“We need to find Scorch. I don’t want another crewmember dying under my command.”
“How are we going to do that?” the Bartender asked, folding his scaly arms. “We can’t move, can’t send a signal.”
“I think our small friend is more resourceful than that. Come on.” She moved as best she could to the locker that served as a home for Scorch’s suit. It appeared undamaged, and opened easily. She rummaged through the contents- a few spare parts, a couple mechanical contraptions that he appeared to be tinkering with- and found what she was looking for. It was a small disk, fitting easily in the palm of her hand.
“I knew he would want a way to find his suit if he got separated from it.” She pushed a button on the rim, and a start chart flashed to life in the air above the disk. Two points were marked, one near a star, one…
“We are in the middle of nowhere.” The Bartender looked intently at their location. “How did we get so far off course?”
“They must have towed us here and cast us adrift.”
“So where is Scorch at?”
Laurie bit her lip. “It looks like Nuvaria. Which doesn’t make any sense. They dragged us way off our own route, and then went back that way.”
“Nuvaria is just a scrap heap. Why wouldn’t they dump the ship there as well.”
She said nothing for a long moment, pondering what it meant. If whoever boarded the Venturess was just selling scrap, why hadn’t they towed the ship there? And if they had another purpose, why abandon them in such a remote location?
“How big is the price on your head, Bartender?”
“Fairly large. Depends on who you ask. If you collected all of them, probably a few million. Why? If they were going to turn me in to the Fuesillian government, they would have taken me with them.”
Laurie said nothing, instead biting her lip and staring at the chart, willing it to reveal some secret. The Bartender glanced between her and the small points of light, hovering in the air and slowly rotation.
“Laurie?” She looked sharply at him. “Captain. What price is on your head?”
“I don’t know the exact figure. But I know it’s out there.”
“Then why didn’t they take you with them? Turn you in.”
“Because it’s not the kind of price where you want to deal directly with those who placed the bounty.”
“You think some scrappers are afraid of a mobster? It’s not like you have the Dead Corps after you.” She shot him another sidelong glance. “You don’t… do you?”
“I wasn’t always the upright transport captain you know today, my friend.”
The Bartender was noticeably disturbed, his scales crawling and short hair standing on end. “But… how? I wasn’t even sure they were real.”
“I was at Vaersadg. It’s where I got this.” She tapped her artificial eye.
“So were a lot of people. Most of them just followed orders.”
“Not me. But I gave a lot of them.
* * *
She closed her good eye and took herself back to a time when she had both of them. She was in full combat uniform, light armor strapped tightly to her body. She stood on a short hill on the planet Vaersadg, surveying the carnage on the wide field below. A city burned in the distance, tall buildings crumbling as missiles continued to pour into it from orbit.
Gun emplacements lined the hill, aimed down to the field. It had been a battlefield, earlier, until she had called down fire and death from the battleships in orbit above them. The army lay in ruin, tanks and walkers and soldiers strewn everywhere in the grass.
Soldiers approached her, saluting as they came close. The ranking soldier spoke up.
“Refugees are fleeing the city, Ma’am. What should we do with them?”
In the present, she remembered her response, and it formed a lump in her throat, filled with bitterness and regret. She knew she couldn’t get the words out now, but she had no problem uttering them then.
“Take no prisoners.”
“So, yeah. The Dead Corps has a price on my head.” The Dead Corps was a fanatical species, who had taken it upon themselves to mete out justice throughout the galaxy. They were a parasitic life form, attaching to a victim’s spinal column and seizing control of the body.
“They’re no rumor. They take over your body, and turn you into their slave. That’s why they left us here. They want me alive.” Her left eye hurt in the corners, where tears should have come from. She rarely felt fear, but the Dead Corps was relentless. “They don’t kill their victims. They leave you trapped in your own mind until your body falls apart. I’ve crammed those memories down, and they want to put me in a prison with them.”
A tear rolled down her right cheek. “Maybe it’s what I deserve.”
“That’s not for me to decide. But we can do something.”
“Like what? If they’re coming for me, there’s no escape.”
“We can fight. We can run.”
“We’re both injured, and the Venturess is dead in space.”
“We can fix the ship, or get ready to fight. I don’t know about you, Captain, but I don’t intend to go down quietly.”
“Promise me one thing, then.”
“Name it, Captain.”
“If they get to me, don’t let them take me alive.”