August 29th 2014
The Visitor Center of a Super Max prison is often the only place in the whole complex where prisoners can set aside the violent reputations they’ve cultivated for themselves. On a remote facility like OSP-4, families must spend thousands of credits and many days of travel to meet with their imprisoned loved ones. Sometimes, in special cases, the prison has been known to cover part of the costs. There is plenty of research that indicates that a prisoner who maintains social contact with loved ones is more docile and easier to manage. It’s an investment that tends to pay off in the long run.
The Visitor’s Center was now home to the Nova Dogs, a group of pirates lead by Martin Kilkenny, a cannibal with a god complex. I had intended to give it a wide berth, but we needed fuel to make our escape from OSP-4, and the only available supply we knew about was on the other side of it.
We were close enough that we’d turned off our comms. Even a scrambled signal gave off a telltale hiss of static. Instead, we relied on stage whispers as we crawled through a narrow circuitry duct, which was itself no easy task in our space suits. In prior times, I’d made the trip several times with a bag full of contraband medical supplies tied to my leg, so I went first. The easiest way to move was to walk on one’s elbows and I was making good progress. The others were struggling.
“This would be a lot easier without the space suits,” grumbled a voice behind me. Relic from the tone. The other ex-prisoner, Pike, had a deeper voice and spoke infrequently.
“It’ll make too much noise if you drag it behind you and we’ll need it at the other end. Besides, there’s enough juice running through these wires to fry you where you stand. The suit’s insulation should offer some protection against a short.” I spotted movement through an access grate up ahead. “Now shut up, before the Nova Dogs hear us.”
Although we’d seen the damage caused by Kilkenny’s men and had had to travel through parts of the station that were exposed to space, we’d had few encounters with the pirates themselves. I got a look at their current forces through that small access grate.
There were dozens of them in the small space nearly ten meters beneath us. They wore spacesuits that had come from a dozen different armed forces and even time periods. Some had even been cobbled together from suits that had once belonged to different races. Many were lazily painted with thick, tar-like black paint, so that the original color showed through underneath. Few of them wore helmets, preferring to show off elaborate haircuts, mostly variations on a Mohawk except with long, braided sideburns, and neck and face tattoos.
The voice belonged to Pike, our master of words. “Don’t panic,” someone said in a loud hiss.
“I ain’t panicking, I’m just stuck.”
I looked back at Wes Morgan. His eyebrows raised, and then he looked back down the duct.
I heard a couple of brisk thumps.
“You kick me one more time and I’ll shoot you in the ass.” Pike was slow to anger, but I could hear the heat coming into his voice. His volume was also rising and my gaze darted to the access grate apprehensively. The Nova Dogs were a loud bunch, but one of them, a man with a full beard and wild black hair had cocked his head and turned towards us.
“Shut up,” I hissed.
“Should we leave him behind?” asked Relic.
“You ain’t leaving me behind.” Pike’s statement was final, the threat left unspoken.
It didn’t sound like either of them lowered their voices at all. In fact, the volume was climbing. The bearded pirate had risen and begun to walk over towards us, a rifle clutched loosely in one hand.
“Last warning, guys. Keep it down.” The confines were tight, but I did my best to move to the other side of the duct, out of view. He was far enough beneath us that the angle would do some of the work of hiding me, but I didn’t want him to spot movement.
“You gotta get me unstuck. I ain’t dying here.” I heard the sound of creasing aluminum and banging as Pike attempted to free himself.
Someone cursed and then a shout of alarm rang out from the pirate beneath me. Shots cut the air and sparks blew out of the wall of the duct closest to the Visitor Center. Holes appeared in a line, passing from the bottom corner to the roof just above my head.
Behind me, Pike had begun to panic and clawed at Relic, who was desperately trying to kick him away. Morgan, the one with the most experience out of any of us, had hunkered down on the side of the air duct closest to me. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
“How?” I yelled back. “On our hands and knees? We’d be shot full of holes before we got more than a couple of meters.”
“Think of something!” Morgan unshouldered his rifle and turned it so that it was pointed diagonally downward. The weapon barely fit that way in the duct. He squeezed the trigger and then let the recoil draw it to the side while it was still spitting bullets. I heard screams from below and then return fire.
We were sitting ducks.
I needed to get us out of there, and fast. Once before, when I’d been on the verge of getting caught with smuggled goods, I’d evacuated the tunnel, and I’d done it by setting off the fire alarm.
There were bundles of wires running along the ceiling above us. I pulled a small knife out of the spacesuit’s utility belt and stripped two of the wires, grateful that the suit was insulated. I touched them together and was rewarded with nothing more than sparks. Quickly, I stripped another wire and connected them. This time, lights began to flash and a siren sounded somewhere nearby.
The easiest way to put out a fire on a spaceship is to suffocate it in the cold vacuum of space. Metal plates descended over the grates, sealing them as tight as possible, and at the far end of the tunnel a tiny pinprick of light appeared as the exterior door was opened. Instantly the air howled around us and I felt myself carried along with it, my spacesuit scraping against metal as I was buffeted against the walls and ceiling.
I was in space.
A starscape spun around me and then the station came back into view. I could hear myself hyperventilating as I realized that I was falling towards a planet thousands of kilometers away. A metal antenna appeared in my peripheral vision and I caught it with my hand. My grip was so tight that it nearly yanked my arm out of its socket.
A flash of blue appeared and I caught out at it blindly with my other hand. By some miracle I caught Morgan’s hand and held on tight, swinging him to the antenna next to me. Morgan, more at home in space than I was, used the momentum to land feet first, letting his magnetic boots clamp onto it. Another body cartwheeled toward us and I could hear screaming over the radio. Morgan reached out, but his hand hit Relic’s hip and spun him away from us. Without missing a beat, he shoved the end of his rifle into my hand, kicked off my knee and spun around himself. His feet hit the spacesuit in the chest and the magnetic boots clamped down on the metal-plastic synthetic. I felt a tremendous force on the rifle and for a moment it stretched between us like an umbilical cord. Then it slackened and I was able to pull them both in.
The next spacesuit was followed by a cloud of red and silver crystals, and when the chest spun into view I could see several large holes that were no longer leaking air. It was too late for Pike.
“Nylund,” said Morgan’s voice over the radio, “we have a problem.”
Relic had been shot. The bullet had missed him, but it had carved a deep furrow in his suit that spilled powdered air into the Void. I didn’t have a patch and there wasn’t time to use one anyways. Relic’s eyes were wide and panicked as he tried desperately to scoop the escaping air crystals back into the suit to no avail. Its temperature indicator plunged rapidly and the veins in his cheeks reddened in a criss-cross pattern.
I wanted to say something to calm him, but I realized that the only thing I knew about him was that he’d nearly killed us with a patch gun in our first encounter. I could think of nothing better than to squeeze his hand tightly and whisper that it was okay. Over and over. It was okay.
His cheeks and nose were black and his lungs heaved for air that wasn’t there. His eyes found mine and locked on for what felt like a long time. I didn’t know exactly when the life left them. I’m not sure you ever do.
Morgan and I hid in the lee of the thruster’s fuel tank as pirate vessels flew in close to the hull to search for survivors. Two quick bursts of light signaled that they’d located the bodies of Relic and Pike. It was a cremation of the most violent kind.
We waited for several hours before we signaled Konicek to bring the fighters and transport. Once they left the safety of Cargo Hold C, we would only have a few minutes to refuel them before they were picked up by pirate instruments.
After that, it was every man for himself.