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Cultural Exchange - Part 14

Paranoia is a rotten thing. It makes you doubt everything. Does that old hag in Scolpino's office really mean it when she says "Good morning" or is she trying to put me at ease so I won't see the shiv coming at my spine? Paranoia makes you hate everybody...

I vaguely noticed where I was or what was being said during the meeting. I was preoccupied with how I was going to die. It was obvious to even me that someone was trying awfully hard to do us in, and I couldn't figure it out.

The why was pretty obvious by now. Someone didn't want this mission of ours to succeed. Ooooo, that narrowed the suspect list a bit... yeah right... Almost everyone hated the Vargr and didn't want us to be allies with 'em. Some silly reason about whose side they were on during the last war with the buzzheads. I mean, who could trust any doggie after a little thing like that.

Tuvi seems a decent enough, but she's still a Vargr and who knows? Nawww. She's a good one. She's too young and naive to be involved in espionage... especially when it'd mean suicide for her too. But then again, suicide bombers don't mind dying... do they?

Maybe I'm cracking up. The psyches who go around trying to double-think us spacers to see if we're crazy have got a folder 43cm thick on me. Humph. The last one Scolpino put on my tail claimed to have wrote a paper about my case for publication in some BS journal that only shrinks read. Maybe they're right. They are experts, you know...

Yeah, right... and monkeys fly out my butt at midnight!

After all, what sort of person gets a kick out of grounding someone for doing a job nobody in their right mind would do anyways. Psyche jockeys don't know nothing about what happens out there and it eats at them. And screwin' around with someone's mind like that is a tad too much like what them dirty Zho's do for my taste. You can't trust 'em.

I hate them all. I wish they'd die...

Maybe I'd better start paying attention...

"... and the Ambassador's ship is scheduled to arrive in 4 days. I want your ship to be in orbit ready to meet with him. He is coming to check on his 'project' and Rortuvu's progress. "

"That doesn't give us much time for flight testing, sir. The sensor suite and control systems still haven't been certified..."

Good old Fred... Insulating me from stupidity. Our insipid SysAdmin doesn't want to think that someone is actively trying to sabotage us and won't listen to anything about it. He says we're just making things up to make excuses for being behind schedule.

"Perhaps if Mister James hadn't botched the job..."


Okay, now its getting personal. I slammed my hand down on his desk, knocking a pile of papers over. Add this to your psyche report doc!

"That's a load of kark and you know it! If we'd been given computers that were capable of meeting the minimum requirements..."

"THAT'S ENOUGH!!!... You were given the best available equip..."

"That pile of junk should've been scrapped. Even on this jerkwater world, they'd've recycled it long ago. There weren't even any shipboard rated programs for it, except in museums!"

"No more excuses Mister James! I have the requisition orders for it right here. 3 complete, up-to-date shipboard computer systems; class 8734; standard for type S couriers."

And with that, he swept a small sheaf of paperwork off his desk and waved it in my face. I snatched it out of his hands and stared at it. It couldn't be right. I know what I had on our ship and ... Bullshit! I wish I had this kind of hardware... And right there at the bottom of each page... Kugi's mark and thumbprint! That bastard short changed us! What the hell is his game! Selling it black market to the locals I bet! See?... you can't trust anyone...

Fred took the paperwork from me and looked it over while I seethed. After a minute or so, he tapped it on the desk's edge to make it a neat stack again and set it on the blotter.

"This isn't what we received, sir."

"I know exactly what was delivered to you, Mister Stracker. I was on hand for the delivery, myself."

Fred and I exchanged glances. Our fearless leader hadn't been there that day. We hadn't seen him at all during any part of the refit. I could read an apology in Fred's eyes for thinking me a conspiracy freak.

Did I mention that I was paranoid? All of a sudden, that word didn't seem strong enough and the hairs on my nape were standing up and looking for the shiv.

Back at the ship, I didn't want to talk, so I grabbed a bottle of gooch from the galley and retired my room. I had so serious thinking to do, alone, and the liquor will help lubricate any ideas and make 'em slip out easier.

So, who isn't trying to kill us? Kugi for sure is shafting us and Scolpino is definitely turning a blind eye... But that doesn't answer about that guy who tried to knife Tuvi at the restaurant. Nobody could even find that bloke and the three other thugs can't remember a thing. The local police said they were just human supremacists out on a drunken lark and were too stooped to know where they were much less what they were doing there.

Sure the black market computer angle could explain things I guess, but that just doesn't 'feel' right. My flight control program wouldn't need to be cracked to make that scheme work... Nope... someone definitely wants us dead.

Damn it! All I ever wanted was to go blasting around space after retirement. I was done with this sorta kark after the last Vargr Incursions! I'm too tired for it anymore. Maybe sleep...the big sleep, is what I really need.


I'll sleep like that when I'm ready. And I won't be ready until I get to take a buncha deserving people with me. There's this one religion that says that when you die, everyone you take with you that was evil in life will be your slave in the ever-after... Even in hell, I'll be too lazy to work so I am going to get as big a work force as I can before I cash in. I wonder whose slave I am going to be...

The bottle was half empty now. Why would anyone hack... no... wrong question... How would anyone hack into my program like that. It wasn't a random attack and whoever did it would have to go through the basenet... wait a minute...


I had cut all connections from the 'outside' while setting up the computers. Only our personal comps were on-line the base's network. The ship's computers weren't even hooked into that system..... no one could've hacked it. Unless it was an inside job...an inside the ship job!

This is not good. This is very bad.

How did the attacker know where I had rigged the driver addresses to for the attitude thrusters? How many coders know the nearly dead programming language I used?

Nobody except me knew and I dare anyone to make heads or tails from my notes. My paperwork was exactly as neat as my stateroom; like a nuke job from orbit.

My palms where starting to sweat now. I better find my notebook.... I need to find my notebook! But I am going to pray that I don't find it!

If I find it and its where I left it...

...that'd mean someone was reading my mind when I coded it...

... only the perfidious Zhodani used psionics like that...

... please, notebook, don't be in my desk drawer....

I had my desk drawers emptied out on the floor and paper scattered like leaves across the bed. I had simply dumped everything on the deck in a frenzy. I was crawling on my knees snatching at sheet after sheet to scan it over when the intercom sounded. It was Rortuvu.

"Mister James? Fred Stracker sent me to see if you wished to join us for dinner. It is late and he... umm... we thought that you might be hungry?"

What do I do now? One of us three tried killing us, maybe without even realizing it. Mind control. Zombified like one of the undead.

"Go away... I ain't hungry!" ... gotta not find that notebook!

"Mister Stracker said to insist, sir. We need to discuss the schedule for flight testing and supply loading. We have been ordered to be at trojan point beta in 3 days. "

"Tell him that I'm working..." . Goddammit! There it is halfway under the bed. Nononono... We are in really really deep now.... too deep maybe. I don't wanna be a mind control zombo.

"It is very importan... YELP! "

Heh... forgot she was standing outside the door. Another scuff mark on my door. I'm gonna hafta remember to install a kickplate on it before my kicks break something. Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you, chickie, but when a man's gotta kick something, he's gotta kick.

I put on a calm face and spoke quietly into the intercom's mic. Eff'ing meow.

"Thank you, Tuvi. I'll be out in a minute. You two can start eating without me, if ya'll like. I won't be long."

Now to log on and fill out request form for some psionic shielded helmets. This is too big for tin-foil hats...

Thank goodness the psyche jockeys can't see me. Here we are at the galley's table; Fred, Tuvi and me eating a nice roast. I didn't look at either of them in the eye and only glanced sideways just in case they saw me looking at them suspiciously. I gobbled my food down while staring at the plate, basically.

"So do you think we can be ready for a shakedown in 3 days? How close are we to meeting the minimum flight certification requirements, Rory?"

"It is my belief, Mister Stracker, that I can help finish the drive checkouts with Mister James, in two days and begin supply loading soon after. He will be teaching me how to calibrate the thrust engines and I am eager to learn his mind."

What?!? I choked on my mouthful and dropped my knife and fork onto the plate with a soft ring of cracked ceramics. Learn my mind?!? What does she mean by that!?!

I pick up my utensils with a mumbled apology and decided to run a little test. I made a vivid picture in my mind of Rortuvu being raped viciously by a large herd of groats while singing "All Hail Imperium". I stared into her eyes and tried to see any reaction, no matter how slight. She should've either be outraged or rolling on the deck laughing...

She just looked away coyly and blushed ... dammit! Hmmmm but not laughing ... maybe that's good. I'll just think really hard about plunging this knife into Fred's chest... and I'll look really really close at his expression while concentrating really really hard..

They both stop eating at stare at me with wide eyes aghast.. Fred gestured at me with his steak knife.

"What the hell's wrong with you?"



I stood up abruptly even as I yelled and Tuvi dropped her silverware in surprise. Fred started to stand as well..so! it's gonna be two against one eh? I'm ready!

I bolted for the door. I heard a cry behind me and I had an urge to do ... I don't know ... something. Sprinting down the passageway, I burst into my stateroom and locked myself in. I looked down and noticed that I was still brandishing the steak knife like a rube. What the hell is wrong with me? Paranoia is a terrible thing.

"Does he do that sort of thing often, Mister Stracker? It seemed ... uh... odd."

The young Vargr picked up her dishes and carried them to the galley's sink. Something's not right. Maybe she just didn't understand these human ways well enough. She decided to be more watchful... and more careful.

"Oh, don't worry, Rory. He's a little on edge is all. I haven't seen him this bad in a while though. I'm sure he'll be fine in the morning. He knows his job, so I bet we'll be ready in less than 3 days for shake-down."

"I hope so, sir."

Rortuvu wasn't so sure, but she said nothing. While she understood something of what the word 'eccentric' meant, this new behavior seemed to go beyond that. There hadn't been any threatening actions or testing of position that would warrant such an outburst, or perhaps she had just missed it... humans are subtle in odd ways at times. And something else bothered her. She had attached herself to Mister James, which seemed natural considering that he was who she worked with mostly, and yet he had run away... from food even...

"Don't worry... uh... Would you be so kind as to clean the dinner up, please, Rory? I think I need to talk to him and see what that was all about."

With a slight nod and lowering of her head, Rortuvu began clearing the table. Fred thanked her and walked partway down the passageway to Ishmael's door while mumbling darkly to himself. Ish had been bad a couple of times before, but not quite like this. Oh well, nothing to do now but look and see what's the matter this time.

"Jeez!!! What the hell is wrong with you?"

Fred was shouting and pounding on my door. Shut up and leave me alone already! As if I didn't have enough problems with brain browsers without having to deal with an interrogation from him. I sat on the end of my bunk and made a pointy hat out of tin foil. He just kept yelling.

"Open up! Dammit...this isn't funny!"

"I'll open my door when I"m good and ready!"

I slapped the foil hat on my head so Fred couldn't 'read' my new door-lock code. I knew he'd be trying to get in; the little dummy-light blinked yellow with every failed attempt to guess the code. He just kept knocking and yelling. I kicked the door once again but it didn't faze him. He kicked back. Then silence.

When my curiousity goaded me into looking out into the passageway...


Fred slapped the back of my head and knocked the hat off. Tuvi was standing at the end of the passage, near the ladder down to the lower deck where her cabin was. Her eyes were as wide as saucers. She didn't think I'd noticed because she looked down quick and walked past Fred and me trying hard to ignore us.

Fred stomped on my hat, and turned away. As he walked, he tossed some words over his shoulder.

"You're an idiot, Ishmael..."

This is too much like the old days along the border... something's building up quicker now... someone's going to get some slaves for the after-life sooner now, than later, and it looks like I won't be able to retire until the big sleep...

Kark on it.

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