“Pitchoo! Pitchoo! Ka-SWOOSH!”
Dil watched his HUD intently; sound effects added drama, he felt. Plus, it was something to do while he waited. Waiting was always the thing, Pil said; if you weren’t prepared to wait it out, see what happened, you’d miss the hole.
“That’s where you slip in,” Pill was usually on his third or fourth when he turned philosophical, “the hole’s just waiting for you, Dil. It’s you-shaped, you just gotta hold your breath and wait til it pops open, then slide on in, easy peasy nice ‘n squeezy.”
“Ka-SWOOSH!” Another ship vanished from the HUD in a blossom of plasma-fire. Half a dozen remained, swarming like fruit flies around an empty cola can. In this case, the cola can was a thick-bodied merchant vessel, listing badly now, bleeding oxygen and cargo through a six-metre rent along one side; eventually it would wander into the asteroid field where Dil sat, watching the merchant’s single escort dance around the starfield with a squadron of pirates.
“It’s symbiosis, is what it is,” Pil would say, popping the seal on yet another dropper. “The big fish find the meat, and we pick up the scraps they leave behind. They’re mean fuckers, but they don’t expect to be followed. They’re mostly just looking out for other big fish. We’re little fish, Dil; they don’t give a fuck about us.” Then he’d squirt the wake-eye in, and blink away the tears; or did, until his tear ducts rotted away. “Easy peasy, nice ‘n squeezy.”
Dil’s HUD counted off the meters between him and the merchanter. Less than 20 km now, probably caught by the big rock he was hiding behind. He double-checked the cutting lasers and the cargo scoop, making sure the board was hot. If he was fast enough, maybe he could pull it all.
The pips on his HUD bunched together then scattered as a powerful beam swept through, catching a pair on the wing and sending them to oblivion. Dil licked his lips. The hole was coming soon, he could feel it.
“The thing about big fish,” Pil would say, wiping a bloody tear from his cheek, “is that they’re dumb, Dil. Get ‘em riled, kick over the nest, and they’ll swarm alright, and fuck your face, but they’ll forget every fuckin' thing else. One of these days, some poor dumb fuck will start ‘em up and we’ll score big while their backs are turned, Dil. Easy peasy.”
“Nice and squeezy.” Dil flexed his fingers and held his breath. Less than 10km, half of which was a big fat fuck of an asteroid.
“Ka-SWOOSH,” he exhaled, then caught his breath again as two more ships dropped out of slipstream. He did a quick count, then checked the tally on the back of his hand, biting his tongue as he reconciled the accounts.
“Double check the numbers, Dil,” Pil would say, glaring at him from his good eye, the dead one hidden behind a makeshift patch. Pil thought it made him look more piratical; Dil thought it looked uncomfortable. “You don’t want to leave out a big fish. The fucker you don’t count is the fucker that’ll getcha, easy-peasy.”
The numbers matched. Dil kicked the engine awake and eased out of cover; his targeting reticule painted the merchanter bright orange against the black. Less than 6km now.
“Collision imminent,” his onboard chimed. Dil ignored it. He hit the floods and approached. Flames licked through the hole the pirates had torn, teased out by the promise of oxygen and smothered again by hard vacuum. Shadowy figures, backlit by emergency lighting, clustered in the dome of the forward cabin. Dil tried not to think about it, and scanned the floods over the thick body of the cargo compartment and into the long jagged hole.
Row upon row of octagonal containers sat nestled in the hold, somehow undisturbed by the explosion that tore into the merchanter or the decompression that blew out half the ship’s air. Dil licked his lips again.
“Ka-SWOOSH!” He tried to recount the pips on the HUD, but they were moving too fast, and the targeting computer had never been that accurate anyway.
“Don’t get greedy, Dil,” Pil had said last time, squeezing the last few molecules out of the dropper; he’d started scrounging old castoffs just in case there was enough left to keep him straight. The trems had set in by then, and his good eye was starting to look bad. “Greedy is dumb. We’re just little fish, we got little mouths. But one day, we’ll find a nice fat one before the big fish tear into it, and BAM! Nice ‘n squeezy. Just gotta wait for our hole, Dil. All we gotta do.”
Dil checked the board again; the scoop was hot and ready to go. He racked it into place and felt the vibrations through his seat as the arm outside came to life.
He worked the cutting laster, shearing away ragged edges of the hull breach. The scoop itself was worth more than the rest of the scavver put together, including the slipstream. Pil had never let him use it before, but it had never looked all that hard.
Overcautious, he extended the big arm and eased it inside, flexing his fingers, making the business end of the scoop do likewise. Cushioned fingers slid in and locked around the first cannister; the scoop's sensor suite came to life.
"Fruit assortment AR-54," the onboard chimed. "Includes apples (Granny Smith), bananas, strawberries..." it droned on, enumerating the contents, container mass, a half dozen markets in the sector and marchants looking for consignments. Dil just salivated, imagining the smell of the contents and tried to figure out how many he could keep and still turn a profit. He pulled back on the arm, and ginerly extracted the container, then another, and so on until his own hold was full and his tongue hurt from the math.
Two. Two containers would be enough fruit to last a year, enough strawberries and apples to drown in. He licked his lips again. The silhouette of his scavver strobed accross the side of the other ship briefly. Dil forgot to "ka-swoosh," too caught up in imagined meals, bowls of bananas he wouldn't even have to share.
Pil made him share the last packet of jam, only a couple of days ago. Just a pat of synth jelly coloured red, but Pil had demanded it nonetheless. "'What's that? Gimme, Dil. Gimme half, Dil. That's all." Last thing he'd said.
Pil had fingered it into his mouth, empty-eyed and desperate, greyer than his dead eye sockets, then turned the packet inside out, tonguing it roughly until he was done, then sat back in his cot and sighed. Next day, men showed up and hauled the body away.
Dil supposed he ought to be sad, but now he got the fly the scavver all by himself, and use the scoop, and didn't have to share the fruit in the container if he didn't want to.
Maybe he could keep three.
He unracked the scoop and glanced up at the HUD. The swarming, buzzing pips had vanished. He tapped the screen. Nothing.
He began to chew his bottom lip, and engaged the drive. The forward cabin of the merchant vessel was a solid slate-grey now. No shadows to be seen.
"Time to go, Dil," he said, and flipped the slipstream charger. He watched the meter fill, block by block, chewing his lip while the scavver drifted away from the other ship, dead now.
Dil didn't see the secort vessel round the asteroid, but he did see the beam laser sweep across his bow.
Enough fruit to feed a man for a life time spilled into hard vacuum. The escort picked its erstwhile charge clean, then destroyed the vessel in a flare of plasma-fire.
Nobody remained behind to add sound effects.