The cyclone left heaving gray water in its wake. Rajit nudged his ship, the ICC Kirpan out of Madras Port, Chennai, between twenty-meter swells, shunning voice control for the reassurance of a wheel and throttle beneath his fingers. As the storm receded the slate-colored waves flattened to familiar green.
He touched his throat mic. "I made it, Prapti."
At five thousand kilometers distance, his wife couldn't respond. The transmitter attached to their tiny apartment in Chittoor wasn't strong enough. But he talked anyways, lonely aboard the automated ship.
"Visibility's clearing. I'm going to take a look."
Environmental seals hissed as he stepped out on deck. Rain-scrubbed air provided a better view than his VR/AR goggles could manage, and there was no analogue for the tang of salt-spray.
"I wish you could see this. I mean really see it. No smog, out to the horizon …"
His earpiece pinged. Active sonar contacts, half a klick to starboard. He called up his goggle's satellite imaging. The storm had brought him to the fringes of the Gyre, an enormous system of revolving ocean currents, thick with trash.
Salvage, he corrected.
"Got something here. Roughly twenty-eight lat, ninety long. Investigating."
He crooked a pinkie. Haptic sensors responded; the Kirpan's drone shot into humid air, dangling a length of optic cable. He pointed with his index finger. The drone went buzzing out over the waves.
A second ping echoed and came back, more distinct. BIOMASS lit the corner of his goggles. Big: just under twenty-five meters along the axial. He cut in the drone's visual feed. A patch of blue-black flesh bobbed just above the surface.
"Looks like a whale. Carcass might be worth something on the Japanese black market … no. Too decomposed."
Something else caught his attention. He angled the drone left, towards a mass of cloudy white shapes half a meter below the water.
The Melbourne Environmental Authority offered a bounty on plastic bags. He switched mic channels. "Ship, approach those contacts at one-third speed. Prepare the front scoops."
Algal-diesel engines rumbled response. The Kirpan swung towards the hovering drone.
Wet bags filled the cargo hold, so many that Ichi, his sorting robot, had to open auxiliary storage hatches. The big loader, Daisuke, had all six extensors working as it grabbed and stuffed crinkled plastic into the extra space.
"Hope you're getting this, Prapti." He swept the hold with his goggles. "Wide margin, this trip."
His wife's family had pooled their savings for a down payment on the Kirpan, but it had only amounted to a fraction. The rest came from a loan so steep it troubled Rajit most nights, covered in sweat and dreaming of rows of zeroes.
"Not that one," he snapped.
Ichi halted before hatch number five, its front manipulator poised. The little robot couldn't open that particular storage, but single-minded programming meant it might spend hours trying. Rajit glanced at the biometric lock. There must've been a lot of jostling during the storm. What if something had happened to his special cargo?
He started to reach for the hatch, but stopped. His goggles flashed. NAV HAZARD scrolled across the left lens, in bold red. The kind of warning that couldn't be ignored.
As he rushed the stairs to the bridge, the Kirpan's bow camera showed a silhouette crowding the horizon. Recognition data tagged it as the Vivanti, a Quantum Class cruise ship out of San Diego. What the hell was it doing here?
A distress signal blared on the com. From the bridge's windows, the newcomer looked like a mountain heaved out of the water. He hailed it. His pre-recorded voice spoke in careful English, identifying the Kirpan as an independent commercial vessel.
"Vivanti, please identify the nature of your emergency. Over."
He cycled the bow camera to 10x. The ship's port side zoomed close, a wall of black glass and gleaming steel. Fifteen decks piled atop one other like some implausible wedding cake. From a window came the staccato flash of gunfire. He adjusted to 12x and caught a sudden blur as a body plummeted past.
"Ship, full reverse."
His heart thundered over the engines. Whatever was happening here was beyond his help.
"ICC craft," came a woman's voice from the com, "we're requesting assistance." He could hear the roar of an outboard motor in the background.
"Negative, Vivanti. You appear to have a piracy situation. I'm not equipped—"
"Look to starboard."
An inflatable launch approached the Kirpan, so small it showed as a green fleck on radar. He adjusted the starboard camera. Three people huddled aboard, including a tall woman at the stern. Red-blonde hair rippled out behind her.
"Acknowledge, ICC craft."
Pirates sometimes used the trick of boarding under feigned distress. But these people looked more like refugees than raiders.
"Permission to board," he said at last. "I'm not getting any closer to that ship, though."
"No arguments here."
"Do you have injured? I can prep a medkit."
"Not necessary, thanks."
He killed the engines. The sudden loss of motion made him feel vulnerable. A prudent man would be getting a weapon ready right now. Then again, a prudent man would probably be cruising away at thirty knots.
He straightened his coveralls and went out on deck.
As soon as the first person scrabbled over the side he sensed his mistake.
She was young, Vietnamese, wearing a machine pistol in a shoulder holster. Her blouse and leggings were matte black Kevlar designed to look like casual clothing. He'd seen gangsters in Mumbai dressed like that.
"How's it look?" a male voice called up from the water.
Her eyes went to Rajit's empty hands. "Clear."
"I'm sending Dana up."
The red-haired woman was next. She wore a webbed vest stuffed with electronic gear and a pained expression. At sight of Rajit she gave a quick nod, but shook her head when he extended his hand to shake.
"Wait for the big bastard," she said. "Only one of us who rates."
Huffing and grunting from below. Both women braced themselves to help a heavyset Caucasian aboard. He was dressed like a tourist in a floral blazer, and when he looked up to smile his eyes flashed unnatural colors in the sunlight.
"Sorry about all these precautions," he said, leaning forward to squeeze Rajit's hand. "But we've just come from an ugly situation."
The man's corneas were ringed with multifaceted lenses. Very, very expensive bit of surgery. Rajit managed to hide his shock by focusing on the Vivanti in the distance, wreathed with black smoke. "What happened?"
The gem-eyed man shrugged. "Reactor failed just before the storm hit. Most of the crew fled in lifeboats, and now everyone's panicked. Fighting over supplies, that sort of thing."
"What about the captain?"
"Shot dead," said the red-haired woman.
"On a cruise ship?"
"There's a lot of wealthy people aboard with private security. Lucky for us we found the raft, or we'd still be stuck in the middle of it."
"Lucky for us we found a friendly captain," the man said. "Mr. . . ?"
"I'm Lutz. Harrison Lutz." He snaked an arm around the red-haired woman's waist. "This little piece of heaven here is Dana. And the quiet one's Linh."
"Pleased to meet you."
"This ship of yours, it's, ah, some type of garbage scow?"
"Of course. Very eco-minded. And may I ask where you're headed?"
"Port of Melbourne."
Lutz clapped his hands together. "Why, that's perfect. Dana's got family there."
"I don't mean to be rude, Mr. Lutz—"
"Call me Harry."
"—but I need to know your intentions."
"It's obvious, isn't it? We're coming with you. As paying customers, of course. We've brought food in case that's an issue." He craned his head around. "Where's the rest of your crew?"
"I'm the only one." Something about the question seemed calculated.
"The gun's making him nervous," Dana said. "Linh, put it away. There's no threat here."
The Vietnamese woman transferred her pistol from holster to jacket pocket, out of sight.
Lutz grinned. "Well captain, what do you say? Want some company this trip?"
In the distance, an explosion rocked the Vivanti's upper deck, sending a finger of red flame curling skyward.
"I don't like it, Prapti, but the money … we can cover our fuel and maintenance costs, pay for Amav's dental work, and take a chunk out of your student loan. And there's more, once I get them all to Melbourne."
He lowered his voice as he stepped out onto deck. Late afternoon sun was fading behind the Vivanti's now-familiar silhouette. A pair of aircraft circled the ship like carrion birds, their VTOL engines a soft drone in the distance. Both had appeared about twenty minutes earlier.
"Still at it," Lutz said, his hands tight on the deck rails.
"What's the problem?"
"They're too big for the Vivanti's helipad. No place to set down." He whistled. "Some passenger must've dropped a fortune to route them out here."
"I've laid a direct course for Melbourne. There's a tattler aboard that regulates speed for fuel-efficiency, but if you're willing to pay the fine—"
Lutz's pocket made a chirping noise. "Hold on a sec, Raj. Got to take this." He extracted a card-thin phone. "Dawson? Yeah, I'm watching. What do you say now? Uh-huh. Well, that's not going to cut it. You tell them. Half a mil a head, and that's my final offer. Bye."
He slipped the phone in his pocket. "Asshole. We've got some real assholes, over there."
"You were talking to another passenger?"
Lutz smiled. "Raj, how much of an entrepreneur are you? I mean, aside from hauling trash, how would you like to go into the transport business?"
"People. Pays more. See, what we've got here is a business opportunity, but the window's closing fast."
"The Kirpan's not a cruise ship, Mr. Lutz. And we shouldn't be wasting any more time here."
"It's Harry. I told you that." Behind him the aircraft had tilted their engines forward, banking away. Apparently giving up. Lutz snapped them a salute.
"Walk with me," he said. "I want to show you something."
Rajit followed him through the bridge and down the stairs, unable to hide his annoyance. "I asked you not to go below decks."
"I know, I know. Trust me on this."
Lutz's phone chirped again, but he ignored it as he led Rajit into the cargo hold. Dana was waiting there, amidst a sea of waist-high plastic bags. She and Lutz exchanged meaningful looks.
"How's it going with Dawson?" she said.
"Just called me. He's about to cave."
"Whatever it is you're planning," Rajit said, "the answer's 'no.' I'm captain."
"Calm down," Lutz said. "Hear us out."
Dana folded her arms. "He's jumpy. Is there something you don't want us to see down here, captain?"
She grinned at Lutz. "I think there is."
"I think so, too. You've got something to hide, Raj?"
"I told you—"
Lutz nodded at hatch five. "That lock there is cued to your biometrics. I figured with new guests coming we could turn some of this extra storage into staterooms. Except Dana couldn't open that door."
"Pretty sophisticated for a trash barge," she added.
"What's in there?" Lutz said.
"Hazardous waste." It came out quicker than Rajit intended. "The hatch's locked for safety. Not that it's any of your business."
"Bullshit. You're hauling contraband," Dana said.
"Maybe he's more of an entrepreneur than we thought." Lutz put his hand on Rajit's shoulder. "I think you better open that door. If you've got drugs, our guests will be wanting some. If it really is hazardous waste, we can't have people sleeping next to it, can we?"
Rajit shrugged his grip. "I will not—"
"Sorry you feel that way. Linh."
A heap of nearby plastic bags rose and fell away. Linh straightened from where she'd been crouching, pistol in hand. She leveled the barrel with his chest.
"Open it," Lutz said.
Mechanically, he turned and jammed his thumb against the lock plate. Electronics hummed; a lens scanned him from head to toe.
"Identified," a chip-voice said, in Hindi.
Hydraulics sighed as the hatch's valves slid apart. An animal smell drifted out.
Lutz took a step back. "What the—?"
Close to a dozen people were crowded into the small hold. They wore drab yellow smocks the same shade as their jaundiced skin. Some were microcephalic; none were older than thirty. All bore the same tattoo on their forehead of a sinister, multi-pronged symbol. As a group, they stared out at the intruders.
"What's that mark mean?" Lutz said, recovering.
"Rajit here's smuggling viral refugees," Dana said. "Isn't that right?"
"Aedes-12. Melbourne has a sanctuary. In my country, some people still see carriers as cursed. They burn them alive."
"How much are they paying you?" Lutz said.
"Nothing. My wife and I do this for dharma."
"Not even the cost of shipping, huh?" He glanced at the chemical toilet and discarded water bottles. "Are they contagious? I mean, are we at risk just standing here?"
"The virus isn't spread like that."
"Still," Lutz continued, his lips curling, "we can't keep them here, can we? Imagine what would happen if the guests found out."
"Where could I move them?"
"Exactly. Dana, Linh, figure out how to dump these guys, pronto."
"Dump them?" Rajit said. "Overboard?"
"Look, they're dying anyway, right? Your bleeding-heart gesture's going to buy them a couple more years, tops. Meanwhile, important people need this space."
Rajit tried not to look at the gun's barrel. It hadn't wavered in Linh's slim hands. Sidelong, he could see the refugees' faces, uncomprehending, yet aware of their danger.
He lunged for the weapon.
The pistol came blurring in from the side. Linh slammed the butt against his temple so hard he spun, the hold wobbling around him in a lazy circle.
Prapti's voice, calling from darkness. Impossible.
He sat up. The lights above his little bunk came on.
They must've carried him back here, to his quarters.
The walls of the three by three meter cubicle glowed with images of last summer's trip to Kashmir hill station, on continuous feed. Prapti and Amav beamed at him from the prow of a gaudily painted boat.
"Rajit, please, you're not …"
Where was she coming from? Not the intercom. He rubbed his face, careful not to brush the throbbing spot on his forehead. They'd stripped him of his goggles, mic, and glove.
He could've sworn she was beneath him.
He rolled off the bunk, squatted. The dusty space underneath held a spare rain slick. As he pulled it out, he noticed his old Sony haptic rig tucked among the folds. The earpiece was crackling.
A check showed the graphene batteries still held a trickle of charge. Small miracles.
"Prapti, can you hear me?" he said, tapping the mic.
Static answered him back. If he tried hard enough, he could imagine her voice forming syllables. "I don't know how you managed to boost your signal, but I'm alright. I'll keep this channel open."
He rose and activated the Kirpan's com. "Ship, anti-piracy protocols, now. All functions on my voice command only."
There was a creak as the keel hit a swell. Dana must have locked him out of the AI.
He tried the door. Something had been braced against the other side, pinning it shut. A hard shove only bruised his shoulder. Second shove and he began to panic. How much time had passed? The refugees could've all been killed by now.
He had a working haptic rig. They wouldn't be counting on that. Dana had firewalled the AI, but other functions might still be open.
He pulled the Sony's HUD goggles over his head, smarting where the straps made contact with his wound. A finger-swipe activated the bow camera. Dusk was falling outside, and a light rain misted the lens. The Vivanti still crowded the horizon.
He couldn't have been unconscious for long. Maybe Lutz was still dickering with his would-be passengers.
A second swipe accessed the HUD's robot menu. Dana hadn't thought to lock that one. He selected REMOTE VIEW for Ichi's camera and steadied himself as his goggles filled with a section of corridor not five meters away.
A signal woke the bot and summoned him closer, to catch the view just outside his door. Someone had wedged a metal strut between the floor and doorknob. Ichi's front manipulator knocked it free.
He pushed out into the hall. Sounds came echoing from the direction of the hold. Voices, with the whir of the ship's crane in the background. That couldn't be good. He snatched up the strut as a club. Hugging the wall, he crept to the hold's doorway and peered inside.
All his precious bags had been cleared out. A large plastic shipping pod now dominated center. Linh was waving the refugees inside at gunpoint, herding them like so many sheep. The main hatch gaped above. Down through the opening snaked the crane's tether, accompanied by a fine mist of rain. Linh helped the last refugee inside and started closing the pod.
Rajit's fingers tightened around the strut. From where he crouched it was about ten meters to Linh. As he watched, she holstered her gun and reached for the crane's tether. If he charged, he might be able to reach her before she could draw.
Then he noticed Daisuke, curled in a corner nearby.
Linh cocked her head as the big bot's servos thrummed with sudden power. Rajit flexed his index finger; one of Daisuke's extensors snapped to maximum length. He swung his arm in an arc. Daisuke mimicked, its limb whistling through the air towards Linh.
Her reflexes must've been military grade. She vaulted over the extensor with easy grace, somehow freeing her pistol before her feet touched the floor. Rajit jerked back behind the doorway just as she fired. The round ricocheted, tumbling past his cheek in slow-time.
He raced for the bridge. Up the stairs, two, three steps at a time, until he reached the top. Wrapped both hands around the door handle and pulled.
It didn't budge.
Metal pressed beneath his left shoulder blade. "Turn around, slow."
She hadn't made a sound coming up the stairwell behind him. She wasn't even breathing hard. "You go for my gun again and I'll kill you."
"W-where are the others?"
"Picking up Dawson and his people. They'll be back any minute now." With her free hand she unclipped a little black module from her belt. "They left me here to do the dirty work. But you just gave me an idea."
"Forget about that." She spoke into one end of the module. "Ship, stand down. Alpha protocol."
Behind him, bolts thudded back as the door to the bridge unlocked.
"There," she said. "I've restored control of the ship to you."
"Because you're going to do exactly what I say. Now get on deck. Hurry."
He allowed himself to be prodded through the bridge, through the environmental seals and out into wet night air. The pattering rain had stopped. Just over the crash of waves carried a faint roar, drawing close. The sound of an outboard motor.
"Shit." She nodded towards the railing. "Pull up the ladder."
"It would help if I knew what we're doing."
"I'm still figuring it out. But I'll do all the talking, understand? You're just a presence."
He hauled up wet nylon, hand over hand. Whoever was piloting the launch kept the throttle wide open. It crested a wave and drew close, coasting the last few meters with the engine cut. When it bumped against the side of the Kirpan he heard someone curse.
Linh stepped back from the railing. "You see any of them pull guns, say so. And pay attention to Dana. She's the dangerous one."
"Hey," Lutz's voice shouted up, "where's the ladder?"
Linh answered from the shadows. "Sorry, boss, but I'm afraid it's time to renegotiate my contract."
"You heard me."
Harsh whispers from below. "Linh, honey, I'm impressed by your initiative, but if this is about that night—"
She stepped forward long enough to angle her gun down. The pistol barked; holes appeared in the launch's sides. Even up on deck Rajit could hear the hiss of escaping air.
"That's what I think about that," Linh said. "Here's my terms: I want a million SMU in my account before the ladder comes down. After that, bids are open for who gets to climb up first."
Babbling erupted. Lutz shouted for calm, but his voice shook.
"And in case anyone gets ideas," Linh said, "I've put Rajit back in control of the ship. A word from me and we're dead in the water. Understand?"
The babble became a shrill chorus, calling out bids. Linh slid a phone from her pocket. "First things first. I want that mil. Harry, you know my account. Or would you like to contribute, Mr. Dawson? I'd take it as a personal favor."
The phone's screen lit her face. She was leering. At that moment Rajit knew with certainty she was no different from Lutz. And she had no reason, none whatsoever, not to kill the refugees once this transaction was over.
Unless he gave her one.
Keeping his hand hidden, he crooked a finger to call up the master control list. PRIMARY DRONE lit. A panel atop the bridge's cabin slid back. This time, Linh didn't seem to hear as quad propellers spun to life.
He flicked his wrist. The drone rushed upwards some twenty meters, its low-light optics rendering the deck in flat grays. He shook off vertigo and pointed down.
The drone banked into a steep dive.
Linh glanced up just before it struck. He stepped close to her and shoved as hard as he could.
She went flailing over the Kirpan's side, the drone following, its props snarled in her hair. She hit the water less than a meter from the sinking launch.
"Ship," Rajit screamed, "ahead, flank."
Below deck, engines rumbled to life. The Kirpan shot forward, lurching at first, then more smoothly as her prow cut water. Would-be passengers cried out in the ship's churning wake.
He didn't reduce speed until the lights of Port Melbourne were winking in the distance, six days later.
During that time he'd given the refugees run of the ship. It didn't seem right, sealing them up again after what they'd been through. Soon though, he'd have to hide the group long enough to get past customs. Once safely docked, he could locate his contact from the sanctuary.
He hadn't slept much during the trip. When he closed his eyes he could see the dark shapes of Lutz and crew bobbing in the water. And though it felt like a betrayal to dharma, he periodically checked his bank account. Lutz's money was still there.
He let out a long breath. "It's over, Prapti."
This time, she answered him back.
Copyright © 2019 Garnett Elliott.
Find more stories by Garnett Elliott
in these BTAP Books ...