Arekan never slept much to begin with. But here, on this ship, and especially with that snake thing slithering around the corridors all he could manage was a light sleep. Raised shipboard Arekan didn’t have much personal experience with animals of any kind. His generational ship discouraged the keeping of pets. Only a carefully controlled population of felines were allowed to control vermin.
He didn’t like cats much and they didn’t seem to like him, so Arekan never volunteered to be a “cat guardian” as some of the ship’s children did. It was a silly job anyway, which involved cleaning up the cat’s waste products and making sure it was fed. He didn’t see the attraction of caring for such a creature. He’d much rather spend his time in the gym working on his sword skills.
But at least a cat couldn’t kill you.
But this thing that Grokin kept as a pet gave Arekan the heebie geevies. Arekan didn’t know if the thing had venom, but it did have nasty looking fangs and was clear it had a mean disposition. It moved too quickly for Arekan’s sense of safety. After the snake incident he changed his decision on which bunk to sleep in and took the upper bunk open in on the port side of the ship. Still he spent the greater part of the night listening for the sound of its return. Grokin or no, he was going to kill the thing then next time he saw it.
Arekan swore he’d be off this hell ship the next port they called. He didn’t care where it was but surely anything else he found would be better than this.
He fingered the knife he put under his pillow. He and his father didn’t have much money, but when Arekan saw it in a pawn shop, he knew he had to have it. It was a good size with the blade serrated with wickedly sharp teeth at the bottom third. It looked scary, which is one thing that Arekan liked about it. It was well balanced which was another thing.
On his back, staring at the peeling paint on the bulkhead lit by the exit sign by the door, he scrubbed his face lightly enough that he didn’t make his cot creak. His crew mates were a twitchy group who started at the last little sound.
And no wonder.
This was a hell ship. The captain was sadistic and his first mate brutal. Between both of them they managed to keep the other five criminals in line. Arekan didn’t count himself a criminal, though he supposed, just by virtue of his birth, he was one. And he was the one that would get shot on sight if it came to that.
Family. You got to love them, thought Arekan bitterly. Only he didn’t. He loved his father. That was the truth. And the other relatives on the generational ship he was born on were okay. He and father weren’t close with any of them though everyone was reasonably friendly. No. It was the other side of the family, the ones that never left Kyn and remain land bound. Those were the ones he hated.
They turned us into the authorities. It had to be them. No one else would care about a homeless forty-five year old man and his nineteen year old son. Arekan and Itakan travelled parts of the four nations looking for remnants of their once great family. Finally the rumors brought them to N’sen and into a run-in with the Imperial Guard.
“Are you sure it is Mor’a’stani DNA,” said a soldier tracking them on the day his father died.
“So says the scanner,” the other replied.
His mind and his body were exhausted from the events of the past week. He hadn’t slept more than an hour at a time since his father died. Forced to lay still and in the relative darkness Arekan finally dropped off to sleep again though the dream that came felt very real.
Arekan had managed to pull his father’s bleeding body into an alley after a skirmish with the Imperial guard. Arekan had barely held them off with his swordsmanship, something with which the gun toting military had no experience. But his father, Itakan, was no fighting man and caught a percussion round in the gut. It was a wound in a bad place and it required medical care not likely found by the outlaw members of the former ruling family of Kyn.
“I’ll find who betrayed us and kill them,” said Arekan.
“Hasn’t there been enough killing?” Itakan wheezed then coughed.
“Father!” Arekan thought it was a bad idea to come here to N’sen, the crossroads of the League, the Romlin and Kyn Empires where his father hoped to make contact with the other side of the family, the Icothir Mor’a’stani. But Itakan and Arekan were the only two Itandan Mor’a’stani left after the generational ship that bore the members of their line mysteriously exploded two year ago. They barely escaped with their lives.
“It was one of those damned Icothir Mor’a’stani. I know it!” spit Arekan.
“Son. We don’t know that. Someone could have overheard us.
“You’ve told me yourself that the Icothir Mor’a’stani have no love for those of our line.
Itakan sagged even heavier against Arekan and the young man bit back his tears.
Please don’t die. Please don’t die, though Arekan anxiously.
“I see a blood trail,” said a rough voice not far away. “This way.”
“You sure it’s Mor’a’stani DNA?” said another voice
“So says the scanner.”
“I’m not sure I trust that thing,” grunted another voice.
The voices grew closer and louder. Arekan put his hand on the hilt of his sword.
“You must go! Get to safety. I cannot die in peace knowing I took you with me.”
Arekan gulped hard.
“Please, son. Do as I ask. You’ve always been a good son, better than a man could ask for.”
Arekan thought back to all the times that he failed to obey his father’s instructions, brushed off his schoolwork and answered him in anger. He barely felt the part of the good son, especially now since he failed to protect his father. He should have done that. Out of the all the Itandan Mor’a’stani, Arekan was recognized as having no master in the art of blades even though he was young.
He didn’t feel young anymore.
“Go!” ordered his father in a strangled voice. “You have one job now. Survive!
Arekan bent and gave his father a kiss on the forehead.
“No son could have a better father,” said Arekan. He pushed away from Itakan laying the man’s head as gently as he could against a wood crate. “Good bye.”
Arekan woke sweating. He still couldn’t believe he was left his dying father here alone in a filthy alley to be man handled by Imperial Guards upon his last breath.
He’d never forgive himself for doing it.
Arekan considered the merits of exploring the possibility of a shower when Grokin came in banging the bulkhead loudly.
“Get up you mokes! We’ve just past the border in Romlin and someone here needs to pay his respects to the Heavenly Court. Obon and Tinnen you have the honors today.”
Arekan swung his legs over the edge of the bunk though he had no idea what was going on . But the other crewmembers were faster. Obon and Tinnen rushed at Arekan with smirks on their faces and yanked him down harshly from his bunk.
“Hey!” protested Arekan.
But the men were stronger than they looked and gripping Arekan on either side. Arekan struggled Grokin came at him and clocked him in the jaw.
Arekan had no idea how long he was unconscious but he realized one thing quickly when he came to.
He was going to die.
With shock and panic Arekan realized what these crazed men were about to do. He, Obon, Tinnen and Grokin were in an airlock. They wore spacesuits. He did not.
Arekan learned very early that the captain and the crew of this ship, his first and apparently last berth on a trading vessel, were not much better than pirates. In fact, the captain had spaced the crew of a pirate vessel that attempted to seize the Rogan. Arekan was not proud of his part in that.
Still he didn’t expect to be hauled out of his bunk and dragged through the corridors of the small craft to the cargo hold to be shoved out an airlock.
“Time to pay ‘yer respects to the Heavenly Court, Bucko,” said Grokin. With a gusty laugh, he punched Arekan hard in the stomach. As sharp pain shot through him, he lost all the air in his lungs. Obon, clasped his gloved hand over Arekan’s mouth and nose while Arekan struggled.
“Easy there, Bucko. When you meet the Heavenly Court you can’t have any air in your lungs. Now, Tinnen!”
Tinnen slapped the button to open the hatch and the air in the small space rushed out in a blast. Obon let go of Arekan and the vacuum of space sucked him into the black. His last look confirmed what he knew. Each man was laughing his head off.
His heart beat furiously in his chest as pin pricks ran through his skin. With horror he saw his fingers puff since his body fluids were no longer constrained by atmospheric pressure.
He was going to die.
How long would that take? He didn’t know. Arekan supposed he’d pass out before he did.
His chest felt like a great weight sat on it, which was ironic since in space there was no gravity. He wanted to breathe but there was no air to do so. The struggle not to draw in a breath threatened to overwhelm him.
Arekan never felt so helpless. Not when the multi-generation ship that was his home blew up without explanation; not when his father died a few days ago. Those were things that happened, tragic things, but Arekan always found a way to move on, to live, to survive.
Another irony was the tether tied to his waist.
Why? Did they discover he had a price on his head? Figured it was easier to take him in dead rather than alive?
Why would they tether him when they so obviously meant to murder him?
This was his last thought.
Arekan woke every bone and muscle in his body aching. He held up his arm and saw small black and blue marks marching up his skin. The skin itself was still slightly puffed but not as much when he was hanging outside the ship. Moving his head, he realized he was in the atmospheric chamber in the ship’s so called medbay.
Above his head was the window for whoever was attending the chamber to get a visual sighting on the patient. But on this window was a collection of coins and paper money.
He watched as a hand moved off money. Finally all the cash was removed.
Grokin’s ugly face, red and swollen by the excesses of his alcohol addiction, filled the window then.
“Ah, you’re awake,” he said. Grokin turned his head. “One hour on the nose, just like I said. Pay up, boys!”
“You ass,” replied Arekan.
“Don’t be like that, Bucko. You had to pay your respects to the Heavenly Court anyway.”
“What the jack are you talking about?”
“Your first border crossing. We crossed from Romlin into Kyn a bit ago. All newbies get inducted into the Heavenly Court.”
“Like that!” Arekan spit his outrage.
“On this ship, yeah. So quit your bitching. Besides, you made me a good bit of money. No one, not even the captain, thought you’d make the whole fifteen seconds.”
Arekan wanted to smash Grokin’s nose and watch it shatter as his blood sprayed.
“What in hells are you talking about?”
“A game of Thrown, Bucko. We take bets on how long before you pass out. Some can’t make it to ten seconds; hardly ever does a man make it to fifteen. But you? I knew you were different. You’ve got survival instincts sharper than any man I ever saw.”
“You tried to kill me!”
“Oh no, Bucko. If I wanted to kill ‘ya, I would have. But the other part of the bet is how long it would take for you wake up. And you won me money there too. You’re a paranoid little snit, so I knew it wouldn’t take you long. Now, you just sit tight there while the machine does it work and I can get you to your duties in about, oh, ten hours of so.”
Grokin chuckled. “We can do that later if you want.”
“In your dreams.” When he didn’t hear an answer to his weak retort he knew they had all left. Exhausted, Arekan fell back in the thin pad that lined the chamber.
During the ten hours, he slept some, but the other hours he spent plotting his revenge.
No one would touch Arekan Mor’a’stan again. And they’d regret their actions this day.