The tank’s water shot shards of cold through Arekan as chilly as the deeps of space. With a shiver, Arekan realized this compartment had no shielding for the cold of the black, and if he didn’t drown first, he’d die of hypothermia.
The only positive outcome of this disaster was that the chilled water stopped the pain in his seared back end. But that was little comfort against the two deaths he now faced.
Raised in space, Arekan was no stranger to the extremes of astronautical living, but his adventures on The Rogan pushed him to the limits of his patience. This was the third time this tub threatened his life. The first was his induction in the Heavenly Court when his shipmates tossed him out of an airlock without a spacesuit. The second was when the first mate Grokin whipped him for saving a crew mate’s life against orders, and now this. He had enough. Anger bubbled through him as he resolved to kill the captain.
Arekan somersaulted in the water to correct his downward trajectory and propel his body with powerful pulls of his arms to the hatch. If he misjudged, he would drown. If he didn’t get out of this water quickly, he’d lose body heat, pass out and then drown.
It’s always good to have options. he thought.
His head hit metal, and as a sharp pain seared through him, he gasped. Fortunately, he sucked in air from the pocket of air at the top of the tank.
Not dead yet, you bastards, thought Arekan. Above him, heavy footsteps vibrated, and the creak of the hatch signaled someone, probably an Impie pulling it back. When a dim light hit the water, Arekan pushed back into the shadow. A flashlight plunged its beam into the water. Arekan sucked more air and sunk into the water, holding his breath while he watched the beam of light sliced through the darkness in a wavy sword. His lungs begged painfully for another breath, but he hung on even as he shivered in the water. He had to get out of this cold soon, or there would be no reason to.
The light withdrew, leaving only the muddled light seeping into the water from the open hatch.
Arekan’s limbs grew heavy, which was a danger sign in the depths of space or an unheated water tank. He didn’t feel or hear boot falls, and he hoped the Impies had moved on. Willing his limbs to move, he pushed his head out of the water and immediately felt his body hauled out the water and tossed harshly on the deck. Arekan searched the engine room quickly, but Cripin disappeared, and the grate to the ventilation system where he entered the
“Think we found him,” said one Impie. Arekan blinked to clear his vision.
“Could be a stowaway,” said another.
“On this wreck? With those degenerates?” said the other.
“Go tell the lieutenant,” said the first. “He’ll sort it out.”
A rush of fresh energy hit Arekan at this new threat. He sprang to his water-logged feet and smashed the first Impie in the jaw, and the man staggered and fell to the deck. The second leveled an energy weapon at him and fired but missed. This gave Arekan the chance to propel into the man’s knees and sack him. The man’s head hit the deck with a sharp crack, and he lay unmoving. Arekan checked the man’s pulse and found the man’s heartbeat.
Arekan shook his head. He had hoped to wait out the Imperial Navy’s visit in hiding, and now that was impossible. As he shivered again from the chill of his wet clothes, he glanced around the engine room. There was a hatch he hadn’t noticed, so he opened it to and found a storage area, though the light inside didn’t illuminate the space. He heard a familiar hiss, in fact, many hisses. He grabbed the Impie’s flashlight and swept it inside to find a knot of snakelets writhing on each other.
His stomach turned as he stared at the wriggling tangle of vipers he had not seen since he brought them on board. These he had filched from the planet where they picked up the new crew member, Peppen, or Rastan, or whatever the hells his name was. Damned Grokin confiscated the snakelets, and Arekan allowed it because the first mate was the expert on keeping the snakes.
Grokin owned an adult version that he used to keep the crew under control. He used the psychotropic venom of these creatures to addict The Rogan’s men to the snake’s dubious charms. The crew had used the poison on Arekan after Grokin had whipped him nearly to death to keep the pain manageable as he healed. Maybe it was the pain, or perhaps just his individual body chemistry, but he detoxed from the venom once in an experience he never wanted to repeat. The crew member who tended to him most, and the only decent one of the lot, Egrin, warned him that further exposure could addict him irrevocably. But remembering the crazy visions he had while he healed, Arekan reasoned he had a way to make the Impies doubt they had even seen The Rogan at all.
After grabbing the thick gloves he used to push the batteries, he reached into the knot and yanked three snakelets from the pile. Needle-like barbs sliced through the gloves, and when he looked down, he noticed the baby snake had vestigial front legs with sharp claws. Damn, the things stuck like hook-and-loop strips. Behind him, he heard the groans of the two men stirring.
“Sorry, guys,” said Arekan. He regretted this action because it went against all his father taught Arekan about honor. A fair fight was one thing. This was a dirty trick that could have consequences for these men for the rest of their lives. But he didn’t have time for moral dilemmas. Arekan tossed a serpent on each of the men, and the beasts, alarmed at their rough treatment, struck the Impies. One man moaned with pain, but both passed out again.
Arekan found a pail and dumped a knot of the creatures inside, then peered out of the ruined hatch into the hallway and saw no Imperial Navy personnel. He sucked in a breath. Then clutching the pail of unhappy snakelets before venturing into the corridor and making his way to the ladder that brought him to the lower deck.
As soon as his foot hit the lower deck, he heard, “You. Stop.”
Arekan turned to see an Imperial sailor pointing an energy rifle at him. Arekan whipped out a snakelet and tossed it at the Imperial sailor. The man tried to bat it away, but the serpent used its claws to cling to the man before he sunk his fangs into the man’s hand. The sailor cried out as his knees buckled under him, and he fell forward. Arekan snatched the baby snake and returned it to the pail while it spat and hissed at him.
“Yeah, I love you too,” said Arekan sourly.
Arekan wondered how long his luck would hold out. While he got lucky three times, the odds could shatter from his favor to against. Arekan detested suffering the consequences of putting his sword to the law policing the spaceways of Kyn. It was bad enough they could execute him on sight. If he murdered one, they would hound him throughout the Kyn Empire—worse because they would have a name and a face to pursue. It didn’t matter whether it was Arekan Mor’a’stan, Thad Grane, or any other moniker he wore.
It boiled the blood that he faced danger each time he crossed Kyn international boundaries for being born in a family that the government despised. The constant threats to his life, including Cripin’s latest attempt, burned him deep. Every muscle bunched, and his jaw set as he strode through the hallways of the ship with his bucket of dangerous weapons toward the cargo hold. At the hatch, he stopped and peered into the hold. He spotted the Lieutenant and six of his men holding energy rifles to the pirate crew.
“But I tell you,” said the new crew member Rastan, “Peppen is not my name.”
That fool Peppen leaned toward the Lieutenant to talk his way off the ship. The officer scowled at him.
Grokin stepped forward and cuffed the boy who fell on his butt while the Impies rushed toward them both.
“Shut your mouth,” snapped the first mate.
“Aye, boy,” growled Etharin. “Everyone knows on ITU ships, people work under aliases if they care to, and most do.”
With Grokin and Etharin shooting murderous glances at Rastan, the young man slunk back into line with the crew of The Rogan. Arekan noticed Cripin there too, standing still with an unconcerned expression on his face.
“With this last one, all crew accounted for,” said announced an Impie with a compad in hand.
“Not exactly,” said Arekan.
All heads snapped to Arekan, who sprinted into the hold and tossed one handful of snakes after another at the Impies. The serpents’ vestigial claws dug into the soldiers’ uniforms, and their fangs struck. While one man screeched, others swore, and two hopped around trying to rid themselves of the creatures, the men of The Rogan laughed at the Impies predicament. Within minutes, the Imperial military men lay on the floor.
“What the hells,” groaned the Impie lieutenant. He sunk to his knees and his eyes rolled up.
Etharin took two steps to the Lieutenant, grabbed the man’s hair, and jerked the man’s head, forcing him to look at Etharin.
“That’s what you get for messing with my ship,” he said. He pushed, and the man fell backward with his head striking the deck.
Obon, the least dependable of the crew, sprang forward to grab a snakelet wiggling toward a bulkhead seeking a place to hide, but Arekan stepped in and snatched it.
“That’s my property, Obon. And if you touch it, you’ll die.”
Obon sneered but backed off.
“What about the ones searching the ship?” said Etharin.
“Two in the engine room and one in the main corridor on this deck. All unconscious.”
“Good work, lad. You’ve earned your pay for the week.”
Arekan almost snarled. He had no use for the pirate captain’s praise. Nor did Etharin pay a single crew member until the end of the run, and so far, there was no end in sight.
“Grokin,” said Etharin, “take who you need and drag those Impies into their patrol ship and set them adrift. Tinnen, make the engines ready. Cripin, plot a course back into Oshijia. We’ll take the long way to N’sen spaceport.”
Arekan turned to walk out of the hold.
“Where are you going, boy?” said Grokin. “There’s work needs doing.”
“You heard the captain. I’ve done my work for the week. And here.” He set the pail of snakes on the deck and kicked it to Grokin. “Take care of these.”
Arekan strode from the compartment shivering, wet, and sick to his stomach from his dunking in the water tank and the day’s events. Etharin and Cripin planned his death before he set foot on the ship. How creepy was it they chose him based on his looks?
When he reached the crew quarters, he closed the hatch and shoved a piece of metal in the locking mechanism. Then he changed from his sopping clothes to his one other set. He needed sleep, and he’d get it, but he didn’t trust these pirates not to murder him. Arekan grabbed his sword from the pile of clothes on the floor and lay it at his side as he rested his head on his pillow, contemplating his dilemma. His eyes grew heavy, and he decided the problem of Etharin and his murderous crew would wait for another day.