“All right,” said Josie Vee, captain of the Stealth Needle. “Get in behind that Supply Bot, use it as cover.”
She did not expect the response from her navigator, Arshi Fem. “Why?”
“What do you mean ‘why’?” Vee thundered. “Because I’m the captain and I say so! What other reason do you need?”
“Excuse me, ma’am,” said Fem. “No disrespect intended. It’s only...the bots, they’re of Machine Cult manufacture, aren’t they?”
“Of course they are,” said Vee.
“And, the Stealth Needle, she’s originally—”
“Don’t you go anthropomorphizing my ship on me, it’s a nonsentient object and I’ll thank you not to bring the nuances of interspecies gender definition into this.”
“Pardon, captain. What I mean is, in the absence of any cloaking technology, am I correct that our craft was also crafted by the Cult?”
“Did the gears on your computer not tell you as much? Of course they were.”
“Then...why are we impersonating the bots? Only, it seems a bit of a wasted effort to disguise ourselves as a Cult ship instead of, well, a Cult ship.”
“Who promoted you to navigator?”
“You did, ma’am, after the untimely death of Officer Ukha—”
“That was a rhetorical question in light of your woeful ignorance. The Galactic Dominion can only send so many units into this system, and it was either them or the Scouts.”
“What’s wrong with blending in with the Scouts?”
“They don’t have the resources like the bots do. They’re not even aligned!”
“So it makes them weak. A relic of the older stages of war. Once the Patrol Mechs catch up with them, we’ll have a more efficient fleet.”
“The ships docked on this planet don’t seem particularly weak, ma’am.”
“Well of course not, they’re the latest models! You wouldn’t go contracting with Vipers at this stage of the war, would you? I mean, maybe Explorers if there was no alternative, but—”
“Captain,” said Fem, “I really think you ought to examine these ships.”
Fuming, Vee inspected the alien transports. There was the Blob’s latest monstrosity, a small Imperial Fighter installing its hyperdrive, and the cruiser nearest her…
It had no faction at all.
“Identify yourselves!” Vee radioed urgently. To Fem she railed, “Why did no one warn me about this? They could be enemy spies!”
“Enemy spies waiting to enlist in our ranks? With respect, ma’am, I think it much more likely that they’re simple mercenaries.”
“There’s nothing simple about mercenaries! This could be a trap—”
Vee broke off as the cruiser commed back. “Captain Eltri Helvo of the Symbiote. We come fully equipped with a grade five ion cannon, and would be honored to provide auxiliary support to any troops.”
“It’s like that time on the Mech World, ma’am,” said Fem. “The nanobots there were able to assemble into whatever arrays—”
“I remember the Mech World,” Ve said. “And all its moons, with the outposts where different ships made dock. This is just one ship!” She switched the radio back on, very much hoping Helvo had not heard all of the Stealth Needle’s bickering. “Am I correct in assuming you cannot assist multiple factions at the same time?”
“I’m afraid not even we can be in two places at once, Captain,” Helvo said, “although our experiments for quantum teleportation have produced some remarkably fascinating—”
“Go back to your labs, then! War is no place for opportunists.”
“Captain,” Fem pointed out, “if we don’t hire them, the enemy might.”
“Not if they’re broke they won’t. Even the Trade Federation has to run dry sometime.”
“As pleasant as it would be if our adversaries had no military budget, I think we ought to prepare for more dire scenarios.”
“Symbiote,” Vee radioed, “where is your homeworld?”
“Come again?” Helvo responded.
“The Cult has its Brain World, the Empire has its Fleet Headquarters, the Blob...well, never mind about the Blob. Don’t you come from somewhere?”
“Our crew hails from all over the galaxy, Captain, but there is a garrison where we often refuel.”
“That’ll do,” Vee said. “Send me the coordinates.”
“We’re in the middle of a skirmish, ma’am!” said Fem. “I thought you wanted us to support the Supply Bot?”
“This can’t wait! We need to know what we’re up against!”
“At least wait until we’ve stowed weapons?”
Before Ve could give any further orders, the Stealth Needle’s gunner, Kuhae Inomai, blasted off four shots from the modular beam. They arced toward the distant enemy Recycling Station, which initiated a controlled implosion. Meanwhile, the Stealth Needle deployed its evac pod, which would dock with the wreckage of a previous Viper before salvaging it for scrap.
“All right, all right,” said Vee. “Let’s go find that garrison.”
The Rainbow Wheel was a heavily armed outpost, with a hodgepodge of machinery protruding from the base of the station. Vee recognized a nanobot unit as Cultist-made, but the other technology was less familiar. Was the part that looked alive a Blob graft, or was she just used to their garish shade of green?
“Do not approach without identification,” an automated voice trilled. “This is a secure facility.”
“This is Josie Vee of the Stealth Needle, on behalf of the Galactic Dominion, now you identify your facility.”
“The Galactic Dominion has made it clear they want no part of us,” replied the droid. “We will not assist the Stellar Liberators either, but please respect our neutrality.”
“Has made it clear...When did they have dealings with you?”
“It was when those Blobs were out on patrol, ma’am,” Inomai spoke up. “They didn’t have the budget to contract with anyone except an Explorer temp. So they isolated this base so that the Liberators couldn’t use it either.”
“The Dominion tolerates mercenaries?”
“That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you,” Fem said.
“Yes, but an entire outpost full of them?”
“It’s a very transient population,” the droid noted.
“That’s not the point!” said Vee. “The point is that duplicity, short-term alliances, auxiliary support—that’s supposed to be our job! The Cult! Everyone judges us by what we destroy, but no one stops to think about what we can create! The Stealth Needle’s cloaking is top-of-the-line! Mech World is nigh-impenetrable! And now you want to leave that to a bunch of disloyal mercenaries?”
“It creates new opportunities,” said Inomai. “I mean, there were new contractors who built the Ark, and that’s as loyal a Cultist ship as you’ll ever fly.”
“Whose side are you even on?”
“The Dominion’s, Captain! Which means I support our choice to use whatever ships they can afford! Our real enemy is the so-called Liberators. It doesn’t matter if you’re mech or imperial or a mere Viper.”
“Can we talk about this some other time?” Fem interrupted. “High Command wants us back on patrol again.”
“Again?” said Inomai. “We just got out of battle.”
“Yes, well, more and more of those Scouts have been deprecated. The Supply Bots are very efficient.”
“I’ll say. Well, who are we backing up now?”
“A Blob Carrier,” said Fem. “This is a real coup! We’ll get lots of recruitment and deal a solid blow to the Liberators’ base—”
“Speak for yourself,” said Vee. “I can’t stand whales.”
The droids posted on the Rainbow Wheel blinked in confusion as the Stealth Needle jumped away. It was just another day in the war-torn galaxy.