I knew it the second the door slid shut. It wasn’t going to slide back open as easily, and I had three hours before Tanner got back. Assuming everything went right. Judging by our track record from the last couple days, that meant it would probably be more like five, and then he wouldn’t be able to get the door open anyway.
I growled out an emphatic oath.
Granted, it wasn’t as bad as it could be. The emergency lights were still giving off their vaguely neon glow. Stuck though I was, at least it wasn’t like no one knew where I was, and I had food–or at least a couple of protein bars–in my backpack, as well as enough water that dehydration wouldn’t be a problem.
And given that this was the bridge of a military-type ship, I supposed that having a door fail secure on me because I got careless and snipped the wrong wire was probably the most benign thing that could have happened. Well. Aside from nothing, of course.
I groaned softly as I looked around the room. Five hours. About thirty cubic meters. We had said we would need to go over the area with a fine-toothed comb. Looks like I was going to get a chance to do just that.
So much for fobbing that particular task off on my unsuspecting brother.
All things considered, the Duster Gang’s hideout was one of the best ones I’d seen. For one thing, they hadn’t set up shop in the Outlands, and I appreciated the change of scenery. For another, the panoramic view of the valley was truly impressive, and made moreso by the clear and cloudless sky: unless I missed my guess, that smudge off to the southwest was Coville itself. But the best part was the water.
There was a whole pool of it in the deepest part of the cave: cold, sweet water. As soon as Tanner and I saw that, it made sense how the eight scruffy miscreants we had tied up and disarmed in the mouth of the cave had been able to run their cattle rustling outfit for as long as they had. It was one thing to have enough water for a handful of people. It was another entirely to be able to keep twenty or thirty head of stolen cattle in good condition while you waited for a chance to sell them off.
Somehow, I managed to avoid venting my spleen until after we were out of Kemp’s earshot. Or until I thought we probably were. Or could argue to Tanner that I thought we were when it turned out he heard us—or rather, me—after all, and it came back to bite us. Not that he didn’t deserve every word I said, of course, but working with a butthurt and testy ranger would just be working for trouble.
So, I waited until we were out of earshot. Probably. And then I let loose with nine hours worth of frustration and righteous annoyance.
“…and he’s probably just working as a ranger so he can get filthy rich,” I finished. It didn’t sound right even as the words left my mouth, but I didn’t particularly care.
Tanner raised one eyebrow. “I’ll ask Paul next time we see him how that’s going for him.”
I glared at him. He would derail a perfectly good rant with a quick dose of logic.
“Alright, look. I’m the first person to admit that the last job got a little out of hand.” That was, of course, not strictly true. Or true at all, really, but admitting that would undermine the point I was trying to make. “But don’t you think this might be a bit of an over-correction?”
The “this” in question was the job that Tanner had just finished telling me about. It was a bit of a departure from our usual fare, if only because we wouldn’t be getting paid to do it.
“Actually, I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. We just couldn’t have afforded it until now.”
“So, you’re saying that letting Surr hire us was a good idea after all?”
Tanner narrowed his eyes. “No. And don’t push it. But we did, and there’s no reason we can’t make something good come out of it.”
He was baiting me; I could tell by the wicked twinkle in his eye. That, and he was my brother. It was usually a good bet.
“See, I thought having money in the bank account was something good.” Of course I took the bait. What else was I supposed to do with it?
“It is. But only because of what we can do with it.”
“I should have known you were going to go all philosophical with that.”
He grinned. “You really should have.”
I signed. “Fine.” Then I grimaced. “I don’t know if there’s any way to say this that won’t make me look like a heartless mercenary, but I’m going to try anyway.”
“You know, it’s never a good sign when you have to lead with that.”
I did know, but that didn’t mean I was about to let it stop me. “You have a point, and I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t do this. I actually think it’s a good idea, truly. But this whole thing is going to be a bigger…” I waved my hands around and tried to come up with a better word than the one that first came to mind. I failed. “A bigger thing than the jobs we get paid for. If it all goes south, we’re not going to have a lot to fall back on.”
I didn’t mention that this particular job seemed at least as likely to go off the rails as the aforementioned and much maligned Surr job. Because doing so would invite a little too much scrutiny into the nature of a whole bunch of our jobs, and we’d need more time for that discussion. That was strange. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was being the voice of reason to our little family enterprise. What was the world coming to?
“I’ve thought about that. And first, I don’t expect things to go sideways.” I opened my mouth to remind him that that was exactly how we were going to get jinxed, but he waved me off before I could get the words out. “But, even if they do, we’ve got enough people around here who like us now that we’d be okay. Heck, if we get hurt trying to help out the whole colony, Folks around here are going to make sure we’re taken care of.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You’ve been thinking about this for a while, haven’t you?”
“A bit, yeah. I just didn’t want to bring it up until we had the foundation to make it possible. Or at least something other than a patently bad idea.”
A part of me still wanted to argue the point. It might not be a bad idea anymore, but I wasn’t sure that meant it was a good idea. More like an idea that involved a whole lot of risk and not much in the way of reward. Not for us at any rate. The only problem was that while it wasn’t the best set of circumstances for us personally, if we succeeded in pulling it off, it was undeniably going to make things better for the colony as a whole. And that gave me the sinking feeling that the only reason I was really balking at it was the selfish thought that it wasn’t going to be worth our time. Maybe it wasn’t the only reason, but it was probably the biggest reason. And I didn’t like that.
And that’s how Tanner and I ended up offering our services to a group heading out into the deep Badlands with the intention of setting up some basic defenses for the group that was already out there figuring out a way to safely provide more water for the growing colony.
Now. Before we go on, let me do a little to mitigate some of the damage done to my reputation by admitting that I was less than enthusiastic about the idea of offering our services free of charge, despite how important an endeavor it was. First, despite the fact that it was deeply important, it wasn’t an urgent problem. Not yet, at any rate. But the colony was going to be growing. A lot. Maybe not this year, and maybe not the year after that, but construction was already well underway on a sister ship to the Overland, and as technology continued to advance, it was growing easier and easier by steps to reach this planet. And that was without counting on whether or not the Anchor station tests continued going as well as they seemed to be. Because once that was done, things were going to be getting even more crowded out here.
Add to all that the fact that we had already heard for sure that there was another big colonization push going on back on Earth, and it didn’t take a civil engineer to figure out that we wouldn’t have anywhere near enough water to go around once everyone showed up. So, instead of waiting until everyone was actually on their way and we were all living just short of disaster, a number of bright minds among the Verdant colonists decided to get together to do something about it before it became a problem. They had tried to get official backing from any number of the colony companies back on Earth, but hadn’t gotten more than what amounted to token support. Certainly, they hadn’t gotten the financial backing that would make it easy to pay for the time of a couple of freelancers at the going rate, and the defense system they had provided, while not terrible, was certainly not top of the line, either.
It just so happened that Tanner and I were going to be able to help with both of those.
“Miranda, get back in bed or I’ll break your other leg.”
That was my brother’s version of compassion for the wounded. But, as I was only ninety-nine percent sure that he wasn’t serious, I muttered something derogatory about his bedside manner and limped and crutched my way back to my sickbed and dropped back onto it. I also let my crutches clatter to the floor in a noisy protest. It was an exercise in cutting off my nose to spite my face, of course, since I was going to be the one to have to pick them up next time I wanted to get around the room, but for now, I allowed myself to take some pleasure in annoying my brother.
“I’m not useless, you know,” I said. “I can still help.”
Tanner didn’t turn around as he answered me. “Sure. Right until the pain meds kick in. We went through this yesterday.”
And the day before, and the day before that. Though, granted, yesterday had been the worst.
“Fine,” I grumbled. “But don’t come complaining when you can’t find any leads.”
So… it’s not a full story, and there’s no guarantee that this is the start I’ll be sticking with, but enjoy the first couple paragraphs of a new Tanner and Miranda story!
“Tanner,” I said, “you’re not nervous, are you?” The corner of my mouth twisted up in what could best be described as a wicked grin.
“I’ll be fine.” My brother cast a look in my general direction that was probably meant to chasten me. It didn’t work. “How long until orbit?”
“Orbit? Just a couple minutes. But it’ll be an hour or so before we rendezvous with the ship.”
He just grunted in response.
The ship in question was a derelict that had shown up above Verdant a couple days before. At least, everyone assumed it was a derelict, given that the scans we’d managed had shown minimal power and no one had responded to any of the messages sent on all the common frequencies. It was the sort of thing that would probably end up being a non-event, but was still just strange enough that it merited a closer look. And seeing as Tarj and all the other Rangers had their hands as full as always with things on the surface, that left it up to a couple of freelancers like us.
Which was how my brother and I ended up sitting across from each other in the passenger compartment of a skylark-class shuttle, strapped in and buckled up while a woman named Amanda Vasquez flew us up to orbit. Our gear was all secured as well, though in a smaller pile than usual. You packed different for a quick trip into vacuum than you did for a week in the Badlands.
I, for one, was looking forward to the change of pace. Tanner was somewhat less enthusiastic, as evidenced by the greenish hue his whole face took on every time we hit a little bit of turbulence.
“It’ll be better once we break out of atmo,” I said, trying to look and sound as sympathetic as I felt. “I promise.”
He spared a glance at me and forced his grip to loosen enough on his safety restraint that his knuckles went from corpse-white to panic-pale. “I know. I’m okay. I’d just forgotten how much I hated ever leaving dirt.”
We knew Trevor Cossak was going to catch up with us eventually. We knew it, but I had been hoping it would be somewhere other than in this remote and utterly godforsaken corner of the Badlands. At least there was cover. I gripped my pistol and twisted just enough to look over the top of the massive boulder Tanner and I were both currently hiding behind.
I swore and slammed back down. Lafayette wasn’t missing much by way of his aim. And I still wasn’t sure exactly where he was.
“Okay, now what?” I hissed the words, exchanging a glance with my brother. I was all out of ideas this time around.
Tanner just shook his head. So much for that.
The sky above was clear and blue. The world around us was silent—ominously so. If I popped my head up again there would be another rifle shot, and I had the impression that Cossak wasn’t firing warning shots. If he got a clear bead on us, it was game over. And seeing as half-second stolen glances weren’t giving us any idea where he was actually hiding, they weren’t worth the risk.
“Well, we can’t just sit here and wait,” I said.
“We can’t really do anything else,” said Tanner. “Unless you’re trying to make his job easier.”
His job, because in one sense, the man was just trying to fulfill an obligation. Cut out the part about that obligation being handed to him by a certain colony mob boss, and you almost sympathized with him.
“His job’s going to be plenty easy if we just sit here and wait for him to work out how to get closer,” I said. But while that was true, I knew Tanner had a point. Which meant we needed another option.
I turned and looked at our surroundings for the eighth time. And for the eighth time, I came away with the same impression: this particular little pocket in the canyon wall, situated as it was behind a decently sized boulder, provided both lovely cover and no way out. There was at least a couple dozen yards of open ground surrounding us, which would give Cossak some trouble getting closer to us, but that was only the thinnest of silver linings.
At least it wasn’t going to get that much worse.
That was the last thought I had before I heard a clatter of rocks on the steep slope above us and looked up just in time to see a couple of armed gangmen taking aim at us from above.
We both turned and fired, and both gangmen came tumbling down with his own mortal wound opened up in his chest. But the damage was done. The seconds we spent dealing with them were enough for Cossak himself to break from his own hiding place and cross the precious yards of no-man’s land we had hoped would protect us.
By the time we turned back around he had already flanked us. I fired three shots, each one hitting dead on. Each one falling short against a personal shield device that I had, up until this point, thought was mostly fantasy. Tanner shot him too, but the only effect the rifle shot had was that it caused the shield to flicker. Slightly.
“Don’t suppose you’re going to let us surrender, are you?”
There’s nothing fun about looking for a new roommate. The whole process can go wrong more ways than it can go right, and the stakes for it going right are higher than most. You’re looking for someone to live with, after all—it would be nice to get along, nice to tolerate each other’s company, if not enjoy it. Yet all too often you have to consider yourself lucky to just not mind sharing space.
And all it takes is one bad experience to make you twitchy about the whole thing. Sure, the statistics say you’re unlikely to ever run into someone truly dangerous. And even if you do, you want to believe you’d notice that something was off before you invite them in to live between the same four walls as you. Problem is, statistics aren’t guarantees. And once you lose that gamble once, you’re bound to make extra sure about anyone responding to your craigslist ad.
Which was how Amanda found herself sitting at the corner table of a coffee shop a few blocks from her apartment, waiting for who she hoped would turn out to be as good a roommate in reality as she was on paper. She’d gotten there early, more by accident than design, though she hoped it would give her a chance to collect her thoughts and relax. It hadn’t worked; mostly, it had given her time to remember how optimistic she’d been about Lilith when she moved in.
It had been fine at first. Lilith was nice, if a little odd. She’d was a little pale, but she’d also only gone out after dark. She seemed to eat blood sausage with every meal, but everyone had their dietary quirks. That colony of bats had moved into the walls about a week after she had moved in, but that could hardly have been her fault. Just coincidence.
Until the Incident, everything weird was easy enough to explain away. But when your roommate tries to bite your neck and only fails because you happened to have the presence of mind to fling the jar of powdered garlic at her, you end up feeling a bit paranoid.
Amanda shuddered and tried not to think about it. She also touched her hand to the small silver cross at her neck, just to reassure her subconscious that it was still there. Fortunately, any further recollections were preempted by the arrival of her potential new roommate.
She was a small woman—barely five feet tall and slight of stature—with red hair in a pixie cut and pale grey eyes. She approached the table and greeted Amanda with the most musical voice she had ever heard.
“I’m so glad you had time to meet! It’s Amanda, right?”
Amanda smiled and nodded. “And you’re Morgana.”
“I am!” said Morgana, and she laughed.
After that, the two of them just talked for a while, asking all the simple, silly questions anyone does when trying to find the first pieces of common ground on which to build an acquaintance. It went well. So well, in fact, that Amanda found herself thinking and hoping that she had found that rare gem of a person who could be both friend and roommate.
Of course, she had hoped that of Lilith, too, and not without reason.
And maybe it was extenuating circumstances that had nixed that dream, but it’s once bitten, twice shy, and Amanda had no desire to get bitten a second time. Granted, the fact that they were meeting in the daylight was a good sign, but she’d be happier if she could confirm those results with a couple of other subtle tests.
“So, what about cooking? Do you like fiddling around in the kitchen?”
Morgana’s eyes lit up for at least the twentieth time. “I love cooking! And baking. And experimenting. All of it! Do you?”
Amanda grinned back. “Absolutely. I’ve got a few go-to recipes that I stick with for the most part, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that garlic makes almost everything better.”
“Ha! Me too,” said Morgana. “If this works out, we should absolutely cook dinner together every now and then. I always like it better when I get to cook for someone else.”
Test number two, passed with flying colors. Amanda felt some of her tension bleed out of her shoulders, and she allowed herself to feel almost hopeful. It seemed unlikely that Morgana was going to be the sort of roommate who might be tempted to suck her blood.
Just to be sure, of course, there were a few more questions, a few more tests. Amanda turned the conversation to their favorite books, and was pleased to see that her mention of Dracula left Morgana unfazed. Morgana complimented her necklace and touched it without flinching when Amanda held it out to her, apparently unworried by the fact that it was both silver and a cross. Casual mentions of both wolves and bats got no response. In fact, nothing gave Amanda any cause for concern, and she felt a little silly when she arranged for a small mirror to tumble from her bag in such a way that it allowed her to check for a reflection. It was there, of course.
After that, even her most paranoid instincts were content that Morgana was likely to be a top notch roommate. She would move in at the end of the month, and they would likely be in constant contact even before that. When they went their separate ways that afternoon after enjoying almost an hour more of friendly conversation, Amanda felt more relaxed than she had in months.
“Oh!” Morgana turned back a moment after she left the table. “Before I forget, I should let you know. I have the worst reaction to anything made of pure iron. I just touch the stuff and it makes me go cold and numb all over. Just so you know!”
It wasn’t until after Morgana signed the lease and moved in that Amanda remembered that an aversion to cold iron was a known characteristic of the fae folk. And when she did, a sharp thrill of panic ran down her spine. But only the one. She’d rather live with a fairy than a vampire any day.
“What do you mean you haven’t found her? It’s not a big ship! What did she do, step out the airlock or something?!” The captain was snarling now, with the spittle flying from his mouth and that crazed twitch in the corner of his right eye. Ruby had served on the little pirate crew long enough to know what happened next: he would keep screaming until his voice cracked from the exertion. His face, already red, would turn purple. His vocabulary would expand to contain every known form of profanity, and several new ones besides.
It was hardly the first time it had happened. It wouldn’t be the last—assuming, of course, that this wasn’t the rant that finally sent him apoplectic.
The best thing to do was to just stay out of the way; not that poor Tomms had that luxury. It couldn’t be helped. He’d learn fast enough. She had. And sure, she liked the kid, but that didn’t mean she was going to stick her neck out for him when the captain was on the warpath. That would just be—
“Get back down there and look again!” She winced as the captain whirled on her. “And you too! Maybe together you’ll be better than useless!”
So much for that. Ruby scrambled to her feet with a hasty “yessir” and made for the door. Tomms gave her a pained and panicked look and bolted after her. Neither one said a thing until they were well beyond the bridge and out of the captain’s earshot. Neither one bothered to pull out their blasters even then. If they needed them, they could unholster them fast enough.
“I’m so sorry, Ruby,” hissed Tomms, tentatively, as if he expected her to use it as an excuse to treat him the same way the rest of the crew did.
Poor kid. Like she’d stoop that low.
She twitched a wry smile his way and shook her head. “Not your fault, Tomms. Let’s just get this over with.”
That was, of course, easier said than done. For such a small ship, it was carrying a whole lot of cargo. And instead of all being packed together in one huge conglomeration in the center of the hold, dozens of containers were all separated out in various stacks. No doubt, it was all part of some grand system of organization. The fact that they created a veritable maze was just a side effect.
“There’s a million places to hide in here,” said Tomm. His voice wasn’t quite a whimper.
“And that’s just counting between those cargo containers. You can double that if this is a smuggling ship.”
He did whimper at that. It was the only sensible response.
“She can’t just hide forever.” The tremor in his voice added in the unspoken “can she?”
“No,” said Ruby, with entirely more conviction than she felt. Because this was her home turf, not theirs. And while the cargo hold might look like a bloody labyrinth to them, she probably knew it like the back of her hand.
And then there was the whole question of why she had so carefully put her ship in orbit around the nearest moon instead of going for a hard burn when she’d noticed the pirate ship closing in. It was an unconventional response to say the least. One that had Ruby wondering what their target had hiding up her sleeve. Sure, scans had shown she was the only one on board, but that just meant that Ruby had more questions, not less. Even the most hubristic explorers of the void knew better than to try their luck entirely on their own.
And this particular star sailor had not seemed to be the hubristic sort.
“Tomms. Watch yourself.”
Ruby made a face. “Be careful. I’m not sure what she’s up to.” Whatever it was, it was probably more than hiding like a scared rabbit.
Tomms grimaced. “Why are we doing this, Ruby? It’s her ship.”
“We’re doing this because if we don’t, the captain’s going to start using us for target practice.”
After ten minutes of searching the hold, though, and turning up absolutely nothing at all, Ruby was starting to wonder. She stopped on her prowl down one of the narrow pathways between crates to groan softly and glare up at the ceiling. Over to one side, the dark side of the moon could still be seen through one of the small portholes that lined the top of the hold. An odd structural choice, though there was something to be said for a little natural light when loading the ship, she supposed.
After ten more minutes, she started wondering if the rightful owner of this particular little ship hadn’t actually found some way off. Because it was starting to seem highly unlikely that she was actually still on board. That, or Ruby and Tomms both were going to have to ask some hard questions about their ability to search a vessel. There was also the question of what their current employment said about them as people, but that was less specific to the situation. And while Ruby wasn’t looking forward to finding the answer at all, it would be slightly easier to handle when their boss wasn’t raging and pirating about one deck up.
He wasn’t going to be happy about the lack of results. Frankly, Ruby was surprised she and Tomm had been able to search undisturbed for twenty minutes. It couldn’t last.
“Tomms?” Her voice echoed through the hold, bouncing between the stacked cargo containers. “Anything?”
Silly question. She knew he hadn’t. He would have told her if he had.
Ruby frowned. “Tomms?”
Still nothing. A distinct chill went wandering up Ruby’s spine. Her hand slipped down to her holster, and she grabbed her blaster. And she kept moving forward, glancing side to side. Nothing, nothing, and more nothing.
And then, something. She wasn’t sure what made her stop and turn, but stop and turn she did, and caught the tail end of someone’s heel disappearing around the corner.
“Hey! Stop, you!”
Unsurprisingly, they didn’t. With an eloquent command like the one she had just given, Ruby would have, quite frankly, been more surprised if they had stopped. But it was something—more than something! She broke into a run.
And tripped right over Tomms’ body as she rounded the corner. Her heart jumped up her throat and started hammering at twice its normal speed, and it didn’t even start to slow down until her fingers found his pulse. Just unconscious.
A sudden clatter of footsteps on the ramp leading to the rest of the ship pulled snapped her away, and she jumped to her feet again and started running after the noise. She barely made it ten feet before she heard a faint click and a half a dozen cargo boxes tipped over in her path.
“Stop following me! Go see to your friend!”
The voice came from up the ramp, where the ship’s owner had paused just long enough to shout the command back. Even if Ruby had wanted to shoot at her, she didn’t have a clear shot.
“I—what?!” Of all the things she’d ever had people yell at her while she chased them, this was a new one.
But the ship’s owner was already gone. And as she was running up the ramp towards the rest of the ship, it seemed unlikely that the other more bloodthirsty members of their crew were going to need their help to catch her. Going back and checking on Tomms seemed like a good idea after all.
As much as she had made quiet fun of the portholes all along the top edge of the cargo hold, the sudden influx of bright moonlight as the ship’s orbit took them around to the light side of the moon provided all the light she needed to check Tomms over for injury. Which made it that much easier to see the big goose-egg bump that had sprouted from the back of his head. Ruby got the sudden impression that maybe, just maybe, they had underestimated their opponent.
For a fleeting second, she wondered if this scrappy little star sailor might be able to get the jump on the captain and their other two crewmates. If maybe the pirates would get sent scurrying. If perhaps she might have a use for a couple of crewmembers herself: even a ship this small was easier to run with a couple pairs of extra hands.
The three-to-one odds she was facing weren’t going to make that easy. Ruby glanced down at Tomms. The poor kid was out cold. Stable, but definitely unconscious. She paused. This was a terrible idea. The sort of idea you didn’t survive. The sort of idea that would get you used as an object lesson every time a certain pirate captain hired on untested hands for years to come.
The sort of idea that might be worth it anyway, just for the tiny chance that it might work.
Ruby squeezed her eyes shut. She took a deep breath. And then she checked Tomms one last time before starting off up the ramp on what was probably a complete fool’s quest.
She didn’t get far: no more than three steps. Because before she could take step number four, a terrible howl ran through the whole ship. A bone rattling, ship shaking, void piercing howl. And all Ruby’s new-minted resolve crumbled.
And then the ship went dark.
The next minutes were horrifying. The howl gave way to shouts and blaster fire and the occasional low rumble that sounded awfully like a growl. Ruby found herself cowered against the far side of the ramp, trying to think past the terrified mob of thoughts that ran wild through her head.
What was on the ship?
What had the captain unleashed?
Was this one of those deep space terrors that wasn’t supposed to exist?
Had their erstwhile quarry run straight into something even worse than pirates? That stirred something beyond panic. If the little ship’s captain had needed help before, she needed it more now. And she wasn’t going to get it from anyone else. Not with Tomms out cold and the rest of their crew being what it was.
Ruby’s throat was dry. Time to keep moving, then.
Somehow, she couldn’t manage it until a more pragmatic corner of her brain pointed out that hiding wasn’t going to fix anything, and would probably just mean that Whatever It Was would find her anyway when there was no one else to help. If she was going to survive this herself, going now was her best chance.
So she went. It disgusted her that she needed such selfish logic to motivate her, but motivate her it did. And she might as well make the most of it.
Halfway up the ramp, the ship went silent too. Ruby’s mouth was dry, but she tried to swallow anyway. It didn’t help. She still felt as terrified as ever, which was perhaps why it took her a few moments to realize that the sudden silence had not, in fact, been preceded by screams of agony. Which was a good sign. She hoped.
Somehow, she kept moving. Despite her best efforts, every step sounded like a gong on the metal ramp. A soft, muffled gong, but to her ears, a gong nonetheless. The blaster in her hand seemed like it wasn’t going to be much in the way of protection, should it come down to it. But just reholstering would have been worse, so she kept holding it in her cold, sweaty hand.
Halfway up the ramp, she got the feeling that someone—something was watching her, and her heart jumped, impossibly, even farther up her throat. She stopped. The ship creaked around her. The ship’s systems beeped and hummed, distantly.
This was ridiculous. She kept going.
At the top of the ramp, the feeling became certainty. She heard someone. Something. Breathing. Ahead of her. Above her, in the dark.
She should turn around. Going forward was insane. Going forward would get her killed. Or worse. Or—
Before she had a chance to go forward or turn back around, something came down on her head and dropped her like a sack of stones. But it didn’t knock her into unconsciousness. That would have been a mercy. Instead, stunned, she felt impossibly huge, impossibly hairy hands (or were those claws?) close around her ankles and drag her towards the bridge. She heard someone kick her blaster and send it skittering away, well out of reach. She saw, as they came out of the dark corridor and onto the moonlit bridge, three still forms lain out in a row next to each other. And she became the fourth.
That touched some primal mote of terror deep inside. So much for pretending to be unconscious and hoping for the best. She yelped and flailed and made to break away. She stopped as soon as her captor stepped into the moonlight.
It was huge. Eight feet tall, at least, and that was standing hunched. It was hairy. Wolf-shaped. Wolf-toothed. And its eyes reflected the moonlight and seemed to glow with evil intent. Ruby’s yelp became a whimper.
And the thing stopped. It bent down, bringing its muzzle within inches of Ruby’s own nose. It smelled like a sweaty dog, and its breath was terrible. Ruby flinched. She didn’t mean to. She just couldn’t help it. But the thing just watched her for three long seconds. Four. Five. And then it gave a low growl.
Ruby closed her eyes and shook.
And she stayed that way for half an hour.
It was only when someone (someone! Not something!) touched her shoulder that she dared open them. And there, staring down at her with a look of mixed wariness and vague amusement, was the little ship’s captain.
“You’re alright!” Ruby’s voice came out as a croak, but the other woman seemed to understand it well enough.
“Of course I did. I thought I told you not to follow me.”
“I wasn’t going to—but the howl, the growling, the other pirates… I thought you might need help.”
The other woman laughed. It was a barking, gleeful sound. And that was when Ruby noticed that her teeth seemed somewhat longer and sharper than those of most humans. And there was a certain wildness to her eyes. And…
“Oh. Oh no. Oh no.”
Ruby jumped away as the woman—the werewolf—brought her hand down on Ruby’s shoulder.
“What, you didn’t think it strange that I was out here in the black all by myself?”
Ruby managed a nod.
The woman grinned, showing those too-sharp teeth again. “The name’s Captain Marie Lupine. I knew you looked smarter than the rest of these idiots.” She gestured at the three pirates that lay to the side, and Ruby noticed for the first time that they were all tied up. And also all still breathing, though a few sported a few new, long scratches.
“Where’s Tomms?” Ruby’s voice was still entirely too dry for her liking.
“Your friend in the cargo bay? Still down there. I think I rang his bell pretty good. He should be alright, though.”
Captain Lupine dropped down into a crouch and looked her up and down. “So, the way I see it, we have a couple of options here. One, I turn you and Tomms in to the authorities with the rest of these numbskulls.”
Ruby shook her head as violently as she dared. Captain Lupine grinned again.
“That’s what I thought. Or, two, I let you and him take that ship you jumped me with, and you get to keep pirating around. Problem for you is, of course, that the ship would be tagged as a pirate vessel, and I don’t much fancy your chances of survival for very long.”
Ruby looked uncomfortable.
“Or, three.” Captain Lupine eyed Ruby. “You and Tomms stay here on my crew. I turn in these three and the ship to the authorities, and I say that you’re both crew I picked up at the last space station. I write you up proper contracts of employment and you don’t have to attack innocent passers-by or watch your blood pressure spike when you get within hailing range of law enforcement anymore.”
Captain Lupine grinned one last time. “It’s your choice.”
And that was how Ruby and Tomms started working for a werewolf running cargo runs in the deep black. All in all, it was probably the best choice either of them had ever made.
It wasn’t like Tanner to go it alone. Not usually. Not unless my brother was feeling like a white knight, at any rate, and there was nothing about an old wrecked ship that should have been attracting that particular part of his personality to the fore. Which was why I was confused. And curious. And concerned for Tanner’s wellbeing, of course.
But also kinda hoping that he had gotten himself into the sort of trouble that would give me teasing rights for the next month after saving his butt.
I was still a little surprised we’d been asked to investigate the wreck. Even on a colony as young as Verdant, crashed ships were hardly uncommon. It was a little odd that no one had any idea what ship it was, sure, but between the wildcatters and the outlaws, there were a lot of possibilities for an unregistered ship. The weirdest thing about it was that the flyover scan that turned the thing up had suggested that the ship was old– seventy five years old. Old enough that there was no way it should be on this side of the galaxy.
And that’s when everyone with a ghost story to tell crawled out of the woodwork. Serves me right for talking about it while Tanner and I were goofing off in the big common room at Teddy’s.
“You know they say there was a mutiny aboard an armadillo-class like that one back in ’43. Its last transmission was cut off right after her captain started cursing the traitors with some sort of old world hocus pocus.”
“I heard they’d tried uploading an honest-to-god AI to a private freighter back when all the big corps were still messing around with thinking and feeling computers. Could be a real ghost in the machine, you know?”
“Galaxy’s a big place. Could be aliens.”
And those were the most well-thought-out theories presented by our fellow denizens at Teddy’s: stuff and nonsense everyone one. Which made the fact that I found myself actually a little spooked as I started out for the coordinates of the wreck on my own all the more annoying. When I found Tanner, he was going to get a piece of my mind.
If I’d thought it would be better as soon as I got to the coordinates, I was wrong. Wrecks are always a little creepy, especially once you get to thinking about how they used to be functional, beautiful vessels– some of them, at least. Or, maybe, a home. Or maybe just a place that used to see living, breathing humans every day. Seeing empty ships like that just felt wrong, like a graveyard without the bodies.
I stopped just outside the wreck and gave a disgusted snort. Now I was creeping myself out.
Not that the remains of the ship in front of me were making that hard. Of all the derelicts I’d ever seen, this one might have been the most derelict. The hull was worn through in a dozen different places, and the sand and the sort of scrappy vegetation common on Verdant were sneaking their way inside. The hatch had fallen open what must have been decades ago, and while I suspected I could probably find it in the dirt below my feet if I dug long enough, I wasn’t about to put in the effort. So instead, the hatch just stared at me with a sort of death’s head grin, and I stared back and tried to remind myself that I was a stone-cold badass of a freelancer, and I shouldn’t be scared of some old empty ship.
And I had almost managed to convince myself when I heard someone behind me…
Happy Halloween! Looks like they still celebrate the holiday all the way out on Verdant, much to Miranda’s probable chagrin. Not much else to report, save that I’m equal parts excited and terrified for NaNo to start, since I’m not sure how my personal goal of 100,000 words is going to treat me. We shall see!
Anyway, good luck to everyone participating next month! May your writing be swift and your editing minimal!