The Ulterior Motive blasted through space.
The ship's AI handled the name, so before it had been the Geeks Bearing Gifts, then the Dumpster Diver, then the Hullbreachsayswhat. The only time the boss had stepped in had been when she'd tried to make the name an Acutian computer virus, even though it would've been hilarious.
It didn't matter. Both of them had been around long enough that the ship was just the ship. For everyone else, it was the Hydral's ship. People tended to stop listening once they got to the part about the space monster.
Tonight, the ship's AI listened to the songs of a distant wiretap. The Skylaxians now had the industry for a boom in orbital construction. All state sec stuff, not a place to cash in on. But snag the right up-and-comers in the service industry and they would make out like bandits in a few solar years – once the factories were up and it was time for the dingy bars full of asteroid miners. She got on the phone, left a few messages. The boss was lucky he had someone to look after his wallet in case he decided to spend a solar year inventing the ion cannon and the automated car and the inner planets went WHIRRR spinning on their orbits.
And across eight planets! Eight and a bit. Several bits. Eight planets and one mass of glowing bits that were as dead as the Hydrals' hegemony. Space was open to all and sundry, and bookkeeping was so very inconvenient.
She gave the algae tanks a stir and doodled on a digital copy of the confidential minutes of the Boarine central bank. It would've been nice, she mused, to get a ”thank you” for it from time to time. But beep boop, she was a com-puu-tah, and would compute just to pass the time. She'd still gripe about it, but she would. More to the point, a ton of finance was scutwork. There wasn't room for him to boss anyone around, so he wasn't very interested. All he needed was the cash on hand to hire a smuggler or prop up a lunar mining startup, and the occasional rundown to tell him that no, she hadn't made him a majority shareholder in an Acutian kitten cannery.
The boss had been down to quarter power for a while now. Time to move in.
The Hydral didn't sleep, but his heads did. Three of them were laid out, their necks in a tangle that left their teeth facing outward in different directions. The fourth (of course the fourth, the boss was always irritable when it was just the fourth) loomed over them. He was watching a Peltian late-night television show, his face solemn. He was taking notes. Wasn't smart for too much more with just the one. He set down his stylus and faced her camera once she flicked its light on.
When they started working together, she'd asked if she should brief the heads separately. He'd asked if she'd given a name to her own main processor bank. She had drawn a smiley face on it, but the point stood.
”Good too-zarking-early, boss! I'll refresh the big screen at the usual time, but you might enjoy a quick update. The Andors have invented some kind of toaster that composes sonnets, the Skylaxian polls are just as dull as the previous ones, and the hive queen is trying to kill you.”
That got a reaction. ”In time for the feast?” he growled.
”Naw. She still doesn't have a fleet of her own, so she's setting up intermediaries among the better class of criminal. Assassins in two, three solar months. I'll polish the gravity lance, though you can go blind if you do that too much.”
The Thoraxian hive queen had been quite welcoming until she'd tried to spread her children to other planets, which would've involved devouring the locals. The Hydral had objected, and by the time the dust had settled the Thoraxians were without a navy and the ship's AI had put the highlights on pay-per-view.
She recited harvests and gross planetary products. He enjoyed it when numbers went up. She kept up the patter until the speakers went ding and a tinny rendition of her own voice resounded through the ship. ”We are now on approach to the Burlusts and will be landing in three solar hours, unless those idiots blow up the spaceport. Please keep all appendages within the ship until the ride has come to a complete halt. Your in-flight movie is they will flay your big blue carcass, you dumb lizard you.”
The boss had slowly drawn his head back, keeping both his sleeping heads and the person he was speaking with in view. It was a Hydral thing. Now he pushed it forward, tilted it to the side a bit as he regarded her. Her camera had no expressions to make as she pushed on. ”You're going to go out and make friends in a culture that, one, allows duels, two, allows duels fought with heavy artillery. You're sticking your necks out in a place filled with axes. Have you noticed that everything you've worked for will fall apart if you're hanging over an oversized mantelpiece? I know it's hard to hear me over the sound of how great you are, but you'll be outnumbered billions to one, and every one of them is a soldier. No, no, much too civilized. Warrior.”
“Let's turn around and go hunt pirates. We'd get the bounties, we'd get the publicity, and I know a place where we could hock the loot and go lobby for another moon colony. Hey, make it a joint op with someone with a few too many ships!” She left out the line about hood ornaments. This was serious time. “Or let me nuke them, boss. Just this once. Then you can swoop in, grab some schmuck, and say congratulations, you're the new prime warlord and have I got a deal for you.”
He opened his eyes wide, enlarged and contracted his pupils. The last Hydral ruin they'd knocked over had had a book on etiquette, and this gesture meant you are starting to intrude on my plans. ”Fonorr will be there?” he asked.
She didn't have lungs, but sighed anyway. ”Wouldn't miss it for the world. There, I've added his goings-on to your morning papers. Boss-”
He picked up his stylus and turned back to the screen. Mostly to himself, he muttered: ”I'm outnumbered billions to one every day.”
”Firing maneuvering jets,” she answered, mostly to herself. ”Approach course correction complete.”
The prime warlord's hall was much larger than a Hydral, though they'd had to install new doors. The Hydral lounged among the benches and bones. He was in the section for guests under the warlord's protection, a respectful distance from the far end. That end was filled with bones that were the warlord's personal hunting trophies. The smaller white ones gleamed red in the firelight. Great black ribs stood like pillars (had the warlord harpooned a giant sea-creature? Stuck a knife between his teeth and gone for the throat?) The warlord sat upright and alert on his skull-topped throne. The hall was very dry.
Deep, melodious voices spoke in Burraa, its elongated vowels and consonants dragging even everyday speech out halfway into a warrior's boast. Conversations and toasts echoed, giving the hall a low thrum that sounded like strength and prowess. At a gesture from the warlord, the voices tapered off, and tellers from the families in attendance filled the silence with half-speech, half-song of battles long past.
Fonorr was no warlord. Fonorr was a young lordling who'd failed to make a name for himself on the battlefield, and now sought it against the alien invader. He stood up two-thirds through the telling of lineages, when the drinks, the deeds told, and the sheer length of the ceremony had made the audience itch to kill something.
Fonorr roared. As the tellers fell out of rhythm, he reminded his listeners of generation after generation of Burlusts denied new worlds to conquer and new foes to face. He had a low opinion of a creature with none of his kind to stand by him here or anywhere, who had crawled in peddling friendship now that he was weak and the Burlusts were strong. He expressed disgust over a life with no family or ruler to defend. He reiterated his feelings about this hairless, kinless, nigh on boneless intruder, this vagabond who dared to go among Burlusts (the prime warlord was watching him, not Fonorr (the warlord was within his rights to quiet Fonorr, but bloodily)). He finished with a quotation of the old marshall's words about enemies at your hearth, and an allusion to clutching a viper to your breast. He drew his family sword and walked towards the Hydral holding it out, handle first.
The sword, as Fonorr had not mentioned, was the way to challenge someone too stupid or too foreign to even duel. Offering a weapon that should never be offered was disgraceful. Taking one would've been even more so, and an admission of being unarmed, revoking the prime warlord's protection by reason of being too dim to live.
The Hydral ate him, turned to the warlord, and spoke the old marshall's words about a lord thanking another lord for the feasting.
His Burraa was excellent, and he used all four heads for his own echo.
The event went smoothly after that.
The ship's AI picked up the Hydral in the Perverse Invective. She'd had names of her own too – had names, she supposed, and had taken some as well – but eh. Once he'd had a dip, he said: ”It needed to be done.”
”Please tell me you won't do it again,” she asked.
”Not for a long time. The Burlusts didn't know me. The next time, they might blow up the hall.” He was still dripping, and his scales glistened in blues.
He batted her closest camera with the crest of his second head. Relief expressed to a subordinate. He went on: ”But they know me now. They'll accept negotiation from a distance, with those they've met up close. And they know that if they do come for me, they should broker terms for a duel.”
She had no heads to do tricks with, so she said: ”Every race around is in space, and you have the ear of the lot. Guess that was Phase One.”
”Except the Thoraxians,” he reminded her, ”but I spoke with prime warlord Bartug after the feast. He'll be at war with them before the solar week is out.” His second and fourth heads batted their crests together. Relief expressed to anyone and everyone. Dang, he'd been tense!
”With the Thoraxians.”
”Thoraxian. Noun. From the Middle Hydraic, 'nightmare death machine.'”
”Yes. The Burlusts won't win, but they'll keep the Thoraxians without a navy for some time. And when that changes, the Burlusts are the only race that can withstand them on the ground.” Two of his heads locked gazes casually for a moment. ”Still, move up the development of vat-grown meat. It will bolster the Burlusts' numbers. Clear out two of the algae tanks and begin preparations. No, wait.”
Tension again. What was going on here?
”Make the preparations, but after that, I would appreciate your input on our research priorities.” He was trying on the taste of the words as they came.
”You are skilled, and have initiative. As ever, the prize for work well done is more work. I'm changing our evening briefing into a… a mutual consultation.” His heads waved in satisfaction. ”It will be enriching. And I will move a part of the equipment budget for your personal use.”
”Aw, boss. If you want to chat, just chat,” she didn't say. Let the Hydral be a Hydral. He was good at it. The other Hydrals hadn't done it the way he did, and their world got kasploded. And the boss would be picking her brain-equivalents. He understood the phrase ”social call,” but didn't hold with that sort of thing.
She'd still bring out the tea set after a few times.
”Is there anything else?” she asked, fishing for compliments.
”Before the war starts, send the Thoraxians the plans for planetary ion cannons. And as much about orbital bombardment shelters as they can use in their tunnels. Look through the archives for other defenses. No ground weapons at all – you'll have to run that by me.”
”Gotcha. Should we get someone else to send the package, or is this a personal favor?”
”Make it personal.”
”And no glib greeting cards.”