Shipmind Chapter 24
It didn’t take long to assemble the crew. Even without my network, there were so galaxy-damned few of us that it didn’t take Pepper and Woozy long to make the calls. I spent that time thinking about how I wanted to handle this.
Despite what I’d told Woozy, I had my doubts about how this might turn out. These were good people who wouldn’t normally rush to action, but we’d all been through something so terrible and so recently that being confronted with the person responsible for it might push them into something hasty. Something that would doom them just as surely as myself, and while I may have deserved to die out here, my crew surely did not.
My training in both navies told me that I needed to be open and forthright about this. You can’t address a problem you don’t know exists, and you can’t get help with it if you don’t tell anyone. But I was only going to get one shot at this, so I needed my approach to be just right.
Then Woozy came in. “Hey, Ransom. Everyone’s here.”
“Thanks, doot,” I said. Woozy did that happy little wiggle that I never got tired of seeing, like they always did when I used that pet name in private. Beep and doot, that was us. It was amazing how easily everything was coming back now I’d stopped fighting myselves. If this was the last time I’d ever get to talk to Woozy, I was glad I’d let them hear that one last time. “I’m still on the trolley you brought me in on, right? Great. Unplug me from the wall and wheel me into the main room, please.”
They were all waiting there. Some standing, some sitting up in beds, a few still unconscious even after all this time. The seventeen people, human and querral, who had entrusted themselves to my care even though my mind had been a wreck. My crew. Now it was time to put my life in their hands.
“Hi, everyone,” I began. That got the reaction I’d expected and hoped for. I could see it on my querral crew’s faces, in the whispers they didn’t quite let out. Ransom’s back. “I’m sorry about the jolt, but as you can hear, there have been a few changes. For those who’ve joined us from the Fearless, let me introduce myself properly, at long last. I’m Ransom, shipmind of the King’s Ransom – I remember who I am now, and yes, I chose the ship’s name.
“But that’s not the only name I have. Woozy’s wild and ultimately successful plan to save my life brought with it a permanent connection to another soul.”
I could see the hope in Sam’s eyes as they spoke. “Captain Rathens?”
“No, Sam. I’m sorry, but Captain Rathens died with their ship.” This was the time. Open and forthright, and hope Woozy and I could stop anything too extreme from happening. “I’m Ransom, but I’m also Erin Gold, formerly of the Imperial Navy.”
Sam’s eyes spoke volumes. The hope that had started to burn there died in a heartbeat. Their gaze drifted downwards, empty and unfocused as I spoke, but then snapped back up again, their fire renewed.
Oddly, it was Pepper that spoke first, measured as always. “We must have picked up your pod from the same ship as this last one. Awful mistake, but I can see how it happened. Wait… you said “captain” when I asked your name. Are you—?”
“Yes, Pepper. I’m Captain Gold of the Hammerhead, and I ordered the deployment of the hyperbomb.”
The room exploded. Everyone was looking at each other, all talking at once. I could feel my core efficiently separating and sorting all the different voices, but none of what they said surprised me. None of it was anything I hadn’t thought myself in the last hour.
But Pepper did surprise me. For the first time in the seven years we’d known each other, I heard them raise their voice. “Quiet!”
The ten other voices slowly died down over the course of a few painful seconds.
When silence finally fell, Pepper spoke again. “Murderer.” They just said that one word, eyes pricked with tears that they refused to let break through.
“Yes,” I said in reply. “There is no excuse for what I did. There never could be, no matter what I thought I knew at the time.”
No one asked what I meant by that. The Empire’s big lie would come later, but this wasn’t the time for it.
Pepper drew themself up to their full hundred and thirty centimeters and straightened their uniform. “As acting Captain of the King’s Ransom, I hereby relieve you as shipmind for gross misconduct.”
There was only one answer to that. “Aye, Captain. I stand relieved.”
“Good. Now, Sam, get these two unplugged from each other—”
“No!” Woozy yelled and jumped in front of me. “Pepper, no, we can’t! I already tried!”
“Woozy?” Pepper looked confused, the authority they’d drawn up around themself vanishing like mist in the wind. “I thought you of all people would want—”
“I do, I do! But I tried, Pepper. When I disconnected the MMI from Ransom’s core, it… they… it took ten minutes for them to wake back up, do you understand? I thought they were dead. We can’t just pull the plug! Ransom doesn’t deserve to die for this.”
This seemed like a good time for me to speak again. “I don’t know that we can be separated into two people again. I don’t know how I became what I apparently am in the first place. Everything I know says it shouldn’t have been possible. But I already died once. If Captain Pepper chooses to dispense summary justice and pull the plug anyway, which they would be entirely justified in doing… at least we got to talk to each other again.”
“Summary justice?” Pepper spat the words like they tasted of bile. “Captain Gold, unlike yourself, I do not choose to take lives so easily. If there is no way to separate you here and now, we’ll give you to the experts back home to sort out, and you’ll be confined for the journey home. Shouldn’t be hard to keep you locked up.”
“And when we get home, I will stand – metaphorically – before the tribunal, even the grand council if necessary, and answer for what I have done. But Pepper, we still need to get there.”
“Which we will now do without you. The ship is functional, our propulsion specialist is awake, and Sam as much as said—”
“You can hang what I said out the airlock,” Sam butted in. “With the people and systems we have, maybe, maybe I can get us into hyperspace. But we had one shot in a hundred before, and even with all the skipper’s done to get us back in shape, that only went up to one in ten without a shipmind or a full crew working the transit.”
“Sam, I’m not your skipper,” I said.
“The hell you’re not. I don’t know this Ransom you all love, and I don’t know this Gold space-sucker who blew up two fleets, but I know you. The person I’ve worked with over the last two weeks has never been anything but two hundred percent committed to getting everyone on this ship home, no matter what it cost them. Pepper, this is your ship and I can’t force anything, but if they still want to help us, we’d be fools not to let them.”
Of all the people who might have come rushing to my defence, I hadn’t expected it to be Sam. Even now, they never failed to surprise me. I’d never known Carter Rathens at all, but I hoped they would have been proud of their chief engineer today. Or at least not too angry with them for contradicting Pepper in front of the entire crew.
Pepper turned to the side, pulled Sam over. “It’s that bad?” I could hear it, but I doubted anyone else could.
“Even with the skipper plugged in, I still only give us fifty-fifty odds. We need every trick for this.”
Pepper just stared for a moment, then nodded.
“Erin Ransom, you will willingly turn yourself over to a tribunal when we get home?”
“My oath to the Commonwealth demands nothing less,” I confirmed. “That still means a lot to me. My oath to the Emperor took a flying leap off the hangar deck when I learned what the Commonwealth really is.”
“We’ll have to talk about that.” Pepper nodded again to themself. “You’re temporarily reinstated, until we get home. Woozy, get them out of my office. We’ve got a proper core room again, and this butcher has taken up space in my office for long enough.”