The Night Shift
Hey folks, wrote this in a day so feel free to point out spelling/grammar etc. It'd be much appreciated. OK, so this is a long overdue follow up to my piece "Just Another Day" which won last years fiction comp. It further explores the murky depths of the Quaestus Questus, a Corsair vessel crewed by a villainous pack of miscreants. I advise you to read Just Another Day before or after reading this, they aren't strictly chronological. You can find the link for Just Another Day in my signature at the bottom of this story or here. https://www.heresy-online.net/forums/...ad.php?t=42342
Please comment if you read and I hope you enjoy.
THE NIGHT SHIFT
After thirty-six hours of relentless duty, exhaustion was slowly beginning to tighten its grip on Damascus Hotham. The command throne creaked beneath his aching buttocks, it’s unforgiving rigidity providing little comfort to its occupants. He shifted his weight, attempting to placate his weary behind, another creak betraying the throne’s aged condition. The Captain had once told him during a heavy drinking session that the command chair was one of the few original fixtures of the ship, installed before the Quaestus Questus had departed the dry-dock. Hotham was unsure who had built the infamous vessel, but was certain of one thing; they’d never been forced to endure a forty hour shift. Silently cursing the mystery engineer, he continued to squirm.
Although the Command-Bridge was the apex of ship security, tactical-analysis and navigation, deep in the night-cycle, it was eerily peaceful. Two weeks into a month long immaterium-dive, the majority of ship-systems were idle or offline, leaving the bridge considerably less hectic than usual. A resonating hum from the engines percolated throughout the vessel, adding an ever-present foundation to the bridge’s soundscape. Four crew members worked under his command, stood at various stations around the humid deck. As First Mate, Damascus Hotham regularly found himself in control of the Quaestus Questus, especially on long-hauls such as this. His subordinates silently operated their assigned stations, fully aware that it was neither the time nor place to make small talk. A general rule of thumb dictated that a minimum crew of five must man the bridge at all times. In addition to a commanding officer, a helmsman was required to operate navigational systems, propulsion and manoeuvring. Perpendicular to the helm was the tactical-analysis station, which controlled void-shields and primary armaments. On top of this, a tech-head’s presence was always required to liaise with Engineering. Finally, hard-wired at the stern of the bridge was the Navigator. Needed whenever the corsairs traversed Warpspace, the sanctioned-psyker would use his “gift” to guide the ship through the treacherous void. Hotham glanced back at the Quaestus Questus’ navigator. The slimy wretch was slouched in his socket, plugs and wires invading his body from all angles. Hotham suspected it wouldn’t be long before this bastard was burned out, forcing the Captain to initiate the search for a replacement. Last time they lost a navigator, the crew were anchored at a remote trade outpost for months, effectively marooned whilst Captain Xotuxo acquired a replacement psyker. That was a situation Hotham had no intention of repeating.
A shrill beep was emitted from the throne’s armrest. Tapping a quick sequence of commands into his personal console, a drained Hotham brought up the received report on the armrests inbuilt screen. Scanning it quickly, he grunted his thanks to the tactical officer. This was the shift’s tenth and final security report and it was identical to the previous nine. No disturbances on board. No outstanding misbehaviour. Sifting through the various figures and sensor readings, Hotham wondered why they even bothered preparing these reports. No-one in their right mind dared to challenge the Captain’s authority. And those who did, rarely lived to regret it. A few more taps on the console and Hotham archived the report as usual. Unable to stand the discomfort of the throne any longer, the First Mate hoisted himself from the chair, joints cracking as they stretched for the first time in hours. Two of the bridge-crew threw him a fleeting look, before returning to their duty. It wasn’t their place to question his actions. Only one man on the ship had that right.
With skin as black as charcoal, Damascus Hotham towered over his inferiors, his long limbs creating a gangly figure. Bathed in the infrared light of the Bridge, he resembled a fiery devil, his mangled face leering at those around him. Long, shaggy hair was dreadlocked in an unkempt fashion, pointing to his piratical vocation. Methodically he paced the Bridge, his heavy boots clanking on the grimy deck. The incessant sound of fingers working consoles steadily escalated as, one by one, Hotham inspected each station, breathing down the neck of each corsair. A grin spread across his face, flashing gold teeth as he took note of the crew’s trepidation. It was good to know they feared him. Xotuxo had told him that. The Captain always lectured “Fear is the most effective control mechanism known to man.” Apparently it was an ethos Xotuxo had inherited from his previous master and one that Hotham had readily embraced in turn. From what he’d heard the scumbags in the Guard had a similar ideology, invoking terror in the men using something called Commissars. The lanky pirate often wondered why any man would willingly join that sort of army. Who in feck’s name would choose to slog their guts out, fighting some other bastard’s war? A high likelihood of death and pitiful wage didn’t seem a very attractive proposition to Hotham. Of course he had ever known anything other than ship life.
Born in the brig of a rogue trader vessel, a young Damascus had been raised in deep space, moving from ship to ship, crew to crew, following his parents as they struggled to make a living. As a child, he showed a flair for nautical craft, learning from anyone willing to teach him on the lower decks. Naturally, Hotham left his parents, full of ambition and dreams. Equipped with an unprecedented naval knowledge, the young man was quickly picked up by a trading cruiser, rising through the ranks swiftly. When the Quaestus Questus had materialized off the port bow, disabling the cruisers engines and limited weaponry in seconds, Hotham, like the rest of the crew, thought he was doomed. However in a kind twist of fate, the Corsair Captain Xotuxo, having just led a violent mutiny, was in need of experienced helmsmen and engineers. The image of his old home and ship, exploding under battery-fire was burned into Hotham’s subconscious, as he watched safely from aboard the Questus. On that day he crossed a boundary. From which, he would never return. A decade serving as a Corsair and Damascus Hotham had never looked back. His tactical nous and level-headedness saw him inducted into Xotuxo’s inner circle, ultimately achieving the position of First Mate. He stood as the Captain’s right hand, providing council and advice; his youthful ambition satisfied.
The life of an outlaw had proven to be exceedingly lucrative. Hotham’s share of loot was second only to the Captain and, when serving a ship as notoriously effective as the Quaestus Questus, the loot was usually astronomical. His apparel stood testament to this fact. On the Battle-Bridge, Hotham stood in a fine silk shirt and reptile leather pantaloons. The pearly white shirt was unbuttoned nonchalantly, revealing his tattooed chest beneath. At his waist was a slack holster, loosely hanging in a style synonymous with gunslingers across the sector. In the holster sat what could only be described as a hand-cannon. The heavy pistol was a solid-slug weapon, loaded with tremendously high-calibre rounds. It gave Hotham a certain peace of mind whenever it hung at his waist, providing a warm blanket of insurance. Various piercings covered his face, including several ear-rings and skin-studs. Together with the tattoos, they were a reminder of the control he had over his body. He was the master of his own skin, and no-one could take that away from him.
His ache-induced pacing had brought him face to face with the Navigator. Unlike the rest of the Bridge crew, Hotham was unaware of this man’s name or personality. Why would he? This was the Navigator; a human who served the same purpose as the engines or cartographic processors. He was a tool, and tool’s didn’t have names. Before he could become any more disgusted by the pathetic creature, someone spoke for the first time in hours.
“Sir. We have a problem.”
Wheeling round, Hotham looked directly at the tactical operator. He was a brutish fellow who went by the name of Jacobs. Built like an ox, Jacobs was Hotham’s binary opposite. A veteran corsair of two decades, he was a trusted crew member and if he claimed there was a “problem” there most definitely was. The First Mate barked out in a deep voice.
“What is it?”
“Disturbance on the lower-decks, sir. Reports sayin’ a fight’s about to break out.”
“Which deck exactly?” Hotham enquired. Jacobs entered a code into his console before replying.
“Deck Three, Section Eighteen, sir.”
Hotham nodded slowly. A part of him was angered by the disobedience but what more could be expected. On these long warp-dives, the idle crew were sometimes prone to bickering. Usually a good flogging would set any man straight. He was quietly glad that an opportunity for him to escape the bridge had presented itself. His deep voice spoke again.
“I’ll take care o’ the scurvy bastards.”
Crossing to the command-throne a final time, the lanky figure input one last command before data-locking the console. Promptly, the bridge doors hissed open and a sixth corsair entered, ready to relieve him. Striding towards the open door, Hotham glanced back at the veteran.
“Mr Jacobs, you have the Bridge.”
“Aye sir. Are you sure ya won’t be needin’ no ‘elp?” Jacobs growled, limping his way to the command throne.
Gold teeth flashing, Hotham smiled, facing the man. Delicately he drew his silver revolver, cocking the firing mechanism for good measure.
“I think I’ll be just fine mate.”
The doors hissed back shut behind Damascus Hotham as he marched away into the darkness. Feeling sorry for the poor dogs who’d suffer the First Mate’s wrath, Jacobs sat back in the throne. As ever, it was as comfortable as a bed of nails. Shaking his head irksomely, the tactical operator began running a diagnostics check. It was going to be a long night.
It had all started over a pack of tobac sticks. At least that’s what Dravick had thought it had started over. From the way the obese ninker was bellowing at him, any spectator would have sworn that he’d screwed the guy’s mother. A bigger and bigger crowd were starting to gather, jeering at the blob to “smack” him and “tear him a new one.” Sheepishly, Dravick had retreated, suddenly finding his back against the smooth metal of a bulkhead. He had nowhere to go. He frantically wracked his brain, struggling to identify the source of the blob’s rage.
Dravick had been a deckhand for nearly a year, a glorified cleaner, whose job entailed scrubbing the gantries and deck-plating for eight hours a day. He couldn’t complain though, anything was better than slumming in some godforsaken hive for the rest of his life. At least with the Corsairs, he had prospects. So, as usual, after his shift he made his way to the third deck for some recreation. Every person on the ship knew Deck 3 was the place to go if you wanted some fun. Gambling, drinking, prostitutes, you named it and you could find it on the third deck. “The Decree”, as some drunk had baptized it, was spawned from a private gathering of a dozen or so corsairs to gamble their wages and drink till they couldn’t feel their legs. This tradition steadily evolved over the years, growing in size and scale until it reached its current state. Now, the entirety of the third deck was made up of brothels, saloons and taverns, mostly made from scrap metal and looted supplies. The Decree had become a permanent fixture of the Quaestus Questus, today as infamous as the vessel itself. Of course, Xotuxo knew about the cradle of debauchery and villainy within the heart of his ship, as had the previous five captains of the Questus. But instead of condemning the murky operation, it was encouraged. Xotuxo knew that The Decree served a purpose, allowing the vessel to go for extended durations without the need for shore-leave. He knew that if the men were satisfied, then he could keep the ship on the fringes of the sector for prolonged periods of times, enabling the Quaestus Questus to maintain its reputation as a phantom hunter. It was even rumoured that the Captain himself, occasionally frequented The Decree, placing a bet or two.
The deckhand Dravick was a regular visitor to The Decree, divulging himself in all sorts of lurid activity. He was a patron of one saloon in particular, known as “Riley’s”. Here, any fellow could drink till his heart’s content and find gamblers willing to throw away their hard-earned coin in a blaze of cards and dice. Owned by the aforementioned Riley, the saloon was a popular watering-hole for many men of similar rank to Dravick, a trend found throughout the third deck. Officers drank with officers. Deckhands gambled with deckhands. It made sense to place wagers with men in a similar financial situation after all. Just like any other day, Dravick had taken the gyro-lift down to The Decree and entered Riley’s. As always, the air was hazy with smoke, the sweet, intoxicating smell of amasec unmistakable. It wasn’t long before he had joined a game of Deadman’s Dice with a group of tech-heads, glad to finally be off duty. That’s when the altercation had erupted.
A particularly tense standoff had occurred, with several cartons of tobac-sticks and five hundred Cerebran crowns in the pot. As the stakes had risen, the men had steadily dropped out until only Dravick and the Blob remained. Earlier in the game the Blob had introduced himself but Dravick hadn’t been paying attention, more interested in acquiring another shot of cognac. As they revealed their respective hands, it was determined that there was a dead draw. Usually a simple process of splitting the pot between the remaining players, Dravick always saw a draw as a blessing. “Better than losing” he figured. Although clearly vexed at the result, the Blob began splitting the pot, pushing half of everything to Dravick’s side of the table, until all that remained was a single carton of tobac-sticks. And this, from what Dravick could tell, was where the argument began. Insisting he owned the tobac, the Blob was outraged when Dravick opposed him. Several exchanged insults later and the argument had quickly escalated. Before he knew it, Dravick found himself thrown out through the saloon doors, back against an unyielding bulkhead and surrounded by a crowd praying for a brawl.
And that was how this sorry situation had unfolded. Dravick was still unsure whether it had been the dispute, one of the insults or merely a combination of both, that had riled the glutinous oaf. Either way, the prognosis didn’t look good. Frantically searching for a way out of his predicament, Dravick tried to barge his way through the mob. Grubby hands pushed him back to the centre of the assembled circle, forbidding him to escape. The Blob still bellowed furiously, declaring how he was going to smash the deckhand to a bloody pulp. Dravick, accepting his fate, finally turned to face his enraged foe.
Damascus Hotham left the gyro-lift before it had stopped moving, landing heavily on the deck plating. He wasted no time before stalking off towards the reported disturbance. As he passed, Hotham glimpsed a battered and damaged name-plate, highlighting the reader’s current location. DECK THREE. Over time, the centre of the name-plate had eroded away, some of the letters now invisible. The only lettering still clear read:
“D E C R E E”
“You just need to calm down my friend. You want the tobacs? Fine, take them. Take the whole feckin’ lot,”
Dravick held his hands up in surrender. Some surly bastard in the crowd shouted something, egging the Blob on. In the mass, Dravick could see the wizened Riley, laughing along with his peers. That bastard! After all the drinks Dravick had bought from him. Red-faced the Blob shouted,
“I’m gonna beat you so bad yo’ ma’s gonna cry.”
Dravick couldn’t stop himself. No sooner had the words rolled off his tongue; he knew he’d gone too far.
“Surely you mean “eat” my friend.”
The crowd unleashed a simultaneous “oooohh”, laughing and heckling the Blob. The red-face turned purple as the Blob slowly deciphered the insult, audibly grinding his teeth. He unleashed a howl, suddenly pulling a switch-blade from a concealed pocket. Flicking the knife open, his eyes widened. The spectators suddenly fell silent. The dispute had suddenly become far more serious. What was once a potential bar brawl had now turned into a life and death situation. The circle gradually grew bigger, none willing to risk getting caught up in the lethal fight about to unfold. Several gaps opened up; no-one wishing to trap the deckhand any more. Unwilling to turn his back and run, Dravick’s heartbeat tripled, pounding in his chest like a drum of war. Desperation took over, provoking him to make a final plea.
“Come on. Put the blade down mate. You ain’t thinkin’ straight. Too much grog and not enough sleep. What do ya say?”
The Blob merely spat a two word profanity, before charging at the startled Dravick. As the knife lunged towards his throat, all Dravick could do was close his eyes.
The cannon boomed three times, deafening those who were stood too close. The high-calibre rounds, each a deadly chunk of dutanium, flashed from the barrel towards their target. The first bullet took off the Blob’s hand at the wrist; the knife skittering across the floor. The second ripped into his left knee, blowing out the Blob’s kneecap in a miasma of blood and cartilage. The third slug embedded itself in the Blob’s flabby stomach, penetrating the layers of fatty tissue and destroying his gut. Slowly opening his eyes again, Dravick watched as the Blob crumpled to the floor, leaking scarlet blood onto the floors he had cleaned last week.
Fifty yards away, Damascus Hotham lowered the smoking revolver, three ejected cases smouldering at his feet. No-one dared speak a word as the First Mate casually approached the prone body. The awkward silence continued as the suave Hotham rolled his victim over, using the toe of his boot. Face up, the Blob was revealed to shockingly be still alive. Blood dribbled from his mouth, flowing down his double-chin and neck. Coughing painfully, the Blob’s watery eyes looked up to behold his judge, jury and executioner.
Looming over the miserable excuse for a human being, Damascus Hotham snarled, fracturing the silence.
“There are two types of people in this universe. Those who can pull the trigger.....and those who can’t.”
Hotham lowered his pistol, to the Blob’s skull.
“Unfortunately for you mate, I’m a member of the former.”
A final shot echoed through The Decree. The Blob’s head exploded, ejecting brain matter and blood, splattering several stunned spectators. One more slug-casing clinked down on the cold, steel floor.
The hand-cannon span three times in Hotham’s hand before being re-holstered. Throwing a flamboyant salute to the bewildered Dravick, the First Mate strolled away, heading for the lift. Stopping in his tracks, he glanced back one final time.
“Oh, Riley. Sorry about the mess.”
When u writing about more of ths ship? that was awesome.
Thanks, next will be Riley's story, the ship fence and grizzled bartender. We'll see. Thanks again for reading.
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