|Captain Hesperus, a grey furry feline from Orrira, wiped goat soup from his eyes and sighed. A torsion wave, burped out from the badly maintained engines of the Dubious Profit, had slid through the ship’s mess just as he and his crew were sitting down to dine. Local spacetime in the cramped little room had briefly bulged and twisted, gravity pulling six ways at once. A nauseous sensation at the best of times, and possibly at its most inconvenient when one was seated in front of a large bowl of hot and oily soup.|
“Hesperus!” A deep, full-throated bellow from across the table caused the captain’s ears to flick back. “How much longer must we endure this creaking wreck you call a ship?” Rus, the Dubious Profit’s engineer, was a six-foot-four mound of reptile muscle, with a stubby little horn on the tip of his flaring snout. Just above a jaw full of razor-sharp teeth. Right now the muscles of that jaw were working furiously, as thin rivulets of goat soup trickled around the iridescent blue scales of Rus’s thick neck.
Hesperus slowly unfolded his ears. Soup dripped on to the messroom floor: one, two, three. “Mr Rus,” he said, “as chief engineer your duties encompass the material wellbeing of the ship, in particular of the engines―”
“Ha!” Rus’s roar cut across his captain’s argument. He pounded his chest, soup spraying from his sodden vest with each impassioned beat. “I’m an engineer, not a miracle-worker! Six months! Six months ago I told you we needed new torsion baffles. Would you pay for the refit? No. Even after – wonder of wonders! – we made some decent money on the Teraed–Rigeti run, when we had half-a-dozen well-equipped, competent dockyards just a wormhole away, did you think to spend even a little bit of it on basic maintenance? No. No you did not.”
“There were ... overheads,” said Hesperus. “Running costs, fuel ... wages,” he added. Cooling goat grease had gathered at the tips of his whiskers, drawing them downwards and lending him a mournful appearance. “And the constant ebb and flow of commercial opportunity. You have to spend money to make money. What goes around ...” Hesperus abandoned his explanation, suddenly aware of Rus’s huge hands clenching and unclenching. “But, ah ... I take your point. Remind me, ah ... how much to replace the baffles?”
“Six months ago? Around ten thousand credits. Now? Who knows? The whole drive manifold will have been thrown out of kilter by that wave. Nine, maybe ten times that. If we’re lucky. Listen!” he said, cocking his slablike head. “Listen to my poor engines!”
There was, indeed, an extra note to the background grumbling of the Dubious Profit’s drive, a plaintive whine which to Hesperus sounded needlessly judgemental. Now that Rus had pointed it out, he doubted he’d be able to stop hearing it. He screwed up his face, feeling the gluey soup matted in his fur. “Very well,” he said. “All efforts will be directed to raising capital sufficient for a full maintenance overhaul for the Profit. As soon as the requisite funds are in place we shall set course for the shipyards of Ceesxe, and we shall not stint! In fact,” he continued, seeing Rus glaring at him from under knotted brows, “I have secured a most profitable cargo contract. I expect the income will easily cover all your – our – requirements.” Hesperus carefully wiped his whiskers and smiled winningly at the engineer.
“Oh, gods, I don’t want to know,” Rus groaned, holding his head and rocking from side to side. “Don’t tell me, Hesperus, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know. Just get it done. I don’t suppose you’ve got enough for some running repairs in the meantime? Most ships, you know, most well-run ships, would have something more in the maintenance locker than a bull-hammer and a stack of deckplate.”
Hesperus stood and walked slowly to the door. He looked over towards Gasazck, the ship’s cook, a skeletally thin avian with stringy green feathers, who had spent the last few minutes silently squeezing soup from his bedraggled plumage. Hesperus, not for the first time, found himself thinking that painful emaciation was not the most encouraging attribute a cook could possess. “Measures, of course, will be taken to prevent further inconveniences to my crew. Gasazck, the next time soup is served: perhaps some sort of lidded cup ...?”
A spoon smacked against the bulkhead, right next to his nose. Tutting, and with a shake of his head, Hesperus departed the mess, the sound of the Dubious Profit’s engine still complaining in his ears...