Warp Riders – Chapter 14

Back at camp, the Stowaway lay in the planetglow, visibly relaxing, until the Navigatrix was out of earshot. She was getting suspicious, and they thought they might know why, but there was nothing to be done about it. Things were in motion and that was that.

The Engineer had put together an audio translation device that took over the entirety of the ship’s computer. She wanted them to try it sooner than later, because once they were back in there full time, the computer would be otherwise occupied. They hated to disappoint her.

They stood up and caught her eye; “We can try your machine now if you want.”

The Engineer’s face took on the troubled look of anyone hearing the Stowaway’s transformed voice, but she said “Would you like to try the device now? No one will bother us.”

While she tuned radio signals and plugged in wires, she babbled on about the system she’d set up, all the scientific principles she was working with, the codebreaking approaches the computer would run through… and she smiled at them, and said “I’m excited to learn your name!”

The Stowaway had never met another group that used names less, but they smiled at her as best they could. They had the sense that their facial expressions weren’t coming through clearly either, but it was worth a try.

Before this had all started, they’d been part of a small community in the permanently lit zone of a tidally locked planet. They had not, they could admit, been a particularly good kid, and it wasn’t really surprising that they had been kicked out so young. Family had to earn it.

And maybe it was silly to go through the twilight into the night communities without a convoy, but it wasn’t like they could have afforded to join one. The Stowaway didn’t pride themselves on much, but they were a consistently good shot. Good enough to get into trouble, at least.

And so maybe it had been inevitable that they would end up in the wrong part of some nightside town, in some rundown, abandoned neighbourhood, paranoid and twitchy, and shoot the wrong window out, and get the attention of the witches. They replayed it in their mind over and over.

Maybe this was indeed fated; but they’d made the trade, taken the job, tried to find a way to survive it. This was on them. They’d intentionally become the Stowaway and they were going to have to see this all through.

So when the Engineer held up a microphone that she had plugged into a huge array of switchboards and radio transmitters, they held it and calmly recited each step of their journey onto the ship, every trick they had used, each secret they had been given. And the lights blinked…

…and the ship’s engines revved up to support the computer, and they all turned and looked at it, half-immersed in high tide and rumbling and boiling the water around it, and the little lights kept blinking…

…and then finally it all wound down, the air went quiet, and the lights all turned off except for one red one.

The Engineer huffed and frowned and almost looked hurt by the result.

“This should have worked. This is the best audio cipher I’ve ever made – that I’ve ever seen.”

The Stowaway almost felt bad. They reached out and patted the Engineer’s hand.

“It’s not your fault. It’s just the Curse.”

The Engineer’s frown deepened at the untranslatable words that reached her ears, and she turned away, already pulling out wires and unscrewing covers.

Warp Riders – Chapter 12

No one did anything so rude as to, say, sigh with relief as the Captain disappeared in the distance, but the Navigatrix caught the Engineer and the Bosun exchanging a meaningful look, and the Stowaway sat down and stretched back in a cat-like yawn that almost looked forced.

She had to ask. “She hasn’t been that bad, has she?”

The Engineer snorted as the Bosun raised an eyebrow.

“I’m happy to make her coffee and send her on her way, but yesterday she kept interrupting me, trying to tell me how to wash out the percolator. My percolator.”

The Stowaway was trying to suppress their smile.

“And!” said the Engineer, “AND she started taking my short range radios apart without me while I was eating lunch. She made me explain to her everything I was doing for the whole afternoon.” She huffed. “Set me back by days.”

“She not bothering you?” asked the Bosun, as the Stowaway gave up and started giggling at the Engineer’s expression.

The Navigatrix tilted her head. “Well, she’s certainly around more. I don’t mind her taking an interest in my work.”

“Looked more like nagging to me.”

“Doesn’t get under my skin, I guess. Maybe you could find more joy in sharing?”

The Engineer glowered at her. “I’m happy to share, but she’s been miserable since we got here and you know it.”

“No good at relaxing, I’d say.” The Bosun gestured. “This kid, now, they get it.”

The Stowaway had stretched out, hands under their head, eyes closed, clearly enjoying the breeze.

The Navigatrix honestly thought the pose looked forced, but far be it from her to nag anyone. There were much better ways to spend the day.

Warp Riders – Chapter 9

They’d crashed on a very accommodating moon, it turned out. The weather was clear, the temperature mild, the air breathable, the flora and fauna both edible and minimally aggressive.

The only discomforting element was the ruins.

They were so well incorporated into the landscape in some places, it was almost hard to notice them. All that was left was stone and metal, but enough of it was there to intrigue the Engineer.

“Just one day trip!”

She and the Captain were arguing while fishing in the briny lake. There was a stone plaza – or maybe a stone roof – that protruded out into the deeper part of high tide and made for good hunting; the construction of it was tantalizingly mysterious.

“We need you focused on getting us out of here, not settling in.” The Captain sighed and started pulling her line back in. “I need you to make the ship livable enough we can get inside and repair it.”

“I just need to collect some data; I can examine it after we leave.”

Around the camp stove at dinner, the Captain found few allies.

“They’re creepy,” said the Bosun. “Ruins don’t work like this, so evenly spread out. I say send her out for a day.”

“Don’t you want to get out of here? We need the ship working!”

The Navigatrix raised a hand –

“I agree, we can’t ignore how strange this place is. But if you can’t spare the Engineer, Captain, you could send someone working on less urgent things?”

“Everything is urgent right now! Are you angling for a day off too?”

The Navigatrix gave the Captain a withering look.

“Supervising is not an urgent role, Captain. Why not go take a walk tomorrow.”

The worst part was, everyone else agreed.

Warp Riders – Chapter 7

The Orb had come to them about a year after they’d officially started running gigs together – the Captain, the Navigatrix, the Engineer, the Bosun, and Lucy. At that stage, they’d pulled off a few good tricks for some high rollers, and they’d gotten cocky.

Mostly clients communicated via parcel coordinates – they’d send galactic positioning system coordinates, and the Nav’d find them on the map, and Lucy’d pilot the flight, and they’d all have a good nap until the ship dinged and they’d haul in a tiny little box with instructions.

They’d drop off scores and pick up payments the same way; they only went planet-side for the runs themselves, and the occasional shopping trip.

So it wasn’t unusual to pick up a faint signal full of numbers and letters; and it wasn’t particularly hard for the Engineer to decode.

It was, notably, a pretty remote corner to go fishing for a tiny box in, but the Captain’d told them that was how the best clients worked; they were too rich and powerful to know the difference between reasonable requests and inconvenient ones. So off they went.

But it wasn’t a box at the coordinates; it was a small, very small, very dark, very hard to find chunk of an asteroid. Lucy saw it first, noticed its dust trail on the scanner. They’d pulled it in, and the first person to pick it up had been the Navigatrix – and that was when things got weird.

First, she froze. For a full minute, no one could get her attention or pull the rock from her hands.

Then, the rock exploded, sending dust across the common room, larger fragments rattling against the ceiling, the floor, the lockers… when they blinked the dust away enough to see, the Navigatrix had pulled whatever was still in her hands right up to her face, and she humming the way she did when charting a drop, but faster, higher, frantically.

When she finally lowered them, she revealed the Orb.

They’d passed it around; the strange sphere of gas that simply… held itself together. It had almost no weight, but it also had no momentum – they could gently push it from hand to hand and it would simply stop midair if they disengaged.

The Captain had taken it first, eyes wide with fear even after the Navigatrix had woken up and laughed with delight. The Captain stared at it for a minute or two, then scoffed at it with some relief.

Next it went to the Engineer, who mostly talked about its mass and energy and glow.

She hadn’t bothered staring into it particularly; she just pushed it around until she got bored, and then gently shoved it over to the Bosun.

The Bosun cast a skeptical eye across it, shook her head, and handed the Orb, though they didn’t know it was the Orb then, to Lucy.

Lucy smiled, like it was all a fun game, as she caught the Orb and pulled it towards her face; but she grew deadly serious as she squinted into it. There was a hint of awe on her face when she locked eyes with the Navigatrix.

“Is this thing – is this a chart?”

The Navigatrix grinned like a mischievous child.

“If I’m right, Lucy, this thing is a chart of time.”

It took a few creative modifications to the ship, but within a month they were ready for their first trip outside of time. The Captain had brainstormed a list of new possible gigs to try if this thing really worked, and she kept them all on task.

First, they went into warp – as usual – but then came the new part: they went all the way through, out the other side of light speed. Suddenly, they weren’t going impossible fast – they were simply floating motionless in a churning, smearing maelstrom of stars.

Then the Navigatrix sat down at the helm and raised the Orb to her eye level. She shoved all ten fingers into its gaseous form and began to stretch it, pulling it wider, taller, deeper, until it became a huge bubble that she was completely hidden within.

Her voice was muffled as she hummed her busy-thinking hum, and the Orb started to churn in sync with the lights outside the ship — and then the ship began to move, driven by the Navigatrix from deep within the Orb.

And once she proved they could move in and out of time at will, the Captain sent word out that they had new, longer term capabilities, and the real fun began.

The Navigatrix started spending more and more time inside the Orb, coming out to locate more mundane locations on the usual computer, or to eat, or to sleep, but very rarely. She was the first one of them to realize that eating and sleeping had become … optional, essentially.

In fact, a lot of things felt optional after a while. The accounts they’d set up once while a century or two in the past were taking care of most of their material needs, and being outside of time really reduced those to almost nothing.

They still did client work, but more for the fun of it; maybe that was why the jobs they took got so much more dangerous.

Warp Riders – Chapter 6

The Bosun watched her superior officers bicker while she brewed another pot of coffee over the open flame. She and the Engineer had made good time earlier, wading waist deep through the receding lakewater to maximize time on the ship, and she’d been able to secure a few treats.

Were they treats if they were usually just parts of everyday meals? Well, they’d had a week of breakfasts on shore by now with only rehydrated emergency rations, and real toast felt very special after that. Flame-toasted toast, even. Fancy.

The Bosun thought of herself as the ship’s mom, which was the only time she ever had any interest in parenting, thankyouverymuch. She liked doing the daily cleaning, keeping meals on schedule, nagging everyone into doing their laundry properly. It was the best job she’d ever had.

Ship life had been pretty new to her, but old dogs learned new tricks all the time, and if it was going to be camp life for a bit now, well, she wasn’t particularly worried. They’d get some basic food testing equipment off the ship soon and then this moon would be her oyster.

She handed the frozen loaf to the Stowaway, who deftly sawed it into thick slices with a mean looking knife that the Captain really wasn’t sure they should have access to. “That kid’s too good with it for my comfort,” she’d said. The Bosun found a lot of comfort in knife skills.

As soon as the bread started toasting properly on the stove, the smell gathered everyone together. The Engineer even emerged, clearly not having slept since the ship run, raw wires tucked into her braid. The Stowaway flipped a slice, revealing a golden crisp, and they all sighed.

Tomorrow night she thought she’d try and crack open the deep freeze. The whole storeroom was going to feel like a treasure trove, honestly, if the Engineer could find her blow torch and finally tear open the crumpled door.

She couldn’t stop thinking about all the leftover curry she’d packed in there; she wasn’t sure how old it was, but maybe being outside time meant that didn’t matter. The Bosun had found that thinking too much about the Orb and time and such was useless; she’d just check by smell.

Warp Riders – Chapter 5

The Engineer was a helpful person at heart; she just, often, found herself worn out by the disinterest – honestly the ignorance – of everyone else regarding the inner workings of the equipment that kept them all alive.

That day, as she lay on her side in her tent smelling fresh coffee, she was building a radio.

She’d done the trek to the ship with the Bosun at low tide, under the heat of the green sun, and returned at a run with two clanking bags full of scrap parts from the upper store room, all mercifully dry, and a soldering iron she was going to hook up to their solar battery.

And, not that anyone asked, but the Engineer had also rebuilt the solar battery, so that it would work efficiently with the green sunlight. And she and the Stowaway had taken the camp stove apart and put it back together twice already, as they’d sourced new materials to combust.

She had a few radios in mind; one to communicate short range, so one person could work on the ship repairs and another could stand atop a hill and watch for the tide. Another broader, more sensitive receiver, to scan the system for noise.

And a third radio-like tool that she was particularly proud of, that would connect wirelessly to the ship’s research computer, where she had, before the crash, been building an ingenious translation software that she was confident would unlock the words of the Stowaway.

The Captain liked them all to have formal roles on the crew, but the Engineer had taken to thinking of the Stowaway in less rigid terms, referring to them as “kid” and “short stuff” and mostly, while they collaborated, “hey you.” It’d be nice, she thought, to learn their name.

The most delicious part of the communication puzzle, to her, was that the Stowaway clearly understood everything they said, or wrote, or typed. The kid was an active listener, and they followed instructions perfectly. She even caught them reading the waterlogged battery manual.

So, in her engineering mind, she pondered the similarities between the physical locks on the ship doors, and the linguistic lock on the Stowaway’s words, and the strange, locked-in-place feeling of being immersed in the flow of time again. Maybe she just needed a new kind of key.

Warp Riders – Chapter 4

The smell of coffee brought the Captain out of her tent as the green sun set. The Bosun and the Stowaway were working in quiet organization around the makeshift stove, and the Navigatrix was pouring herself a mug. No Engineer yet; her sleep cycle seemed to be slightly different.

No one was wearing their uniforms properly anymore. The Bosun had stripped down to her work tank; the Navigatrix had abandoned the ceremonial cape and gauntlets. The Captain would have worn hers, but evacuating the ship had cost her most of a sleeve.

The green light had an uncanny effect on the Navigatrix’s copper hair; sometimes it almost looked black in the light. The Captain thought it gave her a bit of an occult air; pale face and dark hair and those long, long limbs.

She was kneeling as she added spices to her coffee, and when she looked up and caught the Captain’s eye, she shot a wry half-smile through the haze of the stove.

“Guess who just finished the pot.”
“First time you’re awake before me and this is the shit you pull.”

She made her way over to join the Captain, and gestured with her cup.

“Want a sip?”

“The way you spice it? I can smell it just fine from over here.” Cinnamon and cloves, pepper and a pinch of salt and something sweet. “Impressed you got the Bosun to rescue your spice rack.”

“Got her to grab my best mug last night, too.” The Navigatrix nudged the Captain with her foot and proudly showed her the faded logo.

“Navigatrix, you piece of shit.”

The compass rose, sword and skull were all there, framing the cafe name, “Pirate’s Cove”, in melodramatic pink.

“That’s a fucking latte mug from the cafe on Ereb.”
“Oh, it might be!”
“This is when you tell me that you stole a shitty mug -”
“- well, now -”
“- from a cheesy theme cafe -”
“- okay, but -”
“- on the last planet we got arrested on?”

She winked. “You know I love a keepsake.”

The Navigatrix had never been the most straightforward person – folks who read star charts rarely were – but after they’d found the Orb, she’d become fully enigmatic.

The Captain hadn’t had this banal a conversation with her in, well, since they’d first left time. She didn’t trust it.

“I guess I’m glad you still found time to plot a route out of there, in between your thievery and cafe patronage.” The Captain felt herself getting angry. “Let me know when you make any headway on figuring out this novelty-tchotchke-free moon.”

But the Navigatrix never seemed up for a fight when the Captain wanted one, and she nodded as if that was a reasonable thing to say.

“You know, it’s a refreshing challenge, using analogue methods to locate us, both galactically and temporally. The light does complicate it.”

They both turned to watch planetrise, and watched a flock of aerial creatures scatter as the pink rays brought colour back to the landscape.

The Captain tilted her head back, trying to find the darkest part of the sky; between sun and planet, not a single star was visible.

“Talk to the Engineer. Get your equipment up and running. We need to know when we are.”

Warp Riders – Chapter 3

The Stowaway had shown up after their last gig. The four of them had fled back to the ship after things had gone sideways. They’d quickly battened the hatches and dropped through the warp, back out of time, and it was only afterwards they noticed them hiding in Lucy’s old bunk.

They weren’t a crew that got stowaways; the Engineer had set up very fiddly locking systems on all the doors of the ship, the sort that took a whole choreography of twists and turns to unlatch. So the first thing the Captain asked their guest was how the hell they’d gotten in.

But the Stowaway didn’t tell her. Couldn’t, maybe.

They opened their mouth and made noises, but not noises anyone thought of as, say, words. Noises that kind of slid in one ear and out the other, warped and slippery, without leaving any meaning behind whatsoever.

So the Engineer got them a keyboard to type on, and they frowned and made a good effort, clicked all the keys, and hissed audibly as the screen filled with punctuation and numbers, continuing to add more for a few seconds even after they raised their hands.

So the Bosun pulled out her personal notepad, tore off a sheet, and handed an analogue pen to the Stowaway. They all gathered round and watched as their guest wrestled with the pen, sweating and huffing, failing to make it put anything on the page that resembled a word.

At which point, the Navigatrix threw her hands in the air and called it futile, and they left the Stowaway in Lucy’s old bunk, locked the door, and spent another hour arguing as a crew over whether it was worth the risk to drop back into time immediately and kick them off.

In the end, they hadn’t really gotten around to it, was the thing.

There was always a lot to do between gigs, even without the pressure of time weighing on them. The ship needed repairs, their equipment had to be patched up, and this time, so did the crew themselves.

It didn’t take long for the Bosun to talk the Captain into unlocking the bunk and putting the Stowaway to work in the kitchen; and now it felt almost like they’d always been there, in their terrestrial outfit, silently doing odd jobs in all the quiet corners of the ship.

That was the thing about living outside time; it was hard to be sure of duration. 

Warp Riders – Chapter 2

They agreed after the second or third cycle that the green sunlight was awful, and most of the crew took to sleeping during the sunlit parts of the day, and puttering around in the planet-lit dusk.

On the fourth night, as the dusk brightened on the horizon and the rest of the crew were filing into their mercifully dark tents, the Navigatrix pulled the Captain aside. She gestured with her eyes to the Stowaway, who was dusting themselves off fastidiously before going to bed.

“Have you made any progress on talking to them yet?”

The Captain frowned. “No.”

“When were you thinking of figuring that out?”

“I wasn’t. I’m busy.”

They were standing on the edge of the high plateau, and the Captain watched the tide pull the lake water away from them.

She had been flying with the Navigatrix for years before they left time; they used to work so well together. But now the Navigatrix had this … this pitying look on her face, and it was getting on the Captain’s nerves.

“You don’t seem to be doing that much,” she said gently, her eyebrows tightening a bit. It was infuriating.

“Well, no, I can’t, can I? Because someone crashed my ship on this damp moon while I did a routine computer reset!”

The Navigatrix did not have the grace to look at all guilty. And, to be fair, none of them knew how things had gone this wrong; they’d been safely outside time.

“Well, Captain, it seems somewhat urgent that you prioritize communicating with our quiet friend.” The Navigatrix paused, and leaned down and put her hand on the Captain’s shoulder. “I think they may know more about this whole debacle than we guessed.”

The Captain didn’t sleep after that; she just stared at the seam of her tent as it leaked green sunlight.

Warp Riders – Chapter 1

The thing was, they’d been living out of time for … well, some time, and maybe more than anything else it was the feeling of time, real time – linear time – passing, that made the planet grate on her so much.

They’d been there for something like 30 hours so far. The planet – well, honestly, it was a moon – was facing the lit side of a gas giant, and night never really fell. The lighting options seemed to be either a greenish sunlight or a warm planet-lit dusk. It made the Captain uncomfortable.

Their poor fallen ship was immersed in a briny lake at the moment, but there had been a couple hours under that green sun where the pull of that gas giant had tugged the water away, and she’d got a good look at it.

And they got some supplies out, which was the main thing.

The Bosun had a proper camp set up above the high tide line an hour after that, and the Engineer got her surveying equipment out, and the Navigatrix laid out all her charts on the flat slabs and got down to work figuring out where they’d landed.

The Stowaway even sat down and started putting a cooking fire together with dried lakeweed, following the Bosun’s instructions.

But the Captain didn’t really know what to do with herself, to be honest.