You’re reading Celeste Rising, a SciFi pirate yarn. Find the previous chapter here.
Ayla tapped the oxygen gauge with her fingertips. It didn’t move. It was a brass thing that Lea had found on a flea market trip somewhere on Dione, Mimas or Enceladus. A theatre prop, but it worked, most of the time. Who knew where it came from... Perhaps they could sell it. Cover it in gold paint and hope that some idiot fell for it. Antique. The oxygen gauge of Magellan the Navigator or something.
“What y’all looking at?” Of course she knew. Their air would last another two, perhaps three, hours if they didn’t laugh out loud, and there didn’t seem to be much reason to do that. After that they might try to climb into their spacesuits. Another half hour. After that it would be over.
“Where are they?”
“Still behind the moon. They haven’t seen us yet.” Carl, first officer and ship’s doctor, was breathing heavily too, but he managed to keep his voice low, professional, cold. Most of the time, Ayla wondered why she was putting up with him. He was as tender and cuddly as a liquid-nitrogen tank, but it was good to have him around now. When your diox scrubbers failed and you were running out of air, a German first officer started to look like a useful investment.
If there had been a time to fly back to a nearby station, they had missed it long ago. When they’d first seen the ship and decided to raid it, they’d played their last card. Now they didn’t have enough air to get anywhere unless they got these guys’ supplies. She just hoped that they wouldn’t be armed and willing to defend their ship.
They couldn’t scan it yet, because they were on the same orbit but on opposite sides of the moon, always staying out of sight of each other. Ayla wanted to make sure she had the advantage when she chose the moment to attack. The others were also staying put. It was a strange place to park one’s ship, in orbit around one of the abandoned tiny moons that orbited Saturn. A rock so insignificant it didn’t warrant a name. They called it Satellite 4571 or something. She had forgotten the number already, she noticed. The oxygen level, a voice inside her head whispered. This was the first sign. Wrong numbers. Concentrate. They wouldn’t be able to wait much longer.
“What do you think?”
“Too small to be armed with more than handguns. Small, fast, sleek. It’s probably a G-Bird. Rich kids on a stroll. Small crew, maybe the kids only. And it’s called the Sound of Silence. Jeez.”
“The ideal bounty,” Perry said. “Rich kids. No resistance. A good, expensive hull. I say we grab it.”
“I don’t like it. Something smells off. Why would kids come out here alone? There’s nothing on this moon.”
“There are things kids like to do alone, Carl.” Ayla smiled. “You’re a doctor. You should know. We don’t have a choice. We need their air tanks at least. Let’s go as long as we can still see straight ahead.”
Carl nodded. He knew that it was a matter of an hour or so now before the dizziness set in. Whether he liked it or not, they had to go for it.
“Send a probe.” If these were really kids, they might overlook a small probe peeking over their horizon.
“Launched,” said Lea.
They waited as the probe climbed slowly to a higher orbit, gaining distance, finally disappearing from view among the darkness and the stars.
Screens sprang to life as the Halo received the probe’s data.
“Scan complete.” Lea squinted at her console. Ayla could see that her security officer was already having trouble reading the screen. Would they last long enough as it was? Would they need to jump into their suits before they could attack that Bird? It would be awkward to fight in a spacesuit.
“They’re alive. But nothing moves there.”
“Nothing moves here either. Perhaps they’re glued to their screens, watching us. Like we are watching them.”
“I don’t see any activity. They aren’t scanning us. They’re not even turned our way.”
Lea looked at her display again. “Their long-range laser comm has been active recently. They’ve been talking to someone far away. Life signs, yes. But low. I’ve got heartbeats. Around sixty each. Resting rate. Asleep.”
“Or unconscious,” said Carl. “An accident?”
“Normal air pressure in there. Their computer’s encryption is for the rats. I can access their sensors. Normal temps. Air is fine. More oxygen than we have. There’s no reason for them to be lying on the floor.”
“Wait,” said Carl. He was looking at his own console now. “That antenna. The comm beam.”
“What of it?” said Ayla. All this talk was taking too long. Far too long.
“I followed their beam. We can see where their laser is aimed.”
“Tell us before we all suffocate, Carl.”
“Earth. They’ve been contacting Earth. These are not kids. These are enemy spies!”
Ayla let herself fall back into her chair. So Carl had been right about the smell of the thing. Earth. That was interesting. The war was far away, with operations taking place closer to Jupiter and Mars than Saturn, but still. It was remarkable that an enemy ship could penetrate this deep into Federation territory without being challenged. “This makes them bounty,” she thought aloud. “I mean, we could sack them, and we’d get a reward for doing it.” What is a ship from Earth doing here?
“How do we attack? Swing high? Go from below?” asked Perry, always the pilot.
“They’re passed out. We don’t have time for elegant tactics now. Let’s just go and get them before we pass out too.”
It took about ten minutes and what felt like the rest of their breathable air to dock with the sleeping ship.
“Like out of a fairy tale,” Ayla murmured. “Sleeping Beauty’s palace or something.”
A short hiss and a pop in their ears as air pressure equalised across the two ships. Then a blast of cold, fresh air flooded the bridge. All lay flat down on the floor for a moment, taking deep breaths, suddenly dizzy now from too much oxygen. A minute later Ayla scrambled to her feet.
“Okay, get up. Lea, go first, gun ready. We don’t want any surprises.” She turned to the microphone that connected to the engine room. “Joy?”
“Here,” said the engineer. Ayla could hear her panting for air over the speaker. It would take a while for the oxygen to reach the engine room.
“Get our tanks filled with that oxygen of theirs. We’ll go and look around our prize.”
They all lined up at the open airlock. No need for suits or other precautions this time. They were already breathing the other ship’s air.
They stepped across the airlock. It was a luxury cruiser like out of a magazine. Just standing on the plush maroon carpet made Ayla imagine models and photo shoots, reporters and columnists, long evening dresses, a soft piano tune and the clicks of camera shutters like in the old movies. The air is perfumed, Ayla realised. She didn’t know the smell, but it was pleasant, flowery but light, almost imperceptible. For a moment, she wished to close her eyes, to lie down in the embrace of that thick, soft carpet and do nothing but breathe the fresh, scented air. Get a grip, she thought.
“Lea, go ahead. Check the bridge.”
They all had smiles on their faces. None of them had ever stepped into a ship like this. It was like stepping into somebody else’s dream: that feeling of intruding, of crashing a party.
Right, Ayla thought. We’re pirates. It’s our job to crash parties.
The light was low and almost painfully tasteful, spotlights hidden in the fake ceiling, accents of light seemingly coming out of nowhere to fall onto a painting, a potted plant, a copy of some ancient map of Earth’s kingdoms, centred on Jerusalem.
“They’ve got f--ing plants!” said Perry. He ran his fingers over a big, rubbery leaf. “Are they for real?”
A door slid open and they entered the bridge. Three bodies lay on the floor, neatly placed side by side, faces relaxed, as if sleeping.
“Check them,” said Ayla.
Lea quickly scanned the first, then another.
“Drugged,” she said. “They’re fine but unconscious.”
“How did they do it?” said Carl. “No drugs lying around. No needles, no pills. And why did they lie down so neatly, next to each other? Looks almost like someone placed them like that.”
“Wait,” said Lea. “I’m reading pressure points on their backs. Blood pooling in the lower vessels. They have not moved for hours.”
“Hours?” said Ayla. “Then who sent that transmission to Earth?”
It hit her in a flash. They had made a mistake. Was it the perfume? Had someone poisoned the air?
“Quick,” she said. “Back to our ship!”
But it was too late. She turned around just fast enough to see the bridge door close in front of her.
“Look here!” cried Perry from behind her, pointing at a screen. “Ships! We’re surrounded!”
When the next chapter has been published, you will find it here.
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