By Jane Maree
All pirates are dirty liars and murderers, but none worse than Captain Dolion of the Nebula. His aim is as sharp as his tongue, and his neck scarf as red as the blood of his victims.
Stardust parts around the bow of the Nebula and swirls in our wake as we forge toward the trade ring with the captain’s orders still ringing within the airlock between our sails.
“We chart for the center, and once the cannons are in range—put an end to this alliance!”
I grip the ship’s railing, the echo of the words like bile in my throat. The trade alliance is meeting today to sign for peace along this entire stretch of the galaxy, and after so many years of skirmishes over trade routes and merchant vessels… this agreement could be the next best thing for civilization.
Until our ship blows them all to space dust in fifteen—no, ten minutes.
How has it come to this? How have I come to be standing at the prow of this death-bringing pirate ship?
I glance over my shoulder at the crew bustling around their stations, securing ropes here, readying on-deck harpoons there. If I let them see even a sliver of my fear, they’ll send me to the plank to meet my doom outside the airlock in the cruel silence of the void.
The void that claimed my family all those years ago, thanks to this very same pirate crew.
I grip the railing tighter, lest my trembling hands give me away. A thousand innocents will die, all for the captain’s vengeance, and I can’t stop it. What can one man do against such insurmountable odds? Nigh on twenty men in this crew, each as cutthroat as the captain they follow.
“Pete, lad.” The gruff voice of the ship’s cook brings me around, and I meet the weathered man’s gray gaze. The blue and purple tones of the starlight globes hanging from our lantern hooks cast shadows in the deep wrinkles of his brow.
I acknowledge him with a curt nod.
Cookie peers at me over his scratched glasses—which are long overdue for replacement, but he refuses to let me pay for them. “You sure ‘bout this?”
I lean my hip against the railing, pulling my tailcoat about me to button it. My quivering fingers betray me, and I mismatch the last few holes. Abandoning the effort, I smooth my scarf over the mistake. “Don’t see how I have much choice.”
Cookie tucks his hands into his pockets, watching me in that steady way of his. “Ach, we all be havin’ a choice. If you think you don’t have one, it’s just because you don’t like the options.”
I fidget with the ragged ends of my scarf, looking away from the old man’s gaze as my chest knots.
Sweeping into view ahead, between the glowing trails of stardust, the trade ring glitters like a star itself. The structure is large enough to encircle an average-sized planet, and specks of light twinkle all over it—specks I know are ships and citizens and oh so many innocents.
But what does Captain Dolion care for innocents? Pirates like these never concern themselves with how many ordinary people get caught between their firefights. They care only for the reward, the thrill, the fear.
I glance up at the black, skull-inscribed flag flying from our top mast, and a chill grips my spine.
“Target coming into the sights!” a crewman shouts from mid-deck.
My stomach heaves. Below my feet, the crew will be bringing the cannons to bear. On either side of me, the harpooners prepare to meet any opposition.
Cookie grips my upper arm. “Lad.” His voice is low. He doesn’t have to say more, because I can see the rest of his words in his kind but sorrowful eyes.
In a few minutes, we really won’t have a choice. All of us on the Nebula will be hunted down by any survivors from the trade ring, even to the last wretched cabin boy. They won’t ask whether we wanted to be here or not.
“Keep the course steady!” the captain bellows, and I shy away from Cookie’s soul-searching gaze. He won’t find much good in there, I’m afraid.
My eyes sting as I turn back to the bustling trade ring. We approach rapidly, the ring beginning to take shape into buildings and ports and levels upon levels of riches and life. The white skull on our flag gleams in the ethereal starlight in defiance to the safety the trade ring promises. Any moment now, our arrival will be noticed.
There! Even as the thought crosses my mind, a dozen small ships leave dock, the alliance flag at their masts.
My heart whispers a silent no, but the captain shouts the order to send a round through their hulls. They don’t stand a chance.
The boards shudder beneath my feet as the harpooners fire. A streak of light flashes between our ship and the leading alliance vessel, and in an instant, it explodes. One moment, there’s a white-sailed ship, shedding a wake of stardust. The next moment, a ball of fire devours the craft inside its oxygen airlock, then vanishes almost as quickly as the blaze starves of air.
And all that’s left is ash and burnt stardust.
“We all have a choice, Peter lad.” Cookie’s gaze captures mine again as our harpooners make quick work of the rest of the oncoming vessels.
“Not anymore,” my voice comes out hoarse, broken. I gave up my choice years ago.
“In range, Captain!” a shout soars from below.
Fingers clenched in my blood-red neck scarf, I close my eyes, not willing to see the impact of our cannon fire on the hundreds—no, the thousands of innocents before us.
But I still shout the command. My men merely follow my order, as they always do.
Because I am Captain Peter Dolion, and this is my confession.