Genre: Science Fiction
Short Story Type: Novella
Summary: Space pirate Aston West stumbles upon a derelict freighter, fresh from a recent battle, and can’t fight the urge to pilfer a valuable cache of highly illegal weapons. While on-board, however, one last stowaway fights back, thinking him part of an earlier boarding crew. Attack craft return to finish the ship off and Aston has no choice but to save her from certain destruction.
Who is she? What are the weapons for? Why was the freighter destroyed?
Aston discovers more questions than answers, and his life is put in jeopardy every time he stops to catch his breath. Aston’s life motto of never getting involved is put to the test, and he must decide whether to become a hero for people in need, or continue his path of self-preservation.
Excerpt:I awoke to a seductive female voice. “Aston...”
Too bad for me, it belonged to Jeanie, my ship’s computer. A cruel joke designed for mostly male pilots spending long periods alone. It was even worse when I ignored the fact she was simply a machine programmed to think.
“We’re entering the Toris system.”
Our current destination was my gateway to temporary financial security. I sat up from the hard, low-lying bunk, stood, and walked to the bridge. It was a short distance, nonetheless painful, as metallic floor panels clanked under my feet louder than normal.
As I walked onto my bridge, the hyper-speed engines disengaged and slowly wound down. I held onto my captain’s chair to steady myself until the ship reached a constant velocity. I sat down in my chair, reached into the side pocket, and pulled out the same bottle of Vladirian liquor that put me down.
“How are we doing on time?”
“Far ahead of schedule,” responded Jeanie.
The second of my four cargo hatches held a cargo container full of blue organic crystals. When I picked it up, the seller told me to take it to Toris, the outer planet in the system of the same name. I didn’t know why, but I’d double my pay if I made it to Toris fast enough ahead of schedule. They didn’t have to tell me twice.
“Let me know when we reach the station.”
I took a small taste of the light yellow liquid in the bottle. The storekeeper peddling the stuff at my last stop had filled me in with the full story behind the drink. A small animal called a Roshtu secreted the liquid as a defensive measure when attacked. The sweet smell and taste caused the attacking predator to lap it up and become intoxicated, while the Roshtu escaped unharmed. I took another drink, this one longer.
“So, Jeanie, what would you like me to buy you once I get paid?”
“I am currently running at peak performance, and have no requirements.”
I smiled and leaned back in my chair. I usually found scuttled and abandoned cargo, then sold it for profit. Scavenging was a less aggressive form of piracy, and usually safer, since you didn’t have to carry out threats of violence. Unfortunately, such cargo tended to be scarce, and had been more so lately. So, when I’d stumbled into an opportunity to carry cargo, I jumped at the chance. An extra bonus for speedy delivery didn’t hurt matters.
I took another sip of the Vladirian liquor and put it away. There needed to be something left to celebrate my fortune.
Jeanie ignored my question. “I’m picking up a ship on medium range sensors.”
The hair on the back of my neck rose. “Show me.”
My view screen lit up along the front wall of my bridge. A couple kilpars in length, the lines of the ship were smooth, tapering from the nose to a constant, rectangular cross-section around the first quarter of the hull. Near the back of the ship, I could see bell-shaped nozzles behind four embedded engines, darkened against the starfield. I recognized the configuration, but wanted some confirmation.
She gave the designation. “Green Three.”
I took another look at the sensor screen over my left armrest. “I don’t see any other ships out there.”
“There are none in the vicinity.”
A Rulusian freighter in an alien system, all by itself, made no sense. They often stuck together in vast convoys, to give themselves a better defensive position through sheer numbers.
“Status of the freighter?”
“Engines and main power are down, backup systems are in effect. No shields, no weapons charged.” She paused a moment. “No life signs.”
With the condition of the ship and no crew, I wondered what happened. Then a smile crossed my lips. I was a scavenger pirate at heart and wasn’t about to let a prime opportunity escape.
“Any cargo in the bays?”
Jeanie was hesitant. “Yes.”
“Well,” I chuckled, “what is it?”
“I’m picking up signs of cargo without accompanying records in the transport manifest.”
My smile grew. Rulusians were usually law-abiding. I had no idea why one of their ships would be hauling illegal cargo, but with three open bays on my ship and plenty of time to spare, there was only one thing on my mind.
Jeanie was too smart for her own good. “The logic of this situation does not compute.”
“It’s nice you worry about me, but I’ll be fine.” I nearly laughed at the thought of a machine with feelings.
She remained silent.
“Access their computer, and drop their cargo.”
“Unable to comply.”
If she wasn’t programmed to obey, I would have been upset. There had to be something wrong.
“The on-board systems were placed under a command-level lockout by the Captain of the vessel. Only the Captain can remove it.”
I clasped my hands behind my head and sighed as Green Three grew larger in the view screen. Finding the freighter made me think my luck was turning for the better. Now, the situation was tougher than it first seemed. My thoughts drifted to the state of the ship.
“Looks like they didn’t want anyone else gaining control. Maybe they abandoned her.”
“That theory appears plausible.”
I ran my hands through my dark brown, wavy locks, then massaged the tension out of the back of my neck. “I guess I’ll just have to go over and drop it manually. Move us to the starboard docking port.”