space_pirate_ship_by_orangecurl-d3goh5u

Short Story: The Engineer (Treasure in the Core)

Header Art — “Space Pirate Ship” by Kristal Babich. [website]

Author’s Note: Hello, everyone! This is a short story that serves as a little preview for my NaNoWriMo 2016 challenge trilogy, TREASURE IN THE CORE. I’ll be publishing both the prologue and first chapter on November 1st (so I guess I’m kinda’ cheating, oops!) but I was inspired to write what I’m calling a “preview short” that adds context to the relationships of the story’s heroine. This is a scene that I actually see happening after the first story (I have three novellas planned for the full series!) but there are no serious spoilers for what happens during the story itself. So, I hope you enjoy this sad little space story that I wrote.

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Nights like this always made Cordero feel like she was floating. In a sense, she was: the ship was on autopilot, and she sat alone in the cockpit, staring upward through the clear-paneled front side of the ship’s deck. She took a deep breath in, opening her sandy brown eyes to meet the expansive scene over her head. Cordero let her mind drift for a few moments, imagining the histories of the beings and planets that existed light years away, visible only as a glowing white speck from where she sat.

Most of the crew had long since turned in for the night; even M.O.V.A.I., who technically didn’t “sleep” at all, had quieted its nightly chatter over the ship’s comm system. The vessel’s core intelligence system was far more advanced than its current owner could have predicted. When considering the experienced hands that crafted it, Cordero wasn’t especially surprised. She caught the corners of her lips curling upward, but they didn’t get far. Vai — the nickname that had been bestowed upon the program — was the last thing that Lana Crusoe had ever left the young Captain.

Lana was once one of the most notorious fugitives in the ten quadrants, an engineer for the Terrajin Navy who betrayed her commanding officers and alliances at the height of her career. Defecting to join the crew of Cordero’s mentor, Captain Teleraan Scarow, Crusoe was the one who had originally recruited Cordero, over a decade before. Lana built Vai as a mobile core intelligence program, able to abandon and reclaim any vessel the crew needed. Vai was just one of the many incredible creations that had come from the tips of Lana’s fingers, but unfortunately, it was also the only one of her projects still in existence. It had been five years since Lana, the late Captain Scarow, and the rest of the crew were obliterated in a haze of smoke and enemy fire. That very morning, Captain Scarow had decided to retire and name a nineteen-year-old Natalia Cordero the new leader of his crew, the Crows. It had been, as one would guess, the worst day of her life.

Cordero looked down to where Vai’s data chip was installed, frowning and straightening her back. “Hey, wake up,” she growled, rattling her knuckles against the control panel.

Thanks to Vai’s mobility, Cordero and her humble crew of three were able to take their current ship with ease, though it wasn’t much to write home about. Nothing seemed off with the ship’s vitals, at least according to the controls laid out before her, and for once, no one seemed to be on their tail. Still, Cordero found it strange that her usually too-talkative A.I. companion had been so silent for the past few hours. “Wake up,” said Cordero, raising her voice. “Vai, are you broken? Do I need a replacement?”

“Captain Cordero,” a calm, digitized voice echoed through the cockpit at such a low volume that the Captain wasn’t sure that she’d heard it in the first place. “You know that finding a replacement for me is impossible, as I am a custom—”

“Is anything wrong with the ship, Vai?” Cordero interrupted, a gloved hand sliding up along the armrest of her chair, her curly hair matted in the back from laying on the headrest all night. She reached back, stretching and running her fingers through the long, dark locks.

“Today’s date is—”

“I know,” she snapped. “I can see what day it is on the computers. So the ship is fine?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Good.”

Cordero fell silent, noticing that at some point within their short exchange, her hands had balled into fists. She let her eyes close once more, and exhaled slowly.

“I’m sorry, Vai,” the Captain mumbled. “I know what day it is. I just don’t want anyone to wake up.”

Her crew mates, Mateo and Olive, were sleeping just next door on two of the four available bunks within the ship. The trio had lucked out with their latest vessel acquisition; the last one only allowed for one occupant in the sleeping quarters at a time, and while that had worked for Cordero, building a real crew again presented problems for her long-gone bachelorette pad. They had only been a real crew for a few months, but they’d been able to make so much progress already. As it stood, “the Pirate, the Prince, and the Puppeteer” were beginning to stir up talk within at least two quadrants. She made a mental note to try and mention the Crows whenever they plundered another military ship again.

“I miss them, Captain.”

The words pulled her back into reality rather harshly, but Cordero couldn’t deny that she still thought about the former Crows almost every day. She folded her arms and leaned back in her seat, her already strenuous frown deepening. “I do too, Vai,” she said. “Hey. Can you play the message?”

Long before she pushed an injured Cordero into the last available escape pod on their ship, Lana had left Vai with a series of messages, dating back to Vai’s first activation. Some were quick reminders for Captain Scarow, a few had been long to-do lists, and more still were addressed directly to Cordero. By the time Cordero had been named Captain of the Crows, Lana had sent her a total of three hundred and twenty-six messages. Vai had every single one still stored in its memory.

“Are you sure?” Vai asked. “We don’t have to do this every year, Captain. It is obvious that it pains you every time.”

“I’m fine,” hissed Cordero. Vai did not respond.

Instead, a green and holographic screen projected against the cockpit glass, and within a few seconds, Lana Crusoe’s face had materialized within the static. Cordero felt herself forcing back an especially painful lump in her throat as she stared into the eyes of the woman who had been her closest companion for almost a decade. The Captain stood up, her grip on her own arms tightening, long fingernails digging into the thick fabric of her scarlet-colored coat.

“Captain, are you ready?”

“Play it, Vai.”

Then, Lana was in motion: tan, tall, and sixteen years old once again, her hair pulled into countless tight braids that wrapped behind her head. She was armed with a stun gun, still raised at the ready. Lana flashed a smile, and her free hand shot up for a salute.

“Reporting in, Captain Scarow. We’re on our way back from the refuel mission. No major complications, completed within two hours and twenty-three seconds, with no casualties on either side. Well, save for the ego of this good station’s Commanding Officer. Yikes.” The holographic woman gave a sheepish half-grin. Cordero thought Lana’s voice sounded like a song, even when shrouded in the static of the ship’s outdated projection program. “Harnod is a pretty industrial planet,” said Lana, “but the atmosphere isn’t too bad, so we should clear that any minute now. Oh, right: we had a little room, so I took on some extra cargo.”

Cordero watched as another young girl approached, dirty and roughed up, so obviously fresh out of a battle that she shouldn’t have experienced at her age. The Captain hadn’t grown much since she was first pulled up to the deck, and as she stared back at herself, she wondered if she’d changed at all.

“This scraggly little thing is named Natalia Cordero, and she just took out ten of those boot-licking military jerks by herself,” Lana ruffled the girl’s unruly hair. “She’s got nothing and no one, and you’re looking for a new runner, right? So, I’m bringing her back. Good thing you didn’t pick up my comm signal! We’ll be at the rendezvous in two hours exactly. Scarecrow, out!” Lana raised her hand for another salute as the girl next to her quietly watched the camera. The girl looked petrified, but filled with morbid curiosity. The transmission cut, and Cordero was left with the stars again, watching the dark expanse of space that surrounded the ship.

“Vai,” Cordero spoke softly, tears streaming down her cheeks. She hadn’t noticed when she began crying, but she didn’t do much to stop it. “I really miss her.”

“I miss her, too.”

“Are we doing what she wanted?”

“I don’t know, Captain,” Vai responded, its voice a soft hum that seemed to envelope her with a sense of warmth and familiarity. “But she wanted you to be happy. Are you?”

Cordero fell silent, wiping at her eyes and thinking once more about the crew that slept just fifteen feet behind her. She thought of their newly-packed cargo hold, of the missions they’d completed so far, and the notoriety they were finally beginning to gain.

“I think so. I’m happy, yeah.”

“Then, I think we’re okay for now.”

Cordero felt the muscles of in her pained forehead begin to ease up as she slid back down into her chair. She smiled sadly, memories of her adventures with Lana still whirling through her mind.

“Thanks, Vai. You should get some rest.”

“Captain, I am a program. I am constantly awake, even as you sleep.”

“Okay. Well, you can spend the night running system checks for Olive, so that she doesn’t have to in the morning.”

The program fell silent, and after a few moments, Cordero felt her lips spread into a wide grin. “Vai? I thought you were always awake.”

The ship itself lurched just slightly, feeling like it had sighed in exasperation at the assignment. Vai was efficient, but never especially eager to do work on the crew’s sporadic off-hours. “Yes, Captain,” Vai replied, the dashboards along the lower half of the cockpit flaring to life and blinking in repetitive, calculated patterns. “Don’t be lazy, Vai.” Cordero kicked her feet up on to a flattened metal strip on the side of the control panel. She stretched, and leaned back into her chair. “G’night.”

“Oh no, we’re not sleeping.” A high-pitched beep followed Vai’s voice. Then another, and another, and another. Cordero’s eyes shot open.

“You bastard.”

“I am a program,” Vai repeated. “As I have no parents and no mortal form, I am incapable of being a bastard.”

Cordero threw her arms up and groaned. They were only two hours from their drop-off point, so if Vai wanted to keep her up, Cordero would do it; just not without a grudge.

“Oh, trust me,” she said, her voice swirling with a bitter mixture of affection and malice. “You are fully capable of that, Vai.”

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