Fifty sleek, uniformly-designed Confederation cruisers arrived in perfect unison at the edge of the system. Moments later a hundred more ships appeared behind them. They arranged themselves into rigid formations from frigate to battleship to dreadnaught, all centered on their command ship.
A spider crept across the bridge of the command ship, stepping carefully around the wetter areas. It read over several displays, conferred with the two scorpions at the helm, and continued to the ledge overlooking the general’s pool.
“General,” hissed the spider, “we have sighted the target.”
The water stirred and General Tissaphernes returned to the surface. “She will not escape me this time. We’ll be through their defenses and aboard before she can get that overgrown body of hers to its feet.”
“There’s more, sir. They’re not alone. Sphrigons, Twilight Smugglers, Hivers, Balaenans…sir, it’s the whole Outlaw Rim.”
“She does have a habit of coming back larger than expected,” said the admiral.
“Good,” cackled the jellyfish. “Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen it.” His tendrils rubbed together. “Their coming here will save us the effort of hunting them separately. Once we’ve crushed this assembly of debauched rabble, the Rim will be disarmed, defenseless, and thrown into turmoil. Our fleets will have no further difficulty subjugating their territories. The Oligarchs will be pleased.”
The spider bowed. “May their greatness ever trickle down to us.”
“Prepare the boarding-parties. Engage cloaking device and signal the first line to advance. How is the enemy arranged?”
The scorpions studied their console. “No apparent formation, sir…they’ve backed themselves into an asteroid field.”
The Golden Goose rolled to avoid an asteroid. The bridge shifted; Estelle clutched her chair and winced as her flank squeezed against the armrest. The ship steadied and her bulk settled.
“Strengthen inertial dampeners,” she coughed, straightening her robe.
“Captain,” said Starling, “remaining in this asteroid field will severely limit our ability to maneuver.”
“Sauce for the goose, Mr. Starling.” She looked around and tried a smirk, but no one seemed impressed. “It’ll be a tight squeeze for them, too. And I think we’ve had a lot more practice with tight squeezes.”
“Enemy’s first group is advancing. Range: 7,000 kellicams.”
Estelle puffed out her cheeks. “Stars. This is really it. I could go for about 7,000 calories of ice cream right now.”
“I’ve lost the command ship’s signal,” called the sensor technician. “Looks like a cloaking device.”
“That damned stealth ship again. Well, we knew he was coming for us.”
“What do we do?” asked Caelius.
“We’re gonna do what we do best.” She turned to her away team. “Lucine, you’re gonna get in some heads and make some big dreams come true. Maura, Zora, you’re gonna bring me something very satisfying. Straya, you’re gonna be too big to be contained. Csilla, you’re gonna guzzle all the swell-jelly you can stomach. And Io…Io, you’re gonna have the best meal of your life.”
“What’ll you do?” wondered Csilla, opening her thermos.
“I’m gonna sit right here where they don’t want me.” She turned back to the monitor and addressed the crew. “They’ll do anything they can to recapture our ship. It must really burn them up to see it crewed by a bunch of lesser species who don’t deserve it.”
“Well, this is what they get for not sharing. Signal to all vessels: fire at will.”
The Confederation ships had just begun turning and shifting their formation to avoid the first of the asteroids. Most were still out of position when the firing began. Outlaw ships flashed out with phasers, blasters, disrupters, ion cannons, molecular transmutation waves, mass accelerators, paradox torpedoes, and countless weapons of unknown provenance; the best of a dozen wildly different civilizations.
It was a wild and uncoordinated barrage, but it had the desired effect. The first wave of frigates scrambled to recover. But the second wave arrived with larger ships and unleashed a fusillade of their own, perfectly ordered and perfectly synchronized, all firing the same pale Oligarch-based laser weaponry.
The Outlaws reeled, but returned fire in all their myriad ways. The ships closed in on one another and the space between them filled with blinding lights in every color and in every direction.
The Golden Goose hadn’t been built for combat. The engine core had been configured to power hot tubs and robotic massage parlors rather than jury-rigged phaser arrays or shields under direct battleship fire. The bridge lights dimmed every time they fired a shot and systems overloaded every time they were hit.
A photon burst shook them amidships and the bridge lurched violently. Estelle’s rolls tumbled and her chair twisted. Sparks flew from the nearest console. Service arms extended to right the chair and extinguish the flames.
“Damage report,” she huffed. “Evasion vector Z-minus five-hundred. Bearing…3-1-5. Verify weapons range and recompute. And—and be gentle with the helm, will you? Some of us had a big breakfast.”
The screen was crisscrossed with lasers and filled with ships from both sides, all trailing debris and venting plasma. Torpedoes exploded in brilliant, shimmering flashes. Asteroids shattered. One of the Sphrigon warships cracked in half. Escape pods rained from the debris. The ship’s back half careened into the nearest Confederation cruiser and the subsequent explosion filled the screen.
Estelle bellowed out more orders. The officers shouted reports over one another. The Goose shook again. A new sound reached them; something much closer and soon joined by a chorus of alarms.
“Someone tell me what the hell that was—”
Starling’s hands flew over the console. “Detonation of unknown origin. Kinetic impacts detected fore and aft on the ventral side. Multiple hull breaches.”
“Divert power to ventral shielding.”
“Breached compartments non-responsive. Security alerts along decks seven and nine.”
“Boarding parties,” growled Caelius.
Estelle nodded. “The stealth ship. Welcome back, General.”
“And now the two-pronged assault,” rumbled General Tissaphernes, looming up from the water. “The star-troopers will move aft to secure and deactivate the resonance-orb. My jellyfish drones will subdue the crew before moving on the bridge.”
The admiral read over the console and nodded. “I hope the crew don’t resist too much. It would be a real pity—a waste.”
“They will be capable of very little. And once they learn we have taken their resonance-orb, they will realize their position is hopeless.”
“I just worry about collateral damage. It’d be a pity to damage the ship…she’s to be mine, after all.”
“Oh, certainly,” said the general, with no attempt at sincerity. “I have sent my entire legion across. Your overindulged humans will be too overwhelmed to stand against them.”
The spider squeaked. “Sir, the boarding parties have made contact.”
“Excellent. Are they meeting with any resistance?”
They were meeting with much more resistance, in fact, than they’d met when they first attacked the Goose. The crew was flabbier and even more out of shape, but they were prepared behind bulwarks and improvised barricades and they received both boarding-parties with a hail of blaster-fire.
But the star-troopers were too well-armed and the jellyfish were too numerous. It took much longer than planned, but the boarders slowly advanced through the breach. Tentacles reached over the barricades and the kitchen steward made the signal to fall back.
It was an orderly fighting-retreat, though this was less out of courage than a disinclination toward running. The jellyfish pursued a waddling crowd through the lower decks. The star-troopers broke off and raced to the engineering bay.
They shoved aside the few engineers not hiding and climbed up the ladders into the resonance chamber. Once the whole squad was up they tucked away their weapons and gazed up at the all-important orb.
It glowed and swirled with color. The colors were swirling more quickly than usual, but in the unstable energy fields of a desperate space-battle this was no surprise. A phaser-blast struck the ship and the orb flared green and blue for a moment. The star-troopers’ technician assured everyone this was normal. What wasn’t normal, though, were the orb’s periodic convulsions. Every minute or so it seemed to heave up and lose its shape before settling back into a sphere.
“Is it, uh, supposed to do that?” asked a private.
“I don’t think so,” admitted the technician. “The briefing didn’t say anything about orbs doing that…they just said that if it turns bright red we have about thirty seconds before we’re all deleted from the universe.” He slapped a trooper’s hand away from a control panel. “So don’t touch anything. Sergeant, find the primary conduit and—”
“See that? It did it again. And it made a sound. That can’t be good, can it?”
The crew fell back through the labyrinth of lower-deck corridors. They fell back past the mess halls where they’d spent so many months stuffing their faces, past the bars where they’d partied with all the strange substances of the galaxy, past the cabins where they’d so often slept with one another or any of the strange peoples they’d met throughout their travels, past the lounges, past the cafes, past the spas, past the halls of erotic alien art. They fell back into the wide open chamber of the lido deck and scrambled to the far side of the pool. Tropical music was still playing faintly overhead, but it was soon drowned out by their gasping and panting and groaning.
“No wonder the captain stopped going on away missions,” moaned the cartographer.
Jellyfish flooded into the room. They spread out over the deck from wall to wall and floating up to make more room until the entire Cnidarian legion was inside. They formed their lines of attack and, in unison, pulled out their knives.
One hovered out from the rest, tentacles swaying. “Surrender,” it warbled. “We are too many.”
The kitchen steward waddled out, cleavage swaying. “Never,” she huffed. “Look at us. We have ‘too many’ every day.”
“We are not a dessert, human.”
“Maybe not for humans.” The steward tapped her wrist-panel. Every door on the deck slid shut and sealed. Service arms unfolded from the wall and began seizing jellyfish. A tentacle snaked out of the pool and dragged the nearest jellyfish below the surface.
Io burst up from the pool, swallowed, and licked her lips.
The orb convulsed again. The sound it made was louder this time and all the star-troopers turned to stare.
“Okay, seal the doors,” said their technician. “We’d better get it shut down before something goes wrong. Cut that conduit.”
But the private froze as he reached for it. The orb had turned red, a horrible, blinding, menacing red, and it cast its eerie glow over the whole chamber. “Red,” breathed the sergeant.
The troopers panicked. Some threw down their guns and raced for the hatch they’d sealed. Some dove behind the consoles for cover. The officers ran under the orb with their scanners.
“I don’t understand any of these readings,” howled the technician.
“We’re done,” wailed the sergeant. “We’re vaporized. This is the end. It’s game over, man.”
A brave private reached up to touch the orb. “It’s gonna blow up?”
“Feels like it,” laughed Csilla, with another hiccup. The orb convulsed again. “I’m so bloated I just might."
They stared, bewildered. The princess changed back to her usual skin-color. The resonance orb became an immense, spherical stomach. Lucine dropped her telekinetic field; the stomach dropped onto the troopers with a crash and swelled out over the floor.
Csilla’s tiny frame fell down atop its jiggling mass. “Ow. Did I get ‘em all?”
“Almost,” said Lucine, levitating the last troopers into the air and turning them over. Their eyes were glazed and smiles were spreading on their faces. “I can deal with these.”
“Good. Hilp! Because we are officially out of jelly.”
“General,” reported the spider, “the resonance orb has been deactivated.”
“Excellent. Discipline the technician for taking so long.”
“No, sir. I mean ours. Our own orb’s been deactivated.”
The giant jellyfish circled his pool. “Those malcontents…they just can’t keep their flabby hands off what isn’t theirs.” He stretched a tentacle toward the admiral. “You—take the remaining guards. Bring me the intruders.”
There weren’t many guards left. Almost every jellyfish drone had boarded the Goose. But the small elite band that gathered around the admiral were well-armed and crackling with electricity. He took a wet pistol from the nearest security pod, grimaced at the slime dripping from its grip, and headed into the tunnels.
“What’s that beeping?” he asked a trooper.
“More damage reports, sir. It looks like a blockage in the warp-fluid tubes. The engineers better get on that…could trigger a chain reaction.”
“We’d better get on it. I’ll bet anything it’s their whale of an engineer. Head for the reserve tank. It’s the only access point they’d be able to fit through.”
And they’d fit through only barely, it seemed. Strips of torn xeno-silk hung from the hatchway’s hinges and an empty ration-bar wrapper lay on the grating. The guards charged out onto the catwalk and lined up along the rail, weapons searching.
Blaster-fire erupted from below. Maura and Zora waddled out of the darkness, unleashing a continuous torrent of plasma, distortion waves, and ion grenades. They had none of their armor, but they’d replaced the heavy, restrictive panels with heavy, destructive weapons. Ammo belts pinched their rolls and spare ordinance bounced off their wobbling backsides as they advanced.
It took everything they brought. They fired ever plasma cannon, fuel-rod launcher, and gravity gun they’d collected in their travels. They expended every shell until each was left with only their backup pistol. The few jellyfish that weren’t vaporized retreated and half of the catwalk collapsed behind them.
“We should’ve switched to heavy ordinance a long time ago,” panted Zora. “So much less running and jumping and charging for cover.”
“I think I’ve found my calling,” Maura agreed.
“And I think you’ve met your match,” said the admiral. He remained, alone, on the wreckage of the catwalk, training his weapon on them. “It’s over. I have the high ground.”
They aimed up at him anyway. “You’re coming with us, bud.”
“Am I? Maybe you don’t see what I’m seeing. Maybe you’ve been taking it easy too long, letting your service drones do all the work for you, and you’ve forgotten what it takes to be real soldiers. Look at yourselves—you’re going to take me with you? I bet you’re too fat to even fly up here.”
“We are,” said Zora. “And you’re probably right.”
“We do let the drones do all the work for us,” said Maura.
The drones floated up behind him. They knocked his weapons away with serving-tongs, bound his feet and hands in towels from the spa, blinded him with an exfoliating mask, and tipped him over. The admiral opened his mouth to curse them, but they silenced him with a spritz of whipped cream. One of the drones, out of pure habit, started massaging his shoulders.
Zora tapped her communicator. “We’ve got him. Squeeze yourself out of there, Straya.”
“Just a sec. I wanna see if I’m too big for this one, too.” Something shook beneath them. Alarms sounded throughout the ship. “Good news, everyone!”
“Good work, everyone,” said Estelle, wiping soot from her brow.
“Sprhigons signaling, captain. Two more ships lost. The knights are leading a counterattack on the left flank…but it is unlikely the line will hold beyond the next few minutes. Confederation reinforcements are closing.”
“All stations report—”
“Hull integrity at 37%,” called Starling, as the ship shuddered beneath another cannon-blast. “34%.”
“Eleven out of twelve weapons-systems inoperable,” shouted Caelius.
“Crew reports safe and all accounted for on the lido deck,” buzzed the kitchen steward. “The boarding party is…well, they’re…” She was cut off by a long, otherworldly belch that could only have been Io’s. “I think she’s actually full for once.”
Estelle shook her head. “We’re gonna need a bigger ship. Resonance status?”
“The real orb is back in place,” said Lucine. “We apologize for the delay. Extracting her highness from the chamber proved…challenging.”
The princess hiccupped. Estelle thought for a moment she could feel the convulsion echo through the deck beneath her feet, but hoped it was her imagination. “Away team?”
“Back aboard,” Maura reported. “And we brought you a dish best served cold.”
Starling turned from his console. “Captain, power levels spiking aboard the stealth ship.”
“I triggered a chain reaction,” giggled Straya. “No tank can hold me.”
Estelle folded her hands atop her belly. “Disengage docking-clamps. Hail the general.”
The jellyfish appeared on the screen. The bridge behind him was in chaos. Spiders and scorpions were rushing to the escape pods. “Captain,” he hissed, “I hope you’ve called to surrender.”
“You laughed when I couldn’t stand up. I just beat you sitting down.” She lounged back even further. Her paunch pushed her knees apart. “No. I called to give you a chance. The chain reaction in your warp-fluid system will destroy your ship in minutes. But if you come over here, we should have room for you in one of the pools. Might be a tight squeeze, of course…”
He shook. “If the rightful Oligarchs cannot have that ship, human, then no one can.” He stretched up. Electricity arced from his tendrils to consoles and conduits throughout his bridge. The screen went white.”
“I was afraid you’d say that. Get stuffed, general.”
“Captain,” said Starling, “he has accelerated the chain reaction.”
“All emergency power to the engines. Ahead full to minimum safe distance. Punch it, Starling.”
The shockwave of the stealth-ship’s explosion sent them spinning dangerously. Alarms wailed and systems overloaded throughout the ship. Estelle’s chair finally gave out under her weight and she toppled across the bridge.
The Goose steadied. Half a dozen crewmen hurried over to help the captain to her feet.
“Hull integrity at 19%,” said Starling. “Deflectors unresponsive.”
“Hail,” she coughed. Five hundred pounds of impact had her own hull integrity at dangerous percentages, but she straightened herself and pulled her robe tight. “Hail all ships. Wide channel, no encryption. Get me on every—on every screen you can.”
She stepped gingerly to the central console. Dozens of images flickered onto the main screen as ships accepted the hail. But no one stopped firing and the tactical map showed the Confederation line closing in to surround the remaining Outlaw ships.
“Attention all Confederation vessels: this is Captain Estelle Gorlois of the Golden Goose. Your command ship has been destroyed. Your general is dead and the admiral who brought you here is in my custody. I urge you to hold your fire.” She took a long breath in. Her bulk swelled. “This isn’t your fight. We don’t have to be your enemies. In fact, I invite all of you to come with us.
“Our homes are hungry. And I’ve seen enough of the galaxy now to know that you’re hungry, too. Every one of us has been living their whole lives on what the Oligarchs decide to allow us. And they allow us so little while they live without restraint on ships like this one. They keep it all for themselves, stockpiles of the best, most wonderful things in the galaxy, and it all just sits there going to waste—all so they can tell themselves they have more than everyone else.
“I’m not your enemy. All of you who are hungry, who have watched everything you work to produce disappear into an Oligarch’s pocket, who have been told by those who have much that you deserve to have less, all of you: we’re on the same side. And the Oligarchs are the enemy.
“They command a vast empire. They have a wealth of resources. They employ a mighty fleet. They do everything they can to keep the rest of us feeling too small to resist. But we will no longer feel small. And if any of you think we can’t be big enough to frighten them…” She threw open her robe, hefted up the whole bulging mass of her belly with a straining grunt, and dropped it on the console. The screen cracked.
Lucine took her palm from the admiral’s forehead. “The prefix code is ZZ9-plural-Z-alpha.”
“Thank you.” Estelle turned back to Starling. Best speed to the space-gate. Activate the resonance orb. And signal all ships: see you on the other side.”
The admiral scoffed. “The state of this bridge…you are completely unfit for command.”
“I don’t fit in the command chair anymore. That’s true. And you were always a shameless bootlicker, sir.”
“I have principles. Of course you can’t recognize that. You’ve always been too selfish to see what’s best for our colonies.”
“Selling them out? Admiral, why not just help us? What did they promise you?”
“Stock options,” he replied, with triumph. “That’s what you don’t seem to understand. I am helping you. I am helping the colonies. With the wealth they promised me, I would be on track to become the Confederation’s first human oligarch. Think how that power could’ve served our people.”
“I think it would just serve you while the colonies keep going hungry.”
“The colonies should’ve been more responsible. The oligarchs understand responsibility…shouldn’t we trust those who have the most to know how best to use it?”
She wobbled up to him, though every step ached. “We clearly can’t.”
He prodded her paunch. “A giant stomach and a tiny mind. Do you have any idea what this little joy-ride of yours has done to the galactic economy?”
“That was just an appetizer,” she whispered. “Take him to the brig. Secure all decks for gate transit.”
All through the ship, safety belts closed over bellies too big for them. Harnesses squeezed against plump chests. Estelle’s bulk trembled. Her command chair was wrecked and it was up to the service arms to hold her as she took up her station.
“Gate and orb active,” said Starling.
“Take us home.”
Everything began to glow. The stars stretched into curving streaks. Coils of multicolored lightning danced along the hull. The gate became a glittering prism, Estelle felt herself become weightless, and the ship vanished in a spiral of light.
The colors separated, rotated, and slowly stabilized into a new field of stars. Estelle’s heaviness returned and, despite the discomfort and despite her injuries, its familiarity and its decadent certainty were a relief. She exhaled.
“Those constellations look familiar,” she said, voice breaking. The other humans on the bridge were all rising to stare, smiles spreading on their rounded faces.
Starling wasn’t smiling. “Hull integrity at seven percent. Power failures on all drive-systems. Deflectors overloaded. All defensive arrays nonresponsive…”
Estelle nodded as he went on. After all the battle-damage on top of two years of wear and tear, an emergency gate-transit had been too much for an already overtaxed engine. Their outlaw allies would still be occupied at the battlefield for hours, collecting escape pods, scavenging wreckage, and securing the Confederation ships that had defected.
“Shut down the primary core,” she conceded. “Reserve power to life support and communications.” The lights dimmed, but she looked around the bridge with a forced smirk. “Our goose is cooked.”
With the lights lowered, the familiar stars shined all the brighter. Everyone waddled to the viewscreens.
Estelle waddled to the communications terminal. “Emergency hail to all Human Colonial channels. Mayday, mayday, mayday. Interstellar Vessel Golden Goose, carrying survivors of the Clearchus expedition. Heavy damage, heavy power failures, heavy, um, everything.”
A long, horrible pause; but then the speakers crackled. “Golden Goose, this is Commander Alani, Science Vessel Thalassa. Transmit your position, please.”
“Hoshi Alani—Hoshi, it’s me. It’s Estelle. Thank the stars. Listen, I hope you’ve got a big cargo hold.”
Thalassa had a relatively small cargo hold, in fact, but Hoshi had contacts at a nearby research station and soon a fleet of shuttles was on its way. The survivors were ferried to the station and the station’s kitchens frantically got to work.
Csilla’s belly took up an entire personnel shuttle by itself and she treated her private flight as the honor due to royalty. She lived on in the pilots’ dreams for years after. Io lived on in her pilots’ nightmares; after her jellyfish feast she couldn’t fit into anything smaller than a cargo freighter. Straya brought the Goose’s AI core and service drones, which promptly installed themselves in the station’s systems and introduced themselves to the hundreds of bewildered researchers and technicians.
Estelle spent a long, long meeting with the local colonial magistrate and eventually persuaded him to allow the Outlaw fleet through the space-gate. Their allies came through the next day, weary and wounded but cheering. A dozen Confederation ships came through as well to swear their allegiance. As a gesture of good faith it was these defectors who towed the Golden Goose to a nearby shipyard.
“Our engineers will be thrilled to get their hands on that tech,” continued the magistrate. “And the food. What you’ve done is nothing short of miraculous, captain. I’m confirming your field-promotion, by the way.”
“Just happy to be back,” said Estelle.
“I can only imagine. We’ll have more to discuss once I talk to the council. But for now, I’ll leave you to celebrate. Welcome home.”
He left the room, but before the door could close three other women pushed through. “See?” panted Hoshi. “I wouldn’t joke about something like this. It’s really her.”
“It’s really you,” gasped Ayla.
“It’s really you,” gasped Hester.
“It’s really me,” Estelle assured them.
“You’re really fat,” gasped all three.
“And you got skinny. Those admiralty diets are just no good. Stars—come here.” She pulled Hester against her bulk and gave her the long kiss she’d been dreaming about since leaving the colonies. The others wrapped her up and she kissed them, too.
“Wow,” Hoshi laughed, squeezing her armfat.
“Wow,” Ayla agreed, gripping a roll of backfat.
“Yeah, I put on a few pounds. And I’m gonna make sure you gain everything back, too—and then some.” She kissed them all again. “Follow me. There’s some friends I want you to meet.”
The central atrium was filled with laughter and excited conversation. Mercenaries and warlords and smugglers and raiders from across the Outlaw Rim greeted each other in friendship. The service drones had taken over the kitchens and every hand in sight had a plate of snacks or a glass of champagne.
Lucine was reintroducing the ascended super-hivers to their cousins. Maura and Zora were testing out a load-lifter mech the miners had brought and were discovering it would take a load-lifter mech just to get them up into the driver’s seat. Straya was demonstrating her exo-bubble to the other Balaenans.
“Daddy!” sang Csilla.
“My most darling pustule!” gurgled the Sphrigon warlord.
Both the king and his princess had been carried into the bay by a team of attendants. Neither could reach across their midsections to embrace the other, but their faces were all the more delighted for it.
“They all doubted me,” he burbled, “but I have always, always believed you would grow someday into a fine Sphrigon. I am so proud of you.”
“And I’m so proud to be one,” she replied, giving her belly a jiggle and turning green to match him.
Her reunion with the Prince-Commander of the Knights was a little more hesitant. Chivalry required that he kneel and kiss her hand, but she’d cunningly positioned herself so that he couldn’t find his way around her swell. She sipped at her glass and with the coyest of smirks watched him struggle until he gave up and kissed her just above the navel. She hiccupped at just the right moment and bounced it against his face.
“I’m so glad to see you well,” he managed, before being bowled over by a plump figure made of honey.
The figure, with both pink and blue crystal hearts glowing in its plump translucent stomach, wobbled eagerly across the bay and waved Lucine out of the air. They gave her a long, sticky kiss and called two other honey-beings over to be introduced.
“Straya,” said the commodore of the migrant fleet, “there have been none like you for centuries. There are posters of you up and down our habitats. The stores sell figurines of you. The young used to dream of being as big as our ancestors. Now they dream of being as big as you. I want you to know that the shipwrights are naming their newest ship Straya’s Blubber. We would be honored if you would visit it.”
“As long as you can still fit me through the airlock, sir.”
The madam of the courtesans measured Maura’s backside. “Oh, I think we could put together some armor for that. Fascinating. Unless…do you expect you might continue to grow larger?”
Maura and Zora traded a grin. “Yes.”
A new commotion from the crowd: the Prince-Commander had just seen Io for the first time and fallen wholly, irreversibly, and very loudly in love. He was on his knees again making every statement chivalry required; she took up a vast portion of the atrium by herself and only looked down in amusement, coiling a tentacle around his ankle.
“Vesper Virgo,” said Estelle, “meet Hoshi, Hester, and Ayla. We were on LV-237 together.”
Vesper’s eyes widened. “Oh, you are gorgeous. You are exquisite. You are enchanting. We absolutely must go to bed together. Would that interest you?”
They watched her cybernetic pleasure-stimulating modules whirr. “Yes.”
“I’ll bring dessert.”
Estelle moved through the crowd. The sound of so many excited, affectionate, unreservedly happy voices overlapping one another was sweeter than any dessert she’d ever tasted.
She mingled until her feet ached. For a woman her size she’d spent far too much of the day on her feet already and she sought out a bench at the edge of the crowd. She settled herself onto it with a weary, relieved breath and spent awhile situating her bulk.
The bench faced a series of murals on the atrium wall. They were familiar images and familiar places. For the first time in years Estelle was looking at something she recognized and the realization was so sudden it moved her more than she could have expected.
She’d been away for so long, she’d traveled to so many worlds, she’d seen—and eaten—so many strange and incredible and wonderful things, but the simple joy of seeing what she’d missed all that time made her next breath shake. She stayed on the bench even after most of the crowd moved off to dinner, gazing happily over her round, shining belly at the round, shining portrait of New Kansas.
It was a beautiful night in the city. Years of scarcity followed by years of Confederation oppression had left humanity’s capitol grey, barren, and morose. Its structures were prefabricated and too utilitarian. Its fashions were drab and joyless.
But now its streets were filled with a newly energetic crowd. All the colonies were gripped by a confusion of emotions as they celebrated the Golden Goose while simultaneously preparing themselves for war on an unprecedented scale. It was a nervous time, but a determined and optimistic one. They felt life again, life worth fighting for, and they had Captain Urrp to thank for it.
They hung banners and flags, they painted their blocky modular buildings in imaginative new styles, and they dressed themselves now with pride and sensuality. Exposed midriffs were already back in fashion.
Tonight most of New Kansas had come outdoors. They played music and danced. They feasted. After midnight, when the cloudcover finally cleared, they gathered around their telescopes to gaze skyward.
A hundred lights blinked between the stars. The colonial space-navy had gathered in force. Every ship that could be spared was taking up formation around the spaceport.
The port released its docking clamps. A new ship sailed out and took up its position overlooking the fleet. It was sleek, shining, and gently curvaceous. It was fitted out with armaments and technologies from the Goose and other captured Confederation vessels. It was strong enough—and certainly large enough—to resist a Confederation dreadnaught.
The telescopes watched another, even fainter light: a single shuttle rising from the planet and heading for the new flagship. A cheer went up.
The other ships fired off a salute. It was ragged and meager, compared to the firepower that had been on display in Captain Urrp’s battle. Humanity’s space-navy was old and its technology was generations behind even the Sphrigons. Many ships were repurposed freighters. Some were left over from the original colonial landings. But they were ready to fight.
They’d have to be. The Oligarchs had officially declared their species traitors and outlaws and established a complete blockade. No one knew just how many battlefleets the Oligarchs could command, but no one doubted they were coming. They only question was when. The blockade was in place, but no one was moving. It had been months now, but the Confederation’s ships seemed content to wait.
“I expect they’re waiting for us to make the next move,” said the magistrate, checking his cufflinks.
“All the more reason to consider that move more carefully,” grumbled the commissioner of the navy.
The magistrate eyed her. “You don’t think this is the right one?”
“I think I’m taking an awful risk.” She glanced up the ship’s corridor. None of the assembled crew were close enough to hear. “If this doesn’t work, we could all starve.”
“We’ll starve for certain if we don’t try.”
The airlock chimed. A console alerted them that the shuttle was completing its docking procedure. The commissioner took up her position by the door. “Do you really trust her?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Think about how long she’s spent with the aliens…fighting aliens’ battles, following alien customs, wearing alien clothes, taking in alien art and propaganda…she’s been sleeping with almost every alien she meets, drinking alien drinks, taking alien drugs, eating alien food…so, so much alien food. Who knows how it’s all affected her? Is she still human? Is she really still one of us?”
“She is. All that has only made her better. And it’ll make us better, too. We’re better because we aren’t alone.” The magistrate tapped the console and the hatch hissed open. “Welcome, Captain.”
They’d left plenty of room at the airlock, but had to each step further back to give Estelle and her hover-scooter enough space. Even in the scooter’s reclined position, even in the supple fabric of her expansive new uniform, Estelle’s stomach overflowed her lap and squeezed up against the steering column. The new uniform was the first thing that had fit her properly in months. It was fastened with adjustable smart-straps to allow for the after-meal bloats while providing gentle support for her movements. But it was still generally form-hugging and its soft, lustrous fabric only magnified every ripple in her fat. Her collar was much less tighter than regulations preferred, but her neck still filled it.
She didn’t get up, but did straighten a moment to salute. The uniform did nothing to conceal the pillow of arm-fat that sagged down from her salute. “Permission to come aboard?”
“Granted,” said the commissioner. She waited until Estelle’s bulk had settled and then began her reading. “Stardate 403.10.01. By the power and authority of Colonial Space-Navy, in recognition of your achievements in service to the Navy and to humanity, whereas the survival of the colonies and the whole species is under threat, Estelle Gorlois, you are hereby appointed to take up the command of CNS Selena. This vessel is to serve as flagship to the expeditionary fleet; as captain, you are to uphold all regulations, observe all directives, and stand to your duties—” She glanced back to Estelle’s paunch and cleared her throat. “—attend to you duties in defense of those under your care.”
“Your orders,” added the magistrate, handing Estelle a data-cube. “Good luck, captain. And take care. It’s a big universe and we’re still learning where we can fit in it.”
“Always, sir. As for where we fit…I think we’ve got plenty of room to grow. And as for the Confederation, it’s time we started throwing our weight around.” She tucked the cube into her cleavage and tapped her communicator. “Let the log show I have assumed command 0700 hours. Hey—almost time for breakfast. No wonder this is growling so much.”
It growled again as she saw off the magistrate and the commissioner. They slipped into the shuttle, together sharing the bench-seat she’d filled all by herself for the trip out. Estelle watched them depart and turned her scooter to face the crew.
They stood to attention and she hovered down the corridor to inspect them. There were more newer faces than old and Estelle felt a bittersweet tightness in her throat. All of the new faces were so eager and so ready and she was so eager and so curious to get to know them and to explore so many new lives like so many new flavors.
But the missing faces tugged at her. Her away-team had gone home to coordinate their own species’ war-efforts. Many of the Golden Goose’s human crew had been rewarded with promotions and appointments and desk-jobs (though few fit behind the outdated desks). Lieutenant Caelius was now Commander Caelius of the fleet’s fastest blockade-runner. Estelle’s kitchen steward was now the admiralty’s chief logistics and supply officer—the cushiest of all desk-jobs and one that kept her within very easy reach of smuggled food-pods. The head of Stellar Cartography and the head of Xeno-linguistics had been married in a highly-publicized nude ceremony. The first was now a celebrity navigator and advisor to the exploratory council; the latter was now a very pampered cultural attaché at the consulate.
There were still a few familiar faces aboard. They were easy to spot, being so much fatter than all the rest. As they stood to attention their guts jutted out from the line of lean new cadets. Estelle was relieved to see them. Not everyone had gone.
“Captain on the bridge,” announced Starling. The sensor technician and comms officer who’d served on the Goose were still there and they smiled at Estelle over their bellies.
“To your stations,” she grunted, powering down her scooter. She took a deep breath, rocked, and heaved herself up. Two service arms unfolded to help her to her feet.
Her eating habits hadn’t changed since the battle. The months spent at home had been busy and overwhelmingly active, but they’d also been filled with celebratory dinners, lunch-meetings, and lavish parties. Everyone she met insisted on buying their hero a meal. She couldn’t decline.
Fortunately the ship had been built to new design specifications and it was a larger bridge than most. Hatches and doorways and corridors throughout the ship were wider, all the showers had been fitted with benches and bars, and none of the mess-tables were booths. There wasn’t a single action-station that required the user to be on their feet.
The officers waited, full of awe and admiration, as their captain carried herself across the bridge. They watched every heavy, deliberate footfall. They listened to every straining huff and puff. They watched her rejoice as she saw her command chair for the first time: it had no armrests. They watched and waited as she got comfortable in it.
“Sorry,” she panted, several minutes after she’d finally sat. “It takes a while to get…huff…get all this situated. Here we are. Status?”
“All personnel aboard and fit for duty,” reported Hester.
“Fit? Not for long.”
“Engines and core at full power,” reported Hoshi.
“All systems nominal,” reported Ayla.
“The spaceport has cleared us for departure,” reported Starling.
A service drone floated over to Estelle with a snack-tray. Another descended from the ceiling to mix her a cocktail. She folded her hands atop her belly and gazed lovingly around the bridge. “Thank you, everyone. Set course for exoplanet LV-237.”
Thanks everyone so much for reading, for your feedback, and for coming along on our strange journey. This was an amazing opportunity to explore and discover and try a lot of new things. It ended up being such a fun set-up for letting the imagination run wild--there are still several worlds and characters and episodes in the uncharted expanse that didn't make the final cut.
I hope you enjoyed the adventure as much as I did and I hope you'll join us again for the next. And feedback and questions are always welcome. Thanks again and see you soon!
Wow I thought I had it figured out.
The hyper lane star gate transport would malfunction enough so that they would partially vanish their mass and return back at lighter weight. Then go back to LV 327 regaining. It is putting it on that they get pleasure. Not the immobilisation from hitting the 500 pound mark.
I never suspected the Federation in an attempt to quieten the Human Discontent would corrupt the leader into being an Oligarch.