This story is really, actually free, but of course, I have an ulterior motive.
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“I can’t believe you tried to feed her five pounds of meat,” said Armin, face turning red. “How irresponsible are you?”
He and Cordell both sat beside the med bay stretcher as the doc bot did its difficult work: stabilizing Orna’s stomach muscles, stimulating her hormones and generally correcting years of starvation.
Cordell shrugged, trying to play it off. “I didn’t know it was that bad. We caught it, though.”
“You’re from Arca, Captain. How the hell did you forget about starvation?”
Normally, he would’ve fired a subordinate who spoke to him like that, but in the face of Orna’s sweat-soaked bed, it was hard to muster a defense.
“I just wanted to give her a nice meal,” he whispered. “And you know, maybe you should’ve stayed up with her, too, instead of going to bed. Did you think about that?”
Armin soured. “I wasn’t in bed. I was aggregating parenting communities on the Link. How about we hear your excuse now?”
Orna’s eyes creaked open, and she smacked her lips.
“I am not doing this with you in front of her,” Cordell hissed before patting Orna’s hand. “Hey, kiddo.”
She licked her mouth and pulled in a stray biscuit crumb. “Can I have some more?”
Both men laughed, and Cordell felt an odd joy at the relief on Armin’s face. If Armin hadn’t cared so much for this random child, Cordell would’ve been itching to blow the first mate out the airlock by now. The way Armin looked at Orna made it hard for Cordell to hate him outright.
“Soon, miss…” Armin began. “What’s your last name?”
“Sokol,” she muttered. “This bed feels good. What’s it made out of?”
Armin gave Cordell a heartbroken expression, and it was like Cordell could read his mind. The gurneys in the med bay weren’t metal slabs, but they were damned close. They were designed to be strong and easily-cleaned, but little else. The crew bunks were ten times as comfortable.
“It has a warmer in it, if you want that,” said Armin, touching a button.
Orna snuggled into her blankets, covering her face, but they heard a muffled, happy sigh.
After a long enough silence, Armin touched Cordell’s arm, startling him.
“I think she’ll sleep for a bit,” he whispered. “Why don’t you get some rest?”
“You sure?” Not that Cordell wanted to debate the merits of the plan. He’d been up all night, and felt like someone had taken a hammer to every joint.
Armin smiled. “Yeah. Sorry about earlier. Just… we can’t treat her like a regular kid, okay?”
When he reached his quarters, exhaustion pulled his shoulders like a gravitational anomaly, and he slouched toward the bed. Unable to resist, he laid his head upon the pillow and did something he’d never done in his whole career: he fell asleep in his captain’s jacket.
A few days passed before she was willing to truly explore the ship. She’d told them she wouldn’t go into the bunks—that they looked like cells. Cordell had been required to promise that he’d brighten them up and make them less militaristic the next time he had money. Once they got her to venture into a room, it’d been almost impossible to get her to leave.
She’d quickly learned she could order Armin to bring her food like room service, and the sucker would do it.
That’s why it fell to Cordell to tell her she must come out of her room, because she had things to do.
“I knew you were going to put me to work,” Orna grumped as she tromped up the passageway behind him. “Your ship was too shitty when I saw it, and I—”
Cordell ducked as he turned a corner and sighed. “Orna, it’s a nice place, and I’ll thank you not to muck it up with words like that.”
“Didn’t mean to wilt your flowers, old man. You wouldn’t have lived two minutes in the pits.”
Cordell smiled, despite himself, and he hid it from her. If Orna was making jokes, even at his expense, then the few days of food had done her some good. He turned on the kid and crossed his arms, straightening up to his full height.
She sized him up, unimpressed. “What?”
“I’ll teach you the first lesson of command.” He grinned and leaned down. “If you throw nastiness around all the time, it don’t mean a thing. If you’re going to swear at someone, save it up and keep it stowed until you go off like a bomb. Can’t scare someone with posturing. You can only scare them with the truth.”
“You’re posturing, now.”
He suddenly felt the need to swallow, but held it, worrying the action might look weak. “I’m just trying to help you be your best.”
Orna’s face froze in the gleeful surprise that immediately precedes a vicious mocking. “Are you out of your mind? Why should I be my best?”
Cordell tried for the life of himself to figure out what a father would say, but only came up with, “So you can be successful.”
“That’s over, then. I’ll never be successful.”
“Who taught you to be so salty?”
Her glee disappeared. “Sam’s mom.”
Cordell waited. He’d learned from many survivors over the years not to ask until they volunteered. No need to compound the poor child’s trauma with a bunch of blunt questions.
“She was nice,” said Orna, her gaze falling to the ground. “A mechanist, like me, and she was taking care of Heidi and Sam. When she, you know, bit it, I told her I’d keep…” She faltered, and coughed when she spoke again. “I’d keep them alive.”
“That wasn’t your fault.”
Her defiant eyes seemed to catch fire. “If it was my job, it was my fault. I promised them.”
“You can’t control everything.”
“What would you know?” she screamed at him, instantly cranking her volume to one-hundred percent.
Oh, right. That’s a thing kids do.
And right as he’d decided it wasn’t that bad, she tried to kick him in the balls.
“You can’t understand!” she raged, swiping at him as he nervously danced away.
Don’t hit her back. This is the only language she knows.
“You’re not a fuck-up like me! How do you like that for language, huh?” Orna was on him like a wild animal, kicking, biting and scratching. “So you can hate me, too! Aren’t you glad you rescued me? I’ll kill you!”
“Orna!” Armin said, rounding the corner and rushing to drag her off of Cordell. “Orna, please! It’s okay. You’re okay!”
Cordell ducked past a punch to help and caught a dizzying kick to the jaw for his trouble. They struggled with her in the hall until she was just a wild animal. After a harrowing minute, they were able to pin her, eyes bulging and cheek pressed to the deck. Tears, sweat and drool mixed beneath her, and she refused to look either man in the eye.
They let her go as soon as she relaxed, and she didn’t move a muscle. Both men scooted away on the floor, though Armin remained close enough to stroke her shaved head.
He gave Cordell a pained frown, and Cordell sensed its meaning: What if we can’t help her?
“I’m a failure too, Orna,” Cordell said, leaning back against the wall. “You can’t be a captain and be anything else.”
“You liar.” Her little shoulders began to shake. “How many of your friends did you let die?”
Cordell shook his head and frowned. He wanted to smoke, but swore he’d never do it in mourning—too easy to get addicted to the sadness. “Sixteen, over five short years.”
Orna curled up on herself, but Cordell caught a split second of eye contact from her. Armin nodded, almost imperceptibly, for Cordell to continue. He’d know how hard it was to share the pain of fighting a war; even a guy from the State Department would’ve lost friends by the end.
“These were soldiers obeying my orders, and they died,” said Cordell. “A couple here. One or two there. The worst time was…”
The faces of the crew at Laconte came rushing back, some terrified, some stoic, as they plummeted to their doom. If Cordell hadn’t been a valuable asset, he would never have chosen to survive.
Cordell shook their cries from his head. “It doesn’t matter what the worst time was. No matter how many of your friends die in a battle, you have to feel them all, individually.”
“They’re going to know,” she said, and both men froze as she crawled forward to rest her head on Armin’s leg.
He looked at Cordell like a rare, magical bird had decided to grace him with her presence.
“They’re going to hate me,” said Orna.
“Who, baby?” asked Armin.
“People offworld. They’ll know I’m no good. Can’t keep an innocent alive.”
“That’s not true.” Armin craned his neck to look her in the eyes. “And even if it were, how would they find that out?”
“You’ll have to explain how I got on the ship, somehow,” she sighed. “Someone is going to ask how you got an extra kid.”
“Oh, that?” said Cordell. “I remember exactly how that happened. We were visiting Clarkesfall to work on a big salvage find, and we heard this distress beacon.”
Armin smiled. “That’s right. And I took the ship down with my surprisingly decent piloting skills.”
“And we landed atop this big mesa,” said Cordell, “and found this nice little girl—”
“No one is going to believe that part,” Orna interrupted.
“—This horrible wild child that happened to be a genius mechanist,” Cordell corrected.
“That’s better,” said Orna.
“And she had a loyal robot pet named Ranger, who’d kept her safe out in the wastes after a daring escape from the fighting pits,” said Armin, using the same cadence reserved for telling adventure stories.
“Ranger wasn’t just rescue armor, either,” said Orna. “He had a bunch of cool gadgets like a plasma blade, and he could see in the dark. And he could jump from any height.”
“Color me impressed,” said Cordell. “For real?”
“No,” mumbled Orna, a little annoyed. “I’m going to add that stuff. Anyway, the horrible genius little girl met the old captain—”
“—dashing captain,” Cordell interrupted. “If we’re lying, I’m now going to be dashing.”
“Okay, she met the dashing captain,” she said, ladling on the sarcasm, “and said—”
“‘I’ve got a bomb!’” said Cordell, imitating Orna and holding a fist aloft.
Orna actually started laughing, and reached for the pretend detonator.
“’And I’m going to blow up your ship if you don’t take me out of here right now!’” said Cordell, scrambling away from Orna’s attempts to steal back her fake bomb.
Armin’s expression was disapproving. “Captain Lamarr, please be serious.”
“No, I like it,” said Orna, her smile like the first shaft of sunlight after a storm. “I totally held you hostage.”
“Totally,” added Cordell, shooting Armin a “do not screw with your captain” look.
“And it was on my birthday,” said Orna, sitting up and wiping the drool from her cheek.
To Armin’s credit, he let it soak into his pant leg without complaint. “Why your birthday?”
“I forgot when it was,” she said. “Might as well be today.”
They all nodded sagely, deciding that yes, this was clearly Orna’s birthday, and as such, it would be totally fine if she ate as many instant cakes from the larder as she wished. Eventually, Cordell would have to stop spoiling her, but this was probably wise for the moment.
“So do you want to see why I told you to come out of your room?” asked Cordell.
Cautiously, Orna rose to her feet, and the three of them journeyed down to the cargo bay. Cordell led them to a stack of cases, tapped in a code and flung the doors wide.
Lights flickered on inside, illuminating case upon case of ship’s old tools. None of them were new by any stretch, and it was far from a complete set, but the menagerie of metal was far more exciting than most civilian tool sets.
“My last quartermaster, this guy, Gary,” said Cordell, “wasn’t a mechanist, so he never quite knew what to do with these. He could repair the ship well enough, and certainly knew how to manage supplies, but he frankly sucked at fabrication.”
Orna pushed past him toward the cases and began dragging out air hoses, attachments, and batteries. She climbed up the sides and unfolded the CNC lathes and scanning arms so she could peer inside at the model numbers. She stared in wide-eyed wonder at a set of military-issued spanners, and held them aloft like a trophy.
“These… I’ve been looking for a set of these forever! They could fit Ranger’s black box!”
“There’s also the materials for the fab lab,” said Cordell, banging the side of a cabinet until he could force the latch. Inside, there were all gauges of steel, blocks of aluminum, rolls of unformed duraplast and fibron, and Orna rushed over to drag them out for inspection.
“I could make medical-grade duraplex with these,” said the child. “I could replace Ranger’s seat! Why are you showing me this? Can I use it?”
Cordell hooked his thumbs into the loops of his trousers and rocked on his heels. “Yes. I was thinking we could come to an arrangement.”
The roll of fibron fell from her hand, unspooling into a ribbon of inky darkness across the deck. “What do you want?”
“Armin and me, we’re never going to be good substitutes for your parents, but we can promise you some stuff,” said Cordell.
Armin nodded at him. “We’ve discussed it, and we think we can do much better for you. Three square meals a day. A full starfarer’s wages every week. No one will make you fight anyone.”
“What if they deserve it?” she asked.
“That’ll have to be at your discretion,” said Cordell. “But it’s work, and I’ll expect you to both show up and be respectful.”
She smirked. “What if you suck?”
Cordell nodded. “That will also have to be at your discretion. As long as we’re not in danger, you can quit. If the ship is in trouble, you have to obey my every word at every moment.”
“Do you get into a lot of trouble?” she asked.
“Practically never,” Armin said, “and we aim to keep it that way.”
“As long as you work on this ship,” said Cordell, “you can use these tools as much as you—”
The breath rushed from his lungs as Orna slammed into him at full speed, wrapping her arms around his legs and nearly tripping him. Armin, who happened to be standing too close, got pulled into the embrace and his hips pressed uncomfortably against Cordell’s.
The two men regarded one another in mortified silence—after all, it was usually against regs for a captain to touch his subordinate officer. Then, Cordell put one arm around Armin, and the other around Orna. The first mate followed suit, and together, they knelt to catch her tears on their shoulders.
Cordell patted her back, listening to the constant refrain of sniffles.
“Happy birthday, Orna Sokol.”
When the lights went red and the klaxons sounded, Cordell fell out of bed, stubbing his toe.
Armin’s voice came over the speakers. “Captain, we’re picking up a distress signal.”
If he hadn’t been awake before, he was, now. “Tell me.”
“It’s the same signature that Orna used to summon us. Full-spectrum marauder encryption, but if Bill picks it up…”
“She’s trying to call him!” Cordell tugged on his trousers as fast as he could, forgoing the combat boots.
“Why? She seemed so happy today when she was eating cake.”
Cordell rushed to to the door and fetched his slinger pistol, jamming it full of overloader rounds and racking the slide. “Even if it’s not Bill, she may be calling someone else. ‘Thanks for the birthday party!’” he mocked. “‘Here are some space pirates.’”
Transferring the call to his comm, Cordell jammed in his earpiece and set off into the halls, barefoot and shirtless.
“Do you need some backup?” Armin asked.
“No,” said Cordell, checking his corners. “Go to the captain’s chair and enter two-two-niner-four on the console. It’ll seal the bridge and give you access to a hidden autoslinger rifle.”
“Why… do you have this?” Armin asked.
“Mutinies. Now what deck?”
“Lower deck, behind the cargo bay door conduits. Stay sharp, Captain.”
“You know I will,” he whispered. “Going silent.”
He wound down through the ship, all the while wishing he hadn’t ditched his old crew. Sure, they were a bunch of selfish jerks, but he’d taken them for granted; now, there was an urchin with a talent for murder sending messages to her pirate friends.
He opened the door to the cargo bay and almost died of a heart attack when he spotted Ranger on the other side. The bot was silent, though, charging against one of the far walls. Cordell was no expert in rescue armor, but it didn’t even look powered on.
If she’d been trying to give away their location, why not use Ranger? Why not kill the two men first?
He secured his slinger and tucked it into his pajama waistband. It’d drag them down, but he could hold them up with one hand. Then, he thought better of that idea, and set the gun down by the door, just out of sight.
“Orna?” he called into the darkness.
Cold seeped into his bare feet, and he regretted not tugging on a shirt, first. He pulled an emergency flashlight from the wall and clicked it on, sweeping the beam across the floor.
Tools were everywhere, like a tornado had swept through the place and toppled everything. Looking closer, Cordell saw the beginnings of a half-dozen projects strewn about: weapons, sensors, actuators, and a host of things he couldn’t recognize.
“Which conduit?” Cordell asked.
“Aft ninety,” replied Armin.
The pool of light came to settle on the door controls for the cargo bay, and behind the root structure of pipes and wires, was a little face peeking out, cheeks streaked with tears and snot.
“Orna, honey?” he called out to her.
A bright flash erupted from the beacon in her hands, and a beep sounded out before she switched it off.
“You came,” she whispered.
He relaxed, and smiled at her. “You scared us, broadcasting our location.”
“Wanted to see if it still worked. Sorry.”
He cocked his head. “If you could still broadcast?”
She emerged from her hiding place, and padded over to him. She was wearing one of Armin’s t-shirts and a pair of ADF socks that were a size too large.
“I wanted to see if you’d still come when I switched it on.”
“Oh, kiddo…” Cordell tapped his ear. “Armin, I’m going to need some hot cocoa down here like yesterday.”
She leaned her head on his hip, and he put his arm around her shoulder.
“Sorry if I scared you,” Orna whispered with a sniff.
“Come on. Show me what you spent your whole birthday making,” he said, giving her a gentle pat on the head. “I want to see what all that cake bought me.”
2896 – After the Fall of the Masquerade
“When I was talking to Boots yesterday,” Orna said, passing the beacon to Cordell, “she got drunk and told me there were times she wished she’d held the ship hostage, herself.”
Cordell smirked, running his thumb across the rough switch housing. “Think she was joking?”
“About holding the ship hostage, or believing my old story?”
“’Your’ old story?” said Cordell, “We helped you come up with that.”
Orna smiled at him. “She went for the lie, hook, line and sinker.”
“You ever going to tell her the truth?”
“Nah. I can almost hear the constant refrain of, ‘don’t beat yourself up’ that would come with it.” Orna took the beacon out of his hands. “I can’t believe you still do this. Following me around every year.”
“I’ll always come for you, Orna. Armin would have, too.”
She hugged the device close. “I miss him. He was a good dad.”
It felt a little like she’d thumped Cordell in the heart just then. She’d never called Armin that before, but it made sense. Those two had been closer, better matched as guardian and ward. Armin always knew what she needed, and Cordell was always Captain Discipline, the bad guy who had to come fix the worst fights.
Her eyes locked onto his, and she gave him a timid smile. “You aren’t a half-bad one, either.”
Tears welled in his eyes, and he laughed to cover them up. “Damn it, Sokol. Quit with the sucker punches.”
She flushed. “I’m sorry. That was weird, wasn’t it? Please just forget I—”
Cordell hugged her tightly, as he had all of those years before, and he could almost feel Armin’s awkward participation. “It’s great, kiddo, but you know I’m supposed to be the one giving you a present.”
She laughed and wiped her nose. “I’m never going to call you dad in front of the others.”
“You’d better not. And I promise not to call you ‘kiddo,’” he chuckled, covering a sniffle. He took the parcel from where he’d tucked it into his waistband and held it out. “Here. Happy birthday, Orna Sokol.”
She opened it to find his old ADF Carrington Twenty-Three pistol, engraved with his name and commission. She’d always wanted it, and maybe it was time he passed it on. He hated cleaning the damned thing, anyway.
“Aw, Captain. Another gun?” she asked with a wink, then rested her head against his shoulder to admire the polished black metal of the weapon. “That’s three in a row.”
“It’s Captain Dad now.”
“Of the Arcan Dad Force. That’s what ADF stands for.”
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