“On your feet, pirate!”
Jay, lying on the metal plank that constituted his bunk in the small cell, turned his head for a moment to look at the man who had barked the order. Unimpressed, he turned back and continued to study the ceiling, his hands cuffed together in front of him.
“Dammit! I said, on your feet!” Lieutenant Garrett, standing at the open door in his dark blue Protectorate uniform, was in a foul mood. He had managed to be assigned to interrogate the prisoner only after some unseemly begging of Captain Sykes in front of the bridge crew. His plans had been badly interrupted by this theft and now the thief was refusing to show him the proper respect.
“You know?” Said Jay, without looking at him. “I think I forgot to leave instructions to water my plants. See, they’ve got no reason to go into my cabin so they probably won’t see them, which means they won’t think about it. Maybe, if I’m lucky, Lila will remember. Probably not, though. Which means more dead plants.”
“Get up! Now!”
“Which sucks, because that’s my third lot this year. Do you know how expensive plants are these days?”
In two strides, Garrett’s snarling face was over him. He hoisted Jay up in his by the collar of his dirty t-shirt and flung him up. Jay stumbled forward in his laceless brown boots.
“Alright, alright. Jeez. Try asking nicely,” he complained as he regained his balance.
The Lieutenant shoved him roughly out the door. “To your right. Door at the end.”
Jay rolled his eyes and sauntered casually down the hall. He was tall, boyishly handsome, with dark wavy hair that still looked good despite him not having had a shower in three days. He nodded at the Duty Sergeant, a small round man with thin glasses sitting at a terminal, who smiled at him then quickly pretended to be thoroughly engrossed in his work when he saw his Lieutenant’s expression.
The interrogation room was empty save for a table and two chairs.
“Sit,” said Garrett.
“Any coffee?” Asked Jay as he slumped down into his chair. “Actually, could I get a croissant as well? Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a fine french pastry, don’t you find?”
“Shut it.” Garrett, still standing, leaned on his hands across the table. He was older, with the anger of many years baked into the deep lines of his face. Bald, but with a ring of thick white hair that grabbed the back of his head like a large white mitt.
“We know you were on this Carrier,” he continued. “And we know you had access to one of the computers. Which computer?”
Jay stared at him but said nothing.
“Which computer, shithead?”
“This is going to get real hard real soon if you don’t answer.”
Jay’s expression turned to mock surprise. “Oh, sorry. You want me to answer?”
“Yes, I want you to answer!”
“It’s just that you told me to shut it. You say one thing, then you say something else. It’s hard to keep—”
The Lieutenant slammed his fist onto the metal desk with a loud metallic thud that reverberated around the room. Jay paused.
“You know,” he said, finally. “You seem tense.”
“Dammit, you little shit!” said the Lieutenant, an angry finger punctuating his words. “I don’t have time to deal with your wisecracks. This’ll go a lot easier on you if you’d just tell me what I need to hear.”
“Tell you what. You bring me the Captain and a coffee and I’ll talk to him. You can even skip the croissant. I’m a reasonable man.”
“Ha! I’m as high as it goes and that’s too high for the likes of you! I’ll ask you again: were you on the Officer’s deck?”
“See, if you were the Captain, I’d tell you. But you’re just a lowly Lieutenant, Lieutenant.”
“And yet, I’m all you got. Know what you get for hacking a Protectorate system?”
“Bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine?”
“Death, Jay. Death. But I can help. In fact, I’m about the only thing that can. Tell us what you got and where you got it and we’ll help you out. Say you were ‘co-operating’.”
“OK. Get me the Captain—“
“Tell ME, Jay. ME.”
“Wow, people get promoted fast around here. A minute ago I could swear you were just a Lieutenant.”
Garrett spun around and flung open the door of the interrogation room. “Sergeant!” He shouted. “Kill the recording.”
“B…but sir!” the high, timid voice floated faintly into the room.
“I said do it. Now!”
Doyle watched fearfully from his terminal as the Lieutenant slammed the door.
When Doyle opened the cell door an hour later, Jay was back on his metal bunk, clutching at his ribs with his eyes closed, moaning softly.
“Hey, brought you some ice,” he said, handing over a small pack.
Jay looked at him with his one good eye and nodded his thanks, then closed his eyes and placed the pack over his swollen face.
“Yeah, you know I’m sorry about that. ’S not right. But seems he has the Captain’s blessing. Nothing I can do, you know.”
“Well, there is something you could do,” sighed Jay.
“Let me talk to the Captain personally.”
“You know I can’t do that, Jay. Go above the Lieutenant’s head like that? I’d be in there with you. Why don’t you just tell Garrett what he wants to know?”
“Your Captain? He a good man?”
“Well, yeah. Served with him twice before, and requested this assignment when I heard he’d got the ship. He’s harsh and humourless, but I’ve never met a more honourable man.”
“So go and talk to him.”
“Look, I’ll tell him I’ll give him everything he wants. But it has to be him.”
“I don’t know, Jay.”
Jay turned again and met his gaze. “This is for your own good too.”
“Were you on the Officer’s deck?” The Lieutenant was standing over him, fist raised.
Jay, his cuffed hands lying limply on his lap, looked up. It was the fourth day of this. His face was bruised and bloody and there were cuts on his nose and the side of his brow of varying ages. He was tired.
“Alright,” he said, looking down, deflated. “Alright, I’ll tell you.”
“Finally.” Garrett lowered his fist, went to the door and ordered Doyle to start the recording again. He sat down across from Jay, arms folded.
“I’ll ask you again,” he said. “Were you on the Officer’s deck?”
Jay leaned forward and rested his chin on his chained fists. He looked searchingly at the Lieutenant with his one good eye. “No. We never made it to the Officer’s deck,” he said. “We didn’t get beyond the mess hall.”
An expression of satisfaction flashed across the Lieutenant’s face. “Alright. Good. So what did you take?”
Jay leaned back into his chair again.
“About this coffee.”
The next few days were marked by Lieutenant Garrett’s absence, which was a relief. His suspicions confirmed, all he had to do was not get killed by this brute before he got to see the Captain. Holding out wasn’t a problem—he’d dealt with worse than the Lieutenant—but it was nice to have a few days to rebuild his strength. Finally, on the third day, the door opened. Jay sighed and sat up. His ribs still ached, but the swelling in his eye had reduced enough that he could open them both.
“Listen, maybe we could come to a deal on the coffee—“
Captain Sykes was a walking wall of a man, with tidy grey hair and a stern countenance. Even Jay had to admit that his presence was intimidating, especially in the small confines of the cell.
“Doyle says you’ll only speak to me. So speak.”
“Wow, OK. Nice to meet you, Captain,” he said, jumping up and offering out his bound hand, which the Captain responded to by folding his arms and offering a look of disdain. Jay smiled and continued: “Listen, you really need to do something about your lodgings here.”
“I don’t have time for this.” The Captain turned to leave.
“OK, OK. I’ll tell you what you need to know. But not here.”
“As soon as I’m clear of your ship, I’ll send you a message with all of the information you need. And, believe me, you need this.”
“Free you? It would have to be seriously good information for me to even consider that.”
Jay looked seriously at the Captain. “It is, Captain.”
The Captain paused. Jay held his gaze.
“You are in no position to negotiate. Tell me what you know now and, if I like what I hear, I’ll put in a good word with the Security Forces. That’s probably as good as it gets.”
Jay shrugged and smiled. “Yeah, no. It’s not that I don’t trust you, Captain. I hear you’re a stand-up bloke. Doyle out there thinks you’re one of the best. It’s some of your people I don’t trust. I’d rather have the discussion from a distance, if you know what I mean.”
“You have about a week until we reach Verne Eight, then it’s out of my hands. Let Garrett know what you decide.”
The Captain turned to leave.
“A lot of bad things can happen out here,” said Jay quickly to his back. “Ships break down. Supplies get lost.” He paused. “Water becomes contaminated.”
The Captain froze as Jay said this, his bulky frame filling out the door. He glanced to his side for a moment as if he was about to say something, changed his mind, and walked out.
The next day, Jay was curled up facing the wall, trying to get some sleep under the harsh fluorescent light, when the cell door swished open.
“You’re going to ask me a bunch of dumb questions,” said Jay, without turning over. “I’m going to give a bunch of smart ass answers. You’ll leave frustrated and I’ll end up back here a little bit more bloody than when I left, so how about we just skip the whole charade and you leave me alone today. I won’t tell the Captain if you don’t.”
“He already knows,” said the Captain.
Jay spun around, barely keeping his balance, and inelegantly raised himself up to a standing position.
“Captain. Wasn’t expecting to see you again so quickly,” he noticed Garrett lurking behind him. “Lieutenant. Totally disappointed to see you again.”
“How do we get you clear?”
“Just need to get a message to my ship is all.”
The Captain considered this for a moment. Although warp ships could traverse great distances by warping space around them (the ships themselves actually remained stationary), communications were still limited by the physical laws set down by Einstein. The speed of light was still the universal speed limit and sending out a message now would take over three hundred years to reach the planet they had just left.
The standard approach would be to give a message to a ship going in the other direction. The Protectorate had come up with an elaborate message-sending system that involved all registered warp ships carrying encrypted messages backwards and forwards between planets, space stations, and way-stations. However, they would have to reach their destination first before the Warp Line was green lit for a return voyage and this was something that he knew Jay wouldn’t agree to. Besides, he sensed that the information Jay held was time-sensitive.
The other option was a warp beacon, which was fitted with a small warp drive and travelled along parallel Lines, but it was much slower than a ship and would still take over eight weeks to get back to the planet. Sykes wasn’t about to waste all of that time, not to mention one of his limited supply of beacons, on Jay.
“We’re in the middle of a warp sequence,” said that Captain. “The best I can offer is to let you go at the next way-station a few days away, where you’ll be our guest until we can get word to your friends.”
“A Protectorate way-station? Yeah, no. Don’t worry about my ship, we can contact them and it shouldn’t take more than a day for them to reach us.”
The Captain looked puzzled. “How?”
“Captain, may I speak with you a moment,” interrupted Garrett. Jay smiled at Garrett and waved his hands in a ‘be my guest’ gesture. The Captain and the Lieutenant stepped out of the cell.
“Once again, I very much object to this course of action,” whispered Garrett. “I suggest we leave him at the way-station where we can arrest him again if he refuses to co-operate. It’s bad enough that we’re releasing such a dangerous prisoner, but to release him to his own ship on the basis of nothing more than a promise is most irregular.”
“Irregular, but not without precedent,” said Sykes. “As Captain of this fleet, I have some latitude in how I deal with pirates, Lieutenant.”
He said ‘Lieutenant’ in a way that Garrett wisely took to mean that he should question his superior no further. “Very good, Sir,” he mumbled as they turned back inside.
“OK,” said Sykes. “How do you suggest we contact your ship?”
“Leave a message at the next waypoint that says: ‘Ali wanna cookie?’—” the Captain raised his eyebrow and Jay smiled and shrugged “—What? He likes cookies. Stop at the following waypoint and they’ll catch up.”
The Captain and the Lieutenant looked shocked. “You mean to say they’re travelling on this Line? That’s highly illegal, not to mention stupid and dangerous! What if we had stopped for some reason? What if our ship failed? If their bubble intersected with ours—”
“They’re very much aware of the dangers, Captain. Relax.” the Captain grimaced as Jay patted him jovially on the shoulder. “We’re good at this. We’ve been doing it a long time.”
“Good to have you back,” said Lila a few days later as she closed the air lock behind Jay. “You look like shit.”
“This?” Said Jay, indicating his eye. “Was a lot worse a few days ago.”
“Alright, Al, he’s on board,” said Lila into her wrist communicator.
There was a loud thunk that reverberated around the cargo bay as the ship detached from the Carrier.
“Did you remember to water my plants?”
“Funnily enough, I was a little more concerned with getting you back.”
“Dammit. I’ll bet they’re dead. That’s the third lot this year.”
“Hey,” said a voice on Lila’s wrist. “I’ve got Captain Sykes on comm. Wants to talk to Jay.”
Jay headed upstairs. Although he would never show his crew that he had been worried in any way, he was relieved to be back on the bridge of his ship. It was like putting on his favourite jacket. Sure, it was shabby, worn, and kind of ugly but it contained a reassuring nostalgia-tinged comfort that went way beyond the material it was made of.
“Good to have you back, Cap.”
“Hey, Al. How’s the ship? Any near misses while I was gone? Any moon-sized asteroids sneak up on you?”
“Jeez, you buzz an asteroid one time…” He turned back to the expansive control deck laid out in front of panoramic windows, he tapped a button on the comms screen. “You’re up.”
“Captain! Good to hear from you!” Said Jay brightly.
“Do you have what I need?”
“Aww, now I’m hurt. After all we’ve been through, no ‘hello?’ No ‘sorry for that dreadful business with the confinement and the beatings?’ No ‘let me buy you a drink sometime?’”
“We had a deal.”
“Yes, yes. We did. I may be a thief but I never lie. Unless that is also a lie,” He stopped and winked at Al, who smiled and shook his head. He let the silence hang for a moment before continuing: “So I’m looking here at a list of names here that you might want to see. Seems to me some sort of list of party invitees, in which case I’m sorry to say you’re not on it, Captain. I see that Lieutenant of yours is on it, though. Right at the top, no less. Huh. Perhaps it’s that gruff, intimidating exterior of yours that puts people off? I wouldn’t feel too bad though, I never get invited to these things either. Hmm, I hope these aren’t the final table placements. They have lowly privates seated next to ranking officers. That would never do—“
“Jay,” came the Captain’s voice.
“—I mean, I could be mistaken. I am but a lowly pirate who knows nothing about the machinations of Protectorate politics, so perhaps this list indicates something more sinister than my little pirating brain can imagine. Either way, I’ll leave it in your hands. Remember—it’s unbecoming of an officer to get upset just because he wasn’t invited to a party.” Jay nodded to Al, who tapped a button on the screen, sending the list across.
There was a long pause.
“What, that’s not enough? I mean, I guess it’s kinda embarrassing for you with the boys back at the club. Your ship being hacked by a lowly pirate and all. Hey, at least you’ve now got a chance of actually getting back to the club. Honestly though Captain, we ran out of time before the decryption finished. The best we got were the meal plans for the next month. Eat in your cabin a week Thursday is what I’d suggest. Oh, and that list, of course. Lucky for me, Garrett’s a dope.”
“Lucky for us both. Thank you, Jay.” The Captain said, and killed the signal.