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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1893360-Black-Eagle
by Milo
Rated: ASR · Short Story · Sci-fi · #1893360
A crew of scavengers find something unusual
         The metal floor of the airlock vibrated slightly as the boarding mechanisms outside locked into place. Captain Severus Aquila paused for a moment, bracing himself. You never knew what was waiting on board an enemy ship, even when it was a tiny thing like the one the Black Eagle had just latched onto. He checked his pistol’s ammo indicator. Full.
         He glanced around at the boarding crew. Many humans might have found it strange for him to be leading a crew that contained several non-humans, but he didn’t. He knew that other species all had talents, and he wasn’t prepared to let foolish prejudices keep him from having the best.
         Even his first mate wasn’t human. M’rail was an Ezhalta, human enough, maybe – in fact if it wasn’t for his pale blue skin and white topknot of hair he might have passed for a man. A two-metre-tall man, maybe, with an unusually hooked nose and a permanent haughty expression, but still human.
         Raxx was decidedly less human. The Mokan was a brute of a figure, standing nearly as tall as M’rail but almost three times as wide. His face was hidden behind the filtration-mask he always wore – an apparatus innate to his species because of their dangerously polluted homeworld. But Raxx’s most defining feature was the mechanical arm and leg that replaced what he’d lost on the left side of his body. Some machining accident, Severus knew, but the Mokan had simply designed and built replacements. They weren’t pretty; they hissed with hydraulics and escaping steam whenever he shifted, but they did the job. And they never broke, which was why Raxx was the Black Eagle’s chief mechanic.
         The other six members of the boarding party were humans, and they were – to put it nicely – your standard scum-for-hire that you could pick up at any port. But Severus didn’t mind. They got the job done when needed, as long as they got paid.
         He smiled. Rather like me, in fact.
         “Well,” he said, breaking the silence, “shall we say hello?”
         Raxx stumped forwards, hydraulic leg squealing, and pressed a button on a wall panel. The airlock opened with a whoosh, and Severus charged.
         He was almost disappointed. As the others poured in after him, they found themselves standing in a single-room star-taxi, with two teenage humans and a human pilot. Severus heard the pilot before he saw him – or rather heard the gunshot as a bullet whipped by him and cracked into the wall. A rifle erupted in return and the pilot fell dead.
         “Stop! Hold your fire!” Severus rounded furiously on the crew member who’d fired. “I want prisoners, not bodies, you idiot.”
         The man stared at the body, lip curled in a slight sneer. After a second’s pause he said, “Sorry, captain.”
         Severus sighed inwardly. He might have had the best first mate and mechanic that money could buy, but sadly that was where most of his budget had gone. The rest of the crew were next to useless.
         He turned his gaze to the two kids. They were a boy and a girl, siblings probably, maybe even twins. They didn’t look much older than fifteen or sixteen.
         The boy didn’t seem to be afraid at all. “Are you pirates?” he said calmly.
         Severus smiled. “Not exactly.”
         “Slavers.” The boy spat the word out with disgust.
         “Smart kid.” He pointed his pistol at the pair of them. “I was hoping for something a little more than two kids, but I suppose you’ll do fine. There’s a lot of people on the Fringe who don’t much care who they buy as long as you can work.”
         “You might as well point your guns somewhere else,” said the boy. “I’m not afraid of you.”
         Severus holstered his pistol. “I don’t need you to be afraid of me. Believe me, if I wanted you to be scared you’d know it. So, how about we all play nice and you march your way back onto my ship?”
         “What are you going to do if we don’t?” the kid retorted. “Shoot us? Thought you said you wanted slaves, not bodies.”
         “Again, smart kid,” said Severus. “I don’t have to shoot you. Want to test me?”
         The boy snorted. The girl seemed a little more wary, but to her credit she put on as brave a face as her brother. Yeah, they’re definitely siblings. He frowned to himself; the pair didn’t just look alike, they looked…familiar. He couldn’t place it, so he let it go.
         “You really have no idea who we are, do you?” the boy said.
         The girl shot her brother a look of panic that demanded to know what he was doing. Severus felt his curiosity building again but he pretended he didn’t care. “You could be the royal family of the System Primus for all it concerns me. People will still buy you, and I’ve learned not to worry about who might be coming after me.”
         There was a terrified silence that settled over the two teens, a silence that told Severus far more than he’d expected. “Well, well…” he said slowly. “Isn’t that something. What are the Prince and Princess of the System Primus doing all the way out here?” He glanced at the dead taxi-driver. “Running away, looks like. Am I right?”
         They said nothing, but that only confirmed it.
         “There’s plenty of people on the Fringe who’d pay quite handsomely to own Prince Valerius and Princess Aemilia,” said Severus. “Your father’s not exactly well-liked out there, is he?”
         Prince Valerius stepped forwards, a furious fire burning in his eyes. “You won’t get away with this,” he snarled.
         “Lose the attitude, kid,” Severus said. “It’ll only hurt you where you’re going.” He glanced at his crew and nodded in the direction of the siblings. “You six take them to the holding cells. I’ll take a last look around here.”
         The crewmen nodded and strode forwards. The prince and princess were each seized roughly by the arms and force-marched back through the airlock. As Valerius was dragged past Severus he said, “You’re scum,” and spat at the captain’s feet. Severus ignored him.
         Once the crew had left with the prisoners, Severus glanced up at Raxx, looming over him. “Check the pilot’s controls and the engine room for salvage. I doubt we’ll find anything useful in this tiny thing, but you never know. M’rail,” he continued, turning to his Ezhalta first mate, “you and I’ll look for any hidden compartments. These taxis always have one.”
         “There, captain,” M’rail said. His voice was soft, eloquent, a trait common to his species’ aristocratic culture. He pointed at a bare patch of metal flooring. Severus couldn’t see anything.
         But M’rail was the best crewmate money could buy, so Severus didn’t waste a second doubting him. He strode over to the place where the blue-skinned Ezhalta pointed and examined the floor. Whatever M’rail was seeing was still lost on Severus, but he stomped on the metal anyway and heard a loud click. A panel of floor sprang sharply upwards beneath his foot and he eagerly slid it aside.
         There wasn’t much to look at: a pile of cash that wasn’t worth a quarter of what Severus would make off one slave – let alone a member of the royal family, he thought with a faint smile – and two suitcases. Severus heaved the cases out onto the floor, sat down and opened them. There were only clothes.
         “I guess our prince and princess packed light,” he muttered.
         Raxx came lumbering out of the engine room, metal leg whining and hissing steam, cradling a device whose identity Severus could only guess at. It was dangling wires like tentacles and part of the metal casing looked like it had been shorn in two.
         “What is that?”
         Raxx paused and fixed him with the glowing lamp-like eye-sockets of his mask. His voice sounded electronic, coming as it was through the mechanical vocalizer attached to his headgear. “BladeStar Mark Six Quickburn Zero Zero Eight Dash One Three Seven model engine coolant system. Very expensive.”
         Severus kicked the suitcases back down into the storage compartment absentmindedly. “Well, at least you got something useful.”
         Raxx towered over him, blocking the light with his immense shadow. “You found cash.”
         “Not much.”
         “Then can I have it?”
         “No.” Severus upturned one of the suitcases and emptied the contents, then loaded it up with the money. “Now we can buy that disgusting painting M’rail wanted on Nova.”
         “It is Ezhalta artwork,” M’rail said, frowning down his hooked nose. “The patterns are pleasing to our eyes. Humans do not see it the same way.”
         “Yeah, well, I don’t even like human art,” replied Severus. “You could hang the Vicentius itself in my cabin and I wouldn’t care.”
         “I do not know that painting.”
         Severus sprang to his feet and grabbed the suitcase full of cash. “Nobody does anymore. Let’s go make some money, shall we? We’ve got a prince and princess to get rid of.”
          He cast a final look at the interior of the taxi as he stepped into the airlock. He always hated abandoning a captured ship, even one as small and common as this. Feels like a waste. But the Black Eagle couldn’t tow it and it probably wasn’t worth much anyway. They’d taken all the valuables from it.
         But it didn’t pay to wonder. Severus gave a sigh and followed his companions back onto his own ship. The airlock closed behind him; he felt the boarding mechanisms release and the Black Eagle shot away into the black of space.
         He was awakened that night by a knock on his cabin door. He roused himself quickly and hit the control panel, and the door slid into the wall with a hiss. One of his human crew, a muscular man called Caius with a deep scar crossing his face and neck, stood in the doorway. “Marcus says you should come to the bridge,” he said. “Sensors have picked up a derelict. Wants to know what you want to do.”
         Severus nodded and followed the man through the Black Eagle’s long hallways. The Eagle wasn’t huge – not compared to what some shipyards were building these days – but it was still a good minute or two’s walk to get from his cabin to the pilot’s station. It was a good size, large enough to scare off pirates but still small enough to hide when it had to – which was more often than Severus liked.
         Just part of the trade, though.
         The pilot was a short, scrawny little man who looked more like he belonged in a robotics company than a part of Severus’ crew, but it didn’t bother Severus in the least because he’d seen the way the man could handle the ship. He’d gotten them out of trouble more times than Severus cared to count.
         “Where is it, Marcus?” Severus asked, peering out through the viewport into the desolate vacuum.
         Marcus pointed and something flashed far out in the blackness. “There. You can see it when it catches the light from our engines.”
         “Sensors picked up anything?”
         Marcus tapped a screen and a ship schematic appeared. Severus frowned thoughtfully. “Hammerhead-class transport. Small ship. Any modifications?”
         “Sensors are reading a stealth system, but it isn’t active.”
         “Smugglers,” Severus said. “But it’s empty?”
         “It’s not moving and it isn’t broadcasting any sort of distress signal,” answered Marcus. “Could still be people on it. I don’t know how long it’s been sitting there. But the power’s out, so I’d guess awhile.”
         “Crew size for a ship that small?”
         “Could fly it with three. Designed to sleep five, but with all the cargo space a ship like that would have there could be up to twenty, and even then there’d be space. You want to check it out?”
         “Never know what we might find,” said Severus with a grin. He turned to Caius. “Grab the boarders. Let’s knock on their door.”
         It was a weird sense of déjà vu Severus had as he waited once again in the airlock. He felt himself shifting with anticipation. These sorts of boardings were by far the most dangerous – there was no knowing how many people they might find on the other side – but it was also the most exciting.
         The airlock floor hummed as the boarding clamps latched on. Severus glanced at his companions. “Here we go.” He gave Raxx a nod. The big Mokan was carrying a shotgun that Severus probably couldn’t lift, but he rested it casually on his mechanical shoulder as he whacked the airlock switch.
         The door opened with a serpentine hiss, revealing the black mouth of a lightless hallway. The wash of icy air that greeted them sent a shiver crawling across Severus’ skin and blew a thick layer of dust over the airlock floor.
         “Right,” he muttered. “Power’s out.” He glanced up at the hulking Raxx. “Think you can get it back online? Wandering around in the dark is not my idea of a good time.”
         The Mokan’s masked head inclined in a nod. “I saw the control room on the schematics.” His shotgun gave an aggressive cha-chunk as he pumped it once. “You’ll hear if I find anyone.” A floodlight-sized flashlight beam burst from the side of his weapon, shining ghostly white down the long passage. Raxx’s mechanical leg spewed steam and shrieked as he lurched forwards into the darkness and disappeared around a corner.
         Severus snorted. Being three hundred kilos and carrying a shotgun the size of a large dog was one way to march fearlessly into a pitch-black ship. Severus didn’t have that option. So he had backup. “Lights,” he ordered. Eight flashlight beams cut into the dusty gloom and sent shadows scuttling across the walls. “Main cargo hold is at the end of this hall and to the right. Let’s go.” He stepped into the dead vessel, pistol aimed ahead, flashlight beam trembling just a fraction with nervous anticipation. Somewhere far away he could still hear Raxx’s mechanical limbs squealing, then that faded and left the hallway in total silence.
         Severus didn’t like that silence. It was thick with dust and darkness and seemed to hang over them like an invisible cloud, smothering them. The flashlight beams were casting shadows that raced across the walls and ceilings like ghouls and the dust floated in the light like spectral cobwebs. Severus wasn’t a superstitious man, but there was just something about empty, dead blackness…
         He led onwards anyway. His footsteps echoed with metallic thuds down the deserted passage and made him wince with every sound. He raised a hand for quiet and listened hard, ears straining for any indication of other people aboard – but there was nothing. Nothing but his own wary breathing that whispered like the slither of dry grass in the wind.
         He flicked his pistol up towards the ceiling to shine the attached light up there but saw only the unbroken grey of metal plating. The walls were the same, flat and empty.
         Still no gunshots from Raxx, though. That’s a good thing.
         Of course, the giant Mokan could have been killed silently. That was always a possibility. No, wait – there was the distant sound of hydraulics again.
         Severus frowned. There was another noise, something coming from just above him and to the left. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as the sound slowly registered itself to his anxious thoughts as a hiss. A shiver spidered down his spine and he looked up slowly, dreading what he might see…
         There was nothing. Severus swore under his breath at his own nerves. He could still hear the sound –
         And then he swore again, because he’d just realized what it was. “Gas!” Instantly all eight of them were scrabbling madly for the filtration masks hanging at the back of their belts. The hissing grew louder; Severus held his breath; he yanked his mask over his mouth and hit the activation switch. Only then did he breathe again, relishing in the safety of the slightly metallic-tasting air coming through the filter.
         The hissing faded away, leaving nothing but dying echoes. Severus breathed a sigh of relief, but M’rail caught his gaze. The Ezhalta looked slightly puzzled as his eyes flicked between the sensor lights on each of the crew’s masks. His voice sounded slightly distorted through the filter. “The lights are green. There was no gas.”
         Severus glanced at him in surprise. “No gas? What was it, then?”
         At that moment, the dark hallway gave an electrical crackle and cold white light flickered into existence. Severus blinked in the sudden brightness and shielded his eyes.
         “There’s your answer,” said Caius. “Raxx has got the power back online.” He tugged his filtration mask off and the rest of the crew did the same. Severus glanced irritably up at the still-flickering light. “Not all the way. This is just the emergency lighting.”
         “Better than nothing,” Caius pointed out. “At least we’re not jumping at shadows.”
         One of the long light fixtures in the ceiling spat a shower of sparks and burnt out, leaving a ten-metre stretch of hall dark again. Caius jumped at the sudden noise.
         “No,” Severus agreed, “now we’re jumping at light bulbs.” He gestured down the hall. “Come on. Let’s get whatever salvage we can find and get off this stupid wreck.” He strode off in the direction of the cargo room.
         Entering the room, he was disappointed. The flickering lights overhead showed nothing but scrap. There were big crates on the far side, but each one had gaping holes in the sides where someone had smashed them open. There were bits of broken wood scattered on the floor and as Severus walked dejectedly forwards he saw that most of the dust had great tracks carved into it from where the contents had been dragged away.
         “Looks like someone beat us to it,” he grumbled. He looked around the room, hoping something might catch his eye, but he only saw more wreckage. The vents at floor-height had been torn open; there were scratches on the wall, even some bullet-holes. Severus kicked a pile of dust into the air miserably. “Alright, let’s go. There’s nothing here.”
         As they returned to the hall Severus heard the mechanical whine of Raxx’s leg from somewhere ahead. Sure enough, the giant Mokan came around the corner momentarily, shotgun resting casually on his hydraulic shoulder. His electronic voice echoed down the empty hallway. “Find anything?”
         Severus shook his head. “Nothing. Someone beat us here.”
         “They did,” confirmed the Mokan. “I went by the crew’s quarters and the bridge. There are bullet holes all over the place. Blood too.”
         “No. I checked the ship’s log but it didn’t say much. This ship – the Hydra – was on its way to the Fringe world of Raast.”
         Severus knew the name. “The gladiatorial arenas.”
         “Yes,” said Raxx. “They were running something there, weapons probably.”
         “Well, whatever it was, it got dragged off long before we arrived. Storage room’s a mess. Pirates probably; that’d be the source of the bullets.”
         Raxx agreed with a nod. “These were the only things worth taking,” he said, gesturing to a set of metallic cylinders stuffed into his belt.
         Severus sighed. “Might as well carry on to the Fringe, then. No luck here.”
         The harsh electric-white glow of the flickering lights overhead was starting to irritate Severus’ eyes as they walked back towards the airlock. He blinked and stared at the floor instead, his eyes meandering across the dust. The tracks made by the cargo had disappeared without him noticing, probably because someone had dragged the goods elsewhere in the ship. He sighed again. Would have been nice to know what we’re missing out on.
         The tracks reappeared suddenly, a vortex of disturbed dust that became trenches running the last few metres towards the airlock. Severus snorted. It only drove the point home, seeing the tracks exiting the ship. He felt cheated.
         Beside him, M’rail stopped without warning. Severus glanced up at him. The Ezhalta was frowning at the airlock floor as though something wasn’t right.
         Then Severus saw it too.
         The Black Eagle’s airlock had been coated with dust that had drifted in from the derelict’s empty hallway. But the dust had been disturbed, disturbed by the same tracks that had carved swathes along the other ship’s floor.
         “Well, well,” he murmured. “Whoever’s got the cargo is still here. And he’s gone and dragged it onto my ship.”
         Without looking up, he said, “Split into pairs. Search the ship. Find whoever’s stowed away. I’d prefer them alive – it’ll be nice to know what’s really going on here, but if that’s not possible, well, I’d rather have unanswered questions than a live enemy. Octus, tell Marcus to let the derelict go and move off. Caius, Raxx, M’rail, you’re with me.”
         The crewmen vanished into the eagle, rifles raised. Severus checked his pistol and sighted down it experimentally. “Where are you?” he murmured. “Why are you on my ship?” He stepped cautiously through the airlock and glanced around the corner. There was no one there. The dust tracks gave way to hard metal flooring but Severus didn’t care; there were only so many places on the Black Eagle to hide.
         And he intended to search them all.
         He broke into a stealthy run, checking corners with his pistol ready. The crew quarters were nearest – that would be the easiest place to start looking.
         Except he didn’t have to go that far. As he rounded a corner, he saw the smashed remains of a vent grate, with the vent itself now an open tunnel in the floor. “There we go,” he murmured. He raised the comm on his wrist to his lips and spoke, his voice echoing loudly from the eagle’s speaker system. “Attention crew. Target is in the ventilation system. Cover the exits, but don’t pursue. I don’t want a firefight underneath my floor. We’ll keep him trapped in there and gas the place once we’re on the ground. Marcus, take us in to the nearest planet. I don’t care which one it is; we won’t be there long enough for it to matter.”
         There was a momentary delay before the speakers crackled to life again. “Marcus here, captain. Nearest planet is Dawn, only a few hours out.”
         “Works for me. Take us there.” Severus turned to Raxx. “You want to take this vent? We’ll move on and guard the others.”
         The Mokan leaned back against the wall, shotgun pointed directly at the hole in the floor. “Not a problem.”
         Severus beckoned M’rail and Caius to follow him and strode away. He felt a smile twitch at his lips. I guess we get that cargo after all.
         They left Caius at the next vent, about fifty metres around the next corner. The scarred crewman poised himself over the still-covered vent, rifle aimed straight downwards. Severus and M’rail kept walking, turned another bend and Severus said, “You take this one, I’ll…”
         His voice trailed away.
         Just ahead was the vent grate, but it was bent and broken and knocked aside. But that wasn’t what Severus was staring at. About a metre from the edge of the ventilation tunnel was a body. It was contorted, twisted like it was frozen in the middle of a spasm. Its face was unrecognizable, swollen and purple with its features distorted by the bloated flesh.
         “One of ours,” M’rail said calmly. “Octus.” The Ezhalta stepped cautiously forwards, rifle at the ready, and examined the dead crewman down his hooked nose. “He’s been stabbed with something. Two holes straight through his armour-vest, side-by-side. Poisoned, too.”
         Seeing dead men was nothing new to Severus, and neither was dealing with the unknown, but the fact that that unknown something was crawling around his ship where he couldn’t see it sent the icy fingers of fear slithering up his spine. He raised his wrist comm towards his mouth again.
         An ear-shattering shriek of terror tore the air apart. Severus whirled and sped back down the hall towards the source of the scream; M’rail sprang after him and the two of them raced through the deserted corridors. Caius was already moving as they overtook him and he fell into step with them, and then Raxx stumped after them as fast as his lumbering gait could take him.
         Severus skidded to a halt as he spotted a trail of glistening, red spots on the metal floor. He pointed his pistol straight ahead and stalked forwards, eyes flicking towards the blood trail every few steps. It ran ahead several metres and then was smeared slightly around a corner in a wet line. Severus took a deep breath and peered out around the wall.
         A purple, poison-bloated face leered up at him from the floor. Its tongue, swollen far too large, was protruding from its lips like a disgusting slug. Its legs dangled out of sight inside a broken floor vent.
         Severus reached down to drag it into view of the others. His fingers were mere centimetres from the body’s collar, when it moved.
         Severus gave a cry of horror and stumbled backwards as the body vanished into the vent. Caius sprang forward. “What happened?”
         Severus stared dumbly at the black hole in the floor. “It…I think it got pulled inside. Whoever’s doing this is right beneath us.”
         Caius aimed his rifle straight downwards and squeezed the trigger. Bullets tore through the metal flooring and filled the hall with the deafening noise of gunfire. The gun clicked suddenly, empty, smoke still wisping from the muzzle.
         Severus’ ears were ringing from the noise as Caius glanced at him. “Think we got anything?”
         Severus pressed his hands against his ears, trying to clear them. Finally the echoes faded and he could only hear silence and the distant mechanical hiss of Raxx trying to catch up. “I don’t know.” He took a cautious step towards the vent as Caius reloaded. He braced himself, and then in one swift movement he and Caius leaned over the edge.
         There was nothing.
         And then Severus heard the whisper of a terrified breath. He turned slowly.
         M’rail was standing petrified, face-to-face with the biggest snake Severus had ever seen. The monster was hanging out of a vent in the ceiling, green-black body nearly half a metre across, forked tongue flicking in and out a centimetre from M’rail’s eyes. There were frills flaring from its neck, not a hood like a snake should have had, but frills like a lizard, or a fish, or something that just wrong. Its eyes glittered with predatory hunger. Severus aimed his pistol and his finger tightened on the trigger.
         The monster struck, jaws stretched open to reveal the glistening throat within. The fangs sank deep into M’rail’s chest and the serpent’s massive coils boiled out of the vent and onto the floor. Severus fired and missed. Caius opened up with his rifle, spraying the massive thing with bullets, and it didn’t notice. The bullets tore chunks of scale and flesh off the monster’s immense body but did nothing to stop it as it began to speed away from them, M’rail in its jaws, tail still flowing out of the ceiling. Caius’ rifle clicked empty again as Severus stood in open-mouthed horror as the snake’s tail finally left the vent and the creature raced away from them with dozens of bullet holes in it.
         Then Raxx came around the corner.
         The snake dropped M’rail and its frills flared angrily as its massive head rose to face the Mokan, and Raxx’s shotgun went off with a noise like thunder.
         The sheer force of the shot slammed the snake’s head backwards into the wall. And it didn’t die. Blood was pouring from the missing side of its face, but it rose again and hissed, fangs dripping venom as it began slithering towards Raxx.
         Severus fired and the shot burrowed into the monster’s scaled back. The snake lunged at Raxx but the Mokan fired again and smashed the thing’s head against the metal wall. The shotgun roared again, and again, and again, spraying chunks of scale and meat onto the metal. The snake was writhing on the floor, still twitching, the stump of its neck a lump of mangled flesh. And then, finally, it stopped moving.
         Raxx stumped forwards to M’rails body. The Ezhalta’s blue face had gone a deep crimson and swollen into a featureless mass. Raxx crouched, hydraulics squealing, and touched M’rails neck with his real hand. “Dead.”
         Severus had already guessed. “What,” he finally managed to choke out, “was that?” And then the answer hit him. “That ship wasn’t smuggling weapons to the fighting pits. It was smuggling that!” He pointed at the monster on the floor. “And it got loose and ate them all. It must have smashed its way out of the crate-”
         Realization hit him like a bullet. “How many crates were there?”
         Caius shook his head. “Eight, maybe?”
         Severus’ eyes were wide with panic. “No one dragged the cargo out of there, the things smashed their own way out! And now they’re on my ship!
         The staccato of gunfire burst through the air, followed by an abrupt scream. Severus felt every muscle in his body tense. His finger rested on the trigger of his pistol, fighting the urge to shoot. Raxx stuffed some shells into his shotgun and stumped off towards the noise.
         “You’re going after them?” Caius said.
         Raxx finished reloading and pumped the shotgun violently. “I’m not waiting for them to find me.”
         “There’s seven more,” Severus called after him. “You’re insane.”
         Raxx’s hydraulic leg screamed as the Mokan turned heavily. His electronic voice grated, “Then what do you propose we do, captain? Sit and wait? Abandon ship?”
         Severus’ eyes fell to M’rail’s grotesque, poisoned face. “I…” He shook his head. “Fine.” He slapped a fresh clip into his pistol and followed the Mokan. Caius fell in behind him.
         “Just aim for the head,” Raxx said. He trod contemptuously on the shredded stump of the serpent’s neck as he passed and his mechanical leg crushed it into sticky paste.
         The distant crack of gunfire echoed down the hall, followed by a muffled explosion.
         The lights in the hallway flickered and died.
         Raxx turned slowly as the blood-red glow of the emergency lighting waxed into life from the floor. “Next time,” he said calmly, “find a crew who can shoot straight, one that doesn’t miss and hit the generator.”
         Severus stared up at him dumbly. “Yeah,” he managed, “good plan.”

         Valerius was crouching nervously against the back wall of the prison cell when the lights went out. He’d heard nothing but the distant rattle of gunfire, with no knowledge of who or what was shooting, and judging by the look on the lone guard’s face outside the cell bars, he didn’t have any idea either. And now the lights were gone, replaced with a dim, eerie red.
         Aemilia was seated in the corner beside Valerius, also watching the corridor warily. Valerius glanced over at her and gave a slight, comforting nod, one that said it’ll be okay. He got up slowly and murmured to the guard, “Hey. What’s going on?”
         The guard was staring around in nervous, twitchy movements and clutching his rifle with a white-knuckled grip. He jumped at Valerius’ voice and spun around. “How should I know?” He banged his rifle butt against the bars. “You two just shut up.” The crack of a far-off pistol made him flinch and he whirled to face the corridor again.
         “Do you think you’ve been boarded?” Valerius said calmly.
         The guard turned and snapped at him, “I’ve got no clue if we’ve been boarded! I told you to shut up!”
         Valerius didn’t back away. He might not have been much older than fifteen, but he was a prince of the System Primus. You don’t scare me. “That’s the only explanation, isn’t it? It’s not a mutiny, or the fighting would have stopped a long time ago.” He smiled faintly. “It’s my father’s men.”
         The guard sneered. “That’s what you think, kid? You think daddy’s come to save you? I’ve got news for you, kid, daddy ain’t coming. You’re stuck here.”
         “Then you tell me what it is. Or better yet, go find out.”
         The guard snorted. “Yeah, leave you two unguarded in the middle of a gunfight. Captain’d love that.”
         “How about this?” Valerius went on. “Do you have any idea what the reward would be for returning my sister and I to our father?”
         “Kid, I’m going to give you one more chance to keep your mouth shut. I don’t care about a reward. I can’t go within five systems of the System Primus anyway. So shut up, stop talking, or I’ll show you why I’m a wanted man. How about that?”
         When the guard turned around again, Valerius realized something that set his heart beating with nervous hope. The guard hadn’t stepped back to his original position, which meant he – and the keycard attached with a string to his belt – were within arm’s reach. As another round of gunfire took the guard’s attention, Valerius’ hand crept out from between the bars.
         Then he stopped. It sounded like someone was dragging sandpaper across the inside of the wall opposite the cell. The guard had evidently heard it too, because he frowned and cocked his ear towards the noise. Valerius’ eyes swept the hallway, over the large ventilation grate in the wall and down the corridor.
         The noise faded and the guard glanced around in confusion for a few seconds before giving up. He turned back to face Valerius.
         All too late did Valerius notice that he’d left his arm extended. A malevolent grin smeared its way across the guard’s face as he reached into his belt and held out the keycard no more than ten centimetres from Valerius’ fingertips. “Is this what you want? Trying to get out?” The man laughed and dangled the card from between his thumb and forefinger. “You aren’t going anywhere, kid. You-”
         The vent in the wall exploded.
         Valerius couldn’t even scream as the snake burst through the grate like lightning. Its maw was open like a trap and glistened with saliva; its fangs flashed red in the light as they buried themselves in the guard’s back. The force of the strike slammed the guard into the prison bars centimetres from Valerius’ face. The monster poured from the wall, coils writhing like massive scaly tentacles. Valerius was petrified; he couldn’t move, couldn’t even breathe as the snake reared from the dying guard and fixed him with a poisonous yellow stare.
         Valerius backed away from the bars in dumb terror. A purple, forked tongue flicked out of the thing’s open mouth between its dripping fangs, and its head began to sway hypnotically back and forth. Frills flared on the sides of its neck.
         The snake’s head sank lower, still eying him with its yellow stare. Its open mouth hovered over the guard’s body, and Valerius’ gaze fell to the keycard lying on the floor, still attached by a string to the guard’s belt. He felt sick with fear as he realized what he had to do.
         Valerius approached the bars again. He heard Aemilia’s breath hiss in a gasp as the monster’s scaly head rose from its prey to face him. Valerius felt his knees go weak. The thing’s eyes, black slits in yellow pools, were fixated on him and its tongue flicked in and out hungrily. Valerius crouched as slowly as he could. The snake hissed and its head darted forwards slightly and Valerius stumbled backwards onto the ground. The monster returned its attention to the dead guard and Valerius crawled, trembling arm inching towards the fallen keycard. His gut was churning; there were tears of dread fighting to free themselves from his eyes, but he forced himself to reach. His fingertips scrabbled at the smooth surface of the keycard, trying to get a hold…
         The serpent’s frills flared and it hissed, head floating almost ethereally downwards towards his face. He could feel its hot breath on his skin, could hear the rasping of its scales, could see the shimmer of the saliva inside its purple, hungry mouth, could smell the scent of death coming out of its throat. His fingers scratched madly at the keycard, straining; the snake’s head suddenly shifted as its gaze fell on his outstretched arm. It hissed, fangs bared, its muscles poised to strike-
         Valerius seized the card and yanked it back into the cell as the snake struck at him. The keycard’s string snapped and the serpent missed, its jaw skimming the metal floor with a sandpaper-like rattle as it recovered. It hissed at him again, then turned and bit down on the dead guard with a crunch. The last of its coils slithered out of the wall as it disappeared with its prey down the deserted corridor.
         Valerius sat down heavily, hardly daring to breathe. When he had finally regained control of himself, he got up and edged towards the bars. The nightmarish creature was nowhere in sight. After a time that felt like hours, he crossed the cell to Aemilia and pulled her to her feet. He led her wordlessly to the door, unlocked it, and pushed it open.

         Severus fidgeted with his pistol. His eyes were alive, bouncing back and forth off every wall and ceiling. Raxx clanked on ahead, shotgun held almost casually at his hip. Severus found himself wishing he had the Mokan’s confidence.
         They’re snakes. They’re only animals. We can beat them.
         A distant wail of a scream echoed from a side corridor just ahead. Severus’ head snapped towards the sound as icy sweat began to trickle down his spine. He checked his pistol for what might have been the thousandth time as Raxx stumped around the corner. Severus followed after him with Caius just behind.
         Ahead, Severus could see where the hallway split again at a right angle. In the dim glow of the emergency lights the perpendicular passage looked like a black mouth, open, ready to devour them all. Severus felt his pulse quicken. Raxx spared it little more than a glance as he passed and Severus was determined to do the same. He kept his eyes fixed on the forward passage. I’m not afraid. If you told yourself that enough, he knew, sometimes it worked.
         He took a deep breath and walked past the dark corridor.
         In the shadows, something moved.
         Severus whipped to face it, pistol thundering to life as he fired shot after shot at the monster. The muzzle-flash seared white spots into his eyes against the blackness with every squeeze of the trigger, but he didn’t let up, firing blindly into the passage.
         His pistol clicked empty five times before he noticed. Smoke curled from the barrel, wisping like a crimson ghost in the red light. He lowered the gun with trembling hands.
         There was nothing there.
         He stood there in stunned silence, barely able to breathe. But there had been something there, he knew it! He’d seen it-
         As he shifted slightly, he saw a shadow slither across the darkened floor: his own.
         He cursed furiously at himself under his breath and slid his last clip into the pistol. He slumped against the wall in despair.
         “You alright, captain?” said Raxx.
         “No,” Severus snapped at him. “No, I’m not. I’m jumping at my own shadow. There are things on my ship hunting us, things we can’t even kill, and…” His voice trailed away.
         Raxx was silent for a moment, and then he turned and walked away. “I’m going to kill them,” he said. “If you want to stay here and whine, your choice.”
         Severus glanced at Caius. The other man didn’t seem any more eager than he was. Raxx was already more than ten metres down the hall when Severus made up his mind, gritted his teeth, and followed.
         There was an audible buzzing noise in the air as they walked, loud enough even to be heard over Raxx’s shrieking limbs. Severus couldn’t identify it, but as he peered around Raxx’s massive form and saw the open engine room door at the end of the hall, he realized what it was.
         Sparks. Whoever had shot out the power had left something humming with live electricity. Severus didn’t relish the thought of walking into a dark room filled with damaged wiring – and it did seem especially dark; it wasn’t until they got closer that Severus realized that half the red emergency lights in there were out too. He swore. “You’re going in there?”
         Raxx half-turned. “Yes. I might be able to get the power back on.”
         “And if they’re in there? In the dark?”
         Raxx flicked on his gun flashlight. “Then I’ll blow their heads off. You coming?”
         Severus steeled himself. “Right with you.”
         Raxx stopped in the engine room doorway, white flashlight slicing the dimness apart like a blade. Severus stood beside him, his own light piercing the gloom as well, staring.
         There were two bodies in the room. One was hanging headfirst down one of the engine room’s massive floor vents and the other was sprawled against a shattered control panel that was still spitting sparks. His face was unrecognizable behind the mask of poisoned swelling.
         Severus swung his flashlight up to the ceiling about three metres overhead. The six half-metre-thick engine pipes that rested in the rafters cast weird serpentine shadows across the roof as the beam swept across them. He fought down a wave of nauseated fear and forced himself to keep looking around the room.
         Raxx’s flashlight had stopped moving, hovering over a patch of floor at the base of the massive engine system attached to the far wall. Severus let his own light fall to the same place and saw what had frozen the Mokan’s beam.
         Rising out of a broken vent was a great, black, serpentine body. Severus’ eyes traced it as if by their own accord, following the massive shape from the pointed tail on the floor and up the body as it wound its way around the engine mount before disappearing into the floor.
         It shifted slightly, sliding slowly further into the vent.
         In that moment, three things happened.
         Raxx stepped all the way into the room and took aim at the monster in the floor.
         Caius let out a whimper of terror.
         And Severus realized that there should only have been four pipes on the ceiling. Not six.
         Caius’ moan turned into a scream as Severus whirled. Raxx spun too. Severus scarcely had time to yell as the fanged purple maw of a snake exploded through his flashlight’s beam; he fired and the shot ripped into the thing’s mouth. He stumbled and the snake’s head slammed into his shoulder and sent his pistol spinning into the hallway. The snake flailed about, blood pooling from its mouth and its massive body smashed against command consoles and shattered them. Caius fled. Severus heard Raxx’s shotgun roaring like a thunderstorm but didn’t stop to look; he dove after his pistol and took off after Caius as panic overwhelmed him. Behind him he could hear a horrible sandpaper noise as something or some things slithered after him; his heartbeat was pounding against his skull; his legs burned as he forced them to move faster; the things behind him were getting louder-
         He had one chance to get away, and he took it. He raised his pistol, took aim, and shot Caius in the knee.
         Caius went down with a scream and Severus tore past him. He heard one curse of utter hatred before there was a gruesome crunch and then nothing. Severus ran faster. His act had bought him little more than three seconds before the sound of slithering came to life again, but three seconds was enough to skid around the corner and bolt down the next passage. He knew where he had to go – the escape pod – if he could get there he’d be free of this nightmare. He didn’t care about the Black Eagle anymore, nor Raxx; the ship wasn’t worth his life and the Mokan was probably dead already. The noise of his hunters lessened slightly as he rounded a corner and put a little more distance between them.
         He turned a final bend in the corridor. There! The escape pod door was open already, inviting, welcoming him to safety. The relief sent him surging forwards; he was nearly there-
         His foot caught on a loose piece of floor plating and he fell hard, the pistol shooting away from him into the pod. He scrambled upright, diving towards the open door-
         He found himself staring down the barrel of his own gun. Valerius was standing just inside the escape pod, holding the pistol.
         “Sorry, slaver,” the boy snarled.
         Valerius squeezed the trigger.

         Valerius slammed the door controls as the slaver captain slumped to the floor. The escape pod’s doors slid shut and through the window Valerius saw two of the monstrous serpents come writhing around the corner. Behind them, the gigantic alien Mokan staggered into view, another of the snakes coiled fully around him as he walked with its fangs buried in his shoulder. The Mokan stumbled under the weight and fell.
         The fastest snake seized the dead captain in its mouth and began to slither away. The other paused, its head hovering just outside the window, yellow eyes staring hungrily in. its forked tongue flicked against the glass.
         Valerius hit the launch control and the escape pod lurched. The slave ship fell away into empty black space and Valerius sagged against the wall in relief. He drew in a deep breath. “We made it. We’re okay.”
         He glanced over at his sister. “You alright?”
         Aemilia nodded.
         After what felt like forever, Valerius got up and rested his forehead against the window, staring out into the star-studded blackness. Where in the galaxy are we?

Word count: 7714
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