The fuel-stop in Earth’s orbit is always a great place to pick up passengers looking for a cheap flight across the universe. All I have to do is hold out a sign that says, “Chartered ship, fifty credits a day.” I only have three passenger cabins, but that usually gets me a fair chunk of change. Chartered work isn’t always easy, though, especially without artificial gravity.
One quiet afternoon, I held up my sign next to an ice-cream store as people streamed off of a shuttle that just docked from Earth. The station orbiting our illustrious home is still one of the greatest tourist stops this side of the Gap, and it’s the way-point between Earth and everywhere else you want to go in the universe. Now, getting a ride with me is a steal, and I make good money. But I can’t really afford to be picky.
I caught sight of a gorgeous brunette as soon as she stepped off of the shuttle from Earth. No one wears a skirt into space, it’s just not modest. Or practical. But this girl, wow! Her legs were perfect, and the flawless skirt that just barely touched her knees made me pant like a dog. I just knew she needed a ride, and I was about to offer my services when a severe looking woman in her mid-thirties came up and scowled at me. “I’m hiring you,” she said, waving a credit card in my face.
I tried not to flinch at her pug-like underbite. I almost whined as the brunette walked out of site, probably to charter a flight with some corporate franchise. “Where are you going?” I snapped. I slapped her hand out of my face and looked straight into her beady eyes.
She gave me an offended look. “You don’t want my business?” she asked. “I can find any charter on this station, but I was told to look for you.”
“How do you know who I am?”
“A friend told me about you. She said you usually stand near the ice cream parlor, and you’re the cheapest charter in the solar system.” She paused. I got the feeling that she thought she might have made a mistake. “You are Greg Hindle, right?”
I nodded. “That’s me.” I held out my hand. “And I’m the cheapest charter in the universe. Where can I take you?”
The woman nearly crushed my hand (her mother was probably an ogre), but she smiled when she told me, “I’m going to Tank’a Are.”
Sounded easy enough, so I pulled out my data-pad and started taking her information. When she told me she was Harriet Mardot, I nearly choked on my own spit. Her dad created the diplomatic ties between Humans and the Shetsock. He’s the reason we have artificial gravity, and why they don’t have weapons of mass destruction. After my coughing fit died down, I choked out, “How many people are you bringing aboard? I have room for three,” I gave her a sidelong glance and added, “unless anyone is double-bunking.”
“I am traveling alone,” she said. I think she resented my implication because her eyes turned mean.
I ignored her glare and pressed on. “Then you’ll have to wait until I fill the other two cabins before we leave.”
“No,” she snapped. “I’ll buy out the other cabins if I have to, but I just told you, I’m traveling alone.”
Argument seemed like a waste of time, so I made a few calculations. “Tank’a Are is a fourteen day flight. We’ll have to queue at the Jump Gate, but if it’s not backed up, we should only have to wait two or three days. Queue time is only half price–”
Ms. Mardot waved her hand in my face and cut me off. “Even with a queue at the JG, the trip will only take a week.” She turned and motioned for a porter to follow her with her bags, and then she turned back to me as if she expected me to lead her to my ship.
That’s when I knew this job was going to be trouble. “Look, I have protocols to follow on my ship. I say it’s gonna take fourteen days plus queue time, that’s what it’s gonna take. You pay half up front. That’s one thousand, fifty credits. Any wait time at the JG will be added onto your bill when we arrive.”
Bulldogs flash their teeth when they’re about to attack. Ms. Mardot just clenched her jaw and squinted at me. “Do you know who I am?” she demanded.
I grinned. “I sure do. I also know you’re looking for the cheapest flight around. You wanna pay some fancy flyboy to get you half way across the galaxy in less than a week, you’re welcome to cough up the thirty grande.” I put away my tablet and turned my back on her.
Then she slapped me. Hard. In the back of my head! “Seven days,” she said when I whipped around to face her, “and you get forty grand.”
Yeah. This woman was going to be trouble.
I led her to my ship, Karin-Bell, and got on the com to my crew while Ms. Mardot’s porter loaded her luggage. My baby looks kinda like a giant penguin, with the cockpit in the head, crew quarters in the chest, galley and passenger cabins in the belly, and engines and maintenance at the rear. There’s very little cargo space because there’s no money in legitimate freight work for ship my size. And I’m no smuggler.
Well, not this month, anyway.
When I heard back from my crew that they were on their way, I wen to check on my passenger, and I found her looking confusedly around her cabin. “Why are there straps around your mattresses?” she asked.
“To hold you in when we’re traveling,” I said. “This ship doesn’t have artificial gravity.”
Horror twisted her face, and I think she turned green. For some reason, zero-grav makes some people sick. It’s not as common as seasickness, but most of the time it’s more violent. I grinned. “Do you need to find another transport?”
She swallowed and shook her head. “Just warn me before we leave the grav-field of the station.” She turned back to her luggage and muttered, “That explains the cheap price.” I showed her the barf suction-mask next to the lavatory, and then I left her alone, impressed that someone figured out the secret to my prices.
Newton’s law states that an object in motion stays in motion until another force acts upon that object. Artificial gravity is that force. I never learned how it works, but the grav-field forms some kind of bubble around a ship and keeps it from drifting through space. I could afford a gravity generator if I wanted, but I can move through space with one percent of the fuel most other ships consume.
I got to my airlock door in time to meet Daren, my ex-marine, Samoan mechanic. Okay, he’s half Samoan, but the half that’s not was probably a giant because he’s bigger than any full-blooded Samoan I’ve ever seen. I never figured out how he managed to fit in my engine room, but I guess when you’re a genius, you know how to get the job done, no matter what. “Where to?” he asked. It’s hard not to laugh at the man when he speaks. Sure, he’s over six feet tall and weighs a solid ton, but his voice is singsong tenor.
“We’re going to Tank’a Are. And we have to get there in a week.”
Daren swore. “We’re gonna have to hard burn for at least an hour after we set out. The engines won’t take that much stress!”
I stepped up close to him, dropped my voice and said, “It’s a legitimate run that means we don’t have to carry any contraband.”
He glared at me. “I want my share of pay up front,” he said, poking my chest. Hard. “We run out of fuel ‘cause you burn us too hard, I’m not getting hung out to dry.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s already in your account,” I told him. “We can burn as hard as we like. Our passenger’s paying us forty large for the trip.”
A head of platinum dreadlocks peaked around Daren’s arm. “You get half up front?” Kitty, my copilot, looked like she wanted to hit me. Or hug me. We never got paid that much money for a job, and she’d been bugging me for a vacation for months.
I nodded. “That part of my policy will never change.”
Kitty gave me a satisfied grin. “Mind steppin’ out of the airlock, big guy?” She patted Daren on the arm. “You take up more space than you think.”
The mechanic sighed, vacated the airlock with a bag of supplies from the station, and let Kitty through to the cockpit. Then he glowered at me. I expected him to yell or poke my chest some more, but he only shoved me out of the way as he went to the engine room. He’s a scary guy when he wants to be, and even after five years of working together, I wouldn’t put it past him to turn me in to the authorities for some of the shadier cargos we’ve hauled.
I let out a relieved sigh when he walked away, and then I sealed the airlock and jumped on the intercom. “Everyone prepare for departure. We’re leaving as soon as we get clearance.”
I could hear Ms. Mardot vomiting from all the way up in the cockpit. Space sickness can hit you pretty hard the first time you swim in space, and it’s especially bad if your body’s experienced real, artificial, and zero grav all in one day.
I set my engines to hard burn, eager to hit the first fueling station by the end of our second day. We reached our top speed in a matter of an hour and then cut our engines to drift overnight. If we weren’t in such a hurry, I’d have pushed us fifteen or twenty minutes, but with Ms. Mardot’s deadline, we needed the extra speed.
Daren took it upon himself to swear at me every few minutes while he clattered around the engine room, making sure we didn’t explode. When I finally cut the engines and let Kitty take over the controls, I decided to help my engineer with his attitude problem by locking him in the engine room until he apologized. He screamed, swore some more, and then threatened to shut down life support. But eventually he calmed down, I let him out of the engine room, and then went to bed.
I awoke in the middle of the night when an alarm shrieked through the ship. “We have a problem, Greg,” Kitty hollered through the intercom.
“No kidding,” I shouted as I floated through the hatch into the cockpit. “What happened?”
Kitty pounded at the console and flipped the alarm override. “We were coming up to an asteroid belt, and I kicked in maneuvering thrusters. But as soon as they fired up, the alarm went off, and the engines died.”
I looked at the status readout and saw that three of our steering thrusters were shot. Actually, it looked like they were gone, along with a sizable section of my hull. The alarms were apparently to warn us of emergency seals closing off the bulkheads.
“Captain, we have to stop,” Daren said through the intercom.
“Because I was right, you idiot. We overworked the engines, and if we don’t stop to repair them, we’re gonna turn into a crater on a rock somewhere.”
I rubbed at the bridge of my nose, took a deep breath, and asked, “What happened? Why did my engines explode? They were built to hard burn for days.”
“After proper conditioning,” Daren snapped. “It takes at least a year of constant maintenance to make sure they’re up to full power. But since we never conditioned them, the metal froze and turned brittle when we shut everything down. I have a solution, but it’s gonna take a couple of days, and we can’t be flyin’ through space at a thousand miles a second.”
I motioned for Kitty to stay put and went to check on my passenger. She didn’t answer the door right away, which made me hopeful that she slept through most of the commotion. I actually had to bang on her door for a few minutes before she opened it and glared at me. Her eyes looked sunken, and a green tinge still colored her complexion. “You need to strap in,” I told her.
“I was strapped in,” she said. She reminded me of a bulldog again, and I winced.
“We have to make an emergency stop, and I need you to make sure you’re extremely secure.”
“Why?” she demanded. “What’s going on?” She looked scared.
“Just strap in,” I said, making my way back to the cockpit. “You have ten seconds.” As soon as I strapped into my chair in the cockpit, I hit the emergency stop button. All fore-engines kicked in at once, and the hull of the ship groaned in protest as our motion slowed.
The tail-end of the ship started to swing around in an attempt to keep its momentum going, and I had to kick in the topside engines to adjust our movement. We’d used those engines to boost our hard burn, as well, and two more explosions echoed through the ship. Thankfully, I didn’t have any more holes in my hull. Just two more dead thrusters.
Eventually, all sound ceased except for the echo of Ms. Mardot vomiting in her cabin again.
I know next to nothing about ship repair. I mean, when I flew a skiff for StarCruise Enterprises I could fix the engine in a pinch. But just because I can put gas in an antique lawnmower doesn’t mean I could manufacture an orbital elevator. Daren only spent two hours on repair before he stepped back inside the cargo hull in the ship’s belly.
Our lovely guest spent the entire time yelling and screaming at me for casting her adrift in space, kidnapping her and leaving her to die, yadda yadda, blah blah blah. I ignored her and went about my business to make sure that we didn’t get stuck. I met Daren in the little galley off of the passenger lounge. “We should be good to go,” he said. “But we’re gonna need to dock for some serious repairs before we can Jump.”
I rubbed my eyes. “Okay,” I sighed. “I’ll set it up. How long until we’re running again?”
“Three minutes,” Daren said. “I just need to bring the engines back online.”
We went in opposite directions so he could get the engines turned on and I could reserve a repair dock at JG A104. I sent a message to the repair station (we were still too far away for real-time communication), and then we shot off into the black. Again.
About an hour out from the JumpGate, I spotted an Earth Navy ship in my rearview. Well, it was a naval model, but my computer registered it as a privately owned ship. And they were speeding right toward us at an alarming rate. “Hey, Kitty, did you see anyone behind us when you were at the helm last night?”
My copilot, pretending to be asleep at the console, looked at me and yawned. “No. I haven’t seen a single ship since we left.”
An uneasy feeling made my stomach turn over. As a habit, I steer clear of well-used shipping lanes. When I’m carrying something I shouldn’t be, it’s easier to spot ships that might be following me. And if there’s anyone in the world more paranoid than I am, it’s Kitty. I caught her trying to hot-wire the ship a few years back. She jump when I walked in on her, banged her head pretty bad, and then just started crying. I felt so bad for her, I gave her a job. Good thing, too, because if she’d stolen my ship, she’d have crashed it in ten minutes. I taught her everything she knows about space-flight, and she still has a lot to learn. But if she hadn’t seen any ships before this one, it meant we were alone out here until they showed up.
I unstrapped from my chair. “Take over,” I said. “Hard burn if you have to, but we’re going to reach the Gate before that ship catches up to us.”
“If we hard burn, we’ll lose the engines again,” Kitty protested.
I frowned at her and grabbed the intercom. A squeal reverberated through the loudspeakers when I shouted, “Daren, prepare for hard burn. We may have company, and we need to get to a safe port before they catch us.”
The loudspeaker stayed silent for a breath, and then Daren said, “I’ll do what I can.”
I floated to Ms. Mardot’s door in time to catch her closing it behind her. She looked like she wanted to tell me something.
“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about the ship that just showed up in my rearview, would you?”
The semi-permanent scowl that had twisted her face since she stepped on board finally melted, and she looked human for a change. In fact, fear filled her eyes. “What type of ship is it?”
“An Earth Navy fighter, but it’s registered to a private group.”
Ms. Mardot may have growled. “They’re mercenaries.”
“Really?” I crossed my arms and gave her what I hoped was a dry look. “Do you want to tell me why they’re speeding toward us?”
“I may have stolen the plans for an attack on Tank’a Are, as well as some weapons schematics that should help the Shetsock defend themselves against earth.”
Before I realized I was reacting to that news, my hands floated up and covered my face. I didn’t bother to move them. I had a bad feeling about where she got that information. “Please don’t tell me…”
“I stole them from my father.” Senator Mardot convinced the Shetsock to install and maintain artificial gravity in Human space stations and ships. The arrangement prevents Humans from learning how to manufacture, install, or maintain artificial gravity, and in exchange, the Shetsock would never seek weapons of mass destruction. “I installed a bug in his network,” she said. “About two minutes ago, I received the message that mercenaries are after us. I was just on my way to tell you.”
I reached for the nearest com and asked Daren, “How soon till we can burn?”
“Give me half an hour,” he replied. “I want to run a few checks to make sure we’re not going to lose any more engines.”
I leaned in to the com-system and told him, “The people following us are ex-navy. We need to beat them to the JG and jump before they catch us or we’re gonna get blown to pieces. Oh yeah, and the Humans will be at war with the only other species we’ve met in this universe.”
Silence filled the hull, and then Daren said, “Keep us at seventy-five percent until I know how hard we can push.”
At that second, a klaxon blared through the sound system. “They’re here!” I shouted. “Everyone strap in. Daren, keep us afloat until they’re out of sight!”
I pulled myself to the cockpit as fast as I could. I got there just as Kitty brought up the rearview camera and showed me a gunship large enough to take out a fleet of little charter ships like mine. Three missiles also zoomed through the vacuum. “Hard burn,” I screamed, punching the engines to full throttle.
At the same time, I flipped a switch on my console. A delicate piece of software hidden in my ship’s subroutines reached into space and found the missiles’ guidance systems. They veered off course and collided with each other. The explosion rocked the ship, even as we shot forward at eight Gs. We shuddered, and a popping sound echoed off the bulkheads.
Daren’s voice called over the com, “We lost one of the aft thrusters. I can compensate, but we’ll lose maneuverability.”
Pings and dings clanked through the hull. The mercs were firing automatic weapons at me! I invested in high-grade armor on my ship to protect us from floating debris, but I didn’t know how long it would hold up against bullets. “Get the other aft thrusters at a hundred and fifty percent. I wanna fry their nose before we leave ‘em behind.” I banked the ship hard, dodging another volley from the mercs, and then I killed the engines.
My intercom screeched with feedback. “Karin-Bell,” a gruff voice said when the noise stopped. “This is Harris1. We have you outgunned. Remain where you are so we can retrieve your hostage, and then you’ll be free to go.”
“They must think you kidnapped me,” Ms. Mardot said, shaking her head. “But they’re not going to let you leave. As soon as they have me, they’ll kill you.”
I shot her a look to shut her up and then switched open my com channel. “Harris1, we’re having some engineering problems. I think my com blew out. Please repeat.”
They floated closer to us and started to turn, exposing the belly of their ship where a docking hatch extended to attach to our airlock. “Don’t play games with us. We know you abducted Senator Mardot’s daughter and have her on board with you.”
“Ms. Mardot?” I asked. “She’s a paying passenger. I’ll get her to come talk to you, and we can clear up this misunderstanding.”
“No need, captain. We’ll just retrieve her from you and you can be on your way. I assume you already got paid?”
A groan escaped my throat. The were going to kill me. “All right. Come aboard and we’ll hand off our passenger. No harm done?”
“Just stay put. We’ll attach a seal to your airlock in about five minutes.”
The com went silent and I switched to the ship’s channel. “Daren, you got three minutes to get my engines ready to go.”
He didn’t respond for almost two nail-biting minutes. I watched on my vid-feed as the docking arm inched closer to my door. The arm actually touched my hull and started its seal when Daren called back, “Punch it, Greg. We’ll tear a hole in their side!”
I don’t know how he did it, but Daren rigged the engine to shoot a burst of superheated plasma from the engines. Sure enough, one look at the vid-screen revealed a missing chunk of the mercenary ship. Three of their engines were floating off into the void, too. We didn’t really go anywhere, but less than a second later, Daren told me, “Hit it again!”
I rammed the throttle to full speed. The seal on the merc-ship’s docking arm held for half a second, and then it ripped out of the Harris1’s side. The force of thrust created by my engines buried me in my chair, and we shot off into space faster than I thought my ship could go with half of its thrusters out of order.
A quick look in the rearview monitor told me that Harris1 wouldn’t be a problem for quite some time. A high-tech ship like that would seal up its hull in a few minutes, but they’d be stuck for at least a day while they made sure their remaining engines wouldn’t explode on ignition. I hoped that would give us time to make it to the JG where we might be able to jump the queue and lose our pursuers.
After ten minutes at full throttle, we cut our engines to drift through space. We’d picked up some decent speed, and without anything to stop us, I figured I’d save my engines a bit. Daren appreciated the gesture, and I could hear him swearing with delight (or possibly frustration) as he tried to get the ship fixed up enough to let us dock at the JumpGate.
Kitty took over for me, and I went back to the passenger cabins to figure out what my next step should be. Ms. Mardot followed. “We can’t go to Tank’a Are,” I told her when we reached her cabin.
She shut the door behind us and nodded. “We need to find a Shetsock outpost with a high-level dignitary.”
A groan escaped me, and I shook my head. “The nearest Shetsock outpost is almost a week away from any JumpGate that connects to A104. And if we’re going to make it anywhere without falling to pieces, I need to get my ship fixed.”
Ms. Mardot strapped herself into a chair and rested her head in her hands. It’s amazing how quickly people try to make themselves feel like they’re back on a planet when they get stressed in space. She rested in silence, and I let her stew over the situation she put us in.
A few minutes passed, and then the intercom clicked. “Greg, the repair docks want to talk to you,” Kitty called.
“Try to think of something,” I told my passenger. “I’m not ready to die, yet.”
She nodded without pulling her hands away from her face. I slid open her door and floated back to the cockpit. I pulled up the Dock Master on my vid-screen. “Captain Hindle?” he asked. I nodded, and he went on. “I don’t have any repair docks available until next Thursday. Do you want me to schedule you in?”
A week and a half, just sitting at the gate. Maybe we could hide… And maybe the mercs died in the explosion. But I think Senator Mardot had a better chance of dancing through my ship in a tutu.
“I’m in a real time-crunch. I should be at A104 in six hours. You sure you can’t fit me in?”
The Dock Master shook his head. “Next Thursday’s the best I can do.” He punched a few buttons on his datapad and added, “The dock at JG C415 has an opening, but you’d have jump three gates to get there. From your requested repairs, I don’t know if your ship can handle that many jumps and the flights in between without crapping out on you.”
I flipped a switch on the intercom, patching the engine room in on the conversation. “Can I get you to talk with my mechanic about this? I think he’ll have a better idea of what my ship can do.”
Daren jumped in on the conversation, and I turned off my end of the com. “Kitty, get in the queue to jump. We’re going to hit that repair dock at C415.”
“You gotta be kidding me,” she muttered.
I raised my eyebrows at her. “Do you wanna get off at A104? ‘Cause I can find another copilot if you have a problem.”
She turned and glared at me. “Don’t be an ass! I’m not leaving you. But you’re taking too many risks for this woman.”
“Those mercs are gonna kill us if they catch up,” I snapped.
“You don’t know that! Just because our passenger told us we’d be killed doesn’t mean it’s true. Why are you trusting her? Because she paid us a ton of money? Or is it because she’s the daughter of some senator?”
I blinked. My mouth opened and then closed again. And then it opened in an attempt to speak. And then it clamped shut. I turned and pushed myself back to Ms. Mardot’s cabin. “Show me the attack plans,” I said.
The senator’s daughter stared at me. “Excuse me?”
“Show me the attack plans. If I’m going to risk my life and my ship for you, I need more than your word that your dad’s starting a war.”
I expected her to argue, but she reached into her bag and pulled and pulled out a datapad. “This is the original datapad my father stored the information on. I left a duplicate in his office. That’s probably how he knew to send people after me.”
She tossed the datapad across the room, and I caught it. “If this checks out, you’ll get it back,” I said.
She nodded, a resigned look on her face.
I ran into Daren on my way to my cabin, and I could tell he was pissed. Grease covered his shaved head, and the sleeves of his coveralls were rolled all the way up on his over-muscled arms. “We have to stop at A104,” he said. “If we don’t, the hull’s going to rip apart. Probably in the middle of a jump. I don’t want to get ejected into jump-space. You know what happens to people who float in jump-space?”
I pushed past Daren and opened the door to my cabin. “Yeah,” I said. “They die.”
“Unless they’re in space suits,” he said. “Then they just drift. All alone. Until another ship comes through and smashes them to a pulp.”
“Yeah, they die,” I repeated. “And we’re not going to die. What will it take to get us ready for three consecutive jumps?”
He let out a slow breath. “Without a repair crew? A week with spare parts and a welding torch.”
I opened up my private terminal and connected to the net. I noticed that Kitty got us queued up to jump in twenty-four hours. “We’re going to be at JG in about six hours. We jump in twenty-four. If I walk the ship with you, what can we do?”
Muscles in his jaw clenched, and I swear his eye started twitching. “I think we can get some weak spots patched up, but we’re going to have to stop on the other side to inspect the hull again. Maybe even do some more repairs.”
I nodded. “Get prepped. We’ll do whatever repairs we can each time we queue up, but I don’t want those mercs catching us. I wouldn’t be surprised if they get our destination from the gate office. I want to be through the second gate before they arrive at A104.”
Without a word, Daren left.
I logged out of the net, put up an impenetrable firewall, and then plugged in Ms. Mardot’s datapad. A few years ago I managed to get my hands on the software used for authenticating government protocols. Don’t ask too many question, let’s just say I know a guy.
The programming involved in decoding the datapad would take at least an hour. By design. In two hundred years technology has grown by leaps and bounds, but the government doesn’t want hackers getting into their files. As a result, they built in thousands of redundant lines of code, security decryption, and digital rubix cubes to make sure no one illegally accessed the authentication protocols. That meant my program would have to sift through the codes for nearly an hour to make sure that I held a legitimate government document.
While my computer worked, I joined Daren in prepping for ship repair. Daren and I gathered gear together in the belly of my penguin-shaped beast, and he walked me through his plan for repairs to the hull. When he felt confident that he had the equipment to patch up the exterior, he gathered some scrap metal and got to work reinforcing the interior bulkheads. Piece by piece, we floated through the ship and replaced the emergency seals with new, solid patches of metal. As an obsessive, paranoid engineer, the big Samoan kept me by his side for almost five hours to make sure the rivets, welds, and silimold-seals strengthened the integrity of the ship rather than simply patching holes.
When I finally returned to my cabin, I didn’t know whether I wanted my passenger to be telling me the truth or not. On the one hand, if she was lying I could drop her off with the authorities and tell the mercs where to find her. I’d be free to drift through space until I made it to a repair dock that could fix my ship. And I’d still have three months’ pay available to spend however I liked.
On the other hand, if she was telling the truth, I could help her out and be a hero. Assuming I survived. Untold riches may or may not await me at the end of that journey, but more importantly than that, I’d finally be doing something of value. I would be somebody.
I sat down at my console and looked at the data. The bottom fell out of my stomach. I unplugged the datapad, pushed myself to the passenger cabins, and knocked on Ms. Mardot’s door.
“Come in,” she said.
Without a word I sent the datapad floating across the cabin into her hand. “We have to make emergency repairs while we queue for the JumpGate. Passenger quarters will be on lockdown for your safety. We’re going to make three jumps to JG C415 where I can get my steering thrusters replaced. That should get the mercenaries off of our tail, and once the ship’s fixed, we can get you to any Shetsock outpost you like.”
“So you believe me?”
I nodded and left.
We made it to the JG without any trouble. My luck even held up long enough to keep the mercs out of my rearview. Daren and I stepped into the vacuum, secured to the ship by electromagnetic boots. I would’ve sent Kitty out with Daren, but she hates walking in space more than I do. The only time I saw her go outside, I had to rush out and drag her back in before she hyperventilated from the stress. The idea of a thin suit between her and the vacuum sends her into a panic-attack, even when she’s standing firmly on Earth with an oxygen tank in hand.
Me? I just hate the idea flying off into nothingness, breathing stale air until the suit runs dry. I really don’t want to be a drifting corpse, doomed to travel the black until I crash into a passing comet.
Daren and I stomped around my ship and re-welded the hull for fifteen solid hours before we got a call from Kitty. “Greg, I just got a notice from the Gate. We’re cleared to Jump in one hour. You guys better get back in here.”
“On our way.” I motioned for Daren to follow me inside, and he acknowledged with wave. It took us thirty minutes to finish the project we were working on and haul our equipment back to the cargo bay doors.
Daren sealed us back in just as Kitty called over the com, “They picked up some speed at the queue. We’re next to jump.”
I could hear panic in her voice. Kitty’s never piloted a jump, and she’s terrified of screwing up the procedure. Best-case scenario: when a pilot messes up, they scratch the hull. Worst-case: they blow up the ship, the JumpGate and everyone within mile of it. So I popped the seal on my suit as fast as I could. Space suits aren’t easy to get out of, though. I fought with my gloves so I could get the rest of the suit unbuckled, but they wouldn’t come free.
“Greg, I need you up here!” Kitty yelled.
I finally got one glove free. I pushed myself across the room to the com on the wall and told her, “I can’t get the suit off. You’re gonna have to jump.”
I cut her off. “Kitty, we don’t have a choice. You know the procedure, just take us through the gate.”
At that moment, Gate Control tapped in to our intercom. “Karin-Bell, you’re cleared to Jump. Please proceed to the Gate.”
Thrusters kicked in, and we started moving. I pulled my other hand free while Daren started yanking at the buckles down my back. I got my suit half way off before the intercom clicked on again and Gate Control said, “Karin-Bell, adjust your heading one degree keel, three degrees starboard.”
Daren and I exchanged worried looks. As I wiggled and jerked at the suit, I brushed the utility belt and activated my magnetic boots. Something in the system must’ve fried because no matter what I tried, the boots wouldn’t come free.
I’d worked with Daren for years, and we’ve been in a few uncomfortable situations before, but nothing like that day when he took a firm hold of suit where it bunched up around my waist. “You say anything about this to anyone,” he growled, “and I’ll wring your neck.”
I grunted in agreement and tried to stand still as he yanked at my suit until it finally came free. I turned to help him, but he rolled his eyes and said, “I got it. Go help out Kitty.”
I shot through the hull like a bullet as Gate Control said, “Karin-Bell, adjust your heading two degrees keel, seven degrees starboard.” The man on the radio sounded nervous.
When I made it out of the cargo area and into the crew decks, Control called again. “All right, you’re back on course. Just shift your heading one degree to port.” I heard the steering thrusters kick in just enough to change our heading, and then Control sighed over the intercom. “Beginning Jump countdown.”
A computer started at one hundred and counted backwards toward zero. At seventy, I made into the cockpit in time to see Kitty shudder nervously at the controls and send us veering off course. The intercom blared, “Karin-Bell, what are you doing? Abort jump.”
I grabbed Kitty and pulled her out of the pilot’s chair, jumping in her place. “Hold on,” I told her. I made a few adjustments, but I didn’t abort my trajectory.
The JumpGate, a giant metal ring filled with glowing hyper-matter, loomed ahead. The computer countdown continued, and Control shouted again. “Karin-Bell, you won’t make it. Abort now!”
“Greg, the mercs just showed up,” Kitty said, looking at the rear video monitor.
I flipped the com switch and told Control, “No can do. I have a deadline to make. Give me final adjustments, please.”
When he replied, the Controller’s voice shook with fear. “Thirty degrees topside, fifteen starboard.”
I engaged my thrusters and made the adjustments as best I could. We passed through the enormous octagonal JumpGate, and convalescence of color engulfed my vision. The countdown on the computer slowed to one count every five seconds. A slow, dreary voice said, “Good luck,” and then jump-space surrounded us.
The ship shook as another tearing noise echoed through the hull. I checked the emergency indicator on my console to discover that one of the keel-thrusters clipped the Gate when we entered jump-space. The thruster ripped out of the hull, taking another chunk of the ship with it. A warning klaxon resounded through the cockpit as the emergency seals attempted to close the hole. A difficult task in jump-space.
While space is a vacuum, jump-space is a vacuum moving simultaneously at a million lightyears per second while standing perfectly still. As a result, physics tend to behave erratically, poking holes in all forms of string-theory as well as Newton’s laws. In this instance, a hull-breach that should’ve sealed itself in ten seconds without any effort drained the ship of all function except for life-support.
Oxygen rushed out of the ship and flowed into the streaming rainbow of jump-space rushing past us as we lost all movement and came to a complete stop. The air escaping my hull sounded a lot like a woman’s scream at first, until I realized that it really was a woman’s scream. And not my passenger. Ms. Mardot pulled herself into the cockpit, pale and concerned, but she grabbed Kitty by the shoulders and held her close. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s just jump-space. We’re going to be all right.”
I waited for Daren to do whatever he could in the engine room. A hissing noise told me the air in the cargo bay was escaping through a consistently shrinking hole, and a few minutes later, the noise stopped. A screen in my console lit up and announced that the hull was sealed, but my engines were unresponsive. Oh yeah, and the connection to JG SI81 would only remain open for another seven minutes. That gave us one minute to get the engines running, and six minutes to reach the gate. Failure could result in any number of disasters, not the least of which would be the first intergalactic war.
Kitty started to hyperventilate next to me. “I’ll get us out of here,” I promised her, hacking in to my own computer system to override safety lockdowns. I hoped Daren was reconnecting servos, flushing lubricants, or whatever he does that makes my ship run, but for all I knew, he could’ve hit his head on a hatch.
I shut down nonessential programs in my computer, tried to soothe my copilot, and eventually got to the core operations of the ship’s computers only to encounter a danger warning that advised me against overrides. Turns out, turning off the safety measures for a space ship that runs on hydrogen fuel is dangerous. It can cause explosions and life-support failure. But getting trapped in jump-space could result in an equally final death. So I overrode my safety restrictions and hard-booted my engines.
Basic controls kicked in, along with a final countdown to Gate disconnect. “Are we going to make it?” Ms. Mardot asked as the engines flared to life and propelled us forward.
I ignored her. My computer system wasn’t available to help control the ship, and while I could pilot without its help, it’d been a long time since I needed to. The weird physics of jump-space pulled at the hull, making the controls shake in my hands.
The flight went as smoothly as I could hope, and when twenty seconds remained on the countdown, the exit came into view. “We’re not going to make it,” my passenger said, sending Kitty into a fresh wave of moans and tears.
“Shut up!” I snapped. I flipped a switch on my consul and sent the ship into hard burn. We shot forward like a fighter jet at takeoff. The countdown reached “five” before the engines died again, and we immediately started to slow down.
“Four.” The tail of the ship twisted around, sending us into a sideways spin.
“Three.” I cringed when I saw the Gate connection begin to close only a few yards from where I sat.
“Two.” All power left the ship. At least I hoped it was all power. If I was going to be stuck in jump-space, I didn’t want life support to stay on and give me time to reflect on my failure.
“One.” The starboard side of the hull came in contact with the Gate exit. Gate protocols prevent the connection from closing if a ship is stuck in the gate.
I shouted with triumph, shocking Kitty and making Ms. Mardot jump. “We made it!” I thrust my hands above my head and screamed again. Unfortunately, my ship still didn’t have power. That meant we’d have to wait until we got towed free.
I unclipped my seatbelt and backflipped toward the cockpit hatch. “Kitty, how ya doin’?”
She looked around, took a shuddering breath, and then nodded at me. “I think I’m okay,” she said. “Do you mind if I go to my cabin?”
“Go ahead.” I watched her pull free from Ms. Mardot, and then added, “Not bad for your first jump. If the ship wasn’t falling apart around us, this would’ve been textbook.”
She didn’t say anything, but I could tell that my words made her feel a bit better. She floated down the hall and drifted into her cabin. Ms. Mardot looked me in the eye and sighed. “We made it,” she said.
I nodded. “Now we just need to jump two more times.”
An enormous electromagnet attached to the side of my ship and started to pull us out of jump-space. As the tow-ship dragged us clear of the gate, the weird science of jump-space stopped screwing with my onboard systems. As soon as we were free of the Gate, the power kicked in, and Gate Control chimed over the intercom. The burbling voice of a feminine Shetsock asked, “Karin-Bell, is everything all right? We got word from A104 that you damaged your ship upon entry into jump-space.”
“Everything’s fine,” I replied. “We’ve been having some trouble with the ship, and we’re on our way to C415 for some repairs. I think we lost a thruster, and jump-space interfered with emergency ship protocols.”
The intercom remained silent, and I expected them to send over a bill for damages to A104. When the inhuman voice spoke again, she said, “SI81 and C415 recently upgraded jump-space capabilities and can establish a connection with each other. I have added you to the queue. Will you be ready to jump in one earth hour?”
I rolled my eyes. The Shetsock have used the same time measurements as Humans for about as long, but some of them read twentieth-century science fiction and like to pretend that minutes, hours, and days are a completely new concept. “Let me check with my engineer,” I told her, and I flipped a switch on the com.
When I finished explaining what Gate Control said, Daren sighed so profoundly that I could almost see his shoulders relax over the radio. “As long as we don’t hit anything, we should be able to make it.”
I switched back to communication with Control and told her my mechanic was confident we’d be ready in an hour. The com went dead, and I closed my eyes, happy to finally get a break.
“Captain,” said my passenger.
I’d forgotten about her. But I turned around and looked her in the eye. “What can I do for you?” I asked.
“Before we jumped, I managed to reach a Shetsock envoy in the sector we’re headed to. They’re going to meet us at the Gate while your ship is getting repaired. You’ll be free to go, and I’ll be safely on my way to Tank’a Are.”
A nod was all I managed to give her. I wanted out of this ordeal. Sure, even with the repairs to my ship, I was making more money on this job than I would in a typical six-month stretch, but I hate getting involved in politics. And getting chased by mercenaries. If she found a way to complete her journey without putting me and my crew in anymore danger, I could live with that. And I knew any Shetsock envoy would be able to outrun the mercenaries behind us. She’d be safe, and war might be averted.
Ms. Mardot smiled and then floated back to her cabin.
The queue and the jump went as well as could be expected, and we pulled into the repair station at C415 without crashing into anything or losing another piece of my ship.
The minute we passed into the repair station’s airlock, artificial gravity kicked in and sent us sprawling on the floor. We gathered our luggage together and followed the signs to the shuttle dock. I say we followed the signs, but really, we looked for signs wherever we could and just guessed our way around the station until we found our destination. I swear, architects should be forced to spend at least five years working in any structure they design. Maybe then they’d make something that’s actually practical and easy to navigate.
Ms. Mardot booked us in the upscale side of the Gate Station’s hotel. I don’t know where she got a trace-free credit card, but we didn’t have to worry about her transactions leading the mercs to us when she shelled out an obscene amount of money for our accommodations. I mean, she bought us an entire wing. That’s a dozen suites. Not rooms: suites!
After getting moved in, I hunted her down in the largest suite in the wing. She sat at the dining table with the grandest meal I’ve ever seen. Including a full roasted pig, fois gras, orange marmalade, green salad with a variety of fruits and vegetable (very difficult to keep fresh this far out in space), and–bless the small things–cold beer! “Come sit down,” she said, waving me over to the table.
I wiped the drool from my chin and took a seat next to her. Before long, my plate disappeared under fruit, cheese, and fine breads. And then I lifted a cold, dark beer to my lips and drank the foamy liquid down. “I haven’t had beer in over a year,” I told her when my glass sat empty on the table.
Ms. Mardot laughed and poured me another pint. I picked up my bread, scooped up some raspberries and lettuce, and took a bite. A moan of pure delight nearly made me choke on the food, but I enjoyed every second of that first bite and washed it down with a long sip of beer. Then I looked up and grinned. “Beats the heck out of protein paste.”
“Yes, it does,” she replied. “Is the rest of your crew going to join us?”
“Only if they find out there’s real food,” I said. I picked up the receiver to an antique com-device called a telephone and punched in their room numbers. They were both at the table before I could hang up.
We ate our meal in relative silence. And by that I mean we didn’t talk. We made tons of noise, mostly orgasmic because none of us had eaten real food in months. But when the plates were empty and our heads floated in a cloud of beer-foam, we sat back and sighed. “What’s the plan from here?” Kitty asked.
“You wait for your ship to get fixed,” Ms. Mardot said, “and then go wherever you like.”
She told Kitty and Daren about the Shetsock ambassador en route to retrieve her. “I’ve put all of you in too much danger. When I’m gone, you should be safe. And I’ll be at Tank’a Are before my father’s men realize we’ve parted ways.”
I saw my weary crew finally relax, and then I felt the tension release from my shoulder for the first time since Harriet Mardot stepped on my ship. I fought to hide my giddy laughter. And then I grabbed another beer and chugged it in celebration.
Of course, that’s when the door to the suite cracked open and a small, metal cylinder clinked into the middle of the room. Daren, who never drinks, yelled, “Flashbang!” And then he plugged his ears and squeezed his eyes shut. Kitty, Ms. Mardot, and I just stared drunkenly at the can. And then it exploded in a burst of noise and light.
My ears rang, and spots danced in my eyes. I think I hit my head when I fell out of my chair, but I couldn’t remember actually falling. Blurred motion flashed around the edges of my vision, and I heard muffled grunts. Someone fell down next to me, and my eyes cleared enough to give me a half-decent look.
It was a big man with a bushy beard, wide, green eyes, and a stunned look on his face. I shook my head the same time he did. His face twisted in anger, and he reached out his hands to strangle me.
I pushed myself backward, and he grabbed my shirt. I kicked out and kneed him in the chest. He grunted, but didn’t let go. Three more knees to the chest just convinced him to shift his body on top of my leg.
He couldn’t get any closer to my throat, but I couldn’t detach him. The adrenaline finally made it to my brain, and I lashed out with my open palm and gave him a solid whack on his ear. I cupped my hand to make sure a good deal of air filled his ear canal. It worked. He clasped his hands to the side of his head and howled in pain.
At least I assume he was howling. I still couldn’t hear very well. I got up and kicked him in his exposed temple. He stopped moving.
Across the room, two men lay on the floor, either unconscious or dead. I couldn’t tell. Daren was fighting with a third man, and Kitty fought to stop a pair of thugs from dragging Ms. Mardot out of the door by jamming the electronics. Before she could finish fiddling with the door-controls, gravity changed direction. Fifteen times. In less than two seconds. And then it righted itself, and we all fell to the floor. I think a couple of the thugs threw up. With all of the food and beer in my stomach, I’m surprised I didn’t.
Daren, accustomed to changes in gravity and still sober, got up from the floor and systematically started “chocking out” the thugs. He’s ex-military, so it only took him about ten seconds.
The doors to the suite glided open again, and a Shetsock walked in. Despite our decade of relations with these people, I couldn’t help but stare at their bubblegum-colored skin. His hair, cropped short, looked like a neon-blue party-wig. He held a tiny remote in one hand, his thumb poised over a touchpad that probably overrode the gravity control on the station. “Harriet Mardot, are you hurt?” Like the controller at JG SI81, this Shetsock’s voice rippled like water over stones when he spoke.
Ms. Mardot climbed to her feet, stumbled, and then steadied herself on the table. After several deep breaths, she nodded.
The Shetsock pocketed his remote. “We should leave. These men were spying on our communications. We found their programming in our systems when you contacted us and learned of their plan to abduct you when you arrived here. I would not be surprised if there are more on the way.”
“Thank you, ambassador. You’re probably right.” Harriet Mardot took two deep, shuddering breaths, and then made her way into the suite’s bedroom and returned a moment later with her bags.
Meanwhile, four more Shetsock walked in and tied up the mercenaries. Without a word, they hefted the men onto their shoulders and walked out in a column of bubblegum flesh and neon rainbow hair.
Ms. Mardot helped Kitty to her feet and then turned to me. “Thank you for everything,” she said. “I transferred the rest of your payment, and this station’s wing is paid up through the end of the month as a bonus for everything that I put you through.”
I nodded to her, breathing deeply to keep from vomiting. My head still spun, and standing really didn’t help.
She smiled and then followed the Shetsock ambassador out of the suite.
I stumbled back to the table and found a bottle of beer that survived the gravity shifts. Without a word, I drained it. “I swear: only tourists from now on. I’m never working for a politician again.”