There are very few rules that one must abide by when removing the coupling on a jump drive. In point of fact, there are only two. The first is that eye protection is an absolute must. Max, while grossly uneducated in general, had managed to come by this crucial safety information and, reasoning that his eyes were very important, had acquired a pair of double thick welding goggles from an inattentive shipwright. Unbeknownst to Max, his impressive attention to eye safety was just about to cause him to run afoul of the second rule of decoupling jump drives: Never, ever touch the drive unless you are well grounded. Being made almost entirely of meat and water, Max was very poorly grounded by most known standards. Weirdly, Max thought, it was the smell that had reached him first. Burnt hair and a sort of sausagey smell. As he hurtled backward through the air at considerable speed, he couldn’t help but wonder if he was made of sausage the entire time and no one had told him. Certainly the Orokcian he’d meant to sell the jump drive to suggested as much regularly. Or was it that he’d make him into a sausage? Max couldn’t remember but as the unforgiving flatness of a steel beam found the back of his head he decided that if he was sausage, he really hoped there was garlic. But he didn’t smell garlic. This would have made him concerned, but now he was unconscious.
In the way that being concussed will do, the world was black for a time. When his senses began to wander back towards him, Max sniffed the air. There was still no garlic. A fact which Max found almost entirely disappointing, but he decided that having not died was well enough. He could look into the garlic thing more later, and he would. After noticing the distinct lack of garlic aroma, the smells that were present slowly registered. The smell was as familiar as it was unpleasant and Max placed it somewhere on the spectrum of body odor. Sweat maybe? Very old sweat. There was nothing on his face, but he was growing acutely aware now that the air around him was humid and entirely unpleasant. All at once he sat up and wretched. Raucous laughter was the next sound to enter the room. Not Max’s and not a single voice. This was an embarrassing time for Max. His concern went immediately to his pants. The dampness of the air made it entirely impossible to determine whether or not he had soiled himself in any way during his period of unconsciousness. He was familiar with the state and knew that the bladder was often a mischievous creature when the brain was involuntarily invited to have a bit of a rest.
Squinting an eye open, his pants seemed as dry as he could have hoped and so a wave of confusion washed over him. In fact, the wet, horrible smelling air was beginning to seem altogether strange as well. Desert planets were rarely humid and he had been on a desert planet only moments ago. Well, probably moments. This was likely just not a good situation and so Max did the first thing he could think of. He closed his eyes as tight they would go and he laid back down. This seemed to go over well with the roomful of voices as they broke into an even more grating round of laughter. There were even a few loud snorts, which Max felt particularly proud of.
All it took was a single rap of steel against the plated floor of wherever he was to bring an uneasy silence to the room. Max knew the sound of a leader when he heard one. He did all he could to close his eyes more tightly. When that failed, he turned his head away from the sound.
“You didn’t have no papers on ya.”
It was a woman’s voice. At least the pitch was. It was stilted, almost froggy. A wave of hot wind rolled over the table and the stink was unbearable. Max did what he could to hold back another dry heave, but instead he just convulsed awkwardly on the table and let out a pathetic burp. It wasn’t a very good burp at all and Max felt slightly ashamed of it. Especially if he was about to die. It was not a good last burp by any measure. He’d not concerned himself so much with the quality of the sounds he’d let out but being near death has a way of really putting things into perspective, Max thought.
“Joke’s over, honey.”
A cold metal bar came down gently across his chest and Max stole a glance at it. It was a cane in two sorts of metal. Shiny down at the bottom and sort of matte looking up through the middle. The cane made it very clear that his ruse had failed. Hoping that maybe some level of surprise was still on his side, Max tried to quickly slide off the side of the table he had been laying on to this point. He deftly wriggled to the side, trying to shift his body over at least the width of himself. He could have sworn he’d accomplished his goal, but still there was table underneath him. This was very strange and beyond Max’s calculations. For a moment, he was incredulous that he had been laid on a table that was clearly wider than necessary for displaying an unconscious person. As he let out a sigh, he considered how ridiculous he must have looked on such a wide table. No wonder they were laughing. And he knew he must have been at the front edge of the table. Not even in the middle. These were truly sick people, that much was clear.
Resigning himself to whatever fate there was to be had, he sat up and looked at his captor. She was very brown. Like mud with too much water. A bright brown. Her face seemed to shift under itself as she looked him over. It made Max think of soup.
“Gonna guess you know somethin’ about this.”
The soup lady threw a melted rubber glove onto Max’s lap. It was not a very thick rubber glove, but it was the best he could find on short notice.
“I don’t make gloves.”
An adept cover, he figured. The incongruity between that thought and the reality of his situation were made clear when the shiny part of the metal cane came down with some speed on the top of his head.
“Didn’t reckon you do, meatbody. But I figure you leave ‘em stuck to jump drives you mean to steal.”
Max put aside that she seemed confused about the order of operations in his attempted theft of her jump drive. It was the term meatbody that had always taken him somewhat aback. He’d been called that before by aliens whether they were made of meat or not. It seemed like an odd choice insult. Meat is delicious. Why wouldn’t you want to be made of meat? Maybe she really was made of soup and she didn’t like being an appetizer.
“I really don’t control when they bring out the courses, so…”
Her blank stare told Max that she had not followed his line of reasoning. As often is the case in these sorts of conversation, she decided that his confusing statement must have been some sort of insult. The cane was pulled back and Max, hoping to avoid a second assault put his hands forward.
“No, no, no! Okay! I was going to steal your thing.”
“Sure. Jam drive.”
He was fairly sure it was called a jump drive, but he figured that correcting the woman on her knowledge of spaceship parts was just going to get him hit again. It was hard enough to understand her through the thick accent as it was.
“Whadda we do wit’ ‘im boss?”
Max looked past the clothed soup and saw that the room was filled with a crew of poorly dressed but oddly muscular folks. Each of them had a splash of deep blue somewhere amongst the incoherent clothing they’d managed to piece together. They were pirates, no doubt about it. Max tried to remember who wore that particular shade of blue. Gris… something.
“So ya’ve heard o’ me.”
Max was thinking out loud, apparently. He was stuck between the concern of getting caught in a lie if he said yes and getting beaten for saying not really, which was the truth. He had no idea that soup people existed until this point, but that wasn’t a subject he was willing to bring up either. Max decided he should say nothing. He did this often with people who liked for him to steal things back on Dalgura and it seemed to work as well as anything. At least, it got him hit less often than talking.
“Seems ya know well enough to keep quiet when I’m talkin’.” Looks like it worked. “Maybe you ain’t so useless as ya look.”
She turned away from him and looked across the bay.
Eggy was apparently what you call tall, insecty-looking aliens. It occurred to Max that glasses looked entirely ridiculous in any arrangement other than a simple two-eye version. Things that did not occur to Max were that the shifting purple carapace of Eggy clashed with the bright blue frames and that it seemed highly unlikely that a single fixed pane of glass could offer much in the way of ocular correction to a creature with a compound eye.
“We know anything about this’n?”
The sigh had apparently been audible because both Eggy and the mudpit looked at Max. Misunderstanding, he assumed that thought, as he did, that his name was sort of pompous and outdated.
“Maximilian Burgess. A human from a slaver colony. A thief, obviously.”
Gris-something turned back to him.
“A thief. Obviously.”
Max pushed down the urge to repeat “obviously” one more time. It seemed like that would have really added a nice punctuation to the whole thing, but it since they were talking about him, he worried it might not come off the way it sounded in his head.
She looking him over and leaned in. Max flinched just a bit when she brought the cane up under his nose. Probably she didn’t notice, he told himself before making the manliest face he could think of. He wasn’t sure why he had, but it seemed like it might keep him alive for more time which he could either use to escape or seduce the bisque.
“We’ve got a job. Yer gonna help.”
Help. With a job. For pirates. There were a number of problems with this that shot directly into Max’s brain. Firstly, while he had no problem with theft in general, piracy was taken very seriously among the various police forces that ran that section of the galaxy. Max wasn’t sure he wanted to make that sort of commitment. And he was also not entirely sure what sort of group these pirates were. Did they have individual showers or was it a communal thing like in prison? What was the situation with clothes? Were they all this poorly dressed of their own accords or was there some sort of rule? Being poorly educated and generally poor with thinking and speaking, Max succinctly expressed his conclusion as:
“I don’t wanna.”
The cane was harder than he remembered it. A pair of burly things whose faces seemed to be mostly nose came and collected him from the too-wide table and began dragging him through the ship. He asked several questions about how the entire membership process worked but the nose people just breathed heavily, occasionally fluttering a pair of flaps and shooting a few streams of mucus down their chins. Max was unsure of those were answers to his questions but he said thank you every time just in case.
They put him in a very gun-metaly room and left him there, sealing the door behind. He could not see any sort of toilet around the very block-shaped room, but the floor of one of the corners was slightly darker than the others. There was not a window either. These were truly poor accommodations, to say the least. Likely he would have to work his way up to one of the nicer rooms. He thought Eggy must have a room with a toilet and a window. Maybe even a private shower. Max began to regret not making better friends with him before, in the wide-table room.
He would have plenty of time to consider the possible uses for such a wide table over the next three days. They’d left him in the room and there was no food to speak of, though they did thoughtfully give him plenty of water through a somewhat high pressure hose once a day. On the fourth day, with hose time about thirty minutes away, Max was considering what to do with the growing pile of excrement in the dark corner. He could present it to the hosemen, but then he would have less time for drinking and the water was quite good. Tough decisions, sure, but Max felt he was adjusting rather well to the life of a newly christened pirate.
The locking procedure for his door started. This was quite alarming and faced Max with the need to quickly solve his poo quandary. Turning back and forth between the feces and the door, he could not decide exactly what to do and so, in search of middle ground, he simply pulled down his pants.
The brown woman entered and looked immediately at Max’s exposed penis. She sighed. Max told himself he would not read into it.
“We’re here. Job time.”
This must be what it was like to be part of a team, Max thought. He had really started to bond with the nose guys who gave him his water. He had started to call them Orfleck and, lacking the sort of imagination that might have given forth a second name, Orfleck. Max was quite pleased with the naming, deciding the two must be twins, though they never confirmed it in spite of near constant probing during his daily hosing.
Grissy was leading him through the ship. Max had decided that would be a fun nickname for her but the Orfleck twins seemed against it. He was disappointed at that, but decided that it would be a private nickname between the three of them. While Max did not yet know the layout of the ship, he caught sight of the wide table room.
“That’s a very wide–”
She was all business right now. Max could appreciate that. It had to be hard being a pirate boss. He was fairly certain he could never manage in a position like that, not with all the costs and responsibilities. You had to order food for everyone, make sure the toilets were cleaned. I mean, someone was going to have to clean up his pile and it certainly wasn’t going to be him. Grissy had made it pretty clear that he was being brought on for his thieving skills rather than anything janitorial in nature.
There weren’t any windows along the route they were taking and Max found that to be a bit disappointing. He’d never been into space before. He told himself he wasn’t missing much, but secretly he felt like he probably was. The floor was getting pretty shaky and Max guessed that this meant they were inside the atmosphere of some planet where the pirates meant to do pirate things. Or driving along a bumpy road. It was hard to be entirely sure without windows. Max frowned, having reminded himself of the windows.
Grissy walked him to a loading ramp. They stood there quietly for a few minutes as the ship bumped its way around wherever they were.
“What’re we loading?”
She ignored him. He hoped maybe it was soap. The room he was in was pretty nice but he had worked up something of a stink over the past few days and a good soapy lather seemed like just the ticket.
The engines turned to a low rumble and loading ramp unsealed. The wind was cold and dry and accompanied by bright white light.
Max wasn’t one to ignore the command, not if he wanted a better room, and so he took a few steps forward. As his eyes adjusted, he could see that there was a small rectangular building made almost entirely of concrete. There was a steel door on the front. It had one of those little slidey doors on it like at secret clubs. This excited Max. Surely it was a secret pirate compound.
He noticed the point of Grissy’s cane in his back for just the slightest part of a second before it pushed him forward. She was in a hurry and Max hadn’t been very thoughtful in that regard. As he fell the ten or so feet to the snowy surface, he considered that in the future he would have to be more serious when given an order. Luxury would not come to those who caused trouble for their boss, he figured. Even among pirates.
In an expert tactical move that Max hadn’t expected, the ship lifted off again and flew up and over the compound. He wasn’t sure how far it had gone, but Max assumed the parking lot must have been on the far side of the complex, as there was not one near the front door. As it was very cold outside, Max decided that there was no good reason to wait for the rest of the crew to come around and so he walked up to the front door and gave it a solid knock.
A minute passed with no answer and concern began to grow in Max’s mind that there was a secret knock that he had not been aware of. Surely it couldn’t be too hard to figure out. Max knocked again, this time in a jaunty rhythm that he felt was sure to get a response.
Nothing. At this point, Max was starting to think the people on the far side of the door just had poor taste in secret knocks, but he had been trusted with this by Grissy herself and so he tried again. This time, the knock was something more complex. He had used math to determine that two loud knocks and one soft one followed by repeatedly kicking the door was likely to garner a response. Using the entire door was key, he now understood. It seemed so obvious.
A swell of pride rolled through Max’s chest when, before even finishing half the secret knock, the door plate slid sharply open.
The smooth, green skin he could manage to spot through the crack seemed at odds with the aggressive tone. Green was such a calming color usually. Surely if one was entirely made of green they couldn’t be so uptight. Maybe they were angry that he’d messed up the knock so many times.
“I apologize. I didn’t really know the right way to do it, but, uh… I’m here for–”
“The data, right? Yeah, yeah. Sorry. We’re really on edge lately. Pirates.”
Max did not know what data was but he did agree that they were edgy. Pirates, indeed. This guy knew what it was about. Max liked him, probably he could learn a thing or two so he decided to play it cool.
“Yeah, I know how it is. Pirates, right?”
He scoffed so that his new friend behind the door would know that being a pirate was no big deal to Max. Just another normal day. The plate slid shut and the door creaked open.
“Come on in.”
Now this was more like it. Clearly Max had managed to nail the demeanor. The green man looked out the door behind him.
“Where’s your ship?”
He closed the door as Max came in.
“Oh, they went to go park it on the other side.”
“Yeah, the crew. I don’t know if they’re going to walk around to the door or what. They probably know the knock, though.”
“The knock? What the hell are you–”
The entire building shuddered under the force of what sounded to Max like a very large explosion. Ah, never a dull moment at these pirate hideouts, he thought.
“Oh fuck. Oh no.”
The green man seemed distraught. Maybe he was in charge of repairs as well as answering the door. He turned to Max looking very upset indeed.
“Who the hell are you with?!”
Luckily the green man didn’t let him finish.
“Griswold?! No. No, no, no! She’s a goddamn monster. I’ve gotta…”
Monster seemed a bit harsh, but Max decided that this was a good learning opportunity. There’s no room for niceties, he thought. Grim and gritty, that’s the pirate way. Before he could ask what some other good insults might be, the green man had run off. Max knew what that was like, having a demanding boss. No doubt if he delayed in his cleanup duties, he’d lose his choice door answering side job. That was the way with pirates, Max knew.
With no one to show him around, Max figured that the best thing to do was to head toward the explosion. That seemed like it would be an exciting course of action. Before leaving, though, he propped the door open so Grissy could get inside with the rest when she came. She’d be glad for that and might even reward him.
There seemed to be lots of people in long white coats running around. It wasn’t a pirate color that Max was familiar with and all his attempts to speak to them were met with either disinterest or open hostility. One even called him a moron. A rival faction. That was a fun thought.
There was smoke and dust in the air from the explosion. It led to the outside and, taking a peek, Max saw Grissy’s ship sitting there with the landing bay open. He felt a bit silly, having left the front door open like that. Of course if a pirate wants an entrance closer to the parking lot, they’ll just make one. He had so much to learn.
Looking the other way down a long hallway, Max caught sight of what he was sure was one of the Orflecks just ducking around a corner and so he moved to follow. It was almost certainly the case that the Orflecks knew the best place to get a strong drink at the hideout and he didn’t want to miss out on all the stories they were going to tell. This would be a great chance to really bond with them outside of normal work hours.
As he trotted down the hall, there was an increasing number of dead people in those long white coats. It looked like the rivalry was more serious that Max had thought. Even more disturbing, there were bodies of crew members mixed in with the bunch, and some men in very official looking grey overalls. Two rivals ganging up? Max became deeply worried for his friends the Orflecks and Eggy. They’d hardly gotten to know each other and he had to do something. He grabbed a gun from one of the dead bodies and picked up his pace.
“–autopilot’s set to leave in 30 minutes, whether yer on it or not.”
That shouting! It was Grissy! Max hurried around the corner hoping to join in the triumph over their rivals. The scene was far more grim. Everyone in the room was dead. He saw the Orflecks, their guts spilling out. This was terrible. But he’d heard Grissy! What was happening?
“The hell are you morons?”
Max moved toward the voice. It was a radio. A radio attached to Eggy. Max knelt down next to him, choking back tears.
“E… Eggy? Buddy? It’s gonna be okay.”
Eggy coughed, splattering an inky liquid onto Max’s face. Max wanted to wipe it away but he had seen enough movies to know that that would reflect poorly on his manly resolve.
That seemed like a stupid question. I mean, they’d just dropped him off maybe ten minutes ago, but Eggy seemed to be dying and so he felt that he should just answer.
“The da-data. You must take it to Griswold.”
Eggy gestured at a black metal rectangle on the floor just a few feet away. So that was data. Max knew there would be lots of slang to learn and so he filed that one away.
“Don’t worry, Eggy. I’ll do it. I’ll make sure Grissy gets the stuff.”
Eggy didn’t respond, but that was okay. He needed rest now, for sure. Max scrambled over to the black box and picked it up off the ground. He stood and tried to remember which way he’d come in. He was never terribly good with directions. For now, he moved to the door of the room and looked both ways down the hall. It looked clear, no rival pirates around. That was good news so he moved out into the corridor proper and looked around, trying to remember which part looked familiar. The blood stains on the wall were pretty different in both directions but he couldn’t quite remember what they had looked like the first time past.
Max was deep in consideration of the bloodstains on the wall when a voice startled him.
“Stop right there! Hey!”
It was a girl’s voice, he looked up to see her in grey overalls. A rival! And she had a gun! Max swung his own gun up and pulled the trigger. It made a lame whirring noise but nothing else happened. Typical, he thought. Still, it had caused the girl to dive for cover and so Max took this time to run the opposite direction.
He sprinted past a few openings looking down them, hoping to see the entrance that Grissy had made for them. He had just passed by a promising looking tunnel when a cold gust of wind hit his face. That was it! He turned around and the girl was there. She froze in place when he turned.
The girl seemed confused at this, but failed to shoot. Max turned and ran toward the cold wind. Damn, he felt cunning. He doubted that any pirate had ever made such a clever escape. The data was tucked tightly under his arm and there was no way she would catch him now.
He was in the middle of imagining the medal he was sure to receive for delivering the data when a red streak of light buzzed hot past his ear. Without looking back, Max knew he must be being shot at. Even after he had asked her not to. What he thought had been the words “don’t shoot” had come out of his mouth as a high pitched squeal.
Max could see the open gate now. And there was Grissy. She’d come to help him!
The look on her face must have been joy to her native species. Max thought it looked remarkably like confusion, but he knew that the cultures were very different. She was happy, she had to be. He had recovered the data from their rival pirates.
Max rushed his way up the ramp as Grissy slapped a red button next to the ramp. At the risk of seeming uncool, Max doubled over to catch his breath and let the data fall to the floor.
“I got it. The… from the rivals.”
Max looked up, ready to explain the people in the white coats and grey overalls. If you had asked Max how he would spell the sound that he heard as he looked up, he would say “fzztpupsplortch.” It was the sound that gets made when a Trinarian’s head gets hit by a shot from a tactical plasma inducer. A viscous brown sludge burst forth in a terrible wave and covered Max from head to toe. Some of it even got in his mouth. The loading ramp whirred shut a second later and Max let out a terrible scream. It couldn’t be! Grissy was dead! It couldn’t be! He had been running so fast. There was no other explanation than that the girl chasing him had been a sharpshooter.
The ship lifted into the air and left the damnable pirate den behind. The bastards, he thought. Max tried for some hours to pool Grissy back together into a shape, but there was no helping it. He gathered some bowls and crates from around the cargo hold and put as much of her into them as he could manage before saying a few respectful words about her great prowess as a pirate captain.
Max, lacking for other things to do, walked around the ship. It was empty save for him and the buckets of Grissy in the hold. He looked at the autopilot console, but couldn’t make sense of it. It had a line going from one circle to another circle. It was probably best not to mess with it. He eventually found the crew showers. They looked practically new. This made Max a little sad, to know that Grissy must have just upgraded them recently and now she was dead. He took an extra long shower in her honor. Dressing after the shower seemed somewhat pointless and so Max walked around naked, inspecting the rooms and thinking about his fallen comrades and eating things that seemed edible from their rooms and the kitchen.
It was a solemn three days before the ship announced that it would make its landing on a planet Max had never heard of. He hoped there would be a good place to sleep. As much as he treasured his assigned room, it wasn’t the most comfortable.
The floor began to bump and shake again which Max knew meant he was in a planet’s atmosphere. He had learned a lot these past few days. About himself. About pirating. He moved to the cargo hold as he had done with Grissy those days before. He found her cane there and picked it up. It was a good cane. Max liked it very much.
The ship touched down gently and the ramp began its whirring. Max leaned on the cane as the ramp laid itself down. Heads began to come into view. A gruff looking bunch. Eyes went wide when they saw Max standing there. They had been expecting Grissy, Max supposed. They raised guns and aimed them at Max. This was very alarming.
“Where the hell is Griswold?”
Max looked to the buckets and then back at the crowd. A landing light flashed off of one of the guns, hitting Max in the eye and causing him to squint.
He figured they weren’t the sort who liked long explanations. Pirates weren’t the sort for it, he knew. The crowd looked down to the buckets. Most looked back to Max but some of them kept staring at the buckets. One even threw up. They were taking it hard. Max understood. She was a great boss. A grey skinned man with a very skinny head walked forward and put his hand up. The crowd lowered their guns. Max wanted to show he was thankful for their kind welcome and so he smiled at them, but not too big a smile. He didn’t want to seem over friendly. He was a pirate after all.
“Guess you’re the new boss, then.”
Max looked at the buckets and thought about this. He didn’t know much about the chain of command, but as he thought about it, he realized that he was the highest ranking pirate left on the ship. Max was nervous about whether he could do the job as expertly as Grissy had, but he was not one to run from his duty.
“I guess I am.”