A Pirate's Life
Scavenger Alex Hale comes across a derelict spaceship that might be too much for him...
The pirate’s ship spun slowly as it drifted, five light-years from the closest star. It looked like an asteroid, reddish with typical impact craters, but was more elongated than most. Cigar shaped. I kept my ship a kilometer away.
“Wilson, you’re sure that’s the ship of this … uh … Jan Breck renegade?” I was the only living creature aboard. Wilson was the name I’d given my computer. […]
I rubbed the back of my neck. “Tell me why you’re sure.”
“Three reasons,” he said. “First, the signature of the ship’s last jump suggested it would end up in this region of the galaxy.”
“Why would Breck come here?” I asked. “To escape, right?”
“Probably. We’re a hundred and fifty light-years from the closest occupied star system. The jump was dangerous, but capture was imminent. There wasn’t much choice.”
“The structure of the ship matches that reported in the last encounter with Breck. It looks Endish.”
I gave a low whistle. “Nice.” I magnified the image, scanning along the surface of the craft. “Was it built to look like an asteroid, or is it an actual hollowed-out piece of rock?”
“Unknown. It’s ten point two times longer than it is wide. No natural body in our home system has a length-to-width ratio of more than three to one. That suggests it was built from scratch.”
My own ship was an aging salvage vessel, almost a derelict itself, shaped like a one-hundred-meter-long hen’s egg. Ninety percent of the interior was cargo hold, currently—and depressingly—empty.
I sat in the command center, a spherical space so small I could touch one side of it with my toes and the other with outstretched fingers. I’d devoted most of the room’s walls to view screens, so I felt as though I were sitting in space. Even with the twenty or so patches of dead pixels, the effect never got old. The rattle of an unbalanced fan and the smell of human sweat reduced the awesomeness, however. Worse, I’d salvaged a zoo transport ship a year before, and despite an overpriced power wash of the cargo area, most of the ship smelled like a poorly maintained monkey house. Hard to ignore.
“What’s the third reason you’re sure this is Breck’s ship?” I asked.
“There is no third reason.”
“I can’t count.”
I ran my fingers through my unkempt hair and thought for a second. “Why the hell would you think that’s funny? It’s not even remotely funny.”
“Two years, three months ago, on the afternoon of August fourteenth, 2127, you told a joke. I will play it for you.”
Here we go.
From the speakers came my own voice, the words somewhat slurred. “There are three kinds of people in this world: those who can count and those who can’t.”
“No. Jeez. Wilson, that works as part of a joke, but … okay, forget it. We need this salvage. We’re two payments behind on Egg, and if we don’t get a good haul out of this—” I gestured toward the image of Breck’s ship, “—Alex Hale Salvage will be out of business. You’ll be wiped.”
“As I’ve told you before—”
“I know. You don’t care. Tell me about this Breck guy.”
I frowned. “What?”
“‘Gal’ is the female term that most closely corresponds to ‘guy.’ Breck is a woman.”
Interesting. I thought about that for a while. I’d heard the news that Breck had been part of a mutiny, but that’s all I knew. “Tell me her story.”
“Jan Breck graduated at the top of her class at the naval academy, with a double major in aerospace engineering and cybersecurity. She served on multiple exploration missions. She was chief science officer on the starship Sunrise three years ago when the crew mutinied.”
“Right, I remember that.”
Wilson continued, “The captain and six crewmen loyal to him were crammed into an escape pod with little chance of survival. However, against all odds, the captain piloted the pod to an abandoned G-Plex outpost, and those in the pod were rescued.”
“What happened to the Sunrise?”
“It was never heard from again. The mutineers, including Breck, were convicted in absentia and sentenced to death. She is the only one who has resurfaced. She’s single-handedly perpetrated three piracy actions. She steals intellectual data and ByteCoin from the ships she attacks. She is thirty-five years old.”
Huh. Same as me.
“She has an eight-hundred-K price on her head.”
I nodded. “Enough to pay off my loans.”
“And you think she’s inside that spaceship.” I gestured to the view screen again.
“There is a single life-form aboard, but the signature is weak and not definitive. Also, life support is off.”
“Dead or alive?”
“The ship is dead.”
I rubbed the back of my neck. “No, no. The reward. Does it pay even if Breck is dead?”
“Okay. Let’s find the door into the craft.”
Wilson went over every square meter of the faux asteroid’s surface. I ran my body through Egg’s wash-and-dry unit. Stupid, I know, but there was a small chance I’d soon come face-to-face with a real live woman my age. Sure, she was probably in some kind of coma, but I needed a shower anyway.
I look okay for a down-on-his-luck scavenger. Tall and slim—I prefer the term “wiry”—I’ve avoided the dreaded spaceman’s muscle atrophy by sleeping in the two-G centrifuge every night. My face sports a perpetual single-sided smile, something I woke up with following a collision with a malfunctioning cargo drone. I could have it fixed, but apparently women like the devil-may-care look it gives me.
Four hours later, I floated outside Breck’s ship in my best EVA suit, the one with the non-life-threatening leak. There was a pinhole somewhere in the suit, damn it, and I’d never succeeded in finding it.
Breck’s ship bulged slightly near one end, like a poorly rolled cigar. Wilson had located an elliptical seam obscured by the rim of a crater. I floated over to it, accompanied by one demolition and two stevedore robots. Egg loomed near us like an overly protective beach ball, revolving around the cigar with an angular velocity that matched its slow rotation. I had the illusion that we were stationary, with the universe of stars pivoting around us.
Up close, the seam was obviously the edge of a large hatch. It was wide enough to put my gloved hand into. At this distance, the surface of the craft appeared man-made. Creature-made, I suppose. In any event, it wasn’t natural. Small indentations between interlocking hexagons covered the simulated rock.
I held my helmet against the hull and listened. Little explosions met my ear. Faint and somewhat random. I took a hammer from my suit and banged on the hatch, and the explosions increased in frequency and intensity. There was something familiar about them.
“Wilson, do you hear those noises?”
“What are they?”
“They are the barking of an Earth dog,” he said.
“But …” I looked out at the stars while listening some more. That’s why it had sounded familiar. I banged again with my hammer and got an immediate set of fast barks followed by slower ones: “Ruh, ruh, ruh, ruh, ruh … ruh … ruh.”
I cleared my throat. “The temperature inside is close to absolute zero.”
“But there’s a dog inside.”
“Sounds like it.”
“And enough air to transmit his barking.”
“Good reasoning, Alex.”
“Don’t you patronize me!”
Wilson said nothing.
I worked my way around the edge of the hatch, holding myself against the hull by jamming my hand in the seam and making a fist. No reason to waste propellant in my suit’s maneuvering unit. Halfway around, I found it: an emergency control for opening the hatch. It looked like the handle of a shovel. The symbols engraved beside it meant nothing to me.
I centered the light from my helmet on it. “Can you understand those characters?”
“How does it work?”
“Pull the handle out and then rotate it ninety degrees clockwise.”
I did so. Nothing happened, and then a ring of orange lights flashed around the periphery of the hatch. That was easy! I pressed my helmet against the surface. A faint honking reached my ears. “Looking g—”
The hatch flipped open. Outward. With yours truly on top. Stupid! It didn’t open crazy fast, but quickly enough to send me tumbling off into interstellar space. Conditioned by years of working on a tight budget, I made some mental calculations. Cheaper to use my manned maneuvering unit to get back or have the stevedore retrieve me? Clearly the former.
“I’m handling it.” I babied the controls, conserving propellant, slowing myself down then accelerating back.
At the hatch once again, I held myself against the lip and pointed my helmet light in. The airlock was big enough for four people, and the far end was transparent. Sure enough, on the other side, a dog was literally bouncing off the walls, barking its fool head off. It seemed fully acclimated to microgravity and never stumbled or missed a paw placement.
“Okay, Wilson, I’m going in.”
“You’re not concerned about the dog or about getting trapped?”
“I need this salvage. I had a dog as a kid, and I can read its body language. It’s excited, not aggressive.”
“You know it’s not really a dog, right?”
I floated over to the handle-shaped controls in the airlock. “Translate these symbols and project the English onto my visor. What language is it?”
I nodded. “You were right, then.”
The instructions appeared on my visor, overlaying the original text and fixed to the surface such that if I moved my head, the letters stayed location-locked to the wall. The airlock worked as expected, although my heart jolted when the outer door snugged closed.
The dog coordinated its bounces with the opening of the inner door. It had done this before. It flew toward me. I clenched my teeth. Uh-oh. It wasn’t really a dog; no normal mammal could survive at this temperature, so it might easily be a protective device. A deadly watchdog disguised as a friendly pet with disarming body language.
But it slammed into me whining, wriggling, and barking. Nothing but joy. It began licking my helmet. I petted its head, grabbed a bit of loose skin on its neck. It felt like a real dog as far as I could tell through my gloves. It was some kind of mutt, like a black Irish wolfhound but not so big. The fur was wiry. I took a close look at a forepaw that gripped the material on my spacesuit. It wasn’t a hand, but the toes were able to hold on to things. Pretty important in zero-G.
“So it’s a dog robot. A companion. Right, Wilson?”
“Wilson, do you read me?”
“Damn it, Wilson, that’s not funny.”
Wilson’s voice filled my helmet. “Three years ago, on July seventh, you—”
“I don’t care what I said or did. Don’t make that joke again. Now, tell me where the life-form … Never mind. I know where it is.”
The robodog had bounded off then returned to me, barking.
“Did Timmy fall into the well?” I asked. I had no idea what that meant, but it’s something my granddad used to say whenever our dog acted that way.
I followed the dog into a passageway. It was a hexagonal tube, barely wide enough to turn around in. I passed storage compartments separated by rubbery protuberances that doubled as hand, or paw, grips. I heard nothing but the dog’s barks and a ringing in my ears left over from a cargo explosion during my careless period. The faint smell of beer vomit in the suit was another reminder of that time.
The corridor widened. Ah. The bridge. All the screen walls were dark. Two command chairs sat dead center, with physical controls set into the armrests.
The tone of the robodog’s barking changed. I turned. He was sitting next to something that looked like a two-meter-long jelly bean, orange with a mirror-smooth surface. Universal robogrips sat on each end, and blinking text appeared in the center.
I floated to it. “Wilson, am I now next to the life-form?”
I looked at the text projected on my helmet’s view screen: “Life support wasted.”
Aargh. “Wilson, give me alternative translations for that last word.”
“Debilitated, drained, crippled, weakened, frazzled, bushed, done for, enervated, toast, out to lunch—”
“Okay, I got it. Let’s get this back to our ship.”
“This ship’s power was depleted by the long-range jump. I can recharge it.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s valuable, it’s ours, and we can’t jump it back to Griphon 9 if it’s dead.”
“Okay. Do it.”
Back in Egg, the two stevedore robots fastened the jelly bean to a table in the medical cove of my main cargo bay. The cove was separated from the open cargo area by a Plastform lattice; large open spaces can be problematic in zero-G.
“Wireless data transfer is off. The pod is in airplane mode to save energy,” Wilson said.
“Airplane mode” means wireless communication is disabled. It makes no sense, but no one seems to know how the term originated. After a long search through my bins of junk, I found a power cable that would connect the bean to our system. As soon as I plugged it in, a horn sounded and the entire pod flashed between orange and black.
I stepped back. “What is it?”
“The pod was in emergency battery-saver mode. Whatever is inside is dying.”
“You mean Jan Breck.”
“We don’t know that. That’s an assumption.” Wilson had that patronizing tone again. “Shall I revive it?”
“Is that a yes?”
“Yes. Revive it.”
The pod’s color changed to maroon, and the honking stopped. I ran my hands over the surface, feeling for seams. There were none. “How long will this take?”
It ended up taking two hours. While waiting, I busied myself on a neighboring workbench, trying to repair a faulty ion pistol.
I jumped when a blast from the capsule’s horn hit me. I spun around. The top of the pod swung open like the lid of a coffin. I hurried over to it.
Gross. The thing inside was roughly human shaped and covered with a green fuzz, like something you’d find at the back of a refrigerator. The rotten stench overwhelmed my cargo bay’s eau de monkey house.
I held my nose and leaned close to the head end of the body. A mistake. It sat up, knocking me in the forehead, dusting me with green mold spores. The form coughed then angled over the side of the pod and retched. Nothing came out.
I jumped back. “Are you Jan Breck?”
The form was clearly human and decidedly female. She wore nothing but the mold, resembling a child in a sprayed-on, fuzzy green blanket sleeper.
She raised her hand in a “stop” gesture, then lay back down in the pod.
I leaned over. She moved her hand to her face and wiped off the fuzz as though clearing away cobwebs. She opened one bloodshot eye and focused it on me.
I cleared my throat. “Can I get you—”
At the sound of her voice, the robot dog popped out of its dormant state and launched himself off the wall. He acted the way he had when he’d first seen me but multiplied by ten.
She smiled for the first time, petted his head roughly, then gave him a command with a subtle hand gesture. The dog floated to her feet and lay down in the bottom of the coffin.
I brought her a water bottle. She sucked it dry.
When I began wiping her face off with an oily rag, she snatched it, batted my hand away, and finished rubbing at the mold. The oil didn’t seem to bother her. She blew her nose on the rag.
Her eyes were a dark brown, matching her hair, which would have come down to her waist had it not been floating free in the no-gravity environment. This was indeed Jan Breck, based on the photos I’d seen.
Her voice was raspy and weak. “What’s the date?”
Wilson answered, “November fifteenth, 2130.”
“That your computer talking?”
“You a bounty hunter?”
“I run a salvage company.” That sounded a little grander than it was.
“Where am I?”
Wilson gave her the coordinates.
She sat up again. “This place smells like a zoo. You got a shower unit?”
“Yes. I can help you.” I reached out.
“Down, boy. Just keep your hands to yourself and tell me where it is. Sorry, yeah, I’m grumpy, but I haven’t eaten for seven months, and I feel worse than I look.”
Breck floated herself out of the pod. She was either unconcerned about her nakedness, or felt her green coating counted as clothes. Probably the first. The mold didn’t do much to disguise her curves.
I pointed to the shower unit. I watched her fuzzy green ass while she floated toward it. She collided with the workbench.
Huh! She’s good. I’d almost missed it.
“It doesn’t work.”
“The shower unit?”
“No, the ion pistol. Can you put it back, please?”
She manipulated the pistol, presumably putting it in test mode, pointed it at the floor, and pulled the trigger. She tossed it back onto the bench without a word.
An hour later, Jan Breck floated into the kitchen cove. I was having coffee.
The wanted posters didn’t do her justice. Wilson, with more foresight than I have, had sent a stevedore to retrieve her clothes and toiletries and deposit them in the shower room. She entered the cove wearing a black, clingy top with spaghetti straps. If she was trying to appeal to my male hormones, it was working. She’d tied her hair into a long ponytail. It drifted around behind her, reflecting the cabin lights. Her hair color matched mine so exactly that if we had kids … whoa, she was influencing me big-time!
I’d heard people describe faces as almond-shaped, and hers fit that description perfectly: wider at the top, tapering to a delicate chin. The only flaw in her appearance was a chip-on-her-shoulder expression: a frown and a set jaw.
While loading a capillary beverage cup with coffee, she asked, “Are you going to turn me in?”
“I … of course, I—”
She turned, catching me in her high beams.
I gave a little deer-in-the-headlights whimper. Hopefully, she didn’t hear it. “I have no choice. You know that. You’re a mutineer.”
“Then why not kill me now? The reward is dead or alive. If you turn me in, they’ll kill me, so why not get it over with? It would be a big payday for you.”
I sipped my coffee.
“I’m not, you know,” she said.
“Not a mutineer. You know the story, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “The captain and those loyal to him were put in an escape pod and set loose. They weren’t expected to survive, but they did.”
“But I wasn’t one of the mutineers.”
I’d read that there were two who didn’t fit in the pod, but the captain knew about those. They weren’t convicted.
She finished her coffee. “I wasn’t on board when it happened. I was in the shuttle. When I got back, the pod was gone. What could I do? They wouldn’t allow any communication with the pod or anyone else.”
“So you became a renegade and a pirate.”
She shrugged. “Opportunities for convicted mutineers are limited.”
“What happened to the other mutineers?”
Her eyes flashed. “Not ‘other.’ I wasn’t a mutineer. They kept me captive since they knew I’d probably turn them in if I got back to civilization. They stole Asteroid.” She gestured to the view of her ship, a hundred meters from Egg. “I managed to escape, taking the new ship with me.”
“You can’t turn yourself in? Explain your case?”
“Renegade and pirate, remember? Besides, I have no evidence. The ship’s logs went with the mutineers, and I’ve heard the captain now has Alzheimer’s.”
“So you started pirating.”
She took a deep breath. “No choice. Because of remote DNA scanning, I can’t even approach a station without being attacked.”
“Lonely?” I recognized the hunger for human companionship that I shared. Was I fooling myself that we’d formed some kind of immediate bond? I sure felt one.
She looked off into the distance and gave a slow nod.
“If I don’t turn you in, I’m an accessory after the fact.”
“Just let me go. We’ll pretend this never happened.” Then she said the words that made my heart jump. “Or you could join me.”
I looked at the nape of her neck, the gentle curve down to her shoulders. Her suggestion didn’t mean she had any interest in me. There was a look in her eye … No, I couldn’t trust that. But would a life on the run with a beautiful, intelligent companion be an improvement over my lonely existence? Of course. Sure, she was just manipulating me. She knew that with Wilson and my bots, I could hold her against her will. She was looking for a way out.
She drifted toward me while lost in thought, and our arms touched. The jolt of current that passed between us had nothing to do with static electricity. She jerked her head back and looked at me sideways. Had we felt something more than the bond between two lonely space drifters? No, stop! She didn’t know me at all. But perhaps over time …
Wilson’s voice made us both jump. “Sorry to interrupt this clandestine conversation, but we are about to have company.”
A screen flashed on, displaying two warships. Crap! I zoomed in. “Are those—”
“Xelons, yes,” Wilson said. “ETA, forty minutes.”
“Slave harvester ships?”
“Yes.” All trace of humor had disappeared from Wilson’s tone.
Jan let go of her coffee and pushed off toward the hatch. “You won’t stand a chance in this crate. Come to my ship.”
“How would that help us?”
“It’s an Endish vessel.”
Good point. They made the best ships in the galaxy.
I had no choice. If I stayed, I’d risk becoming an eternal slave, since Xelons could extend life indefinitely.
As soon as we passed through the airlock on her ship, which was now fully operational, some kind of force field or wind propelled the two of us, plus the dog, to the bridge. Unlike Wilson, her computer was a no-nonsense entity. She spoke to it in rapid-fire Endish.
I strapped myself into one of the command chairs. “Your computer can’t speak English?”
“Endish works better for this situation. Hush.”
My comm to Wilson was still open. “I’m being scanned,” he said.
Breck was a blur of activity, adjusting virtual switches, arranging screens. Every gesture was precise, with a constant back-and-forth in staccato Endish. She kept one eye on the approach of the slave traders.
She swiveled her command chair toward me. “What defensive capabilities does Egg have?”
“Pretty much none. I had to sell off my quantum gun.”
“But a self-destruct, right?”
I nodded. Self-destruct was required of all salvage vessels; some cargos must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.
“Ion or quantum?”
She spun back and continued her preparations.
“Arrival in five minutes,” Wilson said.
“You have a plan?” I asked.
She kept working. Didn’t answer for a full minute then turned to me. “Set up the self-destruct, and execute it when I say. You’ll have to trust me.”
I spoke with Wilson, working through the safeguards. He made no jokes about whether he regretted his upcoming demise.
“Ready,” I said to Jan. “But you know that—”
“Prepare to surrender.” The raspy Xelon voice boomed through the ship.
“Now, Alex,” Jan commanded.
“But Egg is too close to us. We’ll be destroyed.”
“Now! Trust me.”
I clenched my teeth. “Wilson, now.”
The blast registered in my whole body as if Asteroid had shifted instantly. Egg was only one hundred meters distant, while the quantum disruption bubble extended out a kilometer. The jump queasiness hit me at the same time. What?
I opened my eyes to Jan’s radiant smile. It lit up her entire face and sent a warm arrow through my heart. The stars in the view screen had changed. “What happened?”
“I used the self-destruct blast to disguise our jump. Endish ships can survive blasts like that. We jumped a hundred and twenty light-years, and the Xelons won’t be able to figure out where we went.” She displayed a spreadsheet above my head. “Check this out.”
It took me a while to decipher what I was seeing. “That can’t be right.”
She nodded. “It is. I transferred all the ByteCoin from the Xelon ships. Enough to keep us in luxury for a few years.”
“So, what do you say, love?” She turned her smile on me. “Shall I drop you somewhere, or shall we become renegade pirates together?”
I answered without hesitation. “Yo ho!”
The robodog looked at me and said, “Bad idea.” It had Wilson’s voice.
Al Macy lives in far, far Northern California with zero dogs, zero cats, and one wife. He likes dogs and cats; he just doesn’t have any. Al has published fourteen books.
To find more about Al Macy: https://almacyauthor.wordpress.com/
Art by Salvador Trakal: https://www.artstation.com/salvadortrakal