August 21st 2014
From a far enough distance, a battle in space looks like dueling fireflies. The actual fighters are lost in the glare of their exhaust so all you can see are little points of light darting around against a starry backdrop, and then the occasional violent burst of an explosion.
“They’re shooting down escape pods,” I said to Morgan when I realized what was happening.
“I guess that explains why we haven’t run into many guards. Or service staff for that matter,” said Morgan with a shrug. “Still, you’d think the Nova Dogs would be more interested in boarding them than shooting them down. They’re cannibals, aren’t they? Tough to eat interstellar dust.”
It was black humor, but we needed it. We’d left the Political Activities Wing behind and found temporary shelter in the cargo hold that housed a few mothballed spacecraft. There we’d found some survivors from the attack — apprentice engineers that Herschel Konicek had put to work re-fitting the fighters, an old Cutlass and an older Hornet.
“I’ve got bad news, sir,” said a young tech in an oil-stained blue jumpsuit. He’d spoken to me, not because of my rank, which wasn’t visible because I was in civilian clothing, but because I was the only one of our group not wearing prison orange. “I overheard … uh,” embarrassed, he pointed at one of the prisoners while hiding his finger behind his hand. I supplied the name ‘Flint.’ “… yes, um, Flint, saying that you planned to fly these vehicles to the system’s jump point?”
I explained that yes, we were, and that I’d already outlined our plans to them not two days ago. “Yes,” he said nervously, “well, these are chase fighters. That is, they’ve been modified for high speeds. In case station authorities need, uh, needed to catch an escape vehicle. They can’t, however, make quantum speeds. You’ll be caught before you reach the halfway mark.”
“Good news/bad news,” said Morgan. “Speed is essential for running a blockade.” He glanced over at the large, rectangular vehicle that was parked next to the fighters. Sparks were shooting away from an arc welder that was being used to repair some of its armor plating. “What about the transport? Can we use it?”
“Certainly,” said the tech, slowly enough to indicate that it was not at all a certainty. “But that brings us to the other issue. None of these vessels was expected to fly. If not for the help of Mr. Konicek, I don’t believe they would. Even if we get everything back online, there isn’t enough fuel to get even one of them to the jump point, let alone all three.”
Morgan considered that for a moment. Then he slapped me on the back, which had become a harbinger of bad luck for me. “Well it just so happens that our fearless leader’s previous job assignment was as the Station Quartermaster. If anyone knows where to find us some fuel, it’s him.”
“Sure. I know where to find fuel,” I retorted. “On the Flight Deck, where it’s supposed to be. We’ll only have to fight through a couple of hundred pirates to get there.”
Of course, all the snappy retorts in the world weren’t going to change the fact that we did indeed need fuel, and so after a few hours of pacing the deck I came up with a plan. I quickly assembled our “strike team,” as I took to calling the six ex-prisoners who’d accompanied us all the way from the armory, mainly because they were useless at repairing fighters and needed something else to do.
“We need fuel, and Kilkenny and his men have either confiscated or blown up everything they can find. But there is an alternate source of fuel that I know is still available.” I readied myself for objections before I continued. “The station’s positional thrusters. They have huge fuel tanks and they’re kept full at all times. All we have to do is free one of the fuel pods and bring it back here.”
Though Relic had been eating copiously of the station’s supplies for most of the last two days, he was still the skinniest man I’d ever laid eyes on. He stood with a tube of nutrient paste in one hand and squeezed some in his mouth. He spoke before he swallowed. “What if we don’t want to leave the station?”
That one threw me for a loop. “What?”
“We could stay here. We’ve got plenty of food and water, and the door can be welded shut. As soon as this Kilkenny character finds the man he’s looking for, the Nova Dogs will be gone.”
Morgan spoke before I could. “Am I hearing this right? A bunch of prisoners who don’t want to escape from prison? I know that thinking long-term isn’t exactly your thing, Relic, but what’s your plan for after Kilkenny leaves? Wait for the authorities to return you to your cell? What if they don’t leave? Kilkenny will tear this station apart looking for this Martin Browning, and if that means breaking down a few doors, your welding won’t stop him.”
Relic was undaunted. “Someone needs to guard these fighters then.” He said back down and laced his hands behind his head. “We’ll look after them until you get back.”
Another prisoner, a tattooed bald man with a paunch and a five o’clock shadow got up slowly and ominously. Flint was the man the techs were most afraid of, and with good reason. He rarely spoke, but when he did, everything he said was tinged with violence. “I don’t trust these two buggers to do it on their own, and I don’t trust you buggers to guard these ships. We’re going with them, and I’ll kill any man who says otherwise.”
I have rarely been more grateful to a convicted murderer. Under his watchful eye, all five remaining ex-prisoners were shepherded out of the hold and into the elevator, leaving the techs and Herschel Konicek to work in peace. “You think they’ll still be here when we get back?” I asked Morgan.
“I’m sure of it,” he replied. “Herby won’t let us down.”
‘Herby’ was a madman, but I trusted Morgan and that meant that I trusted a madman by extension.
We were equidistant from two positional thrusters. To reach one we had to pass through the Visitor Center, and I was pretty sure that was Kilkenny’s base of operations. I didn’t relish the idea of sneaking Relic and his buddies right under the noses of the captain of the Nova Dogs and his men. Plus, Kilkenny scared the hell out of me, so I scratched it off my list.
To get to thruster number two, we needed to pass through the remains of the Command Deck. It had been the first place the pirates had attacked and I wasn’t sure how much damage it had sustained or if it even had any atmosphere, so I made sure we were outfitted for spacewalks before entering the code that would take us there. Eventually the elevator stopped and an indicator flashed to say that there was an obstruction in the shaft. We pried open the doors and heard a hiss as air escaped into the vacuum of space. We found ourselves between floors. I could just make out the bottom of the letters that formed “COMMAND” on the side of the shaft. We had arrived.
We threw our weapons through the narrow opening and ascended one by one onto the command deck. I’d been here many times before, but I could hear sharp intakes of breath from some of the ex-prisoners. The OSP-4 was not a military vessel with its tight, enclosed spaces. The Command Deck looked more like a floor in an office building. Banks of vidscreens occupied every wall, most of them shattered by explosive decompression. Shards of transparent Plexi floated in the null-g like drops of water from a frozen rain. Rainbows played against the wall as light from the nearby sun shone through a jagged rent in one wall. I walked onto the deck, feeling a slight pull from my magnetic boots with every step.
I heard Morgan’s voice hiss over the radio. “This is it? A bunch of cubicle jockeys run the whole station?”
Relic sounded equally offended. “That’s a coffee maker …” He tapped the offending appliance and sent it spinning around its axis, bleeding crystals of frozen coffee and cream.
“I get it. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain and all that. Can we move on now?”
I walked over to the hole in the wall and then stopped. A shred of blue fabric from someone’s uniform was caught on the twisted metal. Below it floated flash frozen fragments of a person. I looked away before I could see who it had been. Instead, being careful to maintain my distance from the jagged hull, I looked outside. The convex shape of the thruster was just visible.
I turned back around in time to see Flint mashing a keyboard with the back of his hand.
“Hey!” I said just a little too sharply. I modified my tone quickly, remembering who I was speaking to. “This might look like the floor of an office building, but it is in fact the nerve center of a Super Maximum Security prison. There are safeguards in place. Dangerous safeguards. Remember … the UEE doesn’t negotiate with terrorists.”
I could barely see Flint’s face through the dome of his faceplate, not enough to make out an expression, but he removed his hand.
Suddenly my comm chirped and a red light began to flash inside my helmet. “What did you do?” I asked Flint quickly.
A deep voice emerged from the static, a voice that put a slight emphasis on the wrong syllables, as if the mouth that produced it didn’t quite work properly.
Denizens of OSP-4 I am so very disappointed in you.
“It’s Kilkenny,” said Relic’s voice.
“I know. Shut up.”
I had hoped that there was a man among you who would rise above his peers, but that has proven not to be. Natural selection, it seems, is a slow and tedious process, so I am sounding my bugle and signalling the end of days. If Martin Browning will not receive his death like a man, then I will deliver it to him like a god.
The light in my suit dimmed and then went out.
All of a sudden a section of the floor rose abruptly, catapulting Relic into the air. His magnetic boot held for one tenuous second and then released, sending him into an uncontrolled cartwheel. Because we were all watching him, none of us noticed the gun barrels that extended out of the floor panel that had sent him into the air. Maybe Kilkenny had activated the prison defenses, or Flint’s mashing of the keyboard had set wheels in motion that would end badly for him. It didn’t matter. I’d just lowered my eyes to find the button that worked the comm when I noticed a barrel swivel to track Flint.
The shot was incredibly quick and I couldn’t see the wound from where I stood. Flint’s lower body remained anchored to the floor with his magnetic boots, but his upper body began to drift.
“We need to go!” I yelled. I snatched the floating coffeemaker out of the air and threw it at the turret, hoping it might be tracked.
Morgan spun around and knew exactly what he was looking at. “Go, go, go, go!” He fired a couple of shots at it, but the weapons the Tevarin had left us with were substandard at best and failed to penetrate its armor. With blinding speed, the turret swivelled upwards and shot the coffeemaker three times, leaving nothing behind but a spray of molten slag.
I reached the elevator, threw my weapon into the narrow slit and then slid into it, propelling myself into the short space between floors. My boots magnetically grappled themselves to the elevator floor, forcing me to quickly duck as Morgan slid through the opening behind me. Together we pulled two more men into the elevator. When no more came I risked I glance over the edge of the floor. Three bodies in punctured space suits spun through the air of the Command Deck. The turret swivelled towards me and I found myself staring down the barrel for one frightening instant before I ducked again and mashed the down button.