“Looks like they’re taking the bait.” Jeff leaned back in his seat, releasing the breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. He watched his screen as the icon indicating the raider ship moved off at a steep angle, suddenly blinking out of existence as it activated its hyperdrive.
He leaned forward again to maneuver their small shuttle out from behind the moon. Ahead, the small private cruiser whose distress call they’d picked up listed on its side like a broken toy in space. The Dante looked dead.
“One of these days they’re going to see through us, and then where will we be? All it will take is some pirate with the balls to hang around for a good look,” Connor grumbled as he scanned the ship in front of them. He was a big man with the muscled arms of a weightlifter. He wore his long red hair tied back in a ponytail, but no one would think to call him feminine. Or, at least, not live to tell about it. He could pass for a raider himself. “No life signs, goddamn it. You know what that means.”
Jeff sighed. He hated boarding a ship after raiders had hit it. Eking out an existence as they did on the edge of the Settled Worlds, he’d seen a lot of bad shit and had learned to sleep at night anyway. Raiders often toyed with their victims before killing them.
“Hull breach on deck six,” Connor added. “Everything else is intact. We shouldn’t waste our time here. We can get everything we need without going to deck six. Looks like that was the crew quarters.”
It made sense. All nonessential personnel on board probably had been ordered to their bunks, and when the raiders took that deck out, they removed most of their opposition.
“You know the drill.” Jeff pretended he wasn’t dreading the next few minutes. Once they were on board and had found the first few bodies, the victims would cease to be real to him anymore. He swallowed hard, beating down a faint sense of nausea. “You snag the fuel cells. I’ll go to the infirmary and load up on supplies. We’ll meet in twenty minutes at the shuttle. If there’s time, we can go through the remainder of the cargo and see if there’s anything worth taking with us. Who knows, we might get lucky and find something we can sell on Lazarus.”
“Like the raiders will have left anything worth taking.” Connor scowled at Jeff, bringing up the same old argument again. “This had better be worth the risk.”
Jeff ignored that point; they really had little choice. They needed any supplies they might find on this ship. They were practically operating on fumes as it was, and they’d be dead in the water soon if they didn’t find some intact power cells onboard the cruiser.
“The risk will be even less if you go to the bridge first and turn off the distress beacon,” Jeff said. “That might give us more time to look around. We got here pretty quick this time. Who knows? Maybe the raiders didn’t have time to take much.”
Connor snorted his disbelief in such fairy tales, and Jeff gave a little half-shrug as he opened a channel back to their ship. “Kismet, come in.”
Ayla’s drawl filled his ear and he couldn’t help but smile. “Now, Captain, we’re supposed to be a big, bad destroyer out here. How can we convince the bad guys we’re a tin can when you go and give the show away?”
He could hear the sultry smile in her voice, but his own smile faded as he spoke. “You did your part just fine. The raiders bought the ruse and have gone into hyperspace, but keep your eyes peeled in case they return. We’re going in. No life signs.”
“Damn.” Ayla’s regret was genuine. “I really thought we’d made it in time for once.”
“Yeah.” Jeff had thought so too. As soon as they’d launched the shuttle and started broadcasting the fake identity signatures, they’d kept up chatter between the two ships so that anyone listening in would think two Republic destroyers were answering a distress call. There weren’t many raider ships that would take on a pair of tin cans. He’d been hoping their noisy approach would scare off the raiders before they murdered the Dante’s entire crew. “We’ll check in every twenty minutes. Any sign of a real tin can and you pull out, you hear?”
“I’d feel better if I was on the shuttle with Connor and you were playing backup over here. This damned ship likes you better, you know. If push comes to shove, the best pilot should be flying this bucket of bolts.”
“Maybe if you didn’t call her names,” Jeff suggested, concentrating on docking the shuttle with the cruiser as he spoke. The private vessel hadn’t stood a chance against the armed raiders. The side of the ship was scored with blast marks. It was evident, however, that the damage was meant to disable without destroying the ship.
The docking port was still intact, a necessity for the raiders to board and take control. Jeff felt the shuttle vibrate and bump up against the larger ship. He activated the clamps and seals that would allow them to board the other vessel.
“Yeah, yeah, she’s sensitive that way. I’ve noticed you call her all kinds of names, and yet you’re the only one she rolls over and shows her belly to. You guys be careful out there,” Ayla warned, suddenly serious.
“Stay awake,” Jeff said by way of response, and he cut the connection.
“One of these days, we’re going to get caught during the cleanup, and someone’s going to charge us with piracy and murder,” Connor chimed in.
“If you’ve got a better idea,” Jeff said, irritation flaring up like a match tossed in a dry field, “then when we get back to the ship, you can write up a proposal and give it to me. In the meantime, let’s focus on the mission at hand, okay?”
“There’s no need to get so touchy.” Connor blinked at him for a moment before unbuckling his safety harness and pulling out his weapon, checking the charge. He raised an eyebrow at Jeff. “This is what I always do before we board a ship. It’s just bitching. I think you might need to get laid.”
“You and Ayla aren’t my type,” Jeff said. “You think we can drop the subject of my love life and get on with the business at hand?”
Connor snorted. “A fucking written proposal, huh?” He bared his teeth in a smile.
“Forms in triplicate, please,” Jeff said lightly. He unbuckled his harness and reached down to check his own blaster.
Connor snorted again. “Yeah, well, let me give it some thought. In the meantime, you’d better hope there’s at least some kennel ration on that ship, or Ayla’s really gonna be pissed with us tonight.”
Jeff sighed. The ship wasn’t the only thing running on empty. He was hoping the Dante had some real food on board, but, like Connor, he’d settle for the military-issue ration bars. They might taste like compressed sawdust, but at least they would keep a person alive. He checked his watch. “Okay, let’s do this,” he said, getting to his feet.
He hesitated a brief moment before opening the airlock into the cruiser. He touched the radio mike in his ear. “Ayla, we’re going in.”
“Acknowledged,” Ayla said calmly, as though they were going for an afternoon stroll on Lazarus.
He glanced at Connor, who looked grim.
“Meet you back here in twenty,” Connor said, hefting his weapon.
Jeff moved quickly down the corridors, stepping over any bodies as he came to them. As he’d thought, once he’d gotten over the initial shock of coming around a corner and finding a corpse on the floor, a part of him closed down and refused to acknowledge what he was seeing. Raider or crewmember, it made no difference to him. He found if he kept moving, he could tell himself he was merely stepping over piles of clothing.
It was the bright, coppery smell of blood that dragged him back to reality, threatening to disrupt the illusion. He swallowed hard against the bile and continued on. First stop, infirmary. They were nearly out of antibiotics, and Ayla had told him to be on the lookout for a med-scanner; theirs was on the fritz again. He would hit the galley next and then meet up with Connor before deciding if they had time to scavenge for more.
So far, so good, he thought as he opened drawers and emptied the contents whole into his satchel. He grinned as he smashed open the drug box on the wall and raked the items within into the bag as well, taking care not to cut himself on the shards of glass.
A persistent, low-level beeping caught his ear. Frowning, he followed it to the source: a wall panel with a blinking, green light. It tempted him to press the button beside it. Curiosity killed the cat, you know, he thought before he did.
A high-tech bio-bed slid out of the wall. Lying within its stasis field was a sandy-haired man about Jeff’s age. He had a haphazard bandage around one arm, soaked and bleeding through. He was clutching a bloody wrench in his fist. Jeff somehow doubted he was either a raider or a crewmember. Most likely a passenger.
Shit. This was going to complicate things.
“Conner. Ayla.” Jeff tapped his radio, calling his team. “I’ve found a survivor.”