November 30th 2012
Penny stared at her blank SysBook. It was totally dead. It wouldn’t even turn on. This was not happening, not after all she went through to customize this rig. Over the next few hours, she disassembled it and checked every inch of circuitry and wire. Nothing seemed blown, broken, or even frayed.
While she admitted to herself that the crash was a direct result of accessing classified files, she discounted it for two reasons. One, the files on the Cassandra project were fifty years old, and two, she never heard of a way to one-shot an intruding system remotely, not without giving her some kind of warning. Hour four passed and the frustration had really started to set in.
“Lt. Penelope Ayala.” A voice said from the doorway.
“What!” She snapped as she whirled toward the door. Three MP’s were standing there. “Oh.”
He started to memorize storage bays, where tools were kept, anything that could come in handy if this situation turns sour. Currently, he was on the lookout for anything that could double as a lockpick.
A beeping from the helm pulled Cal away from his search. Nesser snored through it. Finally, Cal heard the door that led to the cargo hold and quarters open. Sasha walked up to the helm and shut off the alert. Trunk followed.
“Get him the hell out of here.” Sasha said. Trunk yanked Nesser out of the pilot seat and Sasha took his place.
“What the hell, man?” Nesser slurred before Trunk dumped him onto the floor by Cal.
“Stay down.” Trunk put a foot on Nesser’s chest and pointed, “When we touch down, we pay you off and you’re gone. Got it?”
“We’re getting close.” Sasha said. Trunk nodded. Then they both looked at Cal.
“Get up.” Trunk said.
Cal stood. Trunk unlocked the cuffs from the wall then re-cuffed his hands together while Sasha dug a pistol out of her locker and charged it. She pulled Cal into the back of the ship where the cargo was being stored.
He saw the familiar outline of P52 stowed in the floor among the stacks of cargo. Cal had flown a smaller variant of the short-range fighter back when he was at the Home. That one was a starter ship, a kid’s model, but to him, it was escape. Over the years, he got to know that baby inside out.
Cal caught a glimpse of Mahony, the ship’s mechanic, watching from the sleeping quarters.
Sasha stopped at a stack of crates. She opened a hidden panel and punched a code. A door popped open with a hiss. All of the separate cargo crates were in fact one big empty smuggling container.
Sasha motioned inside with the pistol. Cal scoped it out before he stepped inside. She followed and Trunk sealed it. This container was recently used to smuggle people. There was already a stool and an empty bucket that had an odor about it. Unfortunately for Cal, he was on the bucket side of the container.
“Grab a seat.” Sasha said with a smirk. Cal flipped the bucket with his foot and sat down. Sasha sat across from him, the pistol leveled at him.
“Won’t your crew need you?” Cal said as he sank down on the bucket.
“I think they can handle it. Besides, if Customs catches me on a scan…” Sasha sighed, “let’s just say, it’ll be problematic.”
“Maybe the criminal lifestyle doesn’t agree with you.”
“Oh no. It suits me fine. Besides, give it a month or two and they’ll forget. You guys always do.”
“Come on. Always looking over your shoulder? Not knowing who to trust? That’s no way to live.”
“Right, because living and dying at the whim of UEE overlords is really the way to go.”
“It’s an honest life.” Cal said without hesitation. Sasha stared at him for a second before chuckling.
“Well, as someone who’s seen the receiving end of UEE bombs on Cathcart, you can call it a life if you want but don’t you dare call it honest.”
Finally it was their turn. The Phoenix glided toward the checkpoint. A Customs Agent appeared over the Comms. Trunk uploaded the tags. The ship’s body hummed as scanners moved across it.
“But you have a choice.” she hesitated for a moment, “Come with us.”
“What?” Cal didn’t see that one coming.
“You saw Nesser, he’s on the outs. We could use someone like you.” Her emerald eyes almost glowed, despite the dimmed light. “Without the rules and orders, life’s wild, unpredictable, passionate. And who knows, maybe you’ll like it. If not, earn your keep for a couple months and you can go back.”
“You’re asking me to abandon my friends, my ship, my duty, to save my own life?” Cal actually looked like he was considering it.
“If it keeps you out of the airlock, sure.” Sasha shrugged and grinned, “It’s not like they’d ever have to know.”
“I’d know.” Cal looked her in the eye, any hint that he considered this proposition utterly vanished. “And that’s enough.”
The scanning stopped. They heard the engines kick in. There was that familiar lurch of the stomach of passing through the jump-point. Cal and Sasha returned back to their respective glares.
After several minutes, the compartment door hissed and opened. Trunk was there. Sasha pushed past him. Trunk pulled Cal to his feet and brought him back into the cargo hold.
Sasha stowed her pistol back at her bunk. Trunk held Cal firm and looked to her.
“What’s the verdict?” He said. Sasha was quiet for a moment or two. She looked back at Cal. He stared right back, defiant.