“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.