February 7th 2014
Haddix brought up the targeting system. “CPU says we have three hostiles inbound, running hot. Two Cutlasses and a Merlin.”
Yadav caught one Cutlass out of the corner of her eye, rising up from the planetoid’s surface. The hustle and bustle of the chop-shop continued as though nothing unusual was happening. Heavy machinery unloaded the orange transport’s cargo — machinery she recognized as being on the manifest of one of the previously pirated ships. If only she could see the company logo from here.
Even in a fire-fight, she couldn’t shut off the investigative portion of her brain.
“Taking evasive action,” she said. Stating the obvious was part of the procedure — it kept your party focused, talking, working together. She spun the craft away from the planetoid. “Heading for jump point.”
“Sighting one hostile off stern. Weapons prepped. Firing two charges.” A tense pause followed. “Miss.”
Shots whizzed past on the starboard side, close enough to make the hair on the back of Yadav’s neck stand on end.
“Additional hostile engaging,” said Haddix. His level tone shifted to one of concern, “This one’s not a little fighter, Ulla. We’re talking big guns.”
Yadav took their craft into a sharp dive, hoping to shake the closest pirate. “We’re not going to make it to the jump point, are we?” She pulled up her comm system. Should they try to call for help? Surrender? That chop-shop out there cinched it in her mind: she’d been wrong. A multi-company conspiracy to commit fraud could not be cost-effective in these conditions. And she couldn’t think of any pirate packs that were known for running this far out with that much manpower. No syndicate in the galaxy could get that many pirates to work together without stabbing each other in the back.
Whoever they were, they sure weren’t in the genteel business of white-collar crime.
“I’m picking up on radio signals,” she noted. “Not from the ships, from the third planet. Maybe the terraforming is complete. There might be people down there.”
“Think they’ll give us sanctuary? Firing three. Hit! The P-52 is backing off.”
Yadav turned on their wide-band distress call, then attempted to reach the surface directly. “Mayday, mayday, this is Ulla Yadav of New United. Requesting permission to land. We are being attacked by unknown persons in your system. Mayday.”
The planet swelled before them. The atmosphere reflected a healthy blue, but there were few bodies of water, and a good portion of the land masses appeared dry and barren.
Yadav piloted the ship into a decaying orbit around the planet, and continued to call for help. As they wound around to the night side she noted only three small clusters of lights, all relatively near each other. “We aren’t talking about a massive population here,” she warned.
“Two of the ships are attempting to flank. Watch out on your starboard side.” Musk wafted off of Haddix. He was sweating through his underlayers. “We need to land.”
“They aren’t responding.”
“Doesn’t matter. We’re press.”
“Ok, starting my descent. Going in sharp. Maybe these suckers can’t take a wide-angled entry.” She pushed the controls forward, aiming for the signs of population. “Mayday, mayday,” she continued to call, “This is Ulla Yadav —”
A white-hot blast engulfed the ship, stealing Yadav’s vision. The craft shook with a violent force, and the screech of twisting metal filled the cabin. Haddix let out a half-scream, half-growl. Warning lights flashed from all angles, turning his broad face red, then orange, then blue.
“Where were we hit?” Yadav shouted. “Where did that shot come from?” The pirate vessels were all to their aft, but that shot — it came from below. And the only thing below was the planet.
The ship’s controls seized. Yadav fought with the stick, desperately trying to keep them on course, but their trajectory took a swift dip and twist. The craft dove into the atmosphere, and they both reeled with the sudden shift.
Come on, come on, Yadav chanted to herself. Clenching her jaw and biting her tongue, she pulled back on the stick, trying to bring the nose up. Her muscles ached with tension while her palms slicked the fake leather with sweat.
Haddix flew through the computer prompts, “Port thruster is out and we’re leaking fuel from its tank.” His voice held remarkably steady.
Yadav consciously slowed her breathing. Spots were swimming before her eyes. If she passed out, they were dead.
Friction seared the outside of their ship. Flames lapped at the forward shield, and turbulence made Yadav’s teeth rattle despite her gritting.
“We’re falling too fast,” Haddix screamed.
She could barely hear him now, over the roar of the sweeping wind and fire. She tried to reach for the maneuvering thrusters’ regulator, but the craft began to spiral — she couldn’t keep even a semblance of control with one hand.
The ground rushed up at them. The great, arched band of dark, night sky flattened into an oppressive lid. Bile rose in her throat and pain pounded through her skull — fumes from the burning exterior were making their way into the cockpit. They had a major internal breach somewhere.
She kept her eyes on the ground. Her entire being was wrapped up in wrestling them to safety.
Haddix took out his ‘security blanket’ once more, pressing it to his lips a long moment before shoving it down his suit, next to his heart.
“Brace!” Yadav ordered.
There was nothing but rock in sight. Seconds later, they hit the ground nose-on.
The impact crumpled the front of the ship, but barely slowed its momentum. The craft skidded through yellow-red dirt, screaming as it went. They struck an outcropping and spun like an eighteen-ton top. The rocks tore the right side of the ship away, leaving the cockpit open and exposed.
Despite her restraints, Yadav’s spine whipped back and forth like a snake. Dust and chemicals and smoke swirled through the cabin. Yadav’s vision swam. She twisted to her left and vomited, catching some in her silver-streaked hair.
The camera drone rattled around the inside of the cabin before bouncing off of the side of her head, leaving a gouge near her temple. White bursts of light flashed before her eyes, and then — nothing.
When she came to, she had no idea how long she’d been out, but everything had changed.
All lay still inside the cabin. Above the sharp, acidic smell of scorched electronics hung the unsettling smell of burnt flesh. Her hands were raw and bleeding from her grip on the stick, and her right elbow wouldn’t move.
It was no longer the dead of night. Early morning twilight transformed everything into silhouettes and shadows. Yadav’s ears popped, and she realized sirens blared all around. Alternating red and white lights flashed in the distance. She strained to see out of the giant tear in her ship’s side. Bulky, black creatures formed a perimeter around the crash site, and giant insects scuttled to and fro over the cracked earth. At first, Yadav through she was hallucinating, but as the sun rose the scene clarified.
The ‘beasts’ were vehicles and ships of various shapes and sizes, the ‘insects’ resolved into people.
Beneath the screech of the sirens were voices — no, a single voice.
“We have you surrounded. Come out with your hands up.”
Dizzy, she unbuckled herself and crawled to Haddix. Blackened portions of skin covered his right side, from torso to face. His suit had torn open, and a bar had pushed up through the floor of the cabin, through his seat, and up into his ribcage. But it wasn’t a clean puncture. Blood seeped slowly down his side, like water from a morbid spring.
His breaths were thin, but even.
A spotlight fell on the wreck from above. She couldn’t tell who was out there. Had the pirate pack followed them to the surface? She scrambled for the comm unit, only to find it dead.
The craft’s embedded emergency beacon refused to activate, and the mobile beacons — her breadcrumbs — had run out.
No one from New United knew where they were.
Her last resort was an internal beacon, stored in her travel kit. It was for hostage situations — should the reporter find him or herself trapped behind unfriendly borders, it was a secure way to alert New United to their predicament. The signal was encrypted, and would commandeer whatever wavebands it needed to get the press signal out.
The beacon looked like a little blue gel capsule, something one might take for neck pain. Quickly, she gulped it down. Once her stomach dissolved the gel, out would emerge a little bot. The bot would lodge itself in her small intestine until given the signal, by her rescuers, to release.
“Exit the craft,” the voice demanded.
If she didn’t respond, they might decide to bomb the crash site for good measure.
Yadav struggled to squeeze herself behind Haddix’s seat and through the breach rimmed with sharp metal and live wires. Palms open, she waved in surrender.
Better a hostage than a corpse.
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