The hum of a ship’s quantum drive against my cheek woke me. Lying on my side, I pressed my palms against my eye sockets and rubbed until I could see again. Whatever had knocked me out left me groggy, like every thought had to be routed through a bucket of mud.
When I sat up, the restraints rattled against the door panel. Wire loops had been fastened around my wrists. The other ends were screwed to the floor. I had enough play to reach my face, but nothing more.
The pilot seat swiveled around, revealing the brute who’d stolen my MobiGlas. He wore a navy blue pressure suit, minus the gloves and helmet. He steepled his fingertips together, narrowing his gaze at me, and I felt like chicken in a coop being sized up for slaughter.
“You don’t want to kill me,” I blurted out.
His eyebrow raised. “I don’t? Educate me, little scrum.”
I couldn’t help but shake my head in a double-take. That erudite voice coming from that brutish body was a contradiction.
It also occurred to me that it was an error on my part to have spoken before I knew the score. Behind the brute was the black emptiness of space through the view screen, except for a little reddish dot, dead center on the screen. It looked like a planet by the thin nimbus around it. Probably a gas giant.
“What’s your name?” I asked, stalling.
He licked his lips. “Burnett.”
He said the first part of his name like burr and the second part he rolled over his tongue.
“Well, Burnett,” I replied, glancing around the cockpit, “I’m Sorri, but not sorry.”
At my joke, his upper lip curled back, showing his teeth. “I know who you are.”
Right. Which put me at a major disadvantage. I didn’t know who this Burnett was, except that he’d stolen my MobiGlas and kidnapped me.
I craned my neck to see the control panel for the ship, which was no help. I didn’t know the difference between a jump-capable ship and just an in-system flier.
Burnett seemed content to watch me like a cat observing a trapped mouse.
I searched my memory for anything that might help, when I remembered the last thing Burnett had said to me: It seems Dario found himself an ally.
Now what in the deep space did that mean?
My eyes widened when I connected the dots. “Dario, the guy from the Solar Jammer, put something on my MobiGlas. That’s what Security saw. She should have never let me go.”
The words trailed past my lips, half-realization, half- regret.
The corners of Burnett’s eyes creased and the cramped cabin seemed to shrink even further. I was two steps from this erudite beast of a man, and he had a blade on his hip. When I looked at the hard metal flooring, he laughed.
“Don’t worry. I won’t cut your throat. Your blood would seep under the plates and interfere with my electronics. When it’s time to get rid of you, I’ll just throw you out the airlock.”
When. He said when.
“Then what are you waiting for?” I asked, chin raised, looking directly in his green-brown eyes. I bit my lower lip to keep it from trembling.
“You looked like a talker. I hoped you might just spit out whatever plan you and Dario had, saving me the trouble of torturing you.”
“But I don’t know him. I’m just a courier for FTL. You know, when you need a message delivered, nothing’s faster than light?”
The words fell over themselves on the way out of my lips. I could feel my life’s clock ticking down to the final seconds.
He squinted and shifted forward in his seat, which with his bulk, practically bent the steel bottom. “It feels like you’re telling the truth. But I might just need to put the knife to you, to make sure you’re not simply a good liar.”
“What do you want to know? I’ve got nothing to lose, right?”
Burnett seemed to consider my offer.
“You don’t know Dario?” he asked after a time.
“No,” I said. “I spoke to him on the trip out, mostly at the beginning. He must have hacked my MobiGlas when I was asleep. Put that file on it. I guess whatever it is, it’s important?”
“Don’t worry your little head about it.”
I had a moment of insight. “He’s your rival, isn’t he? You figured out what he was going to do. Use me to get the file past local security. So you just waited on planet and grabbed it.”
Burnett nodded in agreement. “No harm in telling you that much. New couriers are never given important files, in fact, usually they’re given fake stuff to test them. So you didn’t have the high class security afforded that kind of data. When I caught Dario sniffing into your background, I took a chance that he’d pull this trick again.”
Then he stood up and the chair groaned beneath his effort. He had to keep his head ducked to keep from hitting the ceiling. When he pressed his lips together and blew a sighing breath out his nose, my stomach twisted into a knot.
“And now it’s time to say goodbye. I’m really sorry Dario used you, but you shouldn’t have followed me,” he said, grabbing a screwdriver from the seat next to his.
When he advanced on me, I thought about scratching and clawing at him like a frenzied cat, but that would only make him mad. I needed to keep my wits about me, but it was hard, really hard.
He leaned down and began unscrewing the cable from the floor without the least bit of concern. I felt like a child next to him. The knife on his belt was only an arm’s reach away, but I knew he’d be faster than me.
I looked out the viewscreen at the front of the ship. The reddish gas giant was now a decent-sized object on the screen, its features beginning to appear.
“You’re going to sell the data to some pirates, huh?”
I smirked and nodded my head towards the front of the ship, but I was afraid it came off as amateur. His right eye twitched.
“Sort of,” he said, stepping on the first cable so I couldn’t move my arm and starting work on the second one.
“I bet they won’t be happy when the UEE shows up,” I said.
He narrowed his gaze as he loosened the second cable, but kept working. He grabbed the ends and yanked me up. He pulled me behind him into the main cabin behind the cockpit.
Dumped out on a table were the contents of my backpack, including the other MobiGlas and my personals. At the back of the room was an airlock. Burnett led me to the door and began putting on his pressure gloves, sealing them tight. Each snap of the glove connecting to his suit hardened my stomach to lead.
Then he pulled his screwdriver out and started undoing the clamps around my wrists. His meaty hand, even with the pressure glove, was a vise around my arms. I would have complained about bruising, but it wasn’t going to matter long.
“You know this isn’t going to work,” I said, but Burnett kept working. “I wouldn’t have come after you if I didn’t have a fail safe.”
He shrugged and tugged the screw out of the first clamp. The metal clattered onto the floor near my foot.
“I’m not dumb,” I said. “I figured out where your lander was pretty quickly, didn’t I?”
He paused with the screw halfway out of the second clamp. The salt and pepper stubble on his chin bunched up as he frowned.
“Talk,” he said.
“FTL. The courier service. They have two fail safes. One in the company issued MobiGlas —” I caught him glancing at his chest pocket, “— the other they inject into us somewhere. It emits a beacon if we die, or if the MobiGlas is destroyed, or any of several other reasons. It might even be transmitting right now.”
Burnett growled and tapped on his MobiGlas with his gloved fingers. When he made a grunt of satisfaction, I knew he’d scanned for communications and it’d come up empty.
Burnett scowled in my direction and finished removing the last screw. When it hit the floor, I twitched.
He released my wrists, so I stood back and rubbed the feeling back into them. Needles ran up my arm, so I shook them until they went away.
The whole time, Burnett was watching me, one hand limply holding the screwdriver, the other on the handle of the knife.
I had the unhealthy feeling that he was thinking about cutting me open to look for the non-existent beacon.
The ship sent an announcement over the speakers, “Approaching destination. Arrival in five minutes.”
At the front of the ship, the gas giant blotted out the screen, but hovering in the middle was a grayish ice moon. Our destination, I assumed.
Burnett reached towards me, and I thought he was going to slam me against the airlock. Instead, he poked me in the chest and growled.
“Fine. I’m not throwing you out the airlock. But you’re going to wish I had before long.”
I wanted to swallow, but couldn’t get the spit down. “Why’s that?”
“Have you ever heard of the Stardevils?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“WiDoW junkies. They make SLAM-heads look like saints. Rather than kill you, I’ll just sell you to them. Make a little profit, and when they accidentally kill you in their special pain orgies, your little beacon, if it’s real, will bring the UEE down on their maggot-infested heads. But that won’t matter to me because I’ll be long gone.”
Much to my shame, my legs weakened and I collapsed against the door, halfway holding myself up against the airlock. My weakness was mostly hunger — I hadn’t eaten in days now — but this new vision of what was to become of me made me even dizzier with worry.
Burnett’s lips stretched back revealing his teeth. “Sure you don’t want to go out the airlock now?”