Length: short story
Genre: sci-fi, pirates, steampunk
Publisher: self-published, previously published by Dreamspinner Press
Colonel Ardeth Connor has been rescued from death, but he’s not sure his new life is any better: he’s effectively trapped aboard a rebel ship that defies the Federation to collect ice meteors, stealing life-sustaining water for the poorest of planets and asteroids. As an anonymous part of Captain Gabriel’s crew, between hostile pirates and mechanical parrots, Ardeth is biding his time until he can escape, and learning there’s more to space than just the Federation.
But when the galleon is badly damaged, they have no choice but to cross one of the Federation's borders. And, while he tries to understand the strange bond that has started to grow between him and Gabriel, Ardeth might be the only one who can save the crew... even if it means sacrificing his life as he knows it.
Available on Amazon.
Dying, Colonel Ardeth Connor found himself considering, really sucked.
The brain requires approximately 3.3 milliliters of oxygen per 100 grams of brain tissue per minute. In the event of lowered blood-oxygen levels, symptoms of cerebral hypoxia would begin to appear. Mild signs include difficulties with complex tasks and reduction in short-term memory. Decreased motor control would follow; the skin would turn cyanotic. The neurons would suffer temporary dysfunction, and, should the oxygen supply not be restored, irreversible damage to nerve cells would ensue.
Continued oxygen deprivation would result in loss of consciousness, seizures, cessation of brain-stem reflexes, and finally, brain death.
The control panel under Ardeth’s hands seemed to be shifting in and out of focus, the lines becoming blurred as his sight wavered dangerously. He tried to tug at the collar of his uniform, knowing full well it was useless. His hand did not seem to quite obey his instructions and slammed against the plastic lining of the shuttle.
The emergency pod hadn’t been fast enough. When the mother battleship had exploded, the shuttle had been hurled into the bowels of space, shaking under dozens of collisions with shredded scraps of the ship’s keel and equipment. The structure had miraculously held, but the main propellers had been ripped away; the tiny secondary ones had been just enough to slow Ardeth’s plunge to a slow floating before burning out.
No controls, oxygen for a mere four hours, and stranded at the edge of the Federation’s territory, Ardeth had activated the S.O.S. signal and leaned back in his seat, a chilled dread settling in his very bones.
Remaining emergency supply oxygen: 5 percent, equivalent to twelve minutes of effective life-support.
Ardeth struggled to keep his breathing slow and even. He was not the sort of man to panic, and his ability was proving invaluable. Fear would cause higher blood pressure, and an increased heart rate would mean greater consumption of oxygen. He did not have any to spare.
The tiny one-person capsule seemed to be shrinking, pressing around him under the vastness of the space surrounding it. Ardeth wished the feeling of suffocation was entirely due to a sudden bout of claustrophobia, but he knew better. He wondered how long it would be until he lost consciousness.
Colonel Connor, ship detected within automatic S.O.S. transmission range. Identification code: unknown. Incoming message on emergency-contact frequency.
Ardeth’s chest burned with effort as shadows seeped into his field of vision. He could glimpse a red light flashing rhythmically on the controls panel. A loud crackling of static filled the cramped compartment as the computer automatically put the communication through.
“Hey. Anyone still alive in there?” a soft voice asked. “Flight path successfully diverted. Estimated time to complete the recovery of your vehicle: six minutes. Do you read me?”
The voice was clear and limpid. Ardeth’s lungs ached under the strain to capture the scarce remaining oxygen. Not being alone was a thin, welcome comfort, he mused vaguely, before thought became too complex a task for him to bother. The pod shifted gently under a mild impact. The computer politely announced something Ardeth could no longer understand.
As darkness crept inexorably over him, drowning his senses, swallowing every available light, Ardeth thought he could hear the words, “We’ve got you, man. Just hang on.” It was a beautiful voice. A better accompaniment to death than the pod’s metallic words, space’s gelid silence.
The universe rocked under him. Ardeth knew no more.
It was with mild surprise that, an undefined amount of time later, Ardeth found himself blinking awake.
He groaned, the light filtering through his lashes enough to make his head throb in pain. He lowered his eyelids and lay still, trying to take inventory of his body. His chest felt heavy, diaphragm still burning as a result of his wild struggles to breathe. Air seeped easily into his lungs, replenishing them with abundant oxygen; Ardeth was grateful.
He brought a hand to his aching head, gingerly pushed himself into a seated position, and hazarded a glance at his surroundings. Cold neon light illuminated a cramped cabin. A tin locker occupied one corner, and a small table stretched along the wall, flanked by a metal stool. Ardeth sat on a small, rickety bed; someone had covered him with a blanket. He pushed it out of the way to find that his uniform had been removed, and he was now clad in a tattered gray shirt and dark combat trousers. He shook his head, slowly. He could not remember one thing after he’d started suffocating.
A metallic sound attracted his attention, and Ardeth raised his head. A little brass automata looked at him, perched among books and papers on a cramped shelf. It was a bird, Ardeth recognized, a parrot, with a small head, a short rounded beak, and thin brass plates for feathers. Its golden eyes gleamed as it tilted its head to the side, its unexpressive gaze fixed on Ardeth’s face.
A vague unease stirred in Ardeth’s thoughts. He was definitely not on a federal ship.
The door creaked as it was pushed open, and Ardeth turned to see a tall, slim man walk in. He wore a red shirt, and a long chestnut braid rested on his shoulder; brown eyes gleamed gently in his impish face, under tousled locks.
“Hello, Colonel. I’m pleased to see you awake,” the man said. Ardeth recognized the soft voice that had accompanied him during the last, dreary moments on the shuttle. He felt an instinctive sympathy toward the man, gratitude warming up his chest. “I was afraid we had reached you too late to prevent irreparable damage. I’m glad to see that was not the case.”
“Thank you,” Ardeth croaked, his larynx sore. The man waved his hand with a dismissive smile.
“Welcome aboard the Ganymede,” he said. He leaned with ease back against the table, hands resting on the scraped wood. “My name is Gabriel Sheridan, and I am the captain of this ship.”
“Ardeth Connor,” Ardeth replied. “I’m—”
“Oh, I know who you are,” Gabriel interrupted, a grin curling his lips upward. “Colonel Connor, federal officer extraordinaire, faithful adept of the Federation’s government. There was quite a bit of information stored on your pod, and we are… let’s say, professionally interested in keeping up to date with the Federation’s status.”
Sudden coldness crept into Ardeth’s blood. Something in the man’s choice of words set off a string of alarm bells in his brain. “I dare assume,” he said carefully, “that your ship operates, so to speak, independently from the Federation’s rules.”
“Your assumption is correct,” the captain replied. His smile did not fade. “I’m afraid we will not be able to send you back to the government’s welcoming arms until we reach a port where you may disembark. Our relations with the Federation are, if you allow me the euphemism, not exactly amicable.”
Ardeth repressed a shudder. Rebels. Not everyone in the galaxy agreed with the Federation’s methods, and a vast opposition movement had been brewing steadily in the underground community. An independent fleet of ships roamed space, supported by the population of the poorest planets and asteroids, trading and distributing materials outside the government’s control. On rare occasions they had been known to attack isolated federal ships to steal valuable instruments and supplies, especially water. It was just his luck, Ardeth mused, that he should be rescued by pirates.
“You shouldn’t worry, Colonel. I think you will find that we are not that bad.” Gabriel turned to stroke a finger on the parrot’s head, and the bird cooed softly. “I hope Bertha didn’t disturb your sleep. She’s our mascot, as well as our security camera, and she can get…overly demanding of attention, at times.”
“Not at all,” Ardeth said, trying to sound very polite. “She was very discreet.” His mind was alight with loud, buzzing thoughts as he tried to evaluate his situation. It wouldn’t be convenient to kill him. They might choose to keep him as a hostage, contact the Federation for a ransom. Or maybe they would deem that course of action too risky; it was highly unlikely they would be able to make the government lose their trace afterward, and they were certainly aware of that. Killing him would be the easiest option—then why not murder him straight away, while he was still unconscious? Information, Ardeth thought with a shiver. A colonel was a precious database of plans and military secrets. They would interrogate him, probably torture him, if they had to. He wondered how long he would be able to resist.
The parrot’s gleaming eyes captured shards of light, no doubt recording everything they saw. Ardeth waited, a vague sense of dread pooling in the pit of his stomach. The captain—Gabriel—patted his hands on his knees and stood up, a friendly smile on his lips. “So. How about I take you for a tour around the ship? I’d say we’ve been waffling quite enough.”
Ardeth’s eyes widened. He stared at the man, suspended between mistrust and disbelief. “You mean….” He swallowed. “You’re just going to let me wander free?”
Gabriel nodded, surprised. “Well, of course,” he said.
Slowly, Ardeth shook his head. “I… don’t think I understand.” He wondered whether the man was playing some cruel trick on him before feeding him to the angry crew or if he was just plain insane. Ardeth was… he was a bloody colonel, for God’s sake. Hell, just belonging to the Federation made him the enemy par excellence, let alone his rank.
The captain’s expression shifted to a gentle smile. “You were a man in need, and now you are part of this ship’s community. Nothing else matters,” he said simply. “You have not done anything to harm us, and I do not blame an individual for the faults of his family, his kin, or the organization he belongs to. Things work differently here.” He hesitated. “However, I must warn you: not everyone aboard may share my opinion. I would recommend you avoid mentioning your background, so as to spare any… difficulties.” Ardeth could clearly detect the warning Gabriel had chosen not to voice. He had better not cause any trouble, or his position would quickly change.
He nodded. “I understand,” Ardeth said. He wasn’t sure he did, but it was definitely a better prospect than spending the upcoming hours in a torture chamber. He got up and motioned toward the door. “I’d be honored to see the rest of the ship, Captain.” Thank you, he added, mutely. Somehow, he was sure Gabriel understood.