“Any luck yet?”
Captain Ortega had been pacing near Ensign Trell’s workstation for the better part of the last hour. He’d been trying not to hover, but the ship was too small for him to stay far away. He knew that he could get restless when he didn’t have much to contribute to tense situations, so he’d tried to limit himself. Trell had been patient so far, but it was obvious by the way she glared at the screen that she was getting frustrated.
“No,” she said. “Reconstructing everything he did is challenging. He worked around the software some of the time that his mind was within our equipment. Usually the ship can create a simple log of everything it does, but that’s a function of the software itself and not something that gets recorded when the hardware is acting on its own. Or… at his direction. Whatever your great enemy is, he was acting as a secondary control program while he was outside of his own body. Without a log, I have to reconstruct all the possible changes. The only clues I have are our own location, speed, and the entry from when he returned to his own body to leave through the airlock. I’m close to figuring out where he escaped, but there are still a lot of variables to sift through.”
“Right,” said Ortega. “Sorry to trouble you.”
Trell nodded and continued working. She hadn’t even looked up from the screen. Andrew backed away quietly.
“Stop pestering my crew,” said Captain Calen, rising from her chair on the bridge. “Trell will give us updates as soon as she has them. We’ll find your terrible foe, but we’ll do so on our time. Now, join me in the dining hall.”
“I’m not very hungry.”
“That’s not a request, Ortega,” said Calen. “Don’t forget that you’re my prisoner here. I don’t have to confine you to the cell while you’re well behaved, but right now you’re bothering Trell while she plies her essential trade, and I won’t have you marring her exemplary work. Over to the dining hall before you feel the wrath of my Maelstrom Ray!”
Ortega knew that Calen was joking, but there was a frightening sincerity in her eyes when she spoke. He’d heard it said that Morcalans loved metaphor and hyperbole so much that it didn’t take much goading to turn such statements into reality, and he could believe it based on the short time he’d spent with Calen and Trell.
A short walk later, he and Calen entered the tiny dining room that was generously called a “hall.” Calen entered a security code and opened what appeared to be a refrigerated safe. She removed two slender glasses and a dark green bottle from within. As she poured the chilled drink into the glasses, Ortega got a look into the safe and nearly gasped. In the back of the chilled vault was a goblet of a dull yellow color that was studded with jewels. In another context it might seem gaudy, but something about its position in the back of a box with a layer of frost gave it an allure that he couldn’t quite express. Calen obstructed his view of the goblet when she returned the bottle, and removed it from sight entirely when she closed and locked the safe. She sat on one side of the hall’s small table and waved for Ortega to sit at the other.
“Let’s see if the Astroguard’s finest prepares their palates for true challenges. Spinewaster Ale, strong even by Morcalan standards.”
“Named for the Spinewaster province,” said Calen, sniffing the beverage in her glass. “A region conquered over two centuries ago through a particularly violent method of assassinations. They say that the spine-tingling sensation it provides is a happy coincidence, but I’ve always wondered if the for-hire murderers of the region didn’t repurpose their poisonmaking prowess for mixological amusements. I don’t believe that it’s truly an ale, but that’s a minor failing for a mighty drink.”
“It must be good to foster a local legend that way,” said Ortega. “It would make people doubt the rumor just enough to purchase it.”
“On any other world, I might agree with you,” said Calen. “For Morcalans, boasting that we drink even the poison that slays our enemies would be a stronger selling point. There is just enough dishonor in such history to make it possible, if the original brewer was as meek as an offworlder.”
Ortega raised an eyebrow.
“My apologies,” said Calen. “Come. Be this poison or brew, let us enjoy it now. Between Emperor Dyson and The Soul Survivor, we may never enjoy another drink again.”
Calen enthusiastically drained her glass. Ortega drank a modest amount, but stopped moments after the first gulp. A shooting sensation, not unlike pain, ran up his back. He had expected a tingling shake, possibly a tickle. Instead, he was reminded of a time when he’d been attacked by a driftmaw jellyfish. The poison kept him out of duty for the better part of a month. The beverage didn’t actually hurt, and it didn’t come with the fevered hallucinations, but the sensation was so similar to the initial sting that he shuddered involuntarily. Calen laughed raucously as he stared at the drink in shock.
“Now you’ve had a real drink, Captain,” she said, raising her glass in salute. “I won’t think less of you for not finishing it.”
“You’re not Morcalan,” she said. “The bar starts low. I grow weary of how softly most off-worlders need to be treated. You can at least keep up. That may not be the strongest drink I could have offered you, but it’s not a tame one, either.”
“Even so, I’ll see if I can finish it off,” said Ortega. “Though I doubt I’ll ever try it again.”
“Likely not,” said Calen. “Even on my world it’s rare. I received that bottle for rescuing cargo from pirates. The rightful owners were rich and grateful, and could spare it. I try to only crack it open on special occasions, such as our imminent demise. Just another treasure for the collection.”
“You do seem to have an eye for value.”
“I appreciate craftsmanship and practicality. Everyone does. I just know that it’s worth holding on to.”
“Where did you get the fancy goblet in the refrigerator, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Calen paused and poured more of the Spinewaster Ale into her glass. She considered the drink.
“That was originally in the storehouses of the Quicksilver Prince, the war merchant who laid seige to the moons of Zorminten. I lead the assault that broke his embargo. I forced my way through the command ship’s walls. I rescued the Zorminten Council of Rulers, and returned each to their moon. And when it was time to face certain death at his hand to spare the lives of two of those worlds, I conquered his lair, escaped his Neon Menagerie, and sabotaged his teleportation chamber when he knew that the day was no longer his. We dueled then in single combat. I won’t bore you with that story since it should be obvious which of the two of us died. Victory was mine that day, at greater cost than I care to say. His riches were mine to plunder. From everything that I beheld of his riches, I chose only the goblet.”
“Did he have nothing else you valued?”
“Everything he had was something of value. The goblet was the only thing of worth. That precious chalice will serve me well the day I become an admiral. Should I take a husband, that is the glass that I will use when I make the first toast in his honor. When I die, my ashes will fill that goblet, so that some will be cast to the sea and the rest will be launched to the stars. I don’t know the details of my life yet, captain, but that goblet will guide me through some important moments.”
“Not just any glass would do, then.”
“Of course not,” said Calen. “Why should I settle for anything less than the best?”
“It seems strange to me to define the rest of your life by a piece of treasure you found.”
“Not the rest of my life, Ortega. Just a few moments that became clearer the moment I claimed the goblet as my own. Did you not get an immediate sense of your future, your changing destiny, as soon as you first became a captain?”
“Yes, but I became a captain during a field promotion when everyone in my squad was being taken out by a giant insect living in a newly settled mining colony,” said Ortega. “I knew my destiny was to either play the part well, or die trying.”
“There may be hope for you yet, then,” said Calen, leaning back in her chair and raising her glass of Spinewaster Ale. “Dangers are meant to be experienced, and fears are just challenges for accepting.”
Ortega didn’t think he agreed with that sentiment, but as Calen drained the rest of her glass he thought he could imagine why the Morcalans would see it that way. Trell leaned in from the hallway, looking grim.
“I’ve found him, Captain,” she said. “The Soul Survivor’s escape trajectory is mapped with eighty percent certainty, assuming he’s not content to drift forever in hard vacuum.”
“Wonderful!” shouted Calen. “Let’s not waste any time in finding this monster, and destroying him once and for all for what he did to my ship.”
“You should know that his trajectory sends him through the Cypulchral Cloud.”
The room suddenly felt emptier. A look of concern crossed Captain Calen’s face, a look that seemed out of place based on what Ortega had seen before. Her normally boisterous, borderline violent mood seemed to have receded, like a monstrous and happy crustacean pulling into its shell when a more dangerous creature drew near.
“I have wonderful news, Ortega,” said Calen. “Your great enemy has perished. And if he hasn’t, then he’s no longer someplace that I’m willing to follow.”