureaucracy in the midst of an emergency was perhaps the one thing about being the captain of a merchant ship that I despised the most.
Even more than I despised pirates.
I peered at my screen, ignoring flashing lights, the orders that my first officer was shouting to the bridge crew, the scrolling list of warnings about imminent legal infractions that the planet’s automated barrister programs were sending to the ship.
I held my breath.
The ship’s proximity alarm blared.
I blinked and a message came through from the planetary authority. Just two words.
“Raise shields!” I cried.
But it was too late.
The ship was spinning.
“We’ve lost the ventral engine!”
“No injuries so far. Thank the eternal stars.”
“We cannot land on the planet, pilot. Do you hear me! We cannot land!”
“Aye, Commander! I know.”
“It’s alright, pilot!” I said. “Just get us out of the spin first.”
I’ve hired the best.
And this was not the first time I had need of the best.
After the pilot steadied the ship, we did an accounting of the crew. There were only minor injuries. My first officer wanted to wake the telepaths, but I told her to hold off for now. I hadn’t received word from the planetary authority yet. That meant we had not yet broken any laws or deviated sufficiently from our orbit to warrant offense.
I credited the pilot’s quick thinking, for turning the ship in time to let the pirate missile hit a part of the ship that was densest and furthest away from the crew.
But skilled though she might be, no corporeal pilot could have been that quick.
My first officer and I were standing at the helm, looking over the pilot’s shoulder as she briefed us.
“Either we got lucky,” she said, “or…they were aiming for the ventral engine.”
“And it wouldn’t have made a dent, if we’d put our shields up in time,” I said.
Orbital defenses too had finally responded to my messages. They chased the pirates away while we were still spinning out of control.
“Why would they aim for the ventral engine?” I asked.
The pilot magnified her display of the ship’s orbit. “We are currently still within range of our approved orbit around the planet. But, we will fall out of that range in the next half hour. Our orbit is decaying, Captain. Without the ventral engine, we don’t have the power to pull out of it.”
“We’re going to crash?”
“Worse…we’re going to land.”
I shook my head. “I knew it. I knew it was too good to be true.”
“Captain?” my first officer peered at me.
“The payout for this job—for the cargo.”
“Careful, Captain.” My first officer had her hand on my shoulder. We were not telepaths. But she obviously knew what I was thinking. And I knew what she was thinking. They were listening in on us. And I was about to accuse the Narebunk of something. A ruse of piracy to shoot us down, force us to land, and therefore confiscate our cargo without payment. In other words, I was about to accuse Narebunk cheating.
The Narebunk. Cheating. The thought of them going back on their word was so preposterous that it had led me to believe in the deal I had struck with them, that one shipment would earn my crew and me enough to buy another ship if we wanted, all the way up to a Class Four hauler, with a cargo hold the size of our entire current ship, and a secondary hold with augmented security measures. Because any captain and crew riding a Class Four more than likely had high-class clients, requiring a higher level of security. But if we kept our faithful ship. If we stuck with good old Tritonia, and if the Narebunk wanted just two—maybe three—more shipments, then every single member of my crew would be able to retire, and retire rich.
And all we had to do was deliver a dozen barrels of lemons.
I was such a fool.
“I’ve been a fool, and I’ve just led us to our doom,” I said. I stood up straight. “There’s only one chance. If I surrender myself, as captain of the vessel, I may be able to negotiate for the rest of you to be allowed to repair the ship, take off, leave the system, and never, ever return again.” My hearts began to pound, their rhythms out of sync. The sound was obvious to me. I pretended not to hear.
My first officer folded her hands behind her back. “A noble gesture, Captain. One that will not work.”
“This is my fault,” the pilot said.
We both turned to her. She had not moved from her station since the attack, making minor adjustments to keep the ship as far away from the planet as she could.
“If I hadn’t burned out our emergency engine catching that magnetic ripple—“
“We’d all be plummeting to our deaths!” a voice said as a display blinked into viewed before all three of us. It was the chief engineer.
“That little engine wouldn’t have had the power to get us out of our decaying orbit,” he said. “You did the best thing. Hell of a pilot, you are. But I need the Captain and Commander to come down to engineering right away. Junior and I have an idea about how to get you the power you need.”
As we left the bridge, I heard the navigator ask the pilot why everyone was so worried if we were certain we could safely land.
I couldn’t blame him for not knowing.
We had picked him up on Earth, along with the lemons.
He could not have known that it was illegal for any non-natives to land on the planet, whether or not the need for that landing was their fault. The only reason certain merchants were even allowed in the Narebunk system was because there were some rare and coveted resources that the people of the system desired and sometimes even needed. But the Narebunk never left their system, even though they had the means.
When I first heard of their request for something called a “lemon,” I thought we would all have to sell our firstborns to obtain even a one precious lemon, because it was only available on a single planet in a dinky little system at the fringes of the vast Milky Way galaxy.
But once we arrived at Earth, we realized that the lemon was just a fruit, a fruit that was relatively plentiful on the planet. We had no issues getting a dozen barrels of the stuff, and the only thing that stopped us from buying more was that we thought it would make the Narebunk suspicious. They had asked for fifteen barrels. It seemed wiser to give them a dozen and make it seem like we had struggled to obtain them.
Naturally, the crew was curious as to why the Narebunk wanted lemons. We had purchased a thirteenth barrel, just for the crew to play around with.
On the suggestion of our Earthling navigator, a good number of those lemons were converted into various desserts and refreshing drinks.
On arriving at engineering, I was to find that another member of my crew had been tinkering with the fruit.
“There had to be a reason why the Narebunk wanted them so badly, right?” the chief engineer said, just after we stepped into a shielded part of deck. There was no way for us to be sure that our shielding had any effect on blocking the Narebunk sensors. The merchant who’d sold the shielding modules to us could have been fooling us. I had checked on his credentials, but I was now doubting my judgement on this particular assignment.
“So we’ve been studying them, Captain,” a high-pitched voice spoke. From between two of the ship’s back-up reactors, emerged the owner of the voice, the adolescent simian junior engineer.
“I was trying to break them down,” the chief said. “Oil, juice, zest, seed, further and further to molecule, atom, particle.” He pointed his thumb toward the simian. “But Junior was the one who figured it out. She approached it from the perspective of synergy, you see.”
“Synergy?” I asked.
“I mean, after all, lemons are matter, and matter and energy are interconvertible, given the right reactions and interactions and snapping of bonds and joining of bonds—“
“Chief!” the junior engineer said. “We can give the captain our long explanation later, when we’re out of the system. Let’s just show them.”
The chief engineer nodded and pointed to one of the reactors.
“Begging your pardons, Commander. When we asked permission to use the reactor, we didn’t realize how far we would take it. And then we just started building and testing, and well…we should have checked with you.”
A panel on the reactor slid up to show a display of what appeared to be a bioreactor with various other devices attached.
“We can’t show you the actual device,” the junior engineer said. “We don’t have transparent radiation shielding on the back-up reactors. In short, Captain, Commander, we’ve invented and built a device that can convert the lemons into nuclear energy—well, let’s just say it’s nuclear energy for the sake of keeping it simple for now. We can then regulate and conduct that energy toward ship’s systems. Uh…the regulator, we’re still working on. So I wouldn’t try the more delicate systems yet. But the main engine can handle various forms of raw energy.”
“It ran inefficient at first,” the chief said. “Lots of by-product, mostly curd. But we’ve been working on that, refining the core fission reaction, which is triggered by the lemonuclear charge spark. We added a zest regulator, a heat reclamation vessel, lemon plasma condenser…”
I held up a hand. “Hold on, Chief. You’re saying this device is ready now?”
“And…you can use our cargo, the lemons, as fuel?”
“A superfuel actually, Captain,” the junior engineer said. “And the conductor will let us burn our main engines beyond capacity without danger of overload, so we can climb back into orbit. Once there, it should also allow us to exceed our maximum speeds, though I wouldn’t recommend doing that for long. The hull won’t be able to take it.”
“Unless we augment the shields.”
“We haven’t done those calculations, Chief.”
“We’ll fall out of approved orbital range within the hour,” the first officer said. “And we’ll have to land the ship in the next three.”
The chief nodded. “That should be enough time for us to connect the main engine to the LNC—the Lemonuclear Conductor, that is.”
“I want to call it the LeNC.”
“We can discuss it later, Junior.”
“Captain, we have another confession to make,” the junior engineer said, somberly lowering her tail. “We used up all the lemons in the extra barrel you bought. We’ll need to use between five to ten lemons from one of the other barrels.”
My first officer huffed out a breath. “That’s all?”
“That’s enough,” I said. “They’ve done a count by now. If we use any of the lemons from those twelve barrels, they’ll know. It will likely be construed as ‘purposeful spoilage or corruption of product.’ If we’re lucky, they’ll renege on the deal, and chase us out of the system. But I have a feeling that they won’t let us leave without their lemons.”
“Curious,” the chief said. “The humans haven’t yet discovered lemonucleation.”
“But I’ll wager you all that the Narebunk have,” the junior engineer said. “It’s got to be the reason they’re after lemons.”
My first officer shook her head. “But why? They never leave their system. What else would they need so much power for if not for operating their ships? The planet, the system, has plenty of resources if power is what they need.”
“Maybe there’s even more to these lemons than what you two geniuses have discovered.” I smiled at my engineers.
“If there are any more wonders contained within the lemon,” the chief said, “beyond what we have discovered, well, the thought leaves me speechless.”
The junior engineer chuckled. “Now that is a wonder.”
“If there are any more mysteries for us to solve about our cargo,” I said, “we’ll solve them after we’re safely outside of the system, preferably back at the home station.”
“Then, we have permission to proceed?” the chief asked.
I nodded to my engineers and turned to my first officer. “Wake the telepaths. We need to let the crew know what the plan is without letting the Narebunk know.”
I glanced at the scrolling display of warnings at my station.
The hundred-and-fourteenth warning that we were in danger of violating planetary law by landing our ship appeared and scrolled up. Below it was repeated the list of offenses we had already incurred, and the penalties, ranging from fees to service to imprisonment.
On the display to the left, I monitored the three planetary authority ships that were “escorting” the Tritonia as she fell toward the planet. The friction of the planet’s atmosphere against the ship’s shields sparked and flared.
I glanced up at the pilot and navigator. They were silent as they worked to keep the ship in the air just a bit longer.
In my mind, I heard the voice of the telepath assigned to keep me informed of the engineers’ progress.
We didn’t have enough shield modules to hide all of the work we had been doing to modify the ship. I only hoped that the Narebunk did not realize what we were doing. I hoped that they thought us too primitive and unintelligent to have discovered what we could do with the lemons in our possession.
Ready, Captain. Ready, crew. Countdown from thirty. Twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven…
I took a breath.
While the rest of the crew did their assigned tasks to ensure the optimal operation of the experimental device on which all their lives depended, I did my most despised task.
I monitored the communications from the planet. The warnings, the tickets, the charges. I had never heard of the Narebunk pursuing anyone outside of their system. Their ships were fast. So if someone got away from them, they let them go.
I wondered if they would let us go.
We had their lemons.
But anyone could bring them lemons.
It was a long trip, but not a dangerous one.
They could just hire another merchant.
So they could let us go.
That was my logic. And I hoped it was theirs as well.
But it would all be moot if our new Lemonuclear Conductor didn’t work as we hoped.
As captain, I should have been responsible. As the fool captain, who endangered my entire crew for a deal that I should have known was suspect from the beginning, I should have now been sensible. I should have continued monitoring the Narebunk’s reactions to our actions.
But instead, I brought up the engineering display. The device was activated. Some process called “sub-atomic fermentation” was in progress. The lemonuclear charge spark generator readout simply stated “LNC charge potential…rising.” When the word “rising” changed to “ready,” the readout indicated that fission was being initiated.
Within minutes a bright golden glow surrounded the ship.
“Main engines at two hundred percent,” the pilot said. “Three hundred. Initiating ventral thrusters.”
The ship rattled.
An alarm began to sound.
“They’re firing at us,” my first officer said. “As expected.”
She was adjusting the ship’s outer shields. Two missiles struck the ship from different sides. I saw it on my display. I did not feel it.
The ship was already rattling. The thrusters were rumbling.
We were rising.
I released a breath, and we were suddenly above the planet’s atmosphere.
The rattling and the rumbling calmed.
But the alarms were still sounding.
“They’re in pursuit,” the pilot said. “Adjusting course.”
She had already plotted the shortest course out of the system.
The ship seemed to slow smoothly and slightly as the pilot shifted its course. That bright golden glow was all the more vibrant against the indigo darkness of space.
The Tritonia sailed past the three planetary authority ships that now rose out of the atmosphere.
We picked up speed. I watched the display with satisfaction as we moved farther and farther away from the planet. As the authority ships dropped farther away from us. The ships and the planet vanished from the display. I had to zoom out to see them.
We were out of the system.
We were heading back towards Vahniare Station.
At the speed we were going, we would reach it within…half a day.
I glanced up at the pilot.
We were going too fast. We were bound to crash into something.
I brought up hull integrity readings. They were fine.
We were still sailing.
We could never set plasma trail in the Narebunk system again. And we wouldn’t be retiring rich any time soon after all.
But as the scent of lemons suffused the bridge, as I watched the crew work at their stations, and as I sensed their cautious relief and restrained triumph through the telepath, I smiled.
And then an alarm sounded.
“Reducing speed!” the pilot cried.
The ship jerked as we suddenly slowed, then came to a stop.
The bridge’s main display blinked to show engineering. The chief was waving a wisp of smoke away from his face.
“She’s burned out!” the chief said. “Sorry, crew. It couldn’t be helped. Nobody’s fault. The reactor is full of curd!”
From somewhere off screen, I heard my junior engineer’s voice yell out, “We’ll rebuild it!”
My first officer rose from her seat. “I’ll go walk the decks.”
“All hands,” I said, rubbing the ridges on the back of my neck. “At ease.”
The pilot swiveled in her chair and looked at me. “For now,” she said, with a hesitant smile.
I smiled back.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel