Story by Geoff Tuffli
++++ DATE 1.1.2471
++++ TIME 16:01 Solar Standard Time
++++ LOCATION 1.2 million km up-system out of Saturn
Ce Xochitl cut the burn with the flick of her wrist. The Minos class frigate Micohuani shuddered in silence, and with the expiration of the tiny ship's acceleration, so too went any semblance of gravity. Her cihuacoatl made a mournful joke about the inconveniences of weightlessness; the rest of the crew laughed.
In truth, she preferred the freedom from what she thought of privately as the tyranny of gravity.
Every time the Micohuani left Dione, she felt her blood race in anticipation of when the engines of her frigate would be cut and true freedom restored. When she slept in her tiny cell, she forwent strapping into the bulkhead in favor of curling up upon herself in a fetal position, floating as she dreamed of the unimaginably vast black ocean their tiny cocoon of life sailed through.
"Crosscheck," she said crisply.
Her engineer started to say something, but her cihuacoatl cut him off. "Xochi, we have a ping."
"What is she?" Ce Xochitl asked.
"Calypso class. Off the shelf from the outside. Iapetan registry. No bounty on the network, anonymous or otherwise, though."
Her cihuacoatl shrugged. "Comp says Uranus, probably, but we're still in spitting distance of home, so could be almost anything up-system."
Ce Xochitl frowned. "Nothing else?"
A faint smile settled over thin lips. "I think we have a winner, then. Doesn't get better than this." Ce Xochitl flicked her forefinger and thumb twice to open the comm to their companion vessel. "Hey little brothers, you hearing me?"
"Clear as ice, Xochi. You see the Calypsie?"
Ce Xochitl couldn't tell which of them had taken the comm, but in truth, it hardly mattered which it was. Yei Cipactl and Nahui Olin were fraternal twins, not identical, but the two were so alike that even in person it was sometimes impossible to tell them apart. "You two feeling lucky, then?"
He snorted. "There's not going to be any luck."
"Sure you can catch them?" she teased.
In response, the Tlahpixqui's engines flared to life on her display, the ship's glyph with its skull-headed man flashing on her display as it indicated the Tlahpixqui's intercept vector.
"Burning a little hard there," her cihuacoatl commented.
Ce Xochitl didn't say anything, but in silence she agreed. Her own crew watched their displays. Come on, niños, don't get too cocky. They could still have some kind of armament.
The Iapetan frigate's own engines flared to life, but the Tlahpixqui already had enough velocity that beating the converted Dione frigate's thrusters in this kind of a sprint was unlikely. Frantically piling on acceleration, the Iapetan frigate struggled to escape, plowing on straight ahead as fast as it could pile on g's.
Stupid, Ce Xochitl thought critically. They should just flip and accelerate back towards the Tlahpixqui, since there's no way the boys' frigate could decelerate fast enough to correct at this point.
But today, it seemed, the twins' boldness would not be disappointed. Ce Xochitl wanted to chide them, but held her tongue back; this was something of a sacred day for them, their first solo capture of a vessel, assuming all went well. Interfering at this point could only be a last resort, as it would spoil the twins' big day. Give them this one day. Next time they pulled a stunt like this, though, she'd rake them over the coals.
It was over very quickly.
The Tlahpixqui's HED lance burned a pair of surgical lines across the Iapetan frigate's attitude thrusters. Eavesdropping over the comm, Ce Xochitl could hear Nahui Olin receiving the Iapetan frigate's surrender. The Tlahpixqui adroitly matched velocity, mating airlocks to prepare for boarding.
"That was awfully clean," her cihuacoatl remarked.
"They were lucky. The Iapetan pilot was an idiot."
"Well, they could see we were here, too. Even if they slipped the Tlahpixqui, they weren't likely to evade us."
"Sure, but they could have at least tried."
Ce Xochitl shook her head irritably. "Do it. Let's see what the twins' net has dragged in."
"Look on the bright side. You're not going to have to explain to your madre how you got her second-best frigate shot up."
The Micohuani's engines choked back to life, the Minos class frigate crossing the distance to where the two Calypsos coasted in their metal embrace, mated airlocks somehow obscene in the reflected light from Saturn. Thirty minutes later, she floated through the Tlahpixqui's starboard airlock and straight through to the port airlock, still connected to the Iapetan frigate. One of the twins had a flechette pistol on a pair of zip-tied Iapetans, the other twin peering through the cargo hold in disgust. He looked up as Ce Xochitl hovered into view.
"What is this?" he demanded.
"What is what?" Ce Xochitl answered mildly.
"There's nothing here!" he said in frustration. "These two," he said, indicating the two Iapetans, "Claim they are traders on an up-system haul to the Kuiper Belt."
"Kind of lousy traders to have nothing in their cargo hold," she agreed.
"They claim they are picking up cargo on Triton," he almost spat the words.
Ce Xochitl glanced at the Iapetans. "If you're going to lie, you really should at least put a little effort into it," she chided them.
One of them - not the pilot, Ce Xochitl was sure - straightened angrily. "I am the senior attache of Minister Grady, and I am not lying."
"Of course you are," she said. She glanced at the other Iapetan. "Your pilot could tell you. No? Okay, I will. You're going the right direction for Pluto, it's true, but the wrong trajectory for Neptune. I mean, completely wrong. Impossibly wrong. Now, Uranus...that sounds more like it. You wouldn't be headed for Alliance space, would you? But why," she mused aloud, "Would you lie about that?" Ce Xochitl arched an eyebrow.
"Wait," the twin who was still pointing the flechette pistol at the bound Iapetans. "They said they were traders. Now this one's saying he's an attache?"
"They do seem to be getting tangled in their own stories," Ce Xochitl agreed. She glanced at the other twin. "I recommend we take a look at their datalogs."
He shook his head. "Can't. They're encrypted."
"That's okay. Our friend here will give you the key," she said, indicating the first Iapetan.
"I will not."
"Yes, you will." Ce Xochitl pushed off her handhold towards the Iapetan, snagging another one near. She pulled out her own sidearm, flicked off the safety with one finger, and pointed it at the Iapetan.
She shook her head. "Not really. You say you're just traders, which means that there's nothing of particular value in your databases. If you're just traders, why, then we won't even be able to ransom your asses for enough to make it worth paying for your oxygen. In that case, we'll just kill the registry on your ship and sell her for parts. Plenty of market for that. Might not even have to push your ship out to the Belt." The Iapetan suddenly looked frightened.
"However," Ce Xochitl said, waving the tip of her sidearm in front of him, "If you're not traders, and instead you really are an attache with something worth selling in your databases, why, then you're worth keeping alive."
Ce Xochitl narrowed her eyes. "Tell you what. If what's in those databases is valuable enough, we'll even drop you back off on Titan gratis in return for you handing over the key so we don't have to waste money paying to try to bust your encryption."
A brief glimmer of hope appeared in the Iapetan's eyes. "How do I know you're telling the truth?" he said, the desperation loud in his voice.
"For one," Ce Xochitl noted, "We're not monsters, and not particularly interested in the hassle of either killing you two or the even bigger hassle of ransoming you. If," she added, "You can make it worth our while, of course."
"Coyotl," he spat at her. The spittle coalesced into a glob in the air.
Ce Xochitl gave a slow smile in return. "Of course. We are of the Amalgamated Calpultin of Dione. How else do you expect us to make our way in the world? We do not have your mighty ice mines."
"We usually prefer an employer," she admitted, "But for a boy or girl's initiatory take, it is considered unprofessional to risk that on a paying employer, so we do it this way. So. Which will it be? The database key or the airlock?"
The look on the Iapetan's face was pure anguish, but there was never any doubt what his reply would be. "I'll give you the passkey." The words looked to be tasting like poison in his mouth. He spelled out the key.
"I'm in," the twin at the console said. He was silent for a long moment. "Cuitl," he whispered. "Xochi, you need to look at this."
Ce Xochitl pushed over to the console, scanning the contents. After the second page she glanced over at the Iapetans, both looking utterly miserable. "Well. On the bright side, I think this safely qualifies as being suitable payment for your oxygen to Titan," she remarked.
"What is it?" her other brother asked.
"This one," she said, nodding at the first Iapetan, "Is an envoy to the Alliance from the Iapetan Coalition. They're negotiating a subjugation into the Alliance." She smiled. "I imagine there will be quite the bidding war for this."
"Auction on the network, then?"
"Yes. Grab the registry files for proof, and we'll put it up on the network once we drop these two off and can put it through a relay to keep things nice and anonymous. I'll send a note to our friend on Titan to let them know they really, really want this data, then we'll see how high the bidding goes. I am actually curious who is willing to pay the most for this - Coalition, Titan, Rhea, or the Alliance?" Ce Xochitl smiled at the twins. "Congratulations, you two. I think you both are about to be very, very rich. Even after the calpulli's cut and my sponsorship cut."
Their grins lit up the cargo hold.
Ce Xochitl looked back at the Iapetans. "I think today is an awfully good day to be a coyotl, don't you?"