4920 words, short story
The Pirate's Consigliere
Sometimes piracy is easy.
The generation ship invited us aboard in the first sentence of their message. No threats needed. The ship was gigantic, at least two centuries old. That and the utter naivete told me a lot.
“What does that mean, consigliere Katla?” Einar, the captain, growled. “Trap?” He was standing dead center on the ceiling, with Helgi dead center on the floor facing him and all the other men crouching on the walls.
“Best guess after five minutes,” I said, to remind him I couldn’t work miracles without information. “They’re early leavers, from before the Dispersal. I suggest friendly words and hidden weapons for now.”
“I’ll think about it.” The captain would never admit he took my advice. He could never show weakness like that in front of the men.
“That explains why they’re aiming for a planetary orbit,” I mused out loud. “They think they’ll be settling there.”
“They’re from before the Katabiotics destroyed Earth.” Another tip: never tell them everything you’ve deduced at once. It makes them feel stupid and dribbling out the information will make you look more valuable. Which I am, of course. Invaluable.
“They’ll be easy pickings,” the captain’s son crowed. It was Helgi’s first raid. He slapped his wrist knife into his palm and slashed the air with it. His bodyguards cheered.
The captain dealt Helgi a hard blow without even looking backward. Helgi didn’t seem impressed. I worried about Helgi. He was too stupid to value me.
Helgi threw me a venomous glance. “Always arguing caution, consigliere,” he said. “You won’t get away with that when I’m captain.”
That’s why it was in my best interests to keep Einar alive. He trusted my counsel, so he kept me out of battle, fed me, clothed me, and so far hadn’t given me to his men to play with. The best a woman could expect.
The airlocks met and coupled. Our airlocks can mate with just about any human design, even though they keep trying to change them to keep us out. This one was super easy. These people didn’t know a thing about caution or what True Humans would do to them, it seemed.
Air hissed in. It smelled surprisingly sweet.
“Keep the men back,” I murmured to Einar. “They have good air. More use to us if it’s intact.”
“The whole ship?” Einar whispered back.
It might be a lumbering pile centuries old, but it might hold greater value intact than stripped, I started to think.
“Keep their techs alive,” I sighed softly so that Helgi wouldn’t hear. “Just talk until you know enough to kill the unimportant ones.”
I watched Einar’s attempt at strategic thought. He wanted Helgi to get raiding experience, but he knew full well the boy would go berserk once set loose.
“Helgi. We need to bring techs. Go fetch some from the pens. Untouched, not even a tooth mark, you hear?”
Helgi cursed but wilted under his father’s glare. He left with his men.
“What a coup if we could return to the fleet with a ship like this. What honor you would gain,” I said. I had learned that if I wanted Einar to do something, I needed to repeat it at least three times before it stuck in his head.
The airlock opened.
Three people were waiting. They reoriented themselves to be level with us. A tall woman in eye-searing blue and two men in jumpsuits the color of watered blood. They must be making clothes from something other than human skin and hair. I searched for ways to denote their hierarchy. The woman seemed too old to be a gift to Einar. The men looked soft and friendly, no adornments on their faces and hands, one of them with hair shaved close. That would make a dull scalp. The other one was very beautiful, with a full head of black, curly hair and amber eyes. I told myself to stop staring.
Any moment now Einar would kill them from sheer annoyance at their lack of power display, or second-best case, deference.
The woman had inconspicuous gold bars on her collar. She had the proudest bearing, and I saw she was about to speak.
“The woman is the leader,” I hissed to Einar. Would he accept that, though? But he’d eaten his way through enough strange cultures to take such things in his stride. “Pretend to agree until you know more.” That was a bit close to giving him an order. I kept my eyes on the welcome party and mentally crossed my fingers.
“Well met, strangers,” the woman said. She was actually smiling. Her teeth weren’t filed. Her accent was strange and barely understandable.
It was up to me to speak. Einar couldn’t be seen negotiating.
“I am Katla, consigliere to Captain Einar here. I speak for him. May we not be strangers for long.”
“I’m Captain Olukwumbe, and I speak for myself. These are Nguyen Tomh and Gianni Rautavaraa.” She gestured. “We intended to settle this planet, but we also realize that we set out centuries ago and that things might have changed. Still, the planet seems uninhabited?”
Aha. They didn’t know about the Katabiotics. They didn’t know how unsafe a planet was. “We live on our ships. The planet is yours to take.”
I saw an opportunity. If we allowed these people to settle the planet, we could use them as food and labor for a long time, as long as the Katabiotics didn’t swing by to destroy the solar system.
“Get on with it,” Einar said. He had no patience. “Talk about the technicians.”
“We would like to propose an exchange,” I said. “Some of our people would like to visit your ship, and maybe you would, too?”
They all smiled. All of their teeth were blunt. Cattle. No scalps, no bones of their enemies adorned their clothes. No signs of rank, bar that subtle little pip on the captain’s collar. We normally preyed on the desperate and destitute at the fringes of civilized space. But Einar (or really, I) had been right. These were easy pickings.
Still, they might have hidden weapons. It wouldn’t do to show our teeth too soon.
“Don’t smile,” I whispered to Einar.
“I never smile,” he said. All too true.
The generation-ship people conferred amongst themselves. They smiled, they gestured, they gave away their intentions with their whole bodies.
Giggling sounded. A boy and a young woman of about twelve peeked around the door. “Can we say hello?” they said, sounding unafraid and bold.
What? Maybe they were offerings? Dinner?
“Get away from here you two,” the Gianni man said. “Go play.”
The children ran off, giggling. The young woman acted as if she was a boy child. The interaction gave me a strange feeling in my stomach, one I had no name for. I told it to stay put and to not disturb me in the middle of a parlay.
I murmured to Einar. “Captain. There are too many to slaughter at once. A waste of meat. I see your plan now. You’d let them go down to the planet, let them settle, and harvest fresh meat at our convenience.”
Einar rubbed his chin scar. I was glad he’d eaten well before we left, on the pickings of our last raid. If he’d been hungry, I don’t know if I could have kept him from tearing into one of the three right here and then.
“We’ve discussed your proposal, and we’re agreeable,” the woman captain said without preamble. So the other two were also leaders, or consiglieres instead of bodyguards? “Gianni, my happiness officer, and Tomh, my chief technology officer, are happy to come and visit your ship.”
Leaders, but they chose to put themselves into danger? Maybe this Captain Olukwumbe was making a play to eliminate her competition. Or maybe they didn’t realize this was a hostage exchange. Actually, a pretend hostage exchange. Einar would send people he didn’t care about, as he didn’t plan to send the hostages back.
A messenger boy scurried up to Einar. “Captain, we brought a technician.”
I looked to see who and had to clamp down hard on my dismay. I saw the slave with new eyes. To show them this man, skeletally thin, barely clad, and filthy, his skin striped with old and new scars, would reveal far too much about us.
Before I could speak Einar said, “Katla, you and this filth will board the ship and inspect it.”
I gaped. I was to go aboard their ship? That meant I was as expendable as the slave!
Ice water cascaded down my spine. This was Einar getting rid of me. I hadn’t foreseen this at all. I’d failed in my mission to keep myself alive.
I waited numbly while the technician and happiness officer came over. Who had ever heard of a happiness officer? Although, in a way, it had been my job to keep my captain happy. Maybe we were colleagues.
The officers stared past me with horror on their faces. I turned to see. Oh, the tech. I no longer had to care about their opinion of us. I was about to die.
Two other men appeared, these ones in white with red crosses on their fronts. I’d seen no runner. They must have other means of communicating. They took our tech away, strangely tender with him. I didn’t want to know what they were going to do to him.
I might as well get a good look at the ship and enjoy the coolness and the sweet air before they killed me when they found out Einar had killed and eaten the other hostages. My nice, sensible plan of using them as livestock was down the drain too, I bet.
Two more officers came for me.
“Hi, I’m Isara,” the taller one said. I hadn’t realized she was a woman. “What a lovely wrap you have there. Is it leather?”
“Thank you,” I said, “it was my mother.” It had always comforted me to have her skin so close.
“Your mother’s . . . how nice?”
“Yes, she had beautiful skin,” I said.
Isara looked at me oddly. I’d better distract her. Works on toddlers and captains. “What’s that?”
“That’s just a printer. Would you like something?”
“Er . . . ”
“Tea? Coffee, soda?”
A distant memory surfaced, a prisoner moaning about the lack of fish tea. “Fish tea,” I said.
“We don’t have that,” she said, “but will fish soup do?”
The “fish soup” tasted odd, but I was hardly in a position to decline food. These people certainly had strongly flavored flesh, though. I wondered when they’d kill me. Not knowing was torture.
She showed me around the ship while I thought frantically. It smelled of nothing. As if no one ever slept or ate here. The walls were adorned with pictures in green and blue, strangely pleasant to the eye, as if I’d seen them before, which I knew I hadn’t.
It was so hard to think here. Where were the slaves who kept this place so clean? They must hide them. Strange. Having many slaves denoted strength and wealth. We had been hungry for a long time, so not many slaves left. On the other hand, these people didn’t need slaves to show their wealth. Their sleek hides, rounded stomachs, and fearless children were enough. And where were their weapons?
“We expected to see strange things when we arrived,” Isara remarked. “Aliens, maybe. Or that faster ships from our future would have already settled the planet. But not human beings living solely on space ships. Why didn’t you settle this planet? You obviously know about it.”
I thought carefully before answering. Did I still owe Einar my loyalty? Then I should lie. Or, since he’d discarded me, I owed him nothing.
And. And. I could bargain with them. People this rich and secure would need a lot of weapons to fight off raiders like us. They didn’t seem very security aware, but with my knowledge and help, they might be able to defeat Einar.
I wouldn’t mind living with them. In fact, my stomach flipped, my heart beat faster, and my face burned at the dangerous joy of that idea. But we’d have to be quick. Left alone, he was going to do something foolish and lethal soon.
Also, these people would be horrified at what Einar was doing to the hostages right now. Not only did I not see slaves or prisoners, but also no scarred or maimed or sick. I saw old people. Really old, not like Einar, who was one of the oldest men of our clan, but really old with white hair and stooped backs. They took care of their elderly. I didn’t know what they did to their sick, for all I knew it was straight out of the airlock, but I was starting to think they wouldn’t.
I had to seal a deal before they realized what kind of people I came from, before they spaced me in disgust.
“Isara, can I talk to the leader of your war band?” I said.
Her eyebrows rose high. “War band? We, er, argh. How about the chief of security?”
My eyebrows rose in return. The chief of not very security. Maybe there could be a role for me here. “Yes, please.”
“Can it wait until after the tour?”
Isara touched a piece of jewelry on her chest. Her eyelids fluttered and her lips moved. Ah, this was their secret way of communicating. I should steal one of those.
“Follow me,” Isara said.
She led me to a room with only one occupant.
A thickset woman past childbearing age—but she looked well-fed, as if still useful—stuck out her hand. I hesitated. A warrior’s hands are not safe to touch. Yet I sensed she didn’t mean to attack me. Or have sex with me. It gave me the shivers to touch another adult so casually, but our palms met.
“Hello Katla, I’m Chief Wen. Katla is a lovely name. It means volcano in Icelandic. Are your people from there?”
I just stared. I knew neither what a volcano or an Icelandic was. “We’re from that space ship over there.”
“Sit down, then,” she said and gestured to a chair.
I thought it was a chair. It looked as much like a chair as she looked like me. Sitting in it would be like floating on a warm, comfy sea of uncertainty. I stayed standing. “Einar will capture your ship and kill or take everyone on it.”
Isara and Wen exchanged glances. They didn’t look surprised. “Is it true your wrap is made of your mother’s skin?”
So Wen had been listening to our conversation all along. Of course.
“What about the rest of your clothes?”
I looked down at myself. I wore leggings and soft shoes. Being a consigliere, I need not cover the scars where my breasts had been. I shrugged. “Who knows.”
The women exchanged glances again. My heart thumped in my chest. I didn’t know why, but I had made another big mistake. For all their rounded breasts and soft smiles, these women were consiglieres like me. They were unraveling me just like I was unraveling their society and its secrets. What had they learned so far?
“Take action now,” I said. “Einar will attack soon. You don’t want to be his captives.”
“What is happening to our people in your ship?”
“Slaves or dinner,” I said.
They visibly paled. At last.
“Worse than we thought.” Wen did their eye-fluttering, lip-moving thing. Her secret language to give orders to her staff. I hoped. “But our plans are already underway. We knew we were in danger the moment we saw you. Okay, quickly now. Why are you telling us this? What do you want?”
“I want you to destroy the ship and everyone on it,” I said. “I want to save you so I can become like you.”
They stared at me the way only other consiglieres had ever stared at me. I wanted so badly to talk to them about everything. They would understand me, and I would learn so much. I hadn’t realized how I’d hungered for people like me.
Wen magicked a picture onto the hereto blank wall. Einar and me.
I’d never seen myself like this. I looked absolutely feral, even next to Einar. My hair was tangled, my face pockmarked, my clothes filthy, you could count my ribs beneath the badly healed scars on my breast. My head swam with shame and self-consciousness. What did they think of me?
And what was worse, I could view it side by side, with these clean, smooth-skinned, well-fed, relaxed looking people. In clean, empty offices. No smells, no dirt. No fear. It hit me hard.
I couldn’t answer. My throat had closed up and my hands shook. I was filth. I was nothing.
Thankfully, the picture changed to one with just black lines on a white background.
“Tell me about your ship. Where are the weapons, what kind, how many warriors?”
I hadn’t understood it was a picture of Einar’s ship, but once she’d told me I could see how the lines represented walls. I swallowed. They needed my knowledge. I clung to that. The same thing that had gotten me out of the warrens and to Einar’s side would get me out of the trough once more. I wasn’t clean or sleek or pretty, but my brain was equal to theirs.
Suddenly Wen sat down and clutched her chest. A heart ailment? It made me feel a little better to learn these people weren’t perfect and could get sick or hurt just like me.
“What—what . . . ” she stuttered. Her eyes fluttered and now Isara received the same shock.
They stared at me in horror.
So. They had received a horrible message, about, let me guess, the hostages being killed or tortured.
“You are hearing what Einar does to captives?” I said.
They were still unable to speak.
“I told you he would do that.”
They exchanged glances.
“I see now why there is so much hurry,” Wen said heavily, her bloom and confidence gone. “Tell me Katla, what else is going to happen?”
They had made a picture of me and Einar. Maybe they had pictures from the captives. “What pictures do you have?”
She projected a moving picture onto the wall. It was Einar’s great hall, as if I were seeing it with my own eyes. One of the hostages knelt before me, stripped naked, floggings striping his skin. He blubbered. A foot stepped forward onto the floor next to the captive. Einar’s curved yellow toes and blood red tattoos. A blade flashed and the top of the captive’s head flew off. It was a nice clean cut, Einar’s trademark move.
The pictures fluttered and jumped and disappeared. It seemed to me the pictures came from someone’s eyes, probably the other hostage, and he’d just fainted. That would gain him no respect.
“Why did your boss do that?” Wen said.
I shrugged. “He likes fresh brains for lunch.”
Wen turned so gray I feared she might faint as well. “He eats them?”
“What else would a warrior eat?” Had they not heard me before?
Wen and Isara slumped in their chairs and conferred via their secret language.
“Here’s what you will do,” Wen said, regaining some color and briskness. “Katla. A team is going to retrieve Gianni. And Tomh’s body. You will go with them and help them. That will be the price for getting asylum here.”
The smell in my old ship hit me like a wall in the face.
I had lived in that smell my whole life and never realized it. Old sweat, fear, blood, pus, vomit, and worse human smells hung around in the hallways like they belonged there. The floors were covered in a layer of slimy debris.
“Take care, it’s slippery,” I said. My voice sounded dull and colorless in my own ears. This is how I had lived? I couldn’t imagine coming back here. Just two hours in that other ship had ruined me.
I had to stay strong. If I didn’t take care of myself and my future, nobody would.
The entrance to the feast hall was around the next corner. “Two guards in the hallway, others inside covering the doorway, guards around Einar’s throne, a couple guards hanging from the ceiling,” I said.
Lt. Murniat gave specific orders to disable all of them. Good. They needed to know I gave good advice.
We stormed into the feast hall.
I knew some new warriors would never fire in their first fight, so I positioned myself next to the youngest one. When he froze, I yanked his weapon away from him and shot the two attackers storming at us.
It was over. Murniat’s men in green stood a bit dazed among the carnage. Dead and dying warriors lay all over the throne room, heaped closest to Einar, where many had given their lives to defend that idiot.
“Where’s Gianni? His signal is dead.”
I spotted Jarki, one of the men I’d seen in the pictures of Einar eating the hostage’s brains. He was writhing in agony from a gut wound. I bent close and said, “Tell me and I’ll kill you quickly. Where is the other hostage?”
His eyes rolled back in his head, but he gurgled out an answer. “Warren.”
Given to the women to play with. “Which one?”
I dropped him and turned to Murniat. “Follow me. I know where he is.”
“Give me that gun. I didn’t give you permission to use one. And didn’t you tell him you’d give him a quick death?”
I gritted my teeth but returned the weapon. These were to be my people now. I needed their regard.
We went to Oona’s warren. The women would all be huddling together, keeping their children silent, waiting for the outcome.
The warren was dark. The women would have doused the lights, so they’d be harder to find and harder to kill. After brief whirring sounds, lights turned on and shone down from the ceiling. The big space was divided by fabric thrown over ropes across the room.
“We’ll have to every damn nook and cranny. Sergeant, start on the right,” Murniat said.
Sergeant Furukohime exposed a huddled group of women and children. “Sir?”
I sighed inwardly. I yelled, “Oona! Deliver the hostage, and we will let you and your children live.”
After a loaded silence, a heavy, red-patterned cloth to our left was thrown up.
A stumbling figure, bloodied from the waist down, was thrust out, with Oona holding a knife to his throat. The beautiful curly-haired man I remembered wasn’t looking so good now. His clothes were gone, half his scalp dripped down his face, his color was gray.
Murniat, for once, didn’t balk, and killed Oona. I don’t know how Murniat did it. A black dot just appeared on Oona’s forehead, and she fell down.
I hurried up to Curly and knelt. I lifted his half-scalped hair off his face and he flinched so hard his wounds started bleeding again. My heart squeezed a little. Poor man.
“It’s all right, I’m Katla, we’ve come to save you. Look, there’s Lt. Murniat and her men.”
He sagged in relief.
It’s not something I’d normally do, touch a man voluntarily, but I forced myself to put a hand on his shoulder. It was icy cold. He was in shock. Einar had gelded him only hours ago.
“Murniat, do you have doctors?” I asked. I knew they either were never sick, never had accidents, never fought, or they had excellent doctors. I was betting on the last, but holding the first option in reserve, just in case they really were as perfect as they seemed.
“Combat medics already on their way.”
I grabbed Curly’s hand and kept stroking his back with the other hand. Practicing what I’d seen Murniat do, supporting and comforting the weak. Though I have to admit that the memory of him standing beautiful and tall in the airlock also helped. “The doctors are coming, you’ll be back home very soon now. It’s over.”
He shivered and leaned into me. I started to feel very awkward, but Murniat looked on in approval, so I had to continue. I patted Curly’s back like I was burping a baby, and it seemed to work. Good to know.
Two persons dressed like warriors, weapons ready, entered the warren. They knelt down by Curly, glued his wounds shut, gave him a pill, and covered him in a shiny blanket. Off he went. I stared. Now these people had been fast and efficient. I wanted to know more about their medicine. But would Curly live, with such a serious wound, blood loss, shock, not to mention the blow to his manhood and self-esteem?
I hailed Murniat. “Let’s get out of here.”
“We’re taking Tomh’s body. And we’ll have to evacuate the warrens, as you call them. We can’t leave these people behind.”
“Are you nuts? They’ll destroy you. You’ll never be able to trust them.”
Murniat tapped her ear. “Your advice is heard, don’t worry. We’ll freeze the adults while we consider a long-term solution. We also want your recommendation on the children. We do want to take them in. What’s the oldest that they would still be able to adapt? Our child psychologists were thinking no older than twelve.”
I snorted. “Don’t you realize what these children have felt and seen and done by that age? I say no older than one or two years.”
“You survived,” Murniat said, looking so softly that it made me want to simultaneously cry and wring her neck. Was it pity? I didn’t like being the object of it. It made my eyes burn.
“Yes, I did. My mother was strong and kept me out of the hands of the warriors for as long as she could. And I’m smart.”
Murniat nodded. “Yes, you are. You’re to return to the ship for debrief while I finish the cleanup here.”
Two of Murniat’s warriors escorted me back to the ship. But not a peep from the warrens, and the warriors were all dead. It felt good to step back into the clean, fresh-smelling ship. Once my eyes and nose had gotten used to cleanliness and order, it was hard to step back into dirt and chaos. And there was calm and silence, instead of shouting and crying. So nice.
I hadn’t gotten the hang of the big ship’s layout yet, so it was a surprise to be escorted back in the chief’s hall.
“Sit down, Katla,” the chief said. “Congratulations on a successful mission. We are grateful to you and will extend you citizenship. Welcome on board.”
As expected, as negotiated. I was going for a measured nod, when suddenly a wave of hot feeling exploded from my stomach outward. My eyes sprayed water and my chest bucked. Shit. It was vital not to show weakness. Or whatever I was feeling right now. Something unusual.
The Chief held out a box filled with white cloth. I didn’t know what it meant. But in her eyes was that same uncomfortable softness I’d seen in Murniat’s. Pity. Warmth. She was so scary.
“Take one,” she said.
“What for?” I said. My voice was thick. I shouldn’t have spoken.
“To wipe your face,” she said. “We’ll show you your quarters later, and someone will come to explain clothes and food and showers to you. There’ll be an orientation program, so you can meet people and discover the ship. We’ll talk about training and education.”
“Education,” I said. “Knowledge?”
More tears. They kept on smiling and signaling friendliness throughout. I guessed they didn’t feel the urge to slice my belly open if I showed weakness. Wasn’t that what I’d guessed about them, wasn’t that why I’d chosen them as my future? Yes. Absolutely. But to experience it in reality was still vast and incomprehensible.
“But, before the shower and the medical checkup, there’s someone who would like to express his thanks in person.”
A chair on wheels was rolled in. In it sat Curly. His hair was back on his head, he had color in his face, his posture and eyes didn’t show any of the horrible pain he had to be feeling.
The chair stopped, but Curly urged the person pushing him to get closer to me. He extended his hand with a big smile on his face. “Katla, thank you so much for rescuing me. So thank you, thank you, thank you. I owe you my life. I consider you my friend already.”
I touched my palm to his. I definitely wanted to be his friend, or whatever they called it here, but the sight of my grimy scarred hand against his clean golden skin gave me pause. I should wait to tell him that I liked him until I was clean and wearing one of their colorful costumes.
I felt their eyes on me. I realized they wanted to me to say something. “I’m very grateful for meeting all of you, and I’m looking forward to living on this ship,” I said. I sounded funny and it was really scary to actually say what I was feeling. That had never worked out well before.
I had a feeling it would now.
Bo Balder lives and works close to Amsterdam. Bo is the first Dutch author to have been published in F&SF, Clarkesworld, Analog, and other places. Her sf novel The Wan was published by Pink Narcissus Press. When not writing, she knits, reads and gardens, preferably all three at the same time.