Nothing jolts a person like imminent death. I was flat-out exhausted. Running through the high-G pirate base had taken a toll on my shaky and worn-down body. I hadn’t eaten in days. I’d gone from one tense situation to the next since I stepped off the Solar Jammer above Oya III.
But when the Night Stalker lurched to the side and the outer hull screamed like a banshee, I found another reserve.
Scanning the displays, I searched for the information I needed. “Dammit ship, where’s your damage report!”
When I found the right screen and understood what it was telling me, my gut twisted as I imagined a disembodied butler voice floating over me: “Maneuvering thrusters six and eight no longer functioning. Small leak in the cargo bay, but door seal holding. Otherwise, you’re screwed.”
“Tell me about it,” I said, to my imaginary ship voice. The amount of information displayed before me was overwhelming. Lights flickered all over the board, graphs oscillated, numbers bounced unstably. The whole thing was a jittery mess, as if the control console was giving stats on me, rather than the Night Stalker.
My hands hovered over the board, wanting to do something, hit something. Prepare for battle, or just make it go faster. We’d been trained in rudimentary piloting, enough to provide support to a real pilot should we be riding as crew, rather than a customer, but not actually commanding the ship ourselves. Mostly, we’d been taught to stay out of the way.
I threw my hands up.
“Ship! What do I do?”
The answer it gave me was an urgent, blinking red light that made me think something bad was about to happen.
“What are you?” I asked the red light, but it didn’t respond. Stupid light. Why they didn’t give these ships voice command, I didn’t know.
“Are you a weapon lock? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
My fingers searched for the shields display. I found a symbol of a ship with a faint nimbus around it and tapped on it until the semi-circle around the back end filled in.
“Are you shields? By hell, I hope you’re shields —”
The ship shuddered again, this time not as violently. More like someone rocking the bed, rather than a full-on impact.
“Uhm, uhm …” I tapped on my lower lip. “Now how do I figure out if we’re going fast enough?”
Growling, I looked ahead. The view screen was mostly black again, except for the orange sun at the center. To the left was a tiny blue and brown marble, Oya III, I presumed.
After I located the throttle, I gave the ship more power, but the shields faded.
“Great. One or the other. Burnett must have hopped in the closest hunk-a-junk to get here. Why couldn’t I have had a competent thief steal my MobiGlas. I bet Dario has a much better ship. A Freelancer or something.”
But all my complaining didn’t do a thing for my situation. I needed more speed, but to do so would reduce my shields. With a grimace, I reduced the shields so I could increase speed.
The luminosity of the semi-circle shrank, right as another explosion hit. The lights dimmed and the hum of the drive reduced in pitch for a moment.
“What the scrum?!”
I placed my hands against my face and rubbed my eyes with my fingertips. I was doing all the wrong things.
“Dammit, Ship. You have to tell me when I’m making stupid decisions.”
After a bit of consternation, I adjusted the shields until the glow felt bright enough, like I knew what that meant. Then I checked systems for damage.
I muttered to myself as I read the report, “Maneuvering thruster number three no longer functioning. Quantum drive no longer functioning. Cargo hold and section number five have a large breach. Both are contained behind airlocks. Great, I hope I don’t need anything from there.”
I slammed the back of my head into the chair rest repeatedly. It wasn’t bad enough that the quantum drives were down and that I was probably going to die. It was that I’d gotten myself into this mess by fooling that stupid Burnett, even when he told me not to.
“Okay. Don’t panic,” I told myself, but I could feel my stomach trying very much to panic. “Are we outpacing the pursuing ships? That’s what I need to figure out right now.”
I growled and started looking over the displays, pounding random buttons until I found something that resembled a scanner package. It looked like the initial three pursuing ships were falling behind, but two other ships that left after the first three would catch up soon. And then after that grouping, were another five just leaving the pirate base.
“And how long until we reach Oya III?” I asked, grabbing my hair and tugging on it. I didn’t know the exact answer, but going at maneuvering speeds meant I wasn’t going to get there in an hour like it would have taken with the quantum drive. Probably days by my guestimate.
I slumped further into the chair. “I need more speed.”
A red light on the control panel was blinking. I stared at it for a while. Then I held my finger over the acknowledge button.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I know what they want. And I know what he wants.” I paused. “Any other ships nearby? Can I send a distress beacon?”
Looking over the scanner displays, I could see that no other ships were nearby. I was all alone. No one was going to come to my rescue.
Staring at the screen, I ran my hands through my hair again, wondering why the pursuing ships hadn’t activated their quantum drives and caught up to me. But then I remember something from our training at courier school. Quantum drives could move you quickly from one distant point to another, but they were terrible for short hops. So they were stuck with maneuvering drives as well.
I stared at the blinking light. “Well, if they want to talk to me. That’s a good sign. Better than more missiles.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and squeezed, thinking about my father bargaining with pushy vendors. Gotta make ‘em wait. Make ‘em want to do business with you. If you’re desperate, they’ll smell it.
“No. Not yet. It’s a chip on the table. Don’t want to spend it yet.”
What I did want was to eat, and now that we were out of weapons range, I figured I had a little time.
When I stood up, I had to hold onto the chair to keep from collapsing. I was starving. My stomach didn’t even bother rumbling any more. It was a just a continuous ache, as if the whole thing had shrunk down to the size of a shube nut, and my mouth was so dry my tongue kept getting stuck to the roof.
With shaky legs, I moved into the room behind the cockpit and upon seeing my backpack with the camera pin, I lamented my lost MobiGlas. But it was a stupid thought. I was happy to be alive, for now, and it’d gotten me through two tough spots.
The light on the door to the next section on the ship was bright red. The green section was dimmed out.
It took me a moment to realize that the red light meant the hull had been breached in this section. Then I noticed the ‘Section Five’ stencils on the cream colored door.
“Not the kitchen …”
I slumped to the floor and laid there a while on my side, just mutely staring at the center post of the table. Not really staring at all. Even if I could survive the Stardevils, I’d probably die from dehydration before I reached Oya III. I’d already gone two days without food or water. A headache was pounding through my skull and my sides were cramping. Only adrenaline had gotten me through the bad spots, but now that that was over, I felt like a damp rag.
Closing my eyes, I huffed out a breath. “Not giving up. Not giving up. Not giving up.”
I repeated the mantra for a while, but it didn’t help. I could hardly be bothered to move.
Yes, I wasn’t giving up. But what the hell did that mean? The Stardevils would intercept me in a couple of hours, but by then, I’d probably be in a coma right where I was lying.
The thought of composing my last words and sending them, along with a distress beacon, back to Oya III, crossed my mind. But I couldn’t muster the will to do that just yet. That would be giving up.
“Not giving up. Not giving up,” I muttered a few more times.
I sat up from my fetal position, “There’s gotta be food or water in this section, right? Emergency rations or something?”
Sitting made me dizzy, but I didn’t care. Then I saw the red markings on the panel along the side. The little picture of a tray of food was like carnival on my birthday. I was going to eat soon.
“Ship, I love you!”
At first, when I found the panel, I thought I was going to be stymied by a lack of tools to open it, but then I found the clasp on the underside. I barely remember ripping the top off the silvery bag of water, and it was probably stale and tepid, but it tasted better than the 50-year port I had snuck back at the Horde.
I tried not to chug it, knowing that would only lead to cramps, but it was hard. The food bars were pretty tasteless as well, but I didn’t mind. My stomach made a few victorious gurgles as I ate.
When I wandered back to the pilot bay, I noticed a new light blinking.
“I’m not talking to Burnett, or the Stardevils,” I mumbled around my mouth full of chunky food bar.
But then I realized it wasn’t a communications request, but a message. It wouldn’t hurt to listen, would it?
When Dario’s voice came over the speakers, I almost swooned. And then I remembered he was the guy that got me into this mess by hiding the stolen files on my MobiGlas in the first place. Which I still had. Something I’d forgotten in my delirium. Still, his voice put a hint of a smile on my lips.
“Hello, Sorri. This is Dario. Sorry that I got you into this mess. It’s my fault. I should have known about the new sensors at Oya station. I got sloppy and now that’s fallen on you. I’ve been monitoring the situation with Burnett and the Stardevils. Sorry about him, too. I should have seen that coming. He’s been gunning for me for a while.”
He did sound contrite, but I reminded myself he was a thief and a scoundrel and I was only in this mess because of him. But at least he had the decency to apologize.
“I’ve done the calculations; you’re not going to make it to Oya station on your maneuver drive before they intercept you. But there’s another way.”
A certain danger was contained in his voice, as if he regretted having to suggest it.
“You’ll need to reconfigure the power plant. I’m sending the specs and directions on your MobiGlas. Override the safeties if they won’t let you. Oh, and take the shields down to zero. You don’t need them anymore. Or at least, if this goes right you won’t.”
A ping erupted from the MobiGlas in my pocket.
“And lastly, even squeezing out more power won’t get you to Oya Station before they catch you. You’ll have to head for the jump point, which is closer.” He paused. “And as much as I know you’ll want to, don’t send out any distress beacons. With the tags on Burnett’s ship, the UEE will ghost you before you get a chance to hail them. Good luck, and I’m sorry, Sorri.”
The files he promised finished pinging onto the MobiGlas, but I didn’t touch them. I only stared at the device as if it had the plague. Was he trying to give me a way out, as promised, or was he just going to draw me to his location and blast me with my shields down? Whatever I decided, it had to be soon.