Arekan stared stupidly at the long cylinder of the null space displacement unit that ran through the center of the compartment. Except for a few class tours on his home ship, he’d never seen one. But this piece of equipment as everything else on this tub looked in disrepair. Its paint cracked and peeled along its casing, and the rust brown of corrosion marked the unit’s seams. Arekan grew queasier at witnessing the poor condition of this major aspect of the propulsion system.
The engineer whipped his head toward Arekan and Grokin and frowned. Tinnen was extremely lean and white-haired. A deep scar cut into his cheek running from his ear to his jaw, which deepened with the scowl he gave both men.
“This is who you brought?” said Tinnen incredulously.
“Shut up, you sot. You wanted someone to watch the energy transfer levels, so you got him.”
“Look at him. His peepers aren’t even focused.”
“He’s better than he looks. His eyes work good enough for what you need.”
Tinnen spit a curious noise between a hiss and a growl.
“Shut up, you,” said Grokin, “and remember, the captain doesn’t want this one harmed.”
“Ya, ya,” said Tinnen dismissively. The engineer turned away from Grokin but muttered swears under his breath. Grokin huffed.
“Do what he says, boy. I need little excuse to bring the whip out again.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” said Arekan. His last word he spit with a snarl, but Grokin just smirked.
“You’re getting the right attitude. Between Issy and my scourge you’ll be regular crew soon enough.”
Arekan wanted to scream a denial at him, to throw himself against that hunk of depraved human being but he couldn’t. He shook from the weakness of his body. Or was that withdrawal from the venom? Arekan swallowed hard with a sudden realization. It would be a relief to sink into oblivion from the sweet fire that snake sunk into his skin rather than stand here trembling and unable to defend himself. He despised that, and he hated Grokin with every inch of his body. With a glance at Tinnen, he realized the engineer did too.
“Aye, sir,” said Arekan. Dread dug a pit in his stomach.
Grokin grunted, mounted the rungs of the ladder and slid out of sight.
“Bastard,” said Arekan. “You would think he was in a contest with the captain as the nastiest man alive.”
“Aye,” said Tinnen. “That’s his job. That way when the boss intervenes you are grateful for it.”
“I’m not–for any of it.”
“No? And what motivated you to sign on this tub, eh? Even with your talents, most likely you had no choice but to take off with a bunch of brigands.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Arekan sullenly. Tinnen’s penetrating gaze threw a deeper shadow of vulnerability on him. Whether dead or alive, his body was worth money to whoever presented it to the Kyn Imperial Army.
“A boy barely out of his teens with your sword arm? You’ve must have trained since you could walk. And only one group trains their pups in that manner.”
“Tinnen, conversations like this are likely to turn unhealthy for you.”
Tinnen chuckled. “Just so, young blade. But don’t let the other crew suspect what I do.”
“What you mean?” said Arekan in Oshijian. “My dad worked security and put a sword in my hand before I could walk.”
“Hah, good accent, enough to pass as one. Except your hair is too short to mark yourself for Oshijian.”
“I speak FedEng too,” said Arekan.
“Save it. Never learned it. Well, in your situation a lie is as good as a truth,” chuckled Tinnen. “But don’t you worry. I have no cause to see the best blade we’ve had in years tossed. I’d rather live, and with you we have a chance at that.”
“Thanks, I guess.” A rush of vertigo hit him and Arekan swayed on his feet. Tinnen moved in a blur to catch him.
“The bastard should have let you rest.”
“What? And not pry any use out of me to pay for my upkeep? What are you thinking, Tinnen?”
Tinnen laughed outright. “Aye. You’ve got the ways and means down, that’s for sure. Here, sit right here.” He steered him to a row of turbo-ramjet batteries. A row of tall rectangles marched staggered in physical size and various shades of black or gray across the deck. Dark, stout cords snaked toward the cylindrical hump of the engine that poked from the decking. They terminated in a wide box rigged with electrical outlets and a thick cable leading directly to a port in popped open in the engine housing. “See these indicators?” the engineer said pointing the base of the batteries. The lights were green or orange but Arekan gathered they meant the same thing. “There is ten levels for each one. Remember that. When the tenth light comes on you have only a couple minutes to disconnect it from the charger.”
“Or it will blow?” said Arekan.
“Aye. It’ll exploded, all right. and scramble the ship and our body parts into the black. So I’m trusting ‘ya big time here, boy.”
“And what are you going to do?”
“Well, I’m going to replace a part or two on the Null Space generator. We can’t move to our next stop if that doesn’t get done.”
“I’m all for mobility,” said Arekan.
“Aye. That’s the point, isn’t it? If you have questions, ask.” Tinnen picked up a pair of thick gloves from a work table. “Wear these when you pull the plug on a battery. There is a lot of static electricity here because of the null space generator. I wouldn’t want you to get shock off them because you aren’t grounded. Let me see your boots. Rubber soles?”
“They are shells that fit over the bottoms. It’s a way to save the boot. And they help on the decking. Leather is too slippery on metal.”
Tinnen grunted. “Quality goods. Don’t let on to our shipmates that those are caps on your footwear. They are apt to steal something that useful.”
“And you won’t?”
“Thad, knowing what I think I do about you, I wouldn’t touch a single belonging of yours if I wanted to keep my hands. But the idiots you sleep with? They can’t parse a threat from kiss, if you take my meaning.”
“Egren seems sharp.”
“Aye, he is. But that’s the only one. The rest are more crafty than smart. Keep that in mind. If they are frowning at you they are speaking the truth, and smiling, telling you a lie.”
“I can see that.”
“Good. Now get to the task.”
Tine moved toward the Null Space generator which Arekan sunk to the deck to watch the display lights. It was boring work, and he sat there uncomfortably aware of his body. One second he shivered uncontrollably, another his limbs were on fire. The nutrient paste didn’t sit so well in his stomach either. It was a lead weight in his belly and Arekan felt queasy. He fought to keep from vomiting the only food he had in for several days.
There was only one time in his life he felt this sick, and that was when he first hit puberty. Arekan got so ill, his father had the ship’s doctors put him in a medical coma to give his body a chance to work through whatever it was. The ships’ doctors couldn’t diagnose Arekan’s illness, and afterwards his father wouldn’t give Arekan an explanation. Now Arekan wondered if there was something his father should have told him.
Metal clinked and Tinnen swore loudly.”Oh holy hells!”
“Everything okay over there?” said Arekan.
Tinnen let loose invectives as he walked toward Arekan. He held his hand to a rag capturing seeping blood spreading in red stain.
“I was trying to pull the blown phase compensator and caught my hand on the magnetic coil. These old 1080 models have that part in an odd place behind the coils and its a damn tight fit.”
“And the coil wires are sharp?”
Tinnen nodded.”Damn straight.” He winced as he moved his fingers.
“Is it bad?”
“I’ll need stitches,” the engineer hissed.
“Sure, let’s sew people together like fabric instead of keeping a dermal regenerator on board.”
“I’ll trust Egren’s doctoring over any one these jerks with a piece of medical equipment in their hands. That’s how I got this scar. A damn idiot thought he’d play medic and scored the skin so badly that when I saw a healer this was the best he could do.”
“You couldn’t get to a sorceress? I hear they excel at muscle and skin healing.”
“Naw. We were deep into Oshijia, too far from Kyn to meet up with one of them.”
Arekan flicked his eyes from the batteries to Tinnen’s face.
“Aye,” said Arekan. “But I guess it worked out for you. Otherwise you’d be too pretty to be a pirate, wouldn’t you?”
He took a chance poking fun at Tinnen. Arekan didn’t know how the man would react. To his relief Tinnen guffawed loudly.
“That’s one way to take it,” he said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. In the meantime keep your eyes on those things!” He spoke this last sentence with special emphasis as if Arekan didn’t know how important his task was.
Tinnen’s footsteps rang hollowly on the rungs of the ladder and Arekan turned to the batteries. As one then another of the lights on each of the power packs flitted to the next level Arekan found himself caught in curious sensations. The pulse of the indicators seemed to slow to impossibly long intervals and his respiration did too. Then a rush of heat flashed through his body and the lights flickered like the flames of the candles. His breathing boomed in repeated bursts of a turbo-ramjet igniting. Things shifted again and time stretched into infinity. Arekan sat captured in this web of assaults on his senses with his mind whirling make sense of what was happening.
“Focus!” his teacher Alteun yelled in his ear. Instinctively, Arekan swiveled to the voice but didn’t find Alteun there. He turned his head back to the batteries, but the motion made his vision swim. What the hells was wrong with him?
One unit flickered to the next level. Arekan blinked and tried to count the levels. With a flush of alarm he realized it was at the tenth indicator light. He lurched to grab at the plug connecting it to the engine and fell face forward into the deck. Arekan crawled, his heart pounding in his chest with visions of the ship exploding into piece to the battery reached desperately for the connector. Static electricity danced around him despite the gloves on his hands and when he pulled the cord, he heard a sharp pop and shocking jolt of electricity shot through his body. He collapsed to the deck, panting, unable to form a coherent thought.
“What the hells!” someone yelled. He tried to push his body upright, but instead a hand yanked him painfully to sit upright. Arekan struggled focus his vision and found the scarred face of a wide-eyed Tinnen staring at him.
“Holy hells,” Tinnen muttered. Then Tinnen whirled and one by one frantically pulled the cords from the charging batteries. Arekan stared at him stupidly.
Then Tinnen’s face was in his again. “Look at me, boy!” he snapped. “Look! Has this happened before? Has electronics acted funny around you!”
“What?” said Arekan. He didn’t comprehend the question.
“Oh, by Haptura,” cursed Tinnen. There was distress in his voice as he swore to the Oshijian god. “What in Holy hells do we have here? How in the whole of the ‘verse did this happen?”
“What are you talking about?” croaked Arekan.
“Who was your mother, boy?” demanded Tinnen.
“Who was she?” he insisted roughly.
“I don’t know,” croaked Arekan through dry lips. “She didn’t want to live with us.”
“Holy hells,” said Tinnen. “Twice cursed you are, boy. Twice cursed. Get out of my engine room and don’t come back.”
Continuing Reading–>Chapter Nine~Arekan’s Promise