Rastan cleaned his body in the sonic shower, while Arekan stood at the door preventing any of the curious crew from entering. The fact was Rastan, or the alias he used, Pepin, the new crew-member they had picked up illegally, was too pretty for a group of hardened criminals to resist. Arekan worried about this and feared for the day when the riffraff would storm them both. This worry grew the closer they drew to the Kyn border.
Arekan had four causes for worry here. One was the illegal turbo-ramjet batteries that Captain Etharin stored in the engine room. The irony was that the turbo-ramjets made up very little of the ship’s actual propulsion capacity it lifted the vessel off planets but did nothing else. But they weighed heavily on Arekan’s mind. Captain Etharin illegally recharged batteries never meant to be so, and they were extremely unstable. Each time the ship jolted in and out of Null Space, Arekan was sure they’d blow and ignite the fuel in the two large tanks of turbo-ramjet fuel. When they passed the Kyn border, they’d drop out of Null Space, triggering another opportunity for disaster.
The other worry was the wild energy signatures of the illegal turbo-ramjet batteries would stir inspection by the Kyn’s Imperial Navy. Then Arekan’s life would be at risk again. One DNA scan would reveal him a member of an outlawed family and get him executed on the spot.
The third burning concern was that the crew would use the border crossing to assault Rastan for their insane ritual of inducting a crew-member in “the Heavenly Court.” And for this ship, this ritual was especially cruel. They’d shove a man out of an airlock without a spacesuit long enough for the man to pass out and then haul him back in.
The crew made bets on how long it would take for the newbie to lose consciousness. They also made book on how long it would take for him to revive. One man would watch their victim in the atmospheric chamber that would force out the deadly nitrogen bubbles that formed in a man’s blood from this dangerous game. Arekan survived, but he lived all his life on spaceships and received survival training in EVA’s. Not knowing the crew’s intentions terrified him, but he did nothing stupid either. Rastan? He’d freak out cutting his chances of living through the ordeal.
Rastan turned off the shower, and Arekan tossed him a towel to wipe off the dead skin the sonic shower pulverized into a fine powder on his skin.
“Well,” said Rastan, “that was indescribably bad.”
“It’s that or stink. I should have told you to towel your hair before your body, or the dead skin on the towel ends up there.”
“Thanks. That was timely advice,” Rastan said sourly.
“It’s just stuff everyone knows. Too bad you are behind the curve in the niceties of shipboard living.”
Rastan scoffed. “I can see why you win friends and influence people.”
Arekan shrugged. “My sword does the talking for me.”
Rastan looked around expectantly, but Arekan just stood there.
“Clothes?” said Rastan. He raised an eyebrow.
“You better put away that attitude of expecting people provide things for you just for the asking.”
“I get your crew-mates are criminals and degenerates, but you people are the ones that dragged onto this tub. A set of something to put on my naked ass is not too much to ask.”
Arekan looked away and sniffed. “Stay here. I’ll see what I have.”
Rastan raised his eyebrows with the air of an influential person who felt entitled to whatever they wanted. Arekan, as he walked to the crews quarters and pulled his backpack from his locker. He had precious few clothes and couldn’t spare what he did. But what could he do?
“Watcha doing?” said Obon. He leaned against the hatch with his arms crossed.
Arekan pulled out his clothes and found nothing that would fit Rastan. He’d swim in Arekan’s clothes, and that’s not safe shipboard.
“So, Obon. Tinnen told me that there were plenty of crew members that don’t make it to the end of the trip. Any clothes left behind that would fit the new crewman?”
“Taking care of your boy?” sneered Obon.
“Yeah, right. Will you answer or will you sleep with a chain around your neck to prevent me from slitting your throat?”
“You are an annoying git,” said Obon. He pushed away from leaning against the bulkhead and turned to exit the room, but Arekan was on him in a second and held his knife against Obon’s neck.
Obon choked as he tried to pull away, but Arekan jerked him backward, and he gagged and gurgled. Arekan eased his grip.
“Okay,” Obon sputtered. “For a skinny man, you are strong.”
“I think of myself as wiry and youthfully exuberant,” said Arekan.
Arekan shoved him away, and Obon stumbled forward.
“You have two minutes before I shove you out of the airlock,” said Arekan. Obon shot him a nasty glare.
“I’ll be back,” he said. Obon lurched into the passageway.
“I like your style,” cackled the captain over the speakers.
“And I think it’s weird that you listen to every conversation on the ship.”
“Watch it, boy,” said Etharin. “I’s do what I must to keep on top you thieving gits. And you bear watching. Tinnen’s right scared out of his wits of you. Why’s that, boy?”
Arekan had no intention of sharing his personal history with Etharin. The pirate captain would delight in turning in Arekan’s body for the Kyn’s Empire bounty on it.
“Too much exposure to the engine’s radiation. You know it has a crack in the housing, right?”
“I’s know it. It’s why we avoid the Impies, boy. They’d haul away the Rogan as salvage without giving me a penny for ‘er.”
Arekan doubted that was the only reason that Etharin avoided law enforcement. Whatever gets you through the night, he thought.
Obon appeared in the hatchway with a bundle of fabric in his arms.
“These are the best we got.”
“Drop them and get to your duty station.”
Obon’s jaw set, and his eyes narrowed. Arekan noticed Obon’s muscles bunch, and reflexively Arekan put his hand on the hilt of his sword.
“You aren’t my officer, boy.”
“He is now,” said the captain. “I’m promoting him to second mate. Now move!”
Obon’s mouth opened, but he shut it again and glared at Arekan. “Second mate, eh? I hope you have as much luck as the last one.” From his sneer, Arekan gathered the last second mate didn’t survive his position. Arekan didn’t care.
“You heard the captain. Move!”
The force of his words propelled Obon from his position in the hatchway.
“Don’t leave your boy alone too long,” said the Captain. He chuckled evilly. Arekan wished he could smash Etharin in the face as counterproductive as that would be. What would he do? Take over the ship? He had no credentials to master a ship. The International Trader’s Union strictly regulated captaincies and dealt severely with those who did not adhere to ITU law. To become a captain, one first must secure ITU dues-paying member status, then pass the difficult navigator’s license, then take the highly secret Master’s Test. It was a process that took years and required an ITU sponsor. He highly doubted Etharin was eager to sponsor anyone who could take over the ship.
“Aye, aye,” said Arekan sourly. He bent and snatched the clothes from the deck, and his nose wrinkled from the foul odor emanating from them. Rastan would complain, but there was nothing that Arekan could do about that. He didn’t want to leave Rastan too long in the shower area naked.
Rastan rolled his eyes when Arekan returned and dumped the jumble of clothes on the deck.
“I do not know what is here.”
“You’d never get a job as a personal dresser,” said Rastan.
“A what?” said Arekan as he picked through the clothes and tossed a pair of overalls at Rastan.
“A personal dresser shops for and assembles your wardrobe.”
“I see,” said Arekan. “Well, you aren’t paying me for wardrobe services, so you know the old saying, ‘you get what you pay for.”
“Har, har,” said Rastan drolly. He held up the overalls. “These are fairly disgusting.”
“At least it’s better than grossly disgusting. Some of these other things have blood on them. Pull on those, and we’ll get these other things clean.
“And how do we do that on this tub?”
“I got one of the sonic cleaners working in the laundry. I don’t run it often though.”
“I’ll show you.”
Arekan brought Rastan to the compartment next to the ravaged recreation room that housed the sonic laundry. It was a small area with two large cubes with round windows at the end. Cabinets marched down either side with names etched in them. He saw some of the names scratched out, others taped over, but none of them bore the names of the current crew.
“What are these?” said Rastan.
“On crew ships, the crew put their clothes in the bottom cubbies and whoever does laundry cleans them and puts them in the top cubbies. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. On this ship, nothing works right.”
“You seem to have a lot of knowledge of shipboard living,” said Rastan.
“Done so all of my life,” said Arekan. Then he pursed his lips. Etharin listened to everyone, and he should be more careful about what he said. Arekan stuffed the remaining clothes into the sonic cleaner he marginally repaired.
When the clothes began to tumble in the cleaner, a high-pitched shriek blasted from the device.
Rastan grimaced and plugged his ears with his fingers.
“That’s putting sonic in the sonic laundry,” he yelled.
“It’s missing a part,” said Arekan over the din. “When it goes to the next cycle, it will cut out.”
“You think?” said Rastan. “Couldn’t you take the part from the other one?”
“I tried. Worn out, too. From what the manual said, the sonic dampener needs regular replacement.”
Rastan shook his head as if he couldn’t fathom not taking care of things properly, which only cemented his opinion that Rastan was some rich man’s son.
Arekan leaned against the bulkhead waiting for the current cycle to end and speculating about Rastan’s background when he noticed something curious. At that second the sonic cleaner shifted in a quieter cycle.
“Hells,” he said.
“What?” said Rastan.
“The engines have cut out.”
“Which means what?”
“They failed, and we’re adrift or—”
A bump that shuddered through the ship which confirmed Arekan’s worst fears.
“All hands,” said the captain. “Prepare for boarding by Kyn Imperial troops.”
“By the hajens,” Arekan spit.
Arekan considered his options in a flash, knowing he couldn’t meet up with Imperial Troops with DNA scanners in hand. Above him was the cover of a ventilator shaft and he made his decision. With his knife, he began to unscrew the lid.
“What are you doing?” said Rastan.
“Getting us a place to hide.”
“This is our opportunity to escape,” said Rastan.
Arekan shook his head and focused on his task.
“No, it’s not. You try to speak to those Implies and Grokin with split you a new one. He won’t let you get ten feet within them.”
“You’re crazy,” said Rastan. “If I don’t do this now, I’ll never have another chance. Come with me. I’ll make sure you get the reward for my return.”
“I can’t,” said Arekan. He loosened the last screw, and the cover fell more heavily than Arekan expected. He winced as the edge cut his hand. He wiped the blood clean with his sleeve placed the lid on top of a cubbie close to the entrance. Arekan sucked on the wound while Rastan stared at him with an incredulous expression on his face.
“All hands,” said the Captain. “Report to the cargo hold for inspection.”
Rastan glanced at Arekan filled with disbelief.
“You’re really not coming. You’d rather stay here?”
“No. I’d rather live. I’ll find another way off this tub.”
“You’re crazy, Thad,” said Rastan. He dashed through the hatch. Arekan shook his head and pulled himself into the ventilation shaft and pulled in the cover and set it in place. His heart rattled as he grimly waited for disaster.