Everyone clambered down below decks on the Paradox Swan, except for Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone. He stood there, arms crossed, looking at the Captain.
“Do you choose to reject my recommendation, then? It’s sincerely meant,” said Ngozi Makena Odile.
“I’m going to stand her and watch how you attack at least three ships with a crew of three little girls.”
“Then watch,” The Pirate Queen of the Night grinned.
The Orion Nebula was all around them now. Even though the space beyond their atmospheric shield was harder vacuum than could be produced on the surface of the earth, the celestial sphere was a sweeping field of colors. Straight ahead of them now was a flickering fire that was transforming those colors in its environs.
The Captain fingered one of the necklaces she wore, and a 3D display floated before the two of them. There were two big ships in parallel and a third one, similar in shape but bigger: they all looked like encrusted tadpoles. All three had areas of their hulls with twisted plates peeled back, and there were two small ships flitting around like mosquitoes. There was a kind of rarefied fire everywhere.
“The ships belong to two competing races, both extremely nasty: they’re called by other races the Bravura and the Sprezzatura. Both are slavers; both are rich and contemptuous of other races, and they’ve been stealing from each other since they propelled their ships by throwing hydrogen bombs out the back. One of these little dust-ups can set a plunderer up for life. There’s ultra-heavy armament at work, but most of it’s aimed at each other.”
“Weather Gauge at level one!” A young voice called out of the open air.
“Spars out and set the stunsails!” The Captain called to the open air.
The masts, sticking out in all directions, lost their caps and started extending out, tapering into invisibility. The sails, which had been more irregularities of one’s vision than anything material, started to billow and stretch out without limits. The Swan slowed momentarily, then started to pick up speed.
“Call out the Ghost Gauge by the tens!” The Pirate Queen called.
After a minute, a little girl’s voice rang out, “Gauge at the ten!”
Then “Gauge at the twenty!”
Then “Gauge at the thirty! Forty!”
“Fifty! Sixty! Seventy!”
Ngozi turned to the shining-armored tiger. “There are three tricks I have used to gain my status as Pirate Queen of the Night. You’re about to see the first one, and it’s my favorite.”
“STEADY AS SHE GOES!” She called, and came town the stairs from the stern two at a time, turned, and took the stairs below decks, with Lord Elphinstone right behind her.
They went amidships, to a bolted hatch. At a touch of another necklace, the bolts slid back and the hatch opened. The captain ignored the steps of the ladder altogether, and jumped to the deck below. The tiger made three hops.
Before them was a containment field, glowing green and semi-transparent, approximately cubical, framed by cables and hoses emitting leaks of frosty white vapor. Two twisted figure-eight machines stood on either side.
“Gauge at the Ninety! One Hundred!” The voice had followed them down.
“This is what I like to call the Dead Man’s Chest. Trick number one.” She said.
“Gauge One Ten! Gauge. One. TWENTY!” The little voice said with finality.
“All right. Out of the rigging and get below. Make sure our guests are secure.”
The Captain then pulled out a necklace that turned out to be a thin silver whistle. She blew, and the tiger’s ears flicked with the unheard squeal. The cube dissolved.
A green ghost stood before them, a human with an extra eye with three iris rings in the center of his forehead. He was smiling a cockeyed smile. “Well, my little chocolate bun-rab, what is it this time?” He hissed and crackled.
“Three ships, two Sprezzatura and one Bravura, locked in a deathgrip here in Orion. Board and sack them both.”
The ghost put a gnarled hand to his beard. “That’s a fun one. How many stutters? D’ye think?”
“Two should do it.”
“Trustin’ yer judgment, as always. Twenty years.”
“Feeling generous, are we?”
“If you like.”
“Who’s the kitty? He’s your reason for the magnanimity, isn’t he?”
“This is Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone, Earl of Maurya. My lord, this is Ex-Captain Ambivalence Pugh, once commander of the Feckless Disaster, who had the misfortune to run into me and mine.”
The ghost made an exaggerated bow. “I’m nowt but an AI, your worship: my soul and the souls of my men are happily ensconced in Hell, while my mind and fighting arm are working off a five-hundred year debt to the chocolate bunny here. There are worse deaths, or so I have heard.”
“Enough. Get ready. You’ll like the kit’s company.”
There was a shudder in the hull, and the stress produced a low groan.
“We’re within range of their guns, Captain!” The girl’s voice said evenly.
“Come about into the fire,” Ngozi answered, just as coolly.
She bounded up the steps onto the deck and mounted the stairs to the stern. The ships were visible now and growing rapidly. Flame that was as much radiant light as fire was heading out from the engagement, away from the brightest and most turbulent part of the nebula. Alarmingly, the Paradox Swan was headed right into the column of fire. It grew enormous as they approached it, though there was no heat and certainly no sound. The billowing sails of the ship were beginning to glow and spark red, and the masts themselves looked like they were beginning to heat up. Then even more alarmingly, the ship banked and turned directly into the path of the flame.
The sails were sparking and waves of light were racing down the ethereal surface. Silvertyger looked down at the deck and saw that it was now crowded with green-outlined figures. But as they raced down the maw of the fire, they began to glow brighter--then of various colors--then began to assume solidity.
The Pirate Queen of the Night came up beside the tiger and said, “Trick two.”
Now they were approaching the interlocked ships with frightening speed, and Lord Elphinstone sould see not one or two, but hundreds of flitting small craft buzzing around the three leviathans, firing and being fired upon, killing and dying. Instead of braking (which might be impossible), the Swan banked around and approached the one huge ship from a different angle, running down to its side. They were coming upon an area where the thick hull had been bent and distorted wide open.
The semi-ghosts started to crowd to one side. The ship slowed, then started to ring as small arms were trained on it. The ghosts were bringing up coils of green light from the hold, with green grappling hooks.
Lord Elphinstone put his paw on the pommel of his longsword, and leaned forward, but the captain reached out a hand to him and say “Hold. Time for Trick Three.”
They were mere feet from the leviathan’s hull, when Ngozi called out “GRAPPLES! BOARD HER!”
With a roar that had a lot of white noise in it, the ghosts swung aboard.
As soon as the last ghost foot left the gunwales, the Captain cried “STUTTER ONE!”
--And suddenly they were back hundreds of feet, once again heading in. A snarl escaped Lord Elphinstone as he saw that there was a copy of the Paradox Swan, lines out and ghosts swinging into the alien ship, down and to their left.
Once again, they came within spitting distance of the ravaged giant ship, and once again she cried “BOARD HER!”
Then, at precisely the same moment, she called out “STUTTER TWO!”
--And there were two Swans close to the giant, and the glow of energy battles within. Now as the hull loomed before them, she looked at Silvertyger and said, “Now, milord, if it be your pleasure, you may go and join the fun.”
As he pulled his sword and leapt to the lower deck among the ghosts, the Pirate Queen of the Night shouted, ”GRAPPLES! TAKE THE SHIP!”