The next boarding party came over via teleportation, since there was no more need to worry about defensive measures on Aquamarine without StarCen’s presence.
Kim and Pak, both of Korean descent and supposedly related somehow, although nobody knew how, came over with the group. They rushed off to the engine room to see what it would take to get new drives installed.
Others in the party included Ultima Mule’s officers, Raleigh and Granny Wilcox.
Gertrude “Granny” Wilcox was a spry 73 standard years old, with short gray hair. She had the vigor and energy of a far younger woman. Thin, fit, and in great shape despite her age, she had a tongue sharper than a knife and a keen intellect to wield it.
Granny was Ultima Mule’s Quartermaster, and second in charge of the ship.
When she popped in alongside Raleigh, her blue-gray eyes lit up in surprise and happiness at the sight of Aquamarine’s elegant bridge.
She cackled and pulled out a cigar. She chomped down and it stuck out from her face unlit, at a jaunty angle.
“Now this is what I call a bridge!”
She walked over to an old fashioned ship’s wheel made from rare Old Earth wood. It did not connect to any electronics. Evidently it was there only for show. The extra cost to include the antique, where frivolities could attract the unwanted attention of bean counters back home, displayed continued evidence of the immense wealth backing the ship.
Granny spun the wheel experimentally, then braced herself in case the ship listed to starboard. When nothing happened she cackled happily and chewed on her cigar some more.
“You know, Captain, I might have to requisition this here toy for myself!”
Raleigh chuckled at the older woman’s antics. She acted more like a teenager than a grandmother.
He said, “Calling dibs already, Quartermaster?”
She cackled again, unperturbed at his jab. They both knew if she really wanted it, she’d give up part of her share of the take.
She said, “Let’s go see what this giant cargo-haulin’ tub has got down its belly.”
Raleigh walked to the elevator with Granny. The door opened and they went inside. The capsule shot down to the hold.
He said, “Lootie says we’ve got something like 800 indents, but no idea what shape they’re in, or how close they are to finishing their terms.”
Granny nodded thoughtfully, chewing on her cigar. She said, “Let’s hope there’s enough food onboard to keep them fed for a while.”
“Good point. Lootie, how are we doing on food? Run the numbers, please.”
LuteNet responded by sending a column of figures scrolling through the air near Raleigh’s face.
He said, “Looks like we’re good for a week before stores onboard run out. That should be plenty of time to get them home and off to market.”
“Let’s hope so,” Granny said. “I always worry some enemy crewmember is going to get all passive aggressive and jettison supplies or something.”
“We’ve got everybody confined to quarters, and Lootie is monitoring things. I think we’ll be okay.”
“You say that. I’m old enough to remember when Lootie screwed up in the past.”
She glanced up in the air, daring the AI to respond. But LuteNet had learned arguing with Granny was truly pointless, and so she remained silent.
The capsule slowed to a halt, and the door slid open. A map of the ship’s decks floated in the air. Raleigh and Granny walked down the corridor.
LuteNet said, “This deck and the one above it are reserved for first class passengers. I have confined all paying passengers here. They have recently had lunch and they are enjoying this leisure area for the time being.”
Raleigh nodded. He said, “So. A bunch of indents in the hold and a handful of first class people up here. Anybody famous or important?”
“Not according to the passenger manifest, although everyone present can obviously afford first class.”
“So they’re rich. Do you think somebody here could be famous or important, to the extent we could extract a higher ransom?”
“Unless StarCen is lying, nobody onboard matches your criteria.”
Raleigh and Granny shared a glance. They stopped walking. Granny held her unlit cigar perfectly still in her mouth.
The Captain said, “That’s an interesting qualification, Lootie. I don’t recall you ever mentioning anything about an AI system lying before. Why would she lie, and what makes you think she would?”
“As you know, biological records are shared among the systems, even during times of war. One passenger onboard has a record that was created just over three standard years ago, but her biological age is 19. StarCen indicates the newer record is completely accurate, but has no qualifications for the discrepancy. This makes me think something is wrong with the record, and deliberately so.”
“Three years ago? That’s just around the time the war began. You’re right to be suspicious, Lootie.”
They continued walking. The corridor opened into a large atrium. Suddenly they appeared to be outdoors. A brilliant artificial sky stretched across the ceiling, complete with a holographic “sun” shining down on them. Greenery stretched as far as the eye could see. Raleigh spied a river and a waterfall in the distance.
“Oh, look. They even have artificial birds,” Granny said, pointing up in the sky.
“Hm. Are they artificial? Seems like this place is verdant enough it could support the real thing.”
“Nah. Nobody wants to deal with bird poop all over the place. Those will be artificial, fer sure.”
Raleigh shrugged. Granny was probably right.
They walked deeper into the atrium. Rounding a bend, they came upon a large blue lagoon, the waterfall they had seen earlier feeding into it.
On a beach around the lagoon, several tables with chairs were spread out. Three dozen or so people sat at the tables or reclined on beach chairs. Robots scurried about, clearing food and delivering drinks.
Granny said, “So, this is first class.”
A grin spread across her face as she clenched the cigar between her teeth.