(I wrote this story at ConQuesT 46 in Kansas City. I had to write it in less than one hour and include a velvet painting (again!), a time traveler, a log cabin, joining a pirate crew, and the first line, “He watched the ship as it hovered, then landed no more than five feet in front of him.” It won best sci-fi story in the pro division! That makes two years running!)
He watched the ship as it hovered, then landed no more than five feet in front of him. The space pirates were right on time, as always. Then again, they were able to control time, so punctuality was expected. Thomas would finally be able to join their ranks, just as soon as he gave them his prize.
The entry hatch popped open and the metal stairway extended out. The captain stood at the top, waiting for Thomas to ascend. She was radiant, as always. The again, she could control time, so her beauty was unchanged by her centuries of service in the Space Pirate Brotherhood. Eternal life was one of the many perks that pirates enjoyed after joining the crew.
Thomas entered the ship, carrying the large paper-wrapped rectangle in front of him like a shield. The captain gave him a rare smile as he walked past her and into the cargo bay.
“This is it?” she asked, looking it over with her piercing gaze.
“You bet,” Thomas replied. “The most valuable painting the 21st century has to offer: Girl with a Pearl Earring. After I stole it, I burned the museum to the ground. History will say it turned to ash with the rest of the artwork.”
“But we know better,” she said. “How did you escape detection? Did anyone spot you stealing this?”
“Not a soul. After I wrapped up the painting, I hid out in the abandoned log cabin where you picked me up. It’s been three months and no one has found a single trace of my existence.”
The captain led Thomas to the bridge, where they could begin their return to the 24th century. The painting was considered the perfect example of fine art, a beautiful oil painting that would sell to the highest bidder for an exorbitant amount.
“Return us to the future,” she told the pilot. “One second per year should be quick enough.”
The ship took off and began speeding through the years, safe from the passage of time and its damaging effects. As they shifted silently through time, the captain tore away the paper wrapping and exposed the painting within. Her faint smile vanished immediately, replaced by a stern, incredulous expression.
“Dogs?” she said. “Playing … poker?” She touched the surface. “This isn’t even canvas; it’s some kind of nasty velvet!”
Thomas began stuttering a response. “Th-the guard! He-he must’ve switch paintings on me! B-but he swore he was trustworthy!”
The captain turned her gaze on him, her otherworldly beauty shining through her furious face.
“You lost the artifact and you fraternized with the natives? You know what that means, don’t you?”
He did. The Space Pirate Brotherhood punished all infractions with premature aging. Unless he became a member, he would never be able to reverse the process.
“You’ll be aged another 99 years,” she said, “and you’re blacklisted. Fortunately, the hospice center will be able to keep you alive for quite a while, but you won’t be able to move. I imagine you’ll be in endless pain.”
Thomas began feeling the effects immediately, his body aging as quickly as the ship moved through time. In minutes, he became a living shriveled husk.
The captain smiled as she tapped him with her foot, her gorgeous grin brightening the entire bridge.
“I might hang this up in my ready room,” she said. “I never really cared for fine art, anyway.”