Captain Robert Keptin stared out at the stars in disgust. To a poet, perhaps they would have been beautiful – ridiculous people, poets – but to him the stars meant only one thing. Money. And there had not been a lot of that lately.
The door behind him sprang open and in walked a tall, muscular, black-bearded man. “Captain Keptin!” he called.
“Ye know I hate it when ye call me that,” Keptin growled.
“I’m sorry, sir, ‘tis yer name,” the man answered, sounding about as apologetic as a Kyrmian mongoose (which is to say, not at all). “But sir! We have astounding news! We’ve found a ship!”
“Arr,” the captain spat, “this’d better not be like the last time ye found a ‘ship,’ Brinkman. Ye recall that?”
“Aye sir, I recall, but I promise ye this one’s more than just a rum stain on the sensor screen. It’s real! Fresh plunder! Treasure to be had, I swear it, sir!”
“Ye’d best be telling the truth, Brinkman, or this time I’ll have ye hanged.” The burly first mate rubbed his throat uncomfortably. He’d been hanged twice this month already, and his neck was starting to get sore. “All right, then. I’ll come to the bridge and we’ll see about this ship.”
“Yes sir! Thank ye, sir!”
The starship Gold Digger resembled nothing so much as a giant trash can floating through space, and the analogy was more apt than the crew would have liked. For a pirate ship, it contained very little of value; times were hard, even for space robbers. Rust stains covered the ship’s hull, lending it an even more decrepit appearance. In all honesty, the only really good thing about the Gold Digger was that it looked so little like a pirate ship that no one suspected its true intentions until it was too late. In this business, you had to take your perks where you could get them.
“Main viewscreen,” Keptin snapped.
The helmsman pointed. “Right there, sir.”
“I know where it is, you blubbering midget!” the captain bellowed. “I want you to turn it on!”
“Aye, sir!” The screen crackled and flickered to life, showing an image of a starfield crisscrossed by lines of static. There was nothing of interest on it.
“Magnify section C-2!”
“Magnify, aye sir!”
“That’s it, captain!” the first mate cried, stabbing a finger at the object. “That’s the ship! It looks big! There must be all kinds of loot on there!”
Keptin stared at the ship intently. It was indeed large, and very odd-shaped. Overall it almost resembled a dill pickle floating in the void. The ship was a grayish brown in color, and its surface was pockmarked by craters. There were no obvious weapons or engines, and it did not seem to be emitting on any of the frequencies associated with technology. The ship was rotating slowly as it passed through space.
All in all, it looked remarkably like an asteroid.
“Ye MORON!” Keptin exploded.
“Sir, let me explain –”
“Ye BONEHEAD!” he continued. “Ye infernal, stupid peach pit! Ye blasted gob-for-brains! Why do I keep ye around? Can anyone answer me why I keep Brinkman around?”
“He be good for morale, sir!” the one-eyed weapons officer piped up.
“Aye, that he do,” Keptin hissed. “That he do. He do keep the crew amused, and I do be in need of some amusin’ just now. Throw him out an airlock and let’s watch.”
“Oh, ah, sir, you know the rules about that,” the officer replied, looking uncomfortable.
“What, murder? We be doin’ that all the time!”
“Oh, no sir, not the murder so much – but ye know how the police get if they catches ye littering. I would nae want us to have to pay such a fine.”
“Aye, you’re probably right. Brinkman, engine scrubbing duty for ye, then. Off ye go. Johnson, how long ‘til we get to our real destination?”
“Thirty-five minutes ‘til Icarus Spaceport, sir! Would ye like me to do some scans on the asteroid in the meantime? Study its composition, mayhap?”
“Are ye loony? It’s an asteroid! What do we care about some hunk of rock? I’ll be in me cabin. Tell me when we’re docked.”
Thirty-six minutes later, a face appeared on the viewscreen. The face belonged to Senior Lieutenant Abram Marsillicus, the customs officer for the dock. He had the look of a man who is doing a job that is not the one he’d hoped for as a child. “Welcome to Icarus Spaceport,” he droned, sounding about as inviting as a Glenobulan Death Mine (which was to say, not at all). “We hope you and the crew of the Old Digger enjoy your experience at –”
“That’s Gold,” snapped Johnson, the helmsman. “The Gold Digger.”
“Your hull says –”
“There do be a patch of rust on the G,” he interrupted. “We do know about it already. It do not be my fault. Gold. Digger.”
“If you say so,” said the lieutenant, who was already tired of his career and beginning to get tired of the interruptions. “Just some basic questions, then, and you’re free to dock. How many decks?”
“Just the one,” Johnson answered. “It’s missing the eight of spades, though. I do believe a couple of the hands be playing a game of poker with it right now.”
Lieutenant Marsillicus was not a patient man, but he lacked the energy to get properly angry. “Cute,” he answered. “Answer the question. How many levels?”
“Oh, well, as to that,” Johnson replied sheepishly, “to tell the truth, if we be installing a shelf or some such, we do no go to great lengths to make sure it be straight – we be just eyeballing it, and that be good enough for our purposes, if ye take my meaning.”
There was a short pause, and then Marsillicus spoke again. “Do you want do die, little man?”
“No sir. Eight decks, sir.”
“Very good.” The rest of the customs process passed without incident, and the Gold Digger was docked within the hour.
Second Mate Jason “Storm” Keebler stared at the store window in wonder for only a moment before dashing inside. “This be it,” he babbled excitedly. “This be the one I want. It do be perfect!”
“Ooooh, yesssss,” responded the shopkeeper, a greasy little man who reminded Keebler of a filthy, loathsome, disgusting rat. And not in a good way. “That’ssss one of our finesssst moooodels. Jussst got the ssssshipment in yessssterday. I’ll let it go foooor…sssay…ssseventy glimquads.”
“Seventy?!” Keebler shot back. “I wouldn’t pay seventy glimquads for that if it were made of solid gold!”
“Which it issss,” the shopkeeper reminded him.
“And I just did say I would no pay it!” the pirate boomed. “For a model like that, I do offer…twenty.”
“I wouldn’t be in businesssss long, giving my waresss away like that! Do you ssssee the fine workmansssship on this piece? You’ll be tearing thingsssss up in no time with thissss beauty!”
“Thirty-five, and I do no be going higher.”
“Done!” cried Keebler, and he walked out of the store with his new blender proudly in hand.
Just at that moment, on the other end of the spaceport, something Decidedly Shady was going on. A thin fellow with small, shifty eyes was winding his way through a large crowd, doing his best to appear casual and botching the attempt badly. He glanced behind his back once and then strolled into an ordinary-looking hardware store, hands in pockets. But when he left only two minutes later, his jacket was missing a rather distinctive bulge that had previously marked it, and one of the shelves held a piece of merchandise that had not been there before. It was ticking quietly.
Captain Keptin sat on a cracked faux-leather barstool, staring at his drink in disgust. Disgust was an emotion he had been getting quite good at lately. The mug in front of him contained a green, frothy substance that was bubbling suspiciously. He had not tasted it yet, and he was not at all certain he was going to. A moment ago he thought he’d seen something moving just beneath its surface. He had not ordered anything; the bartender had simply brought this over to him when he sat down. Perhaps it was the remains of the last person who’d taken a sip of something at the bar. Glancing around surreptitiously, he noticed that nobody else was actually drinking anything.
He decided he was not going to try it.
At the other end of the room a band was hard at work doing something that might have been considered singing had it not sounded so much like a dying cat. The smell of smoke flooded his nostrils. Something stank.
Why was he here?
Not so much here, as in this bar, specifically – it was actually the best that Icarus had to offer – but why was he here, in general? Why was he wasting his time in fourth-class dumps like this in between thieving runs on a piece of junk they called a ship? Why not just settle down on a backwater planet somewhere, live a while, maybe even try something legal… What would be the harm in that? Why be a pirate?
Then a young, unarmed, very wealthy-looking young man walked in with a slightly confused expression on his face, and suddenly Keptin remembered again why he did it. The reason was standing right there, and it was called Money. He pushed the mug away and sidled over to introduce himself.
First Mate Brinkman was not scrubbing the engines as he’d been ordered. That was not really a surprise. He never obeyed orders he did not like unless the captain was standing nearby. Brinkman was, instead, walking around aimlessly, trying to decide if he was lost. This was even less of a surprise. What was a surprise was the fact that he had a little money with him, and he had decided it was about time to spend it. In actual fact, the money did not belong to him, strictly speaking; but he had decided long ago that speaking strictly accomplished very little. He was looking for something to buy.
A book store? No, that would not have suited him, even had he been literate. There was something about the act of exchanging a green slip of paper for a larger, bound volume of white paper that seemed ludicrous to him. A video arcade? No. He had enough fun pushing buttons on the ship – why pay to push more buttons here? The results were much more interesting on the Gold Digger anyway. A bar? Perhaps – but that looked like the captain sitting in there, and Brinkman was not about to make him reconsider his airlock regulations policy. No, what he needed was someplace safe where he could look around for a while without being bothered. Somewhere with loud noises and bright colors. Somewhere…
Somewhere like that.
He entered the hardware store with a vague notion of perhaps buying some – well, hardware – and began exploring. There were so many machines – big, powerful, complicated machines; small, shiny, knob-covered machines; machines that crackled with flowing plasma and machines that did not appear to do anything whatsoever. That last category was especially fascinating to him, and he spent more than ten minutes examining what seemed to be a small, useless lump of metal with a price tag of eighty thousand glimquads. Ignorance was a beautiful thing.
But before long, his attention was captured by something else. He picked up the new object of his interest and examined it. It appeared to be an alarm clock. Perfect! He’d needed one of these for a long time now. It even had a display ticking down the time until the alarm went off. There did not appear to be a price on it anywhere, so he simply assumed it was free and took it back with him to set in his quarters on the Gold Digger.
The next day, in another location entirely, the local news flickered onto the television screen. No one paid much attention to it; the news was never very interesting. The woman on the screen began her report to her unappreciative audience.
“Good afternoon. I’m Daisy Gloo, sitting in today for Laura Paist, and this is Channel XZ17 Weekend Report.
“Our top story for today is the unexpected explosion of the starship Gold Digger while docked at Icarus Spaceport. Although the official report on the incident has not yet been released, initial findings indicate that the event may have been caused by a small bomb placed somewhere on the vessel. There was only one casualty, the first officer of the ship, a Johannes Brinkman. When told the news of the man’s death, ship captain Robert Keptin is reported to have answered, quote, ‘This is the happiest day of my life.’
“Meanwhile, scientists have just discovered an entire asteroid made of solid gold. Its shape is described by observers as roughly resembling a dill pickle, and its surface is pockmarked with craters. Interestingly, the asteroid was discovered floating not far from the spaceport where the explosion took place. The scientists’ team leader had the following to say about the discovery: ‘We have no idea how a solid gold asteroid could have formed but we are very excited about the discovery. We’re actually rather surprised no one else has found this before us. It would be worth an unimaginably huge amount of money on the open market.’
“And in other news today…”