Charles Cotton’s criminal life first started shortly after his attempted murder. The life of crime turned out far better for everyone than his honest job. In retrospect, it seemed like destiny—even though it wasn’t. Currently, his destiny seemed to be having a six-inch blade impaled into his crew.
It wasn’t a jealous girlfriend, or hired assassin, or even a random mugging. Charles couldn’t fathom why his co-worker would want to kill him. Most of his co-workers would jump at the chance to fire Charles, this was different. The Tervoc, a red-furred alien, had just met Charles and he had no idea why she—of all people—would be the first to try to kill him.
She pulled a knife on him when he reached the trade-line. By sheer luck, he ducked the blade and ran outside.
Charles ran around his freighter’s corridor, shaped like a huge ‘O’ encircling the inside of his ship. Soft footsteps pattered closely behind. The murderous pitter-patter of kids running down on Christmas Day. The only present Chuck could expect this year was his untimely demise.
Charles said, “Stop please!” If he was having a polite conversation he would have said, “Could you please put down the knife. I’m sure we can come to an understanding.” But he hoped that “Stop Please!” would do.
She must have been hired by management. She was his new assistant after all. He never wanted an assistant and if management asked him if he wanted an assistant he would have said, “No.” There were two reasons for that, Charles liked his privacy and he doesn’t get along well with other people. Management hated him for that and if it wasn’t for their automated system would have fired him ages ago. If anyone questioned Charles further on his hatred of assistants he would eventually get to the reason of: I don’t like threats on my life.
Charles and the woman were on opposite sides of the ‘O’ corridor. Her voice came from the left and right at the same time.
“It’s nothing personal, Chuck. This ship has a worm-hole ticket to the Yotnewt galaxy and is licensed to carry produce.” While she spoke her voice came louder from the right side. He resented the fact she used the familiar “Chuck.” Charles dodged to the left. At the front of the ship was the entrance to his quarters. There he could grab his only weapon, a flame thrower. It was meant to disintegrate stubborn golbolb weeds but it could disintegrate the red rodent right quickly. Only problem would be the cleaning bill, followed by explaining to his boss why he had to kill his co-worker.
Her voice came from the left now, she had changed directions.
“Why so shy? I’m happy to tell you what I’m doing with your ship since I have to kill you anyway.”
The living quarters and cockpit were across from each other. His quarters were a room in the center of the oval corridor. She must be protecting the cockpit, Chuck reasoned. Sure Chuck could call for help at the cockpit but Charles was one to fight back: he had murder on his mind as well.
Silence returned save for the churning hum of the life-support system. Charles kept creeping counter-clockwise around the corridor. If only Charles could remember her name, they had just introduced themselves thirty minutes ago. He hoped she—whatever her name was—would be going counter-clockwise as well. Or at least he could sneak and see if she was waiting by the cockpit.
They couldn’t wait forever, either of them. Eventually, Charles freighter would collide with an asteroid, or worse yet, they would get attacked by disco-pirates. Someone had to make a move. Chuck got his chance first. She wasn’t at the front of the ship.
He ran forward to his quarters. There was a false door, part of a two-stage plan to protect his illegal commodities in his room.
The pitter-patter of a running child came from behind. Charles turned around. The red furry menace leapt at him with he knife pointed forward. Two thoughts flashed into Charles’s head.
She had gone counter-clockwise, as he hoped, but only really fast.
Charles remembered her name, Jessica.
A stone of fear clogged Charles’s throat. Unarmed against a knife is a hopeless situation. His luck had finally run out. His arms shot forward and caught her—by the biceps—in mid-leap. She jerked up in his grip and Chuck struggled hard to remain on his feet. Surprise lighted up her face but she kept wrestling regardless.
To his surprise, Jessica had handled a knife before, Charles could tell. They wrestled back-and-forth. All Charles focused on was keeping a grip on her knife arm and keeping said arm as far as possible from his body. Two tumbles later they collapsed side by side.
On the ground, they twisted like lovers under the sheets. Jessica got up first and she would be the one to do all the impaling. Her arm—now free—came hammer fist down onto Charles’s chest. Charles twisted and rolled out of the way. The knife tinged off the metal floor.
T-boned from one another, Charles thrust a kick at Jessica’s head. Her neck snapped sideways. She pulled away and shot him a snarl, tough girl. The knife arced—Swish—and the tip cut a red line across Charles’s shin. With the same momentum, she swung again. Charles pulled back and righted himself. Again the knife arced, her arm was pulled back to far, giving Charles a chance.
He charged forward, despite the pain, and grabbed her knife arm again. Now locked arm-in-arm, they pressed against each other. Charles slowly gained the upper hand, but any slip-up or distraction could mean the knife could get free. And instead of a red drawing on his shin, it would be on his chest.
Beep boop beep! A message interrupted the struggle. Someone outside the ship, presumably a different space-ship, was hailing them.
It was a double-edged sword. Immediately, Jessica slipped her arm out and stabbed newly at Charles. Panicked, he stumbled and fell. Dragging Jessica down with him. The knife stabbed the floor under his armpit. After he stabilized the knife arm again, the fight leveled out again. However, this time Jessica was gaining the upper hand.
The other edge of the sword was the message, yes it was a dangerous distraction, but it provided an opportunity for Charles to get help from a passing ship and put an end to her illegal activity. Or rather, activities, murder being one, and Charles presumed she was a smuggler. He found some mediation time as his life flashed before his eyes. A smuggler: why else would she need a wormhole ticket to Yotnewt galaxy? Charles yelled at the cockpit door. Hopefully, the microphone would pick his voice up.
“Help, help! A stowaway is trying to kill me.”
That wasn’t true. He had invited her onto his ship. But surely it was enough to get any respectable traveler to help him. Unless of course there were more than one respectable travelers nearby, then each of them would assume it was the other’s responsibility and wait as Charles got dissected by an alien. Even if was only one traveler, would he be brave enough to break into another ship and fight a psychotic fox woman? But still, Charles reasoned, the odds had now turned into his favor. As long as he kept alive that is.
A female voice—though it is hard to tell with so many types of aliens these days—a female voice radioed in. It clicked and rasped.
“Oh, I’m not going to be much help there hun.”
Charles and Jessica exchanged a confused look. A rare moment of understanding between hunter and hunted. Almost no other reply would have made sense. The voice was chipper.
Then something played over the comms and both of them because terrified.
It was a strange mix of numerous songs but primarily it was TK-songname by Tk-Artist.
Yes, disco music from earth. Earth culture provided very few exports to the universe at large. One was American-Chinese cuisine. Charles was extremely familiar with that one because he was responsible for growing the relevant plants. American-Chinese cuisine was a far and wide delicacy. An affordable delicacy provided Charles worked hard and kept his part of the supply chain going.
Disco music was the other to make a lasting impression of terror on the universe. Disco music signified disco-pirates. They used the music to jam communications while they raided and pillaged and stole and danced their way to financial freedom.
The worst that could happen to Charles would be his ship to be taken, himself robbed of everything, and brainwashed into a disco-slave. The best would be just robbed. Which he could deal with. His secret null-room was sealed, no one would find it. Everywhere else in the ship there would be very little to steal. Just farming equipment, all of which would be covered by his company’s insurance policy. He could give them Jessica as a disco-slave to make it worth the pirates’ time. He held onto the sliver of hope of him flying away, only robbed, without the murderous Tervoc. It would be easier to explain to his boss anyhow.
Jessica couldn’t shake her terror. Understandable, each path available to her was certain doom.
“They’re going to board us,” Jessica said, she wasn’t looking at Charles. It took him a moment to realize she was talking to him.
“They might, they might not.” The pirates’ interest depends on what their scanners pick up. Even if they found something they wanted, they could just order them to jettison it. Boarding took time.
Both Jessica and Charles clasped each other’s wrists but they weren’t struggling. Chuck noticed an odd necklace that had come free from Jessica’s shirt. It was a plastic ball that held a shimmering blue stone.
“No. The pirates will board us. I am a smuggler—”
“Ah, my guess was correct.”
“Shut up. They will scan what I have and board us.”
“One: no they don’t have to. We’ll just jettison it. Two: what could you possibly have that’s worth their time. You only had a purse on you.”
“My purse is full of dandelions,” Jessica said this quickly, not giving it the gravitas it deserved.
Charles now understood why Jessica wanted to kill him. She needed his ship to smuggle the million crown crop to Yotnewt. The aliens of Yotnewt—the Lousl—valued dandelions as a baking ingredient and psychedelic drug.
Charles nodded understanding. That under-reaction made Jessica explain further.
“Not just any dandelions,” she said, “non-terminator dandelions.
Terminator plants only produce one crop then the seeds have to be rebought. Non-terminator plants are genetically complete and therefore are far more valuable. Owning a non-terminator DNA profile nullifies the seed monopoly. The owner can provide their own seeds and no longer has to buy them from the DNA’s copyright holder.
Charles’s mouth bobbed open and shut like a gasping fish. “What—you, how!” Xercan has protected the non-terminator dandelion DNA since he bought earth nine-thousand years ago. The Lousl of Yotnewt would pay billions to grow their own. “I don’t believe you.”
“Yeah well suit yourself. If it wasn’t for your meddling I would have delivered it by now.”
“Meddling? By meddling you mean my instinct to keep my blood inside my body.”
“Irrelevant to me… Now, the pirates are going to board us. What can we do to keep our skin and perhaps the dandelions as well.”
Charles had a plan. If they had been friends he would have jumped on it by now but he needed her cooperation. But since they weren’t he would trick her instead. “Okay, if you don’t stab me we’ll see what we can do about that. We’ll split the profits ninety ten.”
“And how will you do that.”
“The maintenance panel across the cockpit is a false door. It leads to a null-room.” A scanner-proof room.
“Let’s do it. Ninty for me, ten for you.”
“Flip it, ninety for me, ten for you.”
“That’s not fair, I risked my life to get those dande—”
“You’re not in the position to haggle. Quickly grab the plants and we’ll store them away. Then we can pray the pirates haven’t scanned our cargo.”
Jessica weighed the situation and nodded. She stood and bolted to the rec-room where she had dropped her purse.
Charles was close on her heels. Jessica realized a half-second too late why he was following her. Charles slammed the control panel to the rec-room. The door closed and locked. Sealing Jessica inside.
“Hey, you asshole. What about our deal?” Her door-obscured voice was barely audible over the disco music.
“I weighed my options. You would have betrayed me later.”
“So now what?”
“Sell you into slavery and whatever you have in your purse will hopefully be enough for them to think they haven’t wasted their time. Enjoy being a disco-pirate!”
Charles paid no heed to the steam of curses. He walked back to the cockpit, joyfully humming to the music he sat down and hailed the pirate captain. This would be the only time in his life he enjoyed the music of certain doom.
The pirate capital ship was a bulbous floating bright red potato. It menaced with spikes. Radio dishes and transmission towers. Vast, Charles had to zoom out his rear camera to see it all.
“Hello, captain. Today is your lucky day. I have a stowaway on my vessel I would like to give to you as payment for free passage. She might have some valuable produce with her, but I doubt it.” Chuck took the moment to look at the cut on his shin. Painful but clotting. It would heal given time.
The music’s volume lowered. The raspy female voice came on again.
“Well hun, that’s mighty thoughtful of you. I’ll gladly take a looksie at our new team member and the cash crop he has. Running a quick scan—now.”
Relieved and optimistic, Charles felt playful. He said, “Mind turning on your camera, I want to see who this beautiful voice belongs to.”
He was just being kind. The video feed lit up. Charles moved the equipment arm and positioned it where he could see the screen. He flicked on his own camera.
It wasn’t just a pirate captain, it was the Pirate Queen Dina. She was a rare alien race of giant spiders. At the end of each arm, she had three nimble fingers. She had mind-altering venom. Her and aliens like her were solely responsible for the disco-pirate menace. Pirate Queen Dina used five arms to disc-jockey the disco music, two arms to operate the ship, and one to sip an iced vanilla soy latte.
“Well hello there beautiful,” Charles said, choking down disgust. Fortunately, reading alien facial expressions was difficult. Chuck hoped Dina hadn’t learned to read a human’s. “I’ve heard about you, Pirate Queen Dina.”
Sip. “Well shucks… I didn’t know I was popular around these here parts. It’s nice to meet a true fan of my work. Most people I meet are turned inside out in a matter of minutes. I was just passing through, didn’t know today would be the best day of my life.”
Charles didn’t understand why Dina said that. She was already unfathomably wealthy, and her pirate crew numbered in the millions. Spread out among five capital ships and thousands of dreadnoughts if the reports from the Iroaian Unbiased Truthful News Network were to be believed.
He let it slide, “Well you’ve done this a thousand-and-one times before. Come aboard and take this smuggler off me.”
The disco music stopped. “First time I’ve been invited on a ship though.”
A shudder marched up Chuck’s spine. Disco-pirates were mind-controlled by a combination of her venom and dance music. He imagined the terror associated with a forced boarding.
Within five minutes the pirate boarded Chuck’s ship. Dina obviously sent out a transport before she was invited. The pirates used a small transport ship. Charles opened the second airlock door, letting the pirates in. Immediately six pirates in red spiky jackets and giant golden reflective glasses danced on board. Huge bulky headphones pumped the music into their ears as their heads snapped in rhythm.
Two more pirates were inside the transport, likely more, Charles couldn’t see too far in.
“She’s right this way,” Charles said, even though there was no chance the pirates could hear him.
The pirates danced their way following Charles. Charles unlocked the rec-room door. Jessica had been pushing the open button, the door hissed open. Gleefully she ran out, knife in hand, purse on the shoulder.
The pirates leapt in her way.
Terrified anew, she ran around the circular corridor. Six pirates were more than necessary to go both ways at once and trap her on the far side.
Charles caught up to them. The pirates took her knife away losing only one finger. Oblivious to the pain, the disco-pirate with five fingers (He originally had six) held the knife by the blade.
“Thanks for taking her off my hands.”
“Our pleasure,” The pirate said, Chuck hadn’t expected a reply.
Jessica seized the opportunity, “Charles has drugs hidden behind a false door.”
Chuck rushed Jessica, but the pirates held him back. “You dirty rat!”
“Show me,” the pirate said.
With a scowl, Chuck gave in, better to lose one’s livelihood than life. “Right this way.”
“Not you. Her.”
Jessica’s arms were bound. The pirates let her lead the way to the hidden room—Chuck’s living quarters. “This door here.” She glared at Charles. Petty, but she was being sold into slavery.
The pirates opened the first door and saw a machine panel.
“It’s a false panel, push it aside.”
Following Jessica’s advice, the false door opened and the inside garden was revealed. It was a grow-op fed by sun-panels. Everything inside was illegal but none of them were drugs. The pirates stepped inside to analyze the plunder, they weren’t impressed. It seemed that way anyhow, they only ever scowled. Illegal or not didn’t matter to them, only valuable did.
Jessica didn’t understand what she was looking at. It at just a bed, a kitchen slot, a wall cabinet. The walls were covered in planters with plants spilling out of them. A flame thrower leaned beside the door.
The pirates opened up a wall cabinet and retrieved a box. It was Charles seed container full of his most valuable non-terminator seeds. The pirates would definitely take that, there would be a buyer.
Chuck went to Jessica. The pirates stood in the way of his murderous intent but Chuck didn’t need to be restrained this time.
His most precious possession was gone because of her. “I still go free after all this. I might come back just to boogie down with your re-animated corpse.” Charles’s fists tightened as if they were on her throat.
The pirate replied for Jessica, “Actually, we are taking you too. Queen Dina wants to make you her husband.” Charles now regretted buttering the Pirate Queen up.
Pirates circled Chuck to tie him up. Fear poured like cold water down his veins. There was no time to think.
The five-fingered pirate still held the knife by the blade. Chuck grabbed the knife and sliced it out of the pirate’s hand. Chuck stabbed at him but he spun out of the way (spinning with a dancer’s poise). Jessica flinched at the knife but Chuck only cut her bonds. He would need her to survive, a temporary ally against the pirates. They both stood by the door. Chuck gave Jessica the knife and she slashed a circle of safety.
Other pirates would board if he didn’t shut the boarding door.
They leapt out the room and Jessica locked the door with three pirates inside. Three were in the ‘O’ corridor, left or right depending on which way one walked.
Meanwhile, Chuck stumbled into the cockpit and closed the airlock doors. Any remaining pirates in the transport would be stuck there. Pain traced a line on his shin. The cut likely reopened. Grabbing the controls, he gunned the freighter away from the transport and hoped they hadn’t activated docking clamps. A moment of luck: they hadn’t.
Above and behind, Dina’s capital ship flared to life, the disco music started broadcasting again. Charles and Jessica were now being hunted by the most dangerous criminal in the galaxy. The disco music didn’t have to play, Chuck turned off his sound system.
The freighter hauled into acceleration, likely on a collision course with something but Chuck didn’t have the time to deal with that. Jessica was losing a fight with three pirates. One of them had his back turned to the cockpit. Chuck seized his head and tore off his headphones. The headphones communicated instructions to the pirates, without it the pirate became catatonic. He fell to the ground limp.
Chuck lunged at another set of headphones, too slow.
The pirate brought a baton on his hand— SMACK —and jumped after him. Chuck stumbled back holding the pirate still for a precious moment. Jessica buried a knife in his neck’s nape.
The corpse flopped aside with a push from Chuck. The last pirate opened the bedroom door.
“I need to pilot us out of here,” Chuck yelled back as he pushed on the pirates back, propelling himself into the cockpit. He closed the cockpit door. Jessica would likely die and the four pirates would eventually kill Chuck.
But none of that would matter if he didn’t escape Dina’s capital ship. The transport wasn’t a threat anymore, it didn’t have any guns, but there was a possibility the fighter jets would be scrambled. Chuck had the advantage of a surprise but it wouldn’t last. The gun’s on the capital ship weren’t moving.
Space debris floated directly ahead. Chuck tore a hard right in time.
He needed to make a proper getaway. His only hope was to enter the trade-line. An artificial slipstream that moved slightly faster than light. Before Jessica attacked him, ages ago now, he was about to enter the slipstream. Chuck needed to activate his sails and enter a new matrix. Once in the slipstream, they would be safe.
He connected to the trade-lane buoy.
MRX REQ He typed furiously into the Tradeaway Tradelane App. Matrix Request.
The matrix came and auto-filled a ninety-six character box.
Confirm Matrix Adoption? The app asked.
He slammed yes. The sails opened on the outside of the freighter. Creating a new target for Dina, her guns rotated and charged. Charles wretched the freighter up. Not in evasive maneuver but he was currently below the trade-lane envelope. If he activated the sails outside the trade-line his freighter—and everyone inside—would be smeared across the galaxy like a child’s finger painting. This also explains the space debris he avoided.
The rear camera displayed the red potato. Several fighter jets had been scrambled and were racing toward him. Those would take a while, he worried about the potato’s cannons. Rail-guns.
A projectile zipped overhead. It was way off. No way it could hit the ship but she didn’t want to hit the ship. She only wanted to disable the sails. Charles folded the sails again. For some reason, Dina wanted him alive. He would activate the sails once in the slipstream.
Everything was looking good. He would be inside the envelope and make a clean getaway. He relaxed for a moment. Had he forgotten something?
“Heeeelp!” Jessica yelled from the corridor. Her voice sounded from left to right without any doppler effect—she wasn’t running fast enough for that. Chuck opened the door in time to see two pirates run past. The other two would be running the other way. It was unlikely Jessica could slip their batons, she might be able to stab one.
Chuck jumped across to his quarters and grabbed his flame-thrower from beside the door. Technically a gardening tool but no less lethal than any other flame-thrower.
His hand clenched the top handle and it swung lazily beside Chuck. He balanced the weight with a heavy list to the left. The flame-thrower roared to life with a wrench on the starting cord. Stepping over the two corpses, he jogged around the corner.
In the back of his mind, he hoped he was in the slipstream. Chuck was busy starting a fire, he didn’t need any fires to put out. If the fighters reached him they could shoot off the trade-line sails as they opened up.
His clunky steps alerted the pirates. Jessica was backed against the airlock door. Four pirates surrounded her, twirling batons to inaudible music.
Two of them on Chuck’s side spun around. Chuck closed his eyes. The flame-thrower opened up and shot a white-hot flame knife eight feet long. The pirates flashed into ash. As the heat wave hit, Chuck wished he had his flame suit on. Jessica shielded her eyes from the brilliant light.
The pirates, protected by their heavy glasses, tried to rush Chuck. Jessica barely had the time to stop them. With a clumsy jump, she tripped them up and all three fell in a pile on the floor.
Chuck forced his eyes open.
The two pirates attempted to baton Jessica as they flopped on the floor. Jessica ducked out from their arms. The pirates accidentally bonked each other on their heads.
“Run!” Chuck yelled. Jessica scrambled to her feet and away.
The pirates leapt up and faced chuck. Chuck closed his eyes and revved the flame blade sweeping the floor.
Two pair of smoking boots greeted Chuck when he opened his eyes. Cleaning this whole mess up would be difficult.
Chuck sweat profusely. The spaceships’ airconditioning droned with bulking effort. But at least it was all over.
Jessica ran completely around the ship, set her knife against Chuck’s throat, and said dryly. “Drop the flame-thrower.”
Chuck complied. CLUNK! He counted his lucky stars that Jessica hadn’t filleted him yet.