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“I recognize your ship, Captain Qaiyaan.” The voice coming over the ship’s comm deepened with menace. “You’re interfering with a legal salvage operation.”
The two ships rotating helplessly outside Qaiyaan’s port screen told a different story than the human on the comm was telling; an eyeful of stars peeked through the blackened hole piercing the Syndicorp passenger ship’s hull, while the second, unmarked vessel’s short-range lasers glowed from recent use. “Seems you ought to be a bit more generous,” Qaiyaan drawled. “What with needing our help and all. I’m gonna take first crack at the salvage, then we’ll get you your part. You can have whatever we leave behind.”
“I warn you, don’t touch that ship!” blustered the voice on the other end.
Normally Qaiyaan’d wish the other pirate captain well and move on. Not today. His crew hadn’t had a profitable job in half a Denaidan year. This opportunity was too good to pass up. Besides, anyone who blew a hole in an unarmed passenger transport—Syndicorp or otherwise—left a sour taste in Qaiyaan’s mouth. “I could simply wait here. My first mate estimated in half a day we’ll have two ships in need of salvage. This is an awful deep part of space to find yourselves without a spare flux modulator.”
“You fucking son-of-a-rakwiji-whore bastard! I have powerful friends, and I can make sure you never find safe harbor in this sector again!”
Qaiyaan crossed his arms and glared at the comm. “I’m the only friend you have in the galaxy at this moment, so I suggest you be polite.”
Noatak, Qaiyaan’s first mate, grinned at him from the navigator’s seat, the copper sheen of his skin reflecting the multi-colored light from the control panels. The small cockpit, designed for humans, was barely big enough for the two Denaidan males to breathe at the same time. “Want me to take us in for soft docking?”
Qaiyaan watched the human pirate ship complete another slow, helpless turn in the port monitor. “Take us in, but keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Could be a Syndicorp trap.”
“Pretty elaborate for a setup.” Noatak shook his head, the metal beads decorating his long hair and beard clicking softly.
“Chances of blowing both in-line flux modulators at once and not having a spare? Either he’s stupid, or it’s a setup.”
“I say he’s stupid.” Noatak adjusted the controls to nose the Hardship toward the passenger wreckage.
Qaiyaan rose from the captain’s chair. Shit happened, especially to ships running less-than-legal activities. He ought to know, having just forked out the proceeds from their latest heist to retrofit a new hull onto the Hardship’s battle-damaged frame. The black market repairman’d all but asked Qaiyaan to bend over and spread his cheeks. Rotten, cheating bastard.
Turning to the door, he paused and looked over his shoulder at Noatak. “Just be careful. Even if it’s not a trap, Syndicorp’ll be looking for their missing ship, and I don’t want to be caught with our dicks out.”
After sealing the control room door, he slid down the ladder to the cargo bay, booted feet clanging against the catwalk grating as he landed. “Mekoryuk! Tovik! All hands on deck!”
Mekoryuk poked his clean-shaven face out of the med bay. He was the only crew member who chose not to wear the customary full beard the Denaida prided themselves on, citing a doctor’s need for cleanliness or some such anaq. “What is it?”
“Salvage mission. Assume zero atmo. No time for suits. Syndicorp could be riding our ass any minute. Where’s Tovik?”
“Where else?” Mek tilted his head toward the end of the hall.
Qaiyaan left the doctor and strode to where the hatch to the engine room stood open. As captain, he could appreciate the well-oiled hum of a ship’s engines, but Tovik was a bit too much in love with moving parts. Squatting next to the hole, Qaiyaan yelled, “Tovik! On deck ready for void! And bring a spare in-line flux modulator! Now!”
Knowing his crewmen would comply without further prodding, he headed for the airlock. Through the portal, he watched Noatak guide the magnetic grappler into place. The captain of the human ship was probably apoplectic, watching his cash cow get raped by another ship. Tough luck. Qaiyaan’d be sure to leave the replacement flux modulator within reach, but not until the Hardship was ready to hightail it out of there.
The first mate finessed the grappler toward the other ship’s open airlock, his voice crackling over the internal comm to the cargo bay. “You sure you don’t want to take time to suit up?”
Mekoryuk arrived with a med-kit over his shoulder, and Qaiyaan shot him a grin as he answered. “No suits. These qumli need the practice.”
Tovik pounded up, feet bare as usual, his scruffy beard and hair not quite the full mane of a mature Denaida male. Qaiyaan scowled at him, looking pointedly at his gleaming copper feet. The youngster said he had better control of his ionic abilities if his skin was bare, but one of these days he was going to lose a toe, or worse. At least the boy carried the spare flux modulator, as requested.
While Noatak secured the flexi-tube between the ships, Qaiyaan filled in the other crew members. “I’m not sure what we’ll find over there, but it’s not likely to be pretty. Grab everything not nailed down. We’ll sort our inventories later.”
Mek asked, “What about survivors?”
“There’s no life signs aboard.” Qaiyaan pointed to the modulator in Tovik’s hands. “That’ll stay with the human ship once we leave. Can you give it a slow push their direction? I don’t want it to reach them until we’re long gone.”
“You bet, Captain!” the young man nodded, likely already calculating trajectory and speed at which to push the thing.
“Stand fast for void!” Noatak’s voice echoed through the cargo bay.
Qaiyaan barely had time to summon his ionic shell before the doors cracked open. A blast of air swept past, rattling the flexi-tube as it sucked into the other ship and out the gaping hole in its hull. The Denaidan’s ability to withstand vacuum had made them one of the most sought-after races for Syndicorp marine crews before the catastrophe had ended their world. Now…
Now they were just pirates.
Concentrating on keeping his feet on the deck, Qaiyaan tapped his temple to activate his cochlear implant. A vestige of his days as a trooper, it came in handy in zero atmo when they couldn’t bother with suits and the attached comms.
The three crewmen pushed themselves along the flexi-tube into the darkness of the other ship. Tovik, ever prepared, pulled a floodlight from his belt and slapped it to the inner wall of the passenger ship. The illumination exposed a passenger cabin surprisingly gutted of anything passenger-related. No nav-grav seats for humanoids, no methane tanks for garan’uks, not even any acceleration webbing for yanipa-nimayu. Instead, cargo containers of all shapes and sizes floated freely within the cabin, some cracked open and spilling their contents in haloes around them.
What the hell is this ship? Qaiyaan wondered. He’d been expecting the gruesome sight of space-bloated passengers. Not that he minded this alternative. He reached out and grabbed a floating package of hypodermic needles. Medical supplies?
He exchanged a glance with Tovik, who shrugged. Whatever this stuff was didn’t matter; he’d much rather deal with salable goods than corpses.
Qaiyaan pushed toward the nearest container until he could get a hand on it and shoved the man-sized box toward the flexi-tube, relying on inertia to carry it most of the way. One after another, he moved containers, working until sweat coated his skin beneath his ionic shielding. Even in zero-G, it took effort to hold himself steady and force the heavy boxes into motion. At least twenty minutes passed before he grew light-headed. Using the ionic shell was much like a diver holding his breath, and he knew they’d soon have to come up for air. A tinny voice in his implant did the job for him. “We have incoming on long-range, Captain. Can’t yet tell if it’s Syndicorp, but they’ll be in range for ID in eight minutes.”
Anaq. They’d come looking faster than he’d expected. He raised his arm and caught the other men’s attention, circling two index fingers overhead to tell them to wrap it up. The men dropped what they were doing and moved toward the exit.
As soon as the door sealed, blessed oxygen began to fill the bay, but it would be a few minutes before there was enough pressure to breathe. Still light-headed, Qaiyaan began helping secure the containers against the floor’s mag-locks. He estimated they’d emptied at least half the salvage and was feeling quite pleased as Noatak began accelerating away from the derelict ship.
“Captain?” Mek called from behind a stack of containers.
At that same moment, Noatak’s voice crackled through the bay’s comm. “Confirmed Syndicorp ship closing in fast. We need to burn, ASAP.”
“We need five minutes,” Qaiyaan said, assessing the remaining cargo.
“Captain!” Mekoryuk called again. “We have a problem.”
“What?” Qaiyaan leaned around the corner. Tovik and the medic stood over a cargo box, staring down at a portal in its surface. Blinking red light bounced off both their faces.
Tovik rubbed his hand vigorously across the small window. “Is that a girl?”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” Qaiyaan slapped a mag clamp against the container he was securing and stood. “A cryo-pod? Who the hell picked that up?”
“You said grab everything,” Tovik said. He looked up to meet Qaiyaan’s gaze. “Can we keep her?”
Noatak came over the com again. “Captain, they’re hailing us.”
Qaiyaan scowled and thrust a finger at the cryo-pod. “She’s not a netorpuk puppy, Tovik. Just secure the damn thing so we can burn. We’ll figure out what to do with it later.”
“That’s the problem,” Mek said. “The cryo’s failing. She won’t survive a burn in this state.”
“Fuuuck.” Qaiyaan stomped over to the pod. He should have known things were going too easy. Looking at the face through the glass, his mouth grew suddenly dry. A young woman with long charcoal hair lay inside, a crescent of dark lashes against her high cheekbones. The blinking red light near her head illuminated her perfectly sculpted features as if coating them with blood.
“Just vent it,” Noatak spoke over the line. “Let Syndicorp pick it up.”
Tovik grabbed the end as if claiming the pod as his own. “You can’t do that. What if they miss her?”
Noatak answered, “Not our problem.”
“You should see what she looks like…” Tovik continued.
Now wasn’t the time to argue over crew shares of the spoils, but Qaiyaan felt a sudden desire to wrestle the pod away from his engineer and claim the contents for himself. He tamped down the feeling. If they didn’t get moving immediately, Syndicorp troopers would shoot first and ask questions later.
Noatak’s voice boomed over his thoughts. “Anaq! They just obliterated the human ship!”
Syndicorp is out for blood today. Clenching his jaw, Qaiyaan shoved Tovik aside and began pushing the box toward the airlock, averting his gaze from the breath-taking face inside. “If we vent her, they’ll have to stop and pick her up, which’ll give us more time to get away.”
“But, Captain—” Tovik started.
“We’re not murderers!” Mek shouted, moving to intercept the box.
The comm filled the bay again. “Captain, you’re not going to like this.” Noatak’s voice had gone from excited panic to deadly quiet. Qaiyaan ceased pushing, turning to face the speaker as if he could read his first mate’s face from here. Noatak only used that voice when something deadly was going on. “They took out the passenger ship, too. There’s nothing left of either vessel but a haze of space dust.”
The breath left Qaiyaan’s body. Syndicorp’d destroyed their own ship? Why would they do that?
Mek moved close to the captain, his voice low. “Venting her is a death sentence.”
Qaiyaan squeezed his eyes shut. Why could nothing ever be easy? This woman was probably some scrawny human female on an exorbitant corporate cryo-vacation or some such nonsense. But he couldn’t just leave her, not to the mercy of space, and definitely not to a ship that was blowing up everything in its path. “How long do you need to wake her?”
“The waking cycle takes twenty minutes.”
He leveled a glare at the medic. “I didn’t ask how long it takes. I asked how long you need.”
Mek shook his head. “I can pull her out now, but she’ll take days to recuperate. And she’ll still be too weak to strap in for burn.”
“Days to recuperate is better than minutes to end up as space dust. Pull her. We can link our ionic shells to protect her during burn.”
Mek’s right eye twitched. “We’re exhausted from scavenging in zero atmo. I’m not sure we can withstand the strain.”
“Do you have a better suggestion? If you do, make it now, because we’re out of time.”
“They’ll be in range in thirty seconds, Captain,” Noatak clipped out, his voice still deadly steady.
Mek’s jaw bulged, but he nodded. “Fine. I think I’ve got enough stims to keep us up and running afterward. But let’s not make a habit of it.”
Popping the pod’s seals, Qaiyaan knelt to lift the frigid human from the padded interior. She was naked, her nipples peaked from the cold. His hand slid beneath her nicely rounded bottom, every ionic sensor in his skin aware of the contact. He tried to remain focused on her face instead of the silky smooth curve of her hip cradled against his chest. Her eyes fluttered but didn’t open.
Laying her on the deck, he stretched out beside her, grounding himself to the metal decking. Enveloping her in his power. Locking his body against hers.
Tovik sat cross-legged at her head, his bare feet tucked beneath him, and placed both his hands on her shoulders. But his gaze was on her upright nipples. Come to think of it, Qaiyaan’s were, too, so he couldn’t blame the young engineer. Mek spread out along her other side. An unfamiliar twinge made Qaiyaan want to shove them both away.
Hoping he hadn’t just given all four of them a death sentence, Qaiyaan called out, “Engage full burn.”
© 2021 Twin Leaf Press.
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