Lioness of Cygnus Five – Excerpt


The plan

When the riot began, Bryant Jones was sitting against the damp metal wall, apparently sleeping. He’d been careful to position himself in the focal point of the closest security feed, careful to do nothing suspicious since he’d clapped Mike ‘Ramjet’ Norton on the shoulder this morning over one of the man’s lame jokes.

An onlooker would have to be suspicious to the point of paranoia to have noticed that small escalation of Bryant’s normally cheerful, friendly behaviour. The fact that none of the guards had paid any attention to him since argued that he had got away with it.

When he gave that casual pat on the shoulder, he had let the side of his hand come into contact with Ramjet’s bare neck. Just a fleeting touch. Nothing obvious. Certainly nothing that would give the man the idea that Bryant was available or interested. Just a brush of dermis, apparently accidental.

But Bryant had been his own best testing ground, and his insides were crawling with programmable nanobots. A brush of skin was all it needed to transfer a few onto his – he preferred not to use the word ‘tool’ – onto his client. They would have sunk through Ramjet’s skin, into his bloodstream, and there they would have multiplied like a fast acting virus. And now…

Bryant’s eyes were already closed. He flung an arm over them to deepen the dark, make it look even less likely that he was watching. He blocked out the clammy chill of the vibrating metal deck beneath him. Then he activated his transmitters and links, the command as easy as thinking it, relayed to his own nanobots by the electrical impulses of the axions in his brain.

It took three seconds for the client’s body to come on line. Bryant became slowly aware, as in a lucid dream, of the world as Ramjet was seeing it. He felt the lurch of an extra foot of height, a sharp change in his sense of smell – everything had an undertone of oranges – and the itching, reckless impatience that lived beneath the murderer’s skin.

Bored, cleaning under his nails with the tines of a plastic fork, Ramjet was jabbing them in just to feel something other than the incessant hum of engines and the hiss of stale, sweaty air. Bryant subtly suggested that he should look up, glare at the guards outside the laughably old fashioned cell door.

That one there, with the damn product in his slicked back hair. All proud of the pressed neatness of his uniform and the winged cross on his shoulder. That one with the shiny shoes, who thought he was better than Ramjet. Look at him picking his nose, the dirty bugger.

Ramjet had gained his name because he had a punch like a jet engine. He was not a subtle, nor an introspective man. Bryant had chosen him for that.

Ramjet looked up, he disliked on command.

From what Bryant had seen as he was marched through the Froward‘s rust-stained corridors and shoved unceremoniously into the cage, she had once been a troop transport. Well, that was typical of the Kingdom of Peace, which produced little more than farmers, soldiers and dupes. But it meant that in order to convert her to the transport of condemned prisoners to the penal colonies, all that had been done was to bolt a cage of steel bars around the troops’ living areas.

Now the criminals (of whom Bryant was perhaps the most illustrious) slept in the bunks that had once belonged to soldiers of the Kingdom, ate in their mess hall and used their facilities, while the ‘free’ soldiers were cramped together in a tiny unfenced enclave close to the bridge.

He wasn’t sure if the glossy-haired, pressed-trousered freak over there understood the irony of it – that he was treated with less consideration than the criminals he condemned – but Bryant was getting off track.

The point was that the grill of steel bars was too fucking stone age to be accessible to Bryant’s bio-tech. His bots drew their power either from a mechanical power source, or from the metabolism of their host. They couldn’t function in the absence of either.

Bryant spared everyone around him a moment of regret. He disapproved of violence in principle, and more, he found it upsetting. If he had been held behind a proper computerized lock, he could have dealt with it without the need for any of this. But they were a week out from the remand center, mid-point in their journey to the penal colony of Cygnus Five, as far away as they would ever get from other Kingdom spacecraft. He really had to move now, and this was the easiest way to do it.

No one would get damaged. A little scuffle was all he needed.

Look at that freak he thought, more urgently now that the connection with Ramjet had had time to solidify. Strutting around out there like he owns us. He’s going to dump my ass on a cold ball of rock with the worst dregs of the Kingdom. Why does he get to stand there all peaceful like and pick his fucking nose?

The bots had reached, bred in and established themselves in Ramjet’s nervous system. Bryant directed the man’s endochrine system to reduce serotonin and release catecholamines and adrenaline, in effect nudging the slider on the man’s aggression up, his inhibitions down. What more can they do to me after all?

He could feel a ritual challenge coming on, a ‘hey you!’ and he clamped down on it hard. No, no alerting the guard, no taunting. Hair product guy had forgotten himself enough to lean a shoulder on the bars as he paged through a book – a book, these fucking people! – and he shouldn’t be warned to move away before…

It came together like any act of tipping a boulder off the top of a hill. There had been lots of apparently fruitless effort and then it all bounded away from him at once. He smiled under his concealing arm as Ramjet burst to his feet, took the two paces to the bars in a run, seized the guard by the elbow and pulled.

“What the hell?” The guard fumbled with the other hand for his stunner. Firing as he was shaken, he misaimed, and the burst of non-lethal lightning lit up the whole steel structure of the cage, zapping himself as well as Ramjet. At the flash and crack of it, the other prisoners leapt to their feet. Ramjet roared, shaking the bars with one hand. They were cold, colder than the air, and condensation rolled over his fingers as the knuckles whitened and blood began to seep out from beneath his nails.

Bryant pinched his eyes shut as if that would help, while he thought his way through the fine control needed to slip Ramjet’s grip on the guard’s arm downwards until it met the uncovered skin of his wrist.

But “Ramjet! What are you doing? Leave him alone!” Carrow tried to intervene. A tall, skinny guy, imprisoned for blasphemy and homosexuality, Carrow used to run some kind of newspaper on Thunor 3, before the Thunor system had been conquered and ‘cleansed’. “You’ll make it worse for yourself and for us. We’ll be flogged the moment we’re set down.”

Fuck, Bryant thought, as all Ramjet’s engineered rage found a new target. Out of all of them, Carrow was the one Bryant least wished to harm. But the man should have maybe minded his own business then, shouldn’t he? The plan was for Ramjet to get a good grip on the guard’s hand – or face, or throat – somewhere with unprotected skin. Transfer a few bots, then calm down with no real harm done and no one the wiser. Now Carrow was going to end up decked, and the bots wouldn’t get out of the cage. Damn fuck and blast the material he had to work with in this place.

Ramjet picked Carrow up by the legs and threw him. Skinny as a scarecrow, articulated like a puppet, Carrow sailed flailing through the knot of thugs playing Kaluki on the nearest bench, and then the game was really on. Bryant crawled under a table to get out of the way, as the violence spread.

Oh, and look. The freak outside the cage – Ignatious, judging from the name embroidered on his uniform – was radioing for help. Bryant took a long deep breath and blew out frustration and nerves together, watching carefully, because this might still work.

A moment later, the door to the cage was opened and six more guards poured in. Growling with rage, spittle flying from his mouth, Ramjet tackled the first to the floor.

Hand on the face. Hand on the face. Bryant thought at him. But the man’s rage had grown to the stage where Bryant could no longer get a fine grip. There was nothing left of Ramjet’s mind to influence. Ramjet ignored him, got the guard by the collar, and smacked his head into the floor. Bryant cringed internally. No, don’t hurt him!

Shit, this was slipping completely out of his control. See? This was why he didn’t like violence. It was too unpredictable, too blunt edged and too inclined to end up being sent back his own way. Ramjet’s waves of intense rage had begun influencing him through the link between them, and he couldn’t have that. He was a healer and a scholar, and he needed his objectivity intact.

Although the sudden deceleration of Ramjet’s mood might look suspicious to anyone with the brains to work it out, it was also his last chance to get a decent result before the goons re-established control. None of them had yet shown the slightest sign of knowing he was up to something. Why should they start now? Probably didn’t even have bot technology on their backwards little worlds. They’d probably just call it possession and leave it at that.

Bryant took Ramjet’s purely limbic aggression back down, enough to smuggle through the suggestion Spit. Spit in the guard’s face.

Rhythmic and urgent like a metal heartbeat, a clanging interrupted the incipient riot. The roars of protest from his fellow inmates faltered as – Bryant poked his head out from under the table to see – the actual captain of the ship had deigned to visit them, was beating on the bars of the cage with a cudgel.

Captain Aurora Campos had two of her officers with her. Lt. Funar, whose skin wasn’t so much white as utterly colourless, and whose pink eyes sheltered behind an arch of dark glass, and Lt. Roimata, a pretty blonde girl who ought not to look so fierce. Both of them had their stun guns pulled, levelled at the crowd, but Bryant thought Campos alone would have been sufficient to quell the riot. She had a powerful presence, stately as any war machine. “That’s enough, gentlemen. Sit down.”

Fucking hell, Bryant thought, and with one last push he insisted Spit on him, damn it. Spit. Do it now.

It couldn’t have been more obvious. In all that frozen tableau, only Ramjet moved. He took his hand off Ignatious’ collar, wound it into his hair, and then he spat directly into the man’s eye.


Bryant hardly registered the drone of stunners, as the captain’s officers put Ramjet out, put down the one knot of fighters who had not heeded her words, he was too relieved that the entire thing had not been a waste of time. He wasn’t sure if his nerves would have stood having to do it all again.

He smiled with satisfaction, and as he did, the captain gave one more solid thwack to the cage, startling him into looking at her.

She was an odd looking woman, somewhere between olive skinned beauty and prize-fighting troll. Past the first bloom of her youth – if she ever had one – she was well into hard-bitten military middle age. He’d heard of her, of course. Who hadn’t? Until last year, the Lioness of the Phoenix Nebula had been all over the Kingdom approved Feeds – a new Joan of Arc.

My how the mighty had fallen! Gossip was not his forte, so he had not noticed her disappearance from public life, the scandalous rumours, until he had come on board and something about her face had rung a bell. Then he had run her through his internal database and now he knew all about it. Heroine turned whore – lucky to be clinging on to the fringes of respectability as captain of a mean little prison transport like the Froward.

“Mr Jones? You look pleased with yourself.”

Her large, black lashed golden-brown eyes might have been pretty on another woman. On her they were too shrewd, full of a kind of mocking self-confidence that rubbed up against his own and raised his hackles. Apparently being revealed to all the galaxy as a hypocrite had not humbled her much.

“This was the first prison riot I’ve ever been in,” he ventured. It was a good explanation because it was true. “I got through without a scratch. That deserves some celebration. Plus, it always brightens my day to see you.”

“Right,” she said, nodding to her subordinates as they filed back out of the cage with order restored. The other criminals were now huddled well back out of the range of the stunners. Two of the guards hauled Ignatious out between them and laid him down by her feet. He was already stirring, lifting a hand to the spittle and wiping it away – rubbing it into his palm and cheek as he did so.

For a moment Bryant thought – oh yes please – that Captain Campos would bend down and touch the man’s skin. They hadn’t had time to propagate yet but just one nanobot on the captain and the ship would be his by tomorrow. But she moved away, and it was young Dr. Atallah who checked Ignatious over for bruises and concussion with gloved hands. She glanced up at Campos with reassurance.

“He’ll be fine, ma’am.”

“Some of the witnesses at your trial testified you had powers of mind control,” the Captain regarded him thoughtfully. “And here you are looking like the cat who’s got the cream. What are you up to, Jones?”

“Me?!” Bryant laughed. He hoped it was convincingly. He hoped it didn’t sound like the laugh of a man who had anything to hide. Damn her. She was a two bit has-been zealot, she was not supposed to be clever as well. “I don’t know what you mean. I was asleep when this started. Check the cameras for yourself.”

“Right,” said the captain again. “Bored were you? Thought you’d have a bit of fun? I hope it was worthwhile because you’re all on half rations until we get there. I will not have my people used for your amusement.”

When they’d come for him, he’d had enough warning to ingest the really delicate tools of his trade and to wipe his computers of the evidence. They’d found only the crude stuff – the scalpels, the operating table. Low tech luddites that they were, they didn’t know what they were dealing with. Only doctors from deeper in the Source, or fellow underworld criminals like himself ought to have a clue about the forbidden scientific marvels of which he was master. So where the hell was she getting this from?

He laughed again, a little more nervously. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re paranoid as well as ugly.”

As he crawled out from under the table and stood up, there was a shift in the atmosphere of the mess hall that he could feel like the static of an oncoming storm. His heart sank as a shoe scuffed the floor behind him, and he felt them look, all those big guys, bigger than him. Men who had not devoted their minds to knowledge. Men with calloused knuckles.

“Personal insults? Nice,” said the captain, turning to go, Ignatious now up and swaying beneath the doctor’s supporting arm in her wake. The mocking light in the Captain’s tawny eyes strengthened. “Enjoy your meal gentlemen, It’s the last you’ll have until tomorrow.”

She walked away, and Bryant focussed on the tight pleats of her modest headscarf rather than on the whispering behind him. Had she meant to get him killed? Did she know what these men would do if they thought that he – friendly little curly haired intellectual that he was – was infiltrating their minds, controlling them with his own?

He licked his lips. Three hours at the least until Ignatious’s bots propagated – if they were going to take at all. That was not completely guaranteed. He just had to survive until then. Swallowing, he closed his eyes and turned around to face the wall of hard faces.

“What a bitch, true?”

It didn’t look like they were impressed.


Contact with the Enemy

“Was she right?” Petros the dealer freed himself from the tangle of unconscious men around him, rubbing the numbness of the stunner graze from his left arm. Tall as a small tree and thin as a sapling, Petros had the shrink-wrapped quality of a Dark Matter addict. Clean now, and beginning to put weight back on even on the prison diet, he hadn’t yet recovered any moderation or restraint over the drug-induced paranoia.

On the other side of the room, where the doorway led to showers and bunks, Janika – grave robber – and Hiraku, counterfieter, stalked closer. Ramjet was an unimaginative thug, but these three had brains. They had been important people on their own planets and they retained that aura even behind bars, when their sharp suits were wrinkled with round-the-clock wear, and all other marks of status were gone.

“Of course she wasn’t,” Bryant insisted. “Mind control? Don’t be ridiculous. There’s no such thing.”

They took their time coming closer. He was allowed to back away, to end up pushing his shoulders against the bars of the cage, with his hands sweating and trembling, and a jitter of terror turning his bowels loose. He’d tried so hard to make sure nobody looked at him, nobody saw him except as a bowed head and a smile, and now she’d destroyed that pretence with a few words, damn her.

And he was light headed with hunger. The bots took a great deal of energy to manufacture. He didn’t think he could strip another set out of the few remaining fat cells in him. If he tried, it would mean losing some more of what little muscle he had. Nor could they take strongly enough in time to save him from this anyway.

“Ridiculous?” Janika was huge and blond, Hiraku sleeker, still rounded despite months in prison and a week on this bloody ship being transported to the very edges of the Kingdom. Hiraku had a softness about him, but there was something about the way he moved that triggered alarms in Bryant’s hind brain. They were a bear and a panther and he didn’t want either of them looking at him like that.

“Did I just hear you call me ridiculous?”

“No!” Bryant flung up both hands. He gritted his teeth and screwed his eyes closed and tried to say ‘sir’ but it wouldn’t come. “No! The captain’s idea was ridiculous. I’m a surgeon! I correct hare lips. If people are born disfigured I mend them. And yes, perhaps I’ve done sex change operations and–“

“Messing with the laws of God and nature,” Janika growled, as Petros kicked the final unconscious man out of his way and filled in the trio on their left flank, blocking Bryant’s escape. If he had thought of running for the urinals – which he wouldn’t. He would not take this to a place where the guards were not watching.

Even now another of the Froward‘s crew, a woman whose uniform read “Metharom”, was sitting outside the cage, watching the monitors, her back to him. That turned back said she felt he was getting what was coming to him, not her business. But he felt eighty six percent confident that she wouldn’t let it escalate to rape right where she was personally in the room, and that was a better percentage than he had anywhere else.

“Using the brains God gave me to better the lives of my fellow creatures,” he insisted, his voice rising as they closed in. The reek of his own fear filled his nostrils and his mouth and made him gag.

“We read what you did to that kid.” Petros raised a skeletal hand and landed a fingertip gently on the tip of Bryant’s nose. He closed his eyes, fairly sure that was where it was going to come next – a hard poke in one or other eye.

“They took him off the table before he was finished!” Bryant was still angry about this. He thought he’d be angry about it until the day he died.

“How many cuts about the neck was it? And you’re still claiming it was some kind of accident?”

Eighteen wasn’t really a child, Bryant told himself again, and the boy had wanted it so much. Everyone had heard of the fabled mer-people of Genovefa. Who was he to say his client couldn’t run away to become one? They would have been workable gills if he’d been allowed to finish – if he hadn’t been torn away from the table with the bloody scalpel still in his hand, while the state-approved butchers had tried to sew the boy up again. He could have told them that would never work.

“I tried to save him! I was in the middle of an operation. If they’d only let me finish, he’d still be–“

The jab came not to his eye but to his nose. Two fingers up his nostrils, jammed in until he feared they’d fracture the nasal cartilage, even the bone, and then press in to pierce his brain. He grabbed Petros’ wrist, but his full strength couldn’t shift it as he was raised on his tip toes, pain like white noise static, high shrieking out of the speakers of the universe. Needles, needles and where was his vaunted intelligence now?

He clung on tight to Petros arm, hanging from it, as Janika’s first punch whammed straight into his sternum and shocked his heart into missing its beat. There was nothing soft or sleek about Hiraku’s bony knuckles as they slammed into Bryant’s belly. All the little organs! All the trauma, the broken blood vessels, the potential for rupture. He hated it. He hated the ugliness of it as much as the pain. He was not a violent man and he didn’t approve of this.

Fucking Campos. He’d been so careful to prevent any of this from being traced to him, and she had seen through the whole thing in milliseconds, pulled the rug out from under him and left him to what was, he supposed, the punishment he deserved for betraying his own principles so thoroughly. Never again, then. Violence was never a solution. Especially when it lead straight to him being hurt.

Pulling himself up fractionally while the beating continued, he managed to get the fingers out of his nose, keep his precious brain intact. That was the important thing. Everything else would…

His lips brushed the side of Petros’ hand. Probably expecting to be bitten, Petros snatched his hand away, threw Bryant to the floor against the bars, and then there was kicking. Endless kicking of rubber soled shoes against the undefended bones of his shins and forearms. He crammed his back into the protection of the bars and curled, curled tight, trying to protect his face and ribs and belly, defended only by the fact that the three men were in each other’s way.

Bryant snivelled in the circle of his arms, crying out when the blows fell, trying to swallow down bile, not to throw up and choke on it. Bile in his brutalised nose would be like vitriol in the face, and his face hurt enough as it was. Even breathing made him want to hurl. When the clang on the bars came again and the blows stopped he did weep in thankfulness for a long, humiliating moment before he could pull himself together and look up.

The Captain wore faint traces of annoyance around her mouth. He supposed that meant she hadn’t intended for this to happen, but if that was the case then she was too fucking stupid for sympathy.

“Twice in one day?” she stepped back to sweep a cold discouraging eye over Janika, Petros and Hiraku. “You three? Fasting for the rest of the week and three hours of compulsory prayer morning and evening. As for you, Mr Jones. Bring him out.”

No nonsense this time. Lieutenants Funar and Roimata simply sprayed the whole room with their stun rays. Bryant too. He was conscious of a kind of a hilarious disorientation like the wooziness one could feel, coming out of anaesthetic, and then he woke up and he was covered in bandages and poultices, sprawled on a narrow bench with a bare millimetre of padding, locked in solitary confinement.

This cell contained only a bench bed and a bucket, and it too was closed off by an old fashioned lattice of iron bars, locked with an old fashioned mechanical lock.

“Accurate to the minute.” Outside those bars, Captain Campos checked her watch and gave Dr Atallah the minute lift of the lips that served her for a smile. Miserable bitch. “Nicely done.”

Oh yes, nicely done. Bryant didn’t roll his eyes, but only because they were red and puffy and they hurt. The doctor had probably treated him with gloves on. Campos had undoubtedly not touched him at all. He found himself studying her hands as if he could see his bots on there. Strong hands, but nicely shaped. He saw with surprise that she’d painted her nails with clear gloss, and that was one step away from the full Jezabel. It was kind of pathetic seeing a woman so butch make any gestures at all in the direction of femininity, especially if it had served her so badly in the past.

Still, it didn’t hurt to be polite. “Thank you,” he croaked, his throat sore and his mouth dry.

“Let me get this clear,” she said, “I don’t care what they do to you when you get there, but while you’re on my ship you’re under my protection, child killer or not.”

The nail varnish had been lying – there wasn’t anything feminine about her at all. Cold hearted bitch.

“You’re taunting me about children?” he mocked, forgetting about politeness again, and prudence, hit on the raw. The boy wasn’t a child, and Bryant wasn’t the one who killed him. “They tried to cover it up but word still gets around, you know. How dare you judge me, you fallen woman.”

The captain’s face barely changed. Nothing about her posture – a kind of casual battle-readiness – altered in the slightest, but he got a blast of chill from her as if hell had just frozen over. He laughed. “‘Fallen’ is the right word, isn’t it? I’ve seen the pictures in the gossip rags of that ‘holiday’ you spent on Rigel Gamma 15 with a belly like a barrage balloon. Where’s your child now, then? Where’s your wedding ring? ‘Holy warrior of God’ my ass. You’re no better than the rest of us. You ought to be on the other side of these bars.”

Her eyes blazed, and a muscle clenched in the corner of her jaw. He really thought for a moment she would reach through the bars and punch him out and, even though his hind brain wailed in protest at the thought of being hurt again, the part of himself that was really him said ‘Yes!’ He’d strip a bit of strength for that, if he could get her skin on his skin long enough for his little bots to hop across.

But “Ma’am,” Atallah put a long, narrow hand on the captain’s arm, the pair of them an offence to Bryant’s sensibilities even in their dress. Atallah’s hair was covered with the military hijab, Campos’s with its Christian equivalent, which they preferred to call a ‘veil’. Black, over their crimson jackets like shadow over blood. “He’s got no decency, but that’s hardly a surprise.”

They were the ones with no decency, ashamed of their own hair. Probably scared of provoking lust – not that there was much chance of that.

Campos’s attention remained locked on him like a pointer dog for a moment more, and then – again, without moving at all – she seemed to droop. The corners of her mouth turned down fractionally; she shook the words off like a bird ruffling its feathers and sighed.

“Thank you, Lina.” She considered Bryant for a moment longer. Bryant got the impression of someone who was thinking through how to do a distasteful job to the best of their ability. Not because they wanted to, but because it was their duty.

“I’m sorry,” she said at length, fixing him with a resolute gaze. “Both for the insult and for inadvertently causing you harm. Believe it or not, I would have put you in solitary earlier if I knew you were in danger.”

He didn’t want her apology. That had been the whole point of his rudeness – to get her to go away, to get her to behave like an enemy, so he could think of her as one. “Whatever we have both done, you are a child of God, Mr. Jones, and in so far as you are in my keeping, you will be treated well.”

Then she tapped her cudgel on the bars, once twice, three times, a light little pinging reminder. “But whatever you have heard of me, don’t mistake it for lack of resolution. Don’t push me to do anything you will regret.”

He didn’t think it was possible for her to get colder but she did, so frigid it was a wonder the steel bars didn’t shatter at her sub-zero disdain. “You are perilously close to getting on the wrong side of me, Mr. Jones. I don’t think you’d like that. I don’t have a lot left to lose.”



Bryant licked his split lip, feeling it scabbing beneath his tongue. The little wound pulsed hot for a moment and then was gone. He cursed the lack of forethought that had given him healing nanobots that could not be switched off. All over his body he was flushing hot as his bruises and cuts were wiped away and his enhanced immune and healing response kicked in.

He was so hungry! The pain of the bruises had not been anything in comparison with the roaring ache of his stomach, the feeling of being stripped to the bone that was worse when you knew it was accurate. He would gladly have traded some of this healing for more power to control others.

But he hadn’t thoroughly planned out what he would do if he was imprisoned on a prison transport ship, because he had always thought he would be too clever to end up here. That assumption clearly needed to be revisited.

Not now, though. Ravenous or not, nearly at the limits of what his physical form would bear without injury, it had to be now. There were store-rooms full of food somewhere that would be his once the ship was.

He lay on his back on the hard mattress and let the feverish healing do its worst, while he closed his eyes and activated Ignatious’ bots. Good. Apart from a headache the guy felt fine. Much though Bryant despised the Kingdom warriors, he wouldn’t have wanted to actually hurt one. It would be nice if they appreciated how gentle he was being, when he could have waited until the bots had spread throughout the crew and then exploded them all from the inside.

Concentrate, man, damn it!

Ignatious was not high up the command chain, but he still had low level access codes for the ship’s computer, and any access at all was enough for Bryant. He guided the man over to a console and had him enter his password. Meanwhile some of the specialized bots he had engineered for the man emerged from Ignatious’s fingertips and established a transmitter and receiver from the Froward‘s computer to Bryant’s brain.

Good thing he was lying down. This was a little more complicated to steer than a man, since Ignatious and Ramjet had their own autonomous systems to fall back on. But Bryant had plenty of experience at operating his computer at home by mind control. He waited out the information overload, discovered the patterns and focused in on the operations that interested him, ignoring the rest for now.

Navigation first. He set the computer to plot a new course to Snow City, that famous den of vice – or famous free trading port and refuge, depending on your point of view. As the entire city was buried in the core of a comet that traced a notoriously eccentric path through the trinary system of Auahituroa, and the Froward‘s computing power was laughable, the calculation might take a while.

He left it to run in the background until it was finished. The moment it went operational they would know something was up. At which point, judging from the captain’s tendency to blame him for everything, they would come for him. He could afford to let things wait a while, eat something, allow her suspicions to simmer down…

Then, hard to explain the sensation, it was as if he caught an eddy in the stream of mathematics as the navigation computer began to work. His hollow stomach squirmed as he tore his attention back to to the calculations. Current position data. Oh shit.

Bryant had thought he would have a week to play with this. Seven days to unravel the puzzle in a way that did least harm to anyone, specifically to himself. They weren’t supposed to arrive for seven days!

Semi-panicked and semi-outraged, he found the log, found the series of entries in which Engineer Morwen Couch requested permission to increase the drive efficiency, received it, and the Captain moved the schedule up. Dry, boring little sentences, and yet what it meant was that they were less than a day away from their destination. The ship was already maneuvering through the Cygnus system in preparation for coming into a tight orbit above Five.

He had less than a day to take the ship and get the hell out of here before he ended up being landed on a planet from which he would probably never escape, where he would look back on solitary confinement like a heaven he’d never have again.

Bryant covered his eyes with both hands and groaned. Other fucking people! Why? Why did they have to mess up all his plans? He was going to do this quietly, gently. He was going to take them over one by one, get them to drop him off at Snow City and go about their business. No mess, no trouble. And now Campos had to fuck everything up in the name of what? Punctuality? Efficiency? Trying to brown nose her way back into acceptance? Fuck her.

In a brief moment’s distraction, he wondered who had. What would it have been like? A guy would need balls of steel to… Yes, well, he wasn’t going there.

All right, all right. This could be salvaged. He could still do this, there was no need to panic.

He set trawlers to strip the ship’s database of all the access codes he would need, and while that was running, he turned his attention back to Ignatious.

Life was determined to be hard on him today, because Ignatious was in the mess hall, tucking into some kind of red stew with a yellow paste underneath it, and if Bryant hadn’t kept his mental discipline rigid, the experience of the taste would have flooded all other thoughts from his head. As it was, his mouth watered, and tears leaked a little under his covering fingers. He was so hungry! So very hungry.

Then he had a brilliant idea. An idea of sheer genius.

There was a slab of something that looked sweet, crystallized sugar on the top of it, by Ignatious’ right hand. Whatever world the chef was from, the cuisine was not one Bryant recognised, but he thought he knew sugar when he saw it. He suggested that Ignatious really wanted to get out of here with his meal. Really wanted privacy. Really wanted to take his bowl of stew and slice of cake and eat it elsewhere.

He suggested it so strongly that Ignatious’s system responded with a surge of alarm. Reminding himself to be more subtle, Bryant reiterated the suggestion and added the thought that perhaps it would be fun to eat this outside the cage in which the solitary prisoner was currently starving. Show him what came of disobedience, get a little bit of his own back in a way that wouldn’t lead to a reprimand.

Oh, and maybe he’d better pick up the keys on the way. In case that reprimand wanted to go a little further.

Far too long later, he smelled the man coming, smelled something earthy and pungent and savoury, and as soon as Ignatious was within reach, he abandoned all attempts to be subtle, established a stranglehold on the man’s mind and got him to pass the food through the bars, then unlock the door while Bryant was wolfing it down.

Oh so good! So good! It was the best thing that had happened to him since his capture – a day that he wasn’t thinking about. Oh, the roundness, the fullness, the softness of the mouthfeel of the food, and the energy he could feel pouring into him with every swallow. He finished the stew before Ignatious could take the keys off his belt, finished the cake – still didn’t know what it was, brown and nutty and intensely sweet – just as the cell door swung open and he could step out.

Time was of the essence now. If they hadn’t seen the breakout on monitors yet, they soon would. Already twice as strong, he set off for the bridge at a sprint, dragging a stumbling Iggy behind him by the brain.

Fortunately, he seemed to have come into some luck at last. It seemed Iggy hadn’t been the only one in the mess. It must be time for the evening meal – he’d lost track – and the Kingdom soldiers made a big deal out of eating together once a day. The bridge was staffed, of course, but it was a skeleton staff. As he flattened himself into the bulkhead to look through the door he could see only two people, one in the command chair, one at the comms, and at least one of them looked like a cadet barely out of school.

Outside, Cygnus Five already swam large in the view screen, pale tan and aquamarine, and shit. Shit, if they weren’t already in orbit they would be by the end of dinner.

Iggy looked a little flustered after his run. His slicked back hair was beginning to escape from its gel and curl up in licks like the heads of inquisitive black swans all over his head. He stood like an automaton, but there was something raging in the depths of his eyes – Bryant was a long way past hiding from him that he was being coerced.

Bryant pushed Iggy into another run, straight through the open doors and into the bridge. The two crewmembers on duty scrambled to their feet. Through Iggy’s eyes, he read the names on their shirts: Citlali and Rabinovitz. “Ignatious?”

“Captain wants you in the mess.” Forcing words out of him was horribly complicated. Bryant had to let go of everything else to do it. He almost forgot that he was crouching directly outside the door, exposed in plain sight. Shuffling further down the corridor until he could hide around an intersection, he prayed nobody came walking down it, prayed that his luck would hold.

Except that he had no one to pray to. Certainly not the god that made these people what they were.

In a conditioned reaction, Rabinovitz was already half way out of the door when Citlali asked “Why?”

Some of Bryant’s panic fed through in Iggy’s reaction. “I don’t know, do I? She said it was urgent. I had to run all the way to take over from you. Go!”

Citlali hesitated a moment longer, a round faced young woman who’d been doodling blue flowers on the backs of her terracotta hands. He wouldn’t have immediately selected her as the sharpest tool in the box, but appearances could be deceiving. Frankly this ship had better personnel than it deserved.

In desperation, Bryant urged Iggy forward. He put the man’s hand down on hers “Look just go, okay? I’ve got this covered. ”

Although the bots didn’t have time to get established, the gesture itself weirded the cadet out enough to wrench herself away and say “Yes, yes, okay. Keep your hands to yourself, man. We’re going.”

A moment later he heard their footsteps depart on the way to the mess. He breathed out a long, shaky sigh of relief, rounded the corner and – clamping down hard on Iggy’s desire to throttle him as he passed – he ran into the bridge.

Standing beneath the turning planet, lit by blue green light, he considered his next move. As soon as the cadets reached the mess, the game was up. Iggy’s game was up too. Iggy wasn’t going to be a lot more use, and keeping him under control was likely to prove a distraction.

“Thanks,” he said to the man, watching the flare of rage in his eyes as Bryant remote piloted him back outside the doors. “You were very helpful.”

He shut the bridge doors, and then shut the reinforced anti-decompression plating over the top of them before he let Iggy’s mind go. The armour was far too thick for him to hear Iggy curse him once he was finally set free. But he could vividly imagine it.

Using the life support console, he drew up a schematic that pinpointed each crewmember’s whereabouts. They were indeed most of them in the mess, which was a solid block of green dots.

Two dots – which must represent the cadets – were approaching from the north east, followed by the single dot that must be Iggy. A guard showed up outside the main prison compartment, and two were stationed in a room that must be the armoury. He waited for the cadets to run into the mess, and then he shut the blast doors around the area, sealing the crew in.

The armoury had its own door, which he shut and locked down with its sentinels sealed inside. Decompression doors between the bridge and the cage locked the final guard away from him, and Iggy would be no threat.

Straightening up from his hunch over the console, he linked his hands behind his head and stretched, hearing his back realign with a celebratory crack. Though he hadn’t had time to appreciate it before, he regarded the bridge with proprietorial pride. It was painted a white that had aged into dirty cream over the years, with the grime of human handprints browning all the consoles and scuff marks all over the walls. The planet hanging in the front view was altogether too close, but the triumph was exquisite regardless.

Take that he thought, checking again to see if the nav computer had finished its calculations – 68% done. He set it to implement the course change immediately it was ready. Take that, all you men of violence, all you Kingdom Warriors. And take that captain Campos. I’ve got less to lose, and you’re already on my bad side.

By now she’d know, of course, but he toggled the ship’s PA because he could, and because he liked to think of her wincing a little when she heard his voice. This wasn’t completely personal, but by god, some of it was.

“Captain Campos? You may have noticed by now that you’ve been locked in the mess. Shortly you will notice a course correction as we depart for Snow City, where I will allow you and the other prisoners to disembark, unharmed. From there you can find your own way home, because I am taking…”

Victory was as sweet as crystallised sugar on his tongue. He had to laugh, smug lord of all he surveyed. “Oh, I’m sorry, that’s not entirely accurate. What I meant was; I have taken your ship.”


paperback_button kobo_button amazon_button