A Pirate's Funeral

Content Warnings
Brief depiction of homicide by firearm, blood and gore. Mention of family member's murder.

Main characters: Juster, Rocko Zelaya

MPC Imogen, Cannon (Gliese 581), New Earth Alliance

The funerary fleet drifted in space like a flock of dead birds on a sluggish current, shepherded by tugs keeping them from colliding and spinning out of control. Panels hang ragged, pierced by debris and meteorites, pipes burst by frozen coolant now that the reactors were gone. The engines and weapons had been stripped, leaving gaping holes in battered spaceframes, frayed power lines dangling like torn ligaments.
They were little more than wrecks coasting on a slowly decaying orbit, home only to the dead. Monitored as a spaceborne hazard, nobody logged the tramps and flitters occasionally arriving, nor did anybody ask who was being buried there or why.

A small, brightly painted freighter inched her way toward one of the mausoleums, the mangled hulk of a passenger liner, paint job long since faded beyond recognition. The tramp's main drive wasn't running, only her maneuvering thrusters fired on and off to keep her on course.
There was no working berthing system on the mausoleum, not anymore. MPC Imogen would have to dock manually, with nobody on the other side to help her navigator and no navcomp to guide her AI. The mausoleum's hull was scratched and dented where others had attempted the same maneuver before.

Juster waited in the airlock, mag boots planted firmly on the floor against the near-absence of gravity and the tramp's unsteady maneuvering. The railgun and cargo net slung over his left shoulder, he held his right hand close to his chest, easing the strain on his injured arm.
He had done this countless times before, exploring old wrecks to salvage parts or retrieve contraband. But he had never been to a mausoleum to bury anybody, let alone the only family he cared about.
He glanced over at the makeshift coffin stuck to the floor by a magnetic cargo frame. An old reefer pod dating back to some exploration mission centuries ago. It wasn't working anymore, but then it didn't have to. The body inside was sealed in a bag, still frozen solid from the weeks it had spent on TSV Bedovyj's wreck and in the tramp's cold storage.

A flash from the discharge rods and the brief flicker of the overhead lights drew his attention back to the mausoleum. The arc hadn't been very bright, the tugs had to soak up some of the static electricity on their shepherding rounds.
« We awright to dock, Juster. » Rocko's voice interrupted his idle contemplation.
« Aye, ready. »
A shudder ran through the transport as the thrusters fired again to adjust her position relative to the mausoleum. Both seemed to be standing still now, but Juster knew they were falling around the red dwarf at roughly 17 kilometers per second and picking up speed with every orbit.

The docking adapter extended with a series of metallic clangs echoing through the airlock chamber. It met its opposite fixed around the mausoleum's port, locking the two ships together and pulling the transport in. Once the seal was established and the systems connected, the airlock controls lit up.
Juster went through the few available sensor readouts. Radiation levels were elevated but nowhere near lethal, the temperature a chilly but bearable 90 Kelvin. And there was air, a thin atmosphere with a little under ten percent oxygen, high levels of carbon oxides and traces of other lethal gases.
He checked his gas mask and rebreather. He hadn't bothered with a bulky vacsuit, only his usual salvaging gear. Good enough in the confines of a wreck. The mask would deal with anything deadly, so he might as well use the oxygen.

While the airlock cycled, he released the clamps holding the reefer pod on its frame. Cargo straps held the pod closed shut, its locking mechanism broken long ago. The sleeve that used to hold the passenger's ID now held a label with the body's name: Florin Levett. His death date was five weeks ago.
Juster grabbed the upper strap with his left hand and slowly pulled the pod forward and up off the frame. It might be weightless now, but its mass made it sluggish and its size unwieldy. By the time he had moved the coffin to the outer door, the pressure had equalized and the outer door indicator changed to green.
When the door opened, freezing, foul air seeped into the airlock chamber. He gagged and quickly switched back to the internal air supply. All ships stank, but this was a different kind of stench. It reeked of death, tasted of it, a mix of rotten meat, sewage and dust, drenched in moldy cold. And the smell stayed in his nose.
« Oh, this is garstic. »
« It's a graveyard, tovarish. » He could hear the chuckle in Rocko's voice and grimaced.
« Thanks for the reminder, Captain. And belike, dump this air when I'm back. »
« Aye. Leyv and fortune over there. »

The mausoleum's airlock no longer worked, the inner door permanently jammed open. Juster found himself in a corridor much like the one that led to the tramp's own docking port. At least the emergency lights were on, courtesy of some radio-thermal generators well beyond their half-life, hardly bright enough to see even for a wastelander. The bare minimum to keep mourning family from stumbling around in complete darkness.
Juster looked around for any signs, but found nothing legible. He had to be in the attic, which put operations some decks below and the crew quarters yet further down. But when he reached the elevator shaft, he found the door open and leading into nothingness. There was a ladder at the far side, but it'd be a challenge getting all the way down to the crew decks with one hand and the coffin in tow.He turned left and saw an open bulkhead door.

The attic had been gutted, interior walls torn out to make room for rows of heavy duty shelves built from salvaged structure. Bent pipes and beams, battered hull plates sawn hurriedly into rectangular shape. The shelves wouldn't carry much weight under gravity, but in zero-gee they were good enough.
Coffins of all shapes and sized lined many of them already, held in place by nets or straps, a few taped or welded in place. Some were reefer pods, a few actual coffins, old-fashioned things made from synthwood dight with brass handles, others ranging from battered metal crates to moldy cardboard boxes.
Smaller shelves held an equally eclectic collection of urns, most duct taped to their compartments, some locked behind intricate metal grates. The thin air was filled with drifting bits of desiccated flowers, crumbling shreds of paper and other, less easily identifiable matter.

Juster slowed down to look for a good spot. Ladders ran up the wall beside the shelves for easier access, but he wasn't too fond of the option. Tossing cargo around in zero-gee was all fun and games until you realized inertia was still a thing and ready to kick your caboose.
He found what he was looking for at the far end of the deck, a few shelves up and close to a sealed bulkhead. It would be a climb, but at least a short one. He pulled the leash from his pocket, hooked one end into his harness and the other into one of the straps around the reefer pod. With his uninjured hand now free, he began to climb. The pod seemed to weigh a ton and the harness cut into his shoulders, but it was worth the pain.

It took him nearly a minute to reach the shelf and a few more to maneuver the pod into the free space. The coffin in place, he pulled the net over it and fastened the corners around the pipes. Nowhere near secure by cargo handling standards, but it would do.
He checked his rebreather. He still had air for over an hour if he didn't try anything overly exhausting. And if things went according to plan, he'd be out in ten minutes.
« Well, that's done, » he said and put his hand on the lid of the coffin. « Rest in peace, Florin. »
He had no farewell he hadn't already said when his little brother had left him behind in a lifeboat so he could start Bedovyj's self-destruct. The last he remembered of Florin were his eyes, wide with fear and determination, his mask smeared with blood. Juster's blood.
Tears stung in his eyes. « I promised to protect thee and I couldn't, » he said. « The Umbra will pay for this. »
He didn't have a plan where to go from here, not yet. That would have to wait until he got back to the Imogen. He pushed himself off the shelf and dove to the floor.

When he landed, he saw movement from the corner of his eye.
Juster blinked and looked again. Something was skulking around in the murk near the bulkhead, a lean figure in salvage gear and a gas mask like himself, hunched over as if trying to hide in plain sight. Faint light glinted off the long curved blade they were holding.
He knew immediately what it was: A ghoul, a cannibal looking for fresh bodies, recently dead — and for careless mourners who strayed too far into the unlit corridors. He didn't worry about Florin, he was dead too long, his body too badly burnt. But Juster would be food for a week, much more if that ghoul hunted alone.
There was no point in trying to flee. Juster was trapped between the shelf and the bulkhead, but so was the ghoul, who seemed unaware of the threat their intended victim posed.

Realizing they had been spotted, the ghoul rose from their crouch and stalked toward him. Juster grabbed the sturdiest-looking pipe in reach and pulled himself up, luring them off the floor. Then he pounced on the ghoul with as much force as he could muster.
They might've been a spacer, but they still miscalculated the kinetic energy created by 140 kilos of fat, augmented heavy-worlder in salvage gear. For a moment they hung in the air, flailing as they realized their mistake, then Juster's left shoulder slammed into their chest and they hit the bulkhead, bones snapping under his weight. His own impact was softened by the ghoul's body and his own suit, but he knew instantly he'd gained a few bruises.
Juster bounced off the bulkhead, away from the writhing cannibal. They were alive, dazed and groping at their gas mask with one hand. When they pulled it off their face, globs of dark blood poured out, drifting away as they turned their attention to him once again.
He raised the railgun, waiting for the capacitor to charge.
The ghoul's face was a snarling grimace smeared with blood, eyes sunken into dark sockets. They didn't seem to notice the merciless cold or the lethal air as they turned in mid-air to follow him.
Juster pulled the trigger.

The heavy weapon bucked like a startled horse, the recoil ramming the stock into his injured shoulder. His back hit the shelving, sending a shudder through it, but it held. By the time his boots made contact with the floor again, his right arm hung useless by his side, searing pain engulfing most of his right side.
Fighting for breath, Juster slung the railgun over his good shoulder and looked back at what was left of the ghoul. Most of their upper body was gone, splattered across the bulkhead in a ragged circle surrounding the crater where the shell had hit. Smoke and debris, both ghoul and ship, formed a slowly expanding cloud around the site of the carnage.
He turned away. If there were others nearby, they would come running soon enough. They could feast on their fallen friend for all he cared, but he wanted to be a safe distance away by then. He deactivated his mag boots and pushed himself off the floor. Even with only one working arm he'd be faster in the air.

Juster reached the docking port without encountering anybody else. Once back on the transport, he stood at the center of the airlock as the door sealed shut behind him.
« Welcome back, » Rocko said in a mock imitation of a first-gen ship AI.
Juster spread his aching arms as well as he could, the railgun dangling loosely from his left wrist.
« Get us out of here. »
« Aye, on it. »
Thick mist flooded the chamber and Juster grimaced as the sharp stench of industrial disinfectant crept through the filters of his mask and the liquid soaked through the seams of his suit, biting into his skin.

The docking clamps released and the transport shuddered as she pushed away from the mausoleum ship, cold gas thrusters hissing from different directions like angry cats in a standoff. The haze of disinfectant turned into a roiling storm cloud that broke on the outer door, leaving uneven smears.
Then the thirty seconds were up. But instead of the ventilation kicking in, the airlock cycled, dumping the contaminated air into space.
« Good call, » Juster said to nobody in particular.
He closed his eyes even before the warning sounded and he was bathed in ultraviolet light, evaporating the remaining disinfectant and killing what it had missed. When the airlock cycled again, he picked up the cargo frame and watched the air pressure rise until it hit 800 hectopascal and the inner door finally unlocked.

Juster stepped into the corridor. He pulled the mask off his scarred face and took a deep breath. The tramp stank as much as any other ship, but compared to the mausoleum she smelled like the proverbial fresh breeze on an untouched garden world.