WHEREIN Things Appear to be Going Well Until It Is Too Late To Do Anything About It
Ktkt’tkkt’kktt’tkkk’tktk’ttkt’tkkk’kktt’kktk’tk–or Ktk to the bipeds it traveled with–waited impatiently as the technician from Tylaris Industries explained how the new Artificial Tachyon Induction Drive would be installed. The technician was describing the process using a level of detail Captain Vindh would probably have called “mind-numbing,” and Ktk already knew the process. It probably knew how to install the drive better than the technician did, but it waited patiently while he droned on about the T-420 induction field and how it would be attached to the fusion drive to draw the power it needed, and how it would be linked to the ship sensors so it could cut off when a gravity spike was detected, and every other aspect of the installation.
Years of traveling had taught Ktk that other races, particularly humans, were rendered nearly useless when denied the opportunity to engage in exposition. It was a polite creature, and didn’t wish to offend this human… and it decided there were likely social customs surrounding this need to explain things that were already known, so it waited patiently for the human to decide he was finished speaking. It was obviously very important to the technician that Ktk be kept informed of their progress, and Ktk decided this extended explanation was tied in to the human’s sense of professionalism.
For the most part it didn’t mind. The human was fairly pleasant to work with. His reaction to Ktk’s appearance had been mild and quickly mastered. When he learned Ktk was in fact the chief engineer of the Fool’s Errand, he accepted the information immediately and made a point to deal with it directly. This more than anything else did much to increase his esteem in Ktk’s compound eyes, and when Captain Vindh had asked how things were going after the first week the bug was pleased to report that everything was quite satisfactory.
Ktk had only two complaints. The first was that the technician and his crew insisted on calling it “sir.” Ktk’s species had a complicated reproductive cycle, and gender was essentially a superfluous distinction. They didn’t think of themselves as either “male” or “female,” preferring the gender-neutral “it” as a more accurate description. Many other races found this disconcerting and tended to treat Ktk’s species as though they were all male, especially when they were trying to be polite. It was a minor and inconsequential error, but Ktk always found the imprecision of the title annoying.
The other annoyance was that Ktk was forced to wear a translator when dealing with the refit crew. Other than the crew of the Fool’s Errand, it had met few creatures who understood its native language… and it wasn’t capable of producing the sounds necessary to speak any of theirs. The translator interpreted the clacks it produced with its mandible and translated them into other languages, which was very useful. Unfortunately, what the translator didn’t do was factor in the sounds created by the two plates located just behind the mandible, so there was no way to introduce subtlety or emotion into what it was trying to say. The translator converted Ktk’s speech in an even, carefully modulated tone that it found very aggravating, especially since it depended on the device for most of its social interaction.
When Vod and Gurgan were around, Ktk preferred to deactivate the translator and let them do the translating instead, but at present they were working with Cutter and Hari on the weapons upgrade. Ktk needed to stay in engineering because it was most qualified to calibrate and integrate the new equipment with the rest of the ship’s systems. Ktk, like all its kind, had a nearly innate understanding of complex mathematics: they were unique among the sentient races in that they developed an understanding of binary mathematics before developing a written alphabet.
The technician finished explaining what he and his crew would do next, and looked at Ktk expectantly. Ktk moved its head in a manner that approximated a human nod, and chittered its approval. The translator interpreted this as “I am pleased,” which the human apparently found acceptable. He barked out orders to his underlings, who seemed a bit more nervous around Ktk than their leader, and they set about actually installing the T-420 ATID.
The crew had wasted no time taking advantage of their new wealth, and set to the task of updating everything they could find. Grif’s eyes lit up when Ktk, Gurgan, Vod, Hari and Cutter laid out their suggested improvements: new ATID, new fusion drive, upgrades to the screens and sensors, modifications to the guns… and of course they were gutting and redesigning the cargo bays, since the hidden bays were no longer hidden.
When they were finished, the Fool’s Errand would “be a new girl,” as Grif put it. As it was, they were nearly halfway finished.
Ktk found itself wishing the process could be sped up. It didn’t like being in one place for extended periods of time. They’d already been on Tylaris Prime a month, and it would take another month, perhaps two before the ship would be ready for the test flights needed to get all systems working smoothly.
Ktk broke out of its reverie and saw Captain Vindh standing at the top of the stairwell leading down to the engine pit. He looked a bit worse for wear from Ktk’s perspective–drinking and gambling again, though Vindh preferred to call it “interviewing potential crew members.”
“Everything all right?” The Captain asked.
Ktk replied that everything was going fine. It added they were about to install the ATID, and it didn’t foresee any problems.
“Oh, right… the 420. Hey, did you hear they’re coming out with a new model? The 450… apparently it’s about two-thirds the size, but nearly twice as efficient. Can you believe it? We haven’t even installed ours, and it’s already obsolete…”
Ktk answered, somewhat crossly, that this wasn’t the kind of thing the Captain needed to be telling it at that specific moment.
Vindh chuckled. “The curse of technology… there’s always a better tool than the tool you have. Technology can’t remain static, at least not in the Baronies. There no market for static. I bet right at this moment they’re already working on the 470.”
Ktk stated that irrespective of the truth it was impolite to tell an engineer that a replacement for an old part was anything less than perfect.
Grif ginned. “Sorry, bug. Didn’t mean to burst your bubble. I suspect you’ll wind up doing what you always do, and optimize the damn thing so that it works just as well as the newer model anyway.”
“What?” The technician interrupted, looking alarmed. “No! No, you can’t do that. You void the warranty if you do that!”
“Since when has Tylaris Industries ever honored a warranty? No, don’t get upset, I was just leaving.” Captain Vindh winked at Ktk, whose plates ground together in a brief burst of laughter. “Ktk, I’m going out to see about a replacement for Cyrus…. no, I really am. This isn’t an excuse to drink in yet another dodgy bar. I think everyone else is off too, so keep an ear–ah… stalk, I guess–on the comm channels, OK?”
Ktk replied that it would, and wished the Captain luck.
Vindh nodded, grinned at the technician, shouted “take care of my baby!” and left.
Ktk watched the technicians work for a while. When it was satisfied that they needed no extra guidance, it excused itself and went to its cabin.
Ktk’s cabin was sparse: it had no furniture other than a desk with a computer terminal and a second desk that served as a workbench. The room was comfortably large for a crewman’s cabin, but it seemed smaller due to the clutter–the floor was littered with spare parts, discarded tools, and half-disassembled gadgets. Clutter was a luxury Ktk permitted itself when they were groundside: in space, everything had to be stored carefully so it wouldn’t go flying about in zero gravity.
Ktk turned on the terminal and patched a comm channel to the bridge so it would be informed of any incoming messages. The terminal beeped softly: there was already a message in the queue. Ktk queued the message and saw it was from Cyrus Mak, addressed to itself. It selected the message, and Cyrus’ shaggy head filled the terminal screen.
“Hey there, bug,” Cyrus boomed, grinning good-naturedly. “Got your last message. Yeah, I found it! Saw it in the shipyards a few days ago. A refurbished scouting vessel… old-model Hummingbird, believe it or not. Tiny thing–crew of three or four, cargo bay good enough for private jobs but not for general commerce–and only one turret, currently without weapons. But I qualified for the loan, seeing as I was putting three million standard down… that’s right, three million! Don’t look so surprised, bug, I’ve been saving up for this.
“It needs a little work, and I was kind of hoping you might wander by the shipyards in a day or two and see what you think. I can handle most of it, but I’d a like a few pointers on the fine-tuning. The drive is a beaut–well it will be, as soon as I get a few parts. And I might have some leads on a crew! Grif’s been helping me there, and I think I’ve found two lads I can trust. Well, if you can call a Ggrlsha a lad, at any rate.
“I sign the papers on it in a week.” The image of Cyrus beamed. “After that, I need to get a line on a gun for the turret–I hear from Cutter an’ Hari that you lot are upgrading yours, you think Grif would be partial to selling one of the old ones cheap? I didn’t want to ask when I had the chance, since he was helping me with something else at the time… maybe you could put in a word, eh? Anyway.
“Oh, hey, a bit of news–an Alliance diplomatic ship and a fully-loaded battle cruiser just pulled up into orbit a few hours ago. Some higher up in the Alliance is talking to the Baron about something… probably trying to get the old man to join up again. The guy handling the red tape for my loan has a brother who works in the Baron’s palace, and apparently the Tylaris diplomats are trying to figure out how to say ‘stuff it’ as politely as possible.
“Anyway, let me know if you can drop by and take a look. I’d be grateful… say ‘hi’ to everyone for me. I imagine the place is a lot more fun since that nit Doma left…
“So fill me in on the refit! Did Cutter and Hari find a decent upgrade to replace the old cannon? Hopefully it’ll be something they can actually fire this time.” Cyrus laughed. “They never could hit anything with the old one. And what about the engine room? Did you go for the T-420 like you were planning? You know, I hear they’re coming out with a T-450…”
Ktk turned off the transmission, annoyed. That was the second time today someone had mentioned a new top-of-the-line item it didn’t have. Ktk already found itself wondering about the 450. How could it possibly increase efficiency over the 420?
It was very pleased Cyrus had found himself a ship. That was what Cyrus had wanted to do, after all, ever since the first day Ktk had met him. On the other hand, it missed the man. There wasn’t a member of the crew Ktk disliked, with the exception of Doma, who was thankfully no longer with them. They were all interesting people, and counted them all as friends, but it was especially fond of Cyrus. It had been tempted to leave when Cyrus had, but it considered the Fool’s Errand home, and the chaos its captain created wherever he went was much too interesting to walk away from.
It buzzed with irritation and discontent, then distracted itself by scrolling through the ship’s entertainment database. It chose a selection of music–actually, a recording of two E4 C#4 G4 A4 F4 F4/A#4/E4 males having a conversation about something that was most likely mundane, but to any other race it was exactly the same as music–and settled down to read up on the latest news.
Half an hour later, Ktk’s terminal informed it that someone in orbit was trying to hail the ship.
Ktk ordered the comm station to acknowledge the hail and place the connection on standby, then made its way to the bridge, wondering who was trying to make contact. It had a vague image of Commodore Mavis circling Tylaris Prime in Centurion, trying to goad Griff into taking off. It wasn’t a likely scenario, but Ktk couldn’t think of any orbital communications they were expecting.
When it reached the bridge, Ktk scuttled over to the comm station and opened the channel with one of its tails. To it’s alarm, the main screen resolved into the official seal of the Alliance of Free Worlds Diplomatic Corps. The AFW seal faded, and in its place appeared the face of a vaguely familiar woman with grayish-blond hair.
“Where is he?” demanded the woman.
She had the air of someone who was used to getting what she wanted immediately, if not sooner, and the brusqueness of her question made Ktk uneasy. It replied that if she was referring to Captain Vindh, he was not currently on board.
The woman snorted. “The hell he isn’t. I want to speak to him, and I want to speak to him now.”
She dressed as a civilian, Ktk noted, but her bearing was distinctly no-nonsense military. Ktk replied again that Grif wasn’t on board, that he’d gone into the city on business.
The woman was not convinced. “Business. He’s never done an honest day’s work in his life. I don’t even want to know what–” she stopped, and stared out at Ktk as if seeing it for the first time. “What the hell are you?”
Ktk explained that it was the chief engineer of the Fool’s Errand.
“That’s not what I meant.”
Ktk then explained that the name of its species was too complicated for humans to pronounce, but that many simply called them “bugs.”
“Whatever. Look. I don’t have time to keep playing these games with him. My brother might think he can dodge me forever, but he can’t–I’ll track him down sooner or later, and it’ll be better for him if he just agrees to meet me outright.”
The word brother set off an alarm in the back of Ktk’s mind.
“I’m not joking, bug. I have no, zero, absolutely no patience. Please tell him that his sister demands he call her back, or she will do something to make him very unhappy.”
The word sister caused Ktk’s internal alarm to grow more urgent. It replied, as noncommittally as it could, that it would see that Captain Vindh received the message.
“He damn well better,” the woman snarled, then cut off the transmission abruptly.
The main screen darkened, and all was quiet. Ktk wondered if Cyrus needed a full-time engineer.