“Damned-to-the-seven-hells stupid pirate captain.”
Arekan cursed Etharin while he crawled in the ventilation shafts of The Rogan, a spaceship thirty-years too old, and sixty-years behind in repairs and upgrades. The tub was not fit to sit in, let alone travel the black depths of space. In his short life, nineteen-year-old Arekan Mor’a’stan never thought he’d land on a pirate ship, or as the captain called it, a salvage vessel. Arekan also never imagined he would need to use an alias, or sell his sword skills honed since he could walk to land a berth on the decrepit scow.
Worse yet, the Kyn Imperial Navy had boarded the barge which put Arekan’s life in danger. Arekan continued to spit venomous words born from the roiling bile in his gut. Etharin illegally recharged ramjet batteries and stored them in the engine room, the energy signatures of which must have attracted the Impies attention. Arekan could not afford this. The Impies would find him on board. As a member of an outlawed Kyn family, the Imperial Navy would automatically kill Arekan as soon as a DNA scan confirmed his identity.
From his perch in the ventilator grate that overlooked the cargo hold, Arekan watched the Impies march onto the metal deck. Their heavy boots rang through the large compartment. A man walked up the line with the swagger of one in command. Arekan couldn’t see because of the angle and the grating the man’s rank on the collar of his dark blue uniform.
“Who’s in charge of this tub!” called the officer.
“I’s is,” said Etharin, who stepped forward from the ragged line of crew. This surprised Arekan who’d only seen the enigmatic ship’s master twice. Once when the captain hired him, and earlier today when he took the new crew member Rastan, AKA Peppen, to the bridge to meet Etharin. Arekan counted the number of heads and found one missing, besides him. He peered through the grate again to find First Mate Grokin, Engineer Tinnen, General Hands Obon and Egrin, the new crewmate, Peppen, and Cook standing in line. They were a foul-looking lot, and they had nasty habits. Arekan also noted Cripin, the navigator, was missing.
Arekan couldn’t worry about Cripin. Job one was to solve the problem of the contraband ramjet batteries. There were a dozen of them in the engine room. They were dangerously close to the null space generator which was the piece of machinery that made space travel to distant stars possible. But in the batteries in their present state were unstable and moving them could blow up the ship.
“Stupid, stupid captain,” Arekan groused.
Another Impie walked the line of the crew taking names, then handed the compad to the officer who stared at the list. He jerked his head up and stared coldly at Etharin.
“You’re a man short on your manifest. Where is,” he checked the compad in his hand, “Thad Grane?”
Arekan grimaced when the officer spit Arekan’s alias out nastily while questions crowded his mind. One short? What about the navigator, Cripin? Why wasn’t his name on the crew manifest? Arekan hadn’t met Cripin. He stayed on the bridge with Etharin. But for something like this, all hands should show.
“Ah, the git’s been nothing but trouble since he boarded. He’s around somewhere.”
“Get him here now!”
“As I found out, that butt-end does what he wants.”
“Do you want your ship searched?”
“I can’t stop ye if you did, so, have at it, Lieutenant.”
Holy hells thought Arekan. What made Etharin so casual when that contraband sat boldly in the engine room? Arekan turned in the ventilation shaft and inadvertently scuffed against the wall. To his horror, that sound shot out into the loading bay, and he froze.
“What’s that?” said the officer.
“Rats,” said Etharin. “Can’t get rid of them.”
“I’m wondering who the rats are here? Corpsman, get me a schematic of this model ship and an updated crew manifest from the ITU.”
“I’m trying, Lieutenant, but I must get into the International Traders’ Union database, and you know they give the military low priority to all requests. It will take time.”
“Damned Union,” spit the Lieutenant. “Thieves all of you.”
“If ye say so, Lieutenant,” sneered Etharin. Arekan heard his crewmates chuckle and Arekan used that sound to scuttle through the airway toward the engine room. To go to the next level where the engine sat, he would need to climb. At a juncture in the ventilation system, he found a shaft leading there. Handholds ran up the walls, but when he put his foot on one and it crumbled under his weight. He couldn’t depend on the handholds to aid his climb.
“Jebu Nebu,” he swore. In his closed space the air sweltered and moved poorly despite it being a ventilation shaft. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead.
Arekan repositioned his sword’s baldric from his waist to his shoulder and hung the weapon on his back. He planted his feet into each side of the wall and inched his way up the wall by pushing against it and making small movements of his hands and feet. But the going was slow, and Arekan growled in frustration at the near impossibility of his task. The Impies were probably searching the ship now, and he couldn’t make it to the next deck in time.
The ship jolted, and Arekan lost his footing. With his heart in his throat, he expected to fall, but instead, he slammed against the shaft wall. The sudden shift in pressure disoriented him, and Arekan free floated. The artificial gravity had failed.
Arekan scrambled to the upper deck using the handholds, hoping the artificial gravity didn’t reactivate and hurl him to the bottom of the vent. He relaxed after he got to the top and darted into the narrow perpendicular duct.
The tight passage forced him to his hands and knees, and the broken emergency lighting in the shaft left the section utterly dark. For a second he didn’t know where to go, but then the thrum of the engine at idle caught his attention. Arekan laid his hand on the left wall and felt the engine’s vibration. To the right, not as much. His target lay to the left of him, and all he needed was to find a ventilator vent to exit this corridor.
Arekan crawled forward disgusted with the layer of dust that floated around him in the gravity-free environment. He didn’t want to imagine the years of accumulating filth this unused and uncleaned conduit had gathered. “Fracking garbage scow,” Arekan groused.
The wall on the left warmed, and soon Arekan spotted light falling across the floor from a grate. Arekan scrunched and put his back to the opposite wall, intending to use it as leverage to kick out the screen with his feet. The grill swung open with a tap of his feet, and Arekan floated out. Unfortunately, the gravity kicked in without warning and Arekan fell to the hard deck near the bank of engineer controls.
“Gods damn ship,” grunted Arekan.
“Having a bad day?”
Arekan snapped his head to the speaker of those words and stared. The person who walked to the control panel shared the same height, the same long, narrow nose, and high cheekbones and curly brown hair as Arekan. They appeared so much alike they could have been brothers.
“Who are you?”
“Cripin, your friendly neighborhood navigator.” He poured his attention to a screen on the control board and worked his fingers on a keyboard. “At least that was my name. Now, your name is mine.”
Arekan stood and moved to see on what nonsense Cripin worked. Across the top of the screen were the words ITU Database. There he saw Cripin had inserted a blurred image that could either be Cripin or Arekan in a form. He also typed in navigator and third mate credentials as “verified by Etharin, master of The Rogan.” But the name at the top of the form was Sted Rynin, not Cripin. No. The navigator added the name Jonas Cripin in the known alias’ list, and then the name Arekan boarded the ship under, Thad Grane, there too.
“What the hells are you doing?”
Cripin snorted. “You know the Union keeps tracks of aliases, right? That an ITU member can work under any name the member registers in the database?”
“I’m not a Union member,” said Arekan.
“You are now,” said Cripin with a smirk.
Arekan stared at him, blown away by the incredulity of this situation. Arekan was a Union member now? No, Cripin was the union member, or rather Sted Rynin. Then he remembered that the Lieutenant said one crew member, not two, were missing from the lineup in the cargo hold.
“You’re not on the crew manifest,” Arekan declared.
“Look,” said Cripin. “Pops may be an old sot, but he’s not stupid. He knew you were hiding from someone, probably the Impies, so we made this plan.”
“Wait. Etharin is your father?”
“Look. You want to jaw and let the Impies find us? Or will you help me so we can escape in one piece?”
Arekan did not like this new information. The two of them sharing the same ITU credentials could not bode well for his future health prospects. But time grew short.
“What do you want me to do?”
“First, we’ll dump the ramjet batteries in the water tank where they won’t blow up. Then I’ll let the Impies find me and pretend to be you. Once they move off, we’ll go on our way.”
Arekan met the navigator’s eyes. They were as dead inside as the captain’s. Cripin may or maybe not be Etharin’s genetic son, but he was his spiritual child. Arekan’s stomach roiled as he realized this man thought Arekan was stupid enough to believe this bull-puck story. This man would murder Arekan without a care.
“So the sot says. My mother passed me off to him when I became a nuisance. Boys have one use in a brothel, and I wasn’t the cooperating kind.”
Arekan didn’t want to contemplate what cooperation a brothel required of Cripin. With the stomp of boots ringing on the ladder that led to the engine room, they barely had time to work this insane plan.
“Where is the water tank?”
Cripin sprang forward and lifted a panel in the decking and pulled up a hatch. “Right here.”
“The water tank is under the engine room?” said Arekan incredulously. “Doesn’t that lead to contamination?”
“Why do you think we drink so much liquor on this barge?” sneered Cripin. “Or didn’t phrase ‘don’t drink to the water mean much to you?’”
If Arekan had time to be sick, he would, but banging on the engine-room hatch said they were out of time.
“Push those batteries over here,” said Cripin. He tossed a pair of rubber work gloves at Arekan.
Arekan snatched the gloves in midair, wondering if he’d survive to work with the unstable devices. Recently, he worked with the engineer, Tinnen on charging them, and when he touched one, a tremendous spark arced around him. This scared the hell out of Tinnen, and Arekan too, and Tinnen banished him from the engine room. Now Cripin stood there glowering at Arekan, and Arekan had no choice but to cooperate, not unless he put his sword to the navigator. This was bad for several reasons, one of them being the ship couldn’t afford to be without its navigator and the other Cripin being the captain’s son.
He pushed the first battery, and he found it slid along the metal deck without resistance. When it got to Cripin, the navigator pushed it into the water tank. It hit the water with a splash. One by one, he slid the batteries forward as the engine-room door glowed with a bright red loop showing the Impies cut through the hatch with a torch.
Cripin looked over his shoulder and swore. “Hurry,” he snarled.
The last battery seemed stuck to the deck. Arekan recognized it as the battery that had bathed him with its electrical arc in his previous encounter and nearly killed him. As he inspected the plastic casing, he found it had melted into the floor. He also noted the red light on the battery showing its uncharged state. He surmised it had discharged its energy in Arekan’s previous encounter with it.
“I can’t move it.”
“Figure it out,” snapped Cripin. “They’ve almost cut through. Hells, it will tick Pops the Impies ruined the hatch.”
Arekan glanced around to find a colossal wrench as long as Arekan’s arm laying on the deck. He grabbed it and swung at the battery, hoping to the Creator the battery had no residual charge.
One swing did nothing but reverberate through Arekan’s frame. On the second the wreck of a battery wobbled. Arekan put all he had into his swing. The battery sprang free and slid wildly down the deck and toward the hatch that hissed from the extreme heat cutting through it. It smashed into the bulkhead dangerously close to the red line snaking through the hatch.
“You fool!” hissed Cripin. “It will blow.”
Even a discharged battery would explode on contact with heat. Arekan bounded across the deck and hooked his arms around the cell. Putting his back into it, he swung it toward Cripin. He pushed but accidentally bumped his back end into the super-heated hatch and burned it. With a yelp, he fell forward pushing the battery toward Cripin. It flew across the deck while Arekan landed face down into the unforgiving metal floor. He rose with his nose gushing blood. Determined not to let the beast get the better of him, he sprang toward the damnable power cell and herded it into the maw of the water tank. It splashed into the water, and Arekan turned triumphantly to Cripin who gave him an evil grin.
“Do you know what we call the water tank?” said Cripin.
“The dead zone,” sneered Cripin.
“So?” said Arekan.
“You’re a mess. Clean up.”
Cripin shoved Arekan with a sudden push, and Arekan tumbled into the tank. As the water surrounded him, the light snapped out too.
Arekan had one thought. The captain’s son had shut the hatch and left him to drown.