The ship was the Benjamin Lay, a Takahata-class bulk cargo transport hailing from the human world of Jajavrin. It was floating dead in space, having apparently suffered a major power failure, though whether through accident or malice, Natere couldn’t tell for sure. Either way, most of the ship’s systems were down, including the primary communications array. About the only things left were life support—failing—and the backup identifier beacon broadcasting the transport’s ID specs and the distress call that had summoned Natere and their passenger to this desolate star system.
Natere shook their head. They knew all too well what the ship’s crew must be going through, but they couldn’t afford to get lost in painful memories.
“Do you have anything aboard this shuttle that can help them?” That was Natere’s passenger, Vantez the diplomat. Natere didn’t think much of Vantez’s mission, but here at least they were in complete accord.
Unfortunately. . . . “They’ll need at least half a dozen power core and regulation parts, specialty items—nothing we can supply, even with my best jury-rigging.”
“Or mine, I suppose. Could we fit the crew aboard?”
“Not if we packed them like sardines.”
“How long do they have?”
Natere studied their readout displays and did some mental calculations. “Looks like another three, maybe four hours.”
“And the chances of another ship arriving in time to assist?”
“Low. There aren’t any human colonies or outposts in this area, and the only reason you and I are here is because we took a shortcut.”
“Over my objections, I recall. Fortunate for the crew of the Benjamin Lay that you insisted. Or perhaps not, if we’ve no way to help them.”
“Yeah, then it’s more like they angered some traveler god or other who’s using us to taunt them with the illusion of rescue.”
Vantez asked. “You say the chances are low, but there is a chance of another ship arriving?”
“It would pain me to abandon these people in their distress, but would it improve their chances if we went in search of help?”
Natere grimaced. “I don’t like it either, but you’re right; the odds are better if we go and look for a rescue ship.” Still low, but better.
“Then I suppose we’d best do so. Before you take us out, Natere, I think a prayer is in order.”
Natere itched at even a minute’s further delay, but it might be worthwhile. Maybe they should say their own prayer to one of the gods of travelers. Or refugees? “Go ahead, just keep it short.”
Vantez didn’t reply. He sat there, back straight, eyes closed. What was he playing at? “Vantez? Vantez?”
Natere was wondering whether to shake the broad-shouldered diplomat when Vantez opened his eyes. “We may go now, Natere.”
“I thought you were going to pray.”
“I did. I believe those are Quakers aboard the ship—Benjamin Lay was a Quaker from Old Earth, a rebel and troublemaker,” Vantez’s voice carried obvious approval. “And Jajavrin has a high Quaker population. It seemed fitting to pray in their fashion: silent worship.”
“You’re a Quaker too, then?” Somehow, Natere wouldn’t have figured Vantez for a devotee of one of the pre-space-travel religious traditions.
“Religion, like diplomacy, is one of my primary areas of interest. I have an association with several societies, including the Quaker community on my home planet.”
“That wasn’t in your personnel file.” Natere wouldn’t admit it, but they were impressed.
“Not everything is. I suppose whoever edits the file didn’t think it relevant.”
Natere didn’t reply. They were already engrossed in working the navigation console and scanning the star charts.
The shuttle had barely gone a hundred kilometers before the proximity alert sounded. Natere looked at the readout, and loosed a string of expletives.
“I don’t recognize that design,” Vantez said.
“It’s not human. It’s Kormer.” Specifically, it was a Kormrasharrahn scout, coming out of the shadow of the seventh planet. “I guess now we know what happened to the Benjamin Lay.”
“We can’t be sure.”
“Oh, come on. We find a crippled human ship, and then a Kormer comes out of hiding practically next door? No way that’s coincidence.”
Before Vantez could reply, the communications panel beeped. The scout was attempting to contact them.
“You’d better answer that,” Vantez said, when Natere hesitated.
“It could be a trap.”
“If it is, they already have the drop on us. We’re no more disadvantaged by hearing them out.” Natere scoffed, but opened the comm channel.
“Attention unidentified human vessel. This is Kormrasharrahn scout Transience. State your designation and intentions.”
Natere stifled a surge of anger. “Presumptuous, aren’t they?”
“I think I had better be the one to answer them.” Not waiting for Natere’s response, Vantez reactivated the comm console. “Transience, this is shuttle Millennium Hand, from the human world of Bostril, piloted by Arianhas Natere of Bostril. They were on their way to convey myself, Javier Vantez of Usanga and sundry other worlds, to join the human delegation to the Mitosoi peace summit with the Kormrasharrahn peoples. We,” Vantez cleared his throat, “took a shortcut rather than the officially approved flight path.”
“That’s of no consequence,” the scout said, cutting off whatever else Vantez had to say. “We are here answering the distress call of a human cargo ship, designation Benjamin Lay. We find it adrift with little power and failing life support, and shuttle Millennium Hand fleeing the area. Are you responsible for the damage to the Benjamin Lay?”
Natere felt their muscles tightening in outrage at the suggestion, but Vantez, damn him, remained unruffled. “Transience, we answered the same distress call. We were about to seek further assistance when you arrived.”
“Can you prove you are not responsible?”
“I cannot. I can only give my word.” Silence.
“This is it,” Natere said. “They’re going to attack.”
“Sensors detect no aggressive moves.”
“Maybe they’re holding us here while some of their buddies sneak up on us.”
“Such an ambush is not consistent with the Kormrasharrahn’s preferred styles of combat.”
“Oh? You’re an expert on Kormer battle tactics?”
“Hardly an expert, but I’ve studied several major and minor engagements between Kormrasharrahn and human vessels and outposts. It behooves a diplomat to research the people he intends to make peace with, including how they make war.”
Natere was once again grudgingly impressed. “Yeah, well, maybe they aren’t all the same. Maybe some of them favor different combat strategies.”
“Possible, though in the present case, it makes little tactical sense.”
“They’re Kormers, Vantez. The things they do don’t have to make sense.”
“I think you’ll find, Natere, that anything a sentient creature does makes sense if you understand its context. Horrible sense, in some cases, but sense.” He spoke sadly, and paused a moment before continuing. “We don’t have enough information to predict the Transience’s intentions.”
“We have enough information about the Kormers to know they attack without reason or provocation.” Memories arose of tumbling sensations as lungs struggled for oxygen, the life support klaxon blaring nonstop . . . .
“Maybe, as you say, they aren’t all the same. Let’s give them a little time.” Natere scowled, but they weren’t up for disputing the point further. Yet.
Image by Alex
After an uncomfortably long silence, the Kormer opened comms again. “Shuttle Millennium Hand, we have decided to put our trust in you. Our scanners inform us the Benjamin Lay is in need of replacement equipment for its power generation and distribution systems. Our engineers believe we have parts aboard our scout that can be made compatible, but they will need someone familiar with human ships’ systems to oversee the adjustment process and ensure it is performed correctly. Is there someone with that expertise aboard your vessel?”
Who do they think they’re fooling? Before Natere could vocalize the thought, Vantez reactivated the shuttle’s comm panel. “You have our gratitude, Transience, for your commitment to help a human vessel and its crew.”
This time, the Kormer’s response was immediate. “Mutual aid is a value universal to all creatures. . . . Besides, it would look shameful if we were seen withholding aid from an afflicted human ship on the eve of the human and Kormrasharrahn peace summit.”
Vantez shot Natere a glance. “I believe we have proof the Kormrasharrahn do, indeed, have a sense of humor.”
“Don’t tell me you bought that crap about mutual aid. Not after everything the Kormers have done to us in the past four years?”
“I’m aware, Natere. One of my husbands lost a cousin to an early Kormrasharrahn attack, and he’s never been the same since that day. But again—as you rightly observed—not all Kormrasharrahn are the same. The ones aboard this scout almost certainly are not responsible for his cousin’s death, or for whatever tragedy haunts you. Would you so easily dismiss a human who proclaims the universality of mutual aid as a value, knowing the rich history of humans who have not practiced it, even toward fellow humans?”
“What makes you so sure this isn’t a trap?”
The question took Vantez by surprise, and he was silent for a long moment. “I can’t be sure. It’s possible these Kormrasharrahn are plotting something nefarious. But what would you have us do, Natere? Sit here helplessly while the people aboard that ship die? I’d rather risk my own death, or whatever malefactions the Transience might inflict on us.” It was Natere’s turn to feel unbalanced, and Vantez, apparently recognizing their hesitation, pressed further. “I don’t have the expertise to modify the Transience’s equipment to fit the Benjamin Lay. You are the only person who can save those people.”
Natere sat paralyzed. They saw stars through the escape pod’s viewport, felt their lungs fighting for air. Just like the crew of the Benjamin Lay. Natere and their fellows had been saved by the human vessel Squilla, mere hours short of death or permanent brain damage. The Benjamin Lay. . . .
Natere activated the comm panel. “Transience, this is Millennium Hand pilot Arianhas Natere. I have the expertise you require. We are standing by to receive your docking instructions.”
Hours later, after the Benjamin Lay’s power systems had been repaired sufficiently to limp back to the nearest human world, Natere and Vantez bid farewell to its crew, and the crew of the Transience, and returned to their course for Mitosoi.
There was silence between Natere and Vantez, but the tension of the early stages of the journey had largely dissipated.
“So, you lied,” Natere said at last.
Vantez was unfazed. “Did I? That would be most unquakerly of me.”
“Don’t give me that. I read your file while your elevator was delayed. I was forgetting for a while, but you have junior specialist rank proficiency in basic starship equipment repair and modification, yet another of your hobbies.”
“Meaning you could have easily converted those Kormer parts to fit the Benjamin Lay’s systems without my help.”
“Perhaps not easily, but yes, I could. I suppose sometimes I’m not a very good Quaker.”
“So, why? Why dissemble?”
“My dear Natere, if I, as a diplomat, couldn’t convince you to work with the Kormrasharrahn to save a ship full of fellow humans, what hope do I have of helping broker peace between our peoples?”
“Huh.” Natere thought a moment, then shook their head. “No. It doesn’t add up. If I’d been belligerent, not complied, you wouldn’t have sat there and let them die, would you?”
“No, I would’ve taken over if necessary. Fortunately, it wasn’t.”
“And if I hadn’t just refused? If I tried to stop you?”
Vantez gave a rueful laugh. “A fair question. Honestly, I hadn’t figured that out yet, either.” Natere chuckled back. Perhaps this eccentric diplomat wasn’t so bad, after all.