In the end, they ran. The group of them, now four, when before they were three, were spotted by one of the slavers as they slipped from the maze of cages that had held their prize. This was the young man they had stolen to conscript as crew on their ship.
The young man they “rescued” stayed close, his legs pumping as hard as theirs under the blazing white sun of a planet who life expectancy was comparatively short. But humans resided on it now, low and crass as this class was, and they only cared about the air, water and sunlight on it. It was a haven in the vastness of a Universe that served up few of the necessities of life.
But right now, Arekan’s and his fellows necessity was to make their ship, board it, and hope to hell that the captain or the pilot could make way before an Oshijian Empire war cruiser could shoot the pirate ship out of the black.
But the run was difficult. It was hot, humid and the air a touch too thin for physical exertion. But more than that the predations of life aboard the pirate ship—his ship, thought Arekan regretfully—took a toll on his body. He gasped for breath as his legs pumped against gravity that was a full half gee above what the captain set for gravity on the ship. And that little economy move, Arekan realized now, weakened his body.
No wonder the others didn’t want to leave the pirate ship.
“Damn this planet,” gasped Obon.
“By Haptura,” swore Egren.
Arekan looked over his shoulder and spotted not just the angry slaver whose property they stole, but a couple of men in uniform, following the merchant.
He gripped the hilt of his sword even though the slavers bore percussion weapons. He had one damn long sword, but it was useless against pieces of metal that tore through flesh from a distance.
The four of them entered the market proper now. They dashed through a crazy patchwork of rows of local goods and exotic merchandize brought from far spaceports. But the local constabulary knew these pathways better than they, and at the end of the one row they ran two local cops stood at the ready.
This was not going to do.
“Scatter!” yelled Arekan. He pulled the young slave to him and fell into a booth filled with spices and dried fruits. The shocked occupant, an elderly woman who could barely move, shrieked.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” said Arekan in Oshijian. He scrambled to his feet and grabbed the shoulder of the slave to drag him along. There was no way, after the danger they faced, that Arekan was going to show up at the Rogan empty handed.
But the young man appeared as eager to get away as Arekan and they scurried through the back alley ways of the market booths filled with empty crates and baskets seeking their escape.
“Over here!” a burly voice yelled. “I see a couple of ‘em.”
Of course they could count on the locals to inform on them. Arekan and his crew members were the outsiders, and the criminal element. All these folks want to do was sell their wares and go home to dinner. What Arekan wanted was to avoid arrest.
He spotted a break in the woven straw walls of the alleyway and dove in. Hopefully there was an easy exit to get into another row that would lead them away from here.
There was not.
It was not a booth proper, but a storeroom dark from a lack of light except a streak of sunlight seeping from an ill-patched section of thatched roof. It was hotter in here than the outside and the air thick with a musty smell. Somehow, on this foreign planet, that musty smell was familiar. But he was too occupied with thoughts of what to do next to place it.
Arekan pushed at the door and peeked out the sliver it afforded to see more local sheriffs with annoyed expressions on their faces. He shut the door quickly.
“What now?” hissed his companion.
Arekan put his finger to his lip hoping the boy would get the universal hint to shut up. But one never knew. On this kid’s planet the gesture could be an invitation for sex.
He dropped to a crouch, working to steady his breathing. His companion did the same, but lost his balance and fell against a straw hamper upending it. The cover dropped away, and long, slithery bodies tumbled out. Arekan stared in horror as legless reptiles writhed and spit at the slave’s feet.
Though they were tiny in body their coloring and markings matched exactly one of Arekan’s nemesis’ from the Rogan.
“Hells,” said the boy trying to scoot away.
“Don’t move,” snapped Arekan.
“Venomous?” asked the slave shakily.
“I hate snakes.”
“Does their venom kill?”
“No,” whispered Arekan. “But you’ll wish it did.”
“It’s a narcotic. And very addictive. All it takes is one bite and you’re hooked for life.”
“How do you know?”
“Our first mate, Grokin, keeps one on hand to control the crew. He calls her Issy.”
“They are supposed to be rare, but someone must have found a clutch.”
“Obviously.” The young slave frowned.
“And we are in the middle of it.”
“What happens? Besides what you said”
“Ever been drunk?”
“It’s better than that. If we were arrested we wouldn’t care if we were put before a death squad instantly.”
Arekan swept the area with his eyes, and found what he searched for, a canvas bag. This clutch of Issy’s cousins was worth more than precious metals or jewels. If they could get them on the ship, he might even be able to buy his way off the Rogan. He drew his sword and speared the bag with it, and brought it over the hissing heads of the snakes. Arekan had to be careful. One bite from them and he’d tumble into semiconsciousness, insensible and unable to defend himself.
The slave watched wide eyed as Arekan performed this maneuver. The steel of his sword glinted with light stolen from sun ray’s slicing through the torn roof. Arekan pushed the bag at the slave.
“Open it,” he said.
The boy stared at him, but Arekan brandished the sword, making a threat with his steel. With a grimace the boy clutched one end of the opening so the bag hung opened and dipped it so that the maw opened before the serpents.
Arekan laid the flat of the blade into the mass of wriggling baby Issy’s and managed to sail a knot of them into the bag. The others hissed and shot their heads at Arekan’s hand, but the slave, seeing the danger, drew them away with a flick of his. Arekan smiled appreciatively at his companion but the young man scowled.
“How many do you want?” the slave said.
“As many as we can get,” said Arekan.
A sudden creak and a flood of sunlight exposed the two to a large man in the doorway.
“Here!” the man cried.
“Hells,” swore the slave.
Arekan moved quickly. With a broad sweep of the flat of his blade he sent a large knot of baby snakes toward the face of man blocking their escape. The man’s hands flew to protect his face, but it wasn’t enough. Several of the beasts landed on him and managed to strike at exposed skin. He stumbled back with a weak cry, and cleared the doorway.
“Let’s go,” said Arekan. He grabbed the bag of snakes from the slave and pushed out the door. His boots pummeled the sandy ground as he sought his escape. A look over his shoulder confirmed the slave ran behind him, and so he pushed even harder past the stares and mutters of the marketplace crowd to run clear of it and toward the spaceport beyond.
A chain link fence guarded the tarmac of the port, but having gotten this far, wouldn’t let that deter him. He climbed the links and ignored the stinging barbs at the top of the fence. Arekan dropped, scored with bloody scratches to the ground. The slave followed his arms and legs whipped by the same barbs, but he smiled at Arekan.
“Where is this ship of yours?”
Even among the spacers of the various ships in the port, Arekan and the slave looked as if they were up to no good, which they had been. But the port was international territory, and off limits to local sheriffs. And as long as no one made a claim directly against the Rogan, it was free to come and go as it pleased.
Arekan hoped no one made a claim.
With the slave by his side and a bag of priceless narcotic serpents he appeared at the docking hatch of the Rogan. Grokin, the first mate, glared at him through the view port of the hatch.
“Where have you been?” he snarled nastily through the ships electronic systems. “We’ve been waiting on ‘ya.”
“Egren and Obon back?” he asked.
“Aye. Got here ten minutes ago. The captain is doing flight pre-check.”
“Good,” said Arekan. “Open up.”
“Give me a reason,” growled Grokin. “I’m tempted to leave ‘ya here for all the trouble you cause.”
Arekan raised the bag and then pointed to the slave.
“Stolen crew and contraband,” Arekan said.
“What’s in the bag?”
“You better not be lying,” Grokin spit.
“I’m not. Look.” Arekan opened the bag and Grokin stared at a knot of then of the baby snakes.
“Aye, then. You better get onboard. They’ll be looking for these more than ‘im.” He nodded toward the slave. “But you did well, boy, for a no-account. Tonight, we’ll drink to forbidden passengers.”
Image by Starry Night Graphix