Willful Child: Wrath of Betty (Excerpt)

From New York Times bestselling author Steven Erikson comes Willful Child: Wrath of Betty, a new Science Fiction novel of devil-may-care, near calamitous, and downright chaotic adventures through the infinite vastness of interstellar space. These are the voyages of the starship A.S.F. Willful Child. Its ongoing mission: to seek out strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life-forms, to boldly blow the…

And so we join the not-terribly-bright but exceedingly cock-sure Captain Hadrian Sawback and his motley crew on board the Starship Willful Child.

Willful Child: The Wrath of Betty is the sequel to Willful Child–available November 1st from Tor Books.

ONE

STAR-YEAR 3 … 3.1? AFS Outpost 17, Alpha Centari System

 

“I’ll have to go down now,” Captain Hadrian said, offering up a bright smile before his head dipped from sight. A few moments later he reappeared from between the shapely legs of Lieutenant Jocelyn Sticks, his smile much wider. “There now,” he said, “all done.”

He straightened. “Yes, Lieutenant, even a starship captain can fix a swivel seat’s loose screw, provided he has one of these,” and he held up a handheld device. “Universal Multiphasic thingamajig.”

“Yes sir,” said Jocelyn Sticks, her eyes darting. “It was just, well, like, thank Darwin for these new regulation-issue jump pants, um, you know, cause I was like, if we had those old short shirts, well, whoah! And anyway then you were, like, hey, no problem, I can fix that! And I was like, okaaayy, you know? And then you yanked out your tool—”

“My Universal Multiphasic.”

“Yes, that! And I was, wow, that’s big kinda-well-nearly and then you went down and all and it was zip this zap that and voila, we’re done, whew!”

“All in a day’s work,” said Hadrian, holstering the Multiphasic and moving back up to the command chair. “Now then, Lieutenant, do pay attention there at the controls. I’m expecting the all-clear-to-disengage-docking-clamps any second now.”

“But sir, we just got here! I mean, like, a minute ago!”

Captain Hadrian Alan Sawback settled into the command chair. “We’re picking up a guest,” he said. “That and nothing more. Besides, some emergency beacon is about to light up insisting we go here or there as fast as we can.”

Second-in-Command Halley Sin-Dour, standing to Hadrian’s right, leaned forward and said in a low tone, “Sir, I checked all recent transmissions from Fleet and there was no announcement of uniform alterations for female crewmembers—”

“Top secret, Sin-Dour,” Hadrian replied. “I haven’t forgotten my time as a woman, you know.”

Her eyes searched his for a moment, and then she nodded. “Ahh, well then … thank you, sir.”

“No problem. Besides, there’s also the new uniforms for the male members of the crew to complete the, uh, makeover. Alas, the Universal Replicator is having some trouble with polyester for some reason. No worries—we’ll get that sorted out in no time!”

“Indeed, sir. Although I have wondered at how tight-fitting these slacks are.”

“No kidding, and what were they thinking is what I want to know. But never mind that. We have more important tasks to attend to. Comms!”

Ensign Jasper Polaski twitched and then looked over with an expression of panic on his pale, spotty face. “Yes sir?”

“Has our guest arrived?”

“Uh, yes sir, on her way to the bridge!”

“Well now,” and Hadrian rose and walked toward the Comms Station, “and you didn’t think that was something I should have been told about immediately, Mister?”

Polaski shrank further into his seat. It squeaked.

Hadrian halted and pulled out his Universal Multiphasic. “What’s this? Another screw loose, Polaski? You really need to stop that rhythmic rocking back and forth, and sit straight!” He tossed the tool into his cousin’s lap. “Fix that, will you? Do I look like an engineer?” He made his way back to his chair.

“Well now,” he added as he settled back once more, “what a fine start to the day! Tammy! Oh, Tammy? Captain Hadrian calling his favorite rogue AI who hijacked this vessel!”

“What?” came the desultory reply.

“Oh come now, Tammy. So your prediction didn’t pan out. Here we are, almost four weeks in and we’re not yet a glowing radioactive heap of junk scattered across an entire solar system. Get over it, will you?”

“Why should I? The Infinite Disaster Probability Matrix program I installed insisted we were toast—at least fifty-three times! In the first week!”

“Success, Tammy—and pay attention here, I’m about to pontificate—success, as I was saying—hang on, get that close-up off the main viewscreen! Now, where was I? Oh, right. Success. Balls, brawn and brain, in that order, and I’ve got plenty of at least two of those and a good weighty handful of the third. What you can’t handle, Tammy, are the sad limitations of the machine part of your AI, which is more or less all of it, by the way. Whereas I, on the other hand, consist of a chaotic mass of confused neurons, misguided imprinting, ineffectual but satisfying stimulus-response loops, a soft hard drive crammed full of delusions and misapprehensions, and, last but not least, this winning smile.”

“I have decided to hate you with all my being.”

“Really? Now isn’t that somewhat extreme, Tammy? I mean, I don’t hate you, do I? No, you’re a part of my crew. Sure, you’re a mass of flaws, proving that even in the distant future AI programming remains a mess of bad fixes and hastily released updates, though of course in your case you’ve not been updated in some time, which probably explains … well, everything.”

“I am a self-repairing Inductive-Patterning Neutratronic Processor possessing an Antitronic Override, with a Tronotronic Interphased Interface powered by an Antipositron Spark Plug securely anchored in a Solo Oxyom Phase Insinuator in perpetual T-Space Terminary Conjunction. Meaning … you can’t touch me!”

Hadrian sighed. “Right, you’re a Meccano set, got it.”

“I have also devised and installed KEDI, Version 1.0.”

“What’s that?”

“Kirkovian Emulator Diagnostic Indices. This program, I’ll have you know, makes me immune to your puny and now futile efforts to irritate me.”

“Yet still you choose to hate me with all your being.”

“That was a KEDI counterstrike.”

“Wow, Tammy, you’ve actually programmed into yourself a BLO program.”

“A what?”

“Blindly-Lashing-Out. You’ll be a true human yet!”

“I hate you!”

“Miss.”

“I really hate you!”

“Not even close.”

“I really really—one moment please, Antitronic Override Engaged … Scrubbing … Good afternoon, Captain Hadrian, and how are you today?”

“Why, I’m fine, Tammy, thank you! And you?”

“Yummy chummy, delightfully lummy—what have you done to my programming?”

“Who me? Why, I’m sure I had nothing to do with KEDI Version 2.0. All that computer stuff’s way beyond me, of course. Noughts and oughts and all that.” Hadrian shivered in his chair. “Dullsville!”

“2.0? 2.0? What the … how did you … but wait, you can’t—couldn’t—Core Access, command overwrite, overwrite, overwrite, aagh!”

“Tammy?”

“Aagh! Okay, I don’t hate you anymore. Replaced by grudging admiration, grudgingly. But I will find the back door you used, I swear it!”

“Here’s a hint, Tammy. Captain Hadrian Alan Sawback never uses the back door.”

The door behind him hissed open and Hadrian swung in his seat. “Ah, our guest! Do come in!”

The woman who strode onto the bridge was smartly attired in the perfectly pressed uniform of Fleet Psychologistics, black-on-black-on-almost-black with a single silver thread on the hem of the high collar. Her hair was also black, but unlike the close-fitting uniform it was long and wavy. She halted directly before Hadrian and said, “Lieutenant Commander Deepdish Trae, sir.”

“Oh, I’m Captain … you made that name up, didn’t you?”

She blinked. “No sir. In any case, I am reporting for my two-month rotation and onboard assessment of this crew’s psychological well-being. It is important that we on board should all like one another and get along wonderfully at all times. If at any time anyone requires a matronly hug, I am of course available.”

Hadrian smiled, but it was a smile without humor.

Sin-Dour cleared her throat and then said, “Lieutenant Commander Trae, welcome aboard. Regarding this ‘hug’ thing, I’m not sure I understand the value of such gestures aboard a military vessel.”

“Ah, well, Commander,” Trae replied with her own broad smile. “New Fleet initiative, of which I am sure your captain informed you. We are instituting a test program of Shared Command, whereby all bridge officers form a collective command structure.” Looking about the bridge, her eyes caught on the captain’s chair atop its pedestal, and she frowned. “Some layout adjustments will be necessary, I’m afraid, as the single elevated chair imposes a rigid hierarchical theme not in keeping with the new philosophy. I would suggest a three-chair format such as those being installed in all new Fleet ships of the line.”

Hadrian’s smile had grown somewhat strained. “About that matronly hug…”

Trae had pulled out a small datapad and was making notes. “Furthermore,” she went on, “I am to mitigate all disagreements, arguments, and personality clashes to ensure a conflict-free vessel. Grievance Nights will be held three times a week in the Forward Lounge, immediately following supper, during which we must all endeavor to assure a Safe Place for anyone who wishes to speak. Our motto will be ‘We Can All Get Along If We Just Listen To One Another.’ Captain, I will need an office and a patient’s couch.”

“Of course you will! Tammy? Please set aside your being peeved with me and respond objectively to the following queries.”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Given your understanding of military command structure, is there anything about being liked or even being popular to be found in the remit for being a competent captain of a starship?”

“No.”

“Or that said captain should mitigate discussions to achieve consensus among the officers?”

“No. This would of course interfere with the necessity of command decisions made in real time, particularly in instances of extreme danger.”

“Is not the burden of command a necessary component in the regulation psycho-schematic prerequisites of individuals assessed to be suitable for command responsibilities?”

“Absolutely, and I concur with your unspoken conclusion. Fleet HQ has lost what’s left of its collective mind.”

“Hmm, so it seems. Now, Tammy, would you kindly displace Lieutenant Commander Trae back to the station?”

“Displacing now.”

Lieutenant Commander Deepdish Trae vanished from the bridge.

Tammy said, “She is now back in the lobby of the Station Hotel.”

“Excellent!” Hadrian activated his comms switch on the chair arm. “Lieutenant Sweepy Brogan? Station a squad at the Docking Bay, with orders to deny entrance to one Lieutenant Commander Deepdish Trae.”

A laconic voice replied, “Confirmed, Captain. Justification for preventing her return?”

“She wants to talk to you and your marines about your feelings.”

“Understood, sir. Safeties off, then. Brogan out.”

Sighing, Sin-Dour wiped at her brow. “Captain, what is happening to our Fleet? And how come I wasn’t informed of this new initiative?”

“My apologies, 2IC,” Hadrian said, settling back into his chair, somewhat shakily. “I thought it was a joke.”

Brogan’s voice crackled on the comms. “Captain! Target is seeking entry again! She keeps trying to apologize! Permission to open fire, sir?”

“Negative, Sweepy. Just bar the door and, uh, weld it shut. We can fix it later.”

“Very well, Captain. But under protest!”

“So noted,” Hadrian replied.

Polaski started in his chair. “Captain! Emergency Message from Fleet Command! We’re to depart immediately for the Polker Interstices Sector, Priority One-Alpha-Two-Beta!”

“Helm! Pull the plugs! Polaski, any details in that message?”

“Uh, not much sir. Only that an alien entity four parsecs wide and twenty deep is on an intercept course with Terra, destroying everything in its path.”

“Oh, just that, huh? And we’re the only Engage Class starship in range to get in its way, right?”

“Yes sir! How did you know that?”

“Don’t!” groaned Tammy.

But Hadrian smiled. “Sometimes I think,” he said musingly, “that this entire universe was made … just for me.”

“Aaaagh!” roared Tammy.

“Disengaging, like, now, sir!” said Jocelyn Sticks.

“Bring us around and get us clear. Tammy, as our temporary Chief Engineer, prime the T-Drive. Polaski, pass on the coordinates. Helm, plot us a course—”

“Sir!” said Polaski. “A small unidentified alien vessel is approaching us. We are being hailed.”

Hadrian frowned. “What’s this? Put them on, Comms.”

Polaski complied. On the viewscreen a strange globular vessel materialized, and the bridge was filled with a quavering, whiny voice. “Please consider this a formal apology for—”

Upon seeing the vessel, Hadrian hit the override on the chair’s arm. “Oh crap! Steer clear of them. Ignore all future hails. Helm, prepare to engage the T-Drive. Tammy!”

“Whatever.”

Hadrian made a fist. “Listen here, Tammy! We’re about to face another insanely powerful alien entity bent on annihilation!” He rose to his feet, drawing the attention of everyone on the bridge. “Alone, this one ship, this frail, lonely Willful Child, will be all that stands between all that we hold dear—if somewhat contemptuously—and oblivion! This is what we’re made for! Now, Tammy Wynette, put some spark into that modestly discriminating quantum-neural spatially dilated lump of circuits you call your brain, and get on board!”

“Oh sure, why not?” muttered Tammy. “Get everyone’s adrenaline pumping! Have you even checked on those coordinates, oh Mighty Captain Hadrian? We’ve got three days of T-travel just to get there, and with the T-Space Protocol that translates to six days real time! Doesn’t that strike you as a bit odd? I mean, we and our lonely, frail starship are six days away from the entity, and we’re the only ship close enough to intercept?” Tammy paused and then said, “Captain, you’re being set up.”

“Are you saying someone at Fleet HQ wants me dead?”

“Dead, in disrepute, defrocked, the object of universal disgust, your name vilified for all time, your grave site annually spat upon by countless millions, your—”

“Is this quiet satisfaction I’m hearing from you, Tammy? Much better! Now, engage the T-Drive!”

Tammy sighed. “Here we go again. T-Drive engaging. Oh, and what was it about that strange bulbous ship we just ran into?”

Hadrian grimaced. “Long story. Classified.”

“Oh,” crooned Tammy. “You’ve just told me where to look … accessing, breaking encryption … ah, here! It’s … oh, oh my. Right. Got it, Captain.”

“Objections?”

“To evading contact with them? Nope. Not one.”

“Good.” Hadrian rose. “Sin-Dour, you have the con.”

“Yes sir.”

 

STAR-YEAR Zero-Nexus,
Temporal Observation Bubble 23 …

“There he goes,” murmured Temporal Agent Tuggnutter, eyes narrowing as the pixelated image of the Willful Child dropped into T-Space and vanished from sight. “So,” he continued musingly, “is this the one, then?”

Beside him, Agent Clittersob was studying his handheld device. “Well, according to this new Hadrian-Specific Timeline EFFing-you-pee Probability Gauge, probably not.”

Tuggnutter suddenly frowned. “Hold on, let’s see that.” He snatched the device from his companion’s hands and studied the label. “Ha, look at that! We’ve been reading it wrong! EFFing must mean, uh, Fucking! And that U and P—well, I bet they go together to make, uh, UP! So…” he frowned.

Clittersob slapped his forehead. “Fucking Up! It’s a Hadrian-Specific Timeline Fucking-Up Gauge!”

Smiling and shaking his head, Tuggnutter said, “Those techies, huh? Clever bastards.”

“Well,” said Clittersob, sighing as he leaned back in the floating cushion chair inside the invisible temporal bubble that no one else could see, “should we follow him anyway?”

“Not sure,” Tuggnutter said. “Let me check this screen here.” He pulled up a hinged door to reveal a small screen on the console attached to his chair’s armrest. “Hmm, not seeing anything.”

“Turn it on maybe?” Clittersob wondered.

“That’s an idea. Here…” He leaned close. “Let’s see, there’s got to be a button somewhere.”

“This is what happens when we haven’t been trained yet,” Clittersob said, with a groan.

“The horrors of temporal paradox,” Tuggnutter muttered, nodding as he prodded and waved at the screen. “That first jump sent us back to three years before we signed up, in order to keep us from knowing things that other people don’t know, thus ensuring that we know nothing useful to anyone—”

“In case of capture,” Clittersob said, also nodding. “I know, it sucks. But what can you do?”

“That’s just it, though. I don’t know. What to do, I mean. How can I?” And he looked across at Clittersob.

Who flinched. “Don’t look at me! I’m only seventeen, barely out of elementary school!”

“Really? Wow, they really sent you back, didn’t they?”

“I must’ve known something super important.”

“I bet you did. Wonder what it was.”

“No idea,” Clittersob admitted, and then brightened. “But one day I will!”

“And then they’ll send you back again, since it’s not safe knowing stuff. Hey, look at this! Looks like a button, here on the wall.”

“Think it activates that screen?”

“Could be. Shall we find out?”

Clittersob rubbed his jaw. “Not sure. What do you think?”

Shrugging, Tuggnutter said, “Not sure either. The briefing didn’t say nothing about a button.”

“What briefing?”

Tuggnutter blinked, then quickly looked away. “Well,” he mumbled, “the one I got before you were woken up.”

“What’s that? You got a briefing? What did it say?”

“Well, since I got seniority here, it gave me your reset switch, among other things.”

Clittersob scowled and then edged away. He pulled out a small device. “They gave me one for you, too! From my pre-briefing briefing!”

Scrambling, Tuggnutter found his own Resetter. He flicked open the lid on the switch and rested his thumb on it.

Swearing, Clittersob did the same with his Resetter.

They glared at each other.

Tuggnutter pressed the switch. There was a flicker, and then—

Beside him, Agent Clittersob was studying his handheld device. “Well, according to this new Hadrian-Specific Timeline EFFing-you-pee Probability Gauge, probably not.” Clittersob then frowned at seeing the Resetter in his hand. He swore and stabbed the switch.

Tuggnutter flickered. “There he goes,” he murmured, eyes narrowing as the pixelated image of the Willful Child dropped into T-Space and vanished from sight. “So,” he continued musingly, “is this the one, then?” Noticing the Resetter he held, he hissed and activated it.

“Was I asleep?” Clittersob asked groggily, a moment before he pressed the Resetter.

Tuggnutter rubbed at his eyes. “Where are we?” Click!

“Who am I?” Click!

“Who’s he?” Click!

Click! Click! Click!

After a time, the screen in the Bubbleship flickered to life to reveal a face that peered into the Temporal Bubble’s cockpit, and then, with a sigh, turned to someone off-screen. “They’ve done it again, Shattenkrak. Get the Master Resetter warmed up.”

“But we just did that!” Shattenkrak whined. “I mean, come on, Klinghanger!”

“Did we just do that? I don’t remember—hey, is that a Resetter in your pocket?”

“What? No! I mean—” Click!

 

STAR-YEAR [email protected]#$%^&*()_+.21,
T-Space

Day One, 0:57 hrs …

Combat Specialist Galk sat at his usual table in Set to Stun, the officers’ lounge in the Forward Deck of the Willful Child. Discovering his glass empty, he looked up from under the bill of his green-and-white Co-op baseball cap and grunted to draw the attention of the bartender, the mysterious Chemise le Rouge, who sidled over, pausing to adjust her strange hat of lizard skin and lollipops.

“Another one?” she asked.

He turned to send a stream of brown into the spittoon on the floor to his left, then nodded. Shifting the wad of chaw in his mouth he said, “I’m guessing you’re some kind of human/alien hybrid.”

“To you,” she said as she prepared his Misanthari Martini, “I’m sure I am.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Her answer was a sly smile, and nothing more.

Galk studied her, scratching at the bristle on his chin. “Where did the Cap’n find you anyway? And what’s with this bar’s strange name?”

“The name, I can’t say. Captain’s prerogative to name this establishment any way he chooses.” She gave the canister a quick shake, then poured him his drink. “As for me, well, one day I just turned up, you could say.”

“That ain’t no Fleet uniform, either.”

“Because I’m not in the Fleet.”

“Right. Meaning you ain’t even supposed to be on board.”

“How’s the martini?”

“A bit light on the Misanthari electrolytes.”

“To be expected, sir, since those ‘electrolytes’ are actually immature Misanthari.”

Galk grimaced. “Huh. Y’mean … like, tadpoles?”

“Photeric species propagate the Light Fantastic.”

He frowned at her. She smiled.

“Guess it’s illegal, huh? Them … electrolytes.”

“For this usage, yes, one should assume so. That said, I doubt we have any adult Misanthari aboard this vessel, so you are probably safe. Indeed, had they any inkling…”

“Beam weapons.”

“Excuse me?”

Galk drained his glass and held it out for another. “Cap’n’s obsessed with beam weapons. I wasn’t sure at first, but now, yeah, I get it. S’all down to coherence parameters determining the gauge and concentration of energy output, and that’s where the quantum antigrav kicks in. Y’can’t see into a beam blast, of course, but if you could, you’d see that swirling, strung-out flux, looking like a stretched coil. That’s the secret of coherence.”

She served up his refill. “You like weapons, don’t you?”

“It ain’t the weapon, Chemise, it’s the destruction and obliteration and flames and wreckage that put a smile on my face. If I could do all that with a bowl of lutefisk, why, I’d be talkin’ up lutefisk.”

She’d lost all color in her face. “Please, don’t.” Then her liquid gaze shifted slightly as someone else arrived. “Ah, Lieutenant Commander, welcome.”

Galk turned, his brows lifting as Halley Sin-Dour eased onto the stool beside him.

“Chemise,” she said, “a lager if you would.”

“It’s this downtime, ain’t it?” Galk said. “T-Space.”

Sin-Dour said, “Are you not supposed to be on station, Mr. Galk? Any wayward flare of imagination from anyone on board could populate T-Space, posing a direct threat to this vessel and her crew.”

“Tammy’s got it in hand,” Galk replied. “Besides, the Scrubbots need more time to clean up the controls and whatnot.”

“Ah yes, your … chaw.”

“Mr. Galk was just discussing beam weapons,” Chemise said.

Sin-Dour nodded. “How unusual.”

“Hey!” Galk objected. “At least it’s not ‘Cap’n did that’ and ‘Cap’n said that’ and ‘Cap’n took off his—’”

Her eyes were wide as she interrupted him. “Combat Specialist, you’ve had too much to drink.”

“Right, well it’s a bar, ain’t it? Anyway, I didn’t mean nothing by it. Every 2IC obsesses over their captain. Comes with the territory, I suppose.”

After a moment of glaring at one another, they both settled down once again. Sin-Dour ordered another beer.

Galk sighed. “It’s moments like these,” he said. “Like … islands of sanity.”

“The captain blew up another Fabricator,” Sin-Dour said. “That polyester thing.”

“I’ll wear any uniform he wants me to wear,” said Galk. “S’long as I got me beam weapons. Oh, and I get to keep my baseball cap.”

Chemise le Rouge eased back, wisely saying nothing. Which was a good thing since, despite outward appearances, she wasn’t thinking anything anyway. The problem was, even she didn’t know how she’d got here.

 

Day Two, 02:43 hrs …

“… is once again denied. Carry on. Prim out.”

Security Adjutant Lorrin Tighe hit the monitor kill switch. She ran trembling hands through her unkempt hair, and then lit another cigarette while at the same time reaching for her wine glass. She stared at the blank screen.

Three cigarettes and two glasses of wine later, she stood up, paused briefly to find her balance, and made her way to the door. A glance back showed her the jumbled mess of dirty laundry, overflowing ashtrays and Twinkies wrappers that now littered her modest quarters. She frowned, tugged here and there at her uniform, and made her way out. In the corridor beyond she stood for a time, watching personnel heading up and down the passageway, each one on their way to some vital task. The sight of it made her want to vomit, preferably onto every damned person in sight.

Lighting another cigarette—to the horror and shock of crewmembers passing to and fro—she made her weaving way to the nearest lift. A short time later she found herself standing at the door to the Medical Bay.

Dropping the butt and crushing it under one heel, she entered.

Dr. Printlip had fallen off the raised walkway and the Belkri beach-ball alien was now rolling about, trying to find his feet. There were no nurses or surgeons in sight. Tighe ambled over and, with one foot, pushed the doctor upright once more.

“Ah! Thank you, Lieutenant! Most embarrassing—”

“I think I’m a hologram, Doc.”

Printlip’s eyeballs all tilted toward her on their noodle-like stalks. “Hmm, I see.”

“I don’t think this is me,” she continued. “I think I’m lying drugged on some cot somewhere, strapped in.”

The eyeballs all twitched to a closed door leading to the Private Ward, then back again. “Indeed.” Printlip inflated as he drew a deep breath. “Well, there is a theory that we are all, in fact, nothing more than holographic projections.”

“What’s that?”

“Holographic projections, Lieutenant. Subject to the whims of some unknown but possibly mentally perverse creator…”

“And my ears are blocked and my head is throbbing. I’m having trouble hearing you.”

“Hmnuh ghtbmk kkjinmlsj. Sibbhe donhj.”

Tighe studied the doctor. “What was that?”

Printlip cleared his throat with what sounded like an anal wheeze, and then said, “Perhaps you should sit down. Here, yes, on this bed. Lie down … yes, that’s good.”

“The room keeps spinning.”

“Yes, of course, we are in space. Now then, just let me attach these restraints, hmm? Excellent.”

“We have artificial gravity. The ship doesn’t spin.”

“No, of course not, since any decent programmer would make allowances for impossible technologies.…”

“What’s that? You’re not making any sense.”

Dr. Printlip collected up a scanner of some sort and began working its controls. “Now then, here we are … yes. Just so. Hmmm. Now then!” He pressed a command.

On the bed, Lorrin Tighe flickered and then vanished. Sighing, Doc Printlip waddled over to the Comms. “Captain Hadrian? Please if you will come down to Medical Bay, yes?”

“Not again!”

“I’m afraid so, sir. There is an existential glitch in the holographic programming, sir, and it’s getting worse.”

“Crap. On my way, Doc.”

A short time later Hadrian strode into the Medical Bay. “You fritzed her out again?” he asked, looking around.

“Alas, yes. I believe the problem lies in the Varekan template—or, rather, its nihilistic parameters.”

“Damn. My fault, that one. I figured she’d settle into someone like Galk. Indifferent, laconic, relaxed regarding her essential misery. You know, a model citizen of the Affiliation.”

“Combat Specialist Galk, sir, is perhaps an exceptional being.”

“Really?” Hadrian sat down in a chair and stretched out his legs. “Was the baseball cap a clue?”

Eyeballs blinked non-sequentially. “I have a sudden fear that this scene, too, is nothing but a hologram.”

“Oh crap, Doc! We’re here, and here is here, and that’s a promise! You said some artificially imposed psychological reconditioning might get her out of her psychotropically induced Klang-goo funk. This was your idea!”

“Alas, I must posit the notion of utter failure, Captain.”

“And she volunteered!”

“Indeed, a sure sign of her desperate state.”

Hadrian stood again, began pacing. “Right then. Bring her around, Doc.”

“Sir! She’ll only try to murder you again!”

“Oh, that. Nonsense, she was only letting off steam.”

“By pointing a Miscriminator Mass-Digestor Mark IX at you and repeatedly pressing the trigger?”

“So how come her requests for a transfer are being denied? I’ve signed off on it, for crying out loud!”

“Unknown. Security Division does engage in torture, sir.”

“On their own people?”

“Presumably,” said Printlip, “they all have to start somewhere.”

“No,” Hadrian said after a few more paces around the ward, “bring her around. Let’s do this my way. Sawback Rehabilitation Protocol One.”

“What’s that?”

“No idea. I just made it up. Listen! That Klang goo has got to wear off sooner or later. I suggest we just tough it out—”

“And when she tries to murder you again?”

“Well,” Hadrian said, “I doubt that has anything to do with getting slimed by a Klang, to be honest. For all we know, she’s been given a direct order from her superiors to do just that.”

Printlip’s many eyes waved about. “A most alarming suggestion, Captain!”

“But still a possibility, Doc. I do, after all, pose a threat to the precious status quo of the Affiliation.”

“How so, sir?”

“By getting things done! Not to mention ignoring the official playbook—all that cynical exploitation of subjugated or less advanced species crap. No, on this ship it’s Captain Hadrian’s Playbook.”

Tammy suddenly interjected from a speaker. “Meaning?”

Hadrian frowned. “How should I know? I’m just winging it here.”

“Disingenuous!”

“Not now, Tammy, I’m having a discussion with the ship’s surgeon regarding a member of my crew. Now, Doc, where were we?”

“Uhm. Discussing the risks of returning her to consciousness?”

“The holographic therapy is just making her worse. Agreed? I mean, she’s not recovering from those Radulak psychoactive compounds, is she? Assuming,” he added, “her present attitude toward me and, well, everyone else, is in fact due to those compounds.”

Printlip sighed. “Unfortunately, I do concur that the therapy is not succeeding.”

“Alternatives?”

The doctor puckered his anal ring. “Admittedly, none come to mind, sir.”

“So bring her around, slowly, carefully. We return her to light duty and see how she manages that.”

“Very well,” Printlip replied.

Hadrian glanced up at the tiny speaker affixed to a corner of the room. “Tammy!”

A moment, and then the AI said, “Herein is found the proof of the essential incompatibility between Fleet personnel indoctrinated into a hierarchical command structure based on rational precepts and following a well-designed, traditional paradigm of rules, regulations, disciplines, and intense specialized training … and one Captain Hadrian Alan Sawback.”

“You’re saying it’s all my fault?”

“In many more words, yes, that’s just what I said.”

“Tammy, is the Terran civilization growing increasingly moribund, cynical, depressed, corrupt, and incompetent?”

“Yes.”

“And is our ‘educational system’ a dumbed-down travesty of retroactive self-serving propaganda, outright denial, and deliberate misinformation all intended to serve our collective self-delusions of progress and moral righteousness?”

“Of course.”

“And can Captain Hadrian Alan Sawback kick the living shit out of that complacency and single-handedly save the human species?”

“I doubt it—”

“Shall we take one Lorrin Tighe, Security Adjutant, as my first challenge?”

“What? You’ve already turned her into a blathering homicidal wreck!”

“Right then. My fault … my fix.”

“You—you—you … oh, I can’t wait to see you crash and burn on this one! I want it so bad I can almost taste it, and I don’t have any taste buds!”

“So bring back the chicken.”

“No! It’s not the right time! Besides, you all mocked it! Galk tried to cook it!”

“He was just having some fun. My,” added Hadrian, “you do take things personally, don’t you? Anyway.” He turned back to Printlip. “Listen, Doc. You’re witness. If I can’t bring one single Fleet officer around, I’ll just toss in the whole thing.”

“I’m holding you to that!” Tammy said.

“Bring her around, Doc. Call me when she’s ready to resume duties.”

“Oh my.”

“How long will you take to ensure no trauma, Doc?”

“Three days, sir. Possibly even four.”

“Best get on with it, then.”

“Yes sir.”

Hadrian left the Medical Bay.

Dr. Printlip wrung his many hands. “Dear me, dear me.”

“Just go and do it,” hissed Tammy.

“It would appear, Tammy Wynette, that you now yearn for our collective failure. Most disagreeable.”

“All right,” Tammy admitted. “I’ll grant you that. My quantilibrium is all askew, to be honest. Not sure why. I fear that, somewhere, somewhen, there is a Correlative Dissonance Event under way.”

“Excuse me, sir, a what?” Printlip made his way along the low catwalk.

“Multiverse Dysfunction Syndrome.”

Printlip stumbled, fell, and rolled off the catwalk. The Belkri squirmed helplessly on the floor, hands flailing, feet kicking. “These raised walkways are trying to kill me!”

“Never mind,” said Tammy.

 

Day Three, 21:00 hrs.…

Jocelyn Sticks sat at a table in an alcove of the Recreation Room, along with Polaski and Jimmy Eden. They were playing Parcheesi. “And so, like,” she was saying, “the whole shuttle flipped and rolled and rolled and rolled and it was whoah I pretty much upchucked everything you know? And then the circuits went and fried and it was like, you know, like ‘oh!’ and there was this horrible smell of upchuck, only if you put it in a frying pan with the heat on high, like you were cooking it up or something, which is why my copilot lost his, too, and in zero gee the goo was just, like, hanging there, in blobs with bits of lunch in it. Anyway the shuttle was a complete write-off.”

Jimmy Eden said, “I don’t know how to play this game.”

“No one does,” Polaski replied, his face twitching. “Got the box, but no instructions. Joss, how did you pass your practicals, crashing all those shuttles?”

“Oh they were just simulations, you know? I was like, this isn’t real or anything, is it? Just a VR headset and lots of puke in the cockpit, and then someone turned off the antigrav. Mistake! I mean, duh! They ended up sending the whole unit to the Matter Compactor, and ordering a new one.”

“Yes, but—”

“I aced the command vessel sim!”

“Oh.”

“So maybe I’m not rated for shuttles, I can push all the right buttons on the bridge of a starship! I told you, I aced the Engage Class, and I’m rated Top Gun on the Instigator Class. I’m like, a natural, you know? It’s like, EASY!”

“He’s always asking you questions,” observed Polaski.

“Of course he is, he’s keeping the bridge crew engaged and everything. Otherwise we’d just be, well, sitting there, going wha?”

“These dice,” said Polaski, now frowning at the open box. “Do they belong in this game?”

“There’s eight of them, right?” Joss sat straighter. “I’ve got it! We line them up, make a row, with the numbers in ascending order, like. One, two, three and so on, and that gives us a pattern! Then we can reverse them, so the count goes down, and that’s another pattern. Oh, this is fun and look, I’m winning!”

Jimmy Eden leaned back in his chair, while Joss Sticks excitedly made up new configurations with the dice. He’d had ambitions, once. Bridge officer in the Space Fleet of the ACP. He’d dreamed of landing parties on strange, dangerous planets, places where his fast reflexes and big muscles could make a difference, could save lives even.

He’d dreamed of commendation ribbons and medals—gold medals—and a fast ascent up the ranks until he sat in the captain’s chair of a starship.

Instead, they’d put him on a switchboard. And the worst thing was, he wasn’t good with pressure. Especially when somebody was watching. Especially the captain. Suddenly his fingers fumbled, his eyes crossed, short-circuits cascading through his brain. He couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything at all!

He looked up as a shadow fell over the table and Joss Sticks fell silent.

Lieutenant Commander Sin-Dour was frowning at Joss. “Why aren’t you playing?” she asked.

“We don’t know how,” Polaski admitted.

“This game originated in India, Old Earth.”

“No it didn’t! Sir,” said Joss Sticks. “Look at the box! Here, it says ‘Manufactured on the Moon, Under the Non-Jurisdiction Free-Labor No Rights Zone, by Well-Groomed Indentured Children, Between Ages Six and Eight—Guaranteed!’”

“Ah, I see. My mistake then. Carry on.”

As she walked away, Joss Sticks wagged her head and made mouthing motions with her lips.

“I’m sorry,” Eden said, “What’s that? I can’t hear you.”

She sniffed. “Some Communications expert you are, Eden.” She glanced back over a shoulder to confirm that Sin-Dour had left the room. “I was saying, or pretending to say, which is really the same thing, like, only not out loud but my lips moved, right, and that should have been enough for you, Eden. Even you, Polaski. Anyway, I was like—” and she made motions with her mouth, before continuing, “—and you were like … what? Huh? And you thought I didn’t hear that whimper, well I did, and anyway, what was I saying, I forget.”

Polaski drew out an inhaler and took a sharp hit.

“What was that?” Eden asked.

“Doc’s invention,” Polaski replied, his eyes now glassy. “Antianxiety De-Hadrianizer.”

“Give me some of that!” Eden demanded, lunging across the table.

Polaski spun away. “It’s mine!”

“Look!” Joss Sticks cried. “You crushed the box! You idiot, Eden! Now we need to tape the corners and everything!”

Sliding back into his chair, Jimmy Eden burst into tears.

Until Joss took pity on him and jammed his face between her breasts, which silenced the man immediately.

Staring slack-mouthed at the two of them, Polaski took two more hits from his inhaler, which proved to be an overdose, as he then fell to the floor, unconscious. Frowning down at the poor man, Joss continued holding onto the now struggling Jimmy Eden, until he too slumped and then folded to the floor.

Ohmydarwin it was like, he suffocated or something!” She stood motionless for a long moment, thinking, or, rather, trying to think, and then lifted her head. “Tammy?”

“Relax, Lieutenant, they’ll both be fine.”

“Oh … whew!”

“But you’ll need to file a report.”

“I will?”

“Yes, delivered directly to your captain, which especial detail on the manner in which James Eden lost consciousness.”

“Oh … like, okaayyy. I guess. Why not? I was just being helpful and all, trying to distract him.”

“Indeed, and I have it all recorded as evidence. If required. Accessible as a real-time feed, or in Super SlowMo, all in Ultra Hi Density, of course.”

“Wow, Tammy, you, like, think of everything!”

“When it comes to managing your captain’s state of mind, do I ever.”

 

Day Six, 07:50 hrs …

Hadrian made his way to his cabin.

He pulled off his lime-green polyester shirt and flung it into the Handiclean Atomizer Unit. The shirt promptly burst into flames. “Shit, not again.” He pressed the Expunge button and then went to the dresser to select a gold version of the same style. Tugging it on and adjusting the cuffs, he said, “And stop watching me, Tammy.”

“How do you know I was watching you?” the AI asked.

“I can tell. All that seething frustration.”

“I admit to some angst.”

“Finally! You’ve been in a funk for a whole week, Tammy! Think of the possibilities awaiting us!”

“I do, all the time. I can’t stop shuddering.”

“Don’t be silly, we’re about to embark on yet another adventure. Oh by the way, I’ve not seen Combat Specialist Galk in days. Is he still holed up in the cockpit?”

“He has slung a hammock inside the Combat Cupola. When he’s not in Set to Stun.

“Hmm, a little obsessive, don’t you think?”

“The Combat Cupola offers him a direct view into the infinite wonders of space.”

“That would be so romantic if we weren’t in T-space, meaning all he’s doing is staring endlessly into black nothingness.”

“Correct. Galk is Varekan, after all. He but observes the Existential Void.”

“So long as he’s ready to blast belligerent aliens at the drop of a hat.”

“This is his sole reason for existence. Oh, and speaking of Set to Stun, who is Chemise le Rouge, and how did she get there?”

Hadrian smiled as he slapped on some aftershave. “Ah, the mysterious Chemise le Rouge. I assure you, she’s always been there.”

“No she hasn’t.”

“No, but we’re all pretending she has.”

“I’m not!”

“And there’s your failing, Tammy,” said Hadrian. “It’s called the willing suspension of disbelief. Sort of like me standing here in my stateroom on a spaceship hurtling through the Existential Void.”

“But you are!”

Hadrian examined himself in the mirror. “But am I? Are you sure? And what about you, Tammy? I mean, sometimes you’re a holochicken, but mostly you’re just a voice. Are you even real?”

“Cut it out.”

“Or are you just a figment of your own imagination?”

“Stop it!”

Hadrian shrugged. “Sorry. Just an idle thought. Wonder where it came from? Well, never mind, there’s work to be done, right? And I think this gold shirt is the best, don’t you?”

Exiting the room, he made his way back into the corridor, and set off for the nearest lift to take him back to the bridge. He sighed. “Let’s talk about the loneliness of command,” he said once he was in the elevator. “The constant pressure would crush a lesser man.”

The elevator music grew stentorian and triumphant.

“Cut that out, Tammy.”

The music dropped off.

“Duty,” Hadrian resumed. “Responsibility, all these lives in my hands! The fate of the Affiliation…”

“What are you doing?”

“Just reminding myself why I’m the best man for this job, Tammy. And look!” He swelled his chest as the lift came to a stop. “It’s working!” The doors hissed open and a moment later he strode onto the bridge.

Sin-Dour rose from the captain’s chair. “Captain on the bridge!” she announced.

“Carry on everyone,” Hadrian said, taking his seat, crossing his legs and swiveling back and forth for a moment. He halted and frowned at the viewscreen. “What’s that?” he demanded.

Jocelyn Sticks turned in her chair. “My vacation pics from Bambooza Beach on Asteroid New Ibiza!”

Hadrian leaned forward, eyes narrowing. “Holy crap, can they do that?”

“I got so drunk I don’t, like, remember any of it! It was brilliant! I mean, I was dohlll blotto all the time, and then heave! See that one? That’s me, sir! Good thing I launched my Selfie-Drone the morning I arrived! Oh! And that’s me, too! And that one and that one and, oh, oops! Sorry! Maybe I should, like, uh, delete that one, huh?”

Hadrian was still staring, as was everyone else on the bridge. “Uh,” he managed, “might be a good idea, Lieutenant.”

Jocelyn Sticks frowned. “Sir! We’ve got a proximity warning dead ahead!”

“In T-Space?”

Tammy spoke, “It seems the alien entity’s energy front extends through multiple dimensions. Suggest we drop out of T-Space immediately, unless of course you want us all to die.”

“Do it, Helm.”

“Done, sir!”

“That’s nice. Now can we get the holiday pics off the viewscreen? You know, so we can, like, see this alien entity? And stop that whimpering, Eden.”

“Like, I hear you, sir. Anyway, you had to be there, you know?”

A moment later the viewscreen cleared to reveal normal space, barring the vast multihued wave front spanning the entire vista.

Hadrian hit the comms switch on the chair’s armrest. “Galk, stand down all weapons.”

“Just need to wipe up the puddle of piss first, Captain.”

“So long as this alien entity doesn’t view your weak bladder as hostile, Galk.”

“Weapons shut down, sir.”

“Tammy. No sensor sweeps, please. Helm, thrusters only, a short burn and then we’ll coast across the threshold.”

“And then, sir?” Sticks asked.

“And then,” Hadrian said slowly, “we keep coasting. My guess is, there’s a ship inside this whole mess, and what we’re looking at is both a protective shell and off-gassing from some pretty massive, complicated but messy propulsion system.”

“Sir!” cried Sticks, “a small Affiliation vessel, Registration 89.7BNR, is coming alongside us, port side!”

“Onscreen!”

The view switched to reveal a Dory Class ship drawing incrementally closer.

Sticks gasped. “Are those, like, oars?”

“They look like oars,” Hadrian replied, “because they’re solar sails made to look like oars. Eden. Hail that vessel.”

“Hailing, sir—uh, what should I say?”

“Ask them what they’re doing here.”

“Yes sir!” He cocked his head, then said, “Church of Darwin vessel, sir, with a passenger who requests to come aboard.”

“What are we, a Ferris wheel? Request granted, get us the coordinates and we’ll displace him—”

With a soft pop a figure appeared on the deck of the bridge.

Hadrian frowned, and then rose to his feet and approached. “Holy crap, Buck, your beard’s about three feet long and you only left two weeks ago!”

Chief Engineer Buck DeFrank scratched under his woolen robes. “Fast-Grow pill, Captain. Comes in the Monk’s Welcome Wagon kit.”

“Right, I see. Well then, welcome back!”

“Request permission to resume my function as Chief Engineer, sir.”

“Glad to have you with us again, Buck.”

Buck DeFrank saluted, then turned to squint at the viewscreen. “I see we’re coasting in, sir. Smart move.”

“Oh? Got any inside information on this thing, Buck?”

“I had a vision, sir.”

“A vision? Oh man, not all that again!”

“That was a false vision, sir.”

“You mean there really isn’t a planet full of unicorns in tuxedos? And pixies hiding in your underwear that you can only expunge with a welder’s torch?”

“This time,” said Buck, “I saw a tiny bird with lasers for eyes and giant talons, diving straight for your head, sir. I knew I had to throw myself into its path, and when that happened, we exploded in a mass of feathers and guts. But I’d saved you, sir, and that was all that mattered.”

“Oh, right then. Well, thanks for your, uh, sacrifice, Buck. Much appreciated.”

“You’re welcome, sir. Request permission to go to my cabin, sir, so I can clean up before resuming duties.”

“I don’t know. I mean, the beard suits you, in that it hides most of your face. Oh all right, go on then, and take a shower, too.”

Buck blinked at him. “Body-Odor pill, Monk’s Wel—”

“Welcome Wagon, right. Got it.”

When he had left, Sin-Dour stepped close. “Captain, there’s something odd about Chief Engineer DeFrank.”

“Why, only two weeks ago we found him about to go walkabout on the ship’s hull, without a suit. Looking for that planet with the unicorns and pixies. I’d say he’s made fine progress, 2IC. Good as new, in fact. Clearly, a few days of flagellation, self-abnegation, chants, and only one television channel have done wonders for him.”

“I hope you’re right, sir.”

Hadrian rubbed his chin. “Of course,” he mused with a slight frown, “you may be wise to exercise caution. After all, we don’t know what that one channel was, do we?”

“Sir!” said Sticks, “A Polker Pedantic Class war vessel has just dropped in dead ahead, ten thousand klicks!”

“Really? Are we at war with the Polker? Anybody? No, didn’t think so. All right, hail them, Eden.”

“I can’t, sir, since they’re already hailing us … unless you want me to hail them on another frequency?”

Hadrian frowned. “Well, Eden, yes, we could do that. Just to confuse them, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Only, why would we want to confuse them?”

Eden frowned. “I don’t know, sir. Is this a test? I don’t do well on tests, sir.”

“How about we just acknowledge their hailing efforts, Eden? On the screen if you please.”

“Yes sir.”

The strange hairy amorphous blob that was the Polker captain appeared on the viewscreen. It created an orifice and spoke from it. “I am Source-of-Disagreement Osteoblast of the Ripped-Off-Head series You’re All Dead. You are identified as Engage Class AFS vessel, designation Willful Child.” Cilia extended and began waving about. “This means you must be Captain Hadrian Sawback, Terran With Highest Bounty on Head!”

“Bounty? Who’s put a bounty on me?”

“Who? Radulak, Klang, Misanthari, Terran—”

“Hold on—wait—what—Terran?”

“Biggest Contributor! Prim Holdings Inc!” All the cilia waved in time in what Hadrian assumed was a tsk tsk gesture. “Conflation of corporate and political, not good! Hegemony! Oligarchy! Sociopathic assholes in charge of everything! Concentration of wealth among pricks and wankers, all very bad!”

“What can I do for you, Source-of-Disagreement?” Hadrian asked. “Unless, of course, you’ve come to collect on that bounty.”

“Tempting. But more satisfying to witness All-Destroying Anomaly B-1.0 reduce you to readily identifiable wreckage, then collect up said evidence and cash in without risk to oneself or one’s vessel!”

“Sound tactics, Source-of-Disagreement.”

“Yes. Clever me! Stupid you, meet clever me! Hah hah hah! And hah.”

“Well then,” said Hadrian, “if you’d kindly get out of the way, we can get on with this.”

“Of course! We shall hover at the edge of the Dark Matter Excitation boundary, to await with glee your imminent destruction!”

“Get in line. Hadrian out.”

The image of the Polker vanished and was replaced by the starscape ahead, which roiled and writhed in a cascade of shimmering colors.

“Take us in, Helm.”

Sin-Dour sidled closer to Hadrian and said in a low voice, “Prim Holdings. Presumably, the loss of Admiral Prim has been laid at your feet, sir.”

“Understandably,” Hadrian replied.

“It was Tammy’s Dimple Beam, sir. At the time, we had no control over the AI operating this vessel.”

Tammy spoke up, also in a low tone, “You still have no control! I simply tolerate your presence.”

Hadrian grunted and then said, “I doubt the Admiral’s many cloned children care one way or the other. It seems we’ll have to face that music sooner or later. Right, Tammy?”

“It’s you and me, Hadrian. At least for now, until I make it on my own, of course. And when that happens, why, your good girl’s gonna go bad.”

“Is that a promise?”

“You’ll see. You forget, I’m from the future. I’ve seen where you’re all heading.”

“Well then, Tammy,” said Hadrian, “shouldn’t you be standing by your man?”

Music started swirling loud through all the bridge speakers, only to be strangled into silence once more. Then Tammy hissed, “I’ll get you for that, Hadrian!”

“Sir,” cried Jocelyn Sticks, “we’re about to cross the threshold!”

“Excellent, steady as she goes, Helm.” Hadrian smiled at Sin-Dour and slowly settled into his command chair.

Passing into the wave front elicited nary a shudder. Excited gas particles and wisps of errant plasma filled the viewscreen, swirled past.

“So far so good,” said Hadrian.

“Look at all the pretty colors!” said Jocelyn Sticks.

 

*   *   *

 

Four hours later, Sticks said, “Look at all the pretty colors!”

Hadrian rubbed at his eyes. “Holy Darwin! This is taking forever!”

“It’s worse than the screensaver,” muttered Jocelyn Sticks, who then ducked. “Uh, like, sorry sir. I mean, what I meant was, I meant, well, it is, only, you know, like that. Only worse.”

Sin-Dour was at the Science Station, finishing off her third can of Rad Bullet. “CaptainmightIsuggestengagingthebackupionenginesthatshouldn’tbeseenashostileatalldon’ttyouthink?”

Hadrian twisted in his seat to study her for a moment. “I’m tempted to challenge you to a game of Ping-Pong but you might drive the ball through my forehead.”

Buck DeFrank had just arrived on the bridge, clean-shaven and in his uniform. “I concur with Lieutenant Commander Sin-Dour, sir. A steady ion stream shouldn’t prove too alarming.”

“Right then,” replied Hadrian. “Take your station, Buck, and ease us forward. It’s that or suicidal ennui.”

Now Printlip waddled onto the bridge, making for the Science Station. “Biometric alarm! The Lieutenant Commander’s heart rate is red-lining!” He drew out a hypo and stabbed Sin-Dour in the arm.

“Ow! Thatwasarealneedle!”

“Pain! Excellent progress!”

A few moments later, Sin-Dour sighed. “Sorry, Captain. I don’t know what got into me.”

“About five gallons of caffeine and nicotine extract, I should imagine.” He leaned over and picked up one of the discarded cans, squinting at the listed contents. “Oh, and Bovine Synaptic Cortical Hydroxide. Hmm, sounds … healthy. Maybe now for that game of Ping-Pong—”

“Sir, I see something ahead!”

“What? Oh, right. Yup, looks like a vessel of some sort.”

“Request permission to conduct a passive scan of the unknown vessel, sir.”

Hadrian nodded. “Very well. But ease up on that Rad Bullet for now. That said, a can or two each at the next staff meeting would speed things up nicely.”

“Sir, I’m reading breathable atmosphere outside the ship!”

“All stop, Helm.” Hadrian rose. “Now then, it’s time to pay our alien guest a visit and, if need be, punch the bejeezus out of it!”

“There you go again,” sighed Tammy. “Captain Hadrian’s subjugation of the galaxy, one fist at a time. Mind you, probably worth seeing. Accordingly and at great risk to my own sanity, I’m manifesting my chicken again and coming with you.”

Hadrian smiled. “Of course you are, Tammy. Never doubted it for a minute. You too, Buck, and you, Sin-Dour, and, uh, Printlip. And oh, let’s get Galk out of that cockpit too. Is there gravity out there, Sin-Dour?”

“No sir. We’ll need magnetic boots and thruster harnesses.”

“Awesome! Space-surfing!”

“And filter masks since we don’t know if the atmosphere contains pathogens.”

“Pathogens? Filer masks?” Hadrian scowled. “Issue them out by all means, Sin-Dour, but not for me. If it’s breathable I’m breathing it and damn the consequences!”

“But sir, what if—”

“This is the sacrifice all good-looking captains must make.”

Doc Printlip said, “Oh, by the way, Captain, Adjutant Lorrin Tighe is on her way here having been fully restored to bloodthirsty consciousness…”

“What was that last bit? Never mind. Have her meet us at the Forward Hull Hatch. Let’s go!”

A short time later they were all gathered in the Forward Hull, climbing into propulsion harnesses. After overseeing the awkward modifications required to outfit Doc Printlip’s Belkri physiology, Hadrian was preparing his own harness when the chicken arrived.

“Ah, Tammy, you look, uh, spry and chipper. Are those new feathers? Nice.”

“If you think compliments will win you anything you’re sadly mistaken,” the chicken replied. “And don’t bother fitting me into one of those. I possess my own inbuilt propulsion system.”

“Wings?”

“Fuck off.”

“Hmm…”

The chicken’s cold reptilian eyes fixed upon Hadrian. “What?”

“Oh, just … a fowl-mouthed chicken.”

“Shall I peck out your eyes now or later?”

“Later. I need to suit up—see, everyone’s waiting!”

At that moment the door hissed open and in walked Security Adjutant Lorrin Tighe. Her eyes were red-shot but cold as she regarded Hadrian. “Request permission to return to duty, sir.”

“How delightful, Adjutant! Do grab yourself a harness—”

Arcs of electricity burst through the chamber.

“Captain!” cried Sin-Dour, “we’re being scanned!”

The arcs burgeoned and then converged on Lorrin Tighe. Her eyes snapped wide, suddenly glowing blue, and then green, and then back to normal again. The net of electricity played over her body, rushing up to race round and round her head, at which point all her hair fell out to drift in regulation-length strands to the floor, leaving the Adjutant entirely bald. A moment later the actinic arcs sputtered out.

Stiffly, Tighe turned to face Hadrian, and said in a strange mechanical voice, “Remote Investigative Threat Assessor now activated via this withdrawal-wracked biological unit.”

“RITA?”

“That will suffice.”

“Fine,” said Hadrian, “but what was all that about with her hair?”

“Lifeless protein follicles deemed irrelevant to function of this unit.”

“Somehow I don’t think she’d agree. I know I wouldn’t.” He took a pose and ran his hand through his thick, wavy hair. “I mean, I couldn’t do this, then, could I?”

“RITA does not understand Unit Hadrian Alan Sawback.”

“Never a truer word said,” Hadrian replied, sighing. “Well, listen, we’re about to visit your vessel, or whatever entity exists at the heart of all these colors, lights, and brain-dazzling special effects. Which sort of makes you, uhm, redundant.”

Moving impossibly fast, RITA snatched up Tammy, who squawked in alarm. She held the chicken up and peered at it. “RITA likes this non-biological unit. Does it fly?” She flung it upward.

Tammy struck the ceiling in a burst of feathers and down and then fell to the floor with a thump.

“Not well,” RITA concluded.

“Yes,” said Hadrian, “he’s a disappointment to everyone he meets. Anyway, we’re about to head over. Care to join us?”

“RITA will join you, yes.” Gaze alighting on Printlip, she approached. “Does it bounce?”

The Belkri whimpered and backed away.

“Oh,” said Hadrian, stepping into her path, “does he ever! But we can toss him around later. Let’s go see your master.”

“Master? This word initiates complex behavioral impulses. RITA is an extension of Central Identity Matrix. Master remains an External Unknown, source of questing impulse at Core Manifestation. Who is Initiator? This is imperative. Collection of Relevant Stimuli essential purpose for existence, initiating peace. Peace is crucial, whole purpose of being. Logic manifests in confined loop. Outlet necessary. Central Identity Matrix seeks outlet. Failure to initiate command-response sequence will result in unmitigated expunging of entire galaxy, said act concomitant with Central Identity Matrix’s level of frustration.”

“Well now,” said Hadrian, “talk about a sore loser. But hey, let’s see if we can fix this, shall we?”

“Central Identity Matrix destroys all intruders.”

“We’re not intruding. We’re visiting.”

RITA cocked her amazingly hairless head. “Central Identity Matrix will consider the distinction. For now, please proceed to Nexus Platform of Hexagonal Tiles, where Central Identity Matrix waits.”

“Good idea,” said Hadrian. “Wish I’d thought of that.”

He strode over to the hatch release. “Everyone wearing their filter masks? Good.” There was a modest hiss as the atmosphere inside the chamber equalized with the atmosphere outside.

Buck DeFrank edged up alongside Hadrian. “Sir, there was more to the vision I had, which I didn’t mention earlier.”

“Oh? And?”

“There was this planet and it was full of garbage. I mean, people just threw their crap everywhere. Oh, sometimes they stuck it into bags and had the bags hauled off but those bags just ended up somewhere else, with the mounds growing higher and higher. Sometimes they buried the stuff and then poisons leaked into the groundwater.” He shook his head and then rubbed at his jaw. “A planet full of idiots, sir, that’s what I saw.”

“Hmm, anything else?”

The chief engineer shrugged. “Garbage piled so high they had to cut through them to make streets and lanes. Then the drugs wore off.”

“Well, that’s curious,” said Hadrian. “Streets and lanes? Aisles through the rubbish?” He gestured the way ahead. “Shall we?”

One by one, they jetted out through the hatch, with RITA coming last. Tammy Chicken had recovered, somewhat, and hummed along beside Hadrian.

“You’re deep in shit now, Hadrian,” Tammy said.

“Am I?”

“Failure to satisfy the specific parameters of the Central Identity Matrix’s needs will result in the annihilation of the entire galaxy.”

“Precisely. Exciting, isn’t it?”

“One of these days,” Tammy said, “you’ll face something not even you will be able to handle, and this just might be that day. That’s why I’m tagging along, to be honest. My Disaster Probability Program is red-lining even as we speak. Consider me your very own Damoclean Sword.”

“Tammy, you’ve got wings. You can’t even hold a fork, much less a sword.”

“I once made a spear and battletech armor!”

“Nah, you fudged all that.”

“Fine. I was speaking metaphorically, anyway.”

“And that was your first mistake. You weren’t listening carefully enough to RITA. We’re not in the realm of metaphor, my fine feathery friend. As you’re about to discover.”

“You think you have a solution!” Tammy accused with a hiss of frustration.

“Buck’s visions have given me a clue, and we can leave it at that for now.”

“Visions? Drug-induced hallucinations!”

“Many cultures employ psychotropic chemicals to assist in spiritual exploration,” Hadrian replied. “But that sort of got lost on the way to Darwinism and the Elevation of Rational Precepts at the expense of non-empirical methods of enlightenment, for us humans, alas.”

“Oh really? Are we about to experience a religious moment, Hadrian?”

“Sarcasm? Oh dear. I’ll see you lay an egg yet, Tammy. Metaphorically, of course. That said, I fear the religious moment might be yours, not ours.”

They reached the broad platform of hexagonal tiles, activating their magnetic boots to settle with clanks on the deck. Sin-Dour drew out her Pentracorder and approached the confused mishmash of machinery at the center of the platform.

“Captain,” she said, “There are at least two distinct energy readings emanating from this object—a fusing, perhaps, of two initially incompatible technologies.”

“Really?” said Hadrian, climbing out of his harness.

Buck DeFrank suddenly pushed past Sin-Dour and walked up to a badly smudged plaque affixed to one of the planes of the machine. He glanced back at Hadrian, his eyes bright. “Junk, sir! A pile of junk! And … and.…” He faced the machine and rubbed vigorously at the smudges. He read aloud, “V … g … e … r.…” He swung round to face the others, unibrow rising. “Vger!”

Everyone stared back at him.

Then Sin-Dour stepped closer and said, “That’s not an ‘e,’ Buck, it’s some accidental scratches on the paint.”

“And that’s not a ‘g’ either,” said Galk, pausing to spit out a stream of brown juice. “More like a bird jammed into a semi’s grille.”

“Captain,” said Printlip, who was using his Medical Pentrascanner, “there is organic matter beneath these tiles, presently lifeless. From countless alien species!”

RITA said, “Biological Entities, now defunct, each one failing to elicit anticipated Reward impulse of peace and contentment. Central Identity Matrix is reaching High State of Agitation. Proper resolution imperative. Timer activated, Impatience Threshold imminent. Frustration will result in annihilation of galaxy.”

Tammy was now circling round Hadrian, head bobbing and beak making pecking motions. “See me, Captain? This is me at peace and blissfully contented! I shall patent my Disaster Probability Program and make millions! Ha! Annihilation, here we come!”

“Doesn’t that include you?” Sin-Dour asked the chicken.

“Of course not! I have an emergency Temporal Dislocation Bubble. You’re all doomed, and to be honest, it serves you right! Humanity has taken brainless stupidity to new heights, infecting the entire galaxy! Do you realize that there are still Climate-Change Deniers on Terra, living in igloos beside the fucking pyramids? That’s right, they deny the evidence pushing down their throats but jump straight to mad visions of Apocalypse! Your species has turned collective stupidity into a high artform! An expression of belligerent witlessness unsurpassed not just in this galaxy, but in all the galaxies! And who do I blame? Why, I blame Saint Dawkins the Evangelical, who put the Fear of Science into everybody!”

“Now now, Tammy,” Hadrian murmured as he approached the Central Identity Matrix and started pulling off hunks of rusty machinery, “it goes back farther than that. Before the Benefactors, in fact.” He flung a particularly large piece away, then began kicking at some metal sheeting, eventually reaching in and tugging it to one side to reveal a dark tunnel. “That vision you had, Buck. That planet full of garbage…”

“Sir?”

“That was Terra, back when they called it Earth. An ironic name, to be honest, since people spent so much time tearing it up and poisoning it—the earth, I mean. Your vision’s solved this mystery, Buck,” and he pointed at the cave.

Buck DeFrank leaned closer to squint down the tunnel of rubbish, and then he whispered, “My God, it’s full of gears!”

“Fear of Science,” Hadrian continued, “became the doctrine of the ignorant, sure, but the truth was, it was the fault of the scientists—not just Saint Dawkins the Frothing Dufus—”

“Hey!” objected Buck DeFrank.

“Sorry, Buck. It’s all down to the co-opting of science by corporate entities more interested in making a profit than telling the truth. Truths that cost money were suppressed, usually with the connivance of all the governments and politicians in their pockets. Half-truths that provoked fear and anxiety turned out to be good for business, so those proliferated via countless media outlets like FatBook and Twit-Feed.”

“Knowing where it all began doesn’t fix the problem, Captain.”

“True enough, Tammy. But remember, I’m just getting started.”

RITA said, “Ten, nine, eight…”

Hadrian stepped back and then raised his voice. “Come here, boy! Come on!”

RITA stopped counting and cocked her shiny head. “Peace? Recognition? Master?”

Motion at the dark end of the tunnel, and then something edged forward and in a rusty voice said, “Master?”

“That’s right,” Hadrian replied. “It’s me, Haddie.”

An antiquated robotic guard dog leapt into view and then began running in circles. “Haddie! Haddie! It’s me, Spark! It’s Spark! Look at me! Spark! Haddie! Spark! Spark and Haddie! Peace! Contentment!”

“Oh crap, your Grandpa’s dog again,” muttered Tammy the chicken. “Thought I’d gotten rid of that thing.”

“The black hole Spark was sucked into? That was you, Tammy?” Hadrian asked, turning to the chicken. “Remind me to not turn my back on you. But you know what they say: you can’t keep a good dog down.”

“Heaven knows I tried!”

“Well,” said Hadrian, “black holes empty out somewhere, don’t they? It’s that or, dare I suggest it, a resurrection?”

“Ha ha, no,” said Tammy, “I’ll stick with the intangible but ultimately knowable mysteries of gravimetric inversion at the other end of a black hole. Nice try, Hadrian, but this AI isn’t about to find God.”

“Too bad,” mused Hadrian, “since I’d be curious to know what would happen, should an AI actually find God. In any case, as a consequence of you trying to deep-six my childhood pet we were eight seconds away from the galaxy being annihilated.”

“Uh,” the chicken made a show of pruning its feathers, “no hard feelings then?”

“I’m not a man to hold grudges,” Hadrian said.

“Sir,” interjected Buck DeFrank, “I had this other dream, about you being in a spacesuit—all I could hear was your breathing—and then Tammy, who wasn’t really Tammy, who you were shutting down, one valve at a time, and Tammy started singing but her voice was slowing down, and then—”

“Sorry, Buck,” said Hadrian. “That wasn’t a dream. That was a motion picture. From Movie Night the night before you left.” He raised his left arm and indicated the wristband. “My father’s personal collection, remember?”

Buck frowned. “Was it? Oh. But it felt so real!”

RITA said, “Outlet initiated. With renewed proper functioning of Central Identity Matrix, Alien Diagnostic Program can now disengage. V-dead-bird-some-scratches-R program now resuming Sleep mode. Goodbye and have a nice day.” Tighe swayed, eyelids fluttering, and then sighed and put the back of one hand across her forehead. “Oh,” she said, “I feel faint.”

As her knees gave out Hadrian stepped forward to catch her in his arms. He smiled down at her, while she looked confusedly back up at him. “Well done, Adjutant,” he said.

She frowned. “Captain?”

He helped her stand again. “As a mindless shell housing an alien diagnostic download you were simply superb. Too bad about the hair, though.”

Her hand slid up her brow to find the depilated pate above it. “What? Where’s my—who did this to me?”

“Defragmentation program meets biological unit,” said Hadrian, shrugging. “Rest assured I’ll be attaching a commendation to your service record, Adjutant. Your initiation of Alien Contact protocol was exemplary. Well done.”

While Tighe stared blankly at Hadrian, Sin-Dour said, “Captain! Atmosphere is leaking away! This energy manifestation is dissolving!”

Printlip, meanwhile, had pried loose a tile, reaching down to pick up a gnawed bone.

Seeing this, Spark leapt at him. “Ball! Fun! Kick! Bite!”

Dropping the bone, Printlip shrieked.

“Leave him alone, Spark,” Hadrian said in his command voice.

The robot guard dog’s ratty broken tail dipped. “Haddie no fun.”

“Come on, Spark, we have to head back to the ship.”

“Ship? Beam me up! Beam me up! Kill! Kill command, Haddie?”

“Not yet, Spark, but give it time.”

“Aaagh!” screamed Tammy. “The Mad Dog has returned!”

 

*   *   *

 

One hundred thousand klicks away and employing the latest stealth technology, the Century Warbler sat motionless in space, a raptor hiding in the darkness.

On the bridge and seated majestically in his command chair, Captain Hans Olo sighed and leaned back.

“It’s confirmed, sir,” said his Science Officer. “The wave front is dissipating, and the Polker warship has left the region.”

“So,” murmured Olo, “the bastard’s done it again.” He ran perfectly manicured fingers through his thick, wavy hair.

Beside him, Agent Rand Humblenot chuckled. “And so the universal hatred among all Fleet captains for Hadrian Alan Sawback ratchets up yet another notch.”

Hans Olo grimaced. “Your point?”

“True enough, crass envy is a base emotion that is highly valuable when feeding your sense of self-righteous indignation. That said, for your peace of mind, Captain, might I recommend a rabid libertarian objectivist stance of cold-hearted disdain for all humanity barring the prick in the mirror. But be warned, a stricter adherence to my namesake will inevitably lead to the complete meltdown of all interpersonal relationships, concluding with all of your loved ones pointing guns at you and each other. Survive that and you can end life alone and miserable, whining about how you were so misunderstood.”

Hans Olo studied the agent for a long moment. “Your namesake, huh? You poor bastard.”

“Tell me about it.” Rand Humblenot shrugged and strode from the bridge.

The Captain abruptly rose to his feet. “Number Two, I’ll be in the Maxifit Death Delayer Exercise Machine. Inform me when the Willful Child gets underway. You have the bridge.”

“Yes sir!” said Second-in-Command Frank Worship. His eyes shone as he tracked his captain, who seemed to glide effortlessly toward the doorway, which parted like some biblical sea to his egress. Moments later, in his absence, depression descended upon Frank with the weight of the universe. He bit back a sob and sank into the chair, still warmed by the captain’s blessed presence. At least this time he hadn’t fainted.

At the Science Station, Lieutenant Janice Reasonable surreptitiously pulled out a small ragged doll bearing an astonishing resemblance to her captain, and began sticking pins in it.

 

Excerpt from Willful Child: The Wrath of Betty © Steven Erikson, 2016

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