Chapter 18: Stolen
Solon’s muscles ached after another of Alfric’s training sessions. This time, he had practiced swordplay with Brie. Solon never remembered his brother’s bronze sword weighing very much, but Alfric’s (steel blade of high purity) was impossible for him to lift. Solon guessed that physical strength was a prized commodity among Alfric’s people, as well as honor.
He eased himself into a chair in his room. Though cramped by anyone else’s standards, Solon thought it was more than adequate. A gray panel hid the toilet and sink, which took him some time to figure out how to use, and a bunk lined the wall. The only other piece of furniture was the chair he sat upon and a lone table near the bed.
He pulled the fake crystal from underneath the chair’s cushion where he had hidden it. He twirled it in his hands. Why keep it? Unsure of why Brie insisted on giving it to him, he decided to ensure its security. She must have a reason. Such a useless thing.
Every item has a purpose.
The words of the old philosopher that strolled through his village every summer solstice rolled through his head. Solon remembered the time he spent listening to the wise man’s words along with other eager young men. Some of the girls would show up as well, though most of their fathers forbade such a thing, thinking that a girl’s only function was in securing a good marriage.
A tiny nick, the size of a sewing pin’s head, in the amber crystal caught his eye. Curious, Solon placed it under a magnifying glass (one which Tom had given him) and picked at it with his dirt-encrusted fingernail. The crystal glowed, shedding its pale amber light upon him and illuminating his confused, yet intrigued, face, and vibrated in his hand as a female voice (which sounded familiar) hollowly spoke from it.
“If you are holding this, then you know it is a replica of what you seek. Keep it with you always. A time will come when a replica will prove more useful than the genuine article.”
The crystal dimmed and the voice ceased. A portion of Solon’s brain thought that he recognized the voice, even though it had a slight difference to it. Could it be… No! Impossible. He sprang to his feet and went to a small closet (if you could call it that, as it was more the size of a bed table) and pulled out a shirt that had been left by the previous tenant from years back. Solon tugged on the material. Still strong. Using a knife that he now kept in his pocket (given to him by Alfric), he sliced away a long strip of fabric from the shirt and wrapped the crystal in it, tying it around his waist.
He stood in front of the mirror. Sticks out too much. Solon pulled his shirt out over the protruding ball of fabric hanging from his belt. Better. Satisfied that he had concealed it, he sat back in his chair. If he was going to keep it with him at all times, this was the way to do it.
Again, Solon wondered why Brie gave him the fake crystal in the first place. He shrugged it away. His mother always gave him things for safekeeping. “Because you never lose anything,” she had told him one day when he had asked her. His mother was right. Solon never lost anything in his possession. So how did Brie know? Or was it intuition?
Solon thought back to the planet with the carnivorous plants that tried to eat them and the native people who lived there. He thought about how, out of all of them, Brie was the one who stopped the little girl from being sacrificed, while they had been willing to let it happen. Solon sighed. There was something about Brie. Her strength was not physical or courage, in the sense of charging into battle; it was deeper than that.
Pounding fists shook his door.
“Enter,” said Solon.
Tom rushed in, sealing the metal door behind him, hopping from foot to foot in agitation. “You got to help me.”
“That Viking guy is going to kill me.”
“What did you do now?” asked Solon, scooting to the edge of his seat.
“Okay, well, I was working on something in the main area—you know, the place where we eat or gather together for socializing—and Alfric walked in.”
“And he’s mad at you for that?”
“Mad doesn’t even begin to describe him,” said Tom, looking over his shoulder at the door. “He walked in just I managed to take this thing apart and some gooey liquid shot from it and hit him. I mean, it got all over him and orange isn’t really his color.”
Irate and purposeful footsteps sounded outside the door. “Where is he?” roared Alfric.
“Here he comes,” said Tom, ducking behind Solon and his chair. “You’ve got to hide me, man.”
“Where?” asked Solon. There was no place to hide the six-foot, 20-year-old inventor. Solon walked over to his closet. Though small, he thought he could squeeze Tom in there. “Here.”
“It’s a bit small.”
“It’ll have to do. Besides, you’re as dark as the shadows, so maybe you’ll blend in,” said Solon.
“Are you making fun of me because I’m black?” asked Tom.
“Do you want my help or not?”
“Where is that cursed blacksmith?” came Alfric’s thunderous voice as his stomps drew nearer.
Tom rushed into the cramped space and pulled the door shut. Solon stuffed the articles he had removed from the closet under his bunk. He had just finished when the door to his room slid open, filled by Alfric’s bulky frame. “Where is he?”
“Who?” asked Solon, trying his best to look innocent. He was never a good liar.
“Don’t play games,” said Alfric, orange goo, with the distinct odor of urine and sulphur, dripped from his bear fur vest. “There is only one other ‘he’ on this ship.”
“I haven’t seen him,” said Solon, keeping his voice even. “Would you like a towel?”
A sneeze escaped from the closet.
Grimacing, Solon hoped that Alfric hadn’t heard it, but knew he had.
“What was that?” asked Alfric.
“Uh, nothing,” answered Solon. He faked a sneeze. “This stale air does not agree with me.”
Alfric’s doubtful expression told him that he didn’t believe him.
Another sneeze emanated from the closet.
“What is in there?” said Alfric.
“Nothing,” replied Solon. “Just clothes and... stuff.”
Alfric moved toward the closet.
Solon stepped in front of the door. “There isn’t anything…”
Alfric held up his finger, which was as big around as one of Solon’s arms, and shoved him aside. He jerked open the closet door.
Startled, Tom jumped, banging his head in the ceiling. “I’m sorry!”
“Your tinkering has ruined my favorite adornments,” roared Alfric.
“I’ll wash them. A little bit of detergent, some super-scented fabric softener, and it’ll be as good as new,” said Tom.
“It will take weeks to get the smell out of my clothing!”
“It kind of blends in with your already pungent o—” Alfric’s murderous gaze stopped the words in Tom’s throat. “I can fix that. Maybe Solaris can help.”
A chuckle spilled from the intercom speakers.
“You find this entertaining?” thundered Alfric.
“Much,” said Solaris. “If only I had a Jabla drink and some Cabasa kernels. But the whelp is right. I have laundry facilities that can remove your neon glow, though I must say that it adds a bit of color to your pale skin.”
Alfric glowered at the speakers. He inched closer to Tom, boring holes deep within his eyes. “Do not let it happen again.” Alfric tore off his vest and dumped it on Tom’s head. “I want it cleaned by tomorrow. If you fail to do so, you will replace this vest by killing the most vicious bear I find and tanning its hide. That is, if the bear does not kill you first, a prospect that does not sadden me.” Alfric left the room.
Breathing a huge sigh of relief, Tom stood frozen with the Viking’s clothing. “Did you see the muscles on him?”
“Yes,” said Solon.
“He’s got, like, a 12-pack,” Tom mused. “That’s it. Tomorrow I’m going to start working out.”
“In the meantime,” said Solaris, “I suggest that you wash that before it drips more gunk all over my floors.”
Frowning, Tom headed for the door. “Do you always spy on people?”
“Yes,” said Solaris, “you are more entertaining than my internal data storage—what you would call a brain.”
“You should get out more.”
“If I had a body, then I would.”
Tom paused in the doorway and looked at Solon a moment.
“Do you desire one?” asked Solon.
“I wish for freedom,” said Solaris. “A body, like what you have, would allow me to interact more fully with all of you and leave the confines of this metallic vessel and…” Solaris’ voice trailed off.
“And?” prompted Tom.
“I could learn what it means to have friends.”
“But I thought we were your friends,” said Tom. He never thought a computer could have such self-awareness, much less be able to express a very human need for companionship.
“Come,” Solaris said, changing the subject, “I will take you to the laundry facility on this ship. I would hate for someone to have to clean your corpse up should you fail to deliver on your promise: not to mention the mess it would make.”
Not far from Solaris was a pirate vessel hiding in a nebula, its gaseous, indigo vapors disguising its heat signatures. It watched its prey move along, unaware of the presence of danger and of being watched. The pilot brought up Solaris’ image on the computer’s grimy screens with highlights marking the qualities it possessed: a powerful engine, two jet propulsion systems, a huge cargo area (perfect for the storage of plunder) and a unique metal alloy, which though made of steel, was of a finer quality than most vessels. It would fetch a good price. Something caught his notice. The pilot brought up images of the ship they had chased, but lost—presumed destroyed. The two matched. How fortuitous!
“Captain,” he said.
The captain of the pirate ship strolled over. “What is it?”
“I have found it, sir.” The pilot pointed at the two images on the screen. “They are a match. She did not go up in the explosion as we had thought.”
The pirate captain smiled. “So, they know the value of deception. Cunning, I like that. They will be worthy prey.”
“Your orders, captain.”
“Call the other ships. We will set a trap for this one.”
“Aye, sir.” The pilot picked up the radio and sent the signal to the other vessels. The hunt was on, and this time, they would not fail to claim their prize.
Voices echoed from the center area of the ship where the crew gathered for meals or to socialize. Now the only crew consisted of four humans and a Lanyran. Brie laughed as Solon told her about Tom’s mishap with Alfric and his failed attempt to hide him.
“You actually stuck him in that cubby of a closet?” she giggled.
“Yes,” said Solon, “there was no place else to put him.”
“What did Alfric do when he found him?”
“Let’s just say that Tom barely escaped with his life.”
“I’ll bet.” Brie chuckled some more. She glanced over at Rynah, who had just finished making herself some breakfast. “Those smell good.”
“These,” said Rynah. She hadn’t expected anyone to notice her plate of food.
“Yes, it reminds me of waffles,” said Brie. “My mom used to cook them every Sunday for breakfast.” A pang of homesickness struck her and her face fell.
“We call them lafyr back home,” said Rynah, “They are more of a flat cake. I don’t normally cook them because our resources are limited, but occasionally I like to indulge. Would you like one?”
“I couldn’t,” said Brie. “They are—”
“Take one,” said Rynah. “It would be my pleasure to have you taste a bit of my home. Go on, both of you.”
Brie and Solon each took a lafyr from Rynah’s plate and bit into it. Saliva filled their mouths as they chewed on the flat cake, each with a satisfied smile.
“They may smell like waffles,” said Brie, “but they taste more like a lemon torte. I like it though.”
“It is good,” agreed Solon.
For the first time since her planet’s destruction, Rynah gave a genuine smile, one of happiness.
“I am glad you like it,” she said. “I should give you both the recipe so that you can take it back home and share it with your families.”
“I’d like that,” said Brie as she chewed on more of the flat cake. “Thank you.”
Rynah sat down at the table and took a small bite of her breakfast. It tasted just the way her grandfather used to make it, with a hint of boysenberry and nutmeg. She chewed, allowing herself to drift through her memories of the past, her only connection with a home now lost.
Images of her home entered her mind, and suddenly she saw her hand, not the adult hand she possessed now, but the small, slender one of a child. An ornate plate (made by her mother, as was her hobby, and decorated with images of the powder blue wildflowers that grew just outside the front door of her parents’ home) sat before her with two flat cakes coated in boysenberry syrup with a light dusting of nutmeg on top.
“Whipped cream?” her grandfather had asked her; he stood in front of the griddle with a spatula in his hand, wearing her mother’s sunshine yellow, and very frilly, apron.
“Yes, papa,” she had said, papa being what she called Marlow.
“I’ll get it.” Her mother had sat next to her, and she reached for the whipped cream just as her father walked into the kitchen and the soft glow of the morning sun.
He gave her a big kiss on the forehead before saying, “Breakfast! Smells good, Marlow.”
“It’s my secret recipe.”
“Nutmeg is no secret,” said Rynah.
“That isn’t the secret,” Marlow bent low so she could look into his gentle eyes.
“Then, what is it?”
“You’ll know soon enough, when you are grown.”
Rynah remembered feeling displeased with his comment.
The memory faded and she returned to the mess hall and its coldness, despite Solaris’ attempts to make it welcoming.
“Here,” Rynah said as she picked up a shaker with nutmeg in it (something she had discovered in the cabinets and was surprised Solaris had it) and sprinkled a light coating on Brie’s flat cakes. “This will make it taste better as it enhances the secret ingredient.”
“Secret ingredient?” asked Brie.
“My grandfather used to make these for me and my parents. He always added nutmeg and boysenberry syrup, but insisted it wasn’t the secret ingredient.”
“Then, what was it?”
“I think it was his love for us.”
A soft smile crept across Brie’s face, pleased that Rynah had warmed up to her enough to share that small bit of her past. “They’re delicious.”
“A trap!” shouted Solaris’ voice from the intercom. “Trap!”
Plink! Plink! Plink! Plink!
The spurts of noise echoed around them as hooks lodged into the hull of the ship. The power shut off. The hum of the engines ceased as the lights dimmed to blackness, and even the circulated air stilled. Rynah reached up to a vent. Nothing. She ran to a port window and peered out. Pirate ships surrounded them, cutting off all their exits. She cursed. How could she have been so foolish as to think that they would let them go? She turned back around to face the others who all looked at her, expecting her to issue orders.
“Solaris?” said Rynah.
No answer. She didn’t expect there would be. Solaris’ power had been shut off by the hooks, which released an electromagnetic pulse, sealing their fate.
“What do we do?’ asked Brie.
“Nothing,” replied Rynah. “We are dead in space.”
“Odin will see us through,” said Alfric, gripping the hilt of his sword.
“Praying to a god that doesn’t exist?” said Rynah. “How will that help?”
“How do you know he doesn’t exist?” challenged Alfric. “When there are no stars to guide your path and the wind refuses to fill the sails, then all you have left is prayer.”
The ship jerked to the side as a tractor beam from one of the pirate vessels locked onto them.
“They’re reeling us in,” said Rynah, “like fish on a hook.”
“Where will they break in?” asked Alfric.
“The cargo hatch,” replied Rynah. “Where are you going?”
“To meet them,” replied Alfric as he left the gathering area. “I’ll not wait for my enemies to find me.”
Knowing Alfric was right, Rynah hastened over to a storage locker and opened it. “Here,” she tossed a laser rifle to Alfric and pistols to the others. Rynah herself stuffed what knives and other weapons she could in her clothes. “Conceal these as best you can on yourself. These pirates mean to take the ship. They may keep us as slaves or dump us on a neighboring planet. Either way, hope they don’t find these because we will need them.”
“We can fight them,” said Alfric.
“No,” Rynah’s stern voice stopped him. “There are too many for a head-on confrontation. We must let them think they’ve won. Later, we will figure out a way to get Solaris back.”
“What if they kill us?” asked Brie.
“Then we won’t have much to worry about,” said Rynah. She slipped another dagger in her other boot, strapped a rifle across her chest, and covered it with a trench coat before leaving the room.
Not liking the plan, the others concealed what weapons they could and followed. Solon touched the fake crystal, reassuring himself that it remained hidden and safe. “It will be all right,” he said to Brie.
“Yeah,” said Tom, “after all, we do have a crazy Viking on our side.” He forced a laugh in his efforts to lighten the mood.
Brie gave a wan smile. “Thanks.”
A series of small pops stormed around them as the pirates on the other side opened the cargo bay hatch. Hooks appeared in the top of the door. Ear-piercing screeches filled the area as they forced the hatch open, pulling it down until it clicked. Smoke billowed from the opening as shadows filled the area, walking through the smoke until they took on the shapes of people.
Brie gasped. The pirates were human, of sorts, but with brown speckled skin and protruding ridges for noses. Black eyes with red slits stared back at her. She figured they were just another alien race, like Rynah, but pirates were pirates after all.
Several of the pirates rushed toward them, seizing them by their arms. Alfric threw one off, before being subdued. Rynah kneed one in the groin and punched another in the face. A hit on the head dazed her.
“Stop!” came a baritone voice. “We do not wish to harm our guests.”
The newly arrived pirate strolled past all of them, the legs of his roughhewn, leather (with ratty hems) pants swishing with each step. His unrelenting gaze lingered on Brie, who shifted uncomfortably under it, while trying not to gag from the pungent body odor, which reminded her of the dumpster at her school.
“I must say, I have never seen someone with your color of skin before, nor so delicate,” he said as his scaly hand (from years of having chapped and blistered skin) brushed her cheek. “What planet are you from?”
“Don’t answer,” said Rynah.
“There is no need in your case,” said the pirate. “I know where you come from. Lanyr. Wasn’t it recently rendered uninhabitable?”
“If you’re going to kill us,” said Rynah, “then do so. Don’t bore us to death with your false pity.”
“Such spite,” scoffed the pirate. “I am Jifdar, the captain of the ship that has captured you and is now captain of your vessel. I must say, that the way you escaped me and my pirates earlier was phenomenal. I applaud you.” He clapped his hands together twice in mock appreciation. “But these four are not from this sector. Where are they from? I’d like to know.”
No one answered.
“We have ways of loosening tongues,” said Jifdar.
Still no answer.
“But I suppose it isn’t necessary. Hols!”
One of the other pirates stepped forward, “Captain?”
“Set a course for the Iklor system. There is a planet there which I’m sure our guests will find suitable. I hate to steal and run, but, alas, we have no use for slaves at the moment and blood is much too difficult to clean. But don’t worry. It isn’t far. We should be there in less than 20 minutes.”
Jifdar neared Brie again. “However, I might keep this one. Such soft features. Humanoid, of course, in your own way. See, I have a theory that we all originated from the same species and so are not much different physically. But evolving on different planets mean that certain traits outlive others. Take us for example. These horrible ridges on our face. Ugly, I know. Not like yours”—he touched the soft point of Brie’s nose—“so subtle and balanced. You will be a worthy commodity in my bed chamber.”
Disgusted, anger filled Brie. She kicked him.
Jifdar staggered back a bit before righting himself. “Such spirit. I look forward to conquering it.”
“Leave the girl alone!” boomed Alfric’s voice.
Jifdar noticed Alfric for the first time. He took in the Viking’s adornments. “You may look like them, but you are a lot like me. You are a man who knows what it means to fight. War does not scare you, so what does?” The pirate captain glanced at Brie before turning back to Alfric. “The girl? You fancy her, but not in the way I do. It’s almost protective.”
Alfric leaned closer until no space remained between him and Jifdar. “I propose a challenge with your best man. If I win, you will release all of us on this Ikor system, including the girl.”
“And if you lose?”
“You keep the girl and my life.”
“A fight to the death,” breathed Jifdar, “I like that. Very well, it’s a bargain. You will fight Bakar. If you win, I let you all go and you can keep the girl. If you lose, I keep the girl and kill the rest of you. This is, as you’ve undoubtedly guessed, a fight to the death.”
Jifdar stood back as his crewman, Bakar, stepped forward. Bakar matched Alfric’s towering height and muscular build. Everyone backed away from the center of the room, giving them enough space. They circled each other, their eyes locked.
Bakar charged. Alfric blocked and sidestepped before twisting around to face his opponent. Bakar charged again, head low. He plowed into Alfric’s stomach, forcing him onto his back. Together, the two wrestled on the metallic grates that formed the floor. Alfric rammed his fist into Bakar’s jaw. Stunned, he loosened his grip, allowing the Viking to throw the man off him and spring to his feet. He kicked Bakar in the teeth. Bakar’s head flung back. Alfric raised his foot and brought it down upon his opponent, but before he struck, the pirate rolled out of the way.
A tingling sensation spurted through Alfric’s leg when his foot struck metal instead of soft flesh. He turned. Bakar had regained his feet. He ran for the Viking. Alfric dodged, but the pirate had been expecting it and course corrected, slamming his elbow into Alfric’s jaw.
Staggering back, Alfric whirled out of the way of Bakar’s steel-toed boots as he kicked. He snatched the leg and stretched it out before ramming his elbow into the pirate’s knee. Enraged, Bakar lunged. He punched Alfric in the gut, forcing him to bend over. Seizing his chance, Bakar swept the Viking’s feet out from under him. Alfric crashed into the floor with a grunt. Bakar jumped on him, sinking his sharp elbow into the Viking’s stomach. He scrambled to his knees and grabbed Alfric’s head, holding him in a choke hold. Alfric struggled to get free.
Brie turned away. She couldn’t watch as her friend was killed before her eyes.
“Don’t turn away,” said Jifdar, forcing her to watch. “You’ll miss the best part. Now watch as your friend’s life is extinguished.”
Brie’s eyes filled with tears as she watched. She wished she could do something. Her eyes locked with Alfric’s.
As though being given a renewed strength, Alfric reached out for a scrap of metal he had spotted on the floor. His fingers wrapped around it. With all of the strength he had, he brought it up, striking Bakar in the head and forcing him to let go. Alfric shook the man off. He smacked Bakar in the face with the piece of scrap metal before allowing it to clink on the metallic grates beneath his feet. Alfric seized Bakar’s head and brought his knee into the man’s chin. Knowing he had won, he picked Bakar up by the neck, and with a loud crunch, broke it before dropping the body. Alfric’s icy glare bore into Jifdar, whose face was filled with anger.
The pirate captain approached him. “Don’t think you have won.” He turned to his men. “Kill them all.”
“Is your word worth nothing?” Alfric’s voice filled the area, stopping the pirates as they raised their weapons. “Let us all go, including the girl, or let it be known that your word means nothing,” he whispered into Jifdar’s ear. “How long do you think your men will follow you then? How long before they mutiny?”
The two locked eyes.
“Sir,” a pirate ran into the room, “we’ve reached the Ikor system.”
“Release them,” said Jifdar. “Show them to their new home.”
The point of laser guns jabbed their backs as the pirates forced Rynah and the others off Solaris. Weightlessness gripped their stomachs as the ship lowered into a planet’s atmosphere with no grace or finesse. Rynah glanced out a small window. Only white filled it. A giant hatch opened on the pirate ship, showing them the icy world beyond, their new habitat.
“Enjoy your new accommodations,” scoffed Jifdar. “I hope you manage to stay warm.”
Sharp points of guns pricked their backs as each of them were shoved forward. None of them bothered to protest. Frigid air wafted over them as they neared the opening. Solon hit the snow first. The ice soaked through his thin shoes, striking his feet with pins and needles. Tom jumped onto the snow beside him, followed by Rynah. Alfric and Brie took up the rear.
The screeching hum of the hydraulics closing the hatch filled their ears. Each of them turned and watched as Jifdar and his pirates disappeared behind a wall of metal. The engines roared to life.
“Back away!” yelled Rynah as she forced the others back, putting as much distance between them and the ship as they could.
Each craned their necks as they watched their only salvation fly away, disappearing into the endless horizon. They stood alone on a world full of ice. A world of terror.