A thousand years of literature and holovids have glorified the wonders of space battles. I know I’d eaten up the stuff in my early days, eight years old and curled beneath the blanket when I should have been asleep, watching glittering beams burst through the dark on my MobiGlas.
The two sides would orchestrate themselves through complex maneuvers, spinning and weaving together in a dance punctuated with explosives and flaring drives. The heroes and villains would mock each other across the cold vacuum of space as if they were chatting across a bar table drinking a couple of beers.
My space battle was nothing like that.
If you had stuffed me into an oversized drier, filled it with migraine-inducing flashing lights, set it on hyperspin, and then thrown the whole thing off a mountainside, you might have gotten one tenth of what it felt like.
Gentle artificial gravity had turned to the hard Gs of rapid maneuvering. One second, we were headed right for the side of the Idris, the next, a white-phosphorus flash blinded us and pieces of exploded ship bounced off our shields, flinging us in a completely different direction.
Dario danced us through the space battle, always looking for a way out, but each time, the fighting folded around us and cut off our escape.
Twice, I thought our plant had been knocked out, but it’d either been my heart stopping, or my hearing getting obliterated by the percussions of combat.
Screw the guy that ever said space battles were a silent ballet of death. Klaxons sounded, alarms rang, proximity warnings grew hoarse with overuse.
At last, Dario slung us through a nasty duel between a Silent Son Avenger and two UEE Hornets, and we hit a pocket of empty space, breathing a sigh of relief together.
“Are you okay, Sorri?” he asked me, while checking instrument consoles and damage reports.
“I think so, yes,” I said, my voice unexpectedly hoarse, but I guess I’d been screaming the whole time.
Despite the chilly air, Dario’s forehead was damp with sweat. He wiped his face with his shoulder and tapped on a viewscreen in front of me that brought up port and starboard views from the Fardancer.
“We’re not out of this yet. We’ve got to get back to the jump point and escape back to Oya. Otherwise, those UEE ships will hunt us down after the battle. Tell me if you see anyone gunning for us, and adjust the shields to compensate. You just have to tap on that panel to send power to one side or another.”
Below us I could see a growing ball of explosions and debris.
“You’re going to fly us through that?” I asked.
His normally razor sharp smile had been dulled by the events. “Better than a lifetime in a UEE prison.”
I placed my palms together and set them against my lips. “Okay, I can do this.” And then to Dario, “All right, let’s go.”
I hunched forward, setting my hands over the shield display, while closely watching the dual viewscreens. Dario dropped us back into the maelstrom of ships, giving me a moment of vertigo as the tail-end of a destroyed Freelancer flipped past, narrowly missing the Fardancer.
Our re-entry into the fight brought an immediate response, as two UEE ships broke off to engage. I adjusted power to the port side as small fire sparked across our shields.
Dario spun us in a corkscrew, which slung my neck around as I tried to keep an eye on the viewscreen and my fingers on the shields, dancing them between port and starboard as we twirled. When we came out, I had to shift almost all power to the port as we careened away from a Stardevil ship.
Swallowing back my stomach, my hopes for an escape sank as I saw the Idris frigate bearing down on us. Even I knew our shields weren’t meant to deflect the kind of damage it could inflict.
Right as the Fardancer screamed her alarms, warning us of impending death, we slipped into Interspace.
Relieved by our narrow escape, I sunk back against the chair, while Dario gave instructions to the Fardancer. Once he was finished, the pair of us stayed silent and stared out the vacant viewscreen until we left Interspace.
Back in Oya system, Dario set our flight path to take up orbit around III and turned to me.
His brow carried a heavy, unwanted weight, while he squeezed his clasped hands together. His gray-green eyes were glossy and he could barely look at me.
I shrunk back into my chair as I feared what he was going to say.
“I’m sorry, Sorri.”
I leaned back further. “You’re … sorry?”
He blew out a breath. “I could have rescued you before you hit the jump point, and taken you back to Oya III, but I didn’t want to miss my chance with the Silent Sons.”
“Your deal’s gone now, huh?”
He scrunched up part of his face and lifted the other shoulder. “There are other packs and other deals. Not as lucrative, but they’ll do in a pinch.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.
“You’re a smart girl, or young lady, I should say. You tell me.”
I pursed my lips and the answer came right away in the voice of my father: Everybody wants something, even when it looks like they want nothing.
“You want me to keep my mouth shut about this,” I said.
“I knew you were smart; keep going.”
I sighed. “It’s not going to be easy. The UEE might come looking for me. And they might want me to talk about what happened.”
“And the UEE can be pretty persuasive when they want to,” he added, leaning back. “But I’ve got another option for you. Ever heard the saying, ‘two heads are better than one’? Well, space gets pretty boring running solo and I could use a quick thinking partner.”
He grinned. “Well, junior partner, but well compensated. You’d make a lot more than you’ll make as a courier, and see the empire at the same time.”
The words caught in my throat. Courier to criminal in just one week? It seemed laughable, if it weren’t true. Or an option, anyway.
Dario placed his hand on my shoulder. “I won’t lie to you, it’s not an easy life. But I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve got a hunch you’ve got similar feelings, through it might be a bit confusing right now after that last little dust-up.”
“Confusing?” I spit out. “I’ve been used, and robbed, and kidnapped, and tortured, not to mention nearly starved and immolated. That battle, if twelve rabid cats dumped into a barrel counts as something so organized as a battle, probably left me with damaged vertebrae and ulcers from fright.”
His smile deflated as his hand retracted from my shoulder. I put my knuckle against my closed eye and rubbed, not wanting him to see the tear that had formed. Like a little bird, my heart was fluttering in my chest and if we’d been on planet, I’d have walked outside to catch my breath.
“But honest to apples, somewhere in there, I did enjoy it,” I added, to Dario’s amazement.
“So you’d consider it?”
I rubbed my lips. “I can’t tell if I’m honored or horrified that you’ve asked me to join you, and a big part of me wants to join your crew aboard the Fardancer.”
His gaze narrowed and he made a little nod as if he already knew what I was about to say.
“But,” I began, “I signed up to be a courier and I want to do that, at least for a while. Maybe after a few years, if I’ve still got the bug, I might join you, if you were still interested.”
“Two years is a long time in my life. Can’t promise anything.”
I shrugged. “Didn’t think so. So I guess my answer is no. But don’t worry about me saying anything. I won’t.”
Dario tapped on the control panel. “I’ll do my best to get you on planet without being seen.”
After that, we didn’t talk much. It was as if we both knew it was best that way. I didn’t want to get too attached in case I did get picked up by the UEE. For Dario? I’m not sure what he was thinking, but he stayed focused on getting me back to New Alexandria.
I was expecting a tearful goodbye, but Dario went right back up as soon as I’d left, barely giving me time to clear the jets before he ascended. At least he’d given me some spare credits to get back into the city.
A half-hour after he’d dropped me, a UEE hovercraft arrived. I thought it might be a friendly officer stopping to check on a lost tourist, until the door opened and I saw Captain Hennessy staring back, the bags under her eyes giving her dark circles. She stepped out and clamped her hand around my wrist before I could even say ‘hello.’
“As an agent of the UEE, I place you under arrest for crimes against the Empire.”
to be continued …
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