"Alright," I say to the mass of people sitting around the big table in the main office of the Spelunkium mining station. "Damage report."
"Number of things we have added to the handbasket headed for Hell," says Ramon. "One mining station and the entire population of a city."
"Who are currently depending on the supplies from the Space Slug," says Smith.
Klunk enters the room. Apparently she has figured out how to move around by propelling herself with the blue electricity that replaced her arm. I haven't asked her why she bothers to keep building prosthetic limbs if she now moves in three dimensions, but whatever. "The mining station has suffered some minor (ha ha) leaks from being rattled around in the recent incident," says Klunk. "Nothing I can't fix."
"I think Robin was talking about the human cost," says Ramon. "Do we know how many people died in the attack?"
"It's not like we can count," says Lake Blue.
"I'm not talking about individual deaths," I say. "Captain Bones and his crew have managed to stabilize the situation in the city. What I'm trying to figure out here is the political impact of yanking an entire city off of its own planet and into a mobile vehicle that's nearly impossible to find."
"Isn't that good?" says Sword Lesbian. "We're hiding the center of the separatist government from prying eyes at precisely the time when it needs to be hidden."
"Hiding it on the Space Slug," says Aristede, "whose location everyone knows because it's been blocking this space lane for decades. Plus the Student Loan Company has an uncanny ability to track the Barracuda, and we haven't yet figured out how. Maybe if we take the engine apart -- "
"I will sacrifice the rest of my limbs to prevent you from doing that," says Klunk. "My people did NOT build the Red Barracuda to accomodate tracking devices."
"People," I say, "Please, focus. There are things I want to know about this Separatist government. What's their chain of command? What was their plan in case things went south?"
"Command of the Separatist movement falls to me," says Captain Bones, striding into the room. His cape and collar are as impressive as ever. "Until such time as Forsmythe wakes from his coma, at the very least, and I'm sure he'll appreciate having me on hand even then. My medical team was unable to save the remaining council members."
The six young teenagers who call themselves The Resistance have been chatting among themselves, but the instant Bones walks into the room, they fall silent.
And here I thought nothing could get teenagers to shut up.
"The mobile trees you call Tikolumians," continues Bones, "Have not been seen in any confines of the city. It is entirely possible that they are posing as perfect imitations OF trees, and simply do not wish to be found, but your friend Tikreelkara has not been seen on any branch nor in any hole of the surviving areas of the greenhouse. I am sorry to imply that they might be dead, but it is a probability."
"Keep looking," I say. "I am not willing to give up hope. Which leads me to my main question -- how is the rest of the Separatist alliance reacting to the news about Carlia Marli? Have you told them the city is safe?"
"I told them the population of Carlia Marli was safe on the Space Slug," says Bones. "I declined to tell them how this was achieved. I hardly believe it myself -- can you imagine someone would believe if it they didn't see it? Most of the galaxy does not remember the concept of a 'Clown Car' and I don't understand how a Beetle managed to remember when I didn't."
Sword Lesbian's antennae stand on end, but she says nothing.
"So everyone in the galaxy thinks that Carla Marli was destroyed even if its people are alive," says Ramon. "Did you tell them that the council is dead?"
"I'm not stupid," says Bones. "I said they're in a state of shock and passed basic functions onto my office. Technically true. I couldn't have everyone believe that the decapitation strike worked. Even if it almost did. But that doesn't mean all is well in the alliance, or even close to it. It is an alliance of proud and rather independent republics. If strong leadership is not obvious, the alliance will break apart. Therefore!" He puts his hand on my shoulder. "I need you and the Red Barracuda for a special mission."
"Uh oh," I say.
"It's almost assuredly out of combat," says Bones. "Though war has no guarantees. See, I could try to wield power with an iron fist, but that would take money and time. So what I need you to do is fly around to the various republic capitals and tell them that all is not lost. Show them the Red Barracuda. Be a symbol of hope. That kind of thing."
"We're acting as propaganda?" says Ramon.
"Vital propaganda," says Bones. "Without unity, we're going to get picked apart one by one, and the Space Slug will be the last fortress of freedom standing. Tell them that."
Bones departs, and the six teenagers practicaly deflate as they let out the breaths they were holding.
"You're running around the Separatist alliance?" says Lake Blue. "Take me with you."
"Me too," says Smoky Quartz.
"Take all of us," says Bonci."Take my wife...please."
"Hey," says Yellow Hair. "I was going to make that joke."
"That would make eight people we're trying to stuff into the Barracuda," I say. "Klunk, I assume you're coming along too?"
"I wouldn't let that car out of my sight," says Klunk.
"Likewise," says Aristede.
"We'll just grab a shuttle and follow you," says Lake Blue. "Call it a fighter escort, if you like."
"You might wind up doing some fighting," I say. "If the Student Loan Company can actually track us then you're going to wind up in the thick of it with the rest of us."
"Hang on," says Ramon, "this was supposed to be a non-combat mission."
"No guarantees," i say. "And I want to draw some fire away from the Space Slug anyway. This thing is too big to avoid being a sitting duck. Not that we know where to go. Lake Blue, got any ideas about where to start?"
"I have a name," says Lake Blue. "Not that you could pronounce it properly. Fine, call me Claret. As for where to go, we ought to head to the biggest population center. No, wait. If they track us we'll just be drawing fire. Let's head to the smallest population center that has a working broadcast array."
"It sounds like this is going to be a combat mission," says Ramon.
"No guarantees," says I. "But tell me, Claret, why are you and your friends so eager to get away from here that you're willing to jam yourselves into the Barracuda?"
"Did you hear what Captain Bones called me?" says Sword Lesbian. "A Beetle. I'd be coming with you if I didn't have to keep an eye on the Clown Car. As it is I have no intention of talking directly to the man unless he speaks to me first."
"But that's what you are," says Aristede, "right?"
It is difficult to tell when a Betelgeusean is glaring, most of the time. This time it isn't difficult at all.
"Think about the nature of this ship," says Bonci. "Who did we see passing supplies into the clown car? Humans. Who do we see distributing supplies throughout Carla Marli? Humans. Humans. Who is the Space Slug crewed by, in its one million and one thousand positions? Humans. The situation would be fishy even without the casual comments of Captain Bones. Considering all we've seen...but we can tell you about that on the way."
"Let's not waste any time," says Aristede.