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Slow-boat inspector

Tais Teng is a Dutch sf writer and illustrator with the quite unpronounceable name of Thijs van Ebbenhorst Tengbergen, which he shortened to Tais Teng to leave room for a picture of exploding starships or a clever steam-punk lady on the covers of his novels. In his own language he has written about everything from radio-plays to hefty fantasy trilogies.

To date he has sold forty-one stories in the English language and two children's books: When the Night-gaunt knows your name, and The Emerald Boy. "Phaedra: Alastor 824," set in the universe of Jack Vance, has recently been published by Spatterlight press.

His most recent sales are to Future Science fiction Digest, Write Ahead, Unreal, and Red Sun Magazine. Visit his English-language website: taisteng.atspace.com, his art site: taisteng.deviantart.com, or see him on Facebook @taisteng.

Chang Mei's little patrol boat was pure climax tech, as ancient and durable as a Kalashnikov or a stone ax. Never hand potential enemies technology they didn't already have.
She looked back to the dazzling blue fire of the Rigel system. The habitats of the Third Kingdom wove jeweled strands around the central star, green for photosynthesis and blue for water. She felt a stab of homesickness: slow-boat inspectors lurked among the unlit comets, the first line of defense, and a Watch often lasted five, six years.
She turned her boat, dropped the first pellet in the reaction chamber. Acceleration pushed her back in the chair when the minuscule H-bombs exploded. Antigravity was still no more than a hopeful fantasy, like a faster than light drive or aliens more advanced than bacteria.
The new generation-ship hung among the stars, an ugly iron bubble a hundred miles behind the immense solar sails. It had probably been launched by an orbital laser, Chang Mei thought, skimming the surface of their home star and finally flung out in the dark. The name on the bow must have been re-plated a hundred times as star stuff abraded it.
"Zheng-ho," she deciphered the ancient Mandarin characters. It was the name of that famous traveler from the deep past, from a world that was close to mythical. The ship flew straight to the sun, like a moth to the flame, and hadn't inverted the sails to brake. The solar wind would soon crumple them like a cellophane bag, tangling the spider-silk thin lines.
They probably have forgotten how to steer their ship, she thought.
How Chang Mei hated those silent enigmas, who fluttered in from the dark!
No one had answered the hails of Traffic Central and you couldn't be too careful with those generation-ships, arriving after thousands of years. Quite a lot had turned into deadly puzzle-boxes, deeply xenophobic.
She finally took five military bubblebots and donned a chameleon-cape.
The moment she stepped inside the star-ship the cape started echoing her surroundings. She had left her face and hands bare: that would identify her at least as human herself, even if the number of fingers might differ from human species to species.
The air smelled clean. Too clean and not lived in at all.
Paradoxically that proved the life-system was still functioning, fanatically recovering the salt from any drop of sweat, mining the protein from a fallen hair.
The walls were made of intricately forged steel: the travelers probably had converted a nickel-iron asteroid.
Any slow-boat voyage must be like an endless Arctic winter, Mei mused. Not much to do but decorate and re-decorate.
All forms were abstract, she now noticed. Curls and zigzags, intricate knots. No reference to anything living: no leaves or feathers, no orchids. That usually meant that the travelers had given up the gardens as irrelevant and subsisted on algal sludge and printed meat. It wasn't a good sign. Without the fuzzy logic of living things societies became rigid.
"Hello?" she called. "Anybody home?"
Only echoes returned.
But wait. There came a faint sound, a shuffling as of many feet, the click of claws. She would dearly have loved to hold a laser, but only the bubblebots were allowed to kill and even then only if the attackers weren't human.
The travelers were half again as high as Mei: weightlessness tended to produce giants. They were also hairy and their faces rather pointed: muzzles instead of noses. Still, humans remained malleable. Before homo sapiens there had been a dozen humanoid species. If it had the right DNA and could talk, it counted as human in the Third Kingdom.
She made a lightning assessment. A white pelt, red eyes with truly huge pupils... nocturnal? It was rather cold, which would make a pelt a wise investment. Dialing down the light was also prudent if you have to travel for a thousand more years.
She bowed, showed her two empty hands.
"Welcome," she said, "to the Third Kingdom of Rigel."
"It speaks," the leader squeaked in clearly recognizable Mandarin. "The meat-animal speaks!"
She rather belatedly noticed the long pink tail. Evolution never returns what is lost and humanoids had done without tails for three million years.
"An abomination!" called another one and drew a knife. It had a bone handle.
"They are rats!" she called to the bubblebots. "Exterminate them!"
It was almost always a toss-up whether an arriving ship was manned by rats or cockroaches. Humans only seldom made it.
"They are intelligent!" a bubblebot protested. "They talk!"
"So does my water-cooker!" Mei shrieked back. "Kill them, dammit!"
Laser-light lit the twilight corridors. The ashes hung in streamers that smelled horribly appetizing. In the absence of gravity it would take days for them to sift down.
"The meat-animal speaks." So the former crew had made it after all, kept as cattle. That the rat had been aghast was understandable. Mei herself would been horrified if a chicken had suddenly spoken to her. The survivors would have human DNA but they had lost their humanity. You needed the DNA and words both to earn that name.
A bubblebot returned.
"We killed seventeen hundred and fifty-three rats, mistress. What should we do with the ship?"
"They flew straight to the sun and didn't brake. It isn't worth it to install a drive." She shook her head. "Let it burn up. There might be rats left we missed."
The next ship will have a human crew, she promised herself as she watched the solar sails dwindle to a shiny dot. I will shake a human hand. Not a paw or a chitinous claw. But she knew how unlikely that was....
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, February 26th, 2020

Author Comments

There is this venerable tradition of a sf editor showing several writers a new cover and asking them: "Please tell me what happens here?" Being both a graphic artist and a writer I can use my own pictures. I start drawing a picture on my computer, one I don't understand yet but which looks intriguing. In this case I had an Asian lady walking a highly ornate corridor made of wrought iron.

Right: Iron. Nickel iron. She must be inside a metallic asteroid, which had been carved and hollowed out to make a generation star-ship. A slow-boat without a FTL drive. Her clothes were chameleon wear, echoing the walls. So she was camouflaged and probably a soldier. Given that, the globes accompanying her must be intelligent weapons and I instantly got the name: bubble-bots. She was armed (bubble-bots) and a bit afraid (chameleon wear and her half-smile).

Afraid of whom?

Ah, the crew. It takes thousands of years to cross the distances between stars and the crew could have mutated into anything. She had to decide if they were still human and that gave me the title: Slow-boat inspector. You can see my initial picture here.

- Tais Teng
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