(This short story was originally published in the pirate-themed anthology, Locothology 2013. I’ll be re-publishing it here in two parts.)
Retirees in Space (Part 1)
by Anne Marie Lutz (copyright 2013)
When Grun heard the shout from the main cabin, at first she thought Mike was watching another ball game. The man tended to get loud when he watched football, no matter that the games were old ones, long decided, transmitted to them after they had exited hyperspace. The man would turn on the vid in the main cabin and bellow at the teams as if he were still on Earth and the players could actually hear him.
Then she heard it again, and it was definitely a scream.
Grun leaped up from the pilot’s chair. She caught herself before she snapped the order to transfer command to a junior officer. Old habits died hard, and it was easy to forget this was a luxury yacht, in port on Forst, not the hard metal deck of the Defender.
She slammed through the hatch into the passenger cabins, her hand on the grip of her energy weapon.
Mike was backed up against the bulkhead, his usually-florid face drained of color. His wife, Hi, stood before him, wearing her silk pajamas. An odd lump bulged under the neck of her pajama top.
Grun squinted at it, unsure what was going on.
Mike saw her. “Kill it!” His voice rose, broke.
“No!” Hi shouted. She held up her hands, palms out, toward Grun. “Put it away, put the gun away!”
The odd lump wiggled, shifting the collar of Hi’s robe in a shimmering pattern. Something almost transparent moved, tinged with tendrils of pink, like blood dissipating in clear water.
“Holy hell!” Grun recognized it from the tour of the planet. The things were supposed to be contained, locked up behind a force field in a sanctuary where they could do no harm. Now here was an actual alien parasite on little Hi’s neck. Grun looked around for something to use, to pry the obscene thing from Hi’s body.
“Grun, stop. I’m all right.” Hi did not appear to be wounded or dying.
If anything, Hi appeared exasperated. “Would you quit your shrieking, Michael? We’ll have the others in here.”
Grun hesitated. She kept the gun trained on the alien. She could never risk killing Hi, but if the creature moved Grun would be ready. Voices came from behind her as the remaining occupants of the yacht filed into the cabin.
“Before you send it into defense mode, don’t panic!” Hi said.
“My God, you’ve done it again, woman,” Mike growled. His voice had descended to its usual register. He slid along the bulkhead, reaching for the drink he’d left on the table. “I need a drink. What have you done now?”
Iker’s dignified head peered around the corner. He blanched and dropped the Interplanetary Markets he had been reading. “Jesus, Hi. What have you gone and done? Does the ambassador know? Milla, look what Hi has gone and liberated from the planet.”
Milla shrieked. “Hi, get it off you!”
Iker held his wife’s arm close. “She did it on purpose, Mill. I don’t know why.”
Milla’s voice shook. “I don’t approve, Hi. There’s a reason those things have been kept isolated for the last fifty years. Remember that awful infestation, behind the containment walls? What do they say about Earthers barging into other worlds’ affairs, as if we think we always know best?”
“Oh, Milla, don’t worry. I’ll explain. I promise I didn’t steal it to make a point.”
“I hope not, Hi.” Grun had gotten the idea there was no immediate danger and put her gun away. Her nerves still thrummed with battle-readiness. She was hired to be a pilot for Mama’s retired friends, earning some money while she recovered from her wounds. But it was perfectly clear, if unspoken, that Grun would be the last line of defense for these civilians should it be needed. She wished she knew if it were needed.
The alien still pulsed on Hi’s neck. It didn’t seem to be growing any redder, and Hi was behaving just as Hi usually did – just now earnestly describing to Milla how unfairly the aliens had been treated.
“Imprisoned on their own planet, Milla!” Hi argued. “They’re on a reservation, kept from communicating outside the walls, and kept from their only decent source of nutrients – ”
“Us!” roared Mike. “Go on all you like about unfairness. What were we supposed to do, let them eat us?”
Hi frowned at him. “They can eat any warm-blooded creature, Mike. They simply prefer more evolved life.” One hand went up to touch the alien’s skin. It dimpled slightly with the pressure of her fingers, like soft plastic filled with gel.
“She means it isn’t our planet, Mike,” Iker said. He drew closer to Hi, his feet in rich slippers scuffing a little on the carpeted deck. “I assume the thing has eaten recently?”
“Seems so,” Grun said. “It’s apparently not hungry.”
“I’m perfectly safe,” Hi said. “The ambassador promised. And this creature is going to help us get the drop on the pirates.”
Grun snapped a final acknowledgement to Forst Control and slammed a hand down on the communications console. “They’re refusing us clearance to return. Hi set us up!” she said to Iker.
“No surprise there.” Iker sat beside her with his slippered feet stretched out before him, lounging in the copilot’s seat as if he were in his den on Earth. “Hi is a force to be reckoned with.”
“I thought she was timid.” Grun turned her head, listening. There was no sound from the main cabin, where Mike was standing guard over Hi with Grun’s energy gun in one hand and a stiff drink in the other.
Iker sat looking at the vastness of space.
“Well, we can’t return to Forst and offload this thing,” Grun said. “I wonder if we can pry it off her and fling it out the main lock?”
“I think Hi would resist us. And who knows what the creature would do in such a case?”
Grun shuddered. “What do we know about these aliens, anyway?” She scanned the displays. Everything was green for departure. The yacht’s expensive drive hummed. Grun tapped in a code and stood.
“Oh, don’t go without me.” Iker rose with measured grace. He drew a hand through his silver hair and smiled, as if nothing that happened here disturbed him very much. “I want to be there for this.”
Hi sat at the table in the main cabin, drinking hot chocolate. The alien curled around her neck gleamed clear-and-pink.
Mike wavered in front of her. He brandished the energy weapon at Hi. “I don’t wanna have to do this,” he said. “But I will. Because I love you, that’s why.”
Grun grabbed the weapon and put it back in the holster at her belt. “Enough of that. Sit down. Where’s Milla?”
The other woman walked back into the cabin. “What’s happening?” She took hold of Iker’s arm and clung. Iker patted her ringed fingers and looked at Grun, for all the world as if he expected her to entertain him.
Grun sighed. “We can’t return to Forst. They’ve refused permission.”
“What if we return anyway?” Milla asked. “What do you think they would do? We’re just a group of old people on vacation. Can Forst afford to antagonize Earth by taking action against us?”
“There’s always Surra,” Hi said.
“They say those pirates use Surra. It’s off the itinerary as of last week. They’ve even played havoc with Forst’s routes,” Iker said.
“Someone needs to do something about it. Did you notice how empty everything was down there?” Hi asked. “The temples, the alien catacombs, even the gambling halls? Forst is a rich planet, but only because of people like us.”
“Tourists, young rich people on wanderjahr, retired people with money,” Iker said.
“No one was there. The pirates are preying on Forst’s lifeblood. They want them caught.” Hi stroked the alien with her forefinger. Grun wondered if there was more pink in its gut than there had been before. But Hi seemed perfectly all right.
“So send out a warship!” Mike blustered. “Who does that ambassador think we are?”
“Warships have done no good,” Iker said. “I was speaking with an old business acquaintance who retired here. The pirates don’t bother the warships, or even the smaller ships sent out to chase them down. Somehow they know what ships to hit. Stock in Forst’s pleasure industry is down by half since we left Merrose III.”
“Damn their money, this is my wife!” Mike said. Grun had been despising him, but at that she felt her expression soften.
Hi reached out a hand to Mike. “My dear, all will be well if we simply do as I have agreed.”
“And what’s that?” Grun said. “If you’ll pardon me, we have to choose a course. Forst is forbidding us docking privileges. We have to go. I could set a course back to Earth, but – ”
“No, no!” Hi said. “It takes too long. The alien will have to eat by then.”
Even Iker went pale at that.
“All right,” Grun said slowly. “I suppose that means we head to Merrose III, where the authorities can – ”
“No, no!” Hi protested. “We’ll go where we intended to go, to see the rainbow cliffs of Surra before they fall into the chasm.”
“Honey, we aren’t exactly on vacation anymore,” Milla said. She reached out to pat Hi’s hand. The creature around Hi’s neck stirred for the first time, a pulsing motion stilled in the blink of an eye. Milla pulled her hand back fast.
“I said we would.”
“Without consulting anyone?” Grun shook her head. “I know I’m just the pilot.”
“It is just like her, dear,” Iker said. “I am sorry we’ve put you in this position. Best go set a course for Surra.”
“We’re going to take down the space pirates, with one alien parasite?” Mike asked. His eyes showed white around the irises. Grun wondered how he had been married to Hi for so long and not expected something like this. But then, they had never been retired in space before, with no obligations to anyone but themselves. Perhaps Hi was different here than she had been at home, with her tech job in the city and her children.
“I don’t think it’ll come to that,” Grun said. “I’ll get us as close to Surra as possible on the jump. They can’t interfere with us in hyperspace, you know, and the jump coordinates are closely patrolled to protect against just this sort of thing. Unless Surra is actively involved with the pirates, we’ll be safe there. Then we can figure out what to do with the alien without hurting Hi.”
Somehow, Grun was not surprised when the ship’s sensors blared a warning and dropped them out of hyperspace into the vastness between the stars. She hit the intraship comm. “We’re in normal space. Verifying our location. I’d prepare for problems if I were all of you.”
“Forced out of hyperspace? I thought that was impossible.” Milla’s voice shook.
Grun didn’t blame her at all. “I don’t see how. The route is well mapped. The drive was just maintained. There are no anomalies that would – ” A readout blinked red on the console, and Grun’s mouth twisted. “Unless, of course, Forst uploaded something to drop us out. The computer is saying it received programming while we were docked.”
“Those sneaky bastards!” Milla’s voice shook. “The pirates have an ally in Forst Control! Wait until I tell the ambassador. He’s never really gotten over me; he’ll nail that spy to the wall for me!” She twisted one carefully curled strand of hair in nervous fingers.
Grun told the ship’s computer to fire on the attacking vessel. There was no response but a series of flashing yellow lights. “Guns are unavailable,” Grun said. “Guess they disabled those, too.”
A red light flashed. “Proximity warning.” Grun hit the comm again. “Here they come!” She locked down the helm, put the hailing channel on comm and stood up, loosening her energy gun in its holster.
Milla vanished into the living quarters.
“Let us in, little piggy,” said a voice through the comm. “Give us what we want, and there’ll be no one hurt.”
Hi stood before the table in the main cabin, Mike flushed with tension and drink at her side. Iker and Milla were nowhere to be seen.
“Yes, let them in!” Mike said. “We’ll give them our money, and they’ll let us go on to Surra. My company can send us cash there.”
Milla poked her head out of her sleeping quarters. “Don’t listen. They’ll kill us and take the ship. Didn’t you pay any attention to the news while we were on Forst?”
The ship rocked to an impact off the bow. An alarm beeped on the bridge, transmitted over the ship’s comm. Grun winced.
“Let us in, sweet little yacht,” said the voice from the hailing frequency. “I won’t hesitate to blow a hole in you if you don’t let us dock. No loss for us, after all.” The voice hardened. “Let us in. Five minutes.”
Grun looked at Hi. She appeared as calm as ever. Hi had drawn her collar up to cover the alien. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you would never know the horror she kept around her neck.
“I don’t know what the plan is,” Grun said to Hi. “But get ready. Our weapons are unavailable, and we have no choice.”
“Holy God,” Mike said.
“Go in the cabin, dear,” Hi told Mike.
The red-faced man shook his head. “Not leavin’ you, Hi.”
Hi’s face softened. Then she nodded at Grun. “Open the lock.”
Grun ordered systems to open the outer lock. The computer warned they were in deep space – “Confirmation requested” – and Grun overrode the safety.
“That’s more like it,” said the voice from the pirate vessel. “I’ll see you in just a moment. I’m warning you, we have plenty of weapons, and we’ll take out any of you who lifts a gun to us. Be smart now.” The channel closed.
It seemed forever while the lock cycled through. Grun flattened her back against the inner hull next to the airlock, sighting along her outstretched arm to her drawn energy gun. Still, she was undecided. Should she shoot and kill as many of the bastards as she could before they killed her? What good would that do the others? Tactics streaked through her mind as she waited. Then she shrugged to herself and squinted along the gunsight. She would not let Mama’s retired friends be taken without a fight.
The readout showed the lock was occupied. The pressure crept upward. Grun heard a sob from the direction of Iker and Milla’s cabin. The muscles in her side twinged where she had been wounded in her last action. Then the airlock hushed open.
Grun sighted, but no one came through the lock. Instead, a round metal thing rolled, fast, out on the deck. Grenade, Grun thought, then No … not in a pressurized cabin. As she stared after it, someone rounded the corner of the airlock, crouched to waist level, and fired at Grun. Bright light flashed in Grun’s eyes. Massive sound breached her eardrums. Blackness folded over her eyes, and she fell before she could fire at the boarding party.