Chapter 10-Ironback

I started awake and blinked as I realized that I was alone in my bed. I quickly surmised that my mother and sister had let me sleep in by muting my alarm. I saw the small note penned atop my nightstand that read, "You deserve a brief rest from your burdens, my sweet boy." I felt an indescribable joy at having my mother back in my life, albeit in a body only three years apart in apparent age. I broke into a soft chuckle as I threw on an undershirt over my boxer shorts and strode out into my office, knowing that Angelia would already be elsewhere on duty. Much to my shock I saw that the effortlessly gorgeous Arcadian was still softly snoring on her cot. I couldn't help but break into a wide grin as I saw my bodyguard who was normally so fierce and strong looking uncharacteristically peaceful. After tucking the disheveled blanket back into place, I sat at my desk swivel chair and simply admired her for a few moments.

She whimpered, "Master Hiroshi…stay with me…"

I nearly had a heart attack in shock, and jolted back. Then I quickly realized that she was talking in her sleep. I took a few deep breathes as my heart rate returned to normal. I exhaled as I pondered how I was going to handle this lady's insanely strong feelings for me. Every day it seemed she was become more assertive in wanting to be my lover. I wasn't sure what I was going to do.

Angel started to sniffle, "Don't leave. No! Come back…"

Alarmed, I reached over and gently touched her warm, glossy, feathered and raven-hued wing to stir her to awareness. I felt a little ashamed that I had been burning with curiously to have an excuse to see what her wing felt like. Her pink eyes lidded open and she stared at me with muddled shock.

I gently soothed, "Angel-san, you're-"

She wrapped her arms around me and hugged me in an unbearably tight grip. She sobbed, "Captain! You didn't abandon me."

I felt her grip loosen enough for me to breathe and I gently held her back. I intuited what her nightmare had been about. "I would never have left you to die in that engine room."

She sighed deeply as she stroked my dark hair. "I dream about my death too often, but this time it really kicked me in the crotch because I saw the slugs kill Timothy."

I recalled that the Ironback crew had said very little about their late engineer or cantankerous former captain. I had briefly met the fatally stricken Captain Stot, but the mysterious Timothy Gardner was an eternally a blank image in my mind. I swallowed in concern as I had never asked any of the prospectors about their past before they had literally crashed into my life…and that was especially true of Angelia.

She sniffled and rested her head on my shoulder. "H-he didn't deserve that fate."

"You suffered a needlessly cruel fate as well," I added firmly.

She cupped my cheeks in her soft hands and remarked, "I know that look, captain. You're too polite to fault to pry into my secrets…but you desperately want to know about my sordid past, no?"

I started to protest, "Angel-"

"I need to get this out," She cut me off firmly. "I slept with Timothy, repeatedly. Being a pleasure girl meant that I sexed up the whole Ironback crew; except that poor sweetheart Justin. I was much more Timothy's plaything than his lover."

I hung my head, "I'm so-sorry, Angel-san."

She chuckled weakly, "What are you apologizing for? I'm the soiled dove, not you."

I reciprocated by resting my hand on her cheek, and wiped the tear streaks dry. I kissed her affectionately on the forehead.

My ginger-haired guardian broke into a nostalgic smile. "You're too damn kind and trusting for your own good, Snowy."

I broke out into relieved laughter too for a few seconds before realization cut in. I asked with a baffled expression, "Um, who is Snowy, Angelia?"

"Huh? He's….he was….I met him on…I remembered that he was…" Her eyes widened in shock as pain forced her face into a grimace. She flinched and then her face relaxed. She asked in visible confusion, "What were talking about?"

Shit.

Soon after, the grumpy skipper of the Ironback lay flat on his back as the spherical medical scanner finished orbiting around his head. He sniped, "Hey, Wakadika. How much longer do I need to put up with this crap?"

I exhaled softly as I stood next to Justin and Su in the Paradox medbay. Angelia and Samuel leaned against the walls behind us. I replied wearily, "Long enough to figure out what afflicted the entire Ironback crew, Captain."

He sat up and sneered, his dirty blond locks hanging to his shoulders in a tangled mess. "Fuck this."

I berated him sharply as I took his arm, "Aaron-san, this is serious!"

The captain yanked his forearm out of my insistent grip, but slouched against the scanner bed instead of storming out.

The kindly Ironback medic looked visibly horrified at the results. "It's okay, sir. We got enough data as it is. It confirms that Sam, Angelia, Aaron, and I suffered brain trauma within the past few months."

"Memory wipes among all of you?"

"Yes sir. Based on Miss Snow's review of the logs on the Ironback, we are all missing six weeks of our lives between March and April of GY 5798. We can infer that we ran a job right after refueling at the Draconis Wayfarer station on 2 March. The logbooks pick up on 16 April, with nothing but computer generated gibberish in between."

Sam mournfully wondered aloud, "Why didn't we realize that our brains and logs were fucked with?"

Aaron snapped, "Dumbass! When did we have the time to even think about something so mundane as computer logs, when we were fighting for scraps…always one step ahead of death?"

I tried to defuse some of the tension. "Enigma?"

The Paradox AI replied smoothly, "Yes Captain Wakahisa?"

"Did the Concordant have that kind of technology?"

"Yes, but using the nanobot technology to rewire neural circuitry would obliterate all traces of the selected memory. The subject would forget that they forgot. However the Concordant was long demolished by this point in the timeline. Whatever entity performed this erasure did it crudely, like wielding an axe blade rather than a scalpel."

I crossed my arms and noted grimly, "And there is a temporal resonance with the Ironback within that missing month and a half?"

"Yes, captain."

I made up my mind. "I promise to get to the bottom of this. Dismissed."

Aaron sneered and wordlessly punched my shoulder on the way out.

I ignored his provoking gesture and silently headed to the Tank room with Su and Angelia. I silently swore to get to the bottom of this.

A day later after the timeshift to 1 March, 5798, I boarded the Avon for the short jump to the 26 Draconis ternary star system.

"Hey, old boy. Are you sure this will work," Percy inquired.

"I hope so. The program Enigma came up should have fine tuned my nanobots to protect me from this memory wipe." I managed a rueful smile as I brushed my hand through my depigmented hair, "Whatever screwed over the Ironback crew didn't kill them."

"Still, watch yourself," Nyssa noted tonelessly.

Percy chuckled as his loyal admirer dispensed an uncharacteristic iota of concern for my well being. "Well put, Nyss, dear. With that voice implant to deepen your voice pitch and mask your stammer, I almost feel like I'm taking to a different person, captain."

"I'm Hoshizaki Shiro for the moment," I reminded him firmly as I clenched the seatback. A pang of guilt flared up in my mind. I had confided in my secret plan to the Enigma AI, Jorralnia, Su, my mother and sister and no one else. I felt especially bad about dissuading the clingy Angelia from coming with me. However I could hardly expect her to have a run in with her past life.

The Wayfayer station hailed us and it was time to put my secret plan in motion.

Minutes later, the interior of the drifter station was just as run down and cobbled together as the Ironback had been when it had collided with the Paradox. The walls were coated with badly peeling paint, jury-rigged conduits crisscrossed the ceiling and there was a stench in the air that mixed in the scent of metal, oils, and something indescribably noxious. I reached the airlock to berth #6, and felt a jolt as I saw Justin hasten out of his ship wearing a tattered grey jumpsuit and blue ballcap.

"Hello sir," I greeted him with a polite bow. I adjusted my thick glasses, although they were perched on my nose purely for aesthetics.

His blue eyes widened in recognition. "Oh! You're Mr. Hoshizaki. Captain Stot just dispatched me to find our first paying passenger in a year. Welcome aboard the UMV Ironback. I'm engineer Justin Halifax."

I managed a genuine smile to this stranger who was still fundamentally a considerate man. "Thank you. Where do I room then, Halifax-san?"

He waved me into the airlock. "This way."

After cycling through, I finally got to see what a century old prospector ship that had been staffed by slobs was really like. It was filthy, decayed, badly maintained and it reeked.

I fought down the urge to vomit although I ended up practically nose to nose with Aaron Coronado as I exited the airlock into the constricted axial corridor. There wasn't any room to even bow without bonking my ostensible ally in the head. "Pardon me," I apologized automatically.

About the only thing different was that Aaron was missing the goatee and the scar crossing vertically over his right eye socket. He broke into a nasty chuckle, eyed my white jumpsuit and gleefully smacked his grease-stained hand on my chest, leaving a black handprint behind. He cackled as he went aft, "Later, Snowy!"

It seemed like some people never changed. Already he had coined a nickname derived from my pasty pale skin, flaxen hair and soft blue eyes that tagged me as an albino. "Asshole," I muttered as I wrinkled my nose at the new decoration on my clothing.

Justin cracked the barest hint of a smile as if he secretly agreed with me. "Never mind Aaron, Mr. Hoshizaki. Here's your stateroom, sir."

Oh no. This couldn't be right. I knew quite well that the aft starboard-side single cabin was for the crew's synthetic prostitute. I pretended to be shocked when the door banged open and I beheld the crimson-hued bedroom that could only belong in a whorehouse.

Justin flushed in a complementary pink color as the implications sunk in. "Er, well, this is , Cynful Cinnamon's room sir. She is our Arcadian synth and our…crew 'stress reliever'…I guess."

"Welcome aboard Hoshi," a new voice boomed. The squat Ironback captain gave me a killer backslap, sending me sprawling into the waterbed. "You ain't taking my room, the other berths are full up, so you're bunking with our sex doll. Lucky boy!"

I grunted and tossed my heavy duffel to the side of the bed. I retorted, "I'm not booking passage on your ship for fun and games, Captain Stot. I'm just heading in the same general direction that you are." I secretly seethed at even the idea of essentially having sex with a slave girl.

"So, gonna be a killjoy eh? Didn't think there were many prudes left except for CL here."

"Yes captain," Justin concurred glumly.

"Suit yourself, Hoshi. See you at 1900 for chow." The white-haired jerk left the room and headed back to the bridge.

"Anything else you need," Justin asked with a visibly strained smile.

I shook my head and took out my ultracompact folding cot as soon as he left me alone. At least the perfume that irritated my nose was preferable to the malodorous bouquet awaiting me in the rest of the ship. I carefully read over the mission briefing on my palm computer until my eyes started to feel too heavy to stay open.

I started awake some time later as the warp drive kicked in. I yawned and stretched and then I heard the rustle of someone on the left side of my cot. I felt the hairs on my nape stand up as knew exactly who it was. I slowly turned over and stared up at a tall Arcadian synthetic with glossy black wings, tan skin, glazed dark pink eyes and reddish orange hair tied up in a messy bun. A red kimono with numerous patches on it draped over her ample curves. She looked down at me with a listless expression, almost like she was drugged.

I hastily stood up and bowed briefly. "Miss Cinnamon, I presume?"

She bowed her head meekly as she asked, "Do you want to fuck me, Mr. Hoshizaki?"

I backed into the door, and banged my head against the unyielding metal. I winced as I shook my head as a furious blush betrayed my arousal. "I…er…gotta check on something. Excuse me." I bowed apologetically and beat a hasty retreat into the corridor. I found a stepladder built into the corridor wall and quickly ascended up to the railgun mount. I squeezed into the black fake leather seat glued and patched together countless times and exhaled in relief. I panted as I berated my treacherous body that had betrayed me yet again. Yes, my libido had sold out. I had very much wanted to lay with Cynful Cinnamon, knowing full well that she was incapable of giving consent. I stared out at the swirling stars through the thick plastic windows and struck the side of my head with my balled up fist. "Ugh. You are stupid dumbass, Shiro."

A dull voice that I recognized anywhere echoed from below, "That's usually what I'm called, Hoshi."

I stared down at the gaps in the rotating mount down at the luckless Samuel 'Bunny' Schevald looking up at me with puzzled dark eyes. I gave him a feeble wave and noted, "This hasn't been my day either, Samuel-san."

His frown only deepened. "Strange. Everyone knows that I hate being called 'Bunny', but only CL and Cyn won't rib me with it."

"I promise not to tease you," I promised sincerely. I shimmied down the ladder and my boots hit the deck grates with a echoing thump. I sighed deeply as seeing the disheveled and dour Ironback crew as strangers was causing me to have a severe anxiety attack. I was especially shamed by seeing Angelia as a helpless, miserable prostitute again.

He managed a slight smile. "You can call me Sam. Well, too bad you won't be on board for long. It's nice to have someone who respects me. Shall we go eat?"

I couldn't wait…to gag on their inedible cuisine. I shook my head ruefully, "Lead the way, Sam-san.

After Sam summoned Cyn, we walked into the cluttered storage bay. I saw the rest of the crew gathered around the battered built-in dining table piled high with crappy instant food. I blinked as I saw a giant, muscular man in green coveralls. He had short cropped brown hair, light brown eyes and a handsome face. I felt a pang of inadequacy as I obviously couldn't measure up to the Ironback engineer in the looks department. I bowed formally and forced a fake smile. "Mr. Gardner, it is a real pleasure to meet you."

He looked at me incredulously and broke into loud guffaws as the rest of the crew sat down. "You're shitting me, right?"

"Um. I'm not, actually. I'm Shiro Hoshizaki."

"Yeah sure thing Snowy." He waved Cyn over, "Heya babe, come sit on my lap."

"Okay Timmy," she complied with a synthetic grin.

I felt a sharp tang in my mouth as I realized that I was jealous of a dead man…because this jerk had the guts to openly express affection towards the winged Arcadian.

I sat in stony silence as Captain Stot threw an empty beer bottle onto the endless rubbish heaps and opened another one. "Okay girls, time to listen to the biggest asshole in the galaxy!"

"Hear hear," chorused the crew gleefully.

"You don't mind a little detour, do you Hoshi," Stot remarked as if it was a question; even though I knew it wasn't.

I cleaned off my smudged glasses with a cleaning cloth and replied calmly, "No, I only paid you to take me Barnard Orbital. I didn't specify when we would get there."

Stot laughed with a braying cadence that was beyond annoying to endure. "It wouldn't have made a shit's worth of difference anyway. We're going on a salvage gig, and if you want a cut Snowy, you'll need to pull your weight."

"Nothing illegal, captain."

"Ohh, now I'm scared. I guess we'd better look over our shoulders. Maybe the Concordant will come back from the dead and throw us in the dungeon."

Everyone except Justin broke out laughing at my expense. Even Cyn giggled appreciatively in order to appease her masters. I glared at the Captain Stot and folded my arms on the table. "What's the job?"

He took a long pull from his beer bottle and grinned with badly stained dentures. "Some really great shit. Were going to get salvage from the PCV Denebola.

Lucky me. That meant three very unpleasant facts. One: the Concordant Spinward fleet had still been decimated; even after the Paradox had saved them once. Two: my new ally Admiral Antipov had clearly been killed by the slugs. Three: I was going to have to go EVA in a ship full of freeze-dried corpses.

Best trip ever.