A Rake by Starlight

A Rake by Starlight: Chapter Six

A Rake by Starlight, by C. B. Wright

WHEREIN Our Hero Stumbles Into the Thick of It, and Finds the Experience Regrettable

Ogo was the Invagi word for pretender, and the description was apt. It was much too small to be considered a proper moon: it was, more accurately, a fragment of an asteroid that got caught in Uru’s gravity well and wound up taking a stable orbit around it. It was classified as a moon because the unmanned probe that first mapped the system experienced a programming error in the algorithm used to differentiate between moons and “rogue debris.” Bureaucracy being what it was, however, the designation had never been corrected, and all official star and system charts listed Ogo as the eleventh moon of Uru.

Today, however, Ogo was receiving more attention than it had for most of its history. Shortly after coming into sensor range, Morgan announced he’d found something.

“There’s a radiation trail that ends at the moon.” Morgan sounded pleased by the discovery. “I can’t find any sign of the craft, though.”

“So it landed on Ogo,” Grif said impatiently. “Where is it?”

“I don’t know,” Morgan said. “I don’t see it on the surface. It might take a while to search. That’s a lot of ground to cover.”

“I’ve seen cities bigger than this ‘moon,’” Grif said dismissively, “and they were crowded. This place is empty.”

“The hell you say,” Morgan growled. “It’s covered with craters. Some of the craters have craters. Some of the craters look like they connect to other craters. And if I were going to hide a small ship from prying eyes—and sensor optics—I’d be looking for a…”

Morgan’s voice trailed off.


“Or maybe it won’t take a while to search.” Morgan said. “Maybe I’ll just stumble across the damn thing while I’m trying to explain to you how hard it is to do my job.”

Grif tried to keep the grin out of his voice. “Let’s see it.”

The tactical screen on Grif’s station shifted as one of Uru’s craters displayed. The glint of something not rock could be seen poking just over the crater’s rim.

“I think this is probably what you’re looking for,” Morgan said.

“Good job.” Grif adjusted their orbit to take them over the crater. “Let’s get a closer look.”

The crater was larger than most of its neighbors, easily four or five times the size of the Fool’s Errand. The squib rested close to one of the crater walls. It was misshapen, not designed to be aerodynamic, but to resemble a broken, twisted piece of hull. A long furrow in the ground behind it suggested it had not landed gently.

“There’s residual heat from the engine,” Morgan said. “No heat from the cockpit, though. Either it’s empty or the pilot is dead.”

“Well,” Grif said, “I suppose we need to find out.” He activated the intercom. “All stand by to land.”

The crater was large enough for the Fool’s Errand, so Grif set it down on the other side of the crater. After the ship settled, Grif moved his seat back into the bridge. “Amys, you have the bridge. Faldyth, get Mac, Sar, and Ktk into Bay One and tell them to suit up. Well, don’t tell Ktk to suit up.”

Amys raised an eyebrow. “And where do you think you’re going?”

Grif grinned. “I’m going out. I want to see what’s in the squib.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Amys said.

“I don’t either,” Morgan said. “Actually, I think that’s a pretty bad idea, all things considered.”

Grif grinned even wider. “Too bad. What did you think this was, a military boat? We don’t have regulations here, just my caprice and whimsy.”

Bay One was one of the three largest spaces in the Fool’s Errand. It was currently empty except for the loading and unloading equipment the crew used to handle their cargo, and for the line of lockers near the nadir lock, which contained protective gear. Mac and Sar were already there when Grif arrived. Sar was getting into his vacuum suit, Mac was inspecting his rifle. Both looked up at Grif; Mac nodded, and raised his weapon a bit.

“We are going armed, right Captain?”

Hell yes,” Grif said.

Ktk entered Bay one, chittering nervously about the engines. Ktk was two and a half meters long, and stood two meters high. It looked like a cross between a beetle and a centipede, with the addition of three long prehensile tails at the end. Ktk’s race had a semi-external carapace which was capable of withstanding pressures and radiations levels well above the norm for humanoid races. They could survive in vacuum and go without oxygen for hours at a time, which was convenient—they also had, as far as Grif could tell, thousands of tiny feet. A vacuum suit for a bug would be expensive to tailor.

Ktk asked Grif what they were hoping to find.

Bugs spoke in a binary language that consisted almost entirely of two sounds made by their mandibles—a click, which was usually interpreted as a “k” sound, and a clack which was usually interpreted as a “t” sound. The only other sound made in bug speech was a vibrating sound made by a pair of plates set behind a bug’s mandibles, which were used to communicate nuance and emotion rather than data. Grif and most of his crew understood bug speech fairly well. None of them had a clue how to speak it.

Grif shrugged. “No idea. But we stumbled into something interesting and unusual. I want to know more.”

Ktk replied that the last time they tried to investigate something that Grif thought was interesting and unusual, they wound up in jail.

“We did,” Grif said. “But only because I was right.”

Ktk noted that being right was largely irrelevant when you were also in jail.

“I agree with you on general principle,” Grif said, “but it was, you have to admit, very interesting.”

Ktk emitted an annoyed buzz and didn’t answer.

Grif grinned at Mac and Sar. “It could have been worse. It wasn’t ‘steal from the Radiant Throne and have a bounty the size of Tylaris Prime put on my head’ interesting.”

“That much?” Mac asked. “No wonder we don’t go into Throne space.”

Ktk made a sound that was the bug equivalent of a derisive snort. It stated that the bounty grew larger every time Grif told the story.

“Hey,” Grif protested, “that’s not my fault. Well, I suppose it is, actually. But in my defense, I have a reputation to maintain.”

Ktk suggested that it was possible for Grif to maintain his reputation without resorting to lies and embellishments.

“Nonsense. What about the part of my reputation that calls me a liar and an embellisher?”

Ktk chose not to reply. Instead, it placed a vacuum suit helmet over its eyes and mandibles and sealed it shut. The helmet wasn’t necessary for its survival, but it allowed Ktk to communicate with the rest of the group.

Grif grinned and hurriedly got into a vacuum suit. A few minutes later they were all going down the nadir lock and out on to the surface of Ogo.

The gravity on Ogo was nearly non-existent, so they took propulsion sleds. The interior of this crater was unusually smooth—as large as it was, Grif expected it to have smaller craters in it. The only part of the surface that was marred was the furrow the squib left from its graceless landing.

“Odd place to land,” Mac noted. His voice echoed in Grif’s ear. Grif muttered a vocal cue to turn down the volume in his headset.

“Yeah,” Grif said. “Odd enough to be interesting.”

Ktk wished aloud that Grif would stop using that word.

They activated their sleds, gliding across the surface of the crater toward the squib. It sat silent and gray in the distance.

“Be careful, Grif.” Amys sounded annoyed. That usually meant she was worried.

“Sure thing, Mom.” Grif grinned impishly. Even though she couldn’t see his face, he knew she knew exactly what his expression was at that moment.

As they grew near the squib, Grif ordered Mac and Sar to hang back, weapons ready. Grif and Ktk moved in for a closer look. It was exactly what Mac had estimated, based on the launch pad: just large enough for a small engine, basic life support, navigation, and a single passenger, with the possible addition of some light cargo if necessary. Grif noticed the scoring on the hull: it wasn’t real. It was engineered to blend in with real detritus from a fight.

Grif moved to the front of the craft, while Ktk moved to the rear. “It doesn’t look as sound up close as it did from a distance.”

Ktk agreed. It pointed out a few places that looked like they’d been ripped open from the landing.

“Do you think it was trying to get here?” Mac asked. “Or do you think it was trying to get to one of the other moons, and it just couldn’t make it?”

“Don’t know,” Grif said. “If we can find a way inside we might get some kind of clue…”

“Try the top,” Mac said. “Squibs are usually set into its launch mechanism. Nine times out of ten entry is from the top.”

“Right.” Grif pointed the propulsion sled up, and let it elevate him so he could get an aerial view. “Ah. I see the hatch. Ktk, I’m going to need some help. Mac, Sar, cover us.”

Grif landed gently on the top of the squib and felt the contacts on his boots click as they touched the hull. He walked over to the hull. Electronically sealed, of course. “We’ll have to crack it. Mac?”

Mac put his rifle back into the holster on his propulsion sled, then glided over. He stomped over to the hatch, looked it over once, then went back to the sled, where he began to assemble a laser torch.

“You know,” Mac said, “as soon as we break through this seal, whatever atmosphere is in there will be gone. Anyone inside is going to be pissed.”

“There’s nobody in this thing,” Grif said. “Nobody alive.”

Ktk agreed. It pointed out that the lack of power readings suggested systems failure, probably from the crash.

Mac started up the torch. Grif and Ktk stood back as he began to cut through the top.

“Well,” Mac said, “the good news is it won’t take us very long to find out. She’s cutting through pretty quick. And it looks like there was atmosphere in there after all, because it’s leaking out the—what the hell?”

Mac staggered back in alarm as something red blew out the cut he made in the hull.

“What is that? Coolant?” Mac edged away from the stream of liquid, checking his suit to see if any of it got on the fabric. Some coolants were corrosive and could eat through a standard vacc suit’s lining. “I was only working on one of the hinges, it shouldn’t have—”

“Not Gas,” Grif said. “Look up.”

The red rose up past them as they watched, separating into tiny globes.

“Blood,” Grif said. “Let’s get that hatch open. The occupant isn’t going to care.”

They waited for the blood to stop jetting out of the breach before Mac got back to work. When he was finished, he and Ktk unceremoniously ripped the hatch from the hull—Ktk doing most of the difficult work—and pushed it away from the squib. The hatch floated to the rim of the crater where it slowly—very, very slowly—began to sink to the ground.

Mac turned on a flashlight attached to his suit’s glove. Grif did the same thing.

“Poor bastard,” Mac said.

There were globes of blood everywhere.

“Sar, take a look,” Grif said. “You’re the smallest, you’ll probably be able to get around the best.”

The Ggrlsha grunted in agreement. He holstered his rifle, guided his propulsion sled over to the top of the squib, then slipped his way through the hatch.

“I found the body,” Sar growled. “Part of the pilot’s station tore loose on impact. Impaled him. Tore open his chest.”

“That’s… lovely,” Grif said. “How much room down there?”

“Not much.” Sar hurrmed to himself for a moment. “The squib is carrying cargo.”

Grif raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. It’s large. I am not sure how they managed to place it in the vessel. It will not fit through the hatch.”

Ktk suggested they may have built the squib around the cargo.

“Maybe,” Grif said. “In any event, the trick is to get the cargo out. Amys, you listening?”

“Right here, Grif.” Amys’ voice was crisp and professional. That meant she was either angry and trying not to show it, or curious and trying not to show it.

“Bring the ship right up to us and have Cyrus and the rest of Mac’s crew suit up. We’re going to use the crane to pull the squib into Bay Three.”

“Be right there.”

Grif felt, rather than heard, the rumble of the Fool’s Errand’s engines as they fired up. As Amys took the ship up, a cloud of dirt and dust billowed out from its wake, quickly overtaking Ktk, Mac and Grif, covering them in a layer of grime.

“Love this job,” Mac muttered.

“It gets better.” Grif stared into the darkened hatch thoughtfully. “We need to get that body out of there. Sar, can you unhook the pilot from the crash webbing?”

“Yes,” Sar said. “There. He is now free, Captain. What shall I do with him?”

“Just pass him up here,” Grif said.

“We gonna bury him?” Mac asked.

Grif frowned. “What? No. Why would we do that?”

“Respect for the dead?” Mac suggested.

“Um. Well, you know, it’s not like I feel any ill will toward the guy, and I’ll admit taking his ship and leaving his body behind is a little cold-blooded, but I figure at this point he’s not going to be offended.”

“Yeah,” Mac said reluctantly. “I guess.”

“I am sending him up,” Sar warned, then Grif saw the dead man’s head poke through the hatch.

The pilot’s face was an expressionless, empty mask. Grif gritted his teeth, then reached down, grabbed beneath the corpse’s shoulders, and pulled. The pilot’s torso was very unpleasant to see, and there were parts of it that were normally hidden that were now prominently on display. He tugged again, and the rest of the body floated up and out of the squib. As he dragged down the length of the hull, he could feel the ground vibrate as Amys landed the Fool’s Errand a short distance from the squib.

“Right,” Grif said. “Let’s see who this poor bastard is. Ktk, I need you to search the corpse. My gloves are too thick for this kind of work.”

Two of Ktk’s tails snaked around the body, searching through the dead man’s pockets. It asked if it was considered standard practice in human society to rifle through the pockets of the dead.

“Yes,” Grif said, “But usually the government does it first.”

Ktk retrieved a datacard from the dead man’s jacket pocket. Grif fumbled with a panel on his chest and popped open the cover to his suit’s reader.

“Let me take a look.”

Ktk inserted the datacard into Grif’s reader. Immediately a name and a face appeared on the heads up display in Grif’s helmet.

“Well. Damn it all to hell…”

“What?” Amys cut in again, wary.



“Nothing,” Grif repeated. He looked at the name and scowled. “Of course by ‘nothing’ I mean ‘every damn thing in the galaxy.’ Uh… we’re going to have to take the body with us. I guess we’ll need something to put it in.”

“Grif…” Amys’ wariness had morphed into resignation. “Exactly who was piloting that squib?”

“Is it someone we know?” Mac asked.

“No,” Grif said. “Not exactly. We never met. But I’m pretty sure you’ll recognize the name. Assuming the card isn’t stolen, the pilot of the squib was Stebil Tanz.”

There was a long, drawn out silence on the line. A moment later both Amys and Cyrus began cursing over the channel. He thought he heard Morgan in the background as well.

“I am not familiar with the name,” Sar said.

“Stebil Tanz was the old Baron Tylaris’ doctor,” Grif said. “The one who found him dead. The one who performed the autopsy on the body.”

Ktk chittered uneasily and shoved the body a little further away from itself with one of its tails.

Mac pointed at the body. “He was on the Suntz transport?”

“Yeah,” Grif said. “It looks that way.”

“Damn it all!” Cyrus snarled over the comm. “That’s just… it’s just…”

His voice trailed off.

“Damn. How do you do it, Grif?”

Grif looked down at the body and sighed. “It’s a gift.”

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