Welcome to the Brethren
By Royce Sears
Captain Eric Roush, a name and a man who no longer existed, had commanded a mere cargo vessel hauling other people’s junk through the lonely void of space until a few months ago. He’d taken on the occasional smuggling job, forging a container’s manifest to make a little extra money here and there, but he’d never gotten caught. He thought he’d slipped under the radar, but someone had noticed, and it wasn’t the authorities.
It had been a decent living, hauling a steady stream of cargo from Meridian Station, perched halfway between Earth and the Moon, to Frontier Station, in near-earth orbit, and Luna Colony, on the Moon. The cargo had suddenly, and inexplicably, dried up. He hadn’t been able to get a single run in more than a month, and that’s when life changed for Eric. There’d been many changes in the past few months, some good and some bad, but his course was set and there was no going back.
He sat at the command console of his recently rechristened ship, sipping a glass of Skippers Rum while awaiting for information updates on the target. He checked their position again, still drifting deep within the asteroid belt between Mars and the outer planets of the solar system, just another shadow amongst the many shadows of the Belt.
The black matte finish of the hull blended into the void of space as she drifted on minimal power. His ship did not fly with standard floodlights, navigation lights, or transponders that would notify other ships of her presence. She was a dark wraith in the vast ocean of nothingness that others called space and Eric called home.
“What do we know, Blake?” Eric asked.
Blake, his second in command, and only remaining member of his original crew, sat on the port side of the bridge at a newly installed console.
“I’m still learning how to use these Cube sats, but it looks like the target’s in the process of landing her last mining Skip, Captain. I recommend target intercept in approximately twelve minutes.”
“How are the Cube sats working out, Blake?”
“For their size, there’s a lot of functionality, and the best part is they’re so small that normal sensors pick them up as either space junk or rocks. But I don’t think we’d fool anything other than civilian ships, Captain. Military sensors are far more sensitive.”
“I guess it’s a good thing we’re not going after military targets then eh, Blake?”
“Yeah, we’d need more sophisticated hardware for that. Good news is the high-intensity lasers are finally operational, and Houck thinks they’ll be able to get a short range EMP installed next time we pull in.”
“An EMP? Interesting…if they try to run, we just hit’em with an EMP burst to kill their electronics. That’ll be a lot easier than trying to hold’em long enough with the grappler to get a boarding party across.”
“My thoughts exactly, Captain. Houck’s working on it,” Blake said as he returned to monitoring the Cube satellite control console.
Eric reclined in his chair, propping his feet on the command console and taking another sip from his glass. He could wait a few more minutes.
His thoughts drifted back to the first conversation he’d had with Her. The name she had given him was Anne Bonny, but a search of the name revealed nothing more than the story of an 18th Century pirate who marauded the Caribbean Sea with her lover, John (Calico Jack) Rackham. Anne was a mystery, a welcome mystery to be sure, but a mystery nonetheless.
The message he’d received indicated a meeting in the back room of the “Queen’s Gambit,” a bar on Meridian Station’s less than savory Level-T. He’d entered the bar and approached the bartender as instructed.
He was a big fellow, standing a full head taller than Eric’s nearly two meters, who glared at everyone with a suspicious eye. A week’s beard growth attempted to hide a recent gash, still sporting poorly sewn sutures on his left cheek. He eyed his patronage warily as he sipped an amber colored liquor from a thick glass tumbler.
“I’d like a Killigrew Ale,” he said softly, the phrase he was to use to signal his identity and desire to meet.
“We don’t have Killigrew Ale, but I’ve got a case of Skipper’s Rum in the back if you’d like to see it,” the bartender said with a distinct tone of indifference.
“Sure, let’s see what you’ve got.”
The bartender led him around the back of the bar and into a liquor storage pantry. Closing the door behind them, the bartender shoved him against the wall and placed a beefy forearm against his throat. “She said you’d probably be stupid, but I didn’t think you’d be a total purge.”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about, friend,” Eric said carefully and painfully, his voice tight with a combination of fear and anger as the big man’s forearm crushed his throat.
“You asked for Killigrew Ale, I told you I had Skipper’s Rum. Killigrew Ale is not even a liquor. It’s not even close to what you asked for.” He removed his forearm and smacked Eric’s forehead, “Not even close. If any eyes had been on us we’d be in the brig right now. Like I said, you’re a complete purge, and I’m glad she didn’t want to meet you here. Go to Level-Q, warehouse forty-two. She’ll be waiting for you there.”
“Who is, She?” Eric asked cautiously.
“Like I said, you’re a total purge. Don’t ask questions like that, just go. Get out of my bar, and don’t come back, ever! Purge!”
Eric left the bar, still touching his bruised neck and more confused than when he’d first gotten the message to meet in the bar. The message said, “Meet me in The Queen’s Gambit on Level-T at 19:30, I have a business proposition to discuss.” There was no sender identified, which he didn’t think was possible, but he was desperate to keep his ship, and business was business after all.
He proceeded to the center lift and took it up to Level-Q, glancing at the clock above the lift’s control panel as he rode. It read 20:02. The smell of unwashed bodies, workers coming off shift he assumed, loomed heavily in the air about him as the lift hummed along, moving from level to level to deposit its passengers. He glanced at the station map, an interactive display above the control panel, to refresh his memory of Level-Q. The level was one of the larger habitat rings consisting of corporate, as well as private, warehouse spaces.
Exiting the lift, he stepped onto the personnel transport belt and rode effortlessly along the length of Level-Q while searching for warehouse forty-two. He stepped off the moving belt and made for the wide doors labeled “WH-42” in bold, black letters.
He approached the doors, unsure of what to expect, and waited. The doors did not open for him as he approached and he didn’t see an access panel, security panel, or even a door handle. He stuck his hands in his pockets and tried to look like he belonged there. He tried leaning against the bulkhead, but thought that might seem suspicious. Why would someone be standing around with nothing to do but lean against a bulkhead near a warehouse? Only if they were looking for trouble, he surmised. Attempting to blend in, he tried pacing the length of the door while looking bored and checking his watch as if waiting on someone. Finally, he gave up and knocked on the door. To his surprise, the door slid open.
He walked inside the dimly lit warehouse and proceeded through a narrow walkway that lead between rows of shipping crates. The crates towered meters above his head, and he found himself feeling like a rat trapped in a maze. He turned a corner in the walkway and stopped abruptly. He blinked, wondering if he’d been drugged, or was going mad.
A quaint wooden table, actual wood, with a real flickering oil lantern perched upon it, sat in the walkway like it belonged there. He’d never seen a wooden table before, or an oil lantern for that matter. A figure, the details obscured by the dim lighting, perched regally upon a stool behind the table.
“Please, come sit with me,” a sultry female voice spoke as she motioned toward a wooden chair. Approaching the offered seat, he caressed the unfamiliar material. The polished surface was smooth to the touch, yet somehow still grainy, not like the plastic or metal he was accustomed to.
“Is it safe to sit on?” he asked.
“It’s perfectly safe,” she said, nodding in the subdued lighting.
Taking the offered seat, he sat gingerly on the wooden chair, still afraid it might splinter under his weight.
He squinted in the dim lighting, trying to make out the details of the woman sitting across from him. Her long crimson hair flooded sensuously over her bare shoulders but her face was shadowed in the faint light of the flickering flames. She wore a green velvety gown, maybe a costume—though it seemed authentic—that might have been from the 18th Century. “Welcome Eric, I’m glad you came.” she said casually, “We’re here to talk business, and I’m going to get right to the point. I understand you’ve had some money problems lately.”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“You have been a bad boy, Eric,” she said disapprovingly, “smuggling illegal contraband, falsifying shipping manifests, even skimming on your accounts. Shameful.” she mocked. “We couldn’t let you continue taking business from us without consequences, now could we?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he stammered.
“Come now, Eric. You can’t con a con. I know all about your operation, and that’s why you haven’t been able to get business lately,” she said coldly. Her sultry demeanor had changed to an iron-clad, no nonsense tone in the space of just a few words. “We don’t take kindly to profiteers who aren’t part of our organization. You’re good at smuggling, Eric, which is why you’re here instead of floating outside an airlock with your blood boiling.”
“Since you put it that way, yeah, I’ve taken on the occasional smuggling job. Okay, maybe more than occasional,” he admitted, “but a man’s gotta make some extra money somehow. Besides, nobody ever notices.”
“We noticed, Eric,” she said with a hint of amusement.
“Right, yeah, I got that. So, why am I here again?”
Her soft hands, gloved in fine black lace that matched the lace covering her bountiful corseted bosom, poured two drinks in thick glass tumblers. The brown liquor sloshed as she poured it, seeming somewhat thicker than it should have been. She leaned forward to push the tumbler across the table with a single finger, her green eyes blazed like shimmering emeralds in the wavering lamplight as she caught his gaze. He inhaled sharply as she leaned forward, presenting him with a brief glimpse of her elegant features. Her thin, angular face and prominent cheekbones, dashed with the slightest hint of rouge, accentuated her sharp nose. She smiled as he inhaled, her thin ruddy lips parting slightly as she licked them seductively. She settled into a relaxed pose on her stool, hiding her features in the shadows of the feeble lamplight once more.
The label on the bottle, he noticed as she poured the drinks, identified the liquor as Skipper’s Rum and depicted an eye-patch wearing pirate steering the pilot’s wheel of an ocean going clipper. He reached for the drink, hoping to relax his frazzled nerves, but her hand covered his before he could raise the glass to his lips.
“Before you can drink that, we must strike a bargain, come to an arrangement, seal the deal, you understand? My employer can take care of those money problems…if you agree to work for us.”
Eric shook his head, “I don’t even know your name, much less your employer.”
“My employer is unimportant, and you may call me Anne Bonney,” she said with a flourish. “We are offering to take care of your operating costs, upgrade your ship, and even pay off the debt on the ship. All you have to do is go where we tell you to go and do what we tell you to do, with no questions asked…”
Eric shook his head again, “Wait a minute, you’re offering to pay off my ship? And pay my costs? Just for smuggling?”
“No, Eric, not just smuggling. There will be many things that will be of questionable legality, and many other things that are outright illegal. All you have to do is what we tell you to do. You still Captain your own ship, you run your own crew, and you’re free to do as you please… within reason.”
“That sounds like a good deal, but I don’t know if I’m cut out for anything more illegal than smuggling. I’m just a ship captain trying to make a living.”
“That’s all some of the best pirates were when they first started, Eric. They were just trying to make a living in a system that was stacked against them. Wake up, Eric. The system is stacked against you too. You need to do something about it.”
“Okay,” he said noncommittally, “would I have to kill anyone?”
“Maybe, but it’s you or them. Who would you rather be alive at the end of the day?” she asked pointedly.
“And what happens if I say no?”
She sighed in a frustrated and indignant tone, “Eric, I would rather not discuss such…unpleasant details.”
“Okay, so it’s your way, or the airlock. I see.”
“Now you’re beginning to understand, Eric. Please understand it’s nothing personal…just business.”
Eric thought about her proposition for a long moment, running his fingers through his short brown hair before grasping the tumbler of rum in his left hand and extended his right hand to shake hers, “I see your point, Anne. It seems I’m up against the bulkhead and losing pressure fast. What do I have to do?”
She shook his hand, a strong, firm grip that seemed inconsistent with her soft skin. They quaffed their drinks together in a single smooth draught and she touched his hand softly before she spoke. “Welcome to the Brethren, Eric, though I think we’ll need to come up with a more frightening name for you than Eric,” she said with a curt laugh. “You’ll get a message with more instructions soon, a new identity, and we’ll need to upgrade your ship. After you leave this level, go directly to your ship and recall only the members of your crew you trust completely. A man by the name of Houck will be waiting for you on landing bay twelve at Luna Colony, best ship mechanic in the black.”
He moved to stand, but her hand closed firmly over his again, “Take the bottle with you,” she said as she placed the bottle in his hand. “You’ll need it, Eric. One drink a day is all you’ll need, though you can obviously drink as much as you like. Don’t take too long in getting to Luna Colony though. There’s only a few days’ worth in that bottle.”
“I’m not sure I’m following you, Anne.”
“You, just like me, are a member of the Brethren now Eric. Did you think there wouldn’t be a price?” she said menacingly. Leaning forward again, she met his gaze with a cold, savage glare, “Try going for just one day without a drink of Skipper’s Rum and see what happens. You really should, just so you know for sure what will happen. It’s not pleasant. Go without a drink for two days and you might live through it, but three days will most definitely kill you.” Her features softened and she smiled sweetly, “It’s the price of loyalty, Eric.”
She leaned forward into the light of the lantern again and a wry grin crept across her lips, “Welcome to the Brethren, Eric.”
Eric was jolted from his reverie as Blake’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Target’s Skip has docked, Captain, recommend we move to intercept.”
Eric lowered his feet from the console and straightened his tunic.
“Tell the boarding party to get ready, Blake, and prepare the magnetic grapplers for the port side. I’m going to come along-side from their aft-starboard quarter.”
Grasping the controls, he embraced his new persona and became Captain Rafael Rasp for the first time. Captain Rasp was Captain of the Obsidian Wraith. He was a pirate, a buccaneer of the black, and there was booty to be plundered.