By the Time I Get to Phoenix
Bas Belos was sitting sideways in the captain’s chair, black-clad legs thrown over the side and bare arms crossed in front of his chest. He’d been half-dozing, bored, but at Kaybe Shale’s words he opened his eyes and sat up. “What is it?”
Kaybe, the Sidewinder’s first mate, was leaning over the helm console. “I picked up a signal on one of the old bands—one of the ones we used to use. I’ve managed to trace it. There’s a ship ahead.”
“The Rattler?” Who else still used the dead frequencies?
“I’m sorry, Captain. Too small. A shuttle of some sort.”
Belos rose and came over to stand beside Kaybe. The Sidewinder didn’t have a forward window—in their line of work, they couldn’t afford even that small vulnerability in the massive hull plating—but it did have the best virtual screen stolen credit could buy. He reached down to the helm console and zoomed the display in. The sparsely scattered starfield projecting onto the curved glass in front of them wavered and expanded, revealing a small shape helpfully outlined in blue.
It was a nondescript vessel, barely more than a box in space. Not the familiar outline of the Sidewinder’s twin he’d hoped to see.
“Any other contacts?” he asked.
Belos frowned and ran his hand lightly over the raised patterns that dominated the left side of his face, ritual markings hard-earned from the Lekos Brotherhood. His jet-black beard was carefully trimmed just short of the markings’ edges. Shuttles didn’t tend to stray far from home, and it made no sense to find one out here in the middle of the Sfazili Barrens. Either the pilot was a fool, lost, or some bad luck had forced their hand into this journey. Like us, Belos thought. Their last raid had been too close to Cernekkan, and as lucrative as it was it had necessitated a strategic retreat from the area.
He’d brought his ship and crew into the Barrens, talking of Enclave riches, thinking of the long-lost, and expecting to find nothing at all. At least it seemed some small business had presented itself.
“Well, gentlemen,” he said. “Who are we to refuse an honest token of lady luck’s affection?”
“Yes, Captain.” Kaybe grinned, turning the Sidewinder towards the shuttle. He reached over and hit the contact alert, and within moments Sil and Len tumbled onto the bridge and took their seats at the gunnery stations.
“What tis?” Len asked in his tangled Bounds accent as he clipped himself onto his safety tether. The man was bone-thin with a face like a chewed-on rat, his spikey hair at perpetual war with itself. Small and scrawny, yes, but of all his crew the one Belos would least wish to fight. The man was fast, and sneaky as Shadow.
“A shuttle,” Belos said.
“Why here? Tis nothing!”
“We’ll have to make a point of asking them,” he replied. “Mr. Shale, let’s go knock on their door and see who’s home. Perhaps they’ll have gifts for us.”
The shuttle must have spotted the Sidewinder, because it sped up suddenly, banking and heading spinward away from them. Belos stood silent as they easily closed the distance. Too easily; something felt wrong.
“Reduce our speed to match, not overtake,” he said.
Kaybe raised one eyebrow, but complied without question.
The cramped bridge was silent for several long minutes as Belos continued to stare at the shuttle on the screen. “Is it me,” he said at last, “or do we seem to be catching up again?”
Kaybe’s hands flew over the helm controls. “It must have lost speed,” he said.
“Drop our speed to match and confirm.”
“Done. We’re going the same—no, wait, the shuttle just slowed down again. Not by much, but…”
“Kill the engines, Mr. Shale, and take us dark,” Belos said. “If you were about to be beset by pirates, would you slow down? They haven’t tried any real evasion techniques and they’re still lit up like a star-farm. They want us to catch them.”
“A trap? Who’d know we’d be out here?” Sil asked.
Lights on the crowded bridge flickered and went out. The dim, purplish glow of the blackout lights on the consoles cast long shadows on the bridge crew from below. The constant thrum of the engines, their low vibration carried throughout every square centimeter of the ship, fell quiet. The Sidewinder would have just vanished from the shuttle’s sensors.
They waited, drifting.
The shuttle slowed again, crawling to nearly a stop as the Sidewinder, with nothing to slow it in space, ghosted steadily towards it. Then the shuttle’s drive kicked on and it picked up speed again, turning back to its old course as if nothing had happened.
“Captain?” Kaybe asked.
“Wait until it’s at the edge of our sensor range, then bring us up to minimum engines and power. We’ll follow at a distance. It’s not like there’s anywhere for the shuttle to run to out here, and my curiosity’s up.”
They trailed the shuttle for a dull hour before, at last, a yellow alert appeared on the console. Kaybe sat up straight and turned to Belos. “Another ship, coming in heavy and straight on from about ten to port and thirty high. The shuttle’s repeating the same maneuver they did with us, banking and slowing.”
“Keep us on the far side of the shuttle away from the incoming ship, edge of range,” Belos said. “If they haven’t noticed us I’d rather keep it that way for now.”
He surveyed the bridge, a habit of a decade to make sure his eyes touched every asset, every strength, every weakness at his command before a fight. Shale was busy at the helm. Len was bringing up the specialized displays on his gunnery console and running another weapons check. On the other side of the dimly-lit bridge Sil was lying with his head on the gunnery console, eyes closed. Getting up out of his chair, Belos took two long strides towards the station, raised one booted foot, and kicked Sil’s chair violently. The man jumped, fumbling for his absent pistol, and nearly fell from his chair tangled in his own safety tether.
“Action, Sil,” Belos said.
“Yes, Captain. Sorry, Captain,” Sil murmured, dusting down the front of his dark red jacket and taking his seat again. On the opposite side of the bridge Len chuckled, a harsh bark in the quiet cabin.
The Sidewinder’s computer finished scanning the new ship and drew it in high resolution on the screen beside the shuttle. It was a sleek, dark ship that tapered to a thin point at the front. The exterior was festooned with stylized jagged bits and fins, one raised up in a curve as if to resemble the sail of an ancient sea vessel. Completing the sense of an adolescent attempt at menace, an old-style Jolly Roger was splashed across the hull, the white paint crisp and bright as new.
“Captain,” Kaybe said. “Is it me, or does that ship look like it came out of a damned holonovel?”
Belos laughed. “You might be right. There’s no way that thing’s ever been in a real fight—or any fight, I’d wager. Len could probably take it out himself with a knife.”
“We could put him out the airlock to try,” Sil said.
“Har har,” Len said. “I’d use you for me knife, but you be too dull to cut vacuum.”
“The shuttle’s surrendering,” Kaybe said. “Right on schedule. You’d think they’d had practice.”
“Somebody spent good money making that foxed-up pirate ship, and I don’t imagine it’s coincidence that in all the vast and empty Barrens it just stumbled across our easily-flipped little friend by accident,” Belos said. They watched from a distance as the attacker made a show of firing off a few wide, low-energy shots before it moved in and latched onto the shuttle. The two ships sat locked one atop the other, unmoving.
“Hey,” Sil said. “Did anyone notice that their jolly skull’s eyes are blinking red? I must admit I’m feeling inferior in terms of the style of our own pirating.”
As he finished speaking the attacking ship suddenly detached and sped off. Moments later the shuttle lit up again, turned around, and headed back at a sedate pace the way it had come. Belos raised one jet-black eyebrow. “If you’d just been raided by pirates, notoriously violent and unmerciful lot that we are, do you suppose you’d run for help?”
“The moment I thought I was clear, max speed,” Kaybe answered. “This fellow’s in no hurry. And Captain—the signal we picked up is now coming from the other ship.”
Belos returned to his chair and sat down. “What we’ve seen here is a show. The shuttle has to have come from somewhere not too far off, a hidden station or a ship. The pirate is too big and too frotting decorated to fit in any ship’s dock, which means a large station. Out here, that has to mean an Enclave. As curious as I am about the shuttle, I want to know about that pirate ship more. Kaybe, take us up behind it. Do we know if there’s anything at all in that direction?”
“Aside from a whole lot of nothing?” Kaybe asked. As he talked, he was powering up systems, bringing the Sidewinder back up to full speed. “I don’t think there are any habitable systems within a week’s hard burn of here. You’re right. It’s got to be an Enclave.”
Enclaves were independently governed stations, usually floated out into no-man’s land where they were beyond any planetary government’s jurisdiction or politics. They were the private havens of the ultra-wealthy and ultra-paranoid (two things, in Belos’ experience, that often went hand in hand). They were filled with unimaginable wealth and luxury, scattered around in the vast spaces where they were very hard to find unless you knew what you were looking for. The Barrens, far from any inhabited systems or jump points, would be a magnet.
“Enclavers could certainly afford to make themselves a fake pirate ship,” Belos said. “Why would they want one, though? Boredom? Some elaborate game?” He picked up the small glass globe filled with rich, red sand that he kept beside his chair as a reminder, tossing it from hand to hand. “Out of professional interest, I think we’d do best to discourage impersonators, and soon,” he added. “If this ship’s home is anything like the other Enclaves I’ve seen, it’s going to have a whole big rattling nest of mercenaries inside.”
He tapped the comms at the side of his chair, leaned his face down towards the speaker. “Mac, Fendayre, Rabbit. Wake up. We’re about to make a social call.”
Below, the remaining crewmen of the Sidewinder would be scrambling towards the aft gunnery stations and the engine room.
“Mr. Shale, take us in.”
The Sidewinder accelerated sharply, heading in a shallow arc straight for their quarry.
“If we ram it, I’m not sure it won’t turn to crumbles,” Kaybe said. “That’s not the sturdiest-looking thing—Whoa!” He threw the Sidewinder sharply to starboard at a flash from the aft of the other ship, and the bolt of energy that followed seared past them without hitting. “They may have a toy ship, but they’ve got real weapons aboard, Captain!”
“So do we, and we’ve got speed and agility on our side,” Belos said. He moved to stand beside the helm again, one hand raised to grab onto the thick bar set into the wire- and conduit-covered curve of the bridge’s ceiling. “Take out that stupid sail, Mr. Shale, if you please.”
Kaybe grinned and banked them into the path of the other ship on a collision course. Unlike their prey, the Sidewinder bore no fins, no external details that could be torn off except for the two wide, solid columns of metal, covered with scratches and deep gouges, that extended forward from the bow of the ship. The ramming arms. The other ship tried to dodge, starting to swing around to get out of the Sidewinder’s path and into position for another shot. It wasn’t fast enough. The Sidewinder hit, the ramming arms ripping the sail off the vessel in one tremendous blow. As the piece of debris tumbled away, Kaybe took them through and around for a second pass.
“Len, cannon at will when we’re broadside,” Belos said.
As they curved around the vessel, it let off a few shots more panic- than skill-driven that passed safely behind them. Len smiled as he fired off a burst from the port-side cannons. Metal balls a half-meter in diameter blasted from the Sidewinder, spinning rapidly. With their high magnetic field they ripped straight through the other ship’s shields and pounded the hull. One cannonball was left half-embedded where one of the Jolly Roger’s blinking red eyes had been.
“I b’lieve I upscratched their paint,” Len said. The cannonballs would disrupt any unshielded system onboard, at least until their internal gyroscopes spun down.
“Aim straight for the bridge,” Belos told Kaybe. “Ramming speed. Hold course ’til I give the word.”
No sooner had they got the ship in their sights and began the run than Kaybe started swearing. “Damn it, Captain! They’re surrendering. Already.”
Belos nodded. “Slow to contact speed and take us in. Boarding party is me, Len, Sil, and Fendi. Mac, stay on the guns. Mr. Shale, the helm remains yours.”
They tapped politely once, counted to ten, then blew the door in. There were no lights in the airlock chamber beyond the dim and fading glow cast by the smoldering edges of the airlock itself. Fendi and Sil took up covering positions to either side, Sil with a heavy energy pistol, Fendi with the blasting rifle that never left his side, not even when he slept. Len stood behind Fendi, his own pistol held down by the side of his thigh, ready.
“Surrender while you can,” Belos called from cover. There was the sound of someone muffling a cough, the zip of a gun charge, then silence. He waited impatiently, the buckles on his heavy boots jangling faintly as he tapped his foot in impatience.
“Come now,” he called after enough time had passed for him to be sure no answer was coming. “We can just as easily go back to our ship and disengage, leaving you with a great big hole in your hull. I assure you, if you cooperate you’ll find more of a chance with us than with vacuum.”
“What do you want?” a voice called from the darkness. Fendi swung his rifle directly at the point it seemed to come from.
“To trade, of course,” Belos called back. “You give us something worth our time and effort and in return we let you and your silly ship go. Or you can fight me, and I kill you all and take what I want anyway. I must say I’m surprised that someone in such a fine vessel as this wouldn’t at least grasp the basics of how pirating works.”
A wild shot came from somewhere within the room, missing Belos by more than an arm’s length.
“So it be,” he said.
Len nodded, unclipped a gas grenade from his belt, and lobbed it into the room. Belos pulled a small pair of nosefilters from the pocket of his long coat and fitted them in, saw the rest of his men do the same.
In moments gas filled the room, followed by coughing and scrabbling; it would take only moments to knock out anyone still breathing unfiltered air.
When silence returned, Belos turned back to Len. “Flare.”
Len complied, tossing the device into the fog-filled darkness. The flash lit up the roomn like a miniature sun as the flare spun and rolled across the floor. A pair of motionless legs stuck out from behind crates hastily piled for cover. Fendi stood and edged closer with the rifle as Len walked forward.
A man stood up from behind the crates, the telltale black plug of nosefilters obvious against his pale skin. His arms were raised, one hand holding a pistol pointing towards the ceiling. He wore a red and white striped shirt, a patterned scarf tied in a knot around his forehead, and an eye patch.
“Throw the pistol out if you please, Mister Pirate, sir,” Belos said.
The man scowled and tossed the pistol to the deck, and Belos stepped through the lock into the room as Len picked it up and added it to his own belt.
There were three men lying unconscious on the floor, each dressed as outlandishly as the man still standing. A single pair of nosefilters lay on the floor where they had fallen from an outstretched hand, too late to be useful. Len moved forward to check the men.
The standing man, moving slowly, took off the eyepatch and let it fall to the deck. Two perfectly good eyes darted over the tattoos on Belos’s face. “Lekos,” he said. “You’re one of that lot, eh?”
“Bas Belos, at your service,” Belos said, sketching a mock bow.
“Word is you scum hang off the Bounds, terrorizing rockcrappers for their hard-earned pennies. Trying to move up in the galaxy?”
“You call the Barrens moving up?” Belos shook his head sadly. “You wouldn’t believe the pathetic idiots we’ve run into here who style themselves pirates.”
“Then why are you here? You’re way out of your way, and when the rest of my men back at the en—” The man broke off, and pressed his lips tightly together, face clouding with anger.
“You were going to say ‘back at the Enclave’? Well, we don’t intend to linger here for long.”
Len finished searching the last man, tossing another energy pistol onto a growing pile in the middle of the floor. “They’ll be out for many a tick,” he said.
“Bind them anyway,” Belos said. Fendi covered them and Sil strode forward to give Len a hand, kneeling down to put clips on the unconscious men’s hands and feet. Then Len moved towards the man in front of Belos and in one swift motion brought him down to his knees, twisted his arms behind his back, and slipped a pair of clips on him.
“What’s your name?” Belos asked.
After a pause, the man answered, “Weyet. I’m the Captain.”
“And the name of your very scary ship?”
The man paused again. “Gravity’s Gallows.”
Behind Belos, Fendi and Sil snickered.
“Well, Weyet,” Belos said. “I don’t suppose you can enlighten us a bit about this little venture you’ve got going here? Big fake pirate ship, special pirate clothes, all that? Where’s your parrot? And your peg leg?”
“You won’t find anything of value here,” Weyet said. “You’re wasting both your time and mine. Our hold is empty.”
“Maybe so.” Belos reached into the pocket of his longcoat and pulled out a sensor, clicked it on. “The signal’s coming from the passenger areas.”
Weyet growled. In one motion he managed to jump from kneeling back up onto his feet with his hands now in front, straightening up to aim a two-fisted blow at Belos. Belos ducked, then spun and kicked the man in the chest. Weyet flew back to land hard against the crates. Len moved in, fast as Shadow, and a knife appeared from nowhere at the edge of Weyet’s throat.
Hatred burned in the man’s eyes. Belos shook his head. “I’m guessing you’re a mercenary. Bought, along with your sloppy friends here, to be some rich people’s private army. But there’s not a lot to do out here in the Barrens and not much of anyone to fight, so you’ve gotten bored. Bored and soft. Am I right?”
“Feg you,” Weyet said.
Len backhanded the man, sending his head snapping to one side.
Belos crouched in front of Weyet with his arms resting on his knees. “Weyet, my friend, I grew up in the desert with nothing but hot, dry sand and red rock as far as the eye could see. On one side of me there was the New Texas Republic and on the other side was the Arizonan White Army of Christ, each wanting a piece of the other and not caring who was in the middle. And you know what they learned? That there may not be much in the desert, but what’s there is dangerous.”
He stood up, gestured around. “Space isn’t that much different. You think you’re all alone out in the middle of nowhere, feeling secure and arrogant and all-powerful. You let your guard down and stop looking where you’re stepping and then suddenly—tsssk—you’re down and dying and it doesn’t matter a damn to anyone else. By which I mean to give you a subtle hint: If you don’t shut up, pay attention, and tread very carefully, I am going to shove you and your shit-stupid face out an airlock. Are you understanding me?”
Weyet licked blood from his lip. After a short hesitation, he nodded.
“Now, how many more crew are there aboard this ship?”
“One more,” Weyet said. “Our chief engineer, down in the engine rooms. That’s all.”
“Anyone else? Passengers?”
“One pris—passenger.” Weyet looked positively miserable as he said it.
“Ah,” Belos said. “Now, I’d like you to get on the comms and tell your engineer to stay out of my way and don’t cause me any trouble—if I so much as see a face where I don’t expect to, I’m going to shoot it. And then I’d like to go meet your passenger, if you please.”
Weyet went to the room’s control panel and sent Belos’s message over the allship comm. Releasing the button, he stepped out into the hall. “This way.”
Belos turned. “Fendi, stay here and cover the hatch. No sense risking any unreported crew trying to sneak up on our people while we’re off exploring.”
Fendi nodded. Belos and the others followed Weyet out into the hall and down the ship’s corridor towards the passenger cabins. The Gravity’s Gallows wasn’t an especially large ship inside, and Belos decided it was most likely a retired light courier that had been cosmetically retrofitted.
The signal detector still in his hand bleeped, and he stopped in front of a door.
“Here,” he said. “Open this one.”
Without any sound or apparent motion Len’s knife was in his hand again; if Weyet noticed he didn’t show it. The man put the palm of his hand to the lockplate and with a click the door slid open on a small and sparse but not uncomfortable-looking room. It held a padded acceleration chair, a small desk, and a bunk with a worried-looking man sitting on the edge of it.
The passenger was middle-aged, just beginning to put on the thickset torso typical of lifelong dirtsiders. His dark hair was puffed up around his head and he had thick, unnaturally long sideburns. He wore an outfit almost as outlandish as the Gallows’ crew, if different: White, with a big flared collar and matching pants, covered with small shiny, glittering beads. There was something hanging from the back of the man’s shoulders that Belos realized belatedly was a cape.
“See?” Weyet said. “Nothing and no one important. You’ve wasted your time here.”
“Captain,” Sil said, leaning close, his voice barely above a whisper. “I think I know who that guy is.”
Weyet was already reaching up to palm the door closed. Belos’s hand shot out and grabbed his wrists, held them tight. The passenger watched this exchange with a mix of anxiety and interest, but did not speak.
“Who is it?” Belos asked Sil.
“It’s Elvis. I mean, I think it is.”
“A two-dee movie star, from four or five centuries ago or something like that. He was really famous; there’s a bit of a cult around him still. My grandmother was big into it, had holos up all over her place and was always talking ’bout him. He’s supposed to have died young, but then people said he’d been taken away by aliens instead, only there weren’t aliens yet or at least none that had found us that we know of, but people kept thinking they saw him alive in weird places like—”
“Sil!” Belos interrupted. “You’re not making any sense.”
“No,” Sil said. “I know.”
“You,” Belos called to the passenger. “What’s your name?”
The man stood up and came slowly to the doorway. Belos felt Len tense beside him as the passenger stuck out his hand in an old earth-style greeting.
“Elvis Aron Presley, at your service, sir,” the man said.
Belos took his hand, shook it, somewhat bemused. “Bas Belos. Pleased to meet you. Where are you from?”
“Tupelo, sir,” the man said. “Mississippi. Though late I spend my time in Vegas. Surely you’ve heard of me?”
“Mississippi?” Belos turned towards Sil. “Wasn’t that a part of Redemption? I mean, after all those states broke up?”
“I think so,” Sil said.
Belos turned back to the man. “If you don’t mind me asking, what year were you born?”
“Nineteen thirty five, sir,” the man answered promptly.
“Do you know where you are?” Belos asked. “Or when?”
“I’ve been abducted, just before my comeback tour. Aliens took me, and then these pirates stole me back. I understand I’m in the future now.”
Belos turned again to Sil, who shrugged. Then he fixed his gaze on Weyet. The Gallows’ Captain sighed. “Pardon us, Mr. Presley, sir,” he said. “These gentlemen and I need to have a conversation.”
As the man raised one hand and opened his mouth to speak, Weyet slapped the doorplate and the door slid shut between them.
“Okay, look,” Weyet said. “My client is paying us a lot of money to bring Elvis here back. He’s worth a fortune. If you just let us go, I’m sure we can come to some sort of arrangement—”
“I want to know who he is,” Sil said. “Is he Elvis? The real Elvis? Still alive here in the year two-four-four-one? Was he really kidnapped by aliens? Who? Not the Veirakans, of course, although…”
“Ssssh,” Weyet said, taking a few steps down the hall and motioning them to follow. “These walls are vellum-thin, cheap ship that it is. I’d rather he not hear us discussing this.”
Belos and Sil followed him. Len stayed outside the cabin, leaning his head against the door.
“He be singing now,” Len said, eyebrows shooting up. “Not too poorly, neither.”
“So is he Elvis?” Sil asked again.
“Does it matter? Close as you can get,” Weyet said. “He’s an Elvis, right?”
Weyet raised both his hands in a gesture of exasperation. “Elvises,” he said. “Your friend here is right: Elvis died and ever since there’s been a big cult built around his legend. Back on old Earth, people used to dress up like him, get their hair done the right way, sing his songs. For a lot of folks, being Elvis is sort of like being a god.”
“So this guy is just pretending to be Elvis?” Belos asked. “Just as you are pretending to be pirates.”
“Yeah, but I know I’m not a real pirate,” Weyet said. “Still got all my own teeth.” He smiled at Sil, whose hand hovered near his pistol. “This guy honestly believes he’s the genuine thing. All the Elvises do. That’s what they want.”
It took Belos a half-second. “Brainwashing?”
Weyet nodded. “A complete wipe, then they layer in fake memories of everything that’s known about the original Elvis’s life. After the full body mod, if you could put the Elvises all in a line no one’d be able to tell who was the real one without a DNA test. Not even Mrs. Elvis. It’s the ultimate fantasy wish-fulfillment, and even centuries later there’s ten, twelve people every year who come up with the funds to live it. Elvis truly was the king.”
“So you, what? Ferry these men to and from an illegal body modification lab?”
“Oh, no,” Weyet said. “We just steal them afterwards. We’ve got an arrangement with the lab.”
“The signal,” Sil said.
“They implant a chip in them, an old frequency no one uses anymore. Or so we thought. Sometimes we pick them up right away, sometimes we follow them for six months, a year, before we grab them. But in the end, we get them all—and the waiting list keeps growing.”
“Do you have any idea what the black market value of an Elvis is?”
Len looked up sharply from where he was still listening at the door. “Weha, they don’t eat the poor cudders?” The boundsman looked pale.
Weyet made a face. “No. It’s more… well, mostly wealthy women who buy them, you follow me? For every person obsessed with being Elvis, there’s a lot more who obsess about wanting to have had a relationship with him. If you could have an Elvis of your very own, whenever you wanted, well, you might just pay a lot for that.”
Len blinked. “Tis truly so?”
Kaybe Shale’s voice crackled over the comm in Belos’s hand. “Company, incoming,” he said. “Three ships. Whatever you’re doing, better pack it up now and get back here.”
Weyet smiled. “Too late.”
“Bring Elvis,” Belos said, half-turning towards Len.
Weyet moved quickly, hands flying out to knock Belos’s pistol out of his hands. Expecting the move, Belos twisted easily out of the path of the man’s strike and was just bringing up the pistol when Len was suddenly there between them, his knife already stuck into the man’s gut.
The Gallows’ captain gaped down at the redness now spreading across his shirt. Len stepped back, his knife held ready for another strike. Belos held up a hand for him to wait, then slid the setting on his pistol down from lethal to a stun and dropped Weyet where he stood.
“Sil, take this trash back to our ship. Patch him up enough to live, but I don’t want him conscious. Len, get Elvis. Get him onto the Sidewinder and get a zero blanket around him to block that damned signal he’s sending. Move.”
Belos left them to it. He turned and sprinted up the corridor, finding the ship’s bridge easily enough. It was a functional, bare-bones setup totally the opposite of the ostentatious fakery of the rest of the ship. He slid into the seat in front of the autonav controls and sighed with a mix of pity and pleasure. The Gallows’ crew hadn’t even locked the systems down when they’d been boarded. “Amateurs,” he muttered. In moments he had programmed a new flight sequence into the helm controls. Then he ran.
He came around the corner of the airlock to find a nervous-looking Fendi still covering the door. The rest of the Gallows’ crew still lay unconscious and bound on the floor.
“Fendi!” Belos said. “Did Sil and…”
“Ev’ryone on board ‘cept you, Captain,” Fendi said.
Belos pointed at the three unconscious crewmen still lying on the floor. “Help me drag this lot out of the room.”
Together they dragged, shoved, and dumped the crewmen into a pile on the far side of the door. As Fendi retrieved his rifle, Belos could hear the faint hum of the Gallows’ engines coming online again. He slapped the button for the room’s emergency bulkhead and shoved Fendi back through the blown hatch. The door slammed down behind them as a loud siren sounded throughout the Gallows.
Belos reached for his comm as he locked the hatch with practiced ease. “Mr. Shale. Detach us from this unfortunate vessel as quickly as you can, recall the cannonballs, and get us the feg out of here.”
“Yes, Captain,” Kaybe’s answer came. With a grinding sound the Sidewinder disengaged from the Gravity’s Gallows even as the ship suddenly lurched forward, veering off and speeding up, heading away from the two ships now bearing down on them.
Belos made it to the bridge in seconds and threw himself into his seat. “Get us out of here.”
Kaybe, his hands already poised over the controls, had them underway in an instant. “The new ships look like regular mercenary stock, Basellan design. Heavier firepower than yonder playtime pirate, but nothing we can’t handle,” he said.
“Good,” Belos said. “With the signal blocked, they won’t know which ship has their prize. They’ll split up.”
“They are,” Shale said. He brought up the display, and Belos could see one of the three approaching vessels moving off to pursue the Gallows.
Sil appeared on the deck. “Our guests are settled. Len’s just finishing patching up the merc.”
“Then get in your seat and take care of the little problem coming up behind us,” Belos said.
“Just two?” Sil looked disappointed, but sat down and clipped himself in. He stared down intently into his display. “Bank us fifty-five to port, down thirty,” he said, and Shale turned the Sidewinder and dove it down. For an instant Sil’s hands hovered over the gunnery controls, fingers jittering as if in anticipation of action. Then he reached out and smoothly tapped the firing control.
The pursuing ship swerved, but too late. A cloud of debris appeared on the display around it, and it slowed.
“One hit?” Shale said.
Sil smiled. “I’m just that good. Plus, the fegger was comin’ in direct behind us. Stupid.”
The remaining ship dodged around its crippled companion and headed towards them, but not in a direct line of the Sidewinder’s rear guns.
“Let’s play the shuttle’s game,” Belos said. “Slow us incrementally, let it start catching up. Are all our cannonballs back?”
“Lost one,” Shale said. “I sent the self-destruct signal. Rabbit’s loading a spare.”
Belos swore under his breath; the cannonballs were hard to replace. They’d worked up the design with an isolated maker out on the Bounds who thought they were rockcrappers (Belos always let Len do the talking) who used the balls for smoothing out mineshafts, but the man was getting old and his eyesight failing. “So it be,” he said. “When they’re close enough to fire on us with the heavy guns, I want a port-side fallback and full broadside. Sil?”
“No problem, Captain. Balls are loaded and ready.”
The pursuing mercenary ship, drawing closer, stopped varying its angle of approach as it prepared to fire.
“Now!” Belos said, and held on tight.
Kaybe fired the braking thrusters to front and one side. The Sidewinder simultaneously came to a near-stop and moved sideways. The mercenary ship, caught by surprise, found itself passing within a ship’s length of the Sidewinder, a few hasty, panicked shots passing wide of their mark or glancing harmlessly off the Sidewinder’s shields.
“Cannon,” Belos said, and Sil opened fire. Five balls spun out, rocking the Sidewinder, and slammed into the side of the mercenary ship as it passed.
“Shields down and they’ve got a hull breach!” Kaybe shouted. The Sidewinder picked up speed again, and as they overcame the stricken vessel Sil strafed the engines with the guns. There was a single bright golden flash, lasting barely an instant, and then the mercenary ship went dark.
“Recall the cannonballs and get us the hell out of here,” Belos said.
Shale accelerated, arcing the Sidewinder out and away from the heavily-damaged vessel. As the faint outlines of the ship receded on the screen, he turned towards Belos. “All cannonballs retrieved, and we took only minimal damage—nothing a coat of paint won’t fix,” he said. “Sil said we had guests? Did we get anything worthwhile for our trouble?”
“Sort of,” Belos said. “Take us back to where we first encountered the shuttle, and do what you can to track where it came from. I expect you’ll find a small station at the end of the trail.”
“Illegal medical lab,” Belos said. “We’ve got one more little job for them, and then I think they’re going to find themselves out of business.”
Sil looked up from the gunnery console. “So where are we going to sell the Elvis?” he asked. “How much do you think—?”
“We’re not selling him,” Belos said. “We’re letting him go.”
Sil frowned. “Now, wait a minute,” he said. “We’ve been out here in these Barrens for weeks now chasing ghosts and this is the first thing we’ve come across to make it worth our time. Worth my time.”
“We’re not selling him,” Belos repeated. “We’ll find worth your time somewhere else.”
He stood up, and Sil unclipped his safety and followed him. In the hallway beyond the bridge, the gunner reached out one hand and grabbed Belos’s shoulder.
“Do you really want to do this, Sil?” Belos said, turning.
“With all due respect,” Sil began to say, his voice loud in the narrow space, but then hesitated as Len appeared at Belos’s elbow. He swallowed. “I’m just saying…”
“Sil. Either you trust me and you’ll go back to your seat now and shut your mouth, or you don’t and I take it as a challenge. Your decision.”
Sil let his hand fall from Belos’s shoulder. He stood there a moment longer, then turned and plodded back towards the bridge.
Belos watched him go, then turned to Len. “Our guests?”
“Set, come see,” Len said.
Elvis was once again sitting on the edge of a bunk, but this time wrapped up in the thick gray zero blanket with only his face showing. He was singing quietly to himself. Len came in behind Belos and leaned against the far wall. “He’s been teaching me some new sings,” he said.
Belos squatted down on his heels in front of Elvis. “Where do you want to go?”
“Back to Vegas, sir,” the man said. “If you please.”
“Vegas isn’t habitable anymore. The Arizonan White Army declared it an abomination before God and took it out with biotoxins. Tens of thousands of people died.”
The Elvis looked distraught. “Where will I go?”
“Phoenix is not far from there. It’s clean and not too violent now that the AWA’s been wiped out.”
“I’m afraid I’ve been gone for a long while. Do you think anyone will remember me?”
“I don’t doubt it,” Belos said. “We have a short stop to make, then we’ll see you get to Phoenix. All right?”
Len raised one eyebrow. He came over to Belos, speaking low so only he could hear. “Ah… aren’t you being wanted on Earth, Bas?”
“Yes, but nobody’s going to think to look for us near there, right?”
“If you say tis so, sure tis so,” Len said. “Always been wanting to set my eyes on Earth, and all the lots of rich people tween here and there. Where first?”
“We’re going to find the lab and have them take the signal chip out of Elvis here. I don’t like the idea of him being hunted his whole life by people wanting to make him a plaything. Call it just one more way we can take something away from the rich.”
“And what about Sil? He’s not going to just sit there happy-assed while we give away goods we fought hard for.”
“Oh, we’re still going to have an Elvis to sell.”
“What?” Len said. “How?”
“Weyet. Seems like something he’d appreciate.”
Len grinned. “Thinking so too.”
“Once the lab’s done what we want, we’re going to give them two hours to clear out before we blow it out of space.”
“They’ll be just setting up someplace else.”
“Oh, certainly,” Belos said. “I’ve stolen a lot of things and killed a lot of people, and I hope to be doing both of those things for a good while still. But I’ve never regarded people as property. Maybe we’ll run across Elvis smugglers again, maybe we won’t, but if we do I’m going to blow them up each and every time, and I’m going to start getting a lot less careful about giving them a chance to get out first. I figure that’s all very fair of us, seeing as we’re pirates.”
“Real pirates, you’re meaning,” Len said.
Belos turned and left the cabin, heading back towards the bridge. Behind him he could hear Elvis start to sing again, his voice rich, strong, and sure.
And then he was out of hearing range, with things to do.
Suzanne Palmer is a writer and artist who lives in the green hills of western Massachusetts. She’s a computer geek by day and writes at night, in those little cracks and crevasses of free time that can sometimes be found in between the demands of too many two- and four-legged critters. Other work of hers has appeared in Interzone and Black Static, and is forthcoming in Asimov’s.
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