Captain Leonidas Hawksblood is a man of the sea of stars and a buccaneer of the spaceways; Leonidas prides himself as a gentleman privateer, but his patience is to be tried when an old freight tub carrying an unexpected cargo refuses to play ball!
Helpless. Innocents cast adrift on the Vast Empty Sea. Victims of circumstance in desperate need of a benevolent rescue.
That was the ploy. A common pirates’ gag: the wounded kitten in need. Please come a little closer, see me bleeding here, salve my wounds, help me up… Taste my dagger. Ah-ah, I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Thanks for the assist, you’re too kind. Now hand over your purse and hold full of goods, thank you very kindly.
Despite whatever heroic delusions you may be dreaming for us, ours is a villain’s lot. Oh, I know I’m a handsome devil; you won’t often find curly red lamb chops like these off the rack of a real wooly lamb. Even strong, healthy boys don’t grow as thick as Pug outside of a natural gravity well. And Comely John—let’s face it, we don’t call him that without good reason. And if you’re going to be trapped in a can on the long route between stars, he’s a fine-smelling chap to be stuck with. But we’re pirates, dear friends, and could never be anything but. And this sturdy boat you find yourselves sailing aboard, she’s The Lion’s Share. You may hear the ship’s lovely voice call me ‘Eon,’ but the name’s Leonidas Hawksblood. Pleased to make your proper acquaintance. You can call me Captain. The ship’s brain we call Cher, but you should have no need to converse with her. If you fancy talking to the boat’s essence, you can talk to our man Spleen instead; they’re practically one and the same.
The Lion’s Share, you may notice, is not a large vessel. She used to be an Atlantean 63C freighter, a smaller, private business-type model, though heavily modified since I came to own her. She’s a petite lass, not one of those huge commercial haulers. We like those big whales, though. Easy to run them down, fill the Lion’s belly with their choicest goods, and leave them to limp along their way. Big ships like that, and the even bigger companies that own them, they’ve got insurance for our kind of play. The crew doesn’t put up a fight. Ain’t their stuff, why should they die for it? Those single-digit-Cs, or 100-class vessels, they’re like big, lumbering mammoths; easy prey for a quick predator on the prowl.
But like I was saying, the old wounded kitten routine. Come pull the thorn out of my paw and I’ll give you a big surprise…
We were resting adrift in the Volaris system—Old Fish, we call that neighborhood—just outside the big emptiness that serves as the usual Slip Space drop zone for incoming traffic. Volaris has a very wide belt of asteroids tumbling around, and you have to get past them to reach the inner planets with their orbital metropolises and big time mining ops. Rather than risk coming back to reality in the immediate path of a giant space rock, ships will drop out of the Slip right around where we were hanging out with our belly up and power low. The opposite side of the system, that’s the outdoor, as it were. All those gas tankers and mammoths full of ore, they depart Volaris on that side. And since those freighters are freshly full of corporate treasure, that’s where security forces are on the watch for pirates.
Thinking outside the kill box, that’s me. That’s why Leonidas Hawksblood and The Lion’s Share are the most successful buccaneers you’ve never heard of.
Well, scarcely heard of. I do have a bit of an ego, I admit, and it needs feeding like anybody else’s. What fun would being a pirate be if no one trembled in fear when you told them who they had the pleasure of being robbed by?
So I was telling a story. Apologies, I ramble sometimes.
The Lion was floating out there, an old 63, a privateer spacer. Imagine that dinner plate your ex-wife threw at you, striking the wall and stopping a half-second post-impact: an irregular circle with lightning-jagged cracks and some triangular puzzle pieces missing from it. That’s what the Lion looks like in the Vast Emptiness. ‘Course she’s a lot thicker, with seemingly random doohickeys sticking out here and there, like a machinist pleasure specialist. The outer rim of the ship is mostly cargo spaces, the circular core being bridge and crew quarters. Half of those cargo bays are now permanently filled with pirate gear: torpedo tubes, big hull-locking grapnel launchers, even a couple shield gens and countermeasure pods. Military junk that ain’t easy to come by. Costs a lot of money. Fortunately, we’re good at what we do.
Now this cracked plate your wife tried to brain you with, it’s hanging out there for almost two weeks, humming on reduced power and rationing food, ‘cause we don’t know how long we’ll be waiting for a playmate to show up. We’re used to it—it’s the spacers’ load to carry, after all—but one can’t help but get antsy after a week or so of not moving forward. So the crew was starting to get a bit restless.
I was in the Hawk’s Nest (what we call Captain Hawksblood’s cabin—my quarters) with the lights low and my feet propped up on my bunk, playing another round of chess with Cher. The holographic board of deep sea blue hovered in the space before me, Cher’s last bishop sliding along the battle lines, slitting the throat on one of my pawns, and taking up a bridegroom’s stance next to my queen, protected there by her rook in a sniper’s position. “Hades claim my daughters!” I cursed. “I fell into the same pit all over again!” I swept my open hand down in anger, passing straight through the image and failing to scatter the pieces in any satisfying manner. Then I dropped my booted feet and stood up in the middle of the board. “That’s a rotten Spleen move, Cher. Are you taking lessons or is it his four-fingered hand I feel in my game?”
“I don’t know what you mean, Eon,” said the computer’s voice, innocent music like wind chimes tinkling on the breeze. That feminine tone is calming for the male nerves, you see, and it’s hard to get angry with her. Especially since she’s not a real person.
But Cher’s the only female aboard the Lion (although rumor has it that Pigeon used to be of the fairer gender). Sorry, ladies, but I have a somewhat sexist policy. Femmes tend to be a distraction to an otherwise male crew, jealous subplots and infighting and the like then tend to ensue. Can’t have that when you’re lost akimbo on the Empty Vast. So for those of you thinking to submit an application of employment, apologies for dashing your hopes and dreams. You’ll all be getting off at the next stop.
No, one charming, incorporeal lady is enough for us. And she even has a pet name for me, which I programmed her to use: Eon. It’s a bit of that ego of mine that I mentioned. My mother called me Leon, and I asked my ship to call me Eon, which has a more majestic, galaxy-spanning glow to it, don’t you think?
Anyway, after Cher denied that Spleen was involved in my chess game, another voice cut in: that of my first mate, Pug. “Captain,” he said—there’s no music to Mister Pug’s guttural barking, “Slip Space ripples one-hundred twenty-two clicks off. Water’s still muddy, but don’t look like a very big boat. Might be our dinner coming.”
“On my way,” I said, butterflies stirring down deep. “Prep the crew for toe-dancing and swashbuckling.”
I grabbed my saber on the way out, which always sits in its place next to the door. ‘Course we use handguns and such too—it’d be foolhardy not to—but boarding a boat with swords is a very intimidating approach. Also feels good and natural in the pirate’s role, you see.
I burst triumphantly onto the bridge with an old sea chanty on my lips. I have to be careful just how I burst, however, as the command deck of the Lion is not what I’d call spacious. There are only three seated stations, the captain’s chair being between the other two. Pug stood center with his hands clasped behind his back, staring up at the Big Board. He’s an oddly shaped brute, his chest and shoulders quite broad, too much so for buttoning his jacket, with narrow hips and stork-like legs. The man’s top-heavy, you see, but somehow never falls over. Even his big square jaw sports a weighty wreath of thick, ebony beard. Spleen sat at the engineering station. He’s a machinist, one of those strange folk who feel more affinity with technology than the lovely body Dog gave them. His face is rather fish-like, though you rarely see it behind his opaque, oversized visor. Catfishy, really, with all manner of limp antenna arcing down from his face, head, and neck. He wears a black rubber bodysuit under equally black, baggy coveralls. Spleen and Cher might be considered married for all practical purposes (including, I suspect, some form of physical love that I dare not imagine), with his machinist’s brain electronically plugged into the ship’s virtual consciousness. That’s why we call him Spleen, after all: he’s an ugly and function-not-quite-identified organ of the ship.
“Action stations are manned, Captain,” Pug reported. “Soot is standing by with a wrench in his hand and the repair spider on his back. Pigeon and Comely John are suited up in fishbowls and booties.” He nodded at the holographic display that hovered a centimeter off the forward bulkhead. “Our friendly boat’s just coasting along, probably finishing up their post-Slip checks. She’ll be underway any minute.”
I took my seat and Pug took his at the helm. “Start the meowing, then,” I ordered.
A basic distress message went out over the wavelengths, set to repeat every four minutes.
The ship coming into Old Fish space was a beat-up-looking 47C model, a cargo boat cousin to our own Lion. New Spaniard make, I figured. Just under our own size and easy prey. I might have gotten picky and let it go in hopes of snagging a better fish later, but we were all getting bored and ready for some action. And our due reward.
Our automated call for help went out, but was ignored. It was a suspicious set-up, I admit, but not as obvious as you might think. The orbital cities of Volaris Proper were several days out under conventional propulsion. And that was after negotiating the asteroid belt. And for any ship coming out of the Slip and re-entering real space, radiation and instrumentalities are all garbled and funkified during transition, unreliable as the ripples of reality smooth back out. For all that boat knew, our distress signal had been repeating every four minutes times two days, or a week, and they were just now noticing.
But if they had received our signal, they were playing hard to get. The 47C accelerated toward the slow dance of asteroids, intent on passing us by.
“We’re being snubbed, Captain,” Pug said, sounding offended.
I let the signal repeat once more, and when they showed no interest or change of course, I fingered the live radio. “Ship of mercy, thank Dog you’re here! We’ve had a bit of a fire in our engine compartment. Lost our propulsion and most of our power plant. You’ve arrived just in time.”
Nothing. We watched impatiently as the little white sliver continued on its course, sailing across our projected screen, now a hundred and seventy clicks away.
I was getting rather pissed now, I must admit. The nerve of some people.
I brought up the ship’s transponder code. The boat went by Indigo Coyote and supposedly hailed from Asia Minor. Either that little boat had done a lot of far-reach ranging over the years, or the transponder was telling fibs.
“Might be bucks of their own,” Pug suggested, meaning fellow buccaneers like us. It was a good possibility.
“Indigo Coyote,” I urged on the radio, “I’m talking at you, friends. We’re a might bit screwed out here in the big, cold dark and in desperate need of an angel’s hand.”
Finally the airwaves crackled a response: “Sorry, can’t help you. I’m in a hurry.”
Pug and I shared a disgruntled glance. “Rude!” Spleen belched from beneath his visor.
“Coyote, I must beg of you, on my knees, for assistance. And remind you of the Spacer’s Code. The Vast Empty Sea is too big, dark, and uncaring for we sailors to ignore one another in time of need. Especially we small-time indie traders, oh brother of mine. Please,” I said, this last word more cruel than sincere at this point, “you sentence us to death if you fail to respond.”
“Sorry,” came the reply again. “Can’t. Just don’t have room for your crew.”
“We’re a small band. We’d only take a single locker’s space between us. Voluptuous Vixen, she’s the only one requiring a mirror to keep herself pretty. The rest of us can all share a toilet stall to brush our pearly whites from. ”
Even the promise of Voluptuous Vixen—whoever she might have been—wasn’t tempting enough for this man.
“Supplies too low,” insisted the Coyote’s dry-throated captain. His boat kept right on sailing by.
“We don’t eat much,” I said, already signaling my mates with a wave of my pointy finger.
“Coming to full power, Eon,” Spleen and Cher said in unison.
“Soot,” Pug ordered, “stand ready on the torpedo tubes.” The tubes were prone to malfunction, you see. Second-hand weapons: inexpensive, but probably discarded for a reason.
The Lion surged forward. “Coming around,” Pug announced, hands taking the helm controls. “Intercept course. Weapons range in nine minutes.”
Our prey already had a head start, and we were accelerating from a dead stop, but the asteroids were our buffer zone. They would force the Coyote to slow back down from straight-on-til-morning to dodge-and-parry speed. Most of the rocks were big enough to dance around easily, but there was always the possibility of smaller debris. Smaller being relative here, with stones and wrecked hull bits ranging in size from water closet to warship, and you didn’t want to smash into either one.
“The Lion’s been building up reserves these past several days, Captain,” Spleen said with glee and in his own voice. “Cher says she can grant us a boost, shave a minute and a half off intercept.”
“Do it,” I said. I didn’t want these scallywags to get into the funhouse hallways of the asteroid field. That would complicate things considerably, and now I wanted this canine boat and her rude captain pretty badly.
There was a noticeable shift in gravity as Cher poured it on. Pug showed his golden teeth in a snarly grin. I overlaid a dotted line, targeting ring, and range finding count-down on the Big Board.
The target lock sang its high-pitched tune in just over seven minutes.
“Fire one!” Pug shouted. A torpedo was spit out the side, found its target, and sped past us. “Fire two! Eels in the water, Captain. Boys, reload!”
In bay two, Pigeon and Comely John would be in space suits, hand loading tubes one and two again, just in case we needed another round. Tube three stood full and ready with a more dangerous payload at all times. We aim to capture, but barring that, the Lion might need to slash with her claws from time to time.
On the Big Board, two torpedoes streaked toward the other ship, which resembled a giant doorstop with barnacles crusting its hull. We waited patiently for our weapons to make contact. The eels were electric ones: EMP payload designed to cripple the target. Space-faring vessels could partially shield themselves from an electromagnetic pulse, but it would take its toll. And only a very large, military-type vessel might be able to block several attempts. Even if a little turd like the Coyote shielded its vital organs from the first ‘pedo, the second coming a few seconds behind would finish it off.
Then something rather amazing happened: one of the turd’s barnacles launched a cluster of flares that streaked off in three whirly directions. The targeting ring on the Big Board flickered and switched priority. Our lead torpedo detonated on an empty patch of void where the flare had just been, waving its fiery hands like a beauty queen with a flat tire. A globe of electromagnetic chaos expanded from that point, rushing out to brush up against our own forward shields.
My head snapped to the right, where Spleen was on the edge of his seat giving a thumbs-up, assuring me that we were okay. (I’d have known soon enough anyway, I suppose.)
“Pretty tricksy for a poor trader low on supplies,” Pug commented.
I had to agree. Now I really wanted to know what that bastard was carrying.
But our cunning friend hadn’t escaped completely from the first eel’s teeth. “She’s listing,” Pug said, pulling us back from our pursuit velocity. The Coyote had lost some control, at least, to that pulse. And just then, the encore performance: torpedo number two slid dark and quiet up to the target and kissed it on the cheek.
The Big Board flickered, as did the bridge lights.
“Shield one’s popped its bellybutton,” Soot reported over the comm. It had done its job, blocking the EMP from taking out our own systems. Hopefully, we wouldn’t need to take another shot, especially as we closed for the kill.
The power signature of the Indigo Coyote had dropped to near zero. She was dead in the water, but wouldn’t be for long. Recoop systems would be kicking back in within seconds. They’d get life support and communications first. Anything else would need time and/or repairs, unless they were really well equipped. But no way this mangy coyote was that tricksy.
I made a crab-claw pinching gesture.
Pug passed the order: “Man the grapnels!” Pigeon and Comely John were no doubt jumping into action. (Or clumsily skipping, more likely.)
Pug eased the ship in, close but cautious. Spleen manned the short guns: rapid-fire, high-velocity numbers that would punch the boat full of leaky holes if things suddenly got life-or-death desperate. Victim ships have been known to play possum, jumping up to bite you once you got in close enough. It was rare, but it happened.
This one, though, looked pretty near death, no play-acting. When enough lights blinked back on to make me think their radio worked again, I fingered the mike:
“Indigo Coyote, your attention, please! Despite your nasty lies, you’ve fallen prey to Captain Leonidas Hawksblood and The Lion’s Share. Prepare to be boarded.”
“Go in cautiously, brothers,” I advised. “They’ve already proven to be more cunning varmints than we expected.”
We were all in converted cargo hold number four, which was our boarding bay. We’d attached ourselves to our prey, much like a mighty lion hunkering down atop a gazelle with our vicious teeth in its flanks. The starboard grapnels launch from four, and so we launch ourselves from there as well. In boarding action, all but Spleen go aboard. We are a crew of only six nasty pirates, after all, and yet someone has to remain to man the boat. So myself, First Mate Pug, and our dirty crew of Soot, Pigeon, and Comely John were fitted snugly in our spacing suits. Soot still wore the repair spider on his back, a specialized omni-tool with many spindly arms, good for fixing things. When boarding, however, the spider helps get us in.
We also went well-armed in other ways: the aforementioned sabers on our hips (or a big nasty hatchet, in Pug’s case), sonic carbines, dart throwers, and magnetic blunderbusses; whatever the boys are feeling akin to when picking through our generous little armory. One never knows what will be of the most value in corsair-flavored combat. A sonic is no good in vacuum, and of little use in especially thin atmo or against certain suits. Similarly, a repeating dart thrower is good on people, poor on armor. Sometimes the mere sting of several small barbs tearing tender flesh is enough to discourage resistance. And loading them with slow poison (that’s poison that slows, not slow-acting juice) or hallucinatory phantom meds proves very useful to our needs. We try not to be lethal unless absolutely necessary. We’re highwaymen, after all, not murderers, and the motivation on bounty hunters and System Guard goes up around your ears if you start taking lives rather than loot.
The gap between the Indigo Coyote and the Lion’s Share was only four to five meters. An easy obstacle in zero-gravity, especially when you have shipmates and manapults to give a boost. The boys tossed Soot over, who latched himself to their hull. He and the ugly mechanical spider went to work on a visible hatch, opening it in twenty seconds or less.
Pug was the first man in because, truth be told, he’s wide enough to provide cover for whoever’s behind him; that being Soot, in case some more sapping and engineering were needed. We all crammed into a personnel airlock, closed the hatch behind us, and opened the front door. Atmo hissed in to greet us, which is always welcoming for visitors coming in from the cold. (Even uninvited ones.) We filed in carefully, Pug and his blunderbuss at the lead. The ‘buss is a versatile weapon. Its ferrous ammo can be shaped according to your needs, be they big slug, wide spread, or the deadly spinning bola. Or you can lock down the BB feeder and fire just the magnetic pulse itself, which has a myriad of uses too. Humanity’s greatest inventions have generally sprung from new ways to kill one another.
Beyond the airlock was a cargo hold, largely empty. In one corner were some pallets of foodstuffs, compact spacer rations of one kind or another. “Guess he was lying about there not being enough food to go round,” I said.
Then a bark of death and ricocheting. Someone had fired solid munitions at us. Deadly hornets raced past my head with muzzle flash in the darkened corridor leading amidships. We all crouched and moved, raising our own weapons. Pug fired his blunderbuss, lodging iron BBs in the bulkhead. John and I both fired sonics into the darkness. I saw something, a glint of reflected light, like am arm going up. Acting on instinct, I shuffled forward and laid down ultrafreq like I was painting the passageway from a distance. Another dancing step and I could see a man clutching his ears, dropping his handgun, and careening to the floor.
I moved into the passage and motioned for the boys to follow. “We’ve got atmo and they’ve got ears,” I said through our comm. “Lead with the sonics.” I stepped over our would-be killer. Pug stepped on him instead and ensured he wouldn’t get up to disturb us anytime soon.
The dim red lighting of the ship’s halls soon split off in two directions. With a wave of my hand, Comely John, Pug, and Soot went aft, while Pigeon and myself went forward. Being basically familiar with the build of a 47C light transport vessel, we knew where we were going. Those boys would secure the engine spaces and thus the ship’s pulsing guts, while Pigeon and I went for the ship’s brain.
A scruffy character with two thin, bionic limbs branching from his left shoulder socket ducked out from around a corner, shooting darts at me and Pidg. Both of the bastard’s skeletal metal mitts held a shooter, and they spit a cluster in our direction. I should say my direction, as I was leading. One chinked off the facial glass of my dome and for an instant I imagined myself losing an eye. Another hit my shoulder but failed to penetrate the suit. The others went wide, and the cowardly shooter disappeared from sight.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, gently pulling me back. “I got this one, boss,” Pigeon said. He’s a wild one, our Pidg, and scarcely predictable. Usually the quiet, graceful sort, but prone to bouts of crazy misbehavings. Pigeon drew his saber in one hand, raised his own dart thrower in the other, and charged down the passage screaming his damned fool head off. I stood still for a moment, admiring the lad, then ran after him. Our prey stuck his head out at just the wrong moment, probably thinking he’d shoot down the wild yodeler point-blank. Instead, Pidg’s blade clattered down on the man’s artificial arms while his thrower spat venomous barbs into him. A moment later his three limbs were sprawled wide, his body numb on slow toxin.
Further down the gloomy corridor, a door slid shut.
We found it to be the door to the bridge. I knocked politely. “Hullo-hullo. Captain Hawksblood here, brain-root of the Lion’s Share. I don’t believe I ever got a name from those within…?”
I raised Pug on the comm. “Aye, sir,” he replied. “We’ve taken the rear. Shutting down atmo fans now.”
A large aspect of the ambient background humming faded out.
I knocked again. “You hear that, dear friends? We’ve taken control of this vessel’s heart and lungs, and can make it rather uncomfortable in there if you force us to.”
After a moment’s consideration, there came a bid to enter.
Naturally, we stood on either side of the door when it opened, so the pistol rounds that came harshly from within all missed us. I reached around with my carbine and painted the room an intense shade of ultrafreq. When I finally strolled inside, I found two patrons on the floor, one of them painting it a nauseating shade of vomit green.
Once the effects of the sonic had worn off, I found the puker to be captain of the vessel. A man named Bajwari, whose skin tones were as dark as our own Mister Pug and whose accent I recognized from our lively conversation on the radio. His quarters were decorated more luxuriously than my own, which I complimented him on. He seemed unwilling to accept my well-meaning words, however.
“So you have only a crew of four, including yourself,” I was saying, “and yet the hold we entered by has nearly four pallets full of rations. Not enough to be worth transporting for sale, but more than I’d expect for your small team, especially given the well-stocked galley my man Pidgeon has already gone nosing through. Then again, mayhaps you just like to buy in bulk? Or you’re a forward thinker who plans well in advance for staving off hunger? Or perhaps you’re all planning to put on weight, a friendly fat-body contest to keep up the crew’s morale?”
He stood before his finely-wrought wooden desk with his arms stubbornly crossed, his lips semi-pursed in what I interpreted as an offensive display. His sparse black whiskers barely formed a moustache, though I judged the man to be thirty Sol or more of age. He was a perplexing fellow.
I was comfortable at his desk with my feet up. The chair was padded and trimmed in real snow-colored animal fur. A gaudy article, but cozy nonetheless. A similar safari theme ran amuck around his walls, with gilded animal heads and trophies and keepsakes from a plethora of ports stuck to the bulkheads. Nothing I saw, however, led me to believe the man had any tastes, a worthy sense of style, or that he was a pirate of any great skill. Other than his odor and pouty silence, he struck me as a rather non-threatening spacer. I told him as much.
“And yet,” I went on, “your boat is equipped with some impressive countermeasures. Not for dodging your fellow privateers, I’d wager, but for avoiding the authorities should they take an interest in you. So what is it that you’re carrying, Captain?”
He shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Jabber mouth, jabber mouth,” I teased, carving my initials into his desktop with my lucky dagger. “You know, I thought you and I were compadres. Brother buccaneers. I thought we would have a fraternal understanding between us.”
“I am a businessman,” he said matter-of-factly.
This was like pulling teeth, and it occurred to me things might go more swimmingly if I did pull a few. We like to be quick in my line of work. Get in, get out. The longer you’re tied up on a boarding action, the more opportunity for something to go wrong. And I certainly didn’t want another ship—particularly a System Guard patrol—cruising by and noticing our ships hung up like dogs mating.
But if a guided tour was what he wanted to provide, we were happy to take one. The remaining trio of the ship’s compliment we left bound together on the bridge under Comely John’s guard. Prisoners are less apt to get fidgety with John smiling down on them. I believe the red-feathered female among them was even making eyes at him.
Mister Bajwari gave us the run-around at first, showing us a couple of empty storage lockers. Pug’s a less patient man than myself, and he let the air out of our host with a swift upward blow under the ribcage. Bajwari, though, was a tough customer. Even when Pug threatened to groom his lower reaches with his razor-sharp hatchet, the captain was stiff-lipped. I decided that I would pick the next mystery door myself and that if Bajwari didn’t help us with the locking code, we’d promote someone else to captain. Or Soot would get it open, and we’d just blow some air holes in this boat on our way out.
We continued down the passageway, me stopping outside doors, holding my hand to it as if feeling for warmth or chills, and watching my true barometer, Captain Bajwari. On the second locker he appeared anxious, so we ordered it open. Inside were perhaps twenty traveling bags of various sizes and states of disrepair. Soot and I opened a few and found them crammed with a wide array of used clothing and personal effects, including a very old-fashioned doll with one button eye missing.
“Yours?” I asked, receiving the usual pouty response. “What the hell does a crew of four need with all this baggage? And why wouldn’t their personal items be in their own quarters?”
“I’m beginning to get the picture, Captain,” Pug said.
“So am I.”
The next time my barometer acted strange was outside one of the larger cargo holds. “Knock,” I told Pug, who obliged using the flat end of his hatchet. The metallic ring vibrated through the door and was soon answered with a meek echo that barely penetrated the door. Knuckles rather than axe head, no doubt.
“Open it,” I commanded. Bajwari made with the pouty face, so Soot complied. The spindly legs reached around his thick-haired noggin, pushing buttons and prying panels, while his gloved fingers pressed buttons and twisted wires. In about eight seconds there came a click, and the hatch sighed open a centimeter’s breadth.
Bajwari must not have believed we’d get it open, for when we did he suddenly got all blubbery, his stiff façade instantly melting away. “I’m a businessman,” he babbled. “They hired me for this; they paid me to get them here. I’m doing just what they wanted. We’re brothers, you said. You said it! We’re the same—”
The metallic breath of a dart thrower came from the shadowy hall to my left. Barbs skipped against the bulkhead, one chinked the helm collar of my open suit; it very nearly buried its unfriendly, hooked nose into the soft, handsome meat of my neck.
Pug reacted faster than I. Bajwari got shoved forward, closer to the shooter. My first mate shouldered Soot backward, jerked open the cargo hold door, and hip-checked me inside. The hatch closed and locked behind me.
My brain and eyes took a long moment to realize what had happened, though my nose noticed a difference right away. It was assaulted by the stink of sweat, urine, and feces, barely discernible from one another in such an awful, collaged bouquet. The air was thick with these things, twice as heavy as the poor atmo I’d been breathing, and I physically choked on it. As my lungs coughed, my eyes adjusted. The darkness within was not absolute, but dimly lit by red heat lanterns, four tiny crimson stars burning within plated jars. Then my brain made sense of other shapes: the remains of several human persons huddling around the lanterns, all looking in my direction.
I say “remains” because the dispersed crowd before me no longer looked very human.
As my wits came back to me, my hands scrambled for a means of self-defense. Trusty saber clung to my hip, and sonic carbine hung lazily over my shoulder. But I had all the time in the universe to ready my weapons—the poor wretches sealed within this scarlet tomb were not rushing me. In fact, most of them were cowering from me, as if expecting some punishment. I saw emaciated faces and near-skeletal bodies. The air I felt on my face, though thick with stench, was starved of oxygen and cold as Dog’s Hell. Judging by the shadowy corners, I figured the space to be about thirty meters square, housing around twenty… travelers? What had Bajwari been babbling about? They had paid for this?
“Food?” one of the living zombies asked. “You bring us more food?”
“Please more food,” another begged. I noticed the crumpled ration wrappers on the ground. A very small child, a mere babe, wore one such package as a diaper.
“Water?” asked a woman stepping nearer. She seemed less fearful than the rest. “We have used ours up.” Her thin hand gestured to a line of five-liter jugs along the wall. Three appeared near-full, however, and even the deck was pitter-pattered with moisture. Then my naive brain connected the urine smell to what I was seeing.
“You are new.” A young boy came forward, dressed in rags and cloaks wound tightly around his chilled little body. “We do not know you. Did we get there now? Are you here for us?” His Venusian language skills seemed better than the others.
This sparked an energy level that had appeared impossible for such wasted figures to muster. More clamored to their feet and staggered toward me, all pitching to me their short list of skills and loyal dedication to backbreaking labor. “We all work,” the first woman was telling me, waving her rake-like hand around at her fellow travelers. “We all work. Please, do not leave any behind! We come so far…”
I held up my hands to ask for silence. Some flinched, expecting something more terrible than words. “You’re workers?” I asked. “Where do you come from? Who are you?”
“Nirvana Paradise,” an old man croaked.
“We come a long way, sir,” the woman said, bony fingers straying in front of her, wanting to grasp my suit, my open collar ring, my face, wanting to pull and beg and plead. “We all work. Just give us your job. Give us food, water, some place for living.”
“Us get off ship, please,” gasped someone else from the crimson dark.
I held my hand up to the woman’s own like a looking glass reflection. Something in me made me do it: lace my fingers between hers. Her knees faltered just then and she nearly fell to them, so overwhelmed by my simple gesture of family and mercy.
“You’re refugees from Nirvana’s Paradise?”
She nodded, wispy hair bobbing before her sunken, skeletal face. That world’s story was a sad one, known throughout all of Dog’s Terrible Creation, I’d wager. A beautiful marble—a ninety-nine they call them, nearly perfect for human life. After a decade of terra-jerking it was perfect and soon settled by idealists and spiritualists hoping to make a world like none other. It was the kind of lush and luxurious wonderland that they make holoscenes from, so lonely spacers like me can paint their quarters with ferns and birds and babbling brooks, to pretend the void beyond their bulkheads isn’t the suffocating cold of the Vast Empty Sea. It was a world worth fighting over. So they did. A century ago Nirvana’s was a blissful Garden, but it had since become a war-torn hell. I’d known many men and women who went there to win coin and glory in the fighting corps. Never met a one who’d come back with either.
“He took your money?” I asked. “Bajwari?”
The woman bobbed in the affirmative. Her eyes glistened as if to make tears, but her deprived husk hadn’t sufficient moisture to do so. “Escape. He helped escape us. Promise us work far away. He get us out, give us life. Peace and work.”
The young boy was suddenly very close, perhaps hoping to glean some heat from my body. “We there now?” he begged. “We come to paradise now?”
“No,” I said, a note more final and cruel than I intended.
The hatch clicked again behind me.
I pushed back the nearest skeletons, whirled around, and brought my blade to bear.
Pug’s big bearded mug poked inside, eyes wide at my weapon so close. “Whoa, Captain. Fighting’s over.” Then his face crumpled up all sour. “Holy Dog beyond the Heavens, what is that stink?”
In the passageway outside lay the corsairess with the red-feathered scalp, prone in a pool of blood. Pug’s blunderbuss had made a mess of her.
I kicked her corpse with the toe of my boot. “If you hurt one lovely hair on Comely John’s head…”
The Coyote’s spiteful captain sat on the deck with his hands over his face, blood oozing between his fingers; a smashed beak, I imagined. Soot was down too, rocking back and forth with the spider levered beneath him, eyes closed and legs working in pain.
“Took a few darts,” Pug explained. “But old Soot’s been poisoned by worse. We’ll lay him under the med spider back home and she’ll plant some fresh eggs in him, make him all better.”
The prison hatch opened wider, swung inward by a dozen frail hands.
Pug’s nose crinkled again. “That’s what he’s transporting?”
“Aye,” I said. “Charging them first-class seating too, I’d wager. They’re coming from Nirvana’s P, think they’re getting peace and freedom and fair rate’s work when they get to wherever they’re going. More likely, Mister Bajwari’s got a contract with some Volaris mine or factory that’ll pay him by the head. And then those bastards’ll turn around and pull some indentured travel contract on these poor folks. ‘Welcome to your new hell. Work hard enough and mayhaps you can pay off what you owe me.’ ‘Course they never say exactly what you owe, or why. I been in under one of those debts myself, once upon a time. Never paid it off, but I paid the master back, good and plenty…”
Been a rogue ever since.
“Captain.” My first mate was giving me the old suspicious eye. “Ain’t our job, sir. We ain’t in the people business. Trafficking human animals is bad voodoo. I see it in the sky blue of your eyes…”
“Aye, you do.”
He shook his head at me. “Give them this crate as their own,” Pug suggested. “Let them go their own way.”
“We no fly,” someone said behind me. The same syllables were repeated a dozen times by a dozen dusty voices.
“Not our business,” Pug said again, his final, halfhearted argument.
I activated my comm. “Spleen.”
“Yes, Eon,” came two replies, one machinist, one feminine machine.
“Prep the boat for a busy transfer and a heavy load. We take everything that ain’t nailed down, and even what is. We get the lion’s share, like we’re used to, and leave Bajwari’s scraps for the buzzards.”
‘Course, you know the rest. Welcome to the next leg of your journey. I figure we’ll drop you all at Python. The name doesn’t sound too inviting, but it’s a nice place. Ain’t far, and for a big orbital tube, it’s stuffed full of lush jungle and greenery.
Now mayhaps one of you might like to share a tale? One of you that speaks fair Venusian, that is. Pug seems to think a lot of you might only speak some dialect of Presbyterian or some-such, but I can tell by the smiles and nods that you’ve all enjoyed my story. Except for you, there. You’ve been slack-jawed the whole time. Sure you didn’t take a sonic point-blank to the head sometime in life? Soot, get that young man some more to eat! I think his noggin might have starved past the point of no return.
J.D. Brink is an over-worked Navy Nurse Corps Officer taking care of U. S. military members and their families in Japan. When not on duty or entertaining his five-year-old son, he squeezes out novels and short stories like blood from wounds that he just won’t allow to heal. You can follow his adventures at https://brinkschaostheory.com.