Clockwork Blues - Short Story

“Somebody brought you a gift, boss,” said Angela, her voice proud. “One of those Japanese sex toys.”

Angela, Bartok, and a dozen of the crew were in the main loading bay of their ship, the corvette As Certain As Taxes. The final crates of payment from the colony were being loaded, most full of ores and minerals mined from the asteroid they were docked to. Heading towards Bartok was a woman who walked with the confidence and beauty of a rising sun.

Her face was porcelain white with blue glowing eyes that flickered in an approximation of blinking. She had long, slender arms and legs and a waist that was, quite literally, impossibly thin for a human, but with gentle curves of ceramic in all the appropriate places. A silk kimono with holographic stitching flowed to the floor in soft cascades, and her movements were as fluid as water.

“Says here her name is ‘Blue’, and she will serve you and your crew to complete satisfaction.” Angela shrugged and tossed the card with a two-finger flick towards her boss.

One of the crew snorted, and there was a brief scuffle as a few of the more energetic guys pushed each other to get a better look at the delicate robot walking up the loading ramp.

Vincent, the second in command and the largest bruiser on the crew, crossed his arms and smiled a grin full of gold teeth. “About time these stupid little peasants started paying us proper.”

Bartok chuckled and rubbed a week’s worth of stubble with a scarred hand the size of a ham. “Ain’t never needed a fuck-bot before, can’t imagine needing one now.” He towered over the robot, and she tilted her head up towards the pirate. “Well? You got something to say for yourself?”

Her blues eyes flickered.

“Your voyages, noble lord, are long and cold.” Her voice was honey, soft, modulated. “Bringing human entertainment for your regal appetite consumes fuel, water, food. I require nothing more than a space to stand when not in use, and when in use…”

One hand flowed forward and her fingers danced across his chest like a butterfly.

“I am programmed to want nothing more than your complete and total fulfilment.”

Her hand reached his chin and lay there for a moment, and Bartok felt the gentle warmth of her metal hand against his skin.

Vincent chuckled, low and mean. “Looks like the boss got a new mommy!”

Bartok’s eyes flew open and he backhanded Blue with a grunt.

Her head snapped back and she sailed into a crate at the base of the ramp with a heavy crash, her silk kimono half opened and her legs twisting as she fell.

There was a heartbeat of silence, and Blue turned towards Bartok from the floor. She tilted her head to one side, her mouthless face seeming somehow amused. Her voice was as even and sweet as before. “Please sir, may I have another?”

Bartok snorted and the crew laughed. “Welcome to the ACAT, Blue. Angela, find her somewhere to stand in the cargo hold until I need her.” He turned to face the rest of the crew. “Alright, you lazy Yuan Yuan, let’s get this loot loaded and back out into space! There are helpless shuttles out there waiting to donate to our cause!”

The crew cheered, and Bartok smiled, trying to forget the feeling of a gentle hand against his face.

The As Certain As Taxes thrust away from the mining colony and back towards the big empty between worlds. The lights of the colony faded, and within moments the ship was alone.

“No pursuit, we’re clear,” Angela said calmly.

“You worry too much,” Vincent said. “These miners are lucky to have us over those thieves in Yu Jing high command.”

“Yeah, well, I’d rather be cautious than dead.” Angela hugged her arms around herself as she leaned away from the piloting controls. “And there are plenty of people out there who want us that way.”

Bartok shook his head. “Naw, I’m with Vince. Nobody out here cares about our little operation.” He gestured at the controls in front of him, newly installed a few weeks ago at the caravansary. “And with these new toys, nothing less than a government frigate is going to mess with us.”

“We didn’t need shipboard weapons before, boss,” Angela countered. “And I’m not sure those fancy turrets are going to help if we call down any serious heat.”

Both Vincent and Bartok shook their heads. “What was it you said to those Japanese families before you spaced ‘em?” Bartok leaned back, lacing his fingers behind his head. “Something like ‘it’s not a pleasure, just business’?”

Angela rolled her eyes. “What I said was ‘It’s not personal, just clockwork’.” Angela shrugged. “Big gears grind the little folk to paste. Just how it is.”

Vincent’s chuckle was dark. “Personally, I wish I had thought of just blasting the airlock doors off of a ship years ago. Way less messy than having to shoot ‘em.”

“Does tend to damage the merchandise that we usually trade in,” countered Bartok, but he was still nodding. “But since our benefactors with the StateEmpire were very specific about the number of witnesses and survivors being nil, it was a good suggestion.” He glanced again, lovingly, at the controls for the new external weapons. “Helluva paycheck for a dozen milk runs.”

Angela nodded, her shoulders slouching slightly. “Yeah. Even I was surprised there were no armed guards. I mean, wouldn’t have helped against hard vacuum, but the JSA must’ve been desperate to send ships full of civilians without any protection whatsoever.”

“Their desperation, our income,” Bartok said with a smile. “And speaking of which…”

There was a blinking green light on the sensors.

“Fresh meat,” Vincent said with a smile. “I’ll get the crew suited up!”

He slapped Bartok on the shoulder, hard, whooping as he ran down the corridor. “Suit up, boys!”

“You want me to stay behind on this one,” Bartok asked Angela, his eyebrow cocked and his hands already flexing open and closed.

Angela started to nod, but then shook her head. “Nah, it’ll be alright. My head’s not in it right now. Go have fun.”

“Little freighter like that?” Bartok pointed at the green blip on the sensors. “They won’t even know we’re coming until we’re right on top of them.”

His smile grew as he turned towards the armory. “No fun to be had here. Just profit.”

Fifteen minutes later and the crew, minus Angela, were all in the launch bay, suited up and backpack thrusters primed. Shotguns, rifles, and blades were all held in eager hands.

“We close enough for the jump?” Bartok asked impatiently, tapping the seals on his helmet.

“Aye, captain,” Angela confirmed. “They’ve cut engines and we’re drifting with them. Good hunting.”

“Yuan Yuan!” Bartok called, standing by the airlock controls. “Take what you can!”

The crew happily shouted “Give nothing back!”

The airlock cycled open, and the crew, hollering and cheering, jumped into the darkness with Vincent leading the way. Bartok waited until everyone else was out, and then shouldered his Spitfire and leapt into space.

He could see pinpricks of fusion fire from the jump packs in front of him, the outline of the freighter grey and red against the vast tapestry of stars.

“Captain, did everyone jump with you?” Angela asked, her voice confused.

“Aye. I did a count before we opened the airlock. Everyone except you accounted for.”

“Huh. Weird. Thought I heard footsteps. Must be my imagination.“

“You okay?” Bartok asked, taking a quick glance over his shoulder. The ACAT was over a hundred meters away and growing smaller by the moment.

The voice that came over the comms, however, was not Angela’s.

“Hello Yuan Yuan!” came a bright, bubbly, female voice. “My name is Tanaka, and I’m a Kempeitai of the Japanese Secessionist Army. You will be pleased to learn that each of your share in this pirate company has gone up by five percent!”

Tanaka’s signal was coming from the freighter, which suddenly didn’t seem harmless at all. A metal plate blasted off the ship silently, floating away, and for a moment Bartok thought that one of the crew had shot at the freighter, damaging it.

Until a turret, concealed under the armoured plate, rotated towards the closest Yuan Yuan. It fired, launching a barrage at Vincent, who was silently torn to shreds by a swarm of tiny flechettes.

There was a moment of stillness as the reality of the situation sunk in.

“Well, five percent for everyone but that guy. More good news! Five point three percent increase for everyone except this guy.”

The hyper-rapid magnetic cannon mounted on the freighter spat death again, the 3mm rounds glowed blue as they punched through the next Yuan Yuan in line.

“Everyone scatter!” Bartok shouted over the radio, pulling himself through a tight circle. “Head back to the ship!”

Bartok finished his circle as three more of his crew were torn to pieces behind him.

The airlock, over two hundred meters away, beckoned with promises of safety.

“See, here’s the thing, you filthy, parasitic pirates,” Tanaka continued, the cannon now firing continually, punching through metal, flesh, and bone. “I want you to know I could show you mercy.”

Bartok increased thrust to his pack, focusing on the airlock. A hundred meters. Ninety.

“Much like you could’ve shown mercy to those shuttles full of civilians leaving a warzone.”

Seventy meters. Fifty. Bartok was coming in too fast, but it didn’t matter. A few broken bones and a full-body bruise was better than being shot to pieces.

“Hell, Pan-O even promised safe passage. And so I loaded shuttles full of families. Crammed children and grandparents and pregnant mothers in those ships and sent them skyward, to freedom if only they could get far enough from the fighting, from the StateEmpire and their death squads.”

Thirty meters! Bartok cast a look over his shoulder at the rest of the crew.

They were all dead. A floating massacre, the occasional fusion pack attached to half torsos, spreading frozen clouds of blood, chunks of armour and meat, drifting into the darkness.

“But I didn’t count on anyone being heartless enough to accept a Yu Jing contract to kill any civilian ship flying Japanese colours.”

Bartok grit his teeth and turned to face the ACAT again.

The airlock was closed.

He screamed, throwing his torso back and twisting the jump pack towards the smooth metal hull, but it was too late to do anything except slow his impact. His legs, left arm, and then head crunched into the side of the ship, and Bartok heard something snap with a wet noise and his left side erupted in pain.

He bounced off his ship, inertia sending him back towards the shattered pieces of his crew. He flailed his arms, the jump pack sputtering erratically. He could see the windows of the bridge, and the bright splatter of red across the inside of the glass.

“Of course, I wasn’t stupid enough to send them completely unprotected, but even the best Karakuri can’t protect anyone against hard vacuum.” Tanaka’s voice was ice and iron. “He’s all yours, Blue.”

Bartok’s eyes went wide as he watched the turret on his own ship rotate towards him.

He held his hands up, letting the useless Spitfire drift away from him. “Look, we gotta be able to come to a deal here! You want money? Power? Anything I have and more!”

“It’s nothing personal.” Blue’s melodic voice sounded happy. “Just clockwork.”

The turret glowed blue, and Bartok screamed.