tagSci-Fi & FantasyHV-2 Hazardous Cargo

HV-2 Hazardous Cargo


It was the dim, cool night cycle in the garden where the crew lingered after mess. By the table one of the tall, antlered linangi grazed while Fathema scratched the ridge of coarse fur at its nape. The pond lapped at its banks in the dark. A little lantern flickered on the table to provide a circle of light around them. The meal cleared away, they picked at a bowl of ripe berries as they talked of the day's findings.

"Well, I think we've gotten what we can from here, then," Captain Avda said.

Fathema nodded and Sophine asked her, "How long to our next sun, Temi?"

The Helmswoman looked up from the beast under her fingertips, "If we keep on our course toward the violet sun, less than two days from when we set the sails."

"Anything more interesting on the scopes?" asked Avda.

"I caught sight of those two suns on the far-field. They are so close on the scope, I think they might share a domain." The linang's muzzle bumped Fathema's breast, nipping at her long, loose tunic in irritation. Fathema set her hand back on the nape of its neck, digging into the fur with long, dark fingers.

Avda pushed up from the table and tied her baggy shirt close over her ribs, "I'll set the sails so we can buy a night."

"There's no hurry, Avda," said Sophine, "On a voyage of years, what's a night? Take your leisure."

"I've had leisure enough watching the scopes all these last days. Gainful labor will ease my mind more." She walked away from the table toward the gangway hidden among the tree trunks.

Sophine laughed lightly, "Take care anyway, Cap—."

"Take up arms and search the ship," Avda interrupted imperiously. A few yards beyond her, just inside the ring of the lantern's light, one of the garden's kleptomaniac tree mice was tugging a length of red cloth through the high grass from the direction of the bulkhead. Fathema leapt to her feet and was a black and white blur as she raced out of the garden. The tree mouse abandoned its prize with an irritated chitter.

Avda scooped up the cloth, and Sophine matched her long-legged gait at a stride and a half to each of Avda's. She asked, "What is that, Captain?"

Avda kept her eyes fixed on the door ahead, and explained: "It is a 'scarf.' They are used in arctic climes to keep one's body warm."

Sophine's face flickered with confusion, "You suspect an interloper? And from the arctic?"


The crew raced through the labyrinth of the Hutana Van's holds. An hour of searching through empty, untouched corridors cooled the manic energy of their search. They eventually proceeded in careful, methodical paths toward the ship's depths. A nimbus of lantern light followed them, lit and quenched as as they opened new corridors. They rigorously searched each hold: ship's supply storage, personal quarters, training room, meditation bay. They even proceeded down toward the less-used holds deeper down: emergency supply storage, engine room, armory, reliquary and lower, where the holds were cordoned off for disuse.

"We go too far. The tree mice do not range so far afield," Fathema halted them.

"There is the chance that the thing was left here by preparation crews," Sophine said, "This place swarmed for years with Ezwen's-all of Hutana's-best minds."

Avda did not even give the suggestion consideration, "And what is your confidence in that chance, Arbitress?"

"Admittedly low. Below trivial, but compared to the chances of a stow-away?" Sophine assented, "And while she could be hidden forever in the far decks, Fathema is right: we know she is in the pilfering-grounds of the garden's mice."

Fathema nodded.

"But where, then?" Sophine said, "We were able to search the top decks well before we would have given an intruder room enough time to re-position. We know the mice can wriggle their way into the service tunnels, but no one could get in there without the key since the Navy Hazards put them under relic lock."

"What about a sufficiently motivated Hazard, herself?" Avda asked

They both looked to Fathema, best-versed in the operation of the Hutana Van. She nodded. By way of the reliquary, they took up the service tunnels' relic-key and returned to the top-decks.


It was after a dozen tunnel doors had been pulled from the stone-wood and gilt walls with the relic-key that Fathema called out the alert. Sophine and Avda tensed in preparation. Avda's hand clenched the hilt of her bright white and gold sword-unwilling to draw it needlessly. Sophine held her needle-thrower close, her fingers at the primer and trigger. Both were a few paces off from the service tunnel's mouth. Where the relic key had dislodged the panel, it was a sharply defined, square cutout in the smooth wood and gold of the wall.

Fathema crawled out back-wise, her practiced muscles as at home on all fours as two. With a final grunting pull, a second unconscious Hutanari tumbled from the tunnel. She fell limply, sprawled out on the huge pack at her back. Clad in crude, careless leather boots, black stockings, shorts and scanty top, she had the small breasts and slim, angular hips and shoulders that bespoke her youth, topped with a shock of oil-matted pink hair-so close to the hue of the captain's-held back by a gilt tiara with nodes of reliquary stone-wood set into it at points.

Fathema flowed to her feet and took up her fighting staff to stand alongside the captain. As she and Sophine looked upon the motionless girl, Captain Avda growled and took her hand from her blade.

She snatched the tiara from the girl's head and asked, "What are you doing here, Rewan?"

The girl, Rewan, was immediately lucid as the relic came free of her scalp. She wiped a glisten of drool from her lip as she leapt to her feet, flashing green eyes taking in the corridor and the ship's crew before her. Her voice was clipped and business-like, "Well, it's earlier that I should've been roused, but," she tugged the red scarf from Avda's hand with a deferential nod and tossed it around her neck to dangle in bright contrast with her aggressively revealing black garb, "But here we are: obviously, Ezwenari Command would not have sent you out into the void without a Hazard to test the relics you will encounter." She chuckled with her statement's self-evidence.

Avda seethed, "What are you doing here, Rewan?"

Rewan held up a staying finger, "Daavi: I'll have you rein in your emotions. Obviously, with all of Hutana's Hazards angling for a place on this ship, you surely can't be surprised that one would be selected and installed in secret."

"Daavi?" Sophine asked, "Do you know this girl, Avda?"

Avda stared at the stowaway for a beat too long to make any convincing denial, "She's my sister."

"Rewan Heller-Guidres," the young Hutanari introduced herself, reaching out a hand to grasp the Arbitress's wrist, "You are Sophine Arbitress." She turned and offered her hand to Fathema, "Helmswoman Fathema Zafri."

Fathema looked to the captain, who-massaging her temples with thumb and middle finger-nodded. Fathema took Rewan's wrist and inclined her head in greeting.

"Well," Rewan continued, "If we're going to hold the formality of an interrogation, might we do so with some food?"


Between rambling 'explanations,' the young tunnel-dweller slammed food down her throat as fast as Sophine could prepare it. Avda and Fathema-having slipped into the trim blue and white of their Ezwenari uniforms-picked at the herb-seared poptoes and tufa before them for morning repast. Sophine brought the last batch of the poptoes to the table in the garden. It was the full, warm light of the day-cycle above them and the creatures of the garden were invisible and silent in the shade of the fruit trees. Sophine sat down at the head of the table forming an accidental arbitress's hearing: the accused, Rewan, at her left; her accuser, Avda, at her right; and Fathema at the far end, a witness. All that was missing was the arbitress's golden censer among them.

"Have you lied to an arbitress before, Rewan?" Sophine asked, breaking Rewan's train of thought.

"Of course not, Ma'am." She swallowed the big mouthful of the soft poptoes and firm, sweet tufa.

"And would you make the attempt?"

"Of course not, Ma'am." She held the arbitress's gaze unflinchingly.

"Of course, because if you lied to an arbitress, she mightn't be skillful enough to see through to your true intents and motivations. Then she might misrepresent your interests, mightn't she?"

"Sure." Rewan's eyes clearly calculated the measure of the arbitress before her.

"Good," Sophine smiled at her as a friend, "Then let's have the captain ask her question once more in that light, yes?"


Avda watched sternly, pushing her breakfast around her plate, "What are you doing here, Rewan?"

Rewan weighed her words carefully, "A Hazard should be present on our first voyage out into the greater void."

Sophine nodded, "Perhaps one should've been. We'll set that question aside, why should that Hazard be you?"

Rewan slammed her fist against the sonorous wood of the table, looking comical with a mouthful of her breakfast still stowed in the pouch of her cheek, "Because while the Navy's Hazards cowered and the Towers jockeyed for status and position, I studied: every dispatch from the far-sky, I poured over; every analysis of the Hutana Van registered to the library, I transcribed and correlated; every experiment they announced, I made and tested my predictions; but did they administer tests?" She gestured to the arbitress angrily, then swept around to Avda and Fathema, "Did they hold trials? None." She swallowed the last morsel in her mouth and stretched her lips as sternly as her sprightly features allowed.

"That sounds true. Tell me why you're angry about it," Sophine prompted, resting her chin on her arms where they were crossed on the table.

Rewan held her scowl and looked back to Sophine, "I haven't talked to an arbitress since I entered the Tower."

Sophine stayed silent. Watching Rewan. Waiting.

The young Hazard slashed off another hunk of popto and shovelled it into her mouth as she thought. Finally she spoke through the mash of popto in one half of her mouth, "Because it was short-sighted." She corrected herself, "Or... because I thought I would at least have a chance."

After a moment, Sophine asked, "What was your plan then?"

Rewan gestured vaguely around the garden, and the ship beyond it, "I should've been able to stay hidden for two, three months? Then you'd be far enough out to at least give me a chance. Far enough out that I'd have the voyage home to prove myself."

Sophine nodded with her, "And how would you have proven yourself?"

Rewan stabbed out at the heavy pack slumped behind Fathema, "I brought a bunch of relics that resist testing on Hutana. I can get a reaction from some of them, and I suspect they're intended for use in the void! The Forebears prepared us for this journey, but we ignore what they laid away in wait for us!"

"We are supplied with relics that have been tested in the void, and the Helmswoman is well versed in their use, all," Avda said.

Rewan was frustrated, choking down some food to half-shout, "Yeah: boring cones and sample drones and void-sealed jars and so much obvious—" She faltered in her tirade and ended, "obvious shit! What about this very ship? So much left unfinished because she's just as scout! They were so focused on 'reliable operation' that they patched it with common wooden doors and fittings. Some of my ideas they're even implementing on the Hutana Balozi, and I have my own theories on the lower spars-they're two more—"

Avda interrupted her, "There will be no experiments on the Hutana Van, Rewan!"

"Sure!" She raised her hands in surrender, "Nothing we don't need, sure, fine, but things will happen, for all we do know of her, the Hutana Van is just a damn big relic, and they don't play by our rules! When something does go wrong, what then? Does the fu—" She stopped mid-gesture at Fathema. Rewan took in her long, dark form squeezed into the trim lines of the helmswoman's uniform, the curves of the sides her breasts pressed out brown and full from the blue and gold of her chestpiece. She softened her appellation: "Does the... honorable helmswoman know how to read the lines of stone-wood when the gold-ducts are blown by a surge?"

Sophine turned to Fathema inquisitively.

"According to the diagrams," Fathema said.

Rewan pointed emphatically, "Yes! And if it wasn't described and diagrammed in triplicate? If it escaped their notice because they didn't know its purpose? Can you read the stonewood? Feel the flow of gold it asks for? Guide it in its regrowth?"

Fathema shook her head matter-of-factly. Wild curls of white hair rolled gently around her face like mist, "I am not a Hazard."

"Thanks for talking to us, Rewan." Sophine smiled, "Is there anything else you want to tell us?"

Rewan looked at Avda entreatingly, "Please, Daavi, you know that I'll help. You know that."

Avda rose from the table, her food mangled, but untasted. Sophine took to her feet after the captain and gestured around the verdant grove. "Help yourself to anything that Fathema says is ripe."

The captain and arbitress left together.


"We must return her to Hutana," the captain said without preamble when they reached the arbitress's quarters.

Sophine sat behind her desk, piled with texts, and drew her legs up to cross under her, "Then we have a decision."

Avda paced around the piles of scrolls and codices and kicked aside the pillows that were strewn around the floor. The clutter, comforts, and decoration hid any view of the ship's gold or even its dusty, grey stone-wood with a warm array of color. Avda asked, "You have no advice?"

"You didn't ask for advice, and in the operation of this ship, your word is absolute, Captain. If there is no alternative, then I have no advice to give."

Avda adjusted an askance stack of codices into neat square angles, "Certainly there are alternatives."

"Then, academically, I would be interested in what they would be." Sophine leaned back in her chair, looking very small in her neat, white dress.

"Well, to keep our course, we could secure her in the below-decks or impress her into service, but those have their own problems."

"Such as?"

"The ship's crew was kept limited purposefully: that the garden might sustain us indefinitely, even if the Van was stalled in the void."

"Yes, but that was planned very conservatively. We have been laying away durable foods with the surplus for a week now." She laughed, "Today's gorging aside-which I assume is simply from whatever that relic was doing to keep her in hibernation-I imagine we would still be generously within sustainability with another mouth." She pulled up her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around, peering at the captain over them, "That seems a weak premise on which to discard alternatives out of hand."

"In either case, there is her Hazard Tower that the Command would have to deal with upon our return. Even the Command does not impinge casually on the Towers' domain."

"Is she still member of a Tower? She has violated the Towers' embargo of support upon this venture, hasn't she? She is at worst a Free-Hazard."

Avda's step tensed as she stalked the cluttered room, "A Free-Hazard, then! Surely Command weighed the risks and benefits of including a Free-Hazard aboard? Then, why not one aboard? As you say, another mouth is within capacity of the ship, and the benefit is self evident."

Sophine nodded behind her knees, "You know your sister. Is she a risk?"

Avda stopped and thought, "She is reckless."

Sophine's supportive nod slowed, "More conservative members of Ezwenari Command, I'm sure, say the same of your daring. Does her recklessness outweigh her 'self-evident' benefit?"

"So you think she should stay aboard?" Avda asked with an edge to her voice.

"I think nothing yet." She rested her chin on her knees, "But you have... meandered among three reasons to not keep her aboard, each with counterpoints within your grasp. I think you know the reason you discard alternatives."

Avda stopped. She moved a bundle of scrolls from a chair and seated herself. The captain took a moment and controlled her breath, "There is the matter of the risk to her life."

Sophine nodded and remained silent, watching the captain with warm, interested eyes.

Avda did not let the silence linger, "You think me foolish for letting sentiment cloud my judgement."

Sophine shook her head, "No. I think you are capable to know when there is conflict within you. A fool would let herself give rash orders before she could take the measure of her emotions and the truth. You instead conveyed me back here to make mock orders that you might be freed of that conflict."

Avda sighed and let herself explore her feelings, "She is my coupled sister. As much me as myself."

"And has she not been proven the bearer of her own onus, that she cannot yet make her own determinations? She seems not so much younger than I am."

"Three years ago, she was proven," Avda nodded, "and she left to join the Hazards that very day. I was at sea."

"I'm sorry. She sounds motivated," Sophine encouraged her to continue.

"Ha! Always." Avda smiled as her eyes lost themselves in the past and in the draping cords of cloth suspended around the arbitress's ceiling. "She was always harassing the Hazard traders that came through Nchi. I brought her back little trinkets from my voyages—" She shook her head, "-Nothings. Just broken relics utterly without value. Without instruction, just failures and retrials, she got one working again-years before her age of onus—. Filled the whole house with the most... blinding light." She laughed, "Literally so! Mother Guidres was in the room and couldn't work for a week for the stars in her eyes."

The captain's levity dropped, "And then she was gone."

"You've been to the arctic? You brought her back that scarf?" Sophine asked.

The captain nodded, "When I saw it, I knew. It was half seeing a ghost. The Hazard Towers do not send word when Hazards... fail... in their duties, and we had heard nothing."

"So you foresee losing her again." Sophine forced herself to deliver the blow, "And its being your fault."

Avda nodded and wept quietly.

Sophine came to the Captain's side and settled onto a pillow at the foot of her chair. She folded her arms over Avda's legs and rested her head there. After some time there, Avda's breathing steadied, and then Sophine continued.

"Then, if she feels the same? The same fear for her coupled sister-as much her as herself? Wouldn't that drive her to take such risks? Would that balance the scale of your fear for her?"

"That's what you believe of her?" Avda asked the arbitress.

"Perhaps. She is certainly not all lofty ideal for the glory of Hutana and Ezwen. There is pride there. A will to prove herself. But there is more, and I think it's you."

"And is that a reason to keep her aboard? Sororal love?"

"No... But it is a reason to set aside your own will to protect her from herself. If you act on that, you just betray her feelings for your own. Pure selfishness."

Avda sighed a last ragged breath, and the tears left her voice. "Yes. Let us take the measure of what we know and what we might do."

Sophine unfolded to stand and returned to her desk. She carefully marked her place in the open folio and closed it to make a space for writing. She took a fresh sheet of paper, quill and ink: "Let us begin: How likely is it that a new Hutanari will be a productive member of the crew?"

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