His Mate to Keep by Ivy Sparks
Dyson crossedhis arms over his massive chest and glared down at me from a foot above my head. A comment I made a moment before brought everybody on Starglider’s bridge to an uncomfortable silence.
“Are you daring to question my orders, Ryder?” he growled, his scar-ridden face suggesting he wasn’t one to be trifled with.
I stood my ground. The bridge somehow grew even more quiet. Even the little blips of the radar seemed to stop.
This was a pirate fighter craft with one overriding law: Don’t open your mouth unless you’re prepared to back it up with blood.
And for what he was suggesting we do, I was willing to risk that.
Dyson decided to pretend I never even spoke, repeating his earlier command: “As I said, set a course for the Dionysus Cluster. Does anyone who matters object, or can we get moving?”
My hand flew to the long blade I always wore at my waist, but before I could draw it, a gruff voice broke the tension. “What’s going on here?”
We both turned to see Captain Wynter saunter to the podium and scan the external display projected on the main screen.
“Chief Ryder was suggesting,” Dyson began, “that we salvage the Regiment wreck inside the Hazard Zone. And I was just explaining…”
“The Regiment is out of the question,” Captain Wynter interrupted. “They don’t call it the Hazard Zone for nothing. You should know that as well as anybody, Merrit. I’m surprised you would even consider it.”
I expected Captain Wynter to be just as hesitant as Dyson, but I knew he’d at least hear me out. “We have no choice but to go after the Regiment for parts, regardless of the risk. We don’t have the structural integrity to make it to the nearest fueling station that will still deal with us, let alone the Dionysus Cluster.”
Everybody knew the Starglider was a cobbled mess of dozens of ships fused into one, and that constant maintenance was a fact of life. But now a critical piece of the superstructure was about to fail.
I had brought attention to the issue beforehand, but we had been dealing with bigger problems—namely, rival pirate ships. Now we were days away from critical failure. From previous scans I had made, I knew the Regiment had a compatible piece we could scavenge, if only we could reach it. I explained it all the best I could, despite my racing heart.
Captain Wynter frowned at me, then at Dyson. “Did you know about this, Dyson? Did you know the situation had deteriorated as far as she says? Why am I hearing about this only now?”
“She’s been talking my ear off for months about…” Dyson began.
“If you check the records,” I cut in, “you’ll find that I’ve filed eleven critical repair reports that haven’t gone any further than his personal mainframe. He’s been sitting on them all this time and never once passed them onto you.”
Captain Wynter scowled at Dyson. “Is this true?”
Dyson shuffled his feet and spread his hands. His posture was a lot less intimidating now that the captain was here. “It’s pure exaggeration. We’re still in the air, aren’t we?” He tried to laugh, but no one joined in.
“You know that for a fact, do you?” Captain Wynter demanded. “You’ve gone down into the hold and checked every item she’s reported to ensure that she really was exaggerating? Is that what you’re telling me?”
Dyson said nothing. He shot me a terrible glare that told me in no uncertain terms that I would definitely be defending myself against him in the future… just as soon as Captain Wynter was out of the picture.
“You might not like Merrit,” Captain Wynter went on, “but she is this ship’s chief engineer. It’s her job to report on the ship’s condition. If you couldn’t double- and triple-check that the parts were serviceable, you should have passed the reports on to me. I should remove you from your post for this, Dyson.”
Dyson clenched his jaw and stared straight ahead, not saying a word.
Captain Wynter scowled at the Hazard Zone spread out before us. A dense cloud of broken ships, random parts, and space debris concealed most of what might lie inside. “Still, there’s no way we can get inside even if we wanted to.”
“Excuse me, sir,” I replied. “But I think I have a plan to get us to the Regiment.”
“How?” Dyson blurted out. “You can’t even see where it is, much less navigate around all that junk to get near it. One mistake and the Starglider would be destroyed.”
“But we don’t need to navigate that junk,” I began. “The Regiment is in an elliptical orbit through the Hazard Zone. It will come close enough to the perimeter that we can slip inside, grab the Regiment with our tractor beam, and tow it into open space. Once we get it there, we can take all the time we want to strip it for everything of value.”
That got everybody’s attention. I added, “Besides the parts we need, the Regiment is rumored to contain enough loot to keep us in luxury for years.”
Captain Wynter let out a long sigh. “All right, Merrit. You talked me into it.” He raised his voice and called across the bridge to everyone hanging onto every word of our conversation. “Listen up, people. We’re going inside the Hazard Zone, so pull your socks up and stay frosty. We all need to stay sharp and on high alert for all the hazards we’re liable to encounter.”
The crew hesitated, and I didn’t blame them. My heart was pounding at the very idea of trying this.
Captain Wynter continued, “Come now. We’ve pulled off riskier operations than this. Others have given us up for dead countless times, but did we make it out alive?”
A chorus of “Hell, yeah!”s and “Yes, sir!”s echoed around the bridge. I added my voice to the cheers.
“Whatever is out there, we can handle it.” He turned away and pointed at me. “Take over as first mate. Stand aside, Mister Dyson, and watch how it’s done.” He stepped behind the podium, but as he passed me, he murmured under his breath. “Stay vigilant. Things could get dicey out there.”
I nodded, then took the lead, barking out orders to the bridge. As we moved forward, our chief gunner cleared any debris in our path, and our navigator maneuvered our ship’s hulking mass with expert skill.
“The Regiment is one STU to starboard,” my chief radar technician called from the analysis station. “It’s on a course for our position.”
“Prepare to deploy the tractor beam,” I told him.
The Regiment rotated onto the screen. Just a few more seconds and it would revolve straight into our tractor beam. We would be home free, and we might finally get a rest from our years of struggle.
I opened my mouth to give the order to lock the tractor beam on the Regiment when a shrill alarm startled everyone on the bridge. Just as fast, three other alarms pierced the stillness. “What the hell is that?” I asked.
“Proximity alert!” the gunner yelled. “They’re coming at us from all sides!”
“There was no debris near us!” I bellowed back. “It couldn’t just appear out of nowhere.”
“It isn’t debris!” someone cut in. “They’re ships—moving fast! They’re converging from all corners of the Hazard Zone!”
“I knew it!” Dyson snarled. “I knew she’d get us all killed.”
“Fire!” I roared. “Lock on target and fire at will.”
“I can’t!” the gunner said. “I can’t get a visual on them.”
“What are you talking about? How can they be triggering proximity alerts if we can’t see them?”
The gunner shook her head, but at that moment, her console exploded in her face. The blast hurled her over backward across the floor.
“We’re under attack!” the chief analyst yelled over the noise. “They’re all over us!”
He didn’t have to tell me. Something between a shadow and a blur wavered across the viewscreen, then blacked out the display as thumps, vibrations, and crashes rocked the ship.
“Life support is shutting down!” a lieutenant screamed. “The hull is breached. Engines are dead in the water.”
“Arm for onboard defense!” I yelled back, but I already knew it was too late.
I charged toward the weapons locker on the bridge wall. Captain Wynter and Dyson met me there, and we all ripped our weapons out of their holsters.
I grabbed a clip of shells and crammed it into my gun, but before I locked it into the chamber, the bridge door blew open. A powerful suction ripped all the air out of the bridge. It pulled the oxygen from my lungs, and I gasped as I failed to draw it back.
For a fraction of a second, I thought I might’ve been hallucinating when a group of shadowy figures floated onto the bridge. They didn’t seem to have any bodies at all, as the outer rim of their hazy shapes blurred with the space around them. They weren’t anything corporeal I’d ever encountered before.
They invaded the bridge so fast that Dyson didn’t have a chance to turn around. One of the dim apparitions fired a laser into his back, right between the shoulder blades. He folded at the knees and hit the floor with a resounding thud.
Lightning quick, Captain Wynter lunged between me and the intruders. He blocked them from reaching me and aimed his gun at them. Without moving, the strange creatures did something. I felt it hit me in the head like a ton of bricks, even though none of them moved.
I struggled to breathe in the airless environment, but this was a whole new level of attack. It acted on my blood itself. It seemed to rob me of every shred of energy as my vision swam. I felt myself falling.
In that moment, another discharge of laser fire punched Captain Wynter in the chest. He toppled at my feet, his unseeing eyes staring up at me in shock. He didn’t move again.
I tried to tighten my grip on my weapon, but my legs wouldn’t support me. I dropped onto one knee, fighting with everything I had to get up, but it was no use. I commanded myself to raise my gun, but it fell out of my hands and hit the floor.
The intruders stood before me, as featureless and impassive as the blackness of space itself. They watched from beyond this world as I collapsed and fell senseless onto the floor next to Captain Wynter’s dead body.