Captain Pepper Corstorphine drummed her long fingers on the ship's console and glanced listlessly at the running vid game she was playing with her partner and friend, Kade. As usual, he was winning. He beat her nine out of ten times, but playing games was better than sitting in her chair staring at the stars of space while they hunted space junk. "Why do I bother trying to beat a cyborg?"
Kade turned his sober and scarred face to look at her, but his hookup to the console kept the game running. His face, one of the few human things visible on him, was enough to scare small children, but laser blasts did that to you. The only things untouched by his former profession of Imperial soldier were his big brown eyes. "Because you're bored out of your mind. However, it pays the bills to scour the sector for occasional hunks of debris and the rare metallic meteor worth hauling in for a few credits."
Pepper knew that. Even their conversations had become an endless loop on replay. She sighed and stood. "Give me the damn helmet. I need some virtual exercise."
"Shall we play naked and vulnerable?" Kade pretended to leer at her. They'd served as each other's sexual release often, but diddling with a cyborg's extensions wasn't much of a turn on for her. "We haven't gone without our armor in a few cycles."
"You're bored, too, aren't you?"
Kade shrugged. "Tired of being half-man and half-machine. Half a life is what I call it. I'd welcome a bit of danger right now."
Pepper reached for the virtual helmet, but the console proximity alarm beeped the warning sequence. Instantly, she was diverted. Either they had a collection to make, or they'd be arguing with another space junker for rights to the immediate sector. Either way, it was better than boredom. "Woohoo! What have we got?" Pepper hopped back into her chair, shut down the game, and called up extra power for grapplers or a boost to the engines of her ship, the Tor.
It may have looked like a patchwork of technology and corrosion, but the Tor was hers. Okay, it was the creditors' until she achieved payoff. Her ship looked like the junk they collected, but that ugliness was deliberate. Even the corrosion was fake, but would pass casual scans.
"Metal, Pepper! A big hunk of it. Barest trace of an energy signature, and it's not photon propulsion. It's--I don't believe I'm saying this--nuclear fission and fossil fuel." Kade's eyes lit up in greed and joy, even if the screen gave his face an eerie green cast. "I think we have a whole derelict, and it's bigger than a satellite or probe. It may be a ship!"
Her heart raced, and Pepper dove to look for herself. Hope flared in her greedy heart. A whole ship could get them darn close to payoff and much closer to freedom than either had thought possible. She and Kade discussed endlessly what they'd do if they ever got to payoff without ever believing it could happen before they were too infirm to enjoy it. "Dollavera's Nuts! Let's get over there and confirm."
The wedge-shaped hulk hove into view, beautifully framed by a nearby nebula. The white hull gleamed and winked, belying the pocked appearance of a hull that wasn't meant for deep space. "What's the inscription on the side there? I can't read it, and I thought I was pretty good with the common trade tongues."
Kade focused on the side of the ship and captured an image as well as deploying the grappling magnet. The magnet attached to the nose cone with ease, assuring their claim over the entire bulk. "Accessing the data. Hmm. It's Old Earth French, Pepper. The name of a museum called the Louvre, but that's odd. The registry number is for another ship called Enterprise. The Enterprise was supposedly destroyed during the reign of the dictator Amin in the early twenty-first century."
"Louvre? Weird name. So is it the Enterprise or the Louvre?" Pepper leaned forward to study their prize. Their big, hulking ticket to freedom. She did a tiny jig behind Kade's chair. While historical dating could place the ship and give them clues as to what types of saleable items it might contain, they could explore for themselves. It would just take longer, and longer meant more time for pirates to find them. A pulsing light caught her eye on Kade's console. "What's the energy readout blinking for?"
Kade's extensions were busy and his voice absent. "Weak energy pulse. I haven't identified the source yet. One question at a time, Captain Greedy." Images flipped at rapid speed on his screen, slowed and stopped. An image of a ship identical to their prize stood against a pale blue sky. "That thing was never meant to be here in deep space, Pepper. It was called a shuttle, meant only for flights of short duration between nearby objects of a planet, like to orbiting space stations and back to the ground. Our prize was one of only twenty shuttles ever created, and all were presumed destroyed." Kade gestured out the window. "What we have there isn't supposed to exist."
"So, no chance of knowing what's on board. Delia's tits. Okay, so we suit up and go look." Pepper sighed. "Does the pulse come from the nuclear power? I don't want a radiation leak contaminating my best power suit."
"No leaks that I can find." Kade clamped down his helmet, sealing his vulnerable face behind a smoky mask. His voice issued from the radio speaker on the console, and would until Pepper tuned in to his channel from her own suit. "I'll go see to the jet packs while you primp."
Pepper laughed and jumped into the bottom half of her suit. Since she wore a singlesuit coverall unless she was sucking up to some officious government type, primping like a sex slave was out of the question. Not that such action did her much good. Pepper fingered the scar that ran from her hairline over her eye to her jaw. No male would look at her without wincing, and that was the way she wanted it. She hit the button that lowered the top half of her suit and fitted herself inside.
By the time they jetted over to the ship, Kade had already located a hole in the hull large enough to let them enter, just behind the command module. He dove right in, and Pepper was seconds behind. They both fought with the odd wheel that opened the door to the next portion, labeled crudely "Cargo Bay."
There was no sound in space, but Pepper could imagine the creaks and groans emitted by the old mechanism when it finally gave way and spun freely. The door opened into a darkened area where strange shapes floated in the zero gravity. All were packaged, some crudely, to protect them, and many showed signs of collision with other objects.
"I'm going to cut this one open." Kade changed his left appendage from scanner to knife, and scored along the textile covering a very tall and long object. After several attempts, the wrapping fell away revealing a human female figure made of stone, starkly white in the darkness. "This looks familiar. Let me access the ship's database."
Pepper waited, pushing away the occasional object floating too near for her comfort. She'd seen statues before in pictures, mostly in newsvids of the richest homes. This statue was beautiful in a way Pepper could not describe. Pity its arms had been broken off, though they weren't in evidence nearby.
"Holy Lextu! Pepper! Turn on your link. Take a look at this." She'd never heard Kade's voice have that tone of awe and excitement before.
Pepper tongue-switched on her access to the ship, and an exact picture of the statue appeared on the tiny screen in her hood. She listened carefully to the accompanying recording.
Last known picture of Venus de Milo statue, lost in 2015 during reign of dictator Amin. Presumed destroyed in his cultural purge, along with all contents of museums in major metropolitan areas of Europe, Asia, and parts of North America. Estimated value at time of destruction was incalculable...
Kade ended the transmission. "If this is the real thing..." His voice trailed off.
She didn't blame him. The odds of authenticity were millions to one, and not worth speculation. Pepper stared at the other floating packages, tempted to open them all and find out if their contents were of a similar nature. She shrugged, even if Kade couldn't see her do so. "We can study the rest of the cargo at leisure. No sense in getting our hopes up. The metal and techno of this ship is something we can grasp a value on. Let's find out what's behind another door."
"Schematics say we should look over there." Kade pointed to the back. "That doesn't match the plans for the shuttle known as Enterprise. We should investigate what that change is and why it's there."
They made their way carefully to a crudely welded portal at the end of the area known as Cargo Bay. There was no handwritten label on that door, but at least the wheel turned easily.
This time, Pepper went first into the tiny room crowded with machinery, readout consoles, and conduit leading to one long tube of some transparent material. Inside the tube, floating in a mist, lay a humanoid figure.
Kade jetted in front of her, weapon at the ready. "Easy, Pepper. We don't know what this is." He studied a small metal label, running along one of the black bands holding the clear material together. "I'll process this language through the ship."
Pepper studied the room, her weapon raised for the slightest mishap. Several lights blinked fitfully across some of the machines, though some were clearly disabled. A hole in one machine corresponded to a hole in the hull above them, indicating a piece of space debris had wrecked the machine.
"Pepper..." Kade's voice held a tinge of fear in it. "This is a human. And it's alive."