The Slave Mines of Qixoni
Captain Allonius turned around in surprise.
"Ah, Moira. I didn't expect to see you again so soon. How is it going up there?"
Moira smiled at him brightly.
"I think we're nearly done, sir. Ryan made sure there was no resistance from the overseers, Angela and her clone have been freeing the slaves and helping them up to the surface. Some of them were in bad shape, but nothing a few elven tears couldn't fix."
Belatedly, Allonius noticed that Moira's eyes were redder than usual. Her healing gift always made him feel slightly uncomfortable. The idea of somebody crying over an open wound, filling it with their tears and snot, just didn't feel right to him. Give him a good old-fashioned medibot instead of all this space elf nonsense any day!
"He's still on board the Infidel. Luke said the spacestorm was nearly over and he should be able to land soon, but I think we've got everything here covered already. If you've found what it was you came for, we should be off-world in the next 20 minutes or so."
Allonius nodded gruffly.
"By the way, sir," Moira continued. "I've been meaning to ask you something. It's about the Secret Santa we've arranged between the crew. You see the name I drew was--"
"Hppbbblttt!" Allonius exploded. "You can't tell me who you drew! That defeats the whole object of a Secret Santa."
"Yes, sir. But I've run into problems because--"
"Ah ah ah." Allonius told her, sternly. "No buts! I don't mind telling you that my own recipient was pretty difficult to select a gift for. Nonetheless I'm going to come up with something while maintaining confidentiality. You understand?"
"Yes, sir," said Moira. "I guess I'll keep thinking."
"That's the ticket. Twenty minutes till we rendezvous with The Infidel, you said?"
"More or less." Moira stepped a little further into the darkened cave that had operated as a temporary office and storage room for the overseers. "You know, it was really lucky you decided to land here in spite of the bad weather. We'd never have had any idea otherwise that these mines were being worked by slaves. What gave you the idea?"
Allonius stood up from behind the overseers desk, using the cover of a ledger to palm a handful of Qixoni crystals and slide them into his pocket.
"The idea?" He slung an arm around Moira and began guiding her to the exit. "Oh, just a hunch, I guess."
The Zombie Space Ark of Doctor Zoill
"I guess you're wondering why I've brought you here," said Zoill.
"Not really," said Moira.
"I think I can take a pretty good stab at it," snarked Angela's Clone. "The last time you kidnapped us, it was to show us your zombie hyenas. The time before that it was a zombie octopus. So I'm guessing that after you finish monologuing at us, you're going to open that hatch over there and we'll be joined by some sort of zombie creature..."
"...and then I'll have a pretty good stab at it," finished Ryan. With his hands tied above his head, his already impressive muscles were even more well defined than usual.
"Once again, you fail to appreciate my genius. I have brought back a creature from extinction which... Wait. Did you say just the one octopus?"
Angela's clone shrugged.
"There were four, but we spent, like, a week arguing over the plural of octopus and eventually agreed to pretend there was just the one, even if it did mess up Ryan's kill-count for the month."
"It did not," said Ryan solemnly. "Only sentient beings are counted. The butchering of animals is not."
"They were very nearly sentient. I put a lot of work into them. Anyway, how can you not know the plural of octopus?"
"Oh we do," said Angela's clone. "Some of us were just wrong." She gave Ryan a brief, but heartfelt glare.
"A zombie octopus. Two zombie octapuses."
"Zombie octapii, Ryan. C'mon, it's not rocket science."
"Apparently not, since I know for a fact that you can do rocket science and yet in this you continue to--"
"Silence, cretins!" Zoill screamed. "The word is octopodes."
"Actually," said Moira politely, "that's the one word we all agreed it wasn't."
"Right," said Angela's clone, less politely, "since we agreed that only a pretentious windbag would have used--"
She broke off as Zoill headed to the hatch leading to the zombie pens.
"You know what? Nevermind."
Zoill paused with his hand on the hatch mechanism.
"As I was saying. I have brought back a creature from extinction. This will be my finest work. A Space-Nobel will be mine!"
"Is it a crocodile? I am so not up for zombie crocodiles today."
"I could handle a zombie crocodile," said Ryan confidently.
Moira looked confused.
"Crocodiles aren't extinct, are they?"
"Would you all please stop interrupting! The creature I have bought back to the universe is... THE PANDA!"
The three crew members of the Ghost Soup Mach VI stared at him in surprise.
"Pandas? Those were herbivores, right?"
"Predominantly, yes. However the DNA samples I had to work with were quite badly degraded, so there were a few problems with the cloning process. I had laid by a large stockpile of bamboo for them to consume, but they appear to be more interested in consuming--"
"Well, yes," said Zoill. "And my children need to eat."
Zoill pressed the button that would open the hatch and promptly left via the door to the detention level, slamming it shut behind him.
Angela's Clone and Moira exchanged a look, then immediately kicked their legs out behind them and began to reverse abseil up the dungeon wall, carefully walking themselves out of harm's way. They wouldn't be entirely out of reach of a determined zombie panda, but the nice thing about having Ryan around was that no zombie panda would have time to focus on the other two crew members while being repeatedly kicked in the head.
"My wrists are killing me," said Angela's Clone after a few minutes of silence while they watched the carnage below.
"You want me to cry on them? If you swivel, I could probably reach."
"Nah, I can hold out until Ryan finishes. You want to talk about something? Take my mind off it?"
"Actually, there's something I've been meaning to talk about. You know this year's Secret Santa?"
"Sure. Although I still don't know what to get for my recipient."
"Me either, but it's even weirder for me. I don't know who my recipient is!"
Angela's Clone twisted so that she could look at Moira properly.
"Is that so?"
"Yes. Because we did it by job titles and not our names, but I think my recipient was being funny with theirs. You know, like if Luke had put down "Chief cook and bottle washer" or something."
"And you really can't tell who it's supposed to be?"
"I don't have a clue and it's stressing me out."
Angela looked thoughtful.
"I guess all you can do is try to find an awesome present that would be appreciated by every single crew member."
"Even if it means going over the minimum spend?"
Ryan was currently holding the severed bone of a zombie panda between his toes and using it to saw through the rope binding his wrists. His ass bobbed in mid-air. Moira and Angela's clone stopped talking for a moment to appreciate the view.
"Aaand, there it is."
The rope snapped and Ryan flipped in midair, landing on his feet like a cat. He picked up the jawbone and began freeing the others.
"I wonder why Zoill keeps kidnapping us when this happens every single time," Moira wondered aloud.
Angela's Clone laughed.
"I think we might actually be written into his breeding plans at this point. Step one - breed crazy animal. Step two - animal turns out to be a zombie. Step three - make Ryan deal with it."
"Maybe I should start charging him for my services."
"Ryan of Toestaron: Intergalactic Pest Control. It's catchy, but I can't see Zoill cutting you a check any time soon."
"That's okay. I'm from Toestaron. I'm very comfortable with a barter economy."
Angela's Clone grinned.
"What are you going to steal?"
"It's not stealing," Moira corrected her. "It's payment for services rendered."
"Fine, what are you going to take in payment? I can't imagine you have much interest in Zoill's mad science gear."
"He did mention a stockpile of bamboo..."
Moira's Quarters on the Ghost Soup Mach VI
"Tell me about where you grew up," Luke said to Moira.
"Luke, I don't really like talking about my family."
"Not the people, just the place. I know you still miss Allothoria sometimes. Tell me what it was like."
They were lying together on her bed in a dreamy, post coital glow. Luke's fingers traced lazy shapes on her naked back as she answered him.
"Well, I didn't have a single sun growing up like you did. Allothoria has four or five quite distant ones in a very complicated orbit. We didn't really have night and day like on earth, it was more a constant series of sunrises and sunsets like the ebb and flow of a tide."
"I bet that was pretty. Did they look much like earth sunsets?"
"They were much pinker, because of all the pollen in the atmosphere from the crystal flowers."
"Right, that's Allothoria's main crop isn't it?"
"I guess so. Although crop hardly seems the right word for it. The crystal flowers are - well, sacred isn't the right word - but they're definitely more than just vegetation. Our house was just behind the curve of a hill, so I could walk out of our backdoor for just two or three minutes and find myself right in the middle of them. There'd be nothing between me and the horizon but crystal flowers and it felt so... Peaceful, maybe? Like I could be calm there. Like I was safe and exactly where I needed to be. It took me a long time to find that feeling again after I left Allothoria."
"And where did you find it?"
"It turned out not to be a where," said Moira smiling, "so much as a who."
She laced her fingers between the fingers of Luke's free hand and continued to enjoy the patterns he was drawing on her back.
"Anyway, I spent an awful lot of time in those fields. When I was really little I used to be able to crawl under the flowers and hide."
"They levitate. Not very high at all. A foot and a half, maybe less. The leaves grow down, so from a distance it looks like they're rooted to the ground, but if you get low enough you can brush right past them. It's a great place for kids to play."
"I get that," said Luke thoughtfully. "I used to play in the cornfields back home. They don't levitate, but I guess it's kind of the same thing."
"It's nice to think we have that in common," said Moira. "If you'd asked me back then, I wouldn't have thought it was possible for me to have anything in common with somebody from Earth. But then I spent far too much time as a child listening to my father."
She tensed up at the mention of her family, but Luke's talented fingers slowly worked the knots from her back.
"Forget about him. Tell me about the flowers. What did they look like?"
"They were so colorful. A little like some of the tulip fields on Earth. Yellows and purples and ambers, but always with those dusty centers full of pink pollen. I'd end up covered in it! And the flowers themselves were almost flat to drink in all that shifting starlight. They had these soft little triangular petals so that the blossoms looked like little stars themselves."
"It sounds beautiful."
"It really was."
"Even with everything else that happened, growing up amongst that must have been a gift."
"What is it?"
"Well, you know the Secret Santa?"
Now it was Luke who suddenly tensed up.
"What, what about Secret Santa? Who was talking about Secret Santa?"
"Well, you just made me think of it, because--"
"Is that my comm unit?" Luke leaped out of bed and started pulling on his pants. "I think I'm needed on the bridge. I gotta go."
He raced out of the room.
"Well that was weird," said Moira to herself.
She had the acute senses of all space-elves and she was pretty sure she hadn't heard Luke's comm unit make a single sound.
Hydroponics Lab on the Ghost Soup Mach VI
"Angela?" Moira had to shout over the sound of a loud Lucy Celestial track belting out of the speakers in the Hydroponics Laboratory. "Are you in here? We're about to eat dinner. Luke made pizza!"
There was no point knocking on the door. She'd never be heard. Angela usually kept her taste for loud music under control in the common areas of the ship: a concession to Moira's sensitive hearing. Down here in her own domain, Angela had turned the dial all the way up to eleven and Moira was regretting her offer to come down and fetch her to dinner.
She pushed the door open and stepped inside. Her jaw dropped.
"Computer, music OFF!"
Angela stared awkwardly at Moira in the ensuing silence.
"Um... Hi Moira. I don't suppose I could ask you to maybe keep this from the Captain?"
"Angela what have you been doing? There must be fifteen hundred caterpillars in here!"
"More like two thousand," said Angela sheepishly.
"Where did you get them? Why did you get them?"
"I bought the eggs off one of those smugglers we found on Iota Kissu II. As for why, it's kind of a secret."
"A secret? Angela you're breaking so many quarantine regulations, right now! What's going to happen when they turn into moths? What if they get loose? They could destroy the ship!"
"I give you my word as an Infidel that will not happen," said Angela. "You're going to have to trust me."
Moira narrowed her eyes.
"You haven't been spending time with Dr Zoill have you? Are these zombie caterpillars?"
Angela burst out laughing.
"No of course not, but can't you just picture Ryan trying to kick a zombie caterpillar to death?"
"So will you promise not to tell Captain Allonius if I promise that all the caterpillars will be gone before Christmas?"
"I guess so," said Moira. "Hey speaking of Christmas, my Secret Santa has kind of been presenting me with a challenge."
"Me too, Moira," said Angela. "Me too."
The Bridge of the Ghost Soup Mach VI
Moira burst onto the bridge still in her nightgown, only to find Luke and Angela playing Space-Blackjack across the console.
"Five card trick beats... Woah Moira, what are you doing up? Is everything okay?"
Moira looked from one to the other hesitantly.
"I came to ask you the same thing. I woke up and I felt like something was wrong."
"You mean because Loverboy here was on the night shift instead of down there with you?" Angela teased.
"No, I just... I don't know. It's just a feeling."
Luke glanced down at the control panel.
"I'm not getting any readings. Was it something out there or an internal problem? Something with the cargo ship?"
The Ghost Soup Mach VI was acting as an escort to a cargo ship bound for earth full of valuable raw materials from the far edges of the Ehin system.
"It's not past tense," said Moira. "I can feel it right now." She leaned over the console and stretched her heightened senses as far as they would go. "It's something outside. Something dangerous. Something... THERE."
She brought her finger down on a quadrant which was - according to the scanners - completely uninhabited.
"Are you sure?" Luke asked. "The scanners aren't picking up a thing."
"Let's humor her and throw up the shields," said Angela pragmatically. "That way the worst case scenario if she's wrong is we waste a few seconds before I can get back to kicking your ass at cards. And the worst case scenario if she's right is that we have to listen to her saying 'I told you so' from now until Christmas."
Angela raised the shields and Moira smiled at her gratefully.
"Hey speaking of Christmas how are you two getting on with your Secret--"
A huge shockwave buffeted the ship, knocking Moira to the ground and throwing Luke and Angela from their chairs.
"What the hell was that?" Angela demanded.
Moira resisted the urge to say 'I told you so.'
"The Amalgamation," said Luke, staring at the console. "They've got a ship within firing distance: right where you said they'd be. I don't understand. It's like they came out of nowhere. Do they have new cloaking technology?"
Moira had no answer and Angela was already on comms, raising the rest of the crew and barking orders to the service bots to ensure the shields stayed up.
"Do you see that?" Luke peered closer at the console. "Computer, ENHANCE!"
Instantly an image of the Amalgamation warship was projected in stunning three dimensional detail into the bridge of the Ghost Soup.
"What is that on the turret?" Luke wanted to know. "A weapon of some kind?"
"They're pointing it at the cargo ship," said Moira urgently. "It's not shielded!"
"They're bluffing," said Luke confidently. "They can't blow up the cargo ship without destroying the shipment."
But as they watched in horror the gun turret on the Amalgamation Warship let out a thin stream of bright, blue-white light. The rear of the cargo ship began to turn orange, then brown, then black and finally to crumble away.
"That was their engines," said Luke. "Without them they're stranded. Sitting ducks. What was that thing?"
"A Static Time Dilator," said Angela's Clone solemnly. The other members of the crew were gathered behind her in the doorway. "Time Dilation should only occur during faster-than-light travel, but technology exists which allows Time Dilation effects to be applied to a static object. It's incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands."
"And you're saying The Amalgamation have an STD?"
"It's worse than that," said Angela's Clone. "They've found a way to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow. That device mounted on their ship contracts time. It's a Static Time Intensifier. One blast from that gun and a well built spaceship can be hit by thousands of years of concentrated time, rusting away into nothing in the space of a few seconds."
"How can we stop them?" Ryan asked.
"We can't," said Luke. "It's too dangerous now we know that they have an STI."
"Humans," said Ryan disparagingly. "You run from death, but we of Toestaron--"
"Ryan, I'm telling you. You won't be Toestaroni, you'll be toast. If you give them a chance to aim that weapon at you, they'll blast you with a hundred years all in one go. You'll just be dust in the wind. Nobody can survive that, no matter how brave of a warrior they are."
Ryan and Luke both turned around in surprise as Moira stepped forward.
"A hundred years? Piece of cake."
Infirmary of the Ghost Soup Mach VI
"Good morning, Officer N'hari. How are you feeling?"
"Like I've been hit by a planet. Is everybody okay?"
"Everybody but you, it would seem," replied Bipi. "That was a very brave thing you did, Officer N'hari."
Moira opened her eyes fully and gave a hollow laugh.
"It didn't feel brave at the time. I pretty much just volunteered because I thought The Amalgamation's weapon wouldn't affect me. If I'd known how awful rapid aging would feel I might have thought twice. How many years did they give me? Surely a couple of thousand wouldn't be enough to make me feel like this?"
"Aging? How much do you remember?"
Moira racked her brain.
"Not a lot. I remember The Amalgamation turning up out of nowhere with an STI and I remember space snorkeling over there because everybody else is a short-lifer. I remember sneaking on board and finding the gun turret, then the only other thing I remember is a feeling like being turned inside out and waking up here with you."
"You're lucky to be alive. Once The Amalgamation realized that you were immune to their STI, they decided to go with a different approach."
"What was that?"
"The turned off the gravity on their ship."
Moira felt herself go cold.
"Great Star Goddess!" she whispered. "How long was I in Zero Gee?"
"We estimate almost four minutes," said Bipi. "Officer Sarfire attempted to hack into the Amalgamation ship and Lieutenant Jackson made his way over to rescue you at great personal risk, but ultimately you were without gravity for far longer than is considered safe for a space elf."
"I've always said null grav would be the death of me," Moira joked feebly, before bursting into tears. "Oh Bipi, I'm such an idiot. Charging off like that. Forcing Luke to walk right into the arms of The Amalgamation. What was I thinking?"
"Officer N'hari, you did a wonderful thing," said Bipi, efficiently gathering her falling tears in a mediflask. "You successfully powered down the STI. If not for you, then the pilot of the cargo ship would be dead right now, not to mention all the people on the Stomatoloq colony who were depending on that shipment of medical and dental supplies. You're going to be gravity-sick for a good long while, but you saved lives today."
Moira nodded tearfully, then looked at Bipi thoughtfully.
"Bipi, you do all the dental work for the crew members, don't you?"
"Yes, although as a space elf, you hardly need to concern yourself with--"
"When you put your name in for Secret Santa what exactly did you write?"
Bipi's eyes glowed green with confusion.
"You sound disappointed."
"Only because I think somebody might be playing a trick on me," said Moira disconsolately. "What happened to the STI?" "As the crew member least likely to be affected, I was sent to retrieve it. It's still fully operational, but Captain Allonius has asked that I permanently disable it at the earliest opportunity." Moira nods in wholehearted agreement. "It's much too dangerous to be kept around shortlifers. I can't believe how close we came to losing them! When can I go upstairs and see them? Luke especially, I need to thank him."
"I need to run some tests first," said Bipi. "Obviously, your hearing is fine, but how is your vision? Your balance? Do you notice any sensory impairments?"
"I feel very dizzy," admitted Moira. "And it's the funniest thing, but ever since I woke up I've been able to smell alcohol, even though I know there isn't a drop to be had on the ship and hasn't been since we left the Zubar system."
Bipi busied himself filing away Moira's tears in one of the fridges.
"Perhaps I was too overzealous with the disinfecting wipes? Or perhaps your senses are more sensitive than normal. It's certainly true that we haven't had alcohol suitable for consumption on board in some time. The Captain has remarked on it to me often."
"I'll just bet he has," said Moira, smiling.
Luke's Quarters on the Ghost Soup Mach VI
"Oh my Star Goddess, Luke! It's perfect!"
Moira tore her gaze away from the painting for long enough to shake him awake.
"What is it?"
Moira beamed at him.
"Merry Christmas, Secret Santa!" she exclaimed, dropping a kiss on his forehead. "It's perfect. It's just perfect."
"Oh, you unwrapped it already," said Luke waking up more fully. "I'm glad you like it. I wasn't sure I'd gotten it right."
The painting was of a field of colorful levitating flowers beneath a bright pink sunset, cleverly painted so that it appeared to lighten and darken as you moved your head.
"It's exactly like Allothoria. I just... I can't even express how much this means to me."
"I just wanted you to have something that would remind you of home."
"You're my home now," said Moira. "And it reminds me of you." She reached out for him and it was a long moment before either of them realized that there was another present waiting to be opened.
"Oh, but Luke, you have your own gift. Open it!"
Moira watched Luke open the wrapping, to reveal 140 narrow strips of bamboo, each decorated with delicate brushstrokes in a Chinese script and painstakingly sewn together to make a book.
"I don't understand."
"There's a card."
Luke lifted the handwritten card from the gift and read aloud.
"'Luke, I know I'm always giving you a hard time and saying that humans don't understand anything about battle. That's not entirely true. This is a copy of a book called The Art Of War by a human writer named Sun Tzu who lived thousands of years ago. Growing up on Toestaron, I was made to learn this book by heart. I've made this copy as a reminder to myself that while human ways are often strange to me, they can still command my respect. I'm giving it to you as a reminder to you that Sun Tzu is not the only human I hold in high esteem. Ryan.'"
Moira could see that Luke was choked up and decided to defuse the situation with a joke.
"You're going to have to learn Chinese now, aren't you."
Luke smiled at her.
"Come on, I want to see what the others got."
The Mess Hall of the Ghost Soup Mach VI
"You should see the painting Luke did for me, Ryan. It's just amazing."
"It cannot beat the lightsaber Captain Allonius created for me," argued Ryan. "Mine has never been the same since the sands of Mars and not only are the crystals in this one several times as powerful, but it is an exact replica of The Captain's own."
"Yeah?" said Angela's Clone. "Well I got a silk robe. Silk! Not synth fabric! It's just like Angie's one that I've always coveted, but I have no idea where she managed to find silk in deep space!"
Moira and Angela exchanged a look, but neither of them said a word about the two thousand silkmoths.
"And I'm really happy with the vouchers you got me for the Zubolekar catalog," Angela told her clone. "Especially now they've started delivering beyond their own galaxy."
"Nothing can beat my gift," insisted Captain Allonius. "A bottle of twenty-year-old single malt scotch. I don't know how the hell you managed it, but I'm damn grateful."
"I improvised," said Bipi.
Moira thought back to the smell of alcohol in the Infirmary and to the instant aging technology that Bipi had been asked to destroy, but again she didn't say anything. Why rat out her fellow crew members when everybody was so happy? Except...
"Hey Bipi, where's your gift?"
"I... I do not know."
"That's weird," said Moira. "I left it out on the bridge last night for collection with all the other gifts."
"You bought for Bipi?" Luke asked.
"Well, yes. Sort of. Only he put his name down as Ship's Dentist, so I didn't really know who I was buying for. I had to think of something that everybody would enjoy. I made a model of the Ghost Soup from Josh's original blueprints. It was the only thing I could think of that we all loved equally."
"But I did not write my name as Ship's Dentist," said Bipi, sounding confused.
"You must have done, Bipster," Angela explained patiently. "Because otherwise it means somebody else entered for a second time under a fake name."
"Well there's a really easy way to find out," said Luke.
Angela's clone blanched.
"I thought Moira agreed to never use her space elf telepathy against us."
"It's not using it against us if we give her our consent," said Ryan. "Which I do."
Moira scanned them both quickly.
"Well it definitely wasn't Ryan or Luke who entered as Ship's Dentist."
Allonius and Angela both nodded at her.
"Or Angela, or The Captain."
"I have a harder time reading AIs," admitted Moira, "but it doesn't look like it was Bipi either."
Everybody turned to Angela's Clone.
"Oh come on," she said. "You're all just jealous you didn't think to do it first."
"You little asshole," said Moira, taking a good look inside Angela's Clone's head. "You cheated so you'd get an extra present. Then you bailed on buying Bipi a present because you knew there wouldn't be any consequences for you! It's not like the second gift was even personalized to you, you were just being greedy! I've spent all this time worrying about what to get my recipient and you already had a present, you didn't even care what I got you so long as you had more than everybody else."
"But why Ship's Dentist?" Bipi wanted to know.
"Because Dentist is the Niho word for Clone," Moira explained angrily. "She was rubbing it right in our faces that she was cheating."
Captain Allonius frowned at Angela's Clone.
"I think you'd better give that gift to Bipi, don't you?"
"No," said Angela's Clone sulkily. It's mine. He can't have it."
Bipi's eyes began to glow red.
The Bridge of the Ghost Soup Mach VI
"It sure was unfortunate that Angela's Clone got sucked out into space when she was trying to hide that model," said Luke. "Hit me."
Bipi dealt him another card.
"Yes," said Captain Allonius. "Even though she was teleported almost immediately onto a passing spaceship. I wonder where she is now. Hit me, please?"
Bipi dealt him another card.
"26. I'm bust."
Suddenly the comm screen flickered into life, revealing the face of Dr Zoill.
"Infidels!" Zoill shouted. "I have your crew member. I suggest you come quickly if you wish to see her alive again. My zombie crocodiles grow hungry."
"Computer, MUTE," said Angela.
Zoill continued to monologue at the comm screen in silence.
"Twenty one!" Bipi shouted, turning over his cards with a flourish. The others grumbled and pushed their credits in his direction.
"Also, said Bipi, happily, "I call dibs on her silk robe. Merry Christmas to me!"