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Piranha - Chapter Fifteen, Part 1

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PIRANHA
Chapter 15:  Besieged, Part 1




Why didn’t you tell me
Why didn’t you speak
Why di—

Did you know?  Did you know?
What ... else did you know.
Why did you leave
Me to wonder
                        Wonder
To seek, and seek, never to be sure

You could have
You could have let me

I could have helped you
I could

I could have tried


oh, gods
why




Piranha sat up, breaking through the warm sheet of fresh snow into biting air. 


He knew. 
He would never have told me.


Bastard.



He got to his feet, absently dusting a little white powder from his black garments.  Air like ice talons clawed down his throat, straining for his last bit of warm core; was expelled in a cloud of thick steam, visible even in the dead night.

He looked at the sky.  A crystalline mass of ice moving in slow progression through a black void; a viaduct spilling the insentient cold of interstellar space directly onto his naked little patch of alien world.

The arch of pale stars was so dense that without a moon it lit, palely, the expanse of white around him;  trackless snow curving smooth over dim lumps and hillocks – equipment or pirates – murky with shadows, rolling out to the dark limits of the stockade walls.

The air was piercing, life-filching, ravenous.


Chafing his gloved hands, he gingerly took in another breath, wincing at the metallic invasion into his chest.  Then he moved a few steps over to the nearest mound.

“Bubo,” he said, his voice low.

In the uncertain light it was not clear if there was any motion.  Perhaps a tiny avalanche, a tremble of white powder.  Piranha pushed his hand through the snow surface, prodded the solidity underneath; for a moment in slight anxiety.

A gruff groan.

Piranha stood back.  After another moment, the craggy shape of the big pirate heaved up, breaking through the smooth covering as if bursting out of a grave.

In the darkness, their black eyes met. 

Bubo gave a slow sigh, seeming to expel a lungful of flakes.  Heavily he got to his feet, nodded at the First Mate, and moved off to start unentombing the others.


For a few breaths Piranha watched him.  Then he turned and trudged, leaving a black trail in the aloof purity of the snow, towards the perimeter.

***

A traditional stockade:  Flat open ground enclosed by a palisade of rough tree trunks – hewn straight, sharpened top and bottom, and hammered into the earth; a tight, dense barrier quite adequate against thrown mud, rocks, even bows and arrows, even crossbows.  Largely adequate against low-powered muskets and other hand-loaded guns firing hand-made lead balls.  Not such a great defence against cannon.  Silently Piranha paced alongside the wall.


At the spring he paused.  He bent to clear the fresh snow from the opening.  A fragile shell of ice crumbled under his gloved fingers.  Had there been some flow?  His fingers quested back towards the source.  No, there was nothing, only frozen earth. 

The big cisterns at least still served to catch some snow.   Nowhere near enough, of course.


Towards the middle of the stockade, the men were gathering.  Small flickering campfires fitfully silhouetted their shambling, inky forms.  In this world of black and white, even firelight barely flushed up any colour.  They were knocking apart old barrels and crates for wood; heating small pans of food; stamping, rubbing their hands and legs; most of them still wrapped in the thin blankets they had slept under.  Now and then he detected a voice, quickly hushed.  Silent, waiting, the men seemed aimless, uneasy – wraiths not yet conscious of their own ghostly state.

He turned again and trudged on.


An inconceivable distance away – not away, rather in some unknown, unknowable other universe – Elly, crouching on a chair in a room, hunched in her own darkness.  He felt her terror. 

He was imagining it.  But it was not imaginary.

“The vents.  The slave quarters.  Disguise.  You’re not hated.  Try.”

His eyes, head lowered.  He jerked himself upright, squeezing his hands into half-numb fists.


His restless pacing brought him to a cluster of large rectangular metal cages assembled from parts brought from the ship, barred on all six sides but wide open to the weather.  The prisoners.  The slaves-to-be.  Perhaps a hundred adults.  Grouper had been right about that much – they were strikingly handsome.  They were tall and slender, not bulky but lithely muscular.  Typically bipedal humanoid, skin mostly unfurred except for the top and back of the head, around the cheeks, and down the spine, they had prehensile, indeed very strong and skillful, four-fingered hands, lightly padded on the undersurface, with small but powerful claws on fingers and toes.  Their skins ranged through shades from very dark to very light, offset with contrasting fur; but all with startling blue or grey eyes. 

Those eyes, eerily pale in the monochrome starlight – every one of those eyes that was open, the face of every one of the captives that wasn’t curled up in painful sleep, was aimed at him, following him step by step as he stalked past their cages.  He did not hurry, he did not avert his own gaze.  From time to time he swung a look at one or another of them as he passed. 

In this species it was not always clear at a glance, at least to an alien, if an individual was male or female.  Most of the younger adult captives huddled together with infants and small children, along with a few elders.  Some of them, injured, were surrounded and sheltered by the others.  They slept in groups under large though inadequate communal blankets.   In a separate, smaller cage were kept the captured fighters, both male and female, most of them wounded, injuries tied up with rags or untended.  They huddled together in the cold under the few blankets provided. 

He passed this cage and then the last, another one of probable females with children.  He passed silently through their stares like a barrage of artillery fire; occasionally he glanced at them without expression.

As he was moving away from the cages, he heard a hiss.  Not simply a hiss, articulate speech.  Then more, a little louder though still low, suffused with such passionate rage that he halted.

He turned.  A woman, he thought – thin and muscular as they all were, though surely thinner and less muscular than she should be – stood at the icy metal bars, gripping them with her padded ungloved hands, her narrowed eyes glaring at him.  He paused, then walked back to stand in front of her.

They stared at each other for a moment.  Then she spoke again, fiercely, as though if she could not physically seize him with her claws, it was some relief to stab him with her voice. 

He looked at her intently.  The people here did not speak Galactic, had never encountered alien beings before.  Their initial contact had been the descent upon them of a swarm of murderous demons emitting beams of incomprehensible death.  Nevertheless, now she stood erect, supple, considerably taller than he, and the savage intention of her mind, encapsulated in her words, was shot at him like bullets.

For a moment he resisted.  Then, resignedly, he opened himself.

“You filthy, runtish brute, parading around in feathers like an animal, come here and open this thing!  Who do you think you are?  Do you know who I am?”

Mildly, he answered her.  “No.  I don’t know who you are.  I have a somewhat better idea who I am.”

In shock, she stared at him for a moment.  Then the rage took her again.

“You speak our language?  And you treat us like this?  Let us go.  Now.  We’re hungry, we’re freezing to death, and no human being belongs in a cage!”

He said, “We are cold and hungry too.  We don’t have much to give you.”

“Then out of what madness did you seize us?  Why did you kill our people?  What do you keep us here for?”

He didn’t answer. 

The steam of her breath fumed in dragonlike bursts from her mouth and nose.  “Don’t think you’ll get away with this!  No one, no one has ever defeated us!  Certainly not deformed, subhuman beasts like all of you!  If you have any sense you’ll release us now and get out of here while you still can!”

Piranha gave her another calm, expressionless look.  He made a small, formal bowing of his head, and walked away.

She cried, at his back, “We will massacre you!  The prisoners we take will wish they’d been massacred!  You’ll pay triple for every one of us you’ve caught or killed!”

Piranha’s slow, steady steps didn’t alter.  But the passion in her voice, in the being beyond that voice, penetrated him almost physically.


If he had spoken to that one ... if she had spoken to him, would her speech have felt like this one’s?  It would have felt like this one’s.

***

The stockade was set at the foot of a steep hill, enclosing at that side a spring which the pirates had channeled to fill several large cisterns.  The surrounding land had been heavily forested when they began to build; by now it was cleared for a good distance all around the fortress.  There was no cover for anyone to sneak up to the wooden walls or to interfere with the underground river that fed the spring.  But in the last ten or so days – perhaps only because of the bitter weather, they could not be sure – the flow had dried up.  Their only source of water now, outside of their diminishing stores, was the snow that fell every few days; by no means enough for several hundred pirates and their captives.


Further downhill, perhaps 20 minutes by foot from the pirates’ stockade, the nearest village of a few hundred people crouched concealed in its forested glade. 

Or rather, the population had been a few hundred when the pirates first descended upon it.  Things had changed since then.


The pirates were lining up along the stockade wall near the big double doors.  A few were still finishing their scanty meals, extinguishing their little fires or portable lights as they did so.  Others, still wrapped in blankets as they stood, were stamping, checking their guns, ammunition, armour; largely in silence.  Piranha walked up to Bubo, an unmistakable silhouette in the flicker of the last remaining campfire.

Bubo gave him a dark grin. 

“You had a nerve waking me up.  I was dreaming I’d been cast into the fires of hell.  It was bliss.”

Piranha smiled a little, reaching for the steaming mug of soup he offered.  “And you’ve so earned your place there.  Everyone ready?”

“Yeah.  It should be dawn in about two hours.”

“They warm enough?”

“Of course not, but they’ve had rum, a little hot food, blankets, and there are a few self-warming pads from the ship which they’re passing around.  They can’t stand here for long though.”

“No.  We’re not waiting till sunup.”

They crouched in the snow, Piranha sipping hot, thin liquid from the cup, his large eyes sombre behind starlit billows of steam.

“Want some rum in that?”

“Nah.” 

They were silent for a time, Piranha’s gaze moving along the line of pirates, taking in their shapes, their equipment, their motions.

“Bubo.  Are they going to fight?”

“Not much alternative, is there?”

Piranha’s black gaze fastened onto him.  Bubo tried to smile. 

“I mean are they going to fight.”

“I know what you mean.  Piranha, they’re pirates.  They know what’s going on.”

Piranha put down the cup.  “Wish I did.”

“It’s not the first time we’ve dropped off a team to live off the land for a few months and take over an area while the ship was working someplace else.”

Piranha looked at him.  “Without a single robot?  Without even robot cannons?  Without surveying the place first?”

“Piranha, we’ve had tips before from that slaver bastard.  They’ve always been good.  And safe.  I mean, it’s for his own benefit!  His intelligence had to be out of date.”

Piranha lurched to his feet, strode away; snapped a 180-degree turn and strode back.  “Yeah,” he muttered.  “Out of date.  But we couldn’t take a couple of hours to check the local conditions before landing a crew.”

Bubo looked at him, slightly desperate.  “Piranha.  On our first raid in the south of the planet, the natives didn’t even have metal!  You saw it yourself.  They were almost too primitive to take as slaves!  Did anyone – did you – expect we’d be dropped into a mess like this?”

With a sour grin, Piranha hunched down to throw a few handfuls of snow onto the dying fire.  It expired with a faint hiss.

As if that last little scrap of heat had been all that had been holding it off, the enormous frigid mass of the starcover overhead settled down onto the stockade with palpable weight.

Piranha straightened up.  “Let’s go,” he said.

***

The men were lining up along the stockade wall.  As they gathered, Piranha slid aside the cover of the small square peephole let into the wooden slab of the stockade door.  Cupping his hands around the gap to minimize any light show-through, he stared out into the darkness.  After a moment he could see, beyond patchy stands of trees, the mildly hilly slope that led down towards the native settlement, a pale plane of night-fallen snow shining dimly under starlight; and further into the valley, the stand of forest that sheltered the small black huddle of the village. 

And closer to the stockade, cutting across the open snow, the dark grey humps of the fortification line the villagers were constructing.

He closed the panel and turned towards the pirates.  They were bunched together in the cold, swaying a little, some softly grumbling, their breath rising.  They held their metal weapons under their blankets or coats to keep their semi-gloved hands from freezing to them.  Piranha pushed his big hat back on his head.

“All right,” he said.  At his quiet voice, their low muttering ceased.  They eyed him stolidly.

“All right,” he repeated.  “Men.  You know what the situation is.  Natives have been flooding into the area for the past several days.  By now they likely outnumber us.  They’ve been building fortifications, and it looks like they’re bringing in big guns.  We have to act, and it can’t wait.”

A few nods, though most showed no reaction.

“This is what we need to do.

“One:  Wipe out their fortifications.

“Two:  Kill as many fighters as possible.

“Three...”  Piranha’s voice fell away.  The pirates’ eyes, brow-shadowed, mostly black holes in the wan starlight, stayed on him while he appeared to think.  Or overcome a thought.

“Three.  We have to get past the guns and destroy the village.  Don’t waste any effort trying to capture – anyone.  We don’t have the manpower.  What we must do is uproot the base of resistance.  And that – includes the whole population.  These guys are all fighters.”  He looked grimly into the grim shadows aimed at him.  “Right now it’s not about slaves or booty.  It’s about survival.  Do we all understand that?  Any disagreements?”

They looked at him.  In the spindly light it was not clear whether the obscure faces expressed resolution or sullenness.  Piranha looked back at them. 

What pirate would disagree with any of that?  Except the one who said it.  He took a long, weary breath.

“All right,” he said.  He turned towards the big doors, then turned back.

“Remember,” he added, “Silence.  Stealth.  Surprise.  It’s all we’ve got.  Don’t make it harder for yourselves and your teammates.”

They looked at him, at each other, back at him.

Piranha straightened, put his hand against the door.  “All right, you lugs.  You know what to do.  Let’s educate them about galactic pirates.”

The men stirred, some perhaps thinking of a ritual cheer, but Piranha’s gesture halted them.   Then, still sombre, he gave them a thumbs-up.  (They had learned by now what that was supposed to mean.)  Some returned the gesture.  And Piranha waved at the guards to start, quietly as possible, to drag open the big double doors.

***

Dawn was barely touching the horizon, and in the nebulous light the battlefield was an obstacle course of shadows, of human limbs and trunks perilously underfoot.   The darkness rang with the clash of metal against metal, the whip and thud of arrows, the growls and yelps and roars brought on by steel against flesh and sheer red rage.  A sharp, sulfurous smell of gunpowder smoke and the sharper one of electric discharges swirled through the frigid air, sparking through the heavy odours of sweat, blood, and steel.  Piranha, at times surveying from higher up on the hill, at times skimming rapidly down into parts of the battle – while his bodyguard, Bubo and a gang of elite fighters, floundered after him – struggled to keep some perspective on the turmoil and to focus the pirates’ attack.

A small part of the villagers’ cross-hatched, spiked wooden barricade was down, knocked askew by the huge battering rams the pirates had made from tree trunks left over from building the stockade.  The barrier blocked not only the pathways to the village itself, but, more urgently to Piranha, the low earthworks he thought concealed cannons that could breach the walls of the pirates’ stockade.  It was most vital to get to those big guns and capture or disable them.  But the rams had only shoved the first row of the barrier into an impenetrable tangle with the second and third rows.  At the same time, from the first instant of the attack, a stream of arrows had flown out from the darkness, both powerful longbow shafts and crossbow bolts like bullets, rousing consternation among the pirates.  Grimly they had kept up their attack, firing back with their own bullet-firing guns and the few operational energy weapons they still possessed.

After a fierce barrage of projectiles had failed to repel the attack, the villagers themselves had emerged to fight hand-to-hand, charging headlong with bloodcurdling howls.  (Or rather, not so much the villagers as an army, for there were far more fighters now than there had been occupants of the entire settlement a few weeks ago.)  Quickly the battle had spread across the open space between the barriers and the stockade. 

The village fighters swarmed the pirates with pikes and swords, clubs and maces.  Many of them wore leather armour that gave at least a degree of protection from blows and blades, though the swords of the pirates were sharper, harder, and more penetrating than those of the natives.  Meanwhile, as the grey sky lightened, the sniping of arrows grew more accurate and was  supplemented by bursts from barking muskets.

But with all this, still no cannon fire.  Technical problems?  Still, it might start anytime from behind those earthworks.  Orchestrating on the fly, Piranha gestured to the pirates manning the rams, urging them on, calling on others to protect them as much as possible in the midst of the broader battle.  Sometimes in frustration he leaped into the air to get a better look, even jumped momentarily onto Bubo’s shoulder to make himself and his orders more visible – visible to the enemy too, of course, so he didn’t stay there long.  Bubo and his other deputies transmitted his gestures to the others, to the degree that anyone could make out anything in the bad light and drifts of musket smoke.

Then, when he saw that the rams were making progress despite the melee of hand-to-hand fighting, that enough men were surrounding and protecting those working the rams, and shouting to the startled Bubo to take over, Piranha launched himself directly into the battle.  Speeding around, under, between the enormous bodies around him, ducking and leaping, lunging and jabbing, quick with sword and dagger, he darted in and out of other people’s fights, watching for pirates being ambushed, jumping in to terminate a combat that wasn’t going well, snatching any opportunity to take down an enemy not watching for an attack at knee level.

He paused for a moment, panting, to sift the chaos surrounding him for his next move. 

And flew off his feet, struck hard in the left side.  Even before he quite knew he was hit he had yanked himself back into balance in a way impossible for a solid-body; in the same motion twisted round and with savage force surged towards the source of the blow.

And with that surge, the knife tip jammed in the palisade of daggers over his trunk found a chink, pushed through, and by Piranha’s own fierce thrust was driven in deep.

He stiffened, staggered.  Then lurched to the side, wrenching the knife-hilt out of the attacker’s hand, and in the same motion automatically launched a fist.

The fist hit the black-shrouded shape hard in the abdomen, knocking it backwards practically into the arms of Bubo and his deputy Lorat, who were scrambling frantically up to help.  The attacker grunted, having reeled into the point of Bubo’s outstretched dagger. 

The two pirates grabbed him furiously, jerking him half off his feet.  It was only then that Piranha, barely upright, grasped that the enemy attacking him was human.

“No,” he choked.  “Stop.  Wait!”

Simultaneously, Lorat jammed his pistol against the attacker’s head and fired.

“Damn it,” Piranha coughed.  “You—”  They snatched him as he stumbled forward and fell.  A stream of blood ran from his mouth.

***

It was hardly becoming to the dignity of a first mate, even unconscious, to be carried in one man’s arms like a baby; so it was a small knot of pirates, two of them holding him at least nominally upright and a couple of others hanging onto his alarmingly flopping head and extremities, who hustled Piranha through the battle to the stockade and laid him down on a rough tarpaulin near an improvised hospital area where other wounded pirates had been dropped.

“Get back out there,” Bubo told his men.  “Lorat, you take charge.  Wreck those fortifications!”  Then he turned to the small bundle of black cloth on the ground in front of him.

Pushed in almost to the hilt, the knife still protruded from Piranha’s upper left side.  Deep as the wound was, only a rim of dark wetness could be seen in the cloth around the blade, very little spilling over.

But the first mate’s face was asbestos grey.  Eyes nearly shut, he lay so sprawled, so still, that Bubo hesitated to touch him.  He wasn’t breathing.  Watching with growing dismay, Bubo was about to force himself to put a hand on the body for certainty, when it gave a convulsive heave at the air.  Still alive.

No more blood had come from the mouth.  The wound itself  wasn’t visibly bleeding.  But Bubo was nervous of removing the dagger.

For anyone else, that would be because of the danger of a rush of blood.  But Piranha – well, that likely wouldn’t happen, would it?  This wasn’t the first time Bubo had seen him wounded.  Still – this was far deeper than the usual cuts of battle, and in the chest...

Piranha’s eyelids trembled.  His body stirred, subsided.  Once, twice, his head or hand twitched in the direction of the wound. “Ta-ake,” he croaked once.  Then an unintelligible wheeze. 

His head slumped to the side.  His motions were diminishing into less and less frequent gulps at the air.

Bubo eyed him anxiously, debating.  He was reasonably good at first aid, as were many of the pirates, but he didn’t think he was up to staunching a catastrophic hemorrhage.

By now Piranha was the colour of lead.  He had ceased to move.  (Yet somehow – invisibly, beyond the range of perception – something was minutely, intensely vibrating.)  Bubo jittered.

He – whatever he had in there, it wasn’t human-style blood...

At last, the pirate took hold of the dagger, and gritting his teeth, wincing, possibly praying, pulled.  The thing was so jammed between the pickets of Piranha’s vest armour that it refused to budge, until at last he gave a violent, very un-medical yank that would have flipped the first mate’s lightweight little trunk several yards across the snow, if Bubo hadn’t been holding it down with his knee. 

And Bubo gasped with relief.  The dagger was smeared with a thick red substance, partly scraped off by the extraction, and a little more dark fluid seeped out of the wound into Piranha’s shirt and coat; but even with the added injury of removal, there was no gush of blood.  Eternal thanks to all saints, sinners, navigators,  bartenders, and chefs.

And almost at the instant of the metal blade leaving his body, Piranha’s slack, pallid, denatured skin flushed with warmth and much more natural colour.  He gave a shuddering sigh, and, breathing normally, sank into sleep.

He still looked pale and weak; as Bubo removed the first mate’s coat, vest, and shirt, he could see that, disquietingly, the opening of the wound stirred a little as he breathed.  But in no way did Piranha appear on the verge of death, as he had only a minute earlier.

Bubo pulled off his own ragged, dirty jacket, laying it over the first mate’s body to keep him from freezing while Bobo worked on him.

He was momentarily shocked that the short jacket covered Piranha almost completely.  Well, of course it did.

Bubo shook his head with a little grin of self-mockery.  Around Piranha, you really couldn’t believe  your own eyes.  There was just no reconciling the prosaic testimony of mere vision with what that strange being, when in action, forced you to see.

***

Piranha’s eyes opened abruptly. 

It was bright day.  He heard distant shouts, cries, shots, clanging, and surged up.

And, with a startled gasp, collapsed.  He lay flat for a moment, breathing hard, awash in nausea that tumbled him back and forth like a pebble in heavy surf.

Not healed.

No.  Piranha didn’t recover the way ... the other had.

He closed his eyes.  Never mind.  If solid-bodies could go through this then so could he.

More carefully, he began again to sit up. 

And thought better of it. 

Close by he could hear snoring, harsh breathing, the occasional curse or groan.  Other wounded pirates?

Some kind of stiff cloth was wrapped tight around his trunk.  And he wasn’t wearing his armour; not even a shirt.  He was swathed in blankets and almost not quite cold. 

He let out an exasperated huff.  Then half a minute of wrenching coughs.

“Piranha!  Whew, about time you woke up.”

It was Bubo, who evidently had been lying down nearby and pushed himself up on one arm to look at him.  “How are you, First Mate?”

Piranha, not moving, glared at him.  “Very, very, very,” – more coughing – “very pissed off.”

Bubo chuckled.  His head and left arm were sloppily bandaged.  Blending into his smudged, unshaven cheeks, a puffy black bruise surrounded and closed his right eye.

“What’s.  Going.  On out there,” Piranha croaked, perilously.

“Pretty much a draw,” Bubo said, more gravely.  “After I saw you were okay, I went back to the fight.  We drove them off the field, but we didn’t have enough supplies for an attack on their barricades, and they were still flaying us from their shelters with those damn crossbows.  So we retreated.”  He paused, then added, “Right now the rest of the guys are on the walls, holding off the last handful of crazies trying to storm the stockade.”

Piranha gave him a stare and once again tried to leap to his feet – felled instantly by a wave of nausea and pain so intense he nearly blacked out.  He clutched the earth, gasping. 

“Piranha,” said Bubo, with dead calm, “stop doing that, okay?”

“Okay,” Piranha panted.  He took a long, wary breath.  With flagrant insubordination, his eyelids sank closed and he went back under.

***

When he came to, the cold yellow sun was hanging just above the spikes of the wall.  For a time he lay still, checking his breathing, assessing his body for compliance.  After a few tentative motions, it looked as if it might finally be reconsidering its frivolous, traitorous game of pretending to be solid.

He moved the bunched blankets away from his face so he could see.

Everything was quiet.  That was good.  At least, it was better than things very possibly could have been.

Around the compound, the pirates were listlessly recuperating from the day’s battle; scrounging for food, melting snow in tin cups over tiny heaters, hunting for and occasionally briefly fighting over the less uncomfortable spots in which to rest.  Many weren’t moving at all; lying scattered, grouped on and under blankets, slumped against piles of equipment, around dead cooking fires, against the walls.  A few still loitered by the prison cages – fortunately, since it would not have been surprising if in the general commotion the captives had managed to get loose.  The pirates did take turns doggedly patrolling the perimeter of the stockade, checking the peepholes in the walls.  In the centre of the compound was a rickety outlook tower with an observation platform permitting a view outside.  At irregular intervals a pirate would hoist himself up its ladder and peer over the surrounding countryside, down the slope leading towards the guns and the village.  Despite its distance from any possible incoming arrows or bullets, and even with the haphazard attempt that had been made to shield the platform with wooden slats, it was an exposed spot and no one wanted to stay there for long. 

Lying quietly, disinclined to move, Piranha listened to the low sounds of the compound; subdued coughs and groans; now and then a sharp bark of one pirate at another or at a captive; the occasional click or clang or thump of a metal bowl, of somebody hammering a frozen hinge, breaking a chunk of ice, shoving a heavy crate.  At a far greater distance, he felt rather than heard low shocks and rumblings that might be many feet straining and large, heavy objects being dragged over frozen ground.  He turned, uneasily, as though the vibration of the earth caused him pain.

On the ground not far from him, Bubo lay heavily asleep in his shirt, half wrapped in a skimpy blanket.  Beyond him, Piranha noticed more motionless bodies scattered on the ground.

He sat up.  Took an experimental breath.  It hurt.  But it was working.  With considerable caution, he hoisted himself to his feet.

Carefully, he extricated himself from his wrappings.  An excessive pile of blankets.  And Bubo’s jacket.  He pulled that from the pile and laid it over the big human’s upper body, then added one of the blankets.

He could see now that the pirates lying near Bubo were those more severely wounded from the battle.  They lay mostly uncovered on tarpaulins or on the bare ground, in dirty, bloody rags, their wounds untended, their faces grey with pain and cold, many unconscious, some moaning, some quietly sobbing, some quite possibly dead.

Seeing him up, Lorat and a couple of other pirates came over.  They all looked pretty battered.  Piranha gestured at the wounded pirates.

“Why isn’t anyone taking care of them?” he said sharply.  And was ambushed by a paroxysm of coughing.

The pirates, while he coughed, glanced at each other.  Then faced up to his somewhat strained but still focused glare.

“There’s not much water,” Lorat muttered.

“Or food,” added Zorch, behind him.

Piranha inhaled sharply, but instead of speaking, swayed, then staggered a step back to sit, or rather fall, onto what was left of his bed.  After a moment to collect his breath, to suppress the cough-beast, he said hoarsely, “Take these blankets.  Find more.  Cover those men.  Get them off the ground.  Tie up their wounds.  Get others to help.  Anybody not working.

“And by all the gods.  Give them water.”  He paused, fighting for air.  Then gestured at them to get going.

They got going, leaving him with a single blanket.  He lay down, pulled it over his head and shut his eyes.

***

There was still a trace of grey light when he surfaced again.

“Bubo,” he croaked. “You there?  Awake?”

“Am now.”

“Okay?”

“Enough.”

“How those injured men doing?”

“Last I heard, mostly better.  Except we’ve lost Jinpath, Ooshkaluben, Larimar, Stinthaso, Billerting... probably more.”

Piranha tried to breathe some patience into himself.

“What’s.  Going on outside?”

“Still quiet.  Since afternoon.”

Piranha said quietly, “We didn’t get their cannons.”

“No.”

“They drove us back here.”

“Well... yeah.”

There was a pause.  Bubo lay still, his eyes half shut in his big scarred face.

“And...  we’re basically out of food, water, and ammunition?”

“What do you think, First Mate?”  The pirate pulled his blanket up to his chin and rolled onto his back.

Piranha pushed his own blanket away and stood up.  Yes, much better.  Quite a bit better.  He took a couple of steps.  Reasonably better.  He stopped for a moment to breathe, not so much because he was short of air as to quell his irritation and impatience.

He began to pace, pausing, setting off again, pausing – either for dizziness or to look and silently listen – then pacing again over the bare, trampled mud of the compound, frozen into the shape of a rough sea, looking somehow even colder than the snow which had been trodden away.

At last, some of his frustrated energy worked off, he came quietly over to crouch down beside his deputy.  Bubo gazed at him vaguely but didn’t stir.  Although his bandaged wounds didn’t look life-threatening, he appeared content to stay where he was for as long as he could.  In fact, after a few minutes in which Piranha didn’t speak, the big pirate dozed off.

Piranha remained in a crouch, still and silent.  The light had sunk already into black, and an oppressive chill was seeping up from the earth to permeate the narrow band of space in which human life took place.  Towards the center of the compound, men’s forms could be seen, wavering outlines against the embers of a single anemic bonfire.

Glancing over at the silent but attentive first mate, Lopat and a few other pirates crept over to check on the wounded, making sure they were covered against the cold and bringing a little hot soup to those who were conscious.  Lopat brought a cup to Piranha, who nodded and drank some of it.  He waved them away from the sleeping Bubo.

After they had left him with the cup, he went to get his own blanket.  He returned with it to crouch beside his deputy, wrapping himself in the blanket, and waited quietly while the stars emerged.



Bubo woke with a start, disoriented.  Was he in space?  The bone-chilling cold, the black sky, the thickly clustered stars like fireworks frozen mid-burst.

“You up?” said Piranha.  He was still huddled close by.  He took his energy gun, which Dobuzle, the weapons master, had partly recharged that afternoon, and played it at low level on the metal cup of nearly frozen soup.  After a pause for it to cool, he held it out.  Bubo sat up, pulling his blanket around himself, accepted the cup and took a cautious sip.

“I suppose you’d like some rum in that?” asked Piranha dryly.

Equally deadpan.  “I wouldn’t say no.” 

Piranha went to dig out the bottle from Bubo’s nearby small pile of belongings and handed it over.  Bubo smiled graciously.

While the pirate was finishing off that concoction, Piranha got again to his feet.  Restlessly he strode a few paces, held still for a moment of dizziness, paced again.

“So, Piranha, you’re already up and walking.  Whatever that stuff is you’re made of, can I borrow a little?”  Bubo had lain down again, huddled under his blanket.

Piranha glanced at him with mixed amusement and irritation.

“It’s sheer contrariness, Bubo.  You’ve got plenty of that.”

The pirate grinned.  “The question is, is mine going to be enough to stop yours before the next daring act of harebrainery?”

Piranha swivelled sharply to face him. “Harebrained or not, Bubo, if you recall, it wasn’t a native who got me but one of our guys.  Who you idiots immediately went and murdered before we could get anything out of him.”

Bubo’s calmly sardonic eyes met his look.  After a moment, shaking his head, Piranha returned to hunch next to him.  “I mean,” he muttered, “it’s not like it might have been, you know, important or anything to know who was behind an assassination attempt...”

“Sure,” said Bubo, mildly.  “And we might have had more time to think about that, if we hadn’t been in a panic trying to keep the First Mate alive.  Who, I have a vague idea, had just told us that we couldn’t take any prisoners.”

Piranha snorted.  Then after a few moments added, with a soft sigh, “Okay.”  He stared off at the clouds of stars, glittering like crystals of ice in the black night sky.   “And yeah.  I was acting a little reckless.”

Bubo’s uninjured eye glinted at him.  “You think?  But...  You’re right, though.  Wish we’d held onto that son of a bitch.”

Piranha’s gaze continued to drift through the alien star clusters.  “It’s okay, Bubo.  Couldn’t afford the luxury.”

Bubo gave a mirthless grin.  “I personally,” he said, “would have paid quite a bit for the luxury of interrogating him.”

There was a silence.  Then Piranha said, “Does anyone know who he was?”

“Resh thinks he’s one of Hacker’s men, or maybe just a hanger-on.  Thought he’d seen him slinking around.  Guy hadn’t been taken up by any gang.  Can’t have been worth much.”

Piranha grimaced, putting a hand to his side.  “Not that inept...  But you think he was one of Hacker’s, Bubo?  You notice any of Hacker’s men on this trip?”

“Not one.  Which, actually ... is something I’ve been meaning to ask you about.”

“Yeah?”  Piranha’s lips smiled without the least participation of his eyes.

“Listen, First Mate.  I know it was all done in a hurry.  But – I mean, why didn’t you assign any of his gang?  And why so many of mine?”

Piranha smiled more.  “I could ask you the same question.”

“But it wasn’t me —”

“Wasn’t me either.”

“What?  I thought you —”

“And I thought you were doing the crew assignments.”

“But Hacker said —”  Bubo’s voice trailed away.  “Oh.  Megajabbingjolts!  That sneak!  This is too low even for him!”  He glared.  “Yeah.  Nearly my whole gang here.  All of them!  I meant to bring Lorat and Jinpath, but not the rest.  Meanwhile, none of Hacker’s gang here.  None of Pleedarius’s.  And ... quite a few of Ropert’s.”

“Ropert a friend of yours?”

“He is.” 

Piranha’s wry smile twisted a little more.

Bubo went on, his indignation snowballing.  “No accident, was it?  Deliberately breaking the rule of dividing a landing party equally between all the gangs.  That – steam-powered louse!”  He looked at Piranha.  “I thought you had just, well, goofed.”

Shaking his head.  “Oh, I did,” Piranha said.  “I let myself get caught up in the chaos of trying to get the equipment organized, and fuming about the lack of robot fighters, and having fits about all the other things wrong with this mission, and didn’t keep my eye and every spy on him every moment to be sure he wasn’t giving any orders.  Can you believe I’m still that much of a rookie?”

Bubo smiled a little, but his attention was evidently preoccupied either by rage or worry. 

“As if,” Piranha added, ruefully, “you hadn’t spent the last few months begging me to consign him to the junkyard, the sooner the better.”  He smiled again, joylessly.  “Now maybe he’s consigned us.”

Bubo picked up his bottle of rum.  “You really think he knew what we’d be getting into?”

“Who knows, Bubo?  I’m not even sure who selected the landing site.  Or why it was selected.  Maybe somebody had done some research on the technology level, after all.”

Bubo’s scarred brow gathered into a cavern of ridges.  “I can’t – I just can’t buy that, Piranha.  It’s too low even for – well, most pirates.  Even robot pirates.  I mean, they may not care much about the lives of humans, but they do care about booty.  And Hacker doing research?  That’s work.

Piranha was gazing up again at the distant, impassive, sparkling black sky.  “So that guy who tried to speed up my trip to the junkyard.  How was that going to get us any booty?  Or was he trying to get into Hacker’s gang?”

“No sane pirate is going to get himself killed trying to do in the First Mate, especially when he’s surrounded by his bodyguard.  Not even to make Hacker happy.  Not even to get into his gang.  Piranha, that guy had to know he’d be done for, pulling a stunt like that.”

Abruptly Piranha lurched to his feet.  Then took a sharp breath and sank into a crouch again, putting his hands to his head.  Then turned fiercely to Bubo.

“So what the hell was he thinking?”

Bubo gave a short bark of a laugh.  “Sometimes you do things,” he said, “that you wouldn’t – think you’d do.”

Piranha crouched down again, looking sombre.  “Could he just have given up?  Thought we were all going to die anyway?”

Face in his cup, Bubo shrugged.

Piranha sighed.  “Blamed me for this mess.  Might have been as simple as that.”  He again wrapped his blanket around himself.  “He might have had a point.”

They were both quiet for a few moments.  Softly, Piranha went on.  “This attack was our last chance to turn things around.  All we can do now is try to hold out until the ship returns.”  He peered at Bubo, who didn’t meet his eyes.  In the fitful, snow-reflected starlight, his smudge of a face showed nothing definite.

“We didn’t do too badly at first,” Piranha mused.  “If Anaconda had let us have enough manpower and equipment we might have been able to take this area.”  He grinned suddenly.  “But I dunno.  These people... they’re awfully familiar to me...”  He was smiling a strange, remote little smile.  “The only way to win against people like that is to overwhelm them completely right at the start.  Needs gigantic force.  The ship’s guns.  If you miss that chance, you’ll never do it.  Every time you try to hit them they’ll scatter and hide.  Then drift back again, quietly, and pick you off one by one.  You’ll never see them coming.”

He looked again at Bubo, who continued to vaguely avoid his gaze.  “Or, of course ... You could happen to be in the position we happen to be in now.  Having almost nothing left to fight with.  Barely able to stay alive, much less attack.  Then they can just calmly amass their army, prepare their weapons, and either knock down our stockade in an all-out attack, or besiege us until...” 

He paused.  “You’re not saying anything.”

“You haven’t stopped talking,” observed Bubo.

“I have now,” Piranha said.  “Your turn.”

The pirate contemplated his empty cup.  “So... Have you tried the beacon again?”

“Still not working.  Shows the ship’s location but doesn’t raise any response.”

Bubo glugged a small shot of rum into the cup.  “Funny, isn’t it.”

“Not very.”  Piranha watched Bubo gulp the liquid and sigh without satisfaction.  After a moment he said, “So Bubo.  The rewards of the pirate life.”

“Huh?”  Bubo eyed him with suspicion.

“Rum.” 

“Pshhhh,” snorted Bubo, pouring another dollop into his mug.

Unexpectedly, Piranha smiled.  “Booty,” he said airily.  “Comradeship!  Adventure!”

The pirate glared at him incredulously.  “Have you finally shorted out?”

“Romance...” Piranha was gazing up at the stars, bright pinpoint reflections in his large eyes, a puckish little grin on his face.  “Noble combat – in the proud service of a leader unlike any other...”

“Piranha?  Are you sick?  Do you have a fever?  Did that wound —”

Piranha turned to grin at him directly, but the amusement had faded from his face and voice.  “Bubo,” he said, “At times like this a pirate can’t help but – take stock.  You know?”

Bubo simply looked at him.

“In fact,” Piranha added, softly, “in fact...  Well, take you, Bubo.  What about you?  You’ve survived on the Insurrection for quite a few years, as humans go.  You must have learned a thing or two.”

Bubo turned back to his rum.  “Don’t remind me.”

Absently, Piranha picked up the energy gun he had used to heat Bubo’s soup, turned it over a few times in his hands.  He sat still, crouching on his heels, dandling the lightweight thing in his hands.  Then said, “Yes.  So ... I can’t help wondering.  How’d you end up here?  How did you become a pirate?”

Bubo started.  “Why bring that up?”

Piranha gazed away from him into the darkness.  “You’re no fool,” he went on.  “And you know a thing or two.  Yet in spite of that, you took me on, once upon a time.  Decided that I had a future on the ship, while everybody else was trying to shove me down Anaconda’s gullet as a light snack.  And you’ve stuck by me ever since.”

“Can’t expect me to be right about everything,” muttered Bubo.

Piranha fixed a sharp eye on him.  “Frankly, Bubo, not wanting to insult you or anything, but – I can’t help getting the notion that you’re kind of a good guy.”

“Me?  Hell no.  Just – not a fool.”

“On the Insurrection, ‘not a fool’ pretty much means the opposite of a good guy.  So I’m asking you again.  Why are you a pirate?”

Bubo gave a short laugh.  “I have no idea if you’re insulting me or not.  Look, Piranha.  I’m a pirate the same way the rest of us humans are pirates.  I got drafted.  We were invaded.  Like everybody.  When those metal monsters tore through my city —”

“You came from a city?”

“Yeah.  Believe it or not, my planet had some technology.  What it didn’t have was weapons.”

“Really?  Humans without weapons?”

“Really.  Me and my buddies, we worked on the docks, did a lot of heavy lifting, we were all big guys.  When I saw that column of walking machines marching towards us through the street, blowing up buildings it seemed just by glancing at them, I couldn’t understand what I was looking at.  It was a dream, a hallucination.  I was paralyzed.  All of us were paralyzed.  I mean, we had never seen people being shot before.”  He paused for a moment.  “They marched down to the docks, they blew up the company office, the managers, a lot of the workers...  But us longshoremen they didn’t blow up.  They surrounded us like they were corralling cattle, bunched us together and slammed us one by one in the head...  The next thing I knew I was in some huge metal room, chained down to the floor, in a big holding area with hundreds of others.  Men, women, children, screaming and crying...  Lots of kids, there were so many kids that day.

“Then that tall black man-machine – I didn’t know who he was at the time of course, but it was obvious he was a boss – he comes through with a couple of henchmen, pointing at prisoners and barking orders.  I didn’t understand a word any of them were saying, but it was clear enough what he meant.  ‘That one ... that one ... that one ... no, not that one...’  He stops in front of me and looks me over.  His two stooges, one on each side, they’re aiming those blow-up sticks at my face.  I just sat there and looked back at him.  My head felt like the entire metal army had set off their boom-sticks inside it, and I was wondering when it would be my turn to get exploded for real.

“Then he says, in a pretty good imitation of my own language, ‘You a good fighter?’

“I say, ‘I don’t like to fight.’

“‘That’s not what I asked,’ he says. 

“I say, ‘I ain’t found the guy yet to beat me in a brawl.  If I have to fight.’

“He kind of grins in some weird machine way and says, ‘Well, buddy, from now on you have to.’ 

“And they unhook me from the floor and lead me away, along with the other big guys he was picking out.”

He poured yet another shot of rum into his cup, swigged it down.

“Then what?” Piranha said.

“Then what?  I was part of the invasion the next day, that’s what.  Been a pirate ever since.”

“They had you invading your own planet?  Your own city?”

“Well yeah, Piranha.  That’s what they do.  Didn’t you know that?  You’re a pirate, you fight, that’s it.  Doesn’t matter who or where.  Or whether anyone can fight back...” 

“But —”

“I could have said no and been shot right then.  Or do what I’m told and maybe live a little longer.  I didn’t have much time to think about it and my feeling was, I’d rather live a little longer.”

He looked into his cup, then met Piranha’s eyes.  “So don’t call me a good guy.  Some guys didn’t do what they were told.  I did.”

Piranha looked back at him sombrely.

Bubo added, “That’s how it goes.  If you stop to think, you’re dead.  You know.  I couldn’t keep them from invading my world.  Asking them to kill me wouldn’t have helped anything or anybody.  And after you’ve been in a few battles... it doesn’t make much difference who the enemy is anymore.  Whoever they are, they’re still trying to kill you.  Even if they were your own brother yesterday.”

Piranha huddled a little, pulling his blanket closer in the chill of the deepening night.  “Did you have to fight your brother?”

Bubo grinned, sadly.  “Nah, I didn’t have a brother.  But I never found out what happened to my sisters.  Or my parents.  Or...”  He raised his big shoulders.  “Nothing I could do about it then or now.  I’m just a pirate.  I try to stay alive.  That’s all I do.”

They were both quiet for a time.  Then Piranha turned to look at him, a faint, opaque little smile on his face.

“The only part I don’t get, Bubo, is that our Anaconda would debase himself to speak the language of some anonymous little slave planet.  But now...  Think of the great opportunities the Boss has put in your way.  The glorious life of a pirate?  The wealth, the fine food, the healthy exercise, the great vacations...”

Bubo snorted.  “I’m thinking of it right now.  Before you came on board, we were lucky to get fed, much less paid.  Our great opportunity was to get our hands on whatever we could grab and try to keep it away from Blargh and Hacker until some merchant showed up and we could get something back for it.  Plus the drinking.  And mainly, not being dead.”

“Plus,” Piranha said, a glint of mischief in his eyes, “the Black Hole.”

Bubo gave him a sardonic look.  “And the occasional female.  Yeah, I know you don’t like that much – sometimes I wonder about you, Piranha.  Oh, don’t give me that look, you know I don’t mean nothing.  But for me, I miss women.  I had a wife and two little kids back home... god knows whatever became of them.  That’s the glorious life of a pirate for you.”

Piranha looked at him again in silence.  Then he looked at his own hands.  He clasped them together, restlessly, rocked back and forth a little on his feet, still in a crouch.

“So, then Bubo.  Not totally in love with the pirate life?”

Bubo gave a short laugh.  “Like I said.  More in love with that than with not being alive.”

“Yet... Seems to me... you’ve shown signs of... ambition now and then.  I seem to remember...”

Bubo stared at him.  “Huh?”

“I mean, you’re my deputy, not a bad job, but not exactly official...”

“Piranha, what in the blaze of all the suns are you talking about?”

“Maybe First War Lieutenant, like – Tulik was.  One day, maybe, First Mate – but that’s not up to me...”

“First Mate?  What – you’re not dying after all, are you?”  Bubo almost ripped out of his blanket.  Piranha waved him back.

“No, no.  Hell, Bubo, I’ve been pirating too long.  None of that’s important.  Never mind ambition.  Don’t do it for a reward.  Do it for your friends.  Your brothers.  The only family you’ve still got.”

“Do it?  Do what?”

“The beacon’s not working.  Somebody has to go for help.” 

“Go?”  Bubo gaped at him.  “You mean to the ship?”

“Where else?”

Bubo gaped some more.  “How?  ...You don’t mean on foot?”

“How else?”

Bubo sat back, eyeing him as if searching for a previously unsuspected head wound.  “Piranha, it’s almost 300 miles!  It’s impossible!”

“Not impossible.  It’s difficult.”

Bubo just looked at him.

Piranha went on, suddenly all business.  “Look, even the Insurrection doesn’t just abandon its men.  And equipment.  But they’re not scheduled to pick us up for another few weeks.  They have no way of knowing we can’t hold out that long.  Maybe it’s Hacker’s doing somehow, but the beacon isn’t communicating.  Somebody has to go there.  It needs to be you.  You’re the only one I would trust to try to make it.  Take food and water with you and my gun with the solar recharger.  You should be able to keep it going enough to —”

Bubo was shaking his head with glazed incredulity.  “First Mate.  Sir.  Are you listening to yourself?  Me, heading straight into Hacker’s face?”

“You’re smarter than he is, Bubo.”

“Hah!  But even if I could sneak around Hacker...  How do you possibly expect me to get that far?”

“You still have two feet?”

“At the moment, yes, but 300 miles—”

Piranha put a hand on his arm.  The unusual contact brought Bubo to silence.

“Bubo.  Stop looking at the obstacles.  Look at what’s necessary.  You know we can’t hold out here.  If we don’t contact the ship, we’re all going to be dead.  Which I gather you’re not in favour of.”

Bubo groaned.  “How will I find the damn thing?”

“You’ll take the beacon.  The directional function still works.”

“But then you won’t —”

“You’ll take it.”

The big pirate sat staring at the ground, then up at the sky faintly pulsating with stars, then down at the ground again.  A sort of shudder seemed to pass through him.  “But... but... it’s...  Oh, hell.  What if I don’t make it?”

“Then all of us here will die.”

Another silence.  At last Bubo said, with the flat calm of one tied, blindfolded, and being positioned on the scaffold, “Gods.  I can’t believe it.  I can’t believe I’m even considering it.”

Piranha patted his arm.  “See?  You are a good guy.  Thanks, Bubo.”

[End of part 1]
Once again I emerge from limbo to drop another bit of this story into the lap (or laptop) of anybody who's still interested.  A new chapter!  I feel like we're finally getting someplace.  Going to try to keep this chapter to three sections.  Let's see if I manage to do it.

My deepest thanks to :iconmewitti: who has helped me so much with this installment, and who on top of that provided the gorgeous visual piece of atmosphere that heads the text.  Thank you again!

As a reminder, this is fanfiction.  Rayman (known as Piranha) is © UbiSoft, even if they've long moved on from the more or less Rayman 2 character who is the subject of this fanfic.  This guy has pretty much nothing in common with the recent games, so if you only know those he won't make much sense.  The other characters in this chapter are all my own.
Published:
© 2020 - 2021 Rayfan
Comments6
anonymous's avatar
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Kiwiblatt's avatar

I noticed the update at 2am and I do not regret staying up to read it.

awesome as always <3


(btw have you ever considered to upload the story on archiveofourown?

I'd love to see it up there, easier to access for ppl. just a suggestion tho!)

Rayfan's avatar

Thank you for the comment! And for the suggestion. I only recently found out about archiveofourown and I'm looking into uploading there - especially since Deviantart went down the tubes. (I am also on fanfiction dot net although it's not the greatest either.)

dbkit's avatar
I just realized this updated. I'm ashamed of myself! Reading right now!
Rayfan's avatar
Thank you for reading!  No apologies or shame necessary :D
Rhavencroft's avatar

When Piranha updates Zoom Eyes

It's always awesome to see stuff from you!

Rayfan's avatar
anonymous's avatar
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