The first four novellas of Blaze Ward's Science Officer series collected together for the first time!
Javier lives quite happily on his long-range scout. Alone. Away from everyone, with his chickens, his fruit trees, and Suvi, an artificial intelligence who keeps him company and runs the ship.
When space pirates attack Javier's ship, they get much more than they bargained for.
Join Javier Aritza, a sarcastic and quirky hero, in the first four novellas of the Science Officer, a fast-paced, action-packed science fiction series.
Included in Omnibus 1:
"The Science Officer"
"The Gilded Cage"
"The Pleasure Dome"
Part of the Alexandria Station universe.
Blaze Ward writes the kind of space adventure I love to read. Lots of faraway places, lots of imagined worlds, lots of exploration—and pirates!!!! What else do you want in your science fiction? – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The Science Officer
Javier quickly scanned the boards on his bridge console, on the off-chance that an asteroid was on an intercept course. The jump drives would require another hour to recharge after this latest hop, and the engines were off-line for now as the computer worked out a preliminary scan of the new system they were here to survey.
Space was really, really big. The odds of any two objects intersecting accidentally were extremely low. Like, lots of zeros behind the decimal low. But always followed by a one. Javier never forgot that. Eventually, your number would come up. Hopefully it would be old age that got you, though, instead of a jealous boyfriend.
The immediate area, out to around half a light-second, was clear. In the distance, a dim reddish-orange sun fought fitfully to warm the neighborhood. Just another boring star system on the far side of beyond. Another day, another drachma.
"Suvi. Mission log," Javier said, keying the computer system live with his voice. It wasn't really a she, and she wasn't really intelligent, but the AI was a pretty good facsimile of a person. And he had tweaked her programming over the years to get her just right.
The fleet hadn't bothered with a name for the little vessel. They never did with probe-cutters. Scouts like this one usually just had hull numbers. After Javier had bought her from the wrecker yard, he had named the vessel Mielikki, after the Finnish Goddess of the Forest. He had reprogrammed the AI to appear as a petite Anglo woman, an elfin blue-eyed blond, and named her Suvi. Summer. It was a nice contrast to his own dark hair and dark skin. Reminded him that the galaxy was a big place filled with all sorts of strange humans.
"Go ahead, Javier," Suvi replied crisply. She appeared on a side screen as if she was sitting in an office on an old warship, dressed in a uniform vaguely modeled on a fleet yeoman from a century ago, just before the Great Wars broke out. Javier was positive the AI hadn't originally been programmed with a sense of irony and humor, but, looking at her attire, she had developed one over time.
"Mission day 237, newly arrived and scanning. Tag this as part of Campeche Sector, system number seven," he said, bringing up a holographic star map of the neighborhood. "Sometime in the next two or four systems, we'll transition to Quintana Roo Sector, before we hit the edge of the local arm and enter a gulf. Please remind me."
"Will do, Javier," she replied, appearing to type something on a keyboard in front of her.
"Very good, Suvi. You have the deck. I'll be in back getting some food and checking the botany station." Javier unbuckled, rose from his chair, and made his way aft. He stretched his arms overhead and tugged his tunic back down into place after he scratched an itch by his kidney.
Behind him, the beaming elf took charge. "Roger that, Captain."
Javier plucked a second berry from the bush as he carefully spit out the first seed into his hand. The berry was almost the size of a grape, but shockingly pink and very sweet. Javier smiled at what he'd been able to accomplish with a full research lab and several years of solitary patience. He might have invented another new species of fruit. One of these days, he needed to go visit some parish fair back home, just so he could win all the ribbons for fruits and vegetables. Maybe.
Around him, Mielikki's original cargo hold had been split into two pieces. The interesting half was now dedicated to botanical research, with a small arboretum, fruit and vegetable patches, a hydroponics rig with several species of fish, and a seed library better than many agricultural universities maintained.
Fleet Operations had laughed when he demanded real Ukrainian dirt from the homeworld, rich and black, but had shipped him out nearly fifty cubic meters of the stuff as part of his contract. On his side trips back to "known" space, admirals and legates were always quite happy to have fresh picked grapes, or blood oranges, or blue asparagus to serve with dinner.
For now, Javier pulled one of the small bags from his pocket, kept for just this purpose, and added the seed from his hand. He placed the sealed bag in a netting shelf nearby and pulled out a clear box for the berry. That went into a small refrigerator, until it could be scanned, cataloged, and planted in a fresh pot, to see which way grew better, naked seed or buried fruit. Ah, science.
A sound attracted Javier's attention. He glanced over as Athos, one of his chickens, emerged from the vegetable patch and cocked her head at him. She stared at him for a moment longer, decided there wasn't going to be any food, and went back to scratching in the dirt for anything interesting to eat.
Javier smiled and took a really deep breath. He sighed. Most of the planets he had visited didn't have air this clean and fresh, to say nothing of warships that kept amenities to a minimum, or sector stations that didn't even bother with that. Fresh water, clean air, and no people. This was paradise.
"Captain to the bridge," came the sudden interruption. Suvi's voice was poised and calm. "Emergency. All hands to battle stations."
Fourteen years as a Concord Fleet officer had left its mark. Javier covered the distance to the command room almost before the echoes of her voice had faded.
Even before his butt hit the chair, he was assessing screens. "Suvi. Status report," he called as he brought his boards live and considered his options.
The probe-cutter boats had been armed when commissioned, but Mielikki had had most of that stripped when she was turned into a long-range scout. Sure, there was still a little twin-pulsar in a dorsal turret, but that was mainly useful against unexpected asteroids in tight quarters. Javier reached for the armaments console, and then stopped when he saw the image on the secondary screen.
"Crap," he said quietly. "Where did she come from?"
The hull displayed was a flat charcoal gray shark so dark as to almost be almost black. Even at a range Javier could call knife-fighting, the vessel was hard to see. The scanners, however, showed her just fine. Now.
"Working," came the response, even though the AI was much faster than that. "She appears to have been cloaked and nearby when we arrived. The vessel appears to be a…"
"She's an Osiris-class heavy corvette," he cut her off mid-word.
Javier knew the class. He still remembered many midshipman cruises at the Concord Academy on Bryce aboard the old Bannockburn, one of this one's sisters. He was out-gunned by orders of magnitude, and couldn't possibly run away from the fast vessel. And the jump engines wouldn't be online for another twenty minutes. He was right proper screwed.
"Suvi," he said, face twisted up in a sideways scowl, "have they hailed us?"
Her image showed fierce concentration. "Negative. No wait, stand by." She paused, a look of incredulous shock growing on her face. "Oh, my…"
The image on the screen was ancient, dating back to the distant past, when humans were confined to a single homeworld and ships floated on water instead of sky. A human skull, white on a black background, with crossed thigh bones behind.
Javier had just enough time to realize that the flag was black instead of red, and then the vessel opened fire.
Something bumped him on the head.
The emergency backup lighting came on.
Javier was floating. The bump was the ceiling.
Crap. Grav plates were off.
Mielikki was dead in the water.
Of course. They were pirates. They had ionic pulsars. One overwhelming surge of static later, and every system on Mielikki was overloaded. It would take three hours to reset all the breaker boards and bring everything back on line at this point. He probably had three minutes. Needs must, when the devil drives.
Javier pushed off from the ceiling, moving through the air like a porpoise.
Emergency lifesuit first. Unarmored. Barely reinforced. Keep him alive if they blew the airlocks out.
Forty-seven seconds. Some skills never faded.
Computer next. He held the console with one hand and climbed underneath to access a panel. It wasn't the computer core. That was down in the bowels near the power systems. He just wanted his logs, and Suvi's personality files, intact.
Javier swapped the fifth chip from the left for a spare his fleet-trained paranoia kept taped close by. With Suvi tucked into his pocket, he smashed the blank replacement with a small hammer, as well as all the rest of the chips and boards. Standard procedure when about to be captured, although he was supposed to destroy the chip with data, not try to smuggle it past the enemy. Tough. He liked Suvi. Now, to hide her.
Javier checked the clock in his head. Two minutes gone.
He dove headlong down the main corridor to the veterinary station, which was a very fancy term for a chicken coop and examination table. He cracked a feed bucket open just enough to slide Suvi in and then latched it back down.
There was amazingly little debris floating around. Fourteen years active duty, four years Academy, and several years of private space flight will do that to you.
The chickens didn't mind zero gravity. Well, they minded, but they were chickens. Everything offended them. They didn't appear to be much bothered. Another couple of hours and they'd probably prefer to live in a place where their wings worked.
He might have to try that as an experiment someday. The Effects of Minimal Gravity from Birth on Terran Chicken Breeds. Javier snorted at the thought of a research journal article. Pirates first. Tenure later.
The whole ship rang like a bell.
Javier considered the personal sidearm he kept in his cabin. That would just get him killed quickly. Talking seemed to offer the only chance of getting out of this alive. Not much, but better than sure death.
He moved to the main corridor and set his radio to scanning for frequencies in use.
It didn't take long. They were on a default fleet channel.
"Greetings," he said. "Can we talk?"
Javier waited patiently. Everyone had gone silent as soon as he spoke. He let them talk on another channel for a few moments before he went looking for it.
"Hello," he said, interrupting a man and a woman talking.
"Who is this?" challenged the male voice. Gruff, hard, professional. It reminded him of one of his instructors from his Academy days.
"The guy on the ship," Javier replied, careful to keep his tone light and friendly. Never antagonize people with guns pointed at you. "Since you didn't blast me, you don't want me dead. I figured I'd try to make this a little easier, so you don't have to shoot me when you open the hatch."
A drop of flop sweat rolled down his nose, right at the point he couldn't get to it inside his helmet. Javier scrolled the lifesuit controls down as cold as it would go. Every little bit would help at this point. No fear in front of killers.
There was an awkward pause.
"How many people are on the ship?" The man's voice was calmer now. "And what cargo are you carrying?"
Javier shrugged to himself. They were going to find out in about five minutes anyway. "Me," he said. "Oh, and four chickens. As for goods, I'm hauling a lot of trees and plants."
"Trees?" the woman's sudden voice was incredulous. Harsh, cold, and vicious, but also incredulous. "What do you mean, trees?"
Javier smiled, swallowed it before responding. "Apple trees," he said, matter of fact. It was a speech he gave at almost every station and sector headquarters. "Pears, oranges, figs, bananas, cherries, hazelnuts, cashews, almonds. Bunch more. Plus fruit bushes, vegetables, hydroponics. And four chickens."
She was not mollified. "That's bullshit," she said. "This is a patrol cutter."
Javier took a breath before he responded. "This is a probe-cutter, retired from active duty twenty years ago, and converted to a long-range survey scout."
The man's voice was back. "Who are you?"
Javier shrugged in his suit. "Just a guy on a survey contract for Concord Fleet. A private contractor trying to make a buck."
"And all the botany?"
Javier perked up a bit. These people didn't sound like pirates. At least not the ones in the shows or movies. Way too articulate for what he was expecting. "Hobby," he said. "Something to do when I spend two to three years at a time in the middle of nowhere."
Javier could hear the banging on the hatch in front of him. The airlock was about to be opened. With the ship powerless, they had already overridden the airlock bearings and cut the interlocks. And done it faster than most shipyard crews could manage. Damn. They were good.
The woman's voice was back now. She sounded angry. Like a cat denied a mouse. "I've got you on my scanner," she said. "Where are your weapons?"
Javier shrugged. Things were about to get tricky. "I have a pistol in my cabin," he said. "Didn't figure it would do me much good here."
"You got that right, mister," she snarled. "You stand perfectly still when the lock opens. If you're lying about anything, you're a dead man."
Javier braced his foot under a rail put there by the ship's architect for exactly this situation. For good measure, he held his hands straight out sideways, open and as unthreatening as he could. "Got it."
The airlock door crawled open about eight centimeters, about as far as someone without gravity could torque it manually in one twist. Someone fantastically strong. Someone really angry.
A barrel poked through, like a hunting snake. No head appeared in the gap, so Javier assumed a camera on the gunsight.
He remained still. He even smiled. "Hi there."
"Not planning to."
The hatch creeped farther open.
Somebody on the other side stuck a sensor pod across the threshold. It pinged loudly in the silence.
Javier wasn't used to meeting other people as patient as he was. He had expected them to come barging in shooting by now. Maybe this was a good sign.
The sensor pod chirped.
Javier slowly let out a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding. There was air, so they weren't going to blow the locks and vent his ship into space. Maybe another good sign.
A head appeared in the gap, over the barrel.
"Just you, huh?" It was her.
Javier nodded. "And four chickens."
The edge of anger in her voice was subsiding to exasperation. "What is it," she said, "about the damned chickens?"
Javier held his voice as steady as possible, even when it really wanted to go up an octave. "Some people eat chickens," he said, "and they are quite tasty. But they also make eggs if you treat them right. That means a meal every day for years, instead of one meal and done. I'd rather you not shoot my chickens. Kinda impossible to replace out here."
She swam forward across the threshold, like a Nereid moving in water. The barrel seemed centered on Javier's chest with magnets.
He could see her eyes through the filtered faceshield, barely. He felt like a rabbit confronting a bobcat. He smiled. "Hi."
And then she shot him.