Stealth had always been Dawson’s forte until it didn’t work anymore. The shipmate who’d found him twisted his ear as he hauled him on deck, and he squinted as a close dwarf star’s light pierced his eyes. The light temporarily stunted his focus. He wished it would stay that way, but his eyes soon cleared and he cringed at what he saw.
All around Dawson was death. Ol’ Patch Eye scrubbing the floors would get his throat slit. The pot-bellied chef talking to Patch Eye wouldn’t have much of a gut left. One of the officers was going to be shoved off the side of the ship and drop into deep space until the dwarf star’s gravity sucked him in.
It’s not that Dawson saw people’s futures. He just saw how they were going to die. It was his gift—or his curse—and he’d had it ever since he’d cheated death four years ago. He only knew one other person who’d had the same gift and that was only because Dawson hadn’t been able to see his death. Dawson had killed him. He’d had to. That was the rule of the curse.
“Keep moving!” ordered the shipmate.
Dawson grunted, but complied. The shipmate pulled him into the captain’s cabin, leaving plenty of visions of death behind.
The captain stood at a desk, his first mate lieutenant by his side. Both looked up at the shipmate and Dawson when the door opened. Neither seemed pleased.
“Explain yourself, shipman,” the lieutenant ordered.
“Stowaway, sir. Found him hiding among the shipment.”
The lieutenant glared at Dawson. Dawson stared right back. Unfortunately, the first mate would live to see another day. Dawson had already plotted his escape, but it didn’t involve sticking close to the lieutenant. There were others who wouldn’t die on board that he’d planned to stay near. Dawson just hadn’t expected to be caught before then.
“You know the law, shipman,” the lieutenant went on. “Chain him below until we can see to a proper execution.”
“He’ll need to stand trial,” said the captain.
The lieutenant stiffened. “We can test him at the hanging.”
“Let’s have him executed, then,” the captain resolved. He circled around the table to stand in front of the boy, studying him inquisitively.
“I could use a change in mood. An execution would prove entertaining.”
Dawson thought quickly. “You’re gonna die,” he said.
The captain grinned, then burst out laughing. “I think you’ve got it the wrong way around. You delusional kid?”
Dawson maintained his resolve. People always reacted that way. “You’re gonna die. Your lieutenant’s gonna desert you in battle and you’ll get a sword in the heart.”
The captain kept grinning. He turned to his lieutenant, who was looking at Dawson dumbfounded.
“Is this true, lieutenant? Would you desert me?”
“Of course not, captain.”
“It’s true,” Dawson persisted.
“We could arrange an execution,” the lieutenant said, adjusting his collar. “It’d keep the crew entertained.”
“Then let’s get on with it.”
Next thing Dawson knew, he was on deck again, tied to the main mast. The crew gathered round, ruffian creatures from various planets who’d seen more time out in space than on soil. The captain stood on the quarterdeck.
“Boy!” The lieutenant called down. “You have the right of one statement before your death. Have you anything to say?”
Some trial. Dawson opened his mouth to speak—
All eyes turned to the crow’s nest. An eight-eyed arachnid poked his head out from the top.
“Pirates, captain, off the starboard —!”
The ship rattled from impact. Some lost their footing. Jaws dropped as another ship rose up from below on the starboard side as if out of nowhere. Atop its mast, black and red colours flapped.
“It’s Zeher!” the lieutenant yelled.
A jolt of fear paralyzed Dawson’s body. The notorious Captain Zeher, ruthless pirate of the galaxy, left no survivors. Only one person had ever escaped and by the time his body was found dead in Outer Quadrant 623 on one of the Wilderplanets, word of the pirate had spread like an exploding supernova.
“To arms, men!” the captain yelled.
Few were able to grab their weapons before pirates boarded the ship. A snake man slithered past Dawson’s feet and slit ol’ Patch Eye’s throat. A freaky alien Dawson couldn’t describe gorged out the chef’s gut. An enormous ox man, four horns on his head, slammed three crew members over the railing, one being the shipmate who’d captured Dawson, another an officer.
The captain leapt to the main deck, fending off the attackers like he was a one man army.
“Lieutenant!” he called.
Dawson saw a skiff zipping away. He could barely make out the lieutenant’s head poking out along with three others.
“Curses!” the captain spat.
He jumped out of the way of the charging ox and barely evaded the quick stab of the snake. He rushed the snake man, thrust his sword into its chest.
“You knew this would happen, boy!” he yelled at Dawson.
“I told you you’re going to die,” Dawson replied. He tried to mask his fear, but his insides churned. He knew the pirates wouldn’t let anyone live, him included.
“This can’t be happening!” the captain sneered.
Another pirate swung from the enemy ship to the main deck. The others backed away as the new foe strode toward the captain with slow, steady steps.
The captain faced the new threat. His face twisted into a grin.
“A woman? You’d let a woman challenge me?”
The woman didn’t respond. She drew her sword, her aspect emotionless.
The captain’s grin faded. “Fine, I’ll play. Watch me cheat death, boy!”
He thrust. She parried and counter struck. They went back and forth like a vicious dance on the main deck, each dualist a solid match for the other. Dawson watched, his mouth agape. He still saw the captain’s death, but he was most concerned with the woman. He couldn’t see her dying. And that meant…
He shuddered. If she saw him and realized he had the curse, he’d be dead in seconds. He had to break free somehow.
Frantically, he searched the deck. Fallen swords and daggers lay next to dead bodies, most too far to reach. He twisted and squirmed, trying to loosen the ties. The tight ropes dug into his skin and he gritted his teeth. No matter how much he tried, the ropes kept him stuck to the main mast.
The sound of clanging metal rang as the captain and woman fought. Dawson kept an eye on them and anyone else who might notice him, but everyone seemed to be engrossed in the dual. Eventually, the captain cried out, clutched his chest and slumped to the ground.
Dawson panicked. They’d come for him next.
He spotted a knife not far from him and for a moment, he felt tinge of hope. If he could just reach that knife, he could cut himself free. He stretched out his leg. His foot tapped the hilt…
A boot kicked the knife out of the way and a hand grabbed a handful of his hair. Dawson winced as his head snapped back.
“Well, well, well. A boy who cheated death.”
He looked into the woman’s eyes. Cold, unsympathetic grey looked back.
“Just hurry up and kill me,” said Dawson.
The woman cocked her head to the side. “Kill you? Why?”
“Because that’s the rule. The last kid told me.”
“Is that so?”
She let go and backed away. Now that the fighting was over, Dawson got a better view of the pirates. He gasped. For some, he couldn’t see them dying.
“If we all killed each other, I wouldn’t have much of a crew,” the woman said. “Of course, traitors are worth killing, but rules bore me.”
“Who did you think I was?”
“What’re you going to do with me?”
“Keep you alive.”
Keep him alive? Why would she keep him alive?
“But understand this, kid. If you double cross me, you won’t have so much as a prayer left after I’ve dealt with you.”
“What if I don’t want to be on your crew?”
“Then I kill you now.”
Dawson didn’t want that. He nodded.
She cut the ropes. Dawson knew better than to run.
“Go help the others.”
She walked away. Dawson watched her go, then hurried over to help with the stolen goods. He glanced at the pirates who had the curse, shrinking under their glaring eyes. Any one of them could kill him. They seemed like they wanted to anyway.
But he was alive. He didn’t know if any of them adhered to the rule of the curse or not. Yet if he stayed with them, he could learn how to fight. He could get stronger. And when he was strong enough, he could kill Captain Zeher before she killed him.
After all, that was the rule of the curse, whether she adhered to it or not.