Terequale Bitty went below decks to check on a coolant cycling pipe that was heating the cargo hold above nominal, and the pipe exploded and scalded her to death and half the cargo was ruined anyway. Kol the executive officer heard the explosion, shut everything down, and wrestled the dead woman through microgravity into the medical chamber, not that it did any good.
The chamber pulled the shrapnel from Terequale Bitty's body and replaced all the tissue, but it was performing cosmetic surgery on a corpse. When it jump-started her nervous system, she took one big breath and held it, not metabolizing, not even passing it from her air bladder into the lung. No matter what Kol did to try and make Terequale Bitty not be dead, the ornery sysadmin would not finish that breath. Kol had to go in with a post-nasal probe and drain the air bladder manually so she'd stop looking bloated.
Terequale Bitty was gone; and for what? For a few crates of fake caviar. For stuff.
That's the first kind of cargo: physical goods, ordinary stuff. Sour Candy mostly transported contraband, but it's all the same, made of atoms, low-hassle and absolutely wonderful to work with. You can put atoms into a refrigerated crate or magnetic containment, and bring them to someone who'll be glad to take them off your hands. Physical goods are the least dangerous of the four kinds of cargo, but they were dangerous enough to get Terequale Bitty killed.
"I should have been the one to check that alert," said the Captain. That was the gist of what she probably said. The Captain was facing away from Kol, hurriedly grooming herself in the bathroom mirror. She was also brewing tea in her mouth, so the only way to decipher her mumbling was to know, as Kol did, what the Captain would say in any given situation.
Seeing other people drink made Kol thirsty; he unholstered his water bottle and took a long slurp. "We can't go around retroactively taking bullets for each other," he said. "If Terequale Bitty had woken you up and told you to go check a random alert, you'd be dead instead of her. How would that help anyone?" Kol held the Captain's vinyl jacket between his delicately scaled egenu fingers, and the rasme thau woman shrugged her thick muscular arms backward into the sleeves.
The Captain's cranial fronds came to life as the tisane seeped into her bloodstream. "You'll need to be the sysadmin again," she said, presumably. "Just for a while, until we find someone else." She swallowed her tisane, spat the leaves into the sink, and wiped her mouth. "I don't think this crew needs a full-time executive officer, anyway."
"They need a full-time XO because their captain is batshit insane," said Kol.
Kol had spent his childhood with his head wrapped in 3-goggles, watching egenu video epics about roguish smuggler captains and their eclectic multi-ethnic crews, writing fan mail to the actors et cetera. These epics were the main cultural export of Kol's home planet, and their sequels still ensured a steady stream of recruits into the ships that patrolled the complicated border between the Fist of Joy and the Terran Extension.
The Captain had spent her childhood watching bad native-language dubs of those same epics, except the implication that all this stuff was fiction had been lost in translation, or cut so the broadcaster could squeeze in another commercial. When she came of age, the Captain (probably not her birth name) had bought Sour Candy with Mommy's money, hired a crew, and declared herself a smuggler.
And somehow, amazingly, not gotten killed. Eight kiloshifts of combat zones and hazardous materials. Hundreds of surly senders and uncooperative recipients waving invoices and weapons and long-expired coupons, and no crew had gotten killed. Until now.
The Captain solemnly punched Kol in the arm, sending his scales rippling. "Kol," she said, "I need you now more than ever. The crew needs you." Her hand trembled with the shock of unaccustomed loss.
"Yes, ma'am," said Kol.
Suppose that the system administrator on Nightside got killed. This would never happen, barring a contract dispute with the actor, but any fan instinctively knew how Captain Mene would react. He'd grab one of his officers in a wrestling hold and say something corny like "I need you now more than ever." This would mean double shifts for a while, and they'd close out the episode with wry smiles and optimism.
This was the best job Kol had ever had, even counting legit gigs. Most smuggling bosses took sixty percent of the profits and let the crew fight over the rest; the Captain insisted on equal shares. The Captain was also too small to try any Captain Mene wrestling holds on her crew. But Captain Mene's hand wouldn't be trembling right now.
The Captain addressed her crew from the center of Sour Candy's minuscule bridge. "We will be returning Terequale Bitty's body to Quennet," she said, "so that her family can perform the funerary rites."
Oh, shit. Kol flinched, standing next to the Captain in what he'd thought would be a pro forma show of support. The other two living crew members started shouting.
"Whoa, whoa," said Kol, recovering quickly. "Calm down. One at a time. Yip-Goru?"
"We just came from Quennet," said the rre navigator from inside thon's metamaterial suit. "Twenty shifts out."
"And we will return," said the Captain.
"We barely escaped last time," said Mr Arun Sliver, the human expert in negotiations and (when those failed) munitions. "We had to hide in the hold and pretend to be Terequale Bitty's slaves."
"I will not leave a man behind," said the Captain. "Or in this case, leave a woman's body unprotected by the rites of her native religion."
"Cap, c'mon," said Yip-Goru. "We've got a hold full of Terran food and quenny caviar. Half full, after the accident. We go back to Quennet without unloading, we're bankrupt."
The Captain pulled up a 3-map showing Sour Candy's current location, and drew her finger between the ship and a rest-stop icon. "Patrolwoman Elaine Bliskop Memorial Space Station," she said. "Six shifts away. We unload the cargo, hire a temporary sysadmin, back to Quennet."
"It won't be worth much, so close to quenny space," said Mr Arun Sliver.
"Damn it!" said the Captain, plunging a fist harmlessly through the 3-map. "Have you already forgotten how many times Terequale Bitty saved the lives of this entire crew?"
"Three or four, I guess," said Yip-Goru. "Who's counting? Why should we risk our vocalizers for a dead body?"
"I have a sacred obligation," the Captain snarled, "to respect the religious beliefs of every member of my crew."
"Well, my religious beliefs—" said Mr Arun Sliver, but Kol cut him off with a gesture.
"Ma'am, a word?" he whispered to the Captain. They walked a fraction of a metre to Terequale Bitty's abandoned 2-station, and Yip-Goru and Mr Arun Sliver pretended not to hear what they were saying.
"Captain, I think the crew are just confused," he said. "I never thought of Terequale Bitty as being especially religious. Why respect her traditions more than she did?"
"She was a Cametrean," the Captain whispered. "Quite devout. She never gave you those . . . pamphlets? The fake travel brochures?"
"Oh, well, she wouldn't have, ma'am," said Kol. "Cametreans recruit from the top down."
Captain Mene, of needing-you-now-more-then-ever fame, fancied himself a student of Galactic religions, and held a deep respect for each of the thousands of ways in which the cosmos came to know itself. Growing up, Kol had understood this as the harmless eccentricity of a fictional character, but the dubs the Captain had seen treated his attitude as some kind of virtue. And so.
"We don't have a choice in this," said Captain. "Returning the body is the right thing to do."
"Yes'm." Argument was useless. Kol walked back into the center of the bridge and bowed his scaly head, as he always did when synthesizing his Captain's ideals with his own hard-won pragmatism.
"The Captain's orders," he said. "Yip-Goru, set the course. The station, then Quennet, where in accordance with the beautiful Cametrean funerary rites. . . ." He looked at the Captain, clueless.
"The family of the deceased will ceremonially eat the preserved corpse."
Silence held the cramped bridge. Finally Yip-Goru spoke up.
"Preserved," thon said, "in what?"
"The crate of lemon pickle should do nicely," said Kol.
"Well, there goes the bloody lemon pickle," said Mr Arun Sliver.
The second kind of cargo is junk.
Junk is physical stuff, but the business model is totally different. Kol had learned the hard way that nobody wants junk; else it wouldn't be junk. The client with junk pays you to take it off his hands. Junk comes with specific disposal instructions; if you could just drop it into a star, the client would have done that himself.
A single shipping operation doesn't normally handle both goods and junk. Unless that operation is Sour Candy Shipping Ltd., with its batshit-insane captain and its hunk-of-junk dead sysadmin. Packed in salt and citric acid, on her way back home.
Oh, there was also the war. Yes, wars are important to smugglers, but background, local colour, yeah? Nobody takes up water-yachting because they're super interested in the weather. A sudden re-emergence of hostilities between the Extension and the Fist of Joy is the same type of problem as the sudden death of your sysadmin. Just another impersonal glob of spit in your face, the universe showing what it thinks of you.
Space stations are neutral territory by treaty, but in real life, Elaine Bliskop was swarming with humans and their Extension lackeys. On his way to the engineers' bar, Kol got a lot of hostile glances and was hassled more than once for his commercial papers. Probably should have delegated Mr Arun Sliver to make the hiring decision. Only there was no decision, because every stray engineer on the station had been drafted into the Extension navy except one: a human named Mrs James Chen, an old drunk broad who was obviously an Extension spy. This was very bad, but coming back with no new crew would also be very bad.
"Seventy-two, too old to fight, bad leg besides!" Mrs James Chen said cheerfully, like it was a new war slogan. "But I'll get your engines running at one-thirty of rating!"
"Our engines already run at one-thirty rating," said Kol. "I learned that trick when I was an apprentice. I need someone who'll do the preventive maintenance so we can run at one-thirty without blowing a coolant pipe."
Mrs James Chen looked ostentatiously down the length of the empty bar, cradling her beer mug in both hands. "Well," she said, "ya got me."
"You're hired," said Kol. Spies read from a script, same as the Captain. Kol would use Mrs James Chen to deal with the Terequale Bitty situation, and the next time Sour Candy ran the wrong kind of contraband into Fist of Joy territory, then would come the betrayal. Mrs James Chen would tip her hand, try something stupid, and Kol would help her out an airlock. Or whatever, no need to be all dramatic about it.
"Quennet," said the Captain, walking around a detailed 3-map. "Planet of mystery!"
"Planet we were just at," muttered Yip-Goru.
"Planet of fucking mystery!" said Kol.
"The military buildup complicates things," said the Captain. "Quennet is right on the border. The quenny get pushed around a lot. First by the Fist of Joy, then by the Extension. Every time someone pushes, there's a backlash and the Cametreans consolidate power. Quennet withdraws, becomes more isolationist. It gets harder to do business."
"Why did Terequale Bitty leave Quennet?" called out Mr Arun Sliver.
"Hey!" said Kol.
"Let him speak," said the Captain, as she always said, every single time. This one came from Wat and the Warriors. Always with the letting people speak.
"The Cametreans are isolationists," said Mr Arun Sliver. "Space travel is a sin. So why did Terequale Bitty leave home? Sounds a bit of a cafeteria Cametrean. Someone who doesn't much care about the forms and the rituals."
"Who's Terequale Bitty?" said Mrs James Chen, slouched uncomfortably in Terequale Bitty's quenny-shaped chair, still drunk or pretending to be.
"Trading partner," Kol lied. He was pretty sure Mrs James Chen knew exactly who she was replacing, but there was no point in volunteering information. "A real rough customer."
The Captain was happy to let Mr Arun Sliver speak but she felt no need to respond to his question. She made a sweeping gesture and thousands of holographic drones and battleships, red and green, swarmed above the 3-map of Quennet.
"This will be a delicate operation," she said. "Both the Extension and the Fist of Joy have blockaded the planet. We take up a spiral orbit and get lost in the noise. If the Fist does notice us, you three go down in the hold, and Kol and I will pretend to be incompetent civilian volunteers. If the Extension spots us, Kol and I go into the hold, and Mr Arun Sliver does his Bertie Wooster routine."
"Dreadful sorry, separated from our package tour, brave lads, keep up the fight," said Mr Arun Sliver. "That sort of wheeze, yeah?"
"Precisely. In this way we'll drop through the blockade. I'll contact our distributor planetside; Mr Arun Sliver will act as backup. We'll deliver the merchandise and split."
"What's the 'merchandise'?" said Mrs James Chen.
"Hard drugs," said Kol.
"Thank you, Kol," said the Captain, who disliked having to lie.
The third kind of cargo is information. Do not carry this. Information couriers look glamorous because they don't live long enough for their clothes to go out of style. Something will go wrong. The sender will suspect you of keeping secret copies for resale. The recipient will accuse you of modifying the message in transit. The authorities will show up, and you won't be able to prove you don't have whatever world-cracking secrets they're looking for.
Worst of all, information leaks.
"I have never been so embarrassed," said the Captain, who probably hadn't. "Blockade runs are supposed to be easy. It's like they knew exactly where we were!" She looked frantically around her office as though the culprit were some piece of decor.
"We're fine," said Kol, settling into the Captain's pleather desk chair. "They didn't find anything. But they did know where we were, because Mrs James Chen is an Extension spy."
"Really? How do you know?"
"Nothing about her story holds up. Like, her name. 'Mrs James Chen.' Female honorific, male name. She says it's her late husband's name. Her real name is 'Roberta,' but she doesn't use it. Her husband dies, so she steals his name? Who is she fooling? Did she not know there was another human on this crew? God, they always think they're smarter than you!"
The Captain leaned into the porthole above her desk and took in the green planet Quennet and the space above it, twinkling with the massed military might of the galaxy's two great powers.
"I never heard of a female James," said the Captain, "so I asked Mr Arun Sliver about this. He says the husband thing is archaic, but it does happen. It's very slim evidence. I think we should give her another chance." Suspected spies always got another chance on Nightside; of course they'd get one on Sour Candy.
"I don't get why she's playing for such small stakes," said Kol. "I hired her on the implicit understanding that she'd save the spy shit for Fist of Joy space. What's so important about this blockade?"
"Let me run this idea by you," said the Captain. "Mrs James Chen would like to acquire the corpse of a member of a notoriously isolationist species, which we're keeping in a crate of lemon pickle. Dissect it. Bioweapons research or something."
"Which would be an opportunity for us," said Kol. "We wouldn't need to deliver the body at all. We could sell it to the Extension and get on their good side for once."
"Absolutely not," said the Captain.
"Or, here's another idea. We can eat Terequale Bitty ourselves."
The Captain gagged. "Which of these is the ridiculous alternative you put in to make the other one look good by comparison?" she said. "Because that's the single most inappropriate thing I've ever heard you say."
"No, you're putting on a show for me, like you do for the crew. Showing off your sense of honour. I don't question that sense of honour, because against all the rules of the universe I'm aware of, it's kept us alive and solvent for eight kiloshifts. But I do question the results we'll get out of this operation."
The Captain turned away from the porthole. "You think we'll fail."
"I'll never take that bet," said Kol. "You've beaten the odds a hundred times, and you'll do it again. Somehow we'll run this blockade despite having a spy on board, and without any quenny crew to help us, we'll locate the xenophobic relatives of a dead woman whose real name we don't know.
"But what happens when we succeed? Terequale Bitty was a heretic! She disowned herself when she left Quennet. You think her folks will want to eat her now? They'll think she deserves the Cametrean rites? Is this still worth it to you?"
"We have to try."
"I agree, but here's a different way of trying. We don't need to locate Terequale Bitty's family, because we are her family. We took her in after her birth family cut her off. We didn't ask questions about religion or politics. We accepted her, ma'am, and we were all she had. All she has. I know you can find Terequale Bitty's parents, but if anyone's actually going to eat her, it's us."
"This is your official recommendation?"
"On the record."
"So, we eat Terequale Bitty, and then we die of toxic shock."
"These cannibal rites always have an out," said Kol, "like, if the body is poisoned or radioactive. The general rule is that you eat what you can. For us, that means the roe. God knows we've exported enough quenny roe as caviar. And we can eat the brain, as long as we cook it."
"Really? The brain?"
"I've eaten animal brains, from Bex, and Earth. A brain is a brain." Kol was cheating a little here—one of Captain Mene's popular lines was "A man is a man."
"Brain and roe," said the Captain. "We're the family. Let's do it."
Except. When Terequale Bitty's four colleagues gathered in the hold and ceremonially cut open her skull, they found a crystal sheath encasing her brain and upper nervous system. The end point for hundreds of threadlike wires embedded in Terequale Bitty's sensory centers. A recorder.
"Oh, shit," said Mr Arun Sliver. He dropped the bottle of oil he was going to fry the brain in, and it bounced and rolled around the hold. "How long has that been there?"
The Captain put her bloodstained laser cutter down on the crate of lemon pickle, and wiped her eyes. "Kol," she said, "I would very much like to know why you keep hiring spies as system administrators."
"Ma'am, I—I had absolutely no idea." Kol took an anxious swig from his water bottle.
"And now we know why a Cametrean would leave her home planet," said Mr Arun Sliver.
"She's not a spy!" said Kol. "Who was she spying on? Why would they give a spy this elaborate rig? This is for building VR environments. Why monitor everything she sees and tastes?"
"It's a repressive theocracy," said Yip-Goru. "That's kind of their thing."
There was a coughing sound. The kind of sound a human would make. Kol pivoted from Terequale Bitty's corpse towards Mr Arun Sliver, but he hadn't made the sound. He was pointing his microwave pistol at the other human in the hold. The other human.
"Oh, hi," said the Captain.
Mrs James Chen stepped off the ladder and made the coughing sound again.
"I think it's time we stopped keeping secrets from each other," she said.
Good news was, this wasn't the betrayal; it was the recruitment turn.
"As you know," said Mrs James Chen, "my predecessor in this job made detailed recordings of you, starting from her first shift." The entire crew was crowded onto the bridge. "Terequale Bitty compressed these recordings and streamed them back to Quennet using a second transmitter, which, as your system administrator, she was ideally positioned to conceal from you.
"As a representative of the Navy of the Terran Extension, I'd like to show you what happened to all that footage. With the Captain's permission?"
The Captain nodded.
Every 2-station showed a flat projection: the stabilized subjective view from Terequale Bitty's eyes as she climbed the ladder up to the bridge deck. She cracked open the hatch. Everyone turned to face the rear of the bridge, as if expecting Terequale Bitty, or her ghost, to climb out the hatch.
"What's the scratchy noise?" said Yip-Goru.
"Music," said the Captain, her face taut and stern.
"She had music running in her head the whole time?"
"It's incidental music."
The footage had been dubbed into Mirret, Terequale Bitty's native language. Mrs James Chen provided subtitles in Trade Standard D:
Ten-Minute, if you can take your mouth off that bottle long enough to program a course to the rendezvous point, there might be a little left for Admiral Golelli when we get there.
Fuck Admiral Golelli and fuck your mother. And fuck you.
[THE CAPTAIN notices TEREQUALE BITTY, or WHATEVER SHE'S CALLED IN THIS THING.]
Hey, Super-Squishy, how's the firing context on the forward weapons array?
Fixed it with a number six ratchet.
[What the hell, a FIRING CONTEXT is software, you can't set it with a RATCHET.]
Then strap your ass down and we'll go to lightspeed.
Mrs James Chen paused the recording. "'Super-squishy' is a quenny insult," she said. "Kind of insult that starts fights."
"We know," said Mr Arun Sliver. "So what in Santa Claus is this?"
"A quenny broadcast 3-program," said the Captain through tight lips. "Extension Navy. A workplace comedy. As the name implies, the five of us are . . . were . . . officers in the Extension navy. I carry the dubious distinction of 'kookiest captain in the fleet.'"
"Heh, we're military?" said Mr Arun Sliver. "Gosh."
"Hey, Cap," said Yip-Goru, "where's our nice red uniforms?"
"Gentlemen, shut up," said the Captain. "I'm declaring an outrage." She paused for effect. "This is an outrage."
"The Cametreans have been using your pissant smuggling operation as cheap raw material for anti-Extension propaganda," said Mrs James Chen. "To blunt the population's interest in offworld affairs. Make us a laughingstock. Keep the quenny at risk of Fist-of-Joy domination.
"Terequale Bitty was worth a lot to us, but we couldn't get to her, and now she's dead. I'm here to see if you want something good to come out of her death."
"Cap, is this shit for real?" said Yip-Goru. "All we have is some foreign gibberish and this young lady's subtitles."
"It's legit," said the Captain. She was fast-forwarding through the video broadcast on her own 2-station. "Kol got this off the local comm satellites before the Extension navy—the actual Extension navy—jammed them."
"I thought we knew her," said Kol. "I hired her."
"Don't the quenny find it strange that this sitcom has real rre and humans and egenu?" said Yip-Goru.
"Makeup, digital effects," said Mr Arun Sliver. "You can make anyone look like anyone else. A man is a man."
"Arun," said Mrs James Chen, using the familiar register. "Yip-Goru. I know you two don't care much for the Extension. But I'm guessing the Captain and Kol hate the Fist of Joy about the same amount. And perhaps you care about your good names.
"This is an opportunity. We can make our own video. The blockade will integrate it into their propaganda rotation. If we could just get Yip-Goru to say a few words in character."
"Why me?" said Yip-Goru.
"You are the closest thing Extension Navy has to a sympathetic alien character," said Mrs James Chen. "You can make the video we wanted Terequale Bitty to make. Kol is a drunk, the Captain's an incompetent windbag. . . ."
"It's water!" said Kol. "Egenu need water! I can't go to the kitchen twenty times a shift. This show is racist."
"Yes, yes," said Mrs James Chen. "I know the truth, we all know the truth. I'm giving you a chance to let your audience know the truth."
"Quick question, Mrs James Chen: is Extension Navy legitimately popular on Quennet?" The Captain twitched a finger and played a bit of video at normal speed: Terequale Bitty's point-of-view stumbling down the exit corridor of a space station, carrying an unconscious Yip-Goru in her arms, pursued by Extension customs agents. "Or is it played to captive audiences, on military bases and in waiting rooms?" She sped the video back up to a blur. Terequale Bitty was always present, but never in shot. Always a surrogate for the audience.
"It cleans up with the student demographics," said Mrs James Chen. "We have no idea why; the whole point of the show is that nobody respects the quenny. But they do watch it, and we can use that."
"Captain, you can't be seriously . . . ," said Kol.
"Kol," said the Captain carefully, "stop showing off your bruise and help me out. Watch this video through the eyes of a space-epic fan." Episodes on the Captain's 2-screen were flashing by in seconds: Terequale Bitty on the bridge, in the engine room, in the cargo hold. "Do you see what I see? Do you notice something conspicuously missing?"
"Our consent?" said Kol. "Our seemingly genuine friendship with Terequale Bitty?"
The Captain stopped her playback. "We will produce a video," she told Mrs James Chen. "We will produce our own video, not whatever the Extension scripted for Yip-Goru. You will broadcast it using . . . however you do that sort of thing."
"Make the video," said Mrs James Chen, "and we'll see."
"Hi. This is the cargo ship Sour Candy, and I am her Captain. It is a real, civilian, spaceship, not a broadcast set, and I'm an alien, not a quenny in makeup. This is my private office."
The Captain was wearing a shiny purple dress. It had been fashionable once, but not within the Captain's lifetime. Probably an heirloom, stored in a locker as a reminder of her previous life. Kol had never seen the Captain wear anything but the grey jumpsuit and the black vinyl jacket.
"I apologize if the camera work is shakier than what you're used to," said the Captain. She was speaking Mirret, memorized phonetically. "Our regular camerawoman, Terequale Bitty, passed away in an accident a few shifts ago. It was a senseless death, and among other things, I'm afraid it means the end of the series.
"I won't pretend we haven't had our differences with the broadcaster, but I'm sure you agree that Terequale Bitty's character was the moral center of the show. She is irreplaceable. It doesn't make sense to go on without her."
Mr Arun Sliver was running the 3-camera, a heavy red pile of milspec designed for human hands and provided by Mrs James Chen. Kol and Yip-Goru flanked the Captain, hands folded, like at a funeral.
"I want to show you something before we sign off. Something the broadcaster kept cutting out of the show." The Captain waved Mr Arun Sliver forward, towards the large porthole above her desk. Mr Arun Sliver manoeuvred the camera into the recessed glass of the porthole. A stark green crescent filled the viewfinder.
"This is the establishing shot," said the Captain. "It sets the scene, tells you where we are in space. Right now, we're in orbit around a planet. It's your planet. This is Quennet. This is you."
"Problem with the focal length," said Mr Arun Sliver.
"Switch to a 2-shot," said the Captain, in Trade Standard D.
"Not sure how."
The Captain reached into the recessed porthole and blocked one lens of the camera with three thick fingers. On the viewfinder, Quennet became a thin green blur and then slowly came back into focus.
"Sour Candy is an old ship," said the Captain. "It's ugly, it's falling apart. There's a lot of space for cargo and not much for people. But when it gets too much to bear, we can just look out a porthole and we're surrounded by this stark, majestic beauty. We all look out the porthole to recharge. Terequale Bitty looked out all the time, but the broadcaster cut it out. I think you should ask yourself why your government systematically cut the most striking footage produced for this show.
"Listen. In this line of work, we say there are four kinds of cargo. There's goods to be delivered, junk to be disposed of, information to be transmitted. And there's the cargo you don't need to deliver, because it's addressed to you. The experience of being out here in the middle of all this beauty. That's the most valuable cargo of all.
"People of Quennet, you deserve to see everything Terequale Bitty saw. You deserve to see your own beautiful planet from above. You deserve to come out here, share your work and your culture with the rest of the universe, and then come back home. Think about this."
Mrs James Chen the Extension spy stepped out of the shadows and slowly, repeatedly clapped her hands together.
"Nice speech," she said.
"Mrs James Chen," said the Captain. "You're fired. Take this video back to your handlers."
"With pleasure." The spy delivered a crisp Extension-style salute. "It's been an honour serving with you."
"Heh, you think I'm crazy," the Captain told Kol after Mrs James Chen had left and the others had gone below. She parodied the spy's salute. "The hell was that? Military shitweed."
"The fourth kind of cargo is baggage," said Kol.
"It's not valuable. It doesn't 'come addressed to you.' It's the stuff you can't get rid of. It's whatever you're running away from. So that you end up living in a metal deathtrap, smuggling benzene to the planet where they get high on benzene."
The Captain made a pensive face. "Yeah, well," she said. "I think Sour Candy has given the quenny enough depressing news for one shift. Let's end the show on a positive note."
Light spiked through the porthole above the Captain's desk. The ship's radiation alert went off. The blockade was heating up.
"Time to leave," said Kol, and pulled the drapes. "Sit out the war in a forest."
"Oh, but now they're distracted!" said the Captain. She rubbed stubby hands together. "Now we can run the blockade. We'll drop off the body, find some roe donors to cover our expenses."
"We're back down to—okay, sure! Why the hell not? What's the worst that can happen? Let's go."
The Captain punched Kol in the arm again. "Kol, you are a lousy XO," she said. "But I seem to remember you used to be a pretty good sysadmin."
Down on Quennet, near a beach, there's a big house bought with government money. An old couple lives there, retired; they do some gardening, watch a lot of broadcast video. Once in a while a government priest comes down from the city and spends an afternoon. There are bedrooms for the kids and their families, when they come to visit; and a little room set aside for Terequale Bitty, the kid who left home and never came back.
Terequale Bitty just came back. She landed with a shockwave that uprooted the garden and scared her mother half to death. She came back in a box with her skull cut open, but that's more than the government priest said would ever come back. It's her. It really is her.
She didn't want to come back. She hated it here. But here she is.