2946-06-05 - Tales from the Inbox: Cupid's Scattergun

Today's Tales from the Inbox is brought to us by Ali W., who thankfully waited until the situation had resolved itself before sending us anything. Evidently, this took place a little more than a year ago, and he is now working with a new partner, in large part due to the events described here.

Ali's submission went out of its way to avoid explaining what happened to Mahir and Konnila. if either one ingests this text feed, they might provide the rest of the story.

As a note, the musings on mythology summarized here are original to the submission. Ali wrote a fair bit more on the topic than I retained for the text feed.

Ali didn’t know much about the mythologies of ancient peoples, but he did remember that some ancient cultures on Earth, before the Space Ages, believed in a magical creature which was responsible for people falling in love. He’d always considered the idea to be grotesque, even by the standards of ancient peoples; after all, they pictured the agent of love as a winged child, often little more than a toddler, which wore a blindfold and lurked in bushes and behind rocks places with a bow and arrow, with which it shot random passerby. Ali had always wondered how they thought it hit anything while blindfolded, and how its chubby little child’s arms could draw back a bow with enough strength to fire even the smallest arrow.

Ali also knew that at some point, the ancients figured out this wasn’t actually the cause of romantic feelings and came up with a better explanation. They kept the creepy bush-sitting child sniper image around, but only as a metaphor. He’d always wondered how the consistent lack of arrow wounds among the love-struck had not undone the whole idea before it could even get started.

Though he used to laugh at such superstitious nonsense, Ali has lately found plenty of reasons to sympathize with the people who came up with such wild theories. Ali and his partner operate a small-freight hauler on the Coreward Frontier, and after a recent run, their two-man crew gained a third member. Ali sends us the story of how it happened. “The whole Cupid legend isn’t as idiotic as I used to think.” He said, in the introduction he sent in. “But I’m pretty sure the little punk has traded in his bow. He snuck onto our ship armed with a scattergun.”

Elena Finn is not a very large ship. There are only six cabins, and the crew use two of them. Most of the hull volume is taken up by a pressurized cargo hold, intended for sensitive cargoes which need regular inspection. Conditions onboard aren’t exactly what anyone would call luxury travel accommodations, but Ali and his partner Mahir still find passengers from time to time. Most of their runs are hauling freight rather than people; small ships like theirs tend to move fragile cargoes and too small to fill the holds of the big hauler ships, but too important to wait for the hauler to fill the rest of its hold with other goods. For Ali and Mahir, medical equipment and supplies are the core of the business. Most of the new colony worlds hit some sort of medical emergency or sudden shortage every so often, and the nearest available stockpiles of what they need are at Maribel, or even all the way back at Jansing. Lugging crates of surgical machinery to and from the new colonies isn’t glamorous or exciting, but it is steady work which pays their bills.

Ali and Mahir had just unloaded just such a cargo on one of the colonies and were prepared to return with an empty hold when Mahir went out to buy a few last-minute supplies and found a well-dressed Atro’me wandering around the planet’s drab orbital spaceport, hoping to find a ship with enough free berths to take his family back to Maribel. Mahir, knowing that the addition of six passengers on a leg Elena Finn was already going to travel would be a profitable arrangement, negotiated a very reasonable fare, then hurried off to find a software patch to allow the ship’s food processors to cater to Atro’me diets. 

Ali was still installing the patch when the Atro’me family arrived at the boarding hatch. Hearing Mahir’s description, he’d expected two adults and four children, but all six of this family looked to be adults, or nearly so. The parents walked ahead of their brood, their more upright bearing, darker red skin, and visibly faded follicle crests marking them as older and of higher standing, and the other four, though bedecked with the wild, vibrant crest colors and brighter, almost orange-hued skin of their kind’s youth, kept their heads bowed, indicating their lower station.

It’s not always easy to tell at a glance with Atro’me, but Ali came to realize that three of the four youths were females; the fourth, the oldest child, was a male. They all spoke Terran Anglo fluently, of course – it’s rare to find an Atro’me who doesn’t – and as Elena Finn got underway, the youths decided to wander through the ship, curious as to what it contained. After the youngest, a quiet female named Konnila, set off alarms by finding her way into one of the maintenance crawlspaces, Ali organized the passengers into the lounge and laid down the law about what was off-limits during the five-day journey to Maribel. Evidently, he laid it down too well; the Atro’me stayed in the habitation compartments after that, but only the family patriarch spoke to him for the rest of the trip.

To smooth things over, Mahir did most of the interacting with the passengers. Ali could see that his partner didn’t mind this arrangement; Mahir was the more outgoing of the two anyway. Whenever he was not needed to run the ship, the man started spending much of his time in the lounge, swapping stories with whichever subset of the passengers happened to be there at the time.

It was clear to Ali that the passengers all seemed to like Mahir, but it became increasingly obvious that the three girls seemed to hang on his every story, often remaining in the lounge with him long after their brother and parents had retired for a sleep cycle. At first, Ali didn’t think anything of it; Mahir was the sort who loved having an audience – any audience – for his embellished tales. He probably didn’t think too hard about why he had the audience he had. Ali had his suspicions about the way his partner smiled at the oldest sister, but didn’t think that there would be much of a problem. The way he looked at it, the person responsible for reining in any potential problems was the girls’ father, not Ali himself. If the family patriarch didn’t see any problems with the situation, and Mahir didn‘t see any problems with it either, Ali decided he would let it run its course.

Ali soon came to regret his decision. When Elena Finn reached Maribel, each of the three girls independently arranged to return to the ship after their family disembarked. The older two had returned with luggage, indicating that they meant to stay aboard, if they were allowed to do so, while the youngest had brought nothing. None of them anticipated running into her sisters in the corridor in front of Mahir’s cabin.

The security system aboard Elena Finn doesn’t capture sound, but what happened next was not witnessed by either member of the crew until Ali found the recordings several days later. They indicate that this unexpected meeting turned into a chaotic, three-way argument before the two older girls fell upon each other. Atro’me are distinctive for their wide mouths filled with jagged shark-like teeth, and I shudder to think of the sorts of injuries those two girls inflicted, biting, clawing, punching, and generally tearing at each other with wild abandon.

The third Atro’me girl, Konnila, stood aghast at this struggle for several seconds, ignored by her older siblings. This was, of course, the very same curious explorer who’d set off alarms on the first day of the voyage by getting into the maintenance crawlspaces. She was the quietest of the passengers, especially after Ali’s lecture about off-limits areas, but in the struggle of her two sisters, she saw an opportunity.

Moving quickly, she took up the heavy polymer travel-case the oldest girl had brought. Swinging it overhand like an inefficient club, she battered her sisters over the head with it as they struggled on the floor until both had stopped moving. Ali doubted, upon seeing this, that Konnila was strong enough to kill them with the semi-rigid piece of luggage, but he couldn’t be sure, from the recordings alone. Before either had regained consciousness, their younger sister dragged them one at a time to the airlock and down the boarding umbilical into the station, and that was the last Ali saw of either of them. If they did come to, either they gave up and retreated to tend to their wounds, or they never managed to find a way back onto the ship in time. She kept their bags, including the newly-dented one she’d used to batter them into submission.

Composing herself, this formerly shy young woman returned to looking for Mahir, now standing a little prouder than she had since boarding the ship. Mahir bumped into her when he finished his inspection rounds twenty minutes later. She made quite the impression on him, as I understand it; despite first appearing shy, Konnila turned out to be quite enthusiastic and unwilling to take no for an answer. When Ali returned to the ship after arranging a new cargo, Mahir convinced him to let the Atro’me girl, probably no older than twenty T-years, stay aboard.

Of course, Ali didn’t see the security recordings until long after he’d agreed, and Elena Finn was a day and a half out from Maribel loaded with yet another cargo. When he finally did find them, it was just as he was beginning to grow used to the addition to his crew; after all, Konnila rarely ventured out of Mahir’s cabin, and when she did, she knew where not to go and what not to touch. Mahir had even managed to teach her to read a maintenance probe’s cryptic display, allowing her to help with the constant maintenance of Elena Finn.

Of course, now Ali had the recordings, and he needed to figure out what to do about it. Mahir, he knew, would stumble on them eventually, and even deleting them would only prolong the inevitable. Mahir kept backups, and those couldn’t be deleted. The longer Ali kept the secret, the more tainted by inevitable fallout he’d be.

Sighing heavily and reaching under the pilot’s console for the flask which he kept there for special occasions, Ali called his partner to the helm.