“Great gods,” he muttered in Fedeng.
“What?” said Arekan.
“I thought that awful smell came from you,” he said. “It’s all over your clothes. But I see now it’s from the ship.”
Arekan felt a blush creep up his neck. He must have gotten used the stench that first hit him when he walked onto the ship. It embarrassed him to think he carried the stink in his clothes.
“Stop your jabbering, both of you,” snapped Grokin. He sat on one of the crates while he lovingly stroked one of the snakelets.
Arekan snatched the canvas bag back.
“Hey,” protested Grokin.
“Should we not get ready for take-off?” Arekan said.
“That’s right,” crackled the captain over the intercom system. “Grokin, get off that ass of yours and see to it! Thad, bring the new crew member up to the bridge so I can inspect him.”
This was new. Etharin never ordered any crew to the bridge. And he didn’t tell Grokin to do it either, which is what Arekan would expect.
“Come along,” said Arekan.
“Leave those ‘er,” growled Grokin reaching for the bag of snakes.
“They’re mine,” snapped Arekan. He jerked the bag away from Grokin’s grasp.
“Aye, and do you have any idea of how to care for ‘em?” Arekan felt the color drain from his face when he realized that Grokin was right. He did not know the first thing about caring for snakes. “I thought not. They’ll be dead without proper care and worthless to ‘ya.”
Arekan scoffed but held to bag to Grokin.
“Don’t you get any ideas of claiming ownership.” The snarl in his voice matched the annoyance in his gut.
Grokin stood and backhanded Arekan across the jaw.
“And don’t ye be talking back to me, you git. The captain said to take him to the bridge, so do it.”
Arekan shot one last glare to Grokin but motioned to the slave to follow.
“Welcome,” said Arekan sourly, “to hell.” He led the way through the grungy corridors of the ship.
“Yeah, I’m getting that,” said the youth. “What’s your name?”
“Thad. Thad Grane,” lied Arekan. “And yours?”
“Rastan Burnin.” The boy spoke his name as if people should recognize it, and it did seem vaguely familiar to Arekan. But at the moment his mind was full of too many things to place it.
“Pleasure to meet you,” said Arekan sourly. They walked to the main corridor to the ladder to the upper deck that led to the bridge.
“You too,” said Rastan with disdain in his voice.
“Is that your real name?” asked Arekan. As he placed his hand overhead to grip a rung of the ladder he looked over his shoulder at the young man.
“Of course it is.”
“You might not want to use it then. All the crew? You don’t hear their birth names.”
“Running, hiding or both.”
“I’ve nothing to hide from.”
“Except the slavers that owned you.”
Rastan snorted. “They bought me from kidnappers, so pretty much their claim is illegal.”
“In some parts of the Four Nations, that’s true. In others, not so much.”
“So you’re the expert?” Rastan’s eyes flicked over Arekan’s cheap dull green cloth overshirt and pants. “I find nothing about you impressive, except that sword of yours.”
With a smooth movement, Rastan pulled it from the sheath.
“Hey!” protested Arekan.
But Rastan didn’t brandish it to threaten Arekan. Instead, he sighted down its length and then balanced it on his index finger.
“Sturdy alloy. Straight blade. Good weight. Balanced. Nice,” he said appreciatively. “Where was this forged?”
“Don’t know,” gritted Arekan. He damned well did know the place that forged her, but it would give away too much of who he was to say it. “It was my father’s blade.”
“Was. Oh. Sorry to hear. Answered, though, how you could afford such a pricey sword. You can’t.”
Arekan let go of the rung and pushed face to face with Burnin. He studied the youth, how he squared his shoulders and the grace of this movements as he held the deadly blade. You don’t get that kind of confidence from just any sword lessons. The way the boy handled Arekan’s sword said he had expensive training.
“Look,” he hissed. “Obviously you know a little something about blades. And judging from your speech, you are educated. For all I know, you could be someone’s royalty.”
Burnin flinched affirming Arekan’s guess.
“But that doesn’t play here. You’re crew and the newest member as well. These men here are the sorriest bunch of criminals you’ll ever meet. They are cruel and ruthless. It’s best you put away all thoughts about your personal dignity and blend in.”
“Look,” said Burnin whispered back with some urgency. “My father will reward whoever gets me home.”
Arekan put his finger to his lips and pointed to the intercom and then his ears to get the boy to shut up. He didn’t want to think what sort of middleman Etharin would sell the boy to if he found the kid had value.
“Hey,” blared Etharin over the intercom. “Get your asses up here. I don’t have time for crew to play footsie with each other.”
Arekan put his hand on the rung again but this time spoke louder to for Burnin’s and the captain’s benefit.
“On our way, Captain.”
Arekan reached the hatch and pounded on it to let Etharin know they’d arrived. It swung back with an aching creak, and Arekan scooted into the bridge.
It wasn’t large. The viewscreen stretched in the front in a shallow curve and turned off. The captain sat at one of the pilot’s chairs in front of the com panel. A body, face turned toward the wall and covered in a light blanket snored in the sleeping alcove to the right. Beer bottles littered the floor, and the captain looked like he hadn’t had a shower in days.
“Captain,” said Arekan. “New crew.”
“Aye,” the pirate said swinging the chair to inspect Rastan. He eyed him critically. Arekan leaned against the bulkhead and crossed his arms.
“What’s your name, boy?” he said.
“Peppen,” said Rastan.
“What kind of name is that?” growled Etharin.
“It’s a League name,” offered Arekan.
“Aye, I know that boy,” growled Etharin. “Peppen ain’t no name.”
“It’s mine,” said Rastan. “Been called that since before I could walk.”
“Do you have a family name?” said Grokin.
“Does it matter?” said Rastan.
“Of course it matters,” exploded Etharin. “I have to record ‘ya in the log.”
“Buniae,” said Rastan.
“Spell it,” snarled the captain.
“Turn around. Let me look at you.”
Rastan stared dumbly at Etharin, and Arekan stepped forward and pushed him to turn.
“And this is what you think will do for crew,” he snapped at Arekan.
“The rest were sickly looking. Couldn’t do a day’s work.”
The captain snorted. “You’re responsible for him then. Settle him in. Make sure he knows what he needs to.”
Arekan hid his surprise. That job was Grokin’s, and Arekan wondered why the captain handed the task to him. But he wasn’t going to argue.
Arekan pointed to Rastan to climb down the ladder, and he followed. When they got to the deck, Rastan opened his mouth, but Arekan motioned for him to be silent and to follow him.
“You’ve been to the bridge which is a rare treat.”
“Yeah,” said Rastan desultorily.
“Most of the ship, as you’ve noticed is the cargo hold. Above the hold and running abeam to each of the propulsion pods is the engine room. You reach the engine room from this ladder here. But Tinnen, our engineer doesn’t like visitors, so don’t bother to be friendly.
“Amidship, the forward section, of this deck has the crews quarters, the showers, and a small recreation area, the mess, such as it is and the medbay which is offline. The showers are sonic only and the rec area, well, that’s been torn up by other crew. I’ve done my best to clean it up, but it needs new furniture and equipment the captain won’t replace. The laundry is there too, and I can get that to work sometimes.
“This is the deck houses the engine room at what is the back end of the ship, the crews quarters forward, and above is the bridge. Most of what you see from the outside are the two turboramjets on either side. The interior of the ship is small.
“Was your first job as a kid “tour guide?”
Arekan stopped short at the hatch that would take them to the crew’s quarters and face Rastan.
“You’ve got a smart mouth and a bad attitude. Want to see what you’ll get for that?”
“You’re going to show me?” challenged Rastan.
“Yeah,” said Arekan quietly. “I will.”
Arekan pulled off his shirt and turned his back to Rastan. A light touch to the scars caused Arekan to flinch.
“Sorry,” said Rastan.
Arekan jerked away and slipped his tee shirt over his head. “Took me six weeks to heal this good, and I’m working out every day to work the muscles in my back. It’s still stiff.”
“What did you do to earn those?” said Rastan with wide eyes.
“I disobeyed the captain’s orders and saved a crewman. Obon is his name.”
Now Rastan’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard. “You saved a man, and got punished?” His words leaked disbelief.
“Yes. If you think your slave status was bad, you haven’t lived long enough here.”
Arekan keyed in his security code to open the hatch door, and the smell of Cook’s rancid cooking hit him, and his disgusted expression, Rastan too.
“What is that fetid smell?”
“Dinner,” said Arekan. “Want some?”
“I’ll pass,” said Rastan.
Yes. Arekan did his first couple days until he got hungry enough to brave the food. Rastan would too. Arekan continued down the hall, with his charge in tow. Ahead was the mess. Just beyond the crew quarters.
Then what are you hiding from? Or running to stay on a ship like this?”
“There are warrants for my arrest in the Kyn Empire.”
“Living,” said Arekan with a sour note. He pushed forward on the deck with raw energy filled with annoyance at his situation. He couldn’t live on this boat much longer, and Rastan couldn’t stay here at all. Arekan got the sense that this kid lived a life too refined in his former life to survive long on the Rogan. But it seemed beyond the captain to land at a half decent spaceport, or perhaps, the captain was keeping out of sight of professional law enforcement. The illegal turboramjet batteries would exude an energy signature modern scanners would pick up.
Behind him, Rastan’s breathing labored. Arekan caught the gasps of Rastan struggling to breath, so he slowed.
“What’s wrong with the air?”
“Nothing. The captain shaves a few points off the oxygen mix to save money. You’ll get used to it in a week or so. It’s like living at high altitude with lower oxygen.”
“He’s a maniac.”
“Look,” said Arekan spinning touch Rastan. “You’re here, and there is nothing you can do about it. Play it smart and live, or keep talking stupid and die. It’s that simple. Your old life is gone.”
Rastan fell against him, and Arekan staggered back a step at the shock. The boy twisted his head up to Arekan’s ear.
“I meant what I said,” he hissed. “My father will pay big money to whoever returns me. Keep me safe, blade, and I’ll make sure that it is you.”
“Well, well,” said Obon with a smirk as he walked out of the mess. “Are you making friends, Thad, already?”
Arekan grabbed Rastan around the younger man’s shoulders and faced Obon with a grim smile.
“What of it, Obon? It’s not like you’re his type anyway.”
“Pity,” sniffed Obon. “But then again, we have more ways to induct a man into the crew than to pay homage to the Heavenly Court. We didn’t try that with you because you’d slit our throats in our sleep. But this one here—”
“You keep your hands off him, you skinny piece of filth,” snapped Arekan. “I have half a mind to cut all your throats anyway.”
Obon shot him a glance filled with malice and venom then waved off Arekan with a flap of his hand.
“You’ll tire of him,” said Obon. “And then I’ll take what I want.”
Obon moved to walk past them and touched Rastan’s cheek with two fingers.
“Such a sweet boy. Enjoy him while you can, Thad.” They both watched Obon mount the ladder and descend to the lower deck.
“Holy gods,” said Rastan. “That is the man you saved? Why did you bother?”
Read the story from the beginning here.
Image by Starry Night Graphics