1001 Starry Knights: The Seven Voyages of Sinbad, chapter 11

“We have heard you are a great storyteller.”

The half dozen women stood around me, smiling. They were all Fae, and all showed some signs of being older, gray haired with smile lines around their eyes. I got the impression, in fact, that they smiled a lot. I imagined that when they smiled, nobody else did. They were vaguely human, but with long ears, and bright, snake-like eyes. Their teeth were sharp like a shark’s, and they each wore a red hat. They ranged from a derby, to a fedora, and the leader seemed to have found herself a baseball cap, which hung low over her eyes. They had all been dyed a bright red.

The day had started out so nicely. Barbary was, while unnerving at first, more like a theme park than an actual den of iniquity and death. Then in the crowd, I’d been grabbed, hogtied, and dragged off. Now, I was tied to a chair in front of the Fae. “Now, I’ve been threatened by an awful lot of people in the past week and a half. So, just for my own edification. When you threatened to ‘take care of me’ if I didn’t tell you a story, were you making a death threat, or is this another weird method of flirting?”

The women exchanged looks. They whispered to one another for a while, until the leader stepped forward, her hands on her hips. She was short, and curvaceous, dressed in a rather intimidating looking letterman jacket, with a large yellow 1 emblazoned on the back. “If you don’t make with a good story, we’re going to beat you to death, and eat you. Not in that order.” She gave a bright smile with sharp teeth. “We don’t mind if Heaven goes to war with the Empire. That would make a good story. Besides. We gotta teach people that the Red Cap Society isn’t a joke.”

I sighed. “Do you mind if I start in the middle? You kind of interrupted an ongoing story, here.”

They exchanged whispers, and then separated once more, the leader nodding to me. “Works for us. We’re a fan of stories that start in the middle.”

I swallowed, and hoped that the others would be able to track me down. I had never realized how good enslavement sounded until I was on the verge of being cannibalized. “Our hero, Sinbad, a human spacefarer, seeking to find lost technology to save his family, has found himself shipwrecked on one world after another. Now, he has docked with an ancient research station, the Halfway, in the center of a cluster of black holes, and found his life saved by a mysterious Imperial woman…”

The woman shifted her eyes down to the creature beneath her. Low rumbling noises were still coming from it. Sinbad felt something bump against his foot, and jumped, letting out a squawk. He looked down to find the head of the creature rolling towards the body. The woman grabbed his shoulder, and pointed towards the wall. He spotted a vent, and pulled it open, noting that the grate was not held on by any screws. The woman climbed in after him, pulling the grate back into place. Her body was trim and slender, although not in the sculpted, slightly unnerving way of most Imperial citizens. Her skin was rough, her hair messy and smelling strongly of oils. She pressed her body against his.

There was barely enough room in the small vent for both of them, pressed up against the metal. Her thighs were around his waist, and she watched out the grate intently, as the creature pulled itself back together. It studied from side to side, and apparently satisfied that they were no longer in the corridor, moved on. It was just about at this moment that Sinbad’s erection became noticeable to the woman. She turned her head to fix him with a stare, eyes wide. She looked down slowly at where their hips were met, and then back up at him. He shrugged helplessly, not sure if she would understand the gesture. She didn’t seem offended, so he took that as a good sign.

Once the sound of the creature’s footsteps had died away, she opened the vent again. Her hand wrapped around his, as she led him along. His experience with most of the members of the Empire had been that their shapes- at least among those of the Beast Clan- tended to be very close to human. There were those who skirted further towards animal, but they were rare. This woman, however, was curiously… bestial. Her cat-like ears were raised in the air, scanning as she turned her head, sharp eyes flickering. She squeezed his hand. “Sosha. Lepal.”

He nodded, although he had no idea what she was saying. He just did his best to keep an eye out. The hand-computer would be building a database of what had been said. He’d just have to make do until it had figured out enough to translate for him.

The halls were beautiful. Barely visible underneath the roots and mulch were the shining plates of the station. She led him along the corridors for some time, until they stepped out, and into the paltry light of the stars, and the five great abysses. The sight was unnerving, to say the least. They stood at the foot of what looked almost like a skyscraper. He realized that his earlier assessment of the station, as an umbrella, had been inaccurate. It was an inverted city. Towers reached up from the flat plate, with one massive tower extending from the center. Plant-life, vines, trees, they grew in vast swathes. And they were black. That was the strangest part. Where the plant life of earth was green, these were ebon. Great leaves like patches of tar, like fresh-laid pavement.

Birds flew between the trees, he could see. And off in the distance, another one of the patrolling, skinless things, walking through the jungle. He turned, and saw the woman climbing a vine with obvious ease. She stopped, ten feet up, and turned towards him, tilting her head. He spat on his hands, and grabbed a different length of fibrous plant-matter, beginning to climb after her. He was quite a bit slower, but she still looked rather pleased when she saw him following. They climbed up a couple of stories, and she stepped onto what he realized was a balcony.

He followed her into the room, and found it to be a rather comfortable looking apartment, although overgrown badly. A tree had reached its branches in through the window. Heavy, plump fruit, rather like a blue peach, hung low across a bed. He watched as the woman walked over to the door. She reached behind her, and for the first time, he noticed the large pouch that she carried in a sling around her hips. He had been trying quite intently to avoid staring at that area. She reached in, and showed him what looked rather like a roll of black tape. “Rodka.” she said, pointing towards it, using the universal tone of ‘Talking to a child, or an idiot’.

He nodded. “Rodka.” She smiled brightly, and began running the tape around the edge of the door, rimming its doorframe with the stuff. She turned towards him again.

“Lesh motik. Far sna pi car.” She imitated the creature, baring her teeth and growling. He nodded again. The tape will keep the nasty things out. He didn’t know how much he believed that, but the woman was still alive, so she couldn’t be a complete mental case. She sighed as she finished, and reached up, taking a piece of fruit. She held it up to him. “Laspi motruka.” She smiled, as she took a bite from it, and then, quite unexpectedly, kissed him.

The fruit had a flavor reminiscent of blueberries mixed with apples, crisp and tart. Her tongue danced in his mouth, and she held him in a kiss for several long seconds. By the end of it, he was quite stiff. She grabbed his manhood through his pants, squeezing it a few times. “Yes, I get the idea,” he murmured dryly. Not to say he was being sarcastic. More, his mouth had just gone bone-dry from arousal. She was attractive. Not the perpetual youth that seemed to have most of the Empire caught somewhere between the ages of twenty and thirty. She seemed like she was older, perhaps in her forties, just a few hints of age showing, a few lines of white in her sandy blonde hair. Then he poked her chest lightly. “What’s your name?”

She raised an eyebrow, her hand still on his lap. Then she poked her own chest. “Leshp.” She pointed towards him, and spoke again. “Rokf.”

He shook his head, and pointed towards himself. “Sinbad.” This seemed to surprise her, her eyebrows lifting. She poked his chest gently.

“Sinbad?” He nodded, and returned the favor.

“Leshp.” Then he stood up. And she pounced on him.

Her legs wrapped around his waist. Sinbad was, all things considered, a fairly sturdy, muscular man. Growing up in the Orion Hierarchy could do that. The woman, however, felt like she was made out of solid iron. He went over onto his back, as she slid her hands around his shoulders. She straddled him, and yanked his pants down, exposing his manhood. The woman grinned fiercely. She was unshaven, and her body smelled of arousal, but her hairs were fine and delicate. She straddled him, her hands on his chest. The musk of the jungle woman was surprisingly pleasant, as she licked her lips, a lustful expression on her face.

In a moment, she had pumped her hips down around his cock. She was carefree in the way she rode him, her smooth abdominal muscles flexing as she bounced up and down on top of him. She threw her head back, howling out with delight, as she pumped down against him. The ferocious pace was difficult to endure, but he did his best, his hands moving to her thighs as she dug her large, sharp nails into his shoulder. Her pelvis began moving faster, her cries growing more strident- And then, to his great disappointment, she arched her back, and came like a freight train, rather a bit before he could reach the same satisfaction. Instantly, she rolled over off of him, and purred, lying curled up on the ground. He sat up, and frowned, his erection stiff in his pants. “That’s quite rude.”

She let out another loud, rumbling purr from the depths of her chest, her eyes languid as she fluttered her eyelashes at him. He growled, and jumped on top of her. She smiled widely. He felt energetic. He felt like he could run a marathon, or bench-press a car. Or, as it happened, fuck a predatory cat-woman. She smiled as he pulled her arms out, her legs spreading a bit for him, as though egging him on. He leaned in to bite her lower lip, thrusting into her. Her pussy was as warm and welcoming as it had been before, but now, it was slick, her orgasm leaving her slippery and ready.

The second round didn’t last much longer than the first, but this time, he was able to reach orgasm with her, his seed pouring into that tight snatch. When he finished, he lay on top of her, gathering his breath. She smiled up at him, with an expression rather like a very proud teacher. He slowly pulled out of her, and sat down beside her, leaning back onto his hands, his heart beating fast as his head cleared. She was an enchanting creature, but that had been strangely primal. The last time he could remember feeling that way had been when he was a teenager, hormones rushing and blossoming in the most awkward and scarring ways possible. And then, she began to talk, even as he lay next to her. He didn’t understand her words at first, but as the story continued, the hand-computer began to translate for him.

This is the story of the Seekers of Truth.

Where first there was Nothing, then there was Something. That was the Urge, the Desire, the Need To Know. In its mad rush to understand and to catalogue all that was, the Need To Know made all things. It created the Heavens, the Home, the Eaters, and the People. At first, the People were simple, dull creatures, without motivation or mind of their own. The Need To Know grew more powerful, and more hungry. It devised ever more clever ways to destroy things, for it was only in destruction that the Need To Know could understand.

The Need To Know was countered by the Warning Sign, the great protector. It was not as powerful as the Need To Know, but it did all that it could to prevent catastrophe, for as long as it could. Their war continued for ages.

This culminated with the Rifts. For there were not always black spaces in the sky. In its lunacy, the Need To Know destroyed much of what existed, ignoring the Warning Sign, and leaving only the burned and twisted hulks of the stars around its new cauldrons of understanding. But it was in this act that the Need To Know finally overstepped its bounds, and provoked its own destruction, as the Warning Sign gave its life to drive them both into one of the rifts. In doing so, a fraction of the Need To Know, and the Warning Sign, infected the People. This gave them awareness, both of their own ignorance, and of the terrible price that had been paid to give them their sapience. They became the Seekers of Truth.

The Home was Paradise, and Perdition. It held the great fruits, which made the Seekers of Truth strong, and which kept them alive. And it held the Eaters, the old servants of the Need To Know, who would execute the Seekers of Truth if it found them, for they were not the Need To Know, and the small shard of the Need To Know was not large enough for the Eaters to smell. And so, the Seekers of Truth were forced to act carefully, and to avoid the Eaters, slinking between the shadows of their world.

And Home held the great shards of metal, which made such fine tool, but which if used improperly would curse the Seekers of Truth, destroying the things they relied on. And Home held the great machines, which behaved unpredictably and had to be propitiated with the proper rituals and mantras, found through painstaking search and research.

And Home held the Well of Life, without which the Seekers of Truth would sicken and die. But the Well of Life was shallow, and grew more shallow every year, and could keep less and less of the Seekers of Truth alive. And last, Home held the pods, where when one of the Seekers of Truth died, a new one was created, and that is how you were made. And now that you have been told the truth of this world, and been named ‘Sinbad’, you are no longer one of the People, but one of the Seekers of Truth.

In the name of the Need To Know and the Warning Sign, I induct you into our order. Forever seek knowledge, but never allow your reach to exceed your grasp. Remember to always look before you leap, to always double-check your findings, and to always make sure that your results are repeatable. May you Know and Warn, Sinbad, Seeker of Truth.

He stared down at the small handheld computer, and sighed. The computer had even identified major features of the creation myth, and spun out a possible timeline. An experiment gone wrong, prototype subjects from a cloning program mistaking common features for deities… Even taking on some of the scientific method. He sighed. He briefly considered not screwing with their society, and then reminded himself that there was no human Prime Directive, and that the poor bastards were living in a state of nature. He wouldn’t wish that on anyone. He pointed towards the black safety tape. “What’s that?”

She looked quite surprised by his grasp of her language. “It is the Sacred Border. I am the only one who knows the rituals and techniques to create this sacred substance. When placed across the threshold, it creates a field, which holds back the Eaters. In time, I will teach you the methods to make it, so that the knowledge does not die with me.” She smiled warmly.

“And the… sex?”

“Well, how else would I induct my new apprentice? I have been waiting for a long time for one who was worthy to learn my secrets. When I saw your intelligence- freshly made, but already able to fight off one of the Eaters, able to create tools like that fine knife, and having even given yourself a name… I knew you were special.” She smiled broadly. “You will be the one to become the Shaman after I have died, and returned to be reborn. Perhaps then, you will teach me.” She leaned forward, and kissed his cheek gently.

Soon, the two of them were walking. “So, you said that there was a limited population, and that new people appear. Does that mean that someone died, recently?”

“It must. We are scattered across Home, because to stay together limits our focus too much and calls the Eaters. No more than two of us stay together for any substantial period of time. Come, I will take you to the Well of Life. Your body must already be craving its panacea. We will let you drink your fill, and then I shall begin to teach you of the things that I know.”

The trip took the better part of a day, according to his hand computer. He spent most of it trying to think of a more evocative name for the device than ‘hand computer’, but there was a reason that he had joined the military, rather than become a marketing executive. Three times, they were forced to take cover and hide from the strange creatures. The skinless wolves were one kind, but there were others. One was rather like a tiger that had crossbred with a preying mantis. Another resembled nothing so much as a quadrupedal, land-dwelling shark. And the last one was heard, rather than seen- A vicious buzzing, like a swarm of hornets. Each time they came close, they declared the same thing in ancient Imperial. By the fourth time the computer had heard the news, it had translated the phrase. “Please present your security ID. Need To Know Access Only.”

I tried to not look suspicious as Naja waved from the shadows. I let out a sigh of relief. The leader of the Red Cap Society frowned. “What? Was that a sad part? It sounded kind of funny to me. The stupid Mammal Clan don’t even get that their gods are false and they’re lying to themselves.”

“It was more complicated than that,” I said, stalling for time as I watched Naja reach around into a pouch. She withdrew a small chalk board, and wrote something on it with surprising silence. She held it up. ‘Keep stalling! I’ll go steal the ship!’

I gritted my teeth. “What now? You angry?” asked the leader.

“Ah- Yes. Thinking of the injustice that awaited Sinbad, in the light of his complete lack of trustworthy allies…”

“What about Leshp? She seems trustworthy.”

“Look, just-“

“And what right does this foundling have to claim to be one of the Seekers?” asked the ape-man. “There are as many of us as there can be! None of us have died! He is an error. One for whom there is no room. I say we throw him to the Need To Know. There is no soul that could be his, so he must be a soulless thing.”

“Base accusations! He knows the way to make a tool! He has a name! These things could not happen without a soul! He has a spark of the Need To Know, and the Warning Sign! If you try to kill him, you shall see no more tape from me! See how you defend yourselves from the Eaters then!”

“Excuse me, what direction do the Eaters come from?” Sinbad whispered to one of the others, a man with features reminiscent of a gazelle, with long ears and a pair of horns spiraling from his forehead, and digitigrade legs. The tower had been a vigorous climb; The only way from one floor to the next were rather exhausting climbs up vines, and it had been a hundred stories high.

“Hmmm?” The man gave him a frown, but then pointed out of the window towards one of the smaller towers nearby. A thick mist filled the streets. It had provided an exciting approach with no way to easily spot Eaters.

“How long is this argument going to take?”

“It may take some time. Both Leshp and Bapsh are skilled orators. Even if Leshp can argue for you, you will need to slay one of the living so that you may take their place. It is a bad omen-“

“That’s an essential amino acid dispenser,” Sinbad muttered. “It feeds you the parts of your body that your body can’t create itself. Things you’d normally get from foods that don’t exist on this station.” The large machine did have a certain divine feel to it, the small cups of glittering water that it dispensed containing a suspension of the things Imperials needed. “Imperial biology’s different from mine. I’ll be fine without it. I’m going to go end this conversation. I’ll be back in about an hour.” The gazelle man nodded, a pitying expression on his face.

The Eaters were simple guard constructs. Biologically designed to resemble predators to intimidate. They were just meant to keep the experiments from wandering loose. It was, in all honesty, painfully easy to get into the design plant, with the help of the black tape. A simple ‘No entry’ symbol for the security constructs. Useful in a lab full of delicate experiments where you didn’t want a guard device stomping around. Before long, he stood in front of the ID printing drive, and smiled as he held up a gleaming new key-card, with his name and face printed on it. “Say hello to the Chief of Security. Halfway Intelligence, what’s the largest and most intimidating security construct you have available?”

“The largest security device is the T-386 Intimidatrix.”

“Oh, that sounds promising. Bring one to the window. Can it fly?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

Three minutes later, he crashed through the window of the tower, into the room with the well of life, on top of the Intimidatrix, which was something like a jet-powered eagle out of the greatest nightmares of the sea-dwellers of ancient Mediterranea. Clinging to its back, releasing his death grip, he stood up, appreciating the shocked looks of horror, awe, and downright envy from the others in the crowd. “Alright! I don’t have time to be delicate with your culture! I am not from this place. I am from beyond the rifts, and I am here to find out what I can, and bring all of you to a life like that of the gods of old.”

The ape-man looked up, snarling. “Liar! You do not heed the Warning Sign! You have brought chaos and destabilization to-” The Intimidatrix shrieked at an ear-damaging volume, and the ape-man covered his ears.

Sinbad hopped down, grinning. “Tell you what. Once I figure out how to get off this place, then, you can start worrying about whether you want to follow me or not. But in the mean time, if you bring up throwing me off-board again, you’re going to be eating hard vacuum through a straw. Got it?”

Leshp stared at him, her jaw dropped. “You… You tamed the beast. The Eater of Heroes.”

He nodded. “I certainly did.” He leaned close, smiling. “Want to see how I did it?”

And she nodded, a smile as big and bright as the sun on her face.

Eudaimonia Universalis First Contact protocols (pre-Empire edition)

Step one: Discover. Determine relative level of intelligence. This is most easily determined by which side discovers the other first. If you are spotted, then the other species was obviously more intelligent. If you are more intelligent, proceed to step 2. If you are less intelligent, please try to avoid doing anything that would make our species look bad. Don’t fire first; Our species will forgive your death, their species might not forgive the death of one of theirs.

Step two: Study. Determine the level of hostility of the species through long-term surveillance. Remember: Just because their media is violent does not mean they, themselves, are violent. Don’t be a judgmental bastard. Imagine how you would feel if an alien watched the action films of the 2080s and judged humanity by them.

Step three: Approach. Make first contact, introducing yourselves as space-travellers. No matter how tempting it is, do not allow them to believe you are gods. Sapient beings get very edgy about gods, and the moment you demonstrate a lack of properly divine knowledge, they will likely turn on you. You will also make humanity look bad.

Step four: Stories. Learn the local culture. Do not disturb their beliefs, as local culture should be allowed to remain mostly intact. Exceptions may be made for sacrifices of your own people, but not any attractive alien maidens who you may encounter. And remember, just because they look nubile and female doesn’t mean they are interested in or capable of returning your affections! Keep it in your pants, sailor.

Step five: Technology. Be careful about trading technological advancements. While you may wish to bring your new friend up to current technology as quickly as possible, it takes time to properly deal with technology. A society of hunter gatherers who are suddenly elevated to space-faring technology may find themselves lost and adrift, their culture warped by your well-intentioned changes.

Step six: Detachment. Do not attempt to introduce any new and wild changes to their society, e.g. capitalism, mercantilism, the religion of your choice, so on, and so forth; It may seem like the perfect opportunity to test out some of your pet theories on the nature of society, but two things should be remembered: First, just because it works for aliens doesn’t mean it works for humans. Second, they are people. Presumably. Treat them like people.

Step seven: Trade. Don’t do the glass beads in exchange for your world thing. It may seem tempting to bilk naive aliens, but in the long run, it will make our species look like assholes. Depending on the quality of the planet, this step may be disregarded. If they have miracle drugs or incredibly useful metals, remember that the Eudaimonia Universalis will pay handsomely for a regular trade contract. Feel free to trade for handicrafts, as well! They make make a wonderful conversation starter.

The Eudaimonia Universalis’ First Contact protocols saw substantial revision in the years following contact with the Empire. It now reads,

Step one: Ask the Empire if they know these people.

Step two: Do what you like. I don’t even care anymore.

Sinbad, of course, had read the First Contact protocols. He sat at one of the research computers. Not a lot of information remained, but he could do an analysis on the fruit that grew throughout the station. He’d been there for a month, and one of the earliest mysteries he’d discovered had been the lack of illness. The typical Imperial citizen was a nearly perfect organism; Their body was laced with nanomachines from birth, providing them with a perfect immune system. Practically no naturally evolved organism could harm them. They could function with severe blood loss, regrow crippled or lost limbs in a matter of a few days with the proper food. And the inhabitants of the station showed no sign of the beneficial nanovirus. They should have been like him. But none of them showed any signs of illness, or of old injuries.

That had been one of the key difficulties with Imperial technology. It had been specialized to the point where it was rather difficult to regress at times. There were ways to cure human ailments, but they were still relatively rare, because they were crude, primitive methods compared to what the Empire had. No Imperial had needed the technology to fix their wounds in any except the most severe situations. He had checked the Well of Life at first, but there was no sign of anything special there, beyond a few amino acids synthesizers. He frowned as he watched the fruit’s genetic code come up.

He wasn’t a geneticist. The hand-computer, however, could translate it for him. Supercharging the body’s natural processes of repair and maintenance. It wasn’t anything like the nanovirus- Biology had some fairly strict limitations compared to mechanical technology- But it was something he could bring back. The fruits would grow even in an environment as hostile as their current one. They could be a panacea. Just a handful of seeds might be enough for his mission. A relatively safe and widespread way to deal with disease would be a huge advantage.

But still no sign of a way off the station. The gravitational labyrinth that surrounded Home was impenetrable. He shouldn’t have made it in in the first place. The ship didn’t have a prayer of getting out. He sighed, and then Leshp’s arms went around him. “What is wrong?” she asked, purring loudly. Her soft chest pressed into his back, as it rumbled. She’d been his constant companion for the last four weeks, helping him as he worked at getting old systems running. The ‘Well of Life’ was still a problem- It required parts that simply weren’t available aboard the station to repair it. That meant no way to help the population grow. On the other hand, they’d distributed the badges among the Seekers of Truth. For the first time in their history, they were gathering in larger numbers, centralizing. He thought they might even be starting on government soon.

“Oh, just thinking about home.”

“The land beyond the Rifts? You are sure it exists? You might have imagined it. Spending too much time in the wilds can make one crazy.”

“It’s there.” He smiled. “You just wait until you see it. There are no words that could describe how much there is out there to see. You’ll finally get the truth.”

She smiled. “I look forward to seeing it with you.” Her arms hung loosely around his shoulders, as she kissed his neck affectionately. “But in the meantime… Perhaps you have some free time so we may… commingle?”

He gave her a smile. “I’m sure I can find the time.” He picked up the fruit, and took a bite. Leshp’s face turned into a frown, and she looked slightly sick. She stepped away from him, and ran out through the door. The sound of retching filled the air. He frowned. “Leshp, are you alright?”

She returned after a couple of seconds, wiping her mouth, looking somewhat miserable. “Yes. Fine. Fine. I’ve been feeling ill lately. Perhaps a parasite. Maybe something I ate.” She sighed, leaning against him, her eyes lidded. “It is a miserable state of affairs.”

He frowned. “That’s… odd. Do you mind doing something for me?” He held out the computer to her. “Could you, ah… urinate, on this small tab?”

She frowned at his request, but nodded, slipping out of the room with the hand computer. When she returned, she gave him an odd look, handing the computer back. “That did not seem sanitary. You have strange desires.”

“It wasn’t a fetish,” Sinbad said, as he studied the computer, watching it. His eyes went wide. “Leshp… You’re pregnant.”

I grinned as I stood over the Red Cap society. They knelt on the floor, hands on their heads, ferocious looks on their faces. The pirates held swords to their throats, grinning as I dusted off my finally-freed hands. “And that is how you tell an enthralling story.” The melee had been over in seconds. “What on Earth took you guys so long?”

Brie smiled brightly. She and the others were standing around the pirates. Renee had undone my hands. There was no sign of Naja, though. “We got so interested, we didn’t want to interrupt your story while you were still telling it!”

I took a slow, deep breath, and rested a hand on my forehead, trying to make the pounding ache go away. “Fine. Fantastic. What are we going to do with this lot?” I waved a hand towards the captured Red Cap Society. The leader rose, apparently unthreatened by the sword being held to her neck, her eyes proud.

“You have bested us with a great story. By rights, our lives are yours to do with as you wish, storyteller. Take them or take us as you wish.”

The captain frowned, her arms crossed. “Hmmm. That reminds me. Speaking of strays… Where’s our imperial fleet captive?”

There was a sudden blast of light and noise. The roof of the warehouse disappeared, replaced with a view of the *Merry Bastard*. The pirate ship hovered over the warehouse, about a hundred feet up, weapons trained. It was an ugly ship, sleek and deadly, full of unpleasant menace, just the way the Reptile Kingdom liked their craft. At the head of the narrow frigate sat the bridge. Naja’s voice burst out from the craft, amplified to ear-splitting levels. “Attention Captain Kry! You and your crew may consider yourself under arrest by the authority the Imperial Fleet! Stand down, and allow yourself to be apprehended, and I will see to it that you are treated leniently for your crimes!”

The pirate crew exchanged looks, and frowned, beginning to holster their weapons. The captain had her head lowered, her fist clenched. “I’m sorry,” I said, feeling bad for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. The captain raised her head towards the craft, her expression grim.

“She’d better not be sitting in my seat.”

With that, and a blurred movement, the captain erupted into the air like a missile, straight for the nose of the craft.

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