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When Cargo Freighter Zulu/973 found it, the sleek little flitter was floating aimlessly in space, sort of halfway between the mining belt at Beta#32 and the transport station that orbited Jupiter II. It was much more elegant and aerodynamic looking than the ugly cargo hauler that nudged it with an armoured loading claw. The claw poked a bit more firmly and it drifted, with no more sense of direction than any of the other bits of space junk the traders had amassed on their journey.
“Seems dead.” Captain Clearwater remarked to nobody in particular. “Let’s have a look then.”
His communications officer turned the cargo hauler’s docking camera to face the wreck. She seemed to be in going on for perfect condition – clean and shiny and with some sort of earthside oriental script scrawled across her slightly flared bow.
“Get Leah up here.”
Somebody scrambled. Clearwater wasn’t a man to be kept waiting. Leah Su arrived promptly. She was as poised and unruffled as ever, but her bulky escort was red-faced and sweating.
“Su reporting for duty, sir.”
“You’re the nearest thing to a linguist we have hereabouts. Can you read the writing on that ship?”
“More or less, sir. It says something like ‘sea of stars’. Very roughly. I guess it is the name of the vessel.”
“Probably is. Can you see an identifier?”
“Me neither. And I reckon that makes it fair game. Whatever spoilt rich boy lost his toy out here, I’m thinking finders keepers. Even if nobody has put a bounty on her, she should fetch a few bob for salvage. I’m going over to have a look. Take the con Su.”
Clearwater may have been greedy and even unprincipled, but he wasn’t fool enough to go and inspect a possible salvage vessel on his own. He gathered up a sizeable force, and broke out the blasters.
In the end, there were a dozen space stevedores, wearing their exoskeleton work suits, in the airlock, along with the captain, his first officer and the ship’s metallurgist. The inside door sealed and they put on their helmets before Su began pumping out the air. It took a good ten minutes before it was safe to open the big doors into the blackness of space.
As the doors slowly slid back into their pockets in the hull, Clearwater straddled a jet scoot and headed for the flitter. First officer Ganges clutched the sissy bar behind his captain’s ample backside, and the rest formed a chain behind Ganges clipped together by lanyards attached to their tool belts. It wasn’t the most comfortable way to travel. But it wasted the least energy and Christopher Clearwater abhorred waste. Particularly if he was paying for whatever was being wasted.
The jet scoot gently nudged against the silent craft. Clearwater’s voice rasped in the ears of his party.
“Anybody have any idea how we get in?” Then. “Let’s at least look for a door before we break out the cutting gear.”
Nobody moved or spoke. Before the captain had chance to get properly irritated, Leah Su broke the silence. “Our docking camera view shows a touch plate about two metres to your right.”
Clearwater grunted and edged that way. He slapped a large gauntleted palm against the shiny ochre-coloured plate. To everyone’s surprise, the three leaves of an oddly shaped and almost invisible portal slid silkily apart. Clearwater engaged the electro-vacuum parking brake and effectively suckered the scoot to the side of the flitter. He climbed carefully off his seat and made his way hand over hand to the open portal with his crew following him.
Inside the portal was the expected airlock although the controls were rather closer to the ground than would be normal.
“You. Gamble. Stay with the scoot. The rest of you get away from the door. I’m going to try and operate this airlock.”
Being known as a bad-tempered bastard with heavy fists gets you obeyed speedily, so Clearwater didn’t even bother to look around before crouching by the control panel.
“Pictograms,” he grunted, “that’s handy.”
He touched one and the outer door closed tidily. A second button had air being pumped into the chamber.
First Officer Ganges fiddled with his meters and gauges. “Seems breathable, sir. A bit heavy on the oxygen but nothing problematic.”
“Okay. But we keep helmets on until we are inside. Officer Su. Can you hear me?”
There was no response.
“Gamble. Do you copy?”
“Right. Open a channel to Su on the mother ship. I’m gonna be using you as a bounce station.”
“You got me now, Su?”
“Okay.” He turned his attention to the boarding party. “Right you lot. Blasters out. And stay alert. Opening inner doors now.”
Back on the cargo hauler the bridge crew heard a gentle hiss.
“We’re in. Seems deserted. Air is breathable if a bit oxygen heavy. We are removing helmets.”
The sound of heavy booted feet and muttered conversation went in for several minutes before the captain spoke again.
“This is a rum old vessel. Everything is of the most modern and the very highest spec. But it seems to have been built for dwarves. And not very bright ones of them. Every control has a pictogram. Makes it easy for us, though. I reckon I can manoeuvre this baby alongside you and dock her. Standby docking grabs.”
“Aye, aye sir.”
“Closing door and pumping out airlock.”
The next sound the bridge crew heard was a wet gurgling groan followed by what sounded like something heavy hitting a hard floor. Followed by silence. As Su frantically toggled the comms button the flitter disappeared. One second she was there, the next gone. For an instant there was an eye-wateringly bright bluish outline on the blackness of space, then even that was no more. Su knuckled her eyes.
“What the frag?”
“Continuum Drive maybe?”
“Too fast even for that…”
The helmswoman kept the levelest head of them all. “Some odd sort of drive sir. Pushed us three parsecs.”
“You sure helm?”
“I’m sure. My gauges are going apeshit.”
“How long to get us back?”
“About two days sir.”
“Gamble’s a dead man then.”
“Not necessarily, sir.” It was the comms officer who spoke in a very shaky voice. “Look out of our starboard window.”
A figure in a spacesuit floated just outside the metre-thick plexiglas waving its arms frantically.
“Fetch him in,” Su said, “let’s see if he knows any more than we do.”
He didn’t. So there seemed no point in going back to where the flitter had been. Instead, Su was elected Captain and life went on much as before – if with less enthusiasm for ‘salvage’.
On a barren lump of rock on the other side of a foreign galaxy there was unbridled joy among the arouraios kin. Those whose bones had been close to coming through their skin were now fed, and the freezers held enough sustenance to carry the whole colony through at least two turns of the mother planet. Captain Skrzzt looked at his mate and smiled to see the gleam returning to her dark fur and the sparkle of fun illuminating her eyes.
Not only was the colony saved, the big bipeds also had surprisingly tender sweet flesh and the idea of another raid into their space was already being mooted.
Skrzzt ordered his ship to be camouflaged with a wrap of dull-coloured polymer while he chose a crew from the hundreds who volunteered.
The last thing he did before turning his trusty ship back towards the areas travelled by the food creatures was to require the name to be painted on the bow.
The Marea Celestia winked out of the sky above her home asteroid…
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